Six minutes and thirty-four seconds. That’s how long it took Saturday for Gonzaga’s 17-point lead to turn from another glorious upset into one of the biggest NCAA tournament comebacks in Tennessee history.
The No. 2 seed Lady Vols used intense pressure and 21-of-22 shooting from the free throw line to will themselves into overtime and then pull out a 73-69 victory over No. 11 seed Gonzaga in a Spokane regional semifinal.
“Tennessee did a great job tonight, and obviously they deserved to win the game,” coach Lisa Fortier said. “But it’s a tough way to end your season with people … that I love so much.”
The Zags became the upset darlings of the tournament, taking down No. 6 seed George Washington and No. 3 seed Oregon State. It earned them a right to play in front of 8,686 fans at the Arena who mostly cheered their every move.
Against the storied Lady Vols, who have eight titles to their name, the Bulldogs again followed the script and beat Tennessee or played them even in virtually every facet of the game.
“Gonzaga was just absolutely … awesome,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “It was a battle. This is the biggest victory for me and absolutely in the tournament.”
It was a game that had it all. Gonzaga players fueled the crowd by making huge shots and playing intense defense that took Tennessee out of its game.
But the Lady Vols started pressuring the dribble in the second half and forced Gonzaga turnovers that allowed Tennessee to begin its march to the Elite Eight and a matchup Monday against No. 1 seed Maryland.
“Programs like Tennessee don’t fade away,” Fortier said. “They know who they play for and they know the team on the front of their jersey.”
The game started like pair of prize fighters trading blows. Behind 50 percent shooting and 12 points from senior Keani Albanez, the teams traded leads four times before Gonzaga built a nine point lead with 6:07 before the half.
But Tennessee then went on a 17-8 run, capped by Ariel Massengale’s 3-pointer just before the half, to tie the game at 34.
At the beginning of the second half, Gonzaga’s Sunny Greinacher hit a jumper that started a 23-6 run that put Gonzaga up 17 points with 6:34 remaining in regulation.
In addition to the pressure, Warlick challenged her players to start driving into the lane. Cierra Burdick and Bashara Graves both converted three-point plays and the Zags began missing shots.
After Tennessee took the lead 62-61, Gonzaga’s Emma Wolfram hit a huge layup to tie the game. Tennessee had a chance to win it but Elle Tinkle blocked Grave’s final attempt and the game went to overtime.
Tennessee never made another field goal but hit 10 free throws as Gonzaga’s magic finally ran out.
Greinacher led all scorers with 24 points and she had 11 rebounds to lead the Zags. Greinacher also had four steals and a block. Albanez scored 20 points and five assists. Emma Wolfram scored eight points, grabbed seven rebounds and had four blocks.
Tinkle had seven points and seven rebounds and Shelby Cheslek also had seven points and six rebounds for the Zags, who shot 45.8 percent from the floor. The teams both had 43 rebounds.
Gonzaga (26-8) outscored the Lady Vols 34-20 in the paint and 18-8 in second-chance points.
“That’s good enough to win the game,” Fortier said. “We shot the ball great. But if you can’t get stops, then it doesn’t really matter.”
Tennessee’s Cierra Burdick, a senior forward, led the Lady Vols with 22 points and 15 rebounds. Massengale scored 15 and Jamie Nared and Jordan Reynolds both scored 12 for Tennessee (30-5), which shot only 32.4 percent for the game.
“I give a lot of credit to Gonzaga because their inside game is unbelieveable,” Burdick said. “They’re tough. We had to draw fouls late to win this basketball game and our free throws are what saved us.”
Fortier said she appreciated the lift the crowd gave her team.
“I love our crowd. I love our city,” she said. “The way Spokane supports us … is unparralled.”
The tough loss brought to an end the storied careers of Greinacher and Albanez.
“Looking back on this year, it started out rough,” Albanez said. “If you told me that I would be here in the Sweet 16 and in overtime, I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s been a great ride.”
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