TEMPE, Ariz. -- The thing that Tennessee struggled with at times throughout this season -- keeping composure and coming through in the clutch in tight games -- was exactly what the Lady Vols did when they most needed it Friday.
And guess who led the way? A freshman who shook her head and smiled when asked if she was nervous before her first NCAA tournament game.
"Oh, no. I was ready," Tennessee's Te'a Cooper said after being the key component of the Lady Vols' 59-53 victory over 10th-seeded Green Bay. "I really prepared for it. I was focused, and I really just wanted to play and redeem myself. To be me out there, play with my teammates, and just have fun."
Wait a second -- redeem herself? It's not as if Cooper has had a bad season. The 5-foot-8 guard from Power Springs, Georgia, came into Friday's game averaging 8.5 points -- fourth best on the team -- and 2.2 assists this season. A lot was expected of her, and she expected a lot of herself.
She was not expecting, though, to experience 13 losses this season; no one who goes to Tennessee ever would. So in the lowest moments of this season, Cooper -- like the rest of the Lady Vols -- found herself with more questions than answers.
Yet Friday against a Green Bay team that plays very smart, disciplined, high-percentage basketball, Cooper was the answer for No. 7 seed Tennessee. Cooper came off the bench for 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting. And it was particularly in the second half -- when she had 11 of her points -- that Cooper came up huge for Tennessee.
In the third quarter, Tennessee had been stuck on 33 points for almost 2½ minutes, and trailed Green Bay by five. The Lady Vols were in a danger zone of potentially letting the Phoenix really take control and run away with the momentum.
Then Cooper scored Tennessee's next seven points on a jump shot, a layup that turned into a 3-point play, and another layup.
"She was aggressive and she played under control," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "I think during the season at times, she would play a little bit out of control. But [going from] high school to college, it is difficult. And I think just right now, she's understanding what she can and can't do."
But Tennessee still went into the final quarter trailing 45-44, and you could imagine the thoughts that might have been racing through the minds of the Lady Vols. They have had some brutal fourth quarters this season. If they were to do that Friday, their tournament would be over on a particularly ghastly note.
Which is no disrespect to Green Bay, a team that did so many things right Friday in terms of following an effective game plan. But let's face it: Tennessee losing in the first round -- which the Lady Vols have done only once before (2009) -- would have lingered in a most unpleasant way for months in Knoxville. This was a game Tennessee simply had to have.
And in the closing minutes, the Lady Vols played that way: determined, not desperate. Diamond DeShields, who struggled from the field (4 of 15) against a Green Bay defense that was forcing perimeter shots, got two free throws and a jump shot to fall, putting Tennessee up 48-47. Green Bay took its last lead, 49-48, on Kaili Lukan's basket with 6:11 left.
"We've been on the other side so many times this season. This could have been our last game, and we felt it. We had to lock it down." Te'a Cooper on sealing the win in the fourth quarter
Then Cooper once again made a jumper and put the Lady Vols ahead for good, 50-49.
"We've been on the other side so many times this season," Cooper said of not being able to close the deal. "This could have been our last game, and we felt it. We had to lock it down."
Tennessee senior Bashaara Graves got only her second basket of the game with 3:05 left on an assist from Cooper. Then Cooper hit a shot at the 2:02 mark to give the Lady Vols what finally felt like breathing room: a five-point lead.
Defensively, Green Bay seemed to dictate the game until that last period. Then in the last six minutes, the Lady Vols had success with their zone defense, and the Phoenix just weren't able to take advantage from beyond the arc, where they finished 3 of 17.
Green Bay also missed a lot of shots closer to the basket, but they weren't what you'd call easy layups. Still, had a few more of those fallen, it could have been the Phoenix who were celebrating and the Lady Vols who were faced with another stinging defeat.
Instead, Tennessee reached the 20-win mark -- something Lady Vols fans usually take for granted, but not this year -- and move on to meet No. 2 seed Arizona State in Sunday's second round. The Sun Devils beat New Mexico State 74-52 in the nightcap Friday.
The Lady Vols will be facing the Sun Devils' faithful here at Wells Fargo Arena, and a tough team that will try to do many of the same things to them as Green Bay did. Except do them a little better.
But Tennessee is very happy just to have that challenge ahead. And a boisterous, energetic crowd -- even if it's cheering against them -- is what the Lady Vols much prefer.
As for Cooper, Friday was another step in her becoming the player she aspires to be for Tennessee. Warlick praised Cooper as being one of the Lady Vols' best on-ball defenders, which came into play Friday and might again Sunday. Warlick also said that just before the SEC tournament, the decision was made to simplify things a bit for Cooper on the offensive end and allow more of her natural creativity to manifest itself on the court.
"I've been trying to get comfortable with everything in the system, but still be myself," is how Cooper explains it. "Me and Holly have spent countless hours watching film. We were really prepared for today, and that felt great. Against a team like that, though, you have to stay disciplined."
In the end, that was the difference: The Lady Vols found their inner steel. And it was a freshman who helped them do that.