Lady Vols’ comeback falls short in Sweet 16 loss to Louisville

After starting slow, Tennessee cut the lead to two in the fourth quarter before losing its grip on the game.

Rae Burrell (12) of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers during the game against the Louisville Cardinals in the NCAA Tournament. Photo courtesy of Lady Vol Basketball Twitter (@LadyVol_Hoops).

After defeating Buffalo and Belmont in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the Lady Vols’ injury-riddled season ended in a close Sweet 16 matchup.

With leading scorer Jordan Horston, backup center Keyen Green and former SEC All-Freshman Team member Marta Suarez all remaining inactive, fourth-seeded Tennessee fell short to the No. 1 seed Louisville 76-64 in Wichita, Kan. on Saturday.

The game was a story of two halves as Tennessee fell into an early hole of 11 heading into halftime. Tennessee settled for 3-pointers against Louisville’s stifling defense but could not connect in the first half. They shot 1-for-12 on deep balls and a poor 28.6% from the floor. They also struggled to maintain possesion, turning the ball over nine times.

However, a bright spot in the half was freshman Karoline Striplin. In just five minutes of play, she recorded seven points and five rebounds with four of the boards being offensive. She played an important part in keeping Tennessee alive during the team’s first half struggles.

To start the second half, the Cardinals continued their impressive play and took a lead of as much as 12 early in the third quarter. This did not last long, though, as the Lady Vols surged back to close out the frame.

After continuing their improved play into the final period as a part of an 8-0 run, Tennessee found itself down just two with 9:36 to play. However, this did not last long as the Cardinals responded with an 8-0 run of their own. Tennessee continued to attempt to claw back into the game but Louisville had an answer for everything the Lady Vols put up as the Cardinals ran away with the win.

Willing Tennessee back into the game was senior Rae Burrell. Burrell finished the night on 22 points and six rebounds. She turned it up at the end of the game, as well. 15 of her points came in the second half as she refused to let the Lady Vols go down without a fight.

“I’m really happy for her that she could go out on a positive game because when you’re playing and you’re — this is what you’re going to remember,” said Tennessee coach Kellie Harper. “You want it to be something that’s going to make you smile. I’m happy for her that she’ll be able to do that.”

Also helping with the comeback were Jordan Walker and Tess Darby. Walker finished with 10 points and four assists, providing an offensive spark throughout the game. Darby also knocked down three 3-pointers in the third quarter, continually cutting into Louisville’s lead.

This scoring from Burrell, Walker and Darby was necessary as Alexus Dye was forced to sit a majority of the game due to foul trouble. After exploding in the month of March, Dye averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds during the tournament to lead Tennessee into the Sweet 16. However, she was limited to just nine points and eight rebounds in only 14 minutes of play against the Cardinals.

Defensively, Tennessee struggled to contain Louisville’s top-scorers. Hailey Van Lith dominated, finishing with 23 points and six assists. Emily Engstler also had a good night with a double-double performance of 20 points and 10 rebounds. It was this duo along with the rest of the starting lineup who ran the show. The starting five scored 88.2% of the Cardinals’ points.

Although the team’s goals were higher than reaching a Sweet 16, the Lady Vols still accomplished a lot this season. They took home big out-of-conference wins over the likes of Texas, UCF, USF and Virginia Tech while finishing third in the SEC regular season. In the postseason, their Sweet 16 birth was their first since 2016 and their 4-seed was high enough to host the opening two rounds.

“There is a great sense of pride,” said Walker on reaching the Sweet 16. “Only 15 other teams get to be here and get to have this opportunity. So for us to be one after all we have been through this season says a lot about us and who we are and what we do on the court.”

Despite this loss marking the end of Dye, Green and possibly Burrell’s collegiate careers, Tennessee is in a good position going forward. With the landing of highly coveted transfers Rickea Jackson and Jasmine Powell and the commitment of highly ranked recruit Justine Pissott, the Lady Vols will have as much talent as anyone next season.

Photo courtesy of Lady Vol Basketball Twitter (@LadyVol_Hoops).

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Ryan Sylvia is the Sports Editor at TNJN. He is a junior at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville majoring in journalism and electronic media. Although he spent most of his life being raised outside of Philadelphia, he was born in Knoxville, and he is happy to be back home. Ryan has had a love for sports from an early age, and he found his love for writing in high school while taking journalism classes. He hopes to find a job involving both his passions as a sports journalist after graduation. To reach Ryan, email him at rsylvia@vols.utk.edu