WIN OR LOSE, TENNESSEE'S 27TH NCAA tournament was bound to draw to a bittersweet conclusion. The euphoria that would follow a successful defense of its 2007 championship would ultimately give way to the sadness of having to say goodbye to five key contributors to that run of back-to-back titles. In addition to the departures of seniors Nicky Anosike, Alexis Hornbuckle, Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste, the Lady Vols also face the early loss of junior Candace Parker, who decided to forgo her remaining year of eligibility to turn pro.
How well will Tennessee fare without the nucleus of a team that has combined for 101 wins over the last three seasons? Blowout victories over Oral Roberts and Purdue in the subregional in West Lafayette, Ind., suggest that the returning underclassmen will be plenty tough to contend with down the road.
Both early-round wins were underscored by the emergence of freshmen Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh. Bjorklund scored a team-leading 16 points to help the Lady Vols to a 94-55 rout of the 16th-seeded Golden Eagles in the first-round game, and Baugh scored 12 points in a 78-52 drubbing of the Boilermakers in round 2. "I'm learning that as a freshman during tournament time you have to step up," said Bjorklund.
Her four three-pointers against Oral Roberts paced a hot-shooting Lady Vols team that hit 12 threes—their second-highest output of the season. Bjorklund's effort marked the first time in five games that a player not named Parker had led Tennessee in scoring. And yet, while saddled with foul trouble, Parker still finished with 14 points, four rebounds, four steals and one block in 18 minutes despite her nightlong struggles against a pesky zone defense.
But Parker's frustration paled in comparison to the setback that befell Golden Eagles leading scorer Mariana Camargo, who suffered a torn ACL in her left knee just five seconds after the opening tip. While jockeying with Bobbitt for a loose ball at the baseline, Camargo stepped on a stray placard left behind by one of the Lady Vols cheerleaders and slid awkwardly out-of-bounds. Minutes after being carried into the locker room, she hobbled back to the Oral Roberts bench on crutches.
In the next round it was Tennessee that appeared to be at a handicap heading into its matchup with ninth-seeded Purdue. The Boilermakers, who drew home court advantage for the 13th time in a subregional, boasted an 18-5 record in those games, including wins in eight of the last nine. What's more, they were relaxed and loose thanks to a raucous pep rally at the team hotel that had a fired-up Purdue team doing the Soulja Boy en masse in the driveway.
But when the starting buzzer sounded at Mackey Arena, the Lady Vols put a swift end to the Boilers' Big Dance party. Tennessee's relentlessness on the offensive glass sparked a 6-0 run to start the game. Their on-ball pressure defense frustrated the Boilers into a rash of turnovers that helped increase that lead to 35-9. At one point in the first half Hornbuckle had more steals (seven) than Purdue had field goals (three). Baugh had a 6-of-7 shooting night and collected five rebounds and a steal to help Pat Summitt to her 100th NCAA tournament win. "I knew I had to bring the energy and stay prepared the whole game," Baugh said afterward. More important, Tennessee appeared poised to extend its run of dominance well into the future.