Lady Vols claim epic comeback

The Lady Vols, seemingly doomed at 17 points down late in the second half, staged a comeback for the ages Saturday night to reach the Elite Eight with a 73-69 win over Gonzaga in Spokane. Go inside with InsideTennessee for game analysis.

Tennessee (30-5) overcame the hometown of Gonzaga (26-8), horrific shooting to start the second half, passive defense for 34 minutes and comical officiating to earn the right to play in the program’s 27th Elite Eight.

The Lady Vols did it with staggering marksmanship from the stripe, senior leadership and the in-game maturation of freshman Jaime Nared. It was an improbable win as the Lady Vols trailed by 17 points, 57-40, with 6:34 left in the game.

Seniors Cierra Burdick and Ariel Massengale led the comeback, aided by Bashaara Graves, who returned to the court with an injured right shoulder, and Jaime Nared and Jordan Reynolds, who were playing near their hometown of Portland, Oregon.

"Nothing tops this," Burdick said. "We were down what, 17 at one point and we came back and win in overtime. I mean, I think that just goes to show that no matter how many punches you throw at us we're going to continue to get up and we're going to keep fighting and we never thought we were out of this game.

"That's just Tennessee basketball. That's our mindset."

The Lady Vols will face Maryland (33-2), a 65-55 winner over Duke (23-11) on Monday night at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena for the right to go to the Final Four in Tampa.

“I am so proud of our kids,” said assistant coach Kyra Elzy, who was out of breath during the post-game radio interview. “They stayed together. They stayed positive. They made big plays when they had to.”

Graves started the rally with a block and then converted the and-one play to trim the lead to 57-43. That was followed with two more and-one plays by Burdick and Nared to close the gap to 59-49.

Gonzaga pushed it back to 12 points, 61-49 on two free throws by Keani Albanez, but a layup by Burdick and a three-pointer and layup by Massengale pulled the Lady Vols to 61-56 with three minutes left to play.

Tennessee ratcheted up its defense and pounded the offensive glass.

"We decided to run a full court, run and jump, and it was huge for us," Holly Warlick said. "If not anything, it took time off the (shot) clock, made them rush, made them hurry. And we got turnovers and it got us back in the game. We really haven't used that press a lot this year, but obviously it came in real handy tonight."

A pair of free throws by Cierra and a steal and layup by Graves pulled the Lady Vols to within one point, 61-60, with 1:58 left.

The Lady Vols also posted up Reynolds inside, and Gonzaga could do nothing but foul her. A pair of Reynolds free throws gave the Lady Vols the lead, 62-61, with 90 seconds left.

But Gonzaga wasn’t done. The Bulldogs took the lead, 63-62, on an Emma Wolfram layup, but Reynolds again got to the line and made one of two to tie the game. The Lady Vols had a chance to win it in regulation, but a foul to the chest of Graves went uncalled and the Sweet 16 matchup went to overtime.

The Lady Vols got back in the game by being aggressive and attacking – something they did in the first half without the benefit of foul calls. When the Lady Vols got to the line, they converted, going 11-12 in regulation.

Tennessee, which trailed throughout most of the first half after taking a 10-6 lead, seemed to seize momentum with a three by Massengale with three seconds before the break to claim a 34-34 lead.

But the Lady Vols were frigid in the second half and could not score inside or out. Gonzaga, meanwhile, was hitting on all offensive cylinders.

“We didn’t play pressure defense,” Elzy said. “We played safe. And they got buckets.”

Tennessee, while a No. 2 seed to the No. 11 seed Bulldogs, was playing in front of a hostile crowd at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena that was in full celebration mode with the game seemingly in hand.

"Gonzaga was just absolutely they were awesome today," Warlick said. "Great credit to their coach, the coaching staff and the kids. They fought hard. It was a battle. We had to give everything we had.

The crowd was phenomenal. I know they weren't yelling for us, but to come out and support Gonzaga, it was huge. That's how women's basketball should be."

Gonzaga struck first in overtime with a layup by Sunny Greinacher, but Reynolds tied it at 65-65 from the line with 3:12 left. Nared gave the Lady Vols the lead at 67-65 with a pair of free throws, and Greinacher tied it at 67-67 for Gonzaga with a layup.

Burdick got the lead for Tennessee from the line, 69-67, with 1:38 left to play thanks to the Lady Vols’ offensive rebounding, and hit another pair for a 71-67 lead with 17 seconds left. Gonzaga trimmed the lead to 71-69 on a pair of free throws after Burdick was called for a foul while on the floor, but Reynolds sealed it at the line, 73-69, with three seconds left.

The Lady Vols were 10-10 from the line in overtime and 21-22 (95.5 percent) overall. After trailing on the glass for most of the second half, the Lady Vols evened the boards at 43-43 for the game with 21 coming on the offensive end.

Burdick led the Lady Vols with 22 points and 15 boards in 38 minutes of play. Massengale added 15 points, and Reynolds and Nared tallied 12 each. Graves had a pair of sevens in points and boards.

Tennessee shot 32.4 percent (23-71) for the game. Gonzaga scorched the nets – 50 percent in the first and 45.8 percent in the second – but shot just 28.6 percent in overtime as the Lady Vols stiffened their defense and induced a shot clock violation. Greinacher finished with 24 points for Gonzaga, while Albanez notched 20.

The Lady Vols are now 120-25 all-time in NCAA Tournament play, a win total that is the most in college basketball.

Senior Isabelle Harrison, whose career was ended by an ACL injury in February, finally smiled and shoulder-danced to “Rocky Top” when Reynolds secured the win. Burdick and Massengale clearly wanted another game to wear orange. The Lady Vols wilted on this stage a year ago. In 2015, Massengale and Burdick led them to the Elite Eight.

“I think the seniors helped us remain composed,” Elzy said.

Elzy also cited the poise of Nared and the timely offense of Alexa Middleton in the first half. The freshman Middleton drained a three-pointer from the corner when the Lady Vols needed a basket. Nared grabbed six rebounds with three coming on the offensive end.

"It was really exciting, to be honest," Nared said. "It was just a great environment to be around. I was proud of everyone, and it was game that I'll remember forever because of how hard everybody played. And how we all came together when we were down by such a large amount.

"We never hung our heads. Our coaches were yelling or keeping a good vibe around the game and just making sure that we were just keeping our head level. So it was exciting."

The 17-point deficit and comeback ties the postseason record from the Virginia game in 1996 at the Elite 8 in Charlottesville.

Burdick battled bigger players inside and never folded, despite the lopsided score late in the game. Massengale, who is in the best condition of her career, went the distance at 45 minutes.

“We told her she can rest in two weeks,” Elzy said. “She’s a senior.”

"We fought," Massengale said. "Coaching staff believed in us, and we came out with the W."

Game highlights from utsportstv

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