Lady Vols win NCAA tourney opener in rout, face hot Rockets in second round

AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee women's basketball coach Kellie Harper smiles as her players come off the court during a timeout in the second half of Saturday's home win against Saint Louis in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee women's basketball coach Kellie Harper smiles as her players come off the court during a timeout in the second half of Saturday's home win against Saint Louis in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

KNOXVILLE — Jordan Horston spent much of the final quarter cheering from the bench, at one point even waving a towel while rooting on her teammates.

Tennessee women's basketball coach Kellie Harper has a very deep roster in her fourth season in Knoxville, and it helped the Lady Volunteers start their latest NCAA tournament in dominating fashion.

Horston scored a game-high 21 points and fellow senior Rickea Jackson added 18 as the Lady Vols, a No. 4 seed, remained perfect when opening the NCAA tourney on their home court as they routed No. 13 seed Saint Louis 95-50 on Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.

"We did what we were supposed to do, and I think the score's a result of that," said Harper, whose alma mater improved to 6-2 all-time as a No. 4 seed.

The Lady Vols (24-11) improved to 25-0 in first-round games on their home court to reach the second round and a Monday night matchup in Knoxville. They will play 12th-seeded Toledo, which upset No. 5 seed Iowa State 80-73 in Saturday's second game at Thompson-Boling.

The Rockets (29-4), in the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2017, posted their first March Madness victory since 1996 and have won a program-record 17 consecutive games this season.

Jordan Walker added 11 points and Tess Darby had 10 as 13 players scored for the Lady Vols, who have been in the bracket of every NCAA tourney since the beginning in 1982 and are trying to reach the Sweet 16 for the second straight season and 36th time overall.

Horston, who missed the NCAA tourney last year due to injury, added a team-high eight rebounds, matched Karoline Striplin for the team high in assists with four and also grabbed two steals. While Jackson has already announced she will use the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA amid the coronavirus pandemic to return next season, Horston hasn't said whether she will do so or declare for the WNBA draft instead.

Either way, it's clear she wants this season to last as long as possible.

"It's very important to get a win now," Horston said, "because if you don't, you're done."

The first-ever NCAA tourney appearance ended quickly for Saint Louis (17-18). The Billikens were unable to add to the six-game streak that helped them win the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament after starting the season 6-16.

First-year coach Rebecca Tillett said even in the loss she saw her players executing things they had no chance of even 20 games ago because they hadn't been together long enough.

"So just to continue to build on that foundation over and over again is why this team will go down in history," Tillett said.

Brooke Flowers led Saint Louis with 17 points and nine rebounds as she played almost from start to finish, and the fifth-year senior also had five blocks, giving her 398 for her career as she passed former Connecticut Huskies star Rebecca Lobo for 18th in Division I history. Camreé Clegg scored 12 points in 21 minutes off the bench, and Kyla McMakin, who followed Tillett from Longwood as a transfer, added 11 points.

"We'll forever be the first champions, so a wonderful experience," Flowers said.

The Billikens led twice in the first couple of minutes, the last on a McMakin jumper at 4-3. Walker tied it at 4 with a free throw, then finished a fast break with a layup to put the Lady Vols ahead to stay with 6:51 left in the first quarter. Darby added a 3, and Horston's jumper capped an eight-point spurt for Tennessee.

The Lady Vols led by as many as 10 before McMakin banked in a buzzer-beating 3 that pulled Saint Louis within 20-15 at the end of the first quarter. Flowers hit two free throws to pull Saint Louis within 20-17 to start the second.

That's when Tennessee seized control, outscoring Saint Louis 28-9 in the quarter for a 48-24 lead at halftime. The Lady Vols, who led 67-41 at the end of the third, polished off the win by matching the second quarter and outscoring the Billikens 28-9 in the fourth.

That allowed Harper to pull her starters with 6:24 left. Freshman Edie Darby even had four points in less than three minutes, and Horston was not surprised when the younger sister of teammate Tess knocked down a jumper, calling her a "baller."

"I knew that shot was going in when it left her hand," Horston said.

The Lady Vols used their height advantage for a 54-22 edge on points in the paint and 39-28 on rebounds. They also took care of the ball, committing only 10 turnovers and turning the Billikens' 20 — 13 off steals — into 30 points.

Tennessee, the Southeastern Conference tournament runner-up, played 15 teams in this NCAA tournament field while facing the nation's toughest schedule this season. However, they will be playing Toledo for only the second time in program history; the Lady Vols beat the Rockets in December 1985 in a regular-season tournament in Hawaii.