Tennessee and UCLA: a tale of two comebacks

Tennessee 55, Rutgers 51

Even two hours later, I’m still in disbelief at what the Lady Vols pulled today.

The first half was so painful to watch that I was fighting to keep from turning my head away. Tennessee didn’t even score until eight minutes had gone by. They trailed 13-33 at the half, with the smallest point total in a half in the history of the program.

Trailing 40-49 in the second half, the Vols went on a run at the 6:40 mark. Sophomore Angie Bjorklund, who had a lackluster performance in the first half, was taken to task by Coach Pat Summitt at halftime. Summitt asked her how she could show up big at the Gonzaga game Tuesday and fizzle at this game. Bjorklunk said “you’re right” two times, and she responded. All 12 of her points came in the second half, the most crucial of which came at the 1:30 mark, when she hit a jumper to give her team their first lead of the game, 51-49.

Rutgers’ Epiphany Prince missed the next shot, and Tennessee’s Shekinna Stricken was fouled. She hit both her free throws to put the Vols up 53-49 with 39.8 seconds left. Prince hit a tough shot in the lane to cut the lead by two, but her attempt to force a jump ball failed when Kia Vaughn missed her shot. A Rutgers scramble for the ball missed, and it was possession, Tennessee. Rutgers quickly fouled Bjorklund, an 81 percent free throw shooter, and she hit both her shots to seal the game.

The 55-51 game snapped a 20-game home winning streak for the Scarlet Knights.

Of course I must give props to the young team. They stepped up when their coach asked them to, and they never gave up. That’s my favorite characteristic in a team, followed extremely close by “hunger to win,” which the Vols have too.

Yet I also give credit to Summitt, who has grown and evolved over the years and isn’t afraid to embrace the new. She was composed throughout this game, and especially at the last timeout, at 53-51, when the game was still in question. She told the team to switch up and not to foul, and by god they didn’t foul. I don’t think Pat yelled once.

994 victories for the most winning coach of all time. Only six more to 1000.

UCLA 60, Oregon State University 53

In a strangely similar game last night, UCLA started out horribly and then kicked in to high gear to beat Pac-10 contenders OSU.

The Beavers dominated the game early, riding the strong shoulders of center Alex Mitchell, who couldn’t seem to miss anything. They had put 13 points on the board before Bruin senior Chinyere Ibekwe finally scored at the 13:49 mark.

UCLA Coach Nikki Caldwell had already called a couple timeouts, but none of the players were making adjustments. At the 10:06 mark the Bruins were behind 4-21, and Caldwell called another timeout. This time she walked out on to the court, eyes ablaze, and met the entire team at the top of the key, where she proceeded to yell at them.

“You’re getting your butts kicked at home! You should be embarrassed!”

Then the damn band started playing so I couldn’t hear the rest of the tirade. But three minutes later the Bruins finally woke up, and they went on a 19-1 run for the remainder of the half. Erica Tukianien hit a wicked three; Ibekwe blocked a Mitchell shot; Tuki passed to Doreena Campbell, who passed to Nina Earl for the layup; Earl got hot and scored three more baskets. All good things, but what really stuck out to me was that UCLA finally started playing defense. For their efforts, they lead 25-24 at the half.

The Bruins started looking more like themselves in the second half. Earl and Ibekwe worked in tandem a couple times, and Campbell got hot again. Christina Nzekwe, uncharacteristically quiet the first half, came alive and started pulling down more rebounds, as well as scoring.

OSU tried to make a run in the middle of the period, but then they missed a couple shots – even Mitchell missed, finally. With 5:33 to go, the Beavers made another run, and with the help of Mitchell and point guard Mercedes Fox-Griffin, they cut the lead to 48-52. But it was Moniquee Alexander, who was having an off-game, that provided the momentum for her team to close out the win. After about two minutes of an unmoving score, she made a power move under the basket, against three opponents, for the lay-in and the bucket to put UCLA up 54-48 with 1:20 to go. The Bruins never looked back.

Caldwell echoed what I’d been thinking in her post-game interview, saying that it was their defense that got them back into the game. The interviewer mentioned that the Bruins shot 8-10 free throws down the last stretch, and such shots have been a weakness for the team.

“Lately in practice we’ve been doing a free throw drill where you shoot for your teammate,” Caldwell said. “If you miss, your teammate runs.”

Great idea.

Next up for UCLA: Oregon, tomorrow at 2 p.m.

Tennessee finally heads back to Knox Vegas after its long road trip, where they will face Kentucky on Thursday.