AUSTIN, Texas — For two quarters Sunday afternoon, the Middle Tennessee State University women's basketball team looked quick enough and bold enough to make a run at a historic upset in the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee's size, speed and depth shut down any hope of that in a dominant second half.
Rennia Davis scored 24 points and grabbed 14 rebounds as the third-seeded Lady Volunteers slammed the door on the 14th-seeded Lady Blue Raiders, using a muscular third quarter to pull away for an 87-62 victory in the first round of the River Walk Region.
Tennessee now heads to San Antonio — the central location for the entire tournament this year — for a Tuesday matchup against No. 6 Michigan (15-5), which beat Florida Gulf Coast 87-66 on Sunday.
MTSU (17-8) and guard Anastasia Hayes, who started her collegiate career at Tennessee, looked like they could pull off a shocker early on when they were tied with the Lady Vols (17-7) at 39 at halftime of the game played at the Frank Erwin Center on the campus of the University of Texas. But the Lady Raiders' bid to become the first No. 14 seed to win an NCAA women's tournament game was worn down against Tennessee's superior size and length.
"We just wanted to come out today and make a statement," Davis said. "There was so much talk about upset today for us, and obviously we see all of that stuff. So we just wanted to come out today, play our game, especially in the second half, I think we were able to do that."
Hayes, one of the most dynamic scorers in the country, had 16 points in the first half before Tennessee dominated the third quarter on both ends of the court. The Southeastern Conference semifinalists outscored the Lady Raiders 23-10 and held the speedy and shifty guard to a pair of free throws in the period.
Rae Burrell scored 22 points, and Kasiyahna Kushkituah added 10 with eight rebounds and Jordan Walker nine with 14 for the Lady Vols, who outrebounded MTSU 56-21. Tamari Key scored 13 points and blocked three shots.
Hayes finished with 26 points, five assists and three steals to lead her team, but that early bloom against one of the blue bloods of women's basketball eventually wilted. The only other scorer in double figures for MTSU was Aislynn Hayes — the sophomore is Anastasia's sister — with 15 points.
"Our kids are fighting and battling and pushing," MTSU coach Rick Insell said. "It's a tough situation on our smaller kids. We battled all the way through."
The teams raced through a blistering first quarter, when Tennessee shot 10-of-19 but started trading baskets with Hayes, who scored nine in the period and got MTSU to within 21-18. The redshrt junior drew defenders on probing drives before kicking out to shooters for 3-pointers, and MTSU made four in the second quarter.
Tennessee's physical advantage began choking off those drives in the third, and a quick 8-1 run opened up a lead for the Lady Vols as MTSU went more than three minutes without a field goal.
Burrell's floating jumper and a putback from Walker after her own missed free throw put Tennessee ahead 56-44 and in control. The lead grew from there as the Lady Vols snatched any rebound they wanted.
"We didn't make a lot of adjustments, we just got better at our game plan," said Kellie Harper, the former Tennessee point guard who is in her second season as coach at her alma mater and won her first NCAA tourney game in charge. "I think we set the tone in the third quarter about how we were going to guard ... I thought our big lineup was really good for us. We went extended minutes with that in the third quarter."
Hayes averaged 9.3 points per game as a freshman before transferring from Tennessee, where she had been part of the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, to go back home to Murfreesboro. She helped the Lady Raiders win the Conference USA title this season and was the league's player of the year.
"I stayed grounded. I treated this game just like any other game," said Hayes, who shot 9-for-25 against the Lady Vols. "We let them get on our offense. We stopped rebounding. We stopped fighting.
Harper won three national titles as a player with the Lady Vols, who have made all 39 tournaments since the NCAA added a women's event in 1982. Harper previously coached Western Carolina, North Carolina State and Missouri State to NCAA berths, with Missouri State reaching the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed in 2019.
Harper noted her first NCAA tourney win leading the Lady Vols came in a year of disruptions amid the coronavirus pandemic that canceled last season's 64-team event.
"I wanted our players to go out and enjoy the moment," she said. "Because obviously you saw last year how quickly you can have these taken away."