St. John's, Lady Vols seeking faster starts
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) St. John's and Tennessee have proved throughout the postseason that they can bounce back from slow starts, but they'd rather not have to make a habit of it.
Tennessee, the top seed in the Louisville Regional, erased double-digit deficits in each of its three Southeastern Conference tournament victories and was tied early in the second half of its 70-46 NCAA tournament first-round win over Northwestern State. St. John's (23-10) has trailed at halftime in each of its last three games and rallied from 11 points down in its 71-68 opening-round triumph over Southern California.
Both teams know they must get off to a faster start Monday when they face off in a second-round matchup.
''I don't think we look forward to coming back after being behind,'' Tennessee center Isabelle Harrison said. ''As a team, we want to be mindful and make a conscious effort to come out and play hard from the get-go because you never know. It's March. We don't have another game to prove ourselves. This is it.''
A fast start might be particularly imperative for St. John's as it tries to beat the Lady Vols (28-5) on their home floor. Tennessee is 53-0 in NCAA tournament home games and has failed to advance beyond the second round of the tournament just once before, when it lost a first-round game to Ball State in 2009.
''We know that we're going to have to play harder than we did last night,'' St. John's guard Aliyyah Handford said.
St. John's carries plenty of momentum into Monday's game after its dramatic victory over USC. St. John's won on Briana Brown's tiebreaking 3-pointer with four-tenths of a second left.
''There were plenty of times we could have given up,'' St. John's guard Danaejah Grant said. ''We didn't go on a run until the very end. I think it really gives us confidence to go up against Tennessee and sit there on their home court. I think it just shows we can withstand a lot of blows.''
Tennessee has a size advantage. St. John's will try to counteract with its athleticism.
''They're an extremely athletic team,'' Tennessee forward Cierra Burdick said. ''They play fast basketball. They really do. They get after it. They play with a lot of emotion. We can't get into a running game. That would be playing to their liking. We've got to focus on playing Lady Vol basketball, running when we can, but playing in the halfcourt I think will give us the advantage.''
Here are five things to know about the Tennessee-St. John's matchup.
HOLLY WARLICK'S HEALTH: Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said she was feeling fine Sunday, one day after a stomach illness caused her to miss a team shootaround and require IV treatments. ''I feel great,'' Warlick said. ''I slept well. It's adrenaline. This is the best time of the year for myself and our team. I feel wonderful.''
THOMPSON'S TASK: St. John's forward Amber Thompson matched a career high with 17 rebounds against USC and has a school-record 304 rebounds this season. Thompson, who averages 9.2 rebounds per game, faces perhaps her toughest test of the season Monday against Tennessee's front line. The Lady Vols have a plus-12 rebound margin and have been outrebounded just twice all season.
SIMMONS' SLUMP: Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons, the SEC player of the year, went 4 of 15 against Northwestern State and is shooting 26.1 percent (18 of 69) over her last four games. Simmons says she needs to make sure she gets other players involved when her shots aren't falling. ''When you want something so bad, sometimes you have a tendency of being over-focused and trying too hard,'' Simmons said. ''It's just a matter of being calm throughout the game.''
FRONTCOURT FRESHMEN: Both teams got contributions from freshman frontcourt reserves in the first round and may need them to deliver repeat performances Monday. Tennessee center Mercedes Russell scored 12 points, her highest total since a 12-point performance at Stanford on Dec. 21. St. John's guard/forward Jade Walker fouled out of the USC game after playing only 11 minutes, but the 6-foot-1 freshman had nine points and five rebounds during that short stint.
COMPARING SCORES: Tennessee will be the fourth SEC team St. John's has faced this year. The Red Storm lost 72-68 at Florida and 69-55 at Auburn and beat Texas A&M 72-70. The Lady Vols went 4-0 against those three teams this year. Tennessee beat Florida 83-63 and trounced Auburn 93-63. The Lady Vols also won 76-55 at Texas A&M during the regular season and beat the Aggies 86-77 in the SEC tournament.