IOWA CITY, Iowa – The University of Tennessee at Martin women’s basketball team officially opened its NCAA Tournament participation this afternoon, taking part in an afternoon press conference followed by a practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
The No. 16 seed Skyhawks (19-14) will take on No. 1 seed Notre Dame (31-1) on Sunday, March 24 at 4:05 p.m. CT. The game can be seen in its entirety on ESPN2, as it has been selected as the national spotlight game for its time slot.
UT Martin will hold a light shootaround tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. before making final preparations to take on the Fighting Irish of the Big East Conference.
Below is a transcript of UT Martin’s press conference today.
COACH McMILLAN: We are excited to be back in the Tournament for our third straight year. It's a tremendous accomplishment for these guys to have come as far as we have with some of the issues that this team has had to go through. They have put us on our back for the last month of the season, and you know, you don't want to be playing a 16, as you can see from the games that are going on today. But the opportunity to be back and the notoriety that it brings your university, we're real proud and looking forward to tomorrow.
Can you just talk about how well you and Jasmine Newsome play as a tandem, because you're both prolific scorers and assist-makers and all those steals.
HEATHER BUTLER: Well, we definitely, I think, go well together on the court, because she'sa very good ball handler, and she definitely goes to the hole very hard. When she does that, that kindof opens up for our shots on the outside and for my shot. When she does that and goes to the lane hard, then we get our shots on the outside. If they don't help on us, you know, then she gets to go to the lane. I think that, definitely, we are very compatible with each other on the court that way.
Can you talk a little bit about the matchup with Notre Dame's guards, what are concerns and where you see some advantages for you guys?
JASMINE NEWSOME: I haven't really thought about that, advantages, because I haven't really seen them play this year. But I think we match-up very well with them, because I'm sure they won't really be worried about us. We are just going into the game with the mind-set that we have nothing to lose. We have played against good guards before, so I think we are prepared for it.
You've played Stanford, you've played Baylor; does that take away a little bit of the "wow" factor, playing a No. 1 seed?
JASMINE NEWSOME: Yes, I believe it does, because like I said, we played those teams so we know what they are getting ourselves into.
HEATHER BUTLER: I think definitely,that's why we schedule the big teams during the year, Baylor, Stanford and Purdue and all of the big teams to kind of prepare ourselves for the end of the season, for tournament time right here. And I definitely think that it got us prepared for now.
Can you talk about just the transition game, what it means to your offense, and how efficient you guys are at that this season?
HEATHER BUTLER: Well, during the beginning, we looked to push the ball a lot, and toward the end, we looked to slow it down sometimes and speed it up when we had a good shot on transition. But I think coming into this game, we've just got to be smart with our possessions. If we have a fast break against on five or something, then we need to take it. But if not we need to slow down and run our offense and execute and get a good shot.
You guys have won eight in a row, what's been the key to your success during that winning streak?
JASMINE NEWSOME: I think it was one day in practice or something, Coach came and said that he was basically going to take over, and we were going to play the way we were supposed to play. Basically, we knew that we had to win games to get a top seed in the OVC tournament and then once we got to the OVC tournament, we didn't want to lose. We didn't want to go home.
To both Jasmine and Heather, once you realized, whether it was freshman year, or sophomore year that you guys kind of had the ability to become the scorer you both are now.
HEATHER BUTLER: First year, when you're coming in, I didn't know what to expect at all; going against bigger colleges and bigger girls, because I wasn't used to that in high school. And once we started playing those bigger teams, and we started scoring, I definitely realized, okay, we definitely have a chance to play with these people. And ever since playing that first big team, Vanderbilt, I remember thinking we can play with these girls. We can't get intimidated. We've just got to go out there and just play ball.
JASMINE NEWSOME: Basically I just wanted to prove that I belong on the court with bigger names, people. I just wanted to go out there and show people that maybe overlooked me that I belong on the court with the same players.
Can you talk about Notre Dame's inside game and the challenges Achonwa and Braker pose for you?
COACH McMILLAN: Besides the fact that they have an inside game and we don't, would be the first challenge. Those kids are overlooked. The guards get so much attention for Notre Dame that you overlook those guys, and you can't, because I think that -- that may be a little bit of a key. You saw when Achonwa got 20 and 20 a couple of games ago, you tend to think that that's a weakness; and I thought the last time they played their last game in the championship, that's where Connecticut tried to expose them was down low and it didn't work. So if that's not a weakness, we know the guards weren't a weakness, somebody -- y'all have an idea what the weakness is? Give us some help here, guys. I do. I think that they are very team-oriented players. They are not worried about the spotlight. They are not worried about anything. They are kind of blue-collar kids. They do all the grunt work, I guess you could say. They are the kind of kids that you have to have on your team if you're going to make a run, and when you've got people that will sell out to doing the job that those guys do, you see a great basketball team.
What's going to be the most critical element for your team to be successful, the transition game, the -point shooting?
