KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee is starting to look a lot more like the dominating Lady Vols of old, especially after a second straight rout to open the NCAA Tournament.
Reserves Sara Puckett and Jillian Hollingshead led five Lady Vols in double figures with 13 points apiece as fourth-seeded Tennessee dominated No. 12 seed Toledo 94-47 Monday night to advance to their second straight Sweet 16 in the Seattle 3 Regional.
This is the first time since 2015 and 2016 that Tennessee (25-11) has reached consecutive Sweet 16s and the first in coach Kellie Harper’s fourth season. The Lady Vols now have reached the Sweet 16 for the 36th time — most for any men’s or women’s team — as the only program to play in all 41 NCAA Tournaments.
“We’re so excited to be going back to the Sweet 16, and I’m really proud of our team and how we’ve played in these first two games,” Harper said. “I think we’ve played really well from top to bottom, our starters and our bench.”
Puckett was 5-of-7, making all three of her 3s. Rickea Jackson and Jasmine Powell each added 12, and Jordan Horston had 10 points and eight rebounds. The Lady Vols were 11-of-21 from 3 (52.4%), one made 3 away from matching their season high. Seven different players made at least one 3.
Yet the Lady Vols smothered the quick Rockets, holding them to 29% shooting (18 of 62). Harper said defense set the tone.
“To me, the bigger growth is the defensive end and our attention to detail defensively, our aggressiveness, our focus and and really just the belief,” Harper said. “And that’s where we can win games.”
Toledo (29-5) snapped a program record 17-game winning streak and missed out on its first Sweet 16. The Rockets lost for the first time since Jan. 18 at Bowling Green, which was avenged in the Mid-American Conference Tournament championship for their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2017.
Rockets coach Tricia Cullop said Tennessee’s size, athleticism and length is tough to prepare for in one day. She said they also needed the Lady Vols not to shoot well from 3 because of the size disadvantage.
“That didn’t work out so well,” Cullop said. “They were very hot from 3, which made it very difficult for us to match up, because we needed the double team in order to match up on the post.”
Quinesha Lockett led Toledo with 19 points.
“We really just tried our best to pack it in the paint, and once we did that they was hitting 3s, so really nothing we could do about that,” Lockett said.
Tennessee never trailed and improved to 30-3 all-time in the second round and 24-1 on the court named for the late Pat Summitt.
The Lady Vols, who won at least 25 games for a 38th season, scored the first three points. Toledo got within 5-4 on a Lockett layup. Then Tennessee took control and led 19-8 after the first quarter.
Karoline Striplin knocked down a pair of 3s within the first 50 seconds of the second, and Tennessee hit 6-of-8 beyond the arc in the quarter. The last came from Puckett with 41.7 seconds remaining for their biggest lead yet at 50-21 before going into halftime up 50-22.
“We knew what we needed to come in here and do, and we did exactly that,” Puckett said. “We’re not going to let our foot off the gas. That’s a big confidence boost for the team, but also me personally.”
The Lady Vols led 72-40 going into the fourth. Then they outscored Toledo 22-7 to finish, not allowing the Rockets to score even a single bucket over the final 6:11.
Toledo: The Rockets head home still looking for the program’s first Sweet 16 berth. They are 4-9 all-time in NCAA Tournament play, Cullop will have her leading scorer back in Lockett along with four juniors, including starters Khera Goss, Sammi Mikonowicz and Jessica Cook. … The Rockets had hoped to use their speed to counter Tennessee’s height but were outscored 17-4 on the fast break.
Tennessee: The Lady Vols have locked down on defense in the first two games. They held Saint Louis to 50 points in the first round, the fewest they had allowed in this tournament since giving up 46 to Northwestern State on March 22, 2014. Then nearly matched that tournament low in this game as they dominated across the court.
According to ESPN, this is just the fourth time a team has won each of its first two games in the tournament by 45 points each. UConn did it in 2001, 2010 and 2016, winning the national title in 2010 and 2016.
With this win, the Lady Vols joined the men who will play in the East Regional on Thursday night in New York. It’s the seventh time in school history both the women and men have reached the regional semifinals and first since 2016.
“I will say that right now is a lot of excitement on Rocky Top obviously with our men in the Sweet 16 as well,” Harper said. “It’s just a lot of fun, great vibes.”
The Lady Vols get a rematch in the Sweet 16. They lost 59-56 on Dec. 4 to then-No. 9 Virginia Tech as part of the Jimmy V Women’s Classic in Knoxville without forward Rickea Jackson. That also was center Tamari Key’s last game before blood clots ended her season.
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
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