Lady Vols- South Carolina

Feb 18, 2021; Knoxville, Tennessee, USA; The Tennessee Lady Vols wave to fans after the game against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Thompson-Boling Arena. Mandatory Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Lady Vols are back in the NCAA Women’s Tournament, landing the No. 3 seed in the River Walk Region. Tennessee will face the No. 14 seed Middle Tennessee, for an in-state rivalry in the first round.

Middle Tennessee finished the regular season at 17-7 and won the C-USA Championship, defeating Louisiana Tech, UTEP and Rice in the tournament.

The Lady Riders have four players that averaged double figure points for the season, led by the Hayes sisters. The older of the pair, Anastasia Hayes, is a former Lady Vol, who transferred out under Holly Warlick. She leads the team with 26.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.

The younger sister, Aislynn Hayes, is second on the team with 14.0 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Deja Cage and Courtney Whitson round out the group, both averaging 10.8 points per game.

“They are well coached. They always have terrific game plans,” Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper said on Middle Tennessee. “Especially, given this much time to prepare, they’ll really have a game plan that their players will really buy into. They are usually really good at what they do. They don’t overcomplicate things. They make the game very simple, and they execute very well, whether that’s on the offensive end or defensive end.”

Harper has lots of familiarity with Middle Tennessee’s head coach Rick Insell. She played several summers of AAU for Insell, and against him at high school. Harper also coached opposite him at Western Carolina and Missouri State.

“You know, those moments are neat when you have a relationship across the floor,” Harper said on Insell. “You know them so well. And again, there’s just so much respect there.”

The Lady Vols will face Middle Tennessee on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast on ABC.

If Tennessee advances past Middle Tennessee, it will play the winner of No. 6 Michigan and No. 11 Florida Gulf Coast.

Michigan finished the regular season at 14-5, before falling in the first round of the Big 10 Tournament to Northwestern.

FGCU went 26-2 in the 2020-21 regular season, and won the ASUN Championship as the top seed, blowing past Liberty.

Should the Lady Vols continue to advance, they might face UConn, Kentucky or Baylor, the other top-4 seeds. The Lady Vols played both UConn and Kentucky this year. They lost a close game to the Huskies in January, and spilt the regular-season series with Kentucky.

“There are so many talented players out there,” Harper said on their tough region. “I know, obviously a lot of talent in this particular region. I think this year, you can just go down the line and see how many superstars players, how many big performances that there have been. And I think it just stands out.”

The Lady Vols made history with this year’s Tournament. Tennessee becomes the only program to be selected in the Tournament in all 39 years of its existence.

Additionally, Harper becomes just the second woman’s coach in history to lead four different schools to the NCAA Tournament, joining Jim Foster in the exclusive club.

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