UT Athletics

Lady Vols bound for Sweet 16

Mercedes Russell sets tone for Tennessee against Arizona State

Tennessee reached its 34th Sweet 16 in program history with a 75-64 win Sunday over Arizona State in Tempe. Go inside for the latest on the Lady Vols.

Tennessee (21-13) took out Arizona State (26-7) on its home court, ending what had been a spectacular season for the No. 2-seeded Sun Devils. The Lady Vols did it from the position of a No. 7 seed and established what had been noted – a higher-seeded opponent probably didn’t want to see Tennessee that early in the NCAA tourney.

"Give them credit," Arizona State Coach Charli Turner Thorne said. "They are pulling it together. They are playing their best basketball right now. I think any coach in the country, that was the team you didn't want to play, and they played well in their conference tournament and that probably helped them either get in or earn a seven seed.

For us, probably the worst matchup we could possibly have asked for. I mean, just being honest. I didn't want to say that, but it was. We just don't - this year, we don't really have a stopper, you know, and then a balance with (Diamond) DeShields and then the size. That was kind of - at the same time, we rebound, we win."

The Lady Vols trailed for just 26 seconds and sealed the game from the free throw line. Mercedes Russell set the tone for Tennessee and had to do so with Bashaara Graves stranded on the bench with two early foul calls.

Russell more than made up for Graves’ absence, as she scored in the paint on 5-6 shooting, hit both free throws, found cutting teammates in Jordan Reynolds and Andraya Carter and grabbed five boards while playing 19 minutes before the break.

“We got inside and we were able to make cuts," Carter said. "Mercedes was finding everybody, Diamond was driving to the lane, Jordan is getting to the basket, Jamie is grabbing every rebound possible, and we were just playing with a whole different level and energy. I don’t think we were thinking of it, like I said the other day, we were just playing with instinct and having fun. If there was an opening, we cut to it. If someone was hot we would go to them.”

Diamond DeShields hit clutch shots after the break and led all scorers with 24 points. The perimeter players repeatedly got to the paint, especially Jaime Nared, who finished with 11 points and six boards.

“Man, Jaime stepped up big,” associate head coach Kyra Elzy said. “She had some grit.”

Reynolds, her teammate from Oregon, tallied 12 points, two assists and two steals.

“Holly really challenged her to come out and play aggressive,” said Elzy, who noted that Reynolds ran the offense and got the ball to the right players.

It was the third Oregonian in Russell who established in the opening minutes that Tennessee would score inside.

“I think she likes playing on the West Coast,” Elzy joked.

“When our best players are just doing what they do, it’s awesome, and that’s when we’re a really good team because everyone else feeds off of that," Carter said.

The game was knotted at 33-33 at halftime, led by 12 points by Russell. Reynolds added seven before the break, while DeShields tallied six. Both teams shot well over the first 20 minutes – 50 percent (15-30) for the Lady Vols and 43.3 percent (13-30) for the Sun Devils.

The teams put up the same figure on the boards at 17 for each. Arizona State was aided by four 3-pointers on seven attempts, while the Lady Vols were 0-2 from long range before halftime.

Tennessee would prevail on the glass, 36-30, thanks to 11 rebounds by Graves, who was rested for the final two quarters. Graves grabbed four offensive rebounds and tallied eight points.

"Obviously not the result we wanted," Thorne said. "Credit Tennessee, I thought they really played very well. Any time we had any kind of miscue or didn't do what we needed to do, they took advantage of it in every which way. We knew the game was about the boards. They ended up plus six. If we would have been plus six, I think we would have won.

"We kind of softened our pressure a little bit to keep them in front of us. Though we didn't turn it over quite as much; the rebounding was huge. I love this team. They have been a blast to coach. They have been amazing. Definitely have not underachieved. They have had an incredible year and have an amazing spirit, and I've just been so proud of everything they have accomplished. Just really, really going to miss the senior class, too."

The Lady Vols would end up hitting just one long ball by Nared, while attempting just four for the game. Tennessee didn’t need to launch from the arc. Instead, the ball got to the paint, mostly by dribble penetration after halftime.

Tennessee executed on offense, minus a few breakdowns of too much dribbling or a quick shot, took care of the ball and primarily played a zone defense that stymied Arizona State’s offense.

“They really followed the game plan,” said Elzy, who had prepared the scouting report.

Tennessee got 42 points in the paint compared to 27 for Arizona State. The Lady Vols lost the ball just 12 times against a Sun Devil team that thrives on turnovers to score.

When Arizona State had the ball, the Lady Vols took them out of their comfort zone. DeShields handled the top of the press, and Carter swarmed the perimeter shooters. Carter also hit a couple of shots, including a jumper in the second quarter on an assist by Alexa Middleton.

“Andraya came in and made big plays for us,” Elzy said. “Defensively, she made stops when we needed them.”

Carter noted, "At the beginning of the game, I told everybody, ‘Do what you’re supposed to do as hard as you can.’ "

The Lady Vols shot 51.8 percent (29-56) for the game and 88.9 percent (16-18) from the line. DeShields tallied 24 points and was joined in double figures by Reynolds and Russell with 12 each and Nared with 11. Nia Moore and Carter added four points each.

Arizona State shot 39.0 percent (23-59) overall, 40 percent (8-20) from long range and 83.3 percent (10-12) from the stripe. Elisha Davis led the Sun Devils with 18 points, while Quinn Dornstauder notched 15. Arnecia Hawkins added 13, while Sophie Brunner, a major focus of the defense, tallied 12.

A month ago, the Lady Vols and their fans were concerned about perhaps not making the NCAA tourney. Now, they’re headed to the South Dakota Regional, where they will face Ohio State (26-7) on Friday. It is the 34th Sweet 16 for Tennessee.

The Lady Vols kept two records intact on the trip to Tempe – they tallied win No. 20 against Green Bay to keep the streak at 40 consecutive seasons and stayed perfect in the second round of NCAA play.

“So proud of this team,” Elzy said. “They played with heart and effort, and, more importantly, they played together.”

Press conference transcript


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