Five Observations: (3) Lady Vols 87, (14) Middle Tennessee State 62

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    Three-seed Tennessee beat 12-seed Middle Tennessee State 87-62 on Sunday behind a dominant second half performance to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Lady Vols will now face 6-seed Michigan on Tuesday after securing Kellie Harper’s first postseason win as head coach.

    “Before the game I told them that this was a long time coming,” Harper said following the game. “It was fun. I wanted our players to go out and enjoy the moment because obviously last year you see how quickly these can be taken away.”

    Senior forward Rennia Davis scored a team-high 24 points as she led a group of four Lady Vols in double-figures. Junior guard Rae Burrell chipped in 22 points, while sophomore forward Tamari Key scored 13 points. Senior center Kasiyahna Kushkituah nearly recorded a double-double with 10 points and eight rebounds.

    Former Lady Vol Anastasia Hayes scored a game-high 26 points to lead Middle Tennessee State. Hayes transferred following her freshman season (2017-18) on Rocky Top under former head coach Holly Warlick. Her sister, Aislynn Hayes, was the only other Blue Raider in double-figures with 15 points.

    The Lady Vols dominated the glass. They out-rebounded Middle Tennessee, 56-21, turning those into 21 second-chance points. On the season, UT is out-rebounding opponents by an average of 45.8 rebounds to 32.3. The 56-rebound total was UT’s second highest of the season and marked the seventh time this year the Lady Vols had eclipsed 50 boards in a game. The 35-board margin was a season high.

    Dominant Second Half

    Not only did the Lady Vols dominate the glass, they dominated the second half. Tennessee and Middle Tennessee State were tied at 39-all at halftime because of 16 points from Anastasia Hayes in the opening half. The Blue Raiders lit up from three over the first 20 minutes as well, shooting 6-for-17 from beyond the arc.

    “It’s another one of those games where we didn’t make a lot of adjustments, we just got better at our gameplan,” Harper said. “We set the tone in the third quarter about how we were going to guard. I though that was the biggest change from the first half.

    “I thought our big lineup was really good for us. We went extended minutes with that in the third quarter. Kasi (Kushkituah) and Tamari (Key) both did a really good job defensively and I thought our transition game was good. We got stops and converted those on the other end.”

    Middle Tennessee did not have near the success in the second half that it did the opening half, however. The Lady Vols ratcheted up the defense during the halftime break and held the Blue Raiders to just 23 points over the final 20 minutes. MTSU shot just 4-for-16 from three and just 25.8% from the field.

    Dynamic Duo Leads the Way

    Davis and Burrell were simply tremendous throughout the game just as they’ve been all season long. Davis recorded yet another double-double in the midst of scoring a team-high 24 points, as she also pulled down rebounds. It was her 10th double-double this year and the 39th of her career. Her new total of 943 career rebounds surpasses Shyra Ely (940) to land her at 10th all-time among Lady Vols. She also moved up the leader board in scoring, passing Sheila Frost (1,790) to rank ninth all-time with 1,803 career points.

    Davis has now recorded double-doubles in three of her four appearances in NCAA Tournament games. She is averaging 17.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in games played in the NCAA Tournament.

    “These are two dynamic players,” Harper said. “They’ve been really good for us all season long. Two of the best guards — you’ve got a pretty good combo there. I thought they played really well downhill in the second half. A lot of that had to do with us getting stops and getting out in transition.”

    Burrell chipped in an efficient 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting as they combined for 46 points, 16 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks.

    Jordan and Jordan

    Davis and Burrell weren’t the only two great duos on Sunday. Jordan Walker and Jordan Horston were huge in the win over MTSU. Walker nearly recorded a double-double with nine points and 14 rebounds despite standing at just 5-foot-8.

    “Jordan Walker is competitive and she is tough-nosed,” Harper said. “She plays hard and she’s a really good rebounder. A lot of that is just effort. Somebody forgot to tell her she’s not as big as some of these other players, but she doesn’t care. She’ll stick her nose in it. I thought she made a lot of really good hustle plays for us.”

    Horston only had six points, but had six rebounds, six assists, three steals and two blocks.

    “I think they actually play well together because we can move them around a bit,” Harper said. “Jordan Horston makes a lot of plays with the basketball in transition, she’s always looking to pass and find teammates. They’re a good combination and they’re both very competitive.”

    Freshman Steps Up

    Starting forward Marta Suarez is sidelined with an ankle injury and as a result, true freshman Tess Darby has been called upon to fill the minutes lost. In trying to replace Suarez, Darby has worked at small forward of late. Darby scored three points and grabbed two rebounds in 13 minutes off the bench against MTSU.

    “Tess has done a really good job in the last couple of weeks of playing that position for us,” Harper said. “We felt like this was a game where she could contribute. I thought she did some really good things. I thought defensively she was really solid and made a lot of plays. She communicates well, which in turn, she’s an easy player to play with when she’s out on the court. And the obviously she spreads the defense out.”

    Survive and Advance

    Next up for the Lady Vols is 6-seed Michigan, who defeated 11-seed Florida Gulf Coast 87-66 on Sunday. The two teams will play on Tuesday. Time, location and television network are to be determined.

    “We’ll handle our business and take care of what we can take care of and we’ll figure it out,” Harper said. “We’re not going anywhere.”