AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — For two quarters, Middle Tennessee looked quick enough and bold enough to make a historic upset bid.
Tennessee’s size, speed and depth squashed any hope of that in a dominant second half.
Rennia Davis scored 24 points and grabbed 14 rebounds and the No. 3 seed Lady Vols shut the door on No. 14 Middle Tennessee, using a muscular third quarter to pull away for an 87-62 victory Sunday in the first round of the women’s NCAA Tournament.
MTSU (17-8) and guard Anastasia Hayes looked like they could pull off a shocker early on when they were tied with the Lady Vols (17-7) at 39 at halftime. But their bid to become the first No. 14 seed to win an NCAA Tournament game was worn down against Tennessee’s superior size and length.
“We just wanted to come out today and make a statement,” Davis said. “There was so much talk about upset today for us and obviously we see all of that stuff. So we just wanted to come out today, play our game especially in the second half, I think we were able to do that.”
Hayes, one of the most dynamic scorers in the country, had 16 points in the first half before Tennessee dominated the third quarter on both ends. Tennessee outscored MTSU 23-10 and held the speedy and shifty guard to just a pair of free throws in the period.
Rae Burrell scored 22 points and Jordan Walker had nine points and 14 rebounds for Tennessee, which outrebounded MTSU 56-21.
Hayes finished with 26 points but Middle Tennessee’s early push against one of the bluebloods of women’s basketball eventually wilted.
“Our kids are fighting and battling and pushing,” MTSU coach Rick Insell said. “It’s a tough situation on our smaller kids. We battled all the way through.”
The teams raced through a blistering first quarter, when Tennessee made 10 of 19 shots but started trading baskets with Hayes, who scored nine in the period and got MTSU to within 21-18. She drew Tennessee defenders on probing drives before kicking out to Blue Raider shooters for 3-pointers. MTSU made four in the second quarter.
Tennessee’s length and size began choking off those drives in the third and a quick 8-1 run opened up a lead for the Lady Vols. MTSU went more than three minutes without a field goal.
Burrell’s floating jumper and a putback from Walker after her own missed free throw put Tennessee ahead 56-44 and in control. The lead grew from there as Tennessee snatched any rebound it wanted.
“We didn’t make a lot of adjustments, we just got better at our game plan,” Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper said. “I think we set the tone in the third quarter about how we were going to guard … I thought our big lineup was really good for us. We went extended minutes with that in the third quarter.”
Hayes, a junior, started her career at Tennessee and averaged 9.3 points per game before transferring after her freshman season. She was part of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class with the Lady Vols. She was the C-USA player of the year this season. She shot 9 of 25 on Sunday.
“I stayed grounded. I treated this game just like any other game,” Hayes said. “We let them get on our offense. We stopped rebounding. We stopped fighting.
Harper won three national titles as player with the Lady Vols from 1996-98 and on Sunday earned her first NCAA Tournament win at her alma mater. Harper is in her second season at Tennessee and is just the fourth coach to lead four teams to the tournament. She led Missouri State to the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed in 2019.
Harper noted her first tournament win as Tennessee coach came in a year of disruptions amid the coronavirus pandemic that canceled last season’s tournament.