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NCAA Tournament: Lady Vols hold off Belmont, advance to Sweet 16 to face Louisville

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Calvin Mattheis/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Tennessee Lady Vols were looking for their first berth in the Sweet 16 since 2016, and they found it tonight inside of Thompson-Boling Arena.

But they certainly had to work hard for it.

An 11-11 game was broken open by a quick 6-0 run by Tennessee to close the first quarter, which ended with a 19-13 Tennessee lead. Freshman Sara Puckett led the way early on, finding three buckets and a free throw for seven quick points off of the bench.

The Lady Vols doubled their lead in the second quarter, finding offensive production from the frontcourt. Alexus Dye had eight points at halftime and Tamari Key had six, adding to Puckett’s hot start.

Tennessee’s length on defense made things difficult on Belmont early, which loves to shoot the three. The Bruins went just 4-16 from deep in the first half, leading to a 35-23 advantage for the Lady Vols at the break.

Tuti Jones kept Belmont breathing in the third quarter, however. The Bruins closed the gap thanks to Jones’ efforts, which powered an 11-1 run to cut the lead down to 44-40.

Kellie Harper had seen enough, calling timeout with under four minutes to play in the third. Kaiya Wynn stopped the bleeding, and then Tennessee forced a turnover at the other end. They couldn’t capitalize on the error though, and Jones drilled a three at the other end.

Belmont grabbed three offensive rebounds on the next possession, and Destinee Wells capped off an and-one to tie this game at 46. The Lady Vols were lost offensively, and Belmont was locked in and active on defense.

Sara Puckett regained the lead for Tennessee at the end of the third, and Rae Burrell extended it to open the fourth. Tamari Key added another. Very quickly, the Lady Vols had settled down and found their groove again in the paint.

But Belmont kept hitting three after three. They quickly erased another deficit, as Wells hit two and Jones hit another.

The Bruins took the lead at 57-56 with six minutes to play.

After trading buckets a few times, Wells put Belmont up three points with a layup in traffic. Tennessee was officially in deep trouble.

Alexus Dye would not go quietly, however. She scored eight straight points for Tennessee, including getting the bucket to tie the game back at 64. Belmont immediately answered though, as the Lady Vols were really struggling defensively.

The Belmont lead was two points with under a minute to play, and Tennessee finally got the stop they needed.

And then Jordan Walker missed from three, and Rae Burrell missed the putback.

Tennessee was forced to foul to extend the game, and Belmont’s Jamilyn Kinney missed both. The Lady Vols were alive with 24 seconds left, down 66-64.

And Freshman Sara Puckett drilled a three from the corner. After all of Tennessee’s success inside, Puckett connected from deep to give the Lady Vols a 67-66 lead with 17 seconds to play.

Tennessee forced a turnover at the other end, and now Belmont was forced to foul. Tamari Key made both, giving the Lady Vols a three point lead with 9.7 seconds to play. Tennessee fouled unintentionally, but it ended up working out.

Belmont hit one to make it a 69-67 game, then intentionally missed the second. Only problem was that the ball didn’t hit the rim. They would foul Key again, who made one of two.

Belmont’s prayer at the buzzer wasn’t answered — Tennessee survived.

Final score: Tennessee 70, Belmont 67

The Lady Vols advance to the Sweet 16 to take on No. 1 seed Louisville. That game is set for Saturday in Wichita.