She has always been the Tennessee Lady Volunteers emotional catalyst, but on Monday, Cierra Burdick proved to be much more than that.
With a Sweet 16 spot on the line, the junior forward scored 21 points and corralled 11 rebounds – her sixth double-double of the season – as her performance was instrumental in the Lady Vols' 67-51 victory over St. John's to advance to the third round of the NCAA tournament.
"I think the biggest thing for me is going out there and playing loose and having fun," Burdick said. "When I begin to think about things too much and I don't trust myself and all the hours I've put in, that's when I really struggle. When I'm hesitant, I'm not producing the way I know I'm capable of. My teammates continued to encourage me and believed in me to knock down shots and I was just able to come out here and have fun and enjoy the game.
"I just wanted to enjoy it. Enjoy the ride, enjoy the journey and this is such an awesome opportunity and I'm just trying to capitalize on it."
It was a tale of two halves on Monday, as the Red Storm kept pace with Tennessee throughout the first half, heading to the locker room with only a four-point deficit, despite the Lady Vols shooting 55.6 percent in the opening period.
In the second half, however, it was all Tennessee.
Shortly after St. John's tied the game at 39 with 16:59 remaining, the Lady Vols turned it on, rattling off a 14-2 run over the next 8:40 to push their lead above double digits for good.
"We are a smart basketball team," Burdick said. "We know when we are not doing what we need to be doing. We've been in every situation possible throughout this entire season and we continue to weather every storm we go through. We knew we weren't getting the defensive stops we needed to get. We weren't being as active in the zone as we needed to be and I think that was the biggest adjustment."
That zone proved to be the biggest factor, as it gave the Red Storm fits, forcing them to go 5-of-24 (20.8 percent) from the field, which resulted in only 16 second-half points.
"In the beginning of the season, we let our offense dictate our defense and that's why we weren't successful at times," Burdick said. "Defense and rebounding is going to win us basketball games. At first, we used to just say it because it was the right thing to say, but now we actually believe it."
Throughout the season, Tennessee's height has been the talk of their opponent's preparation, and Monday was no different, but it didn't play that much into the game.
After out-bounding Northwestern State in the first round by 20, the Lady Vols only managed to pick up an advantage of five boards against SJU.
"They were a scrappy team and most of their guards came in to rebound," junior center Isabelle Harrison said. "They play four guards and a post, so it's crazy when we play three guards and two posts, but they just got after the boards (tonight)."
The Lady Vols will face off against the winner of Texas and Maryland in the Sweet 16, who are scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m.