Lady Vols escape Belmont for 1st Sweet 16 berth since 2016

Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper celebrates with Sara Puckett (1) after Tennessee beat Belmont in a women's college basketball game in the second round of the NCAA tournament Monday, March 21, 2022, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper celebrates with Sara Puckett (1) after Tennessee beat Belmont in a women's college basketball game in the second round of the NCAA tournament Monday, March 21, 2022, in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

KNOXVILLE - Sara Puckett hit a 3-pointer with 17.5 seconds left to put Tennessee ahead to stay as the fourth-seeded Lady Vols held off neighbor Belmont 70-67 on Monday night to advance to their first Sweet 16 since 2016.

The Lady Vols (25-8) improved to 23-1 on their home floor in the second round of a women's NCAA tournament they've played in all 40. They earned the program's 29th Sweet 16 berth and will meet top-seeded Louisville on Saturday in the regional semifinal in Wichita, Kansas.

Tennessee had to scrap for this win after blowing a 14-point lead in the third quarter to lead only 48-46 going into the final quarter. The Lady Vols scored the first four of the final quarter for a 52-46 lead.

The Bruins went up 61-60 on Madison Bartley's layup with 4:07 left. Tennessee tied it at 64 on a jumper by Alexus Dye with 2:39 left. Bartley put Belmont ahead 66-64 with another layup with 2:23 remaining.

Jamilyn Kinney, who attempted only seven free throws all season, missed both tries with 25.7 seconds left. After a Tennessee timeout, the Lady Vols got the ball to Puckett in the left corner, and she hit nothing but net.

Tamari Key hit three of four free throws for Tennessee inside the final 10 seconds. Bruins guard Tuti Jones hit her first free throw with 3.8 seconds remaining, missed the second. Destinee Wells had a final chance to force overtime, but her long 3 hit off the backboard above the rim before the buzzer.

Alexus Dye led Tennessee with 20 points and 11 rebounds, her fourth straight double-double. Key finished with 18 points, and Puckett had 12 with the clinching 3 her only 3-point attempt of the game.

Belmont (23-8) wanted to take advantage of being so close to home as only three programs all-time with a winning record against the Lady Vols. They snapped a 13-game winning streak trying to join Quinnipiac in 2017 and San Francisco in 1996 as the only 12 seeds to reach a regional semifinal.

Wells led Belmont scoring 11 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter. Jones had 17, and Bartley 16.

The Lady Vols led 19-13 at the end of the first quarter and outscored Belmont 16-10 in the second for a 35-23 lead at halftime. Tennessee appeared ready to coast until the Bruins' furious comeback.

BIG PICTURE

Belmont: The Bruins take quite the resume to the Missouri Valley Conference on July 1 with seven NCAA Tournament appearances and back-to-back berths in the second round. The Bruins are only the second program to win back-to-back NCAA Tournament games in consecutive seasons as a 12 seed or lower, joining Middle Tennessee who did it in 2004 and 2005.

Tennessee: Now coach Kellie Harper has her first Sweet 16 berth with a roster where none of the Lady Vols have ever played in a regional semifinal. There further they go, the odds increase leading scorer and rebounder Jordan Horston might return from a broken left elbow that sidelined her in mid-February.