Lady Vols escape Belmont for 1st Sweet 16 berth since 2016

Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A freshman got Tennessee back to the Sweet 16 for the first time in six years, returning the Lady Vols to a spot they had been to so many times before in the women’s NCAA Tournament.

Sara Puckett hit a 3-pointer with 17.5 seconds left to put Tennessee ahead to stay as the fourth-seeded Lady Vols held off neighbor Belmont 70-67 on Monday night to advance to their first Sweet 16 since 2016.

“As soon as I got it, I knew what I was going to do with it,” Puckett said of her lone 3-point attempt of the game.

Puckett wasn’t the first option. Her teammates had no doubt about the shot from the player nicknamed Sara Bucketts.

“We all knew as soon as it left her fingertips that it was good,” Lady Vols junior center Tamari Key said.

The Lady Vols (25-8) improved to 23-1 on their home floor in the second round.. They earned the program’s 35th Sweet 16 berth in the 40th women’s NCAA Tournament, and they will meet top-seeded Louisville on Saturday in the regional semifinal in Wichita, Kansas.

Coach Kellie Harper wanted a Tennessee team that has fought through key injuries all season long to get rewarded with more basketball.

“This has been an amazing, amazing journey,” Harper said. “And they have said it all year. They have said this is a special team, and this team can do some special things in March. Here we are.”

Tennessee had to scrap for this win after blowing a 14-point lead in the third quarter to lead only 48-46 going into the final quarter. The Lady Vols scored the first four of the final quarter for a 52-46 lead.

The Bruins went up 61-60 on Madison Bartley’s layup with 4:07 left. Tennessee tied it at 64 on a jumper by Alexus Dye with 2:39 left. Bartley put Belmont ahead 66-64 with another layup with 2:23 remaining.

Jamilyn Kinney, who attempted only seven free throws all season, missed both tries with 25.7 seconds left. After a Tennessee timeout, the Lady Vols got the ball to Puckett in the left corner, and she hit nothing but net.

“They didn’t blink,” Harper said of Tennessee.

Tamari Key hit three of four free throws for Tennessee inside the final 10 seconds. Bruins guard Tuti Jones hit her first free throw with 3.8 seconds remaining, missed the second on purpose. Destinee Wells had a final chance to force overtime, but her long 3 hit off the backboard above the rim before the buzzer.

“Once the buzzer went off, I saw the ball didn’t go through the net. It hurt,” Jones said.

Dye led Tennessee with 20 points and 11 rebounds, her fourth straight double-double. Key finished with 18 points, and Puckett had 12.

Belmont (23-8) wanted to take advantage of being so close to home as only three programs all-time with a winning record against the Lady Vols. They snapped a 13-game winning streak trying to join Quinnipiac in 2017 and San Francisco in 1996 as the only 12 seeds to reach a regional semifinal.

“We proved that we can keep up with anybody, and that’s just plain and simple,” Bartley said of Belmont.

Wells led Belmont scoring 11 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter. Jones had 17, and Bartley 16.

The Lady Vols led 19-13 at the end of the first quarter and outscored Belmont 16-10 in the second for a 35-23 lead at halftime. Tennessee appeared ready to coast until the Bruins’ furious comeback.

BIG PICTURE

Belmont: The Bruins take quite the resume to the Missouri Valley Conference on July 1 with seven NCAA Tournament appearances and back-to-back berths in the second round. The Bruins are only the second program to win back-to-back NCAA Tournament games in consecutive seasons as a 12 seed or lower, joining Middle Tennessee (2004 and 2005).

Tennessee: Now Harper has her second Sweet 16 berth as a coach and first at her alma mater with a roster where none of the Lady Vols have ever played in a regional semifinal. The further they go, the odds increase leading scorer and rebounder Jordan Horston might return from a broken left elbow that sidelined her in mid-February. Harper said it will be fun to find out Horston’s status.

PASSING CANDACE PARKER

Key finished with three blocks and now has the Tennessee career blocks record with 276 in 89 games. She topped the mark of 275 set by Candace Parker in 110 games between 2005-08.

“Any time that you are even mentioned in the same sentence as Candace Parker, you’ve probably done something right,” Harper said.