When it comes to challenges, they don’t get any bigger than the one the Creighton women’s basketball team faces Monday.
All the Bluejays need to do to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history is knock off their sport’s ultimate program on its home court.
Tennessee is the only team to play in all 32 NCAA tournaments and has won eight national titles. The Lady Vols have won 113 tournament games, 51 at home. Tennessee has never lost a tournament game in Knoxville.
“We obviously know this is a huge challenge for us,” Creighton junior guard McKenzie Fujan said. “But we have this optimistic vibe going right now. We’ve watched a lot of film already, and they’re very good on offense.
“But teams have been able to score on them. We’re going to have to figure out a defensive plan, but we’re confident about our chances.”
Both teams bring 25-7 records into the 6:10 p.m. game at Thompson-Boling Arena. The second-seeded and 10th-ranked Lady Vols earned their spot in the second round by beating Oral Roberts 83-62 a couple of hours after the 10th-seeded Bluejays defeated Syracuse 61-56 Saturday.
The victory was Creighton’s third in NCAA play and its first since 1994 against Bowling Green.
“We have a terrific opportunity on Monday,” Bluejay coach Jim Flanery said. “In our sport, Baylor and Connecticut and Notre Dame and Tennessee represent a hierarchy that we’re all striving to reach.
“I watched the Tennessee game on Saturday and it’s not going to be easy to beat them. But we feel we have a chance, and it’s the kind of thing that could really help us as we head into the new league. This could be a real boost for our program.”
Creighton is trading membership in the Missouri Valley Conference for the new Big East. One of the things the Bluejays likely will face as they move on is competing against bigger, stronger athletes.
Tennessee’s roster is loaded with them. The Volunteers have six players 6-foot-1 or taller. Creighton has one — 6-3 starting center Alyssa Kamphaus.
As it did against Oral Roberts, Tennessee will try to exploit its size advantage Monday.
“We obviously have a height advantage, and we plan on using it,” said Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick, in her first season of replacing the legendary Pat Summitt. “Yesterday, all we said was get the ball inside (against ORU).
“That’s going to be our goal tomorrow. We plan on pounding the ball inside.”
The Bluejays will try to counter with what they do best. They rank among the national leaders in 3-point shooting, and if they can hit shots from the perimeter they could spread the floor and open up room for forward Sarah Nelson and Fujan to operate.
“I think we can do a lot of things that can bother them,” Flanery said. “We screen well enough and move well enough that we’re going to have to make them defend us a little differently. They’re not ultra-disciplined on getting out on 3-point shooters, and that’s obviously one of the things that we do best.
“That’s a source of optimism for us but it’s going to come down to making plays. And we also need to make more shots than we did against Syracuse.”
CU shot 36.4 percent from the field against the Orange and made 11 of 36 3-pointers (30.6 percent). Fujan and Nelson combined to make 14 of 21 shots, while their teammates made 6 of 34.
Fujan scored a career-high 24 points and almost single-handedly kept the Bluejays in the game in the first 20 minutes — she had 17 of Creighton’s 24 first-half points.
She scored 14 of her team’s first 15 points as the Bluejays battled back from an early 14-5 deficit.
“It was obviously huge for McKenzie to keep us in the game, and then we just fed off that,” guard Ally Jensen said. “People started to hit shots and then we started getting on a roll.
“We’ve played from behind a lot this year, and last year especially we were a come-from-behind team. Starting cold like that wasn’t new for us. That’s not exactly how we wanted to start but Coach told us to just keep rebounding and doing the things we need to do to win.”
One of the things Creighton must do Monday night is keep the pace of the game in its favor. Tennessee will be looking to play an up-tempo style, and the Lady Vols will get the crowd going if they can turn it into an up-and-down game.
“They play to the energy of the home crowd,” Flanery said. “We’re going to have to try to minimize their runs. We don’t want to get the game up in the 70s.”
Tennessee again led the nation in attendance this season. The Lady Vols drew more than 6,800 for their first-round game, and school officials are expecting a much larger crowd Monday.
The Bluejays have not played in front of a crowd larger than the 3,468 at Minnesota. It will be important for them to maintain their composure while playing such a high-stakes game in a high-pressure environment.
Creighton kept its poise when Syracuse made a late run Saturday, trimming the Bluejays’ 10-point lead to a single point with 19 seconds to play. Fujan and Nelson then sealed the victory by making four free throws.
“I think we’ve been in these situations before,” Creighton guard Carli Tritz said. “As an older team, I think we expect ourselves to be better than in past situations. I thought we were yesterday.”
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