The Lady Vols took the mantra of survive and advance quite literally in Tempe and secured a spot in the second round after the 59-53 comeback win over Green Bay. Go inside for NCAA tourney game coverage.
Tennessee (20-13) found its defensive resolve in the fourth quarter against Green Bay (28-5) to advance to the second round against Arizona State (26-6), which defeated New Mexico State (26-5) in Friday’s second game, 74-52.
The Lady Vols also seized their 20th win of the season, keeping a streak alive that has now reached 40 consecutive seasons.
It wouldn’t have happened without team defense, smart play by Diamond DeShields and some timely offense by Te’a Cooper. The freshman point guard shook off a sluggish start and led all scorers with 15 points, including an and-one play on an in-bound feed from DeShields that knotted the game at 38-38 in the third quarter.
It took an 11-3 run by Tennessee to tie the game at 27-27 at halftime after a flurry of missed shots and a few ill-timed turnovers.
“It's almost a 2-3 zone,” Coach Holly Warlick said. “I can’t speak for them but I thought their goal was to get us to shoot, obviously from the outside, and quick-shoot the basketball. I thought the first quarter, we did just that.”
The Phoenix plays a pack-line defense and sagged completely into the paint. The Lady Vols were left wide open on the perimeter.
“It was like we were so open, it was too good to be true,” DeShields said.” We were basically taking quick shots, which is exactly what I feel like they wanted us to do, especially in the first half.
“In the second half, we kind of toned it down as far as our shot selection and we were able to get the ball inside.”
Offensively, Green Bay spread the court, posted up Tennessee’s guards and used most of the shot clock to set a controlled tempo.
“This was no easy game,” Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. “We knew it was not going to be an easy game.”
Lockwood noted that Green Bay executed its offense as well as any team the Lady Vols played this season, including Notre Dame, and forced opponents to stay disciplined and focused.
“It’s removing a wasp nest with your bare hands,” Lockwood said.
Tennessee trailed by one, 45-44, entering the third quarter. The situation seemed dire when DeShields picked up a fourth foul with 7:43 left, less than a minute after the redshirt sophomore gave the Lady Vols the lead from the line, 46-45, but Warlick gambled and left in DeShields. The Lady Vols never trailed again.
“Anybody who’s watched college basketball knows that Green Bay is a very tough team,” DeShields said. “Their conference (Horizon League) may not speak on their toughness, but they are a very tough team. Very tough, hard to play, well-coached, and they have very disciplined players.
“So for us to be able to get this win, it was huge for us. We played hard. We could’ve folded. We could’ve got down on ourselves and gave the game away, but we didn’t. That’s a huge credit to all the players on the team. I’m really proud of the way everybody stuck together.”
By the time DeShields exited the game with her fifth foul, there were 12 seconds left, and Tennessee led 59-48.
Mercedes Russell also was instrumental in the win, especially in the third quarter, with her work on the glass. The sophomore added eight points and grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds, tying her tally against Alabama on Jan. 31.
“I thought Te’a Cooper had one of her best games,” Warlick said. “Mercedes Russell had one of her best games. She wanted the ball. She demanded the ball, and when we needed to get stops, we did.”
Tennessee increased its ball pressure, especially that applied by Andraya Carter and Cooper, and had Russell help in the middle. Offensively, the Lady Vols got in the paint with Bashaara Graves recovering what initially appeared to be a loose ball – Cooper got credit for an assist; it was a flip pass – and putting the Lady Vols up 52-49.
“I was driving and Shar was about to get the rebound, but I saw her coming last second and threw it,” Cooper said. “It looked like she was about to rebound, and I just threw it to her.”
That was followed by a Cooper step-back jumper for a 54-49 lead. Carter, DeShields and Graves secured the win from the free throw line for the final margin.
The Lady Vols got the separation by going into a zone defense late in the fourth quarter, a risky move against a team that can drain threes like Green Bay. But the Phoenix were somewhat stymied by the switch – minus one open three that missed – and went too deep in the shot clock. One shot was launched well behind the arc and didn’t draw iron.
