Tennessee loses in NCAAs for first time at home
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Oregon State coach Scott Rueck had insulated himself from much of the media coverage leading into the women’s NCAA Tournament.
But struggling to sleep at 2 a.m. Sunday morning before Oregon State faced Tennessee in the second round, Rueck stumbled upon an ESPN preview article.
He noticed a nugget about the Lady Vols having never lost at home in the NCAA Tournament and thought, “How often in life do you have a chance to do something for the first time?”
After informing his team at shoot-around about their shot at history, the Beavers went out and added another chapter to their renaissance.
Senior Marie Gulich had 14 points and 12 rebounds to lead sixth-seeded Oregon State to its third straight regional semifinal appearance with a 66-59 win over third-seeded Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“We had an opportunity to do something today that is really special and that is a first,” Rueck said. “So when the clock was ticking down right at the very end and we knew we had it, I just couldn’t hardly believe how far this team has come.”
Rueck can say the same for his program. The one-time Pac-12 Conference doormat has become a perennial contender with expectations to make deep tournament runs and share the stage with tradition-rich Tennessee.
The Lady Vols had been 57-0 at home in NCAA play with most of those victories coming under late Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt, who led the team to eight national championships. It’s the second straight season that Tennessee lost in the second round of the NCAAs and will miss the Sweet 16 in back-to-back seasons for the first time in the program’s 37-year tournament history.
Tennessee (24-8) and OSU (25-7) played an intense game befitting of two teams separated by only one spot in the AP poll entering the tournament.
Tennessee’s swarming pressure defense flustered OSU early, forcing turnovers and contested shots. The national leader in 3-point field goal percentage, OSU started 1 for 7 from behind the 3-point line in the first half.
The Lady Vols went on an 11-2 run in the first quarter, punctuated by a Jaime Nared 3-pointer, to take a 17-7 lead. But OSU switched to a zone defense in the second quarter that slowed UT’s offense and began hitting shots on the other end to claw back.
The Beavers embarked on a 13-2 run to take their first lead on two free throws by Kat Tudor with 2:44 remaining in the half. Rennia Davis hit a deep 3-pointer to send Tennessee into halftime with a 26-24 advantage.
“I think it just made us stagnate,” UT senior Mercedes Russell said of OSU’s zone defense. “We were standing around on the perimeter a lot, not really passing and cutting and moving the defense, which we should have. We didn’t really make them work defensively.”
The teams battled through a physical third quarter, with OSU attacking the basket and drawing fouls to end the quarter on an 11-2 run for a 44-39 advantage.
OSU grabbed two offensive rebounds to keep a possession alive to start the final quarter, and Mikayla Pivec capitalized with a 3-pointer to set the tone.
The Beavers gradually built their lead to as large as 13 points. Tennessee made a desperate attempt to rally in the final minutes, but OSU managed to keep the Lady Vols at bay and beat Tennessee for the first time in five attempts.
After the final buzzer, the Beavers celebrated on the court as their small contingent of fans behind the bench cheered.
Senior Mercedes Russell finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds in the final game of her Tennessee career. Fellow senior Nared scored nine points on 3 of 14 shooting.
Having started the season as a young team in rebuilding mode, OSU has matured into another Sweet 16 squad ready to carry on the legacy.
“It’s amazing to see this program grow. I’ve been a Beaver fan since I was a little girl, and once Scott got here it just got better and better,” said McWilliams, a junior. “I am so happy to be able to play for this team and that we are making this Sweet 16 run again.”
Tennessee: Although second-round exits won’t satisfy the Tennessee fan base, the future should be bright. The Lady Vols lose senior cornerstones Russell and Nared, but they started two freshmen (Davis and Evina Westbrook), had a freshman named SEC Sixth Woman of the Year (Anastasia Hayes) and have signed the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation. The only other time the Lady Vols failed to reach the Sweet 16 was 2009.
Oregon State: The Beavers were not an average No. 6 seed, and proved it. The switch to a zone defense in the second quarter changed the game for the Beavers and contained a Tennessee team that thrives on uptempo offense.
TESTS KEEP COMING
Oregon State hasn’t just been studying its NCAA opponents this weekend. The Beavers are scheduled to take finals next week before heading to Lexington. Pivec, a Bio-Health Science major with a 3.98 GPA, has finals in Health, Psychology 202, Physics and Organic Chemistry.
OSU advances to the Sweet 16 to play No. 2 Baylor or No. 7 Michigan in Lexington, Kentucky.