They fell out of the Top 25 for the first time in three decades. They were 8-8 in the SEC, tied with Auburn and Missouri, teams they used to plow over. They came into the Big Dance with their lowest-ever seed at seven, but still the Tennessee Lady Volunteers found a way to return to the Sweet 16.
Diamond DeShields scored 24 points, and Tennessee defeated Arizona State in Tempe, 75-64 Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship to qualify for the regional semifinals for the 34th time in the 35-year history of the tournament. The Lady Vols (21-13) will play third-seeded Ohio State March 25 in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“They’re playing their best basketball right now,” said ASU coach Charli Turner Thorne, whose second-seeded club fell to 26-7. “Any coach will tell you, that is the team you don’t want to play. For us, it was the worst possible matchup. We didn’t have a stopper.”
Coach Turner Thorne credited the athleticism of Tennessee and pointed towards post play and rebounding that ended the season of the co-Pacific-12 Conference champions. Lady Vol 6-foot-2 senior Bashaara Graves only played half the game and led all players with 11 rebounds in 24 minutes.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Charli and what she’s done with that program,” said Tennessee coach Holly Warlick, who is four-of-four in second round games since taking over for Pat Summitt in 2012. “We stepped up, didn’t panic. It was a great team effort. Diamond, within this past month, she’s been playing the way she’s been playing. It took us a while to gel. We played 18 teams that are in this tournament. We struggled, but right now we are playing the best basketball of the year.”
While some would see Tennessee’s record and criticize the decline of the eight-time national champions, the team lost all eight of its conference games by single digits, including just six to South Carolina, the No. 2 team in the country for most of the season. It played Notre Dame, Texas and Stanford close, and its 14-point loss to Virginia Tech still saw Mercedes Russell put together one of her best games at 14 points and 15 rebounds.
“They gave us a look defensively we hadn’t had a chance to see all year,” DeShields said of ASU. “It’s another chance for us to keep moving forward and prove people wrong. It’s extremely satisfying to get a big win on the road like this one.”
The man-to-man defense the Sun Devils threw on Tennessee was a change from the double teaming with which it had been frequently challenged, according to Russell. Katie Hempen, who drained a tournament-record-tying six threes on six attempts was limited to 1-of-8 shooting, with her lone three points coming in the game’s opening two minutes.
“We didn’t panic, and that’s something we struggle with at times, and we made plays,” said Warlick, who coached Hempen to a gold medal at the World University Games last summer. “It was a focal point to not let Katie get into her rhythm; I have a lot of respect for her shot.”