Tennessee flipped the script on being a five seed in the state of Kentucky and safely made it to the second round with Saturday’s 66-57 win over Dayton.
Tennessee (20-11) used a solid second half to secure the win over Dayton (22-10) and notched the program’s 41st consecutive season with at least 20 wins, a rather remarkable run. The Lady Vols also are the only team to play in all 36 NCAA tourneys.
The last time the Lady Vols were a No. 5 seed, they lost to No. 12 seed Ball State in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 2009, when the late Pat Summitt was the head coach. The Flyers made the game interesting in Louisville, Kentucky, especially with a second quarter run, but the Lady Vols took the lead in the third quarter and never surrendered it.
“I loved our focus, I loved our energy, and I loved our resilience,” Coach Holly Warlick said.
The first-round games have varied with blowouts by the one seeds and nip-and-tuck games across the rest of the bracket. No. 2 seeds Stanford and Oregon State barely survived New Mexico State and Long Beach State, respectively, while No. 4 seeds Miami and Kentucky barely escaped Florida Gulf Coast and Belmont, respectively.
“Pat said it all the time, ‘This time of year, it’s survive and advance,’ ” Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said on the post-game radio show.”
The Lady Vols got the start they wanted in the first 10 minutes and led 20-9 at the end of the first quarter. Tennessee shot 46.7 percent (7-15), while Dayton connected at just 15.8 percent (3-19). Diamond DeShields notched 10 points in the first 10 minutes.
But Tennessee faltered in the second quarter, while Dayton found its rhythm. By halftime, the game was knotted at 29-29. Tennessee shot 35.5 percent (11-31) in the first half and was 0-4 from the arc, while Dayton shot 32.3 percent (10-31) and connected on three 3-pointers. Dayton also prevailed on the glass, 23-21, in the first 20 minutes.
Mercedes Russell scored the first six points of the third quarter, and Schaquilla Nunn provided solid minutes in relief of Jaime Nared, who was in foul trouble. The Lady Vols claimed a 52-41 lead at the end of the third quarter, which featured more attacks to the basket instead of ill-advised jumpers.
DeShields ended the game like she started it and finished with 24 points, five rebounds, five assists, two steals and one turnover. DeShields also reached 1,000 career points at Tennessee to go with the 648 points she scored at North Carolina as a freshman.
“We will take that game every time,” Lockwood said.
Nunn was the much-needed spark off the bench, especially with Nared in foul trouble in both halves.
“She saved our bacon a little bit,” Lockwood said. “She got seven out of 10 offensive rebounds.”
Nunn, a graduate transfer from Winthrop, was playing in just the second NCAA tourney game of her career and tallied 14 points and 15 boards in 25 minutes of play.
“I thought Schaquilla Nunn was outstanding,” Warlick said. “She just competed. Schaquilla was absolutely huge.”
Nared managed eight points and seven boards and typically bounces back in the next game.
“Let’s hope that pattern continues,” Lockwood said.
Tennessee will next take on No. 4 seed Louisville (28-7), which is led by dynamic guard Asia Durr. An interesting sub-plot to the game is Coach Jeff Walz stirring the pot about Warlick’s job a year ago, going so far as to say he had been contacted by Tennessee boosters. The claim was so outrageous that Tennessee issued an official statement to deny it, and the matter faded quickly after that, especially after Louisville fell on its home court in the second round of the NCAA tourney in 2016.
The Lady Vols will meet Louisville on the Cardinals’ home court in the second round in 2017 on Monday. Game time has not yet been set.
“They have no bad losses,” Lockwood said. “In Asia Durr, they have one of the premier guards in the country. It’s going to be an alley fight.”
Tennessee first had to get past Dayton, a team that crushed Texas A&M this season by connecting on 12 three-pointers. The Flyers seemed unnerved, however, to open the game against the Lady Vols, who took a quick lead. Dayton wiped it out in the second quarter and even claimed the lead for itself in the third.
“You could say we gave up the lead, but on the other side of it, they fought back,” DeShields said.
Russell went to work after a rather passive first half and established herself on both ends of the court.
“Mercedes needed to be more assertive and aggressive in calling for the ball,” Lockwood said. “That’s doing work before the ball arrives. She asserted herself, and our guards did a much better job of looking for her.”
Russell finished with 14 points and 10 boards and went 6-8 from the line.
“Mercedes stepped up in the third and fourth quarters,” Warlick said.
Tennessee didn’t attempt a three-pointer after the break and instead focused on attacking the basket and either getting to the rim or the line or setting up a short jumper.
“Diamond is attacking the paint and getting the ball to our posts,” Lockwood said. “She shows what a dominant player she can be when she’s attacking.”
Tennessee shot 42.3 percent (22-52) overall, 0-4 (0 percent) from the arc and 66.7 percent (15-23) from the line. The Lady Vols had nine assists, nine turnovers, six steals and four boards and prevailed on the glass, 43-39.
Dayton shot 32.3 percent (21-65) overall, 20 percent (4-20) from the arc and 78.6 percent (11-14). The Flyers had 11 assists, eight turnovers, three steals and two blocks. Alex Harris and JaVonna Layfield tallied 10 points each. Jayla Scaife connected on two three-pointers for six points.
The Lady Vols face a tough test on Louisville’s home court and will be seeking the program’s 35th berth in the Sweet 16.
“We’ve had such a rich tradition of women’s basketball, and it started with Coach Summitt,” Warlick said. “It’s up to this team and our coaches to continue that culture. At times in the last couple of years, we haven’t been at our best, but it seems like at tournament time, these kids rise up and they accept the challenge.
“And it is a culture. It’s what they come to Tennessee for is to play in the NCAA Tournament and compete for championships. If I could just get them to act like the tournament is all year around, I would be in business.
“All in all, these last two weeks this is the most focused I have seen them all year. I was proud of how they finished the game. It’s a product of how they’ve been practicing.”
Tennessee press conference