Bashaara Graves powered one home for UT’s first basket.
Then, after Tennessee went 0-for-4, there came another solid move from the Clarksville junior.
The only question remaining was if this was going to be the exception or the rule during the Lady Vols’ first step in the dance against Boise State.
With UT’s first eight points on her ledger before taking a blow, call it application of the third and fifth rules of bracketology.
The first of those is that a 15 seed will start fast before wilting away or stepping to the near upset. The second is that the stars that meet the demands of March tend towards places in the rafters as reward for displaying the best dance moves.
With 12 of UT’s first 21 points, it was clear the direction Graves was trending. The junior was hitting 5 of 6, the rest of her white clad teammates 5-for-18.
Graves finished with a game-high 24, missing only one more shot the rest of the way as the Lady Vols sidestepped a challenge from a potent 15-seed for the 72-61 win.
The Lady Vols needed that from Graves simply to counter the shooting clinic put on by Brooke Pahukoa in the first half. The sophomore did Lake Stevens, Wash., proud, connecting on all seven shots in the first half to chalk up 18 of her 22 by the break. The 5-foot-9 guard did miss her first shot after intermission — misfiring on a 3 after hitting her first three tries behind the arc. Getting a grip on the shooter was an act of plausible deniability by a trio of Lady Vols fronting and cutting her off in the corners. First Andraya Carter, then Jaime Nared, then Alexa Middleton took turns affixing themselves to Pahukoa in a manner generally reserved for body paint and super magnets.
“They face guarded me in the second half ... it was harder for me to get shots off,” Pahukoa said. “That didn’t stop what my goal was on the team. I just focused on defense and tried to contribute in a different way.”
The shooter managed that, taking a pair of charges and getting one a turnover or two back for Boise, but Tennessee wasn’t shooting its way past the Broncos. It went to Graves in the paint, and the junior, who was at times giving an inch or two in height to Boise State, delivered.
“She needs to play the way she played and we need to get her the ball,” UT coach Holly Warlick said of Graves. “That is what we do. We play the game inside out and we want to get our post players the ball, we always have.
“One thing great about Bashaara is step out now and you saw her facing the basket and penetrating. So she is becoming multi-dimensional for us which helps.”
Boise was a bit too multi-dimensional for an opening dance partner. Big posts, ability to shoot the 3 or drive from the perimeter. The Broncos didn’t look a double-digit seed of any sort.
“If that is a 15-seeded team, my hats off to them,” Warlick said. “They were solid and never quit. We had to bring our best tonight. They are just an outstanding basketball team.”
In fact, Monday’s second round meeting with 10-seed Pitt may seem a bit of a relief after Boise State. It isn’t that anticipated second go with No. 7 Chattanooga and a chance to explain the difference between November and March, but it is a Pitt club that has already pulled its upset.
And the Lady Vols haven’t lost a second-round game, yet.
Marcus Fitzsimmons is sports editor at The Daily Times. He wrote from Knoxville.