KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee coach Holly Warlick was so sick Saturday morning that she initially feared she wouldn’t be able to coach the top-seeded Lady Vols in their NCAA tournament opener.
What she saw in the first half likely turned her stomach even more.
Tennessee, the No. 1 seed in the Louisville Regional, was tied with No. 16 seed Northwestern State early in the second half before pulling away for a 70-46 victory. The Lady Vols (28-5) won despite scoring just four points and making no baskets in the last eight minutes of the first half.
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Warlick said she came down with a stomach illness at about 2 a.m. Doctors visited her home to give her IV treatments. Warlick said she attempted to get another IV treatment at halftime, but ”I wasn’t still enough to finish the deal.”
”At 9 this morning, I didn’t think I was coming to the game,” said Warlick, who indicated she’s missed only two games for health reasons in her 29-year career as a head coach and assistant.
Warlick missed the team’s morning shootaround. She joined her team for the game and sat on an orange stool during the first half while assistant coach Kyra Elzy stood and shouted instructions. Warlick stood throughout the second half and was much more animated as Tennessee gradually pulled away for its 14th win in its last 15 games.
”That was my choice, to sit in the first half,” Warlick said. ”I was still a little lightheaded. And then, I just couldn’t sit there any longer.”
Northwestern State (21-13), trying to become the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed since Harvard stunned Stanford in 1998, forced a 22-22 tie early in the second half before the Lady Vols (28-5) scored 12 straight points to seize control.
After shooting just 22.6 percent (7 of 31) in the first half, Tennessee shot 58.1 percent (18 of 31) the rest of the way.
Isabelle Harrison, Meighan Simmons and Mercedes Russell each scored 12 points for Tennessee, which utilized its prohibitive size advantage to outrebound Northwestern State 47-27. Trudy Armstead had 12 points and Beatrice Attura had 11 for Northwestern State.
”We didn’t try to focus on what other people thought was a mismatch,” Armstead said. ”We just tried to come out and compete as much as possible.”
Tennessee, the only team to reach the tournament every year since the NCAA started running the event in 1982, improved its record in NCAA tournament home games to 53-0.
The only time the Lady Vols haven’t advanced beyond the second round of the tournament was 2009, when they fell to Ball State in a first-round game. But the Lady Vols will have to play better than they did in the first half of Saturday’s game to assure they get past the second round this year.
After making five of their first six shots to grab an 11-2 lead, the Lady Vols went 2 of 25 the rest of the first half and were clinging to a 22-20 lead at the intermission. Tennessee made just two baskets in the last 16 minutes of the first half. The Lady Vols had no baskets and four total points in the final eight minutes of the half.
”We went away from our defensive assignments and we might have gotten comfortable,” Harrison said. ”That just shows from not playing for two weeks. We’ve just got to get back to that rhythm of having a sense of urgency for the full 40 minutes.”
This continued a recent pattern of slow starts by Tennessee. The Lady Vols won the Southeastern Conference tournament title only after erasing double-digit deficits in each of their three games.
Northwestern State never led Saturday, but the Lady Demons did tie the game 22-22 on a basket from 5-foot-2 guard Janelle Perez with 18:43 left. Tennessee responded with its 12-0 run and never trailed again.
Cierra Burdick started the spurt by sinking a jumper with 18:18 remaining. Harrison scored six points later in the run as Tennessee held Northwestern State scoreless for nearly five minutes.
”To be down just two at halftime, it was a great feeling,” Armstead said. ”But Tennessee’s run in the second half sort of deflated us, and we couldn’t seem to shake back from it.”
The Lady Vols were wearing white uniforms with neon orange lettering for the first time this season. The Tennessee men’s team had worn similar uniforms for its regular-season finale against Missouri and for an SEC tournament victory over South Carolina this season.