TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Tennessee flirted with an ugly end to a disappointing season before a freshman led the Lady Vols out of trouble and to another NCAA Tournament victory.
Te’a Cooper scored 15 points on 7-for-11 shooting and Tennessee pulled away in the final six minutes to beat Wisconsin-Green Bay 59-53 in the opening round Friday.
“I was really ready to play,” the 5-foot-8 guard said. “I think I prepared well with coach Holly (Warlick) and with assistant coach Dean (Lockwood) with the scout report and watching film before the game. So I was ready and focused and I was in tune.”
The seventh-seeded Lady Vols (20-13) used a 10-0 run to take control in the final minutes after trailing much of the game. No. 10 seed Green Bay (28-5) went 6:07 without scoring after taking a 49-48 lead with 6:11 to play.
Tennessee improved to 28-1 all-time in first-round NCAA play and advanced to Sunday’s second-round contest against No. 2 seed Arizona State.
Diamond DeShields added 14 points but on 4-of-14 shootings. She scored eight points in the first quarter but was just 1-for-7 after that. Mercedes Russell scored eight points and grabbed 13 rebounds for the Lady Vols.
Allie LeClaire scored 14 points, Kaili Lukan 12 and Jessica Lindstrom 11 for the Phoenix.
Green Bay, the Horizon League regular season and tournament champion, led by as many as eight points in the first half and five in the second.
The bigger Lady Vols finally began to exert control inside and caught the Phoenix at 40-40 on Cooper’s driving layup with 1:50 left in the third quarter.
After that, there were nine lead changes in a 5 1/2-minute span. Lukan’s layup gave Green Bay its final lead, 49-48, then the freshman Cooper sank a jumper with 5:50 to go to put the Lady Vols ahead for good 50-49.
It started a 10-0 run that put the game away for Tennessee. DeShields capped the surge with a pair of free throws that made it 58-49 with 21 seconds to play.
“I think we knew we just had to stay composed no matter what happened,” Russell said, “and then on the defensive end we had to really get big stops every time they came down the court. And then on the offensive side, we just had to convert and execute in our plays.”
The Lady Vols, who finished tied for seventh in the SEC and had their worst NCAA seed in school history, clinched their 40th consecutive 20-win season.
Warlick called it one of Cooper’s best games.
“Our defense, getting up and pressuring, finally made a difference,” the coach said, “and it started with Te’a. And she was aggressive and she played under control. I think during the season at times, she would play a little bit out of control. But high school to college, it is difficult, and I think just right now she’s understanding what she can and can’t do.”
The smaller Phoenix outrebounded Tennessee 40-38 and had a 30-22 advantage in points in the paint. But Green Bay, which relies on long-range shooting for its strength, was just 3-for-17 on 3s. Tesha Buck was 0-for-11 from the field, 0-for-8 on 3-pointers.
“We had really good looks and didn’t make them,” Phoenix coach Kevin Borseth said. “That’s usually what our forte is.”
The Phoenix were up 38-33 after Lindstrom sank two free throws with 5:11 left in the third quarter. But Cooper sank a 15-footer, then converted a three-point play and it was tied at 38-38 with 2:40 left.
There were four lead changes in the final 1:08 of the quarter with Mehryn Kraker’s inside basket with three seconds left giving Green Bay a 45-44 lead entering the final period.
Green Bay guards broke through for layups against the bigger Lady Vols early.
The Phoenix opened the second quarter with an 11-2 run to lead 24-16 on LeClaire’s short bank shot with 5:15 left in the half.
At one point, Green Bay had a 14-2 advantage in points in the paint, but Tennessee finally began to dominate the game inside.
Russell, the Lady Vols’ 6-foot-6 center, had a pair of rebound baskets as the Lady Vols finished the half with an 11-3 surge. Bashaara Graves’ 12-foot jumper with 20 seconds left tied the game at 27-27 at the break.