KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Isabelle Harrison scored 12 points and sparked a game-changing 12-0 run as No. 1 seed Tennessee withstood an ailing head coach and a lethargic first-half performance to beat Northwestern State 70-46 in its NCAA tournament opener.
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick missed the Lady Vols’ morning shootaround with what school officials described as a case of food poisoning. Warlick rejoined the team for the game, but she had an IV port in her left hand during the first half and sat on an orange stool 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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