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Persistence pays off for Lady Vols

SPOKANE, Wash. -- It's called the "persistence drill."

The Lady Vols divide their roster into three teams at practice, and one team goes out to play defense with a 45-second shot clock. And they can't leave the court until the clock gets to 0:00.

If that team fouls or gives up a basket, it resets to 0:45. If the group gives up an offensive rebound, it resets as well. And if the team gets a stop, the clock stops where it is -- and a new team comes in.

"It's taxing and they don't like it. We've done it for 40 minutes with one team on defense the whole time," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. "You just put their backs against the wall and see if they fold or if they are going to step up and get it done."

The Lady Vols ran that drill five or six times this season.

And they ran it again on Saturday evening in Spokane Arena.

Tennessee seniors Cierra Burdick and Ariel Massengale said that in every huddle over the last 6:34 of regulation and into overtime Friday, the Lady Vols talked about that persistence drill.

"We just kept telling ourselves, 'Persistence drill, persistence drill,'" senior guard Ariel Massengale said.

And then they lived it.

Down 17 points to a Gonzaga team that had a crowd of more than 8,600 people snugly in its pocket, and looking like a team that was about to be bounced out of the NCAA tournament, Tennessee persisted through one possession after another.

The Lady Vols drove to the basket and drew fouls. They knocked down free throw after free throw. They cranked up the defensive pressure and forced turnovers, bad shots and rattled nerves.

In the process, they quieted a very loud crowd that suddenly seemed as aware as the Gonzaga players how tenuous the lead had suddenly become.

Tennessee clawed its way back to a tie at the end of regulation, forcing overtime, and then perhaps just as improbably, the Lady Vols rescued an entire season's worth of work without making a field goal.

Tennessee defeated Gonzaga 73-69 at Spokane Arena to advance to the Elite Eight to face Maryland on Monday (ESPN/WatchESPN, 9 p.m. ET) for a trip to the Final Four. The Lady Vols are one game away from going back to the national semifinals for the first time since 2008, the last time the program won an NCAA championship.

And it couldn't have been more difficult. They were getting beaten inside by a Bulldogs team that was more physical than they expected. They played from behind nearly the entirety of regulation, needing big runs to draw even at the end of both halves. And they had to be perfect from the line in situation after situation to keep the season alive in a hostile gym.

"We had to give it everything we had," Warlick said. "Gonzaga was awesome today."

Tennessee lived to play another day because of the will of seniors Burdick (22 points, 15 rebounds) and Massengale (15 points, four assists), who pulled the Lady Vols away from the edge of the cliff. And because they made their free throws.

The 21-of-22 effort from the stripe was a season high for both attempts and makes. And it simply turned the game.

"I think it goes to show that no matter how many punches you throw at us, we are going to continue to get up and keep fighting," Burdick said. "We never thought we were out of this game."

Even if perhaps Gonzaga and its raucous home crowd did. And who could blame the Bulldogs faithful? A 17-point lead with 6:34 to go feels pretty secure.

The Gonzaga players admitted that they struggled as Tennessee turned up the pressure and climbed back into the game.

"I think we weren't ready for that at that time," Gonzaga senior guard Keani Albanez said. "We tried to rally and get it back together. There was kind of a lot going on in your mind as a player. When someone is coming at us full throttle like that, it's hard to maintain momentum."

Added Gonzaga post Sunny Greinacher, who had a fabulous game with 24 points, 11 rebounds and four steals: "I don't think we were surprised, but I don't think we had the right answers."

Bulldogs coach Lisa Fortier seemed almost braced for the Lady Vols' comeback.

"Programs like Tennessee don't fade away," Fortier said. "They expected to win the game. They know who they play for and they know the name on the front of their jersey."

The Tennessee seniors, in particular, have endured a lot through their college careers. The last class recruited by Pat Summitt, they were mere freshmen when the Tennessee coaching legend announced her diagnosis of early on-set Alzheimer's and then coached one final season. They moved through the transition to Warlick, were asked to play huge roles from the very start of their careers and have absorbed their share of disappointments, including the injury that ended fellow senior Izzy Harrison's season just weeks ago.

And when faced with an end to their careers that would be the most disappointing of all, Burdick, who Warlick called "our work horse," and Massengale said no.

"We went out in this same round last year and I did not want that to happen again," Burdick said. "I love Knoxville, but I'm not ready to go back yet. We have more business to take care of. Our goal is to get to Tampa, so whatever it took, we were going to do."

Warlick said that even in the face of a scoreboard that screamed elimination, she had faith in them. It was Burdick, Warlick said, who kept the team steady on the floor and then pulled the team together in the huddles and got them to focus.

"They have had a burden on their shoulders," Warlick said. "They are trying to carry on a tradition and they have a lot of pressure on them. But they are competitors. ...

"When you have love for the game and you're competitive, and you have love for this program as they do, I have a lot of trust in them."

As Burdick walked into the postgame news conference, she pulled the chair out for her head coach.

"Here you go, Hol," Burdick said.

And Warlick replied as she took her seat, "I should be doing that for you."