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Tennessee is headed back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2016, defeating instate rival Belmont, 70-67, Monday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Things looked dire for the Lady Vols late as Belmont led for much of the back half of the fourth quarter including a two-point lead while at the free throw line with 25 seconds left. Kinney missed both free throws and Tennessee capitalized with freshman Sara Puckett drilling a corner three to take the lead with 18 seconds to play.
Sara Puckett’s corner triple proved to be the difference. 12 points dns five rebounds from the freshmen.
— Rocky Top Insider (@rockytopinsider) March 22, 2022
“Going through this, I was open and the ball was coming to me,” Puckett said. “I knew I was going to knock down the shot. I knew everybody on the bench and everybody on that court had every ounce of confidence in me. They always tell me that. So as soon as I got it, I knew what I was going to do with it.”
Puckett has been a major piece of Tennessee’s team this season and she — as well as a handful of other freshmen — came up big for the Lady Vols Monday night.
Puckett was one of three Lady Vols to score in double-figures tallying 12 points to go along with five rebounds. Fellow freshmen guards Kaiya Wynn and Brooklynn Miles also gave Tennessee tough minutes, combining for 25 minutes, six points and 10 rebounds.
“I’ll tell you what, they’ve hung in there,” Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper said. “Some of them had minutes throughout the year. Some of them had minutes late. And they’re really taking advantage of their opportunities when they get them. I’m telling you, they put so much time in outside of our practice. It’s the culture here right now, but it is so strong with those freshmen. They’re so excited. I mean, they are — they have so much energy. They’re thrilled to continue to play. I’m thrilled to continue to coach them.”
Their defensive energy helped Tennessee open up a 12-point halftime lead. Belmont didn’t go away, however, matching its 23 first half points in the third quarter while cutting the Lady Vols lead to two.
Then in the fourth quarter, the Bruins made three triples in a number of minutes to claim a lead they wouldn’t relinquish until Puckett’s triple.
“I do know obviously in that third quarter they ran down a lot of O-boards, a lot of loose balls and I felt like they capitalized on every one of them,” Harper said. “They got back in it by getting some easy shots, getting some layups, making some threes off of those O-boards. And we were coming down empty a few times. I thought we took a few rust shots. We were a little bit better there in the second half when we were giving our post some touches, but we also had to have some ball movement as well. So for us, we had to find a little bit more movement offensively and then tighten up our defense.”
Belmont had momentum in the game and looked poised to make its first appearance in the Sweet 16 in school history as the Lady Vols struggled to get stops down the stretch.
However, Tennessee kept finding ways to stay in striking distance thanks in large part to eight consecutive points from Alexus Dye. The senior power forward scored a team-high 20 points.
Blowing the first half lead only to hang on a win was a fitting way for the Lady Vols to get past the Round of 32 hump that’s plagued the program in recent years. Tennessee has goe through a myriad of adversity all season, but keeps finding a way to overcome it.
“I think it’s special,” Tamari Key said of this team. “We’ve been saying it all year that this group is just, it’s different. You feel the vibes with us. I feel like even the fans interacting with us, even though you’re not there every day, it’s a different atmosphere with this group. It’s just been really fun to play with each other. I feel like we go to bat for each other every game and every practice. It’s really exciting, but we’re not done yet.”
Tennessee will return to action Saturday when they face No. 1 seed Louiville in the Wichita, Kansas.