Lady Vols set for rematch with Virginia Tech in Sweet 16

AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee's Sara Puckett (1) shoots over Toledo's Khera Goss in an NCAA tournament second-round game Monday night in Knoxville.

SEATTLE — Reaching the Sweet 16 is old hat for Geno Auriemma and the University of Connecticut women's basketball program. They've done it in a record 29 consecutive NCAA tournaments.

Because of all the Huskies have gone through this season with injuries and illnesses to both players and coaches, this one was more special for Auriemma, who has been at the helm for all 11 national championships won by the program — as well as last year's runner-up finish to South Carolina, UConn's first loss in an NCAA final.

The 2022-23 Huskies have already proven plenty to their coach.

"Everything was a struggle. Everything was hard," Auriemma said. "And for us to be in the position that we're in — to go to the same place where so many other UConn teams have gone, yet having gone through so much more than I think any other UConn team has had to go through — I was really proud of them. Because I've been through a lot of these, but they haven't."

Unlike the Seattle 4 Region, where only one of the top four seeds made it this far, all four of the higher seeds advanced in the Seattle 3 Region.

UConn (31-5), the No. 2 seed in Seattle 3, will try to secure the 28th Elite Eight appearance in program history when it faces No. 3 seed Ohio State (27-7) at 4 p.m. Saturday on ABC. The region's second semifinal of the day, set for 6:30 on ESPN2, has No. 4 seed Tennessee (25-11) — the Lady Volunteers' eight NCAA titles trail only the Huskies — taking on No. 1 seed Virginia Tech (29-4), which is making its first appearance in the second weekend of the tournament since 1999.

The winners will meet Monday night with a trip to the Final Four in Dallas on the line. UConn is trying to extend its record streak of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances.

While the Huskies have the longest active streak of Sweet 16 appearances, no team has reached this stage of March Madness more than Tennessee. This is the Lady Vols' 36th appearance in the regional semifinals — the most for any men's or women's program.

And no team has played better in the opening two rounds of this tourney than Tennessee, which won each of its first two games by at least 45 points (95-50 against No. 13 seed Saint Louis; 94-47 against No. 12 seed Toledo). The only other school to do that is UConn, which did it three times — and went on to win the national championship twice in those years.

The Lady Vols began with a top-five national ranking but faced an extremely challenging schedule. They struggled early but have played much better lately, with the standout senior duo of Jordan Horston and Rickea Jackson getting plenty of support from a deep roster.

Tennessee avenged a regular-season loss when it beat higher-seeded LSU in the Southeastern Conference tournament semifinals and competed well against South Carolina before the undefeated Gamecocks pulled away with a third-quarter run.

The Lady Vols have faced plenty of the teams that made this year's NCAA field, including all three of their fellow Seattle 3 semifinalists. They lost 87-75 to Ohio State in the season opener on Nov. 8, lost 59-56 to Virginia Tech on Dec. 4 and lost 84-67 to UConn on Jan. 26.

"I think our growth throughout the season has been positive," Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. "I think we have learned how to play better together. I think our defense has improved. I think our rebounding has improved throughout the course of the season. I think the grit and toughness that we had in the SEC tournament, and especially in that semifinal game, really gave us the opportunity to get that big win."

As for Virginia Tech, it has been a record-setting season.

Coach Kenny Brooks' team won the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and reached the Sweet 16, two goals the Hokies had at the start of the season. They've won 29 games to break the school record for most in a season that was set by the 1998-99 squad that had been the most recent to go this far in March Madness.

Going farther will require posting a second win against the Lady Vols.

Said Brooks: "We know we have an extremely tough opponent in Tennessee."