Lady Vols

Tennessee's Destiny Salary (2) leaps onto Tamari Key (20) after Tennessee’s win over Florida during an NCAA women's basketball in Knoxville, Tenn. on Sunday, January 31, 2021.

The Lady Vols have overcome challenges and expectations all year and were rewarded for their effort with the No. 3 seed in the River Walk Region of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. They will face the No. 14 seed Middle Tennessee in the first round, looking to advance to the Round of 32 for the first time since 2018.

With the selection, Tennessee becomes the only team in history to make the Tournament in all 39 years of its existence, and Kellie Harper becomes just the second woman’s coach in history to lead four different schools to the NCAA Tournament. She also did so at Western Carolina, NC State and Missouri State.

MTSU presents an interesting test for the Lady Vols. The Lady Riders are coached by Rick Insell, who is the program’s all-time winningest. His team is led in scoring by the former Lady Vol Anastasia Hayes, who averages 26.5 points per game.

MTSU brings one of the nation’s better offenses, averaging 74.5 points per game at 40% shooting, and nine three-pointers made per game. The Lady Riders are solid on defense, and force a lot of turnovers, which should challenge Tennessee. Altogether, Middle Tennessee finished 17-7 in the regular season and 12-4 in its conference.

“They are well-coached. They always have terrific game plans,” Harper said on MTSU. “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.”

Middle Tennessee dropped its first three games of the season, but then turned a corner, winning 12 of its next 14 games. The Lady Riders slid to a 2-2 regular-season finish, before bouncing back and locking an NCAA bid by winning the C-USA Tournament.

Tennessee will take on Middle Tennessee Sunday at 2 p.m. ET in Austin, Texas. The game will be broadcast on ABC.

The Lady Vols are favored to win this matchup, and should they advance, their road will only get more challenging. In the Round of 32, they would play the winner of the No. 6 seed Michigan and the No. 11 seed Florida Gulf Coast.

No. 6 Michigan finished the regular season at 14-5, before falling in the first round of the Big 10 Tournament to Northwestern.

No. 11 FGCU went 26-2 in the 2020-21 regular season and won the ASUN Tournament as the top seed, blowing past Liberty in the championship game.

Should Tennessee make the Sweet Sixteen or beyond, things would get very interesting. UConn, Baylor and Kentucky round out the top-4 seeds in the River Walk Region, and the Lady Vols could very well see any one of those teams.

UConn (Big East) and Baylor (Big 12) both won their respective conferences, as well as their conference tournaments. Kentucky finished fifth in the SEC standings and lost in the SEC quarterfinals, but did split the season series with Tennessee.

Each one of these teams boasts superstar players. Nearly all of UConn’s starters could be mentioned, but Paige Bueckers, the Big East Player and Freshman of the Year, was arguably the best player in women’s college basketball in 2021. Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith was the Big 12 Player of the Year and is a finalist for the Wooden Award. Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard was last year’s SEC Player of the Year and is a Wooden Finalist this season.

“There are so many talented players out there,” Harper said. “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.”

Despite all the superstars in their region, the Lady Vols remain confident in their ability to compete with anyone.

“Every team has great players,” senior forward Rennia Davis said. “I'm not in particular too focused on any team, any superstar. We have superstars on this team, in my opinion, so it's going to be all about match-ups to me. We're going to get out there and just play our game regardless of who we're playing.”

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