It wasn’t the prototypical season for the Tennessee women’s basketball program, but the No. 7 Lady Vols managed to squeeze out a closely-contested match with No. 10-seed Green Bay, 59-53 Friday, to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the 34th time in 35 years. A one-possession game for a majority of the second half, Tennessee (20-13) kept the Phoenix ( 28-5) off the scoreboard from the 6:11 mark of the fourth quarter to the final five seconds at the Tempe, Ariz., Regional and erased an eight-point deficit, its largest comeback of the season.
“We knew it would be a tough game, but our young ladies stayed the course and didn’t panic,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “When we needed the get stops, our defense was really solid.”
Freshman Te’a Cooper and Diamond DeShields scored 15 and 14 points for Tennessee, with Mercedes Russell adding eight points and 13 rebounds. Allie LeClaire led Green Bay with 14 points, with senior guard Kaili Lukan and Jessica Lindstrom scoring 12 and 11. Lindstrom and Tesha Buck each grabbed eight rebounds for the Phoenix.
“I was really ready to play,” Cooper said of her first tourney game. “We were prepared because we were in this situation before.”
DeShields opened the game with a three and with another one scored eight of the game’s first 14 points, as the Lady Vols went up 10-4. Lindstrom’s three closed the margin within 10-9, and a late basket from Cooper put the Vols in control 14-13 after one. The Phoenix went on an 11-2 run to start the second and took an eight-point lead. Kortney Dunbar’s three and points in the paint from Russell earned Tennessee the comeback, and a jump shot from Jaime Nared tied it at 27-27 at the half.
The game remained close in the third quarter, with each team trading leads. Green Bay had the final possession of the third, save a desperation heave from Jordan Reynolds, and grabbed a 45-44 lead. Eternally in a one-point early fourth quarter, Bashaara Graves’ layup sent the Lady Vols to a 52-49 lead with three minutes left, and they cruised to their 40th-consecutive 20-win season.
“I’m really proud of our players, we wish Tennessee the best of luck,” Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth said. “We had some really good looks, we went into zone, knew what we were doing, had some good shots, but didn’t make them. Our kids showed a lot of heart, ball security was a big part of the game, we outrebounded them (40-38).”
Green Bay outscored Tennessee in the paint, 16-8 at the half and 30-22 for the game, despite being undersized and the presence of the 6-foot-6 sophomore Russell. The Lady Vol bench, however, wore down the Phoenix, 24-5, and the team kept it 13 points below its season average. The eight-point comeback bettered one of seven points versus Syracuse Nov. 20 for Tennessee.
“We made some mistakes, and they capitalized on them,” Green Bay forward Mehryn Kraker said. “That’s what Tennessee does, they hit big shots.”