For all the uncertainty surrounding Tennessee, one thing isn't changing. The Lady Volunteers are back in the NCAA's round of 16.
They're looking for more, of course, and another Final Four with Pat Summitt would be a sweet way to cap this season. It's just about in sight, too.
Shekinna Stricklen scored 17 points and Glory Johnson grabbed a career-high 21 rebounds to lead Summitt and Tennessee past DePaul 63-48 in the second round of the NCAA women's tournament on Monday night.
Vicki Baugh scored 16 for the Lady Volunteers (26-8), who grabbed a double-digit lead early in the second half and closed out a physical game in which players seemed to hit the floor about as often as they hit shots. Now, they're headed to the round of 16, where they'll meet third-seeded Delaware or 11th-seeded Kansas on Saturday, and Johnson expects the bruises to mount.
"It's a big girls' game," Johnson said.
The Lady Vols were standing tall at the end of this game, and they hope to do just that when final buzzer sounds on this season.
Tennessee stretched a five-point halftime lead to 12 early in the second half and was up 42-29 after a hook shot by Baugh with 11:41 remaining. The Lady Vols remained in control from there and moved closer toward their ultimate goal — a 19th Final Four and ninth NCAA title.
The powerhouse program hasn't been that far since it repeated as champions in 2008, a nearly four-year drought that might as well be four decades given its history.
If the Lady Vols make it to Denver, that would be quite the story.
Summitt announced in early August that she has early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, and she might not coach beyond this season. There have been ups and downs on the court, too, but Tennessee appears to be in stride at the moment, with six straight wins after improving to 20-0 against the Blue Demons.
Tennessee routed DePaul in December in New York and prevailed this time on the court where the Blue Demons' men's team plays most of its home games.
The Lady Vols shot just over 37 percent but prevailed anyway thanks to a huge rebounding advantage, particularly in the second half. The final tally was 51-31 after Tennessee outrebounded the Blue Demons by two in the first half.
A big reason for that was Johnson. Even though she scored just eight points, she controlled the glass on both ends of the court.
"My team relies on me to be a presence in the paint, and when I'm not scoring, I try to do my best to rebound offensively and defensively," Johnson said. "I know that's something I can control. It's effort. I try to put the effort and heart into defense and rebounding."
Anna Martin scored 20 points for DePaul (23-11), but a difficult season came to an end. The Blue Demons were hit hard by injuries, losing star Keisha Hampton (knee), and were forced to go with a seven-player rotation.
"I think a lot of people counted us out, but we're not that kind of program and we proved that in making the NCAA tournament in the first place and then pushing through into the second round," forward Katherine Harry said.
DePaul made its 10th straight NCAA but simply came up short against one of the marquee programs.
No other school has made all 31 NCAA tournaments, and the only time Tennessee failed to reach the Sweet 16 was in 2009, when the Lady Vols got knocked out in the first round, a year after capturing their eighth championship. The only player left from that team is Baugh.
The rest of the seniors, who were part of a heralded recruiting class, are trying to avoid becoming the first to go all four years at Tennessee without a Final Four appearance.
"I think in the past, they've looked ahead," associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "I think they thought if they put a Tennessee uniform on, they're going to win a national championship, but it's hard work. It doesn't just happen."