KNOXVILLE — The Tennessee women's basketball team avoided an embarrassing home loss because its biggest weakness became a strength for at least one game.
The ninth-ranked Lady Volunteers made 13 straight free throws during a 22-0 run in the third quarter Wednesday as they rallied for a 65-55 victory over Stetson. Tennessee erased a 20-point deficit to produce the second-biggest comeback in school history.
Tennessee (7-0) ended up shooting 25-of-30 from the foul line. The Lady Vols had made just 58.9 percent of their free throws this season before Wednesday.
"What has been our Achilles' heel was one of the best things we did today," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said.
Her team needed that accuracy from the line to survive a surprisingly strong challenge from Stetson, an Atlantic Sun program with just one win this season — against Webber International, an NAIA school.
Stetson (1-7) was ahead 42-22 before a 3-pointer from Rennia Davis capped the 22-0 spurt that gave the Lady Vols their first lead with 2:43 left in the third quarter. The game was tied at 46 before another Davis basket put Tennessee ahead for good with 7:21 remaining.
Tennessee's only bigger comeback occurred in January 2009, when the Lady Vols rallied from 23 points down to beat Rutgers 55-51.
"In the second half, they came out more aggressive, and that was the end of it," Stetson guard McKenna Beach said.
Davis had 24 points and nine rebounds to spark the rally, while Evina Westbrook added 20 points. They shot a combined 20-of-21 from the foul line.
Sarah Sagerer scored 19 points and Addi Walters had 17 for Stetson. Walters scored 13 points in the first quarter.
Tennessee started the night lethargic and looked increasingly flustered as Stetson grabbed a 38-22 halftime lead. The Lady Vols had no answers for a patient Stetson offense that used up most of the shot clock on each possession.
Stetson went on a 14-0 run that lasted more than 5 1/2 minutes midway through the first half. Tennessee didn't make its first basket of the second quarter until Davis hit a layup on a fast break with 3:07 left in the half.
"We just came in with low energy," Westbrook said. "We weren't there defensively especially. Kudos to them, to the other team. They played their butts off the first half, but we shut them down in the second half. We just can't start like that."
The Hatters shot 8-of-28 overall and 1-for-10 from 3-point range in the second half after going 15-of-29 overall and 4-of-9 from beyond the arc in the first half.
Walters didn't blame the second-half struggles on fatigue, saying instead that the Lady Vols "really amped up their pressure, and we kind of spooked a little bit."
The Lady Vols have made a habit of slow starts and fast finishes this season, most notably when they rallied from 12 down to beat the University of Alabama at Birmingham in overtime. But they can't afford to continue this pattern as their schedule gets tougher in the coming weeks — they return to competition with Sunday's game at No. 12 Texas (7-1).
Tennessee played a second straight game without injured starting center Kasiyahna Kushkituah, and her absence was evident in the first half as Stetson continually drove into the lane. Warlick described Kushkituah's status as day to day after the game.