Tennessee eliminates Liberty from NCAA Women’s Tournament

liberty basketballNo. 3 seed Tennessee broke open a close NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship first-round game against No. 14 seed Liberty with a second-half scoring outburst. The Lady Vols’ 64 points after halftime propelled them to a 100-60 victory, Friday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Tennessee (25-7) owned a 36-28 halftime edge after a tightly contested opening 20 minutes. The Lady Vols then shot 80 percent (24-of-30) after the break to blow the game open and advance to a Sunday second-round matchup with No. 6 seed Oregon State.

Liberty’s 2017-18 season ends at 24-10 despite four Lady Flames reaching double figures, paced by sophomores Ola Makurat and Lela Sellers with 13 points apiece. Liberty had qualified for its first NCAA Tournament since 2015 on the strength of its defense and rebounding, but could not slow the Lady Vols down, as Tennessee improved to 57-0 all-time in NCAA Tournament contests in Knoxville.

Liberty had held 17 straight opponents below the 60-point mark prior to Friday, but Tennessee ended that run. The Lady Vols, who saw seven players score in double digits, became the Lady Flames’ first opponent to reach the century mark since Liberty’s 102-58 setback at Tennessee in the 1998 NCAA Tournament.

Tennessee also won the rebounding battle by a 45-29 count, getting double-doubles from Rennia Davis (18 points, 11 rebounds) and Cheridene Green (15 points, 12 rebounds).

The lead changed hands four times during the game’s 6:45, and Liberty led 7-6 on Sellers’ second layup of the early-going. Tennessee then closed the period on a 14-3 run, taking a 20-10 lead through 10 minutes of play.

The Lady Vols turned Liberty’s eight first-quarter turnovers into eight points and limited the Lady Flames to 30.8 percent (4-of-13) from the field during the stanza.

Three-pointers by Sellers and KK Barbour kick-started an 8-2 Liberty run to begin the second quarter. The Lady Flames were within four (22-18) at the 8:16 mark of the second period after Makurat’s hoop.

Tennessee scored six of the next seven points, rebuilding a nine-point advantage (28-19) before a 7-0 Liberty run. Sellers tallied the surge’s final four points, pulling the navy blue-clad Lady Flames within two (28-26) at 4:12.

The Lady Vols closed out the first half with a 6-0 burst, taking a 36-28 lead into the locker room at halftime.

Tennessee, which got 10 first-half points from Green off the bench, tripled up Liberty in points in the paint (24-8) and scored 15 points off the Lady Flames’ 12 first-half turnovers. The home team also shot 10-of-18 from the foul line prior to the intermission, compared with 3-of-5 for Liberty.

Liberty connected on 5-of-11 three-point tries before halftime, compared with 0-of-6 for Tennessee. Sellers hit two of those triples during an 11-point opening half, while Makurat contributed eight points and five rebounds off the bench.

Old-fashioned three-point plays by Anastasia Hayes and Jaime Nared sparked an 11-2 Tennessee run in the third quarter. The surge bolstered the home team’s lead to 53-35 with 6:08 on the clock.

The Lady Vols later closed the period with a 9-0 burst, capping off the highest-scoring quarter (38 points) Liberty has ever allowed with a 74-48 lead. Tennessee shot 81.3 percent (13-of-16) from the field in the third quarter, led by Davis’ 10 points.

Liberty hit 53.3 percent (8-of-15) of its third-quarter field goals, getting seven points apiece from Barbour and Keyen Green.

Evina Westbrook scored eight of Tennessee’s 26 points in the final quarter, including a jumper at 1:32 that enabled the Lady Vols to reach 100 for the game, thrilling the heavily orange crowd of 4,509.

Hosting its first NCAA Tournament contest since 2015, Tennessee shot its highest percentage ever in its 153 all-time NCAA Tournament games, 61.7 (37-of-60). The Lady Vols posted 60 points in the paint and converted 21 Liberty turnovers into 30 points, while halting the Lady Flames’ streak of holding 21 consecutive opponents below 50 percent from the floor.

Liberty finished at 34.8 percent (23-of-66) from the floor and 28.6 percent (6-of-21) at the foul line.

Tennessee got to the foul line 23 more times than Liberty, making 22-of-36 for 61.1 percent. The Lady Flames connected on 61.5 percent (8-of-13) of their foul shots.

Makurat and Sellers not only paced the Lady Flames in the scoring column but were also the visitors’ top two rebounders, with Makurat grabbing seven boards and Sellers five.

Starting posts Barbour and Green ended up with 10 points apiece, with all 10 of Green’s markers coming after halftime. Barbour finished her junior year scoring in double figures in eight straight outings.

Senior Nene Johnson distributed a team-high four assists in her final game as a Lady Flame. Sheana Vega, the lone holdover from the 2015 NCAA Tournament team, also wrapped up her collegiate career on Friday.

Tennessee’s additional double-digit scorers included Westbrook (12 points, game-high six assists), Meme Jackson (11 points), Kasiyahna Kushkituah (10 points), Mercedes Russell (10 points, six rebounds) and Nared (10 points).

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