COACH McMILLAN: The officials. If the officials blow the whistle, it's going to be a different type of game. You know, we traditionally get to the free throw line quite a bit but we play -- this is the third NCAA Tournament, we played Baylor, we played Stanford, we played Purdue and what happens in the big game is that we shoot about half as many free throws as we do in any other, normal game. But we don't run anything different. The teams are bigger, but the handshaking and the bumping is the same as it always is. I don't know if it's that they think because you're in a bigger-name game that those are not as many falls or I don't know what. If we average ten free throws, which is what we've done when we've played big teams, it's going to be ugly. And the opportunity for us is, what if those two little guards that were sitting here can get – we did it with Baylor. And if we can do it again with Notre Dame, get them in foul trouble, and get them sitting over there on the bench; I would like to see those guys sitting over there watching more than I would to see them out there playing. They are great guards and I enjoy watching whenever I can, but I would rather see them sitting over there. Butler and Newsmoe have the potential to cause some foul problems for people, but the big question is going to be, are they going to call it. Last year in the NCAA Tournament, playing Tennessee we said going in, we didn't want to be intimidated, especially being from Tennessee. We told our kids to foul the first possession, foul. I said, I don't care what you do; you've got to foul, because we have to send a message that we are not going to be intimidated. And I had a little girl that fouled four times and the fourth one was called. And she came over and apologized and said, "Coach, I grabbed her once and they didn't call it." I said, it's going to be a long night for us if they are not going to call that. I'm not understating it; that's going to be the biggest thing, are there going to be chances or four kids to get to the free throw line. If we are shooting two free throws or four free throws, there's no way. We don't have a prayer. And they are so good defensively, my gosh, they can switch everything. They can defend us anyway they want to on the perimeter. They can change up ways they defend. There's no real weakness for us to exploit, which is the challenge. We don't want playing the big teams when they have a big slow post kid even if they are an All-American, so they will come out and try to defend the kids on the perimeter, so we will try to do that. Or they may not have two guards that can defend on the perimeter -- well, Notre Dame can do all those things. There's challenge after challenge after challenge that's lined up for us. We are going to need some help.
Were those two overlooked in the recruiting process because of their size? How were you able to get them?
COACH McMILLAN: If you saw them when they walked out of here, they looked more like cheerleaders than basketball players. They are both interesting stories. Butler played for me in high school since she was a ninth grader. I coached her. When you ask her, when I got her, I said, you're going to have to shoot for us. And she says, "Coach, that's not what I do, I'm a point guard, I don't shoot." We started practicing and I sat her on the bench and we started practicing without her. And we took a water break, and she said, what are you going to do; and that was the last time I ever had to tell her, don't shoot. What she did after that was phenomenal, broke state records, did all kind of stuff. When I got the job at UTM, she was the one that we wanted to come with us, and for obvious reasons. Being 5’4” or 5’5”, you are going to be overlooked. But she's a tough matchup to keep the people in front of you. So I had a connection with her, having coached her in high school, and the strange thing was that Jasmine was from Millington High School in Tennessee which is where I started. That's where I had my first job, and her family knew that I had been there before and had done some research and her dad and I talked, and he wanted her to come up there and play. And so you know, to get both of those kids was just a phenomenal coop for us, but they weren't choosing from a lot of schools. They only had two or three offers on the table when they were seniors. I don't think today it would be that way because two Top-10 scorers on the same team is probably not going to get overlooked but we were fortunate that they were.
How has your team grown from the start of the season?
COACH McMILLAN: We had a team last year that was in the tournament, and we started four sophomores. We were in the tournament two years ago against Duke, we started five freshmen, I think. So we have gotten a little older. Well, at the end of last year, after this game last year, we got home and the next day I had two walk in that quit and just didn't want to play anymore. They are just going to school right now getting to work on their degree. And that really put us in a bind because we had not recruited to fill that, and so this year was a challenge at the beginning of the year because we were trying to fill some holes that we didn't know we were going to have. So that got us a little bit of a slow start. And plus we had scheduled thinking we were going to have those kids and be a mature team heading into that process. Playing Stanford and Baylor, we had two freshmen out there, and Lord, help those kids, golly. But then we've lost kids for the season at various times, and every time we seem to think we are about to get going somewhere, we lose another kid for the season. And I think at one point we were down to seven players. I think we may be back up to eight right now, I don't know, we'll go in the locker room and we'll see. And it's been a challenge, and she – her answer was, you asked the question to Jasmine what was the change, what happened, and literally that is what happened. I'm laughing, because I knew the kind of answer you were looking for, and that wasn't it, but that is what happened. We just walked in one day and said, look, guys, we know what we can do, we know this is the kind of team we need to be. Let's get rid of all this other mess and let's go. Those two bought in and did it. It's been a strange year for us with as good a team as we've had, with all the injuries and all the different things, it's just been something that's every time you turn around, you expect something else to hit you. This team, that's why I didn't think they would have the wherewithal to make it back. That's why I'm proud of what they have been able to do.