Sixth-seeded Oregon State defeated third-seeded Tennessee 66-59 in the second round at Thompson-Boling Arena, where the Lady Vols suffered an NCAA tournament loss for the first time ever.
Tennessee had been 57-0 at home with most of those victories coming under late Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt, who led the program to eight national championships. It’s the second straight season that Tennessee lost in the second round of the NCAAs and will miss the Sweet 16 in back-to-back seasons for the first time in the tournament’s 37-year history.
“You come here wanting to win championships and the expectations are extremely high. Sometimes the things thrown at these kids are unfair,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “They come wanting to learn and get better and just play the game. They get criticized quite a bit.”
Mercedes Russell finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds in the final game of her Tennessee career. Fellow senior Jaime Nared scored nine points on 3-of-14 shooting.
“It’s tough, obviously, my last game as a college athlete. But I’m just blessed and thankful for the journey Jaime and I have been on,” Russell said. “It’s been awesome playing alongside her. I’m super thankful for our coaching staff and our university believing in us.”
Oregon State coach Scott Rueck read an article at 2 a.m. Sunday morning about Tennessee’s unblemished NCAA home record and thought, “How often in life do you have a chance to do something for the first time?”
He informed his players at the shootaround, and the Beavers went out and added another chapter to their renaissance.
Marie Gulich had 14 points and 12 rebounds for Oregon State, which advanced to the regional semifinals for the third straight year.
“We had an opportunity to do something today that is really special and that is a first,” Rueck said. “So when the clock was ticking down right at the very end and we knew we had it, I just couldn’t hardly believe how far this team has come.”
Rueck can say the same for his program. The one-time Pac-12 Conference doormat has become a perennial contender with expectations to make deep tournament runs.
Tennessee (24-8) and Oregon State (25-7) played an intense game befitting of two teams separated by only one spot in the AP poll entering the tournament.
Tennessee’s swarming pressure defense flustered the Beavers early, forcing turnovers and contested shots. The national leader in 3-point field goal percentage, Oregon State started 1-for-7 from 3-point range in the first half.
The Lady Vols went on an 11-2 run in the first quarter, punctuated by a Nared 3-pointer, to take a 17-7 lead. But Oregon State switched to a zone defense in the second quarter that slowed UT’s offense and began hitting shots on the other end to claw back.
The Beavers embarked on a 13-2 run to take their first lead on two free throws by Kat Tudor with 2:44 remaining in the half. Rennia Davis hit a deep 3-pointer to send Tennessee into halftime with a 26-24 advantage.
The teams battled through a physical third quarter, with Oregon State attacking the basket and drawing fouls to end the quarter on an 11-2 run for a 44-39 advantage.
Oregon State grabbed two offensive rebounds to keep a possession alive to start the final quarter, and Mikayla Pivec capitalized with a 3-pointer to set the tone.
The Beavers gradually built as much as a 13-point lead. Tennessee made a desperate attempt to rally in the final minutes, but Oregon State kept the Lady Vols at bay and beat Tennessee for the first time in five attempts.
Tennessee: Although second-round exits won’t satisfy the Tennessee fan base, the future should be bright. The Lady Vols lose senior cornerstones Russell and Nared, but they started two freshmen (Davis and Evina Westbrook), had a freshman named the Southeastern Conference’s Sixth Woman of the Year (Anastasia Hayes) and have signed the No. 3 recruiting class in the nation.
Oregon State: The Beavers were not an average No. 6 seed, and they proved it. The switch to a zone defense in the second quarter changed the game for the Beavers and contained a Tennessee team that thrives on up-tempo offense. Next up for Oregon State is either No. 2 Baylor or No. 7 Michigan in Lexington, Ky.