Seeking a 34th trip to the Sweet 16 in 35 seasons, the Tennessee Lady Volunteers have rarely been the lower-seeded team in the NCAA Tournament. The target that usually accompanies the backs of their orange jerseys in March, this year, falls on second-seeded Arizona State, which hosts Tennessee in the second round at 6 p.m. PT Sunday.
“We’ve been on both ends, and I don’t think Arizona State is going to look at us as a seven seed,” Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said. “I think they’re going to look at us like they’re playing the University of Tennessee. Our kids at times right now, we play better as an underdog. We’re going into the game not worrying about what our seed is, and we have a lot of respect for them. We’re in the tournament, six games left in the regular season, we were concerned about making the tournament. We’re excited to be here, and we have a breath of fresh air.”
Tennessee (20-13) executed its largest comeback of the season in its 59-53 opening round win over Green Bay Friday, rallying from eight points behind in the second quarter. The eight-time national champions and 18-time Final Four participants now match up with the co-Pacific-12 Conference champion Sun Devils (26-6), who obliterated New Mexico State, 74-52, in the first round behind six three pointers from Katie Hempen.
“Arizona Sate is a very athletic and gritty team, plays hard on both ends of the floor for 40 minutes, a very solid team,” Tennessee center Mercedes Russell said. “I try to stay composed and patient, but at the same time stay aggressive.”
Russell, the 6-foot-6 sophomore center, grabbed 13 rebounds to go along with eight points Friday. After redshirting the 2014-15 season, she is averaging 9.5 and 8.2 this year. She won the gold medal for the U.S. in the World University Games in Korea last summer, with Hempen as a teammate and Warlick as an assistant coach. She will meet ASU’s 6-foot-4 Quinn Dornstauder in the paint, who was on the Canadian silver medalist team.
“When someone is a great shooter, you have to make them take hard shots,” Russell said of Hempen. “I played against her (Dornstauder) in the World University Games, so I kind of know her game a little bit, so I know she’s a very versatile and skilled player, so I think it will be a great battle.”
Andraya Carter, the 5-foot-9 guard, won the Arthur Ashe Junior Sports Scholar Women’s Basketball Award this year. She is sixth on the team at five points per game, but like the Sun Devils’ Elisha Davis, brings strong leadership skills to the court.
“I think it will be good for us if we stay poised and read the defense, we’ll make good plays off of that,” Carter said. “You can stay calm, make the right plays and reads. We’ll play out of instinct. They are a two seed for a reason, they make hustle plays and play hard, it’s going to be a fast-paced game.”
Coach Warlick added that ASU reminds her of SEC opponents Mississippi State, Kentucky and South Carolina, of which the latter two beat the Sun Devils in heart-breaking fashion. She described that the Lady Vols’ two Pacific-12 games against Oregon State (win) and Stanford (loss) were totally different styles than the SEC, where her team finished 8-8.
“We’re excited to be here,” Warlick said. “It’s about survive and advance, and we did so yesterday, so proud of our young ladies for grinding it out and getting a win. Our game is to go inside, we’re not going to change that. It’s a mirror of two teams, we both rely on our defense, we’re athletic, we’re physical, sometimes we do it more than usual, it’s just a matter of our perimeter players getting them the ball.”
Diamond DeShields lead the Lady Vols with 14 points per game and scored that many versus Green Bay. Bashaara Graves also scores 10 per game and joined DeShields on the All-SEC second team. This will be the fourth time Tennessee and ASU will play each other, all won by the Vols, beginning with the outdoor game at Phoenix in 2000, plus at Tempe in 2006 and Knoxville in 2010. The winner will play either No. 3 Ohio State or No. 6 West Virginia March 25 in Sioux Falls, S.D.