The No. 3 seed Tennessee women’s basketball team had its season ended in a heartbreaking way, falling 70-55 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to the No. 6 seed Michigan.
The Lady Vols were projected to finish sixth in the SEC in the preseason polls, and ultimately exceeded expectations in Kellie Harper’s second season in Knoxville. They had lofty aspirations for a postseason run, but fell victim to a fierce Michigan team.
Here are three takeaways from Tennessee’s loss.
First half struggles
Tennessee has played with fire all year by starting games as poorly as it has. And in the most important game of the year, the Lady Vols got burned, putting together their worst offensive half of the season. They scored just 19 points in the first two quarters, including a seven-point second, which was their lowest point total in a quarter this season.
Michigan’s defense smothered everything Tennessee tried to do offensively. The paint was a non-factor for the Lady Vols, and they were forced to shoot in the field, where they made 25.8% of their shots in the half.
Rennia Davis and Rae Burrell, Tennessee’s reliable duo who’ve accounted for over half of the Lady Vols’ offense this year, combined for just four points on 2-11 shooting.
“I think the shots we missed in the first half kind of got to us a little bit as a team,” Davis said. “They did what they needed to do on defense, and I just feel like, for us, we just weren’t as patient as we needed to be on offense, especially in the first half. I don’t feel like we got the looks we really wanted to get in the first half. But it happens, it just wasn’t out night.”
Kasi Kushkituah and Jordan Horston each made two baskets. Tamari Key was the only bright spot in Tennessee’s first half, totaling seven points and eight rebounds.
Michigan’s size controlled the game
Tennessee did not have its usual height advantage against Michigan like its had in almost every other game this season. On an even playing field, Michigan took away the Lady Vols’ post presence. The Wolverines packed the lanes, and Tennessee couldn’t dominate inside as its accustomed to.
Tennessee scored 32 points in the paint, which was the same as Michigan. The Lady Vols have been so reliant on running their offense through the paint, that when a team was finally able to match them inside, they couldn’t handle the pressure.
At the post position, Key finished with seven points and nine rebounds, adding only one board after the first half, and Kushkituah totaled 10 points and five rebounds. Davis and Burrell, who normally score a good amount in the paint, were held in check as well.
The Wolverines’ man defense had Tennessee reeling. No doubt frustrated from the lack of paint success and the missed shots from the field, the Lady Vols began to rush even the easy layups, and missed 17 of those shots.
“I think a lot of those had to do with their size,” Harper said on the missed layups. “I think just being as big as we were in most positions, but very physical, I thought that affected us. It probably affected us around the basket. And then you miss a few and start pressing a little bit.”
While Tennessee struggled to get anything on offense, Michigan shot its way to an impressive lead, as large as 19 points in the third quarter. The Wolverines’ 38.3% from the field is not eye-popping but was serviceable, as the most crucial blows came from the free-throw line and from deep.
Like Tennessee, Michigan was not a great team from three-point range, with Hailey Brown, a 35% shooter from beyond the arc, its best threat. She continued her three-point success tonight, going 4-6 from deep to lead the Wolverines. Brown’s four made three-pointers were a single game high for her this year.
Meanwhile, Tennessee went 2-14 from deep, as Burrell and Jordan Walker each made one.
Michigan also shot 81.8% from the charity stripe, and used the extra opportunities to put the game away. Leigha Brown, the game’s leading scorer, was a perfect 11-11 from the charity stripe, though most of those attempts came late, as Tennessee was fouling to stop the clock.
“Offensively, I thought they were patient and found opportunities to move the ball and get good looks,” Harper said.
With the loss, Tennessee fell just short of advancing to its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2016.