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The Tennessee Lady Vols made coach Kellie Harper a winner in her first NCAA Tournament game on their home court coaching her alma mater.
Alexus Dye scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds as fourth-seeded Tennessee held off No. 13 seed Buffalo 80-67 Saturday afternoon to remain perfect opening an NCAA Tournament at home.
“All wins are good wins, especially when you get to the NCAA Tournament,” Harper said.
Tennessee (24-8) improved to 24-0 in the first round at home, though the Lady Vols’ first game here since 2018 was much tighter than any of the orange-clad fans wanted. They will play 12th-seeded Belmont, a double overtime winner over No. 5 seed Oregon, Monday for a berth in the Wichita Region semifinal.
Senior Rae Burrell scored 15 after halftime, including nine in the third quarter helping Tennessee to a 57-51 lead going into the final quarter. Then the Lady Vols sealed the victory outscoring Buffalo 12-3 to open the fourth, including 10 straight.
The Lady Vols had a very good feeling when Sara Puckett’s lone 3 in the third bounced off the backboard and front rim before falling in.
“That’s the luck of playing at home, first round of the NCAA Tournament, being able to host,” Tamari Key said. “I feel like the basketball gods were just in our favor today.”
Key’s putback gave Tennessee its biggest lead at 73-58 with 5:09 left. Key finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Burrell finished with 19 points, and Jordan Walker added 13.
Buffalo (25-9) snapped a nine-game winning streak overall and a two-game streak in the first round of this tournament. Bulls coach Felisha Legette-Jack called it a fun and wonderful game to be on ABC nationally.
“We weren’t going to relent and neither was Tennessee,” Legette-Jack said. “The fight was tremendous all the way to the last seven to eight minutes of the game. At the end of the day, that size really wore us down a little bit.”
Bulls junior guard Dyaisha Fair, the nation’s fourth-leading scorer, topped her scoring average with 25 points. But she was held to five in the fourth quarter. She hit a 3-pointer with 9:32 left. Georgia Woolley added 15 points and seven steals.
“I know this team can compete with any team in the country, and we showed that,” Fair said.
The Lady Vols opened the game scoring the first eight points. Fair got Buffalo going and keyed a 7-0 spurt with five points. Woolley, a couple steps behind the arc, gave the Bulls their first lead of the game and after the first quarter at 17-15 with a 3 that bounced off the rim a couple times before falling through at the buzzer.
Woolley then hit another 3 to open the second, giving the Bulls their biggest lead at 20-17. Tennessee responded with eight straight capped by a Dye jumper to take a 23-20 lead. The Bulls missed seven of their final eight shots and led 32-30 at halftime.
Buffalo: The Bulls used the 3-pointer well in the first quarter, knocking down 3 of 5 for a team that averages 5.7 made per game. They wound up making nine 3s, but they shot only 5 of 18 in the fourth quarter.
Tennessee: The Lady Vols came in second in the country averaging 47.9 boards per game, and they bettered that with a 52-37 edge on the boards. But they struggled yet again holding onto the ball with 19 turnovers. Buffalo turned that into 19 points. The Lady Vols shot 55.6% in the second half and had a 40-26 edge scoring in the paint.
Buffalo: Possibly a coaching search this offseason. Legette-Jack is a top candidate with her alma mater Syracuse looking for a new coach, a program where her jersey is retired. Legette-Jack said she was absolutely focused on the Bulls.
“I told them there would never be a conversation about any other school until we finish the job here, and we’re still not finished. We haven’t celebrated here yet. I’m here with Buffalo and Buffalo is my job,” Legette-Jack said.
Tennessee: Another win puts the Lady Vols closer to a potential return from leading scorer and rebounder Jordan Horston, though they likely need to advance to the regional semifinal for that to be a chance.