Tennessee got the kind of test it wanted in its NCAA tournament opener.
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Oral Roberts, the No. 15 seed in the Oklahoma City Regional, led for the first few minutes and stayed competitive for most of the first half Saturday before the second-seeded Lady Vols pulled away for an 83-62 victory in their first NCAA tournament game of the post-Pat Summitt era.
”I prefer a challenge personally,” said guard Meighan Simmons, who scored a team-high 18 points. ”The rest of the games aren’t going to be easy. You don’t want to just breeze through the first round and then come up the next game and everything is difficult.
”I’d rather be tested early on.”
The Lady Vols (25-7) improved to 51-0 in NCAA tournament games on their home floor and advanced to a second-round game Monday against No. 10 seed Creighton (25-7). The Bluejays defeated Syracuse 61-56 in their first-round game.
Cierra Burdick and Ariel Massengale both scored 13 points for Tennessee, and Bashaara Graves added 11. After missing nine of her last 11 games because of injuries to each knee, Isabelle Harrison had seven points and five rebounds in her return.
Tennessee got points from all 10 of its healthy players.
”That just makes us that much harder to scout,” Massengale said. ”It’s kind of like, `Who do you guard?’ because all of us are capable of putting the ball in the basket.”
Kevi Luper scored 20, and Taylor Cooper and Savanna Buck had 15 each for Oral Roberts (18-13).
Tennessee is 49-1 in first-round and second-round games. The Lady Vols have played in every NCAA tournament since the event started in 1982 and have lost in the first two rounds just once, falling to Ball State in a 2009 opening-round game.
”I think it just builds our confidence,” Graves said. ”We don’t really worry about the numbers or anything. We just go out and try to win.”
All those tournament wins before Saturday came under Summitt, who stepped down last April after leading Tennessee to eight national titles and 18 Final Four appearances in 38 seasons. Summitt had announced in 2011 that she has early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. Summitt has remained on staff as head coach emeritus.
Holly Warlick, who played for Summitt and worked as an assistant on her staff for 27 seasons, took over the program and led Tennessee to a Southeastern Conference regular-season title. She is trying to guide Tennessee to its first Final Four appearance since its 2008 national title.
That 2008 championship run included a 94-55 first-round victory over Oral Roberts. In that game, Oral Roberts lost its leading scorer soon after the opening tip when point guard Mariana Camargo injured her knee.
Oral Roberts had issues with its point guard again Saturday, as Jaci Bigham was sick all week and played at far less than full strength. Bigham is Oral Roberts’ career assists leader, but she shot 1 of 9 and had three points, two assists and five turnovers against Tennessee.
”I don’t think I’ve ever been that sick before,” Bigham said. ”I was pretty bad, just trying to get my fluids and trying to stay hydrated. It was a long couple of days. I’d never played under those conditions. The trainers did a good job of getting me back, but I just didn’t have my legs under me.”
Oral Roberts still led for the first three minutes before Tennessee pulled ahead for good with a 15-3 run that turned a 7-5 deficit into a 20-10 advantage. Simmons scored Tennessee’s first 10 points during that spurt, including a 3-pointer that broke a 7-7 tie.
”Meighan ignited all of our energy by getting steals and making things happen,” Warlick said. ”We all know that she can score, but she’s one of our best defenders when she puts her mind to it.”
The Golden Eagles continued to hang around for most of the first half and cut Tennessee’s lead to 29-24 on Taylor Cooper’s two free throws with 5:42 left in the half, but the Lady Vols responded and extended their advantage to 44-31 by halftime.
Tennessee shut down Oral Roberts the rest of the way.
Oral Roberts missed its first 11 shots in the second half before Christian Key sank a 3-pointer with 14:16 remaining. Tennessee reeled off 11 straight points to open the half and eventually led by as many as 26 points.