The Lady Vols advanced to the Round of 32 thanks to a stellar second half performance that propelled them to a 80-67 victory over Buffalo.
“All wins are good wins especially when you get to the NCAA tournament and play a talented team like Buffalo,” head coach Kellie Harper said. “Obviously really excited to be moving on and playing again. We knew we had a tough challenge especially for us on the defensive end. We held them underneath their average and I think that was a huge key to the game. Offensively we weren't always great, but we were tough and hung in there and gave ourselves an opportunity to play again.”
From the jump, the Lady Vols jetted out on a 8-0 run to lead early in the first quarter. The Bulls, however, would go on a run of themselves to cut the lead to 8-0. Buffalo would eventually lead the Lady Vols at the end of the first quarter, 17-15.
The Lady Vols shot poorly in the first quarter, 28.6%, but UT held Buffalo to only 31.8% from the floor.
The poor start could have been attributed to the Lady Vols being off for two weeks since the SEC Tournament, but that’s not what Harper thought about the poor shooting effort to start the matchup.
“Honestly to start the game I didn’t feel like we looked rusty,” Harper said. “We came out pretty aggressive. They made some adjustments and I thought we got a little passive. I thought we were just a little bit on our heels offensively in the first half”
The No. 13 Bulls were upset minded coming into Rocky Top, as they took a five point over the Lady Vols in the second quarter.
The rest of the half was a back and forth affair, before the Lady Vols took a two point lead heading into the locker room.
The Lady Vols needed a spark after only shooting 31.7% in the first half to take control of the ballgame. That spark came from their experienced postseason forward Alexus Dye.
Dye scored a quick 6 points on three attempts to open the period and gain momentum for the Big Orange.
“Snoop (Dye) is a spark for us,” Tamari Key said. “We know that when she goes into the game that she's gonna give it everything she has. Going to the basket, grabbing rebounds. We knew going into the third that she was going to give us that spark that we needed.”
Not only did Dye step up, another senior in Rae Burrell provided some much needed offensive output when the Lady Vols desperately needed buckets.
Burrell poured in 9 points in the quarter on 4-of-6 shooting, including making the first three-pointer for the Lady Vols after missing its first nine attempts.
“My teammates were getting me in good positions and just hitting my shots,” Burrell said on what the difference was for her coming out of the half. “They weren’t falling in the first half. I knew I had to get it up a little bit, because it was either too long or to the left. Just fixing it and my teammates putting me in great positions.”
After a poor shooting performance in the first half, the Lady Vols erupted for 25 points on 64.7% shooting from the floor and also drained two threes on four attempts. The momentum from the third period carried over in the fourth and the Lady Vols took over in the game.
Two minutes into the period, Burrell banged home a three to put the Lady Vols up by double-digits, and they would never relinquish that double-figure lead.
“I was just looking for my shot and I saw an opportunity and I took it,” Burrell said on her three pointer in the fourth quarter. “Then the team did the rest, which was we got stops. We emphasized on the turnovers to get us easy buckets.”
Burrell led UT in scoring with 19 points, shooting 7-of-18 from the floor and 2-of-5 from beyond the arc.
Dye racked up her third straight double-double, dropping 18 points on 6-of-12 shooting from the floor and hauling in 11 boards.
Key joined her fellow teammate in the double-double column, accounting for 16 points and 11 rebounds.
Jordan Walker was the fourth Lady Vols in double-figures, dropping 13 points and she also picked up 7 rebounds and dished out 4 assists.
“She works so hard,” Burrell said of Walker's play. “If there's a loose ball, she's going to jump on the ground for it, but it's nothing new for us because she does it in practice every single day. For us, it helps us keep the composure for the team and also the tempo high just by jumping on the floor.”
The No. 4 seed Lady Vols had a scare with the No. 13 Bulls early, but Harper and her squad prevailed to see another day in March, where they will face the winner of No. 5 Oregon and No. 12 seed Belmont in the Round of 32 on Monday night.
Harper knows her team is just getting started.
“For us, we are just trying to go in there and take care of our business,” Harper said. “There is a lot of pride, but there is pride for us in November, December. We don’t have to wait till March to feel that. I think we were excited to play here. I’m proud of our team for earning this opportunity. Just happy for our team.”
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