“They went to that zone, we knew what we were doing, and one of the possessions we had was a good shot,” Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth said. “But the other ones, we had really good looks and didn’t make them. That’s usually what our forte is. People play zone, we can usually shoot pretty well out of it. We had some really good rhythm, but we didn't make them.”
Lockwood cited a line from the movie, “Remember the Titans,” to explain the change.
“Coach, this ain’t no time to be proud,” Lockwood said.
The Lady Vols wanted to keep the Green Bay players in front of them via man defense, but the Phoenix got 30 points in the paint – compared to 22 for Tennessee – and the zone was needed.
“We felt like switch it up and make them change what they’re doing,” Lockwood said.
Green Bay scored just eight points in the fourth quarter after outscoring the Lady Vols, 18-17, in the third quarter.
“We got stops when we needed them,” Carter said. “It would’ve been great if we’d got stops all game, but we needed them in the fourth quarter, and we got them.”
DeShields was deployed at the top of the zone, and her length was disruptive.
“You’ve got to be smart and disciplined to play Green Bay,” said Lockwood, who saluted his team’s fourth-quarter defensive execution.
Overall, the Phoenix, who averaged eight made threes a game, were 3-17 (17.6 percent) from the arc with Tesha Buck shooting 0-8.
Tennessee, meanwhile, attempted just three 3-pointers after halftime – and didn’t connect – after shooting 3-9 from long range in the first half. Instead, Russell got on the glass, Cooper got to the rim, and DeShields got to the line.
“I think that we made some mistakes,” said Mehryn Kraker, who tallied nine points for Green Bay. “I think they capitalized on them and I think they hit a couple big shots. That’s what Tennessee does. They hit big shots.”
Green Bay was led by Allie LeClaire with 14 points, while Kaili Lukan notched 12, and Jessica Lindstrom added 11. The Phoenix shot 20-60 (33.3 percent) and connected on 10-12 (83.3 percent) from the line. Green Bay nipped Tennessee on the glass, 40-38.
Tennessee shot 21-55 overall (38.2 percent), 3-12 (25 percent) from the arc and 14-19 (73.7 percent) from the line. The Lady Vols took care of the ball with just 10 turnovers and tallied 13 assists with four by Jordan Reynolds and three by DeShields.
Graves added two assists to go with a pair of fives in points and rebounds. The senior forward was boxed in for most of the game as Green Bay defensively planted itself in the paint.
“I loved Bashaara today because in the past, I think her play and what people did to her would frustrate her, and I didn’t think Bashaara got frustrated today,” Warlick said. “She was very positive in the huddle, positive with her teammates, and she didn’t force things.
“When we needed her to get a rebound, and we needed to drive and get a bucket, she did. She’s a senior, so obviously she’s going to feel a little pressure. But I think that this team understands what Bashaara has meant to this program, and I think they want to have her back.”
Tennessee exorcised the demon of losing a fourth-quarter lead with composure on offense and tenacity on defense.
“I think we were prepared because we’ve been in this situation before, and we obviously didn’t want to be on the other end this time,” Cooper said.
Lockwood acknowledged that the Lady Vols felt some pressure – and didn’t play with the poise needed after taking a quick 10-6 lead on a three-pointer by DeShields. That was followed by a trey from Lindstrom, and it was game on for the next 35 minutes.
“We were down. We could have freaked out. We could have made crazy plays, and we didn’t do that,” Carter said. “We got stops. We kept with it. Stayed with the course, stayed with what the coaches said, and got the win.”
The victory kept the Lady Vols’ streak of at least 20 wins a season intact, and Lockwood said that was a relief. He joked that had Tennessee lost, someone would need to be assigned to lifeguard duty.
“You might have found me at the bottom of the pool,” Lockwood said.
Instead, the Lady Vols move to Sunday’s second round against Arizona State, a team that will be playing on its home court in Tempe. Lockwood said the team needed a good outcome after so many struggles this season with criticism coming from all corners.
“God bless this team for so many reasons,” Lockwood said.