The No. 3 seed Tennessee women’s basketball team is headed to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018. The Lady Vols blew out Middle Tennessee 87-62 in the first round, and will face the No. 6 seed Michigan, who defeated Florida Gulf Coast.
Middle Tennessee kept the game close for the first half. The Lady Raiders hit six three-pointers and were led by Anastasia Hayes’ 16 first half-points. The Lady Vols did not necessarily have a bad start, they did score 39 points on 40% shooting, they just could not contain Hayes.
Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper rallied her team at halftime, and they came out on fire. The Lady Vols opened the second half with a 10-2 run, and outscored Middle Tennessee 48-23 the rest of the way.
“We didn’t make a lot of adjustments, we just got better at our game plan,” Harper said on the improvement between halves. “We set the tone in the third quarter about how we were going to guard. I thought that was the biggest change from the first half.”
Tennessee went with a zone defense in the second half, and limited the looks Hayes and the rest of the MTSU offense got, especially from deep. The Lady Raiders made just four shots from three-point range in second half.
“I thought the second half, we were able to contain better,” Rennia Davis said. “Just making a team like that put the ball on the floor, that's much better for us than giving them wide open three’s.”
Once again, Davis and Rae Burrell led Tennessee in scoring. Davis totaled 24 and 14 rebounds, the 39th double-double of her career, while Burrell scored 22. Tamari Key and Kasi Kushkituah both reached double figures, with 13 and 10 respectively. Additionally, the Jordan’s filled up the stat sheet. Jordan Walker scored nine and grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds, and Jordan Horston totaled six points, six boards, six assists, three steals and two blocks.
As a team, the Lady Vols outperformed MTSU is nearly every category. They outrebounded the Lady Raiders 56-21, scored more points in the paint (48-26) and second chance points (21-6), and shot 52.4% from the field compared to MTSU’s 33.8%.
The Wolverines enter Tuesday’s contest after a dominating performance of their own, snapping Florida Gulf Coast’s 25-game win streak with an 87-66 win.
Junior Leigha Brown paced Michigan with 28 points. Junior Naz Hillmon, the Big 10 Player of the Year, recorded a double-double of 14 points and 13 rebounds. Akienreh Johnson also totaled a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. Hailey Brown rounded out the double figure scoring with 10 points, all in the first half.
Michigan shot 53.6% from the field and made a season-high eight three-pointers. If the Wolverines could really challenge Tennessee if they can hit three’s at that same pace. The Lady Vols struggled to contain the deep shot against Hayes and MTSU, so that will definitely be an area they address before Tuesday.
Like Tennessee, Michigan used an impressive second half to seal the win. It lead FGCU 38-36 at halftime, but outscored the Eagles 49-30 in the second half. Brown pulled a Rennia Davis, and dropped 24 of her 28 points in the second half.
Davis accomplished a similar feat twice this season, scoring 24 and 26 points in the second half against South Carolina and Mizzou, respectively. While it’s definitely impressive and makes for good television, it’s not a strategy either team would prefer to use.
Regardless, Michigan ended the fourth quarter on a 23-5 run, en route to the dominating win over FGCU.
The Wolverines’ only weak spot was that they forced just 11 turnovers versus Florida Gulf. As a team they only average 12.7 opponent turnovers per game. That number would be an excellent goal for the Lady Vols to aim for, so look for them to capitalize on a team that won’t pressure them to control the ball.
Tennessee will not have as much of a size advantage over Michigan as it did against MTSU. The Wolverines’ shortest starter is Danielle Rouch at 5-foot-8, the same size as Walker. The rest of their starters are 6-foot-0 or taller. The Lady Vols will have lots of success if they can still control the paint against a bigger team like Michigan.
Tennessee won’t have much time to watch a lot of film and prepare for Michigan. The Lady Vols have to rely on their confidence in themselves and their abilities, of which there is no shortage.
“We just got to continue to play our game,” Davis said after the MTSU game. “Like I said defense and rebounding. I haven’t watched (Michigan) play, but I’m pretty sure we’ll go ahead and get some scouting done tonight, and we’ll start watching today. I’m excited again. It’s just another task at hand, something we just got to handle whatever’s thrown our way.”
The Lady Vols have the opportunity to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2016, before seniors Davis and Kushkituah were in Knoxville.
The first ever matchup between Tennessee and Michigan will be played Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET at the Alamodome in San Antonio and will be broadcast on ESPN2.