How sweet it is for Tennessee

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

The three-point shot swished through the net Monday night for Sara Puckett sending Tennessee to the Sweet 16 for the first time in six years, and the freshman, seeing her father crying in the stands, ran to hug him amid a raucous celebration on the court at Thompson-Boling Arena.

No. 4 seed Tennessee, 25-8, overcame a slew of injuries before and during the season to get back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2016 with the 70-67 defeat of No. 12 seed Belmont, 23-8, an in-state program that took out No. 5 seed Oregon on Saturday to reach Monday’s game.

Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper, now in her third season after taking the helm of her alma mater in 2019, became emotional in the post-game press conference as she watched Puckett and Tamari Key answer questions from the media.

Key broke a hallowed record at Tennessee with three blocks against Belmont, giving the junior center 276 swats for her career, which passed the all-time record of 275 held by the legendary Candace Parker. Key reached the record in 89 games, while Parker amassed her total in 110.

“It’s surreal because Candace Parker is just so amazing, as a human being and basketball player as well obviously,” Key said. “So, to be able to do that and get it this season in this game, it makes it a lot more special.”

The win sends Tennessee to the Wichita Region to face Louisville this Saturday in Kansas at 4 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2). Puckett’s three-pointer with 17.5 seconds left ensured that the Lady Vols would get to the program’s 35th Sweet 16 in 40 years. Puckett saw her father, Joey Puckett, in the stands and ran to hug him before leaving the court.

“My dad was in tears,” Puckett said. “I had to go over there because he’s the one that got me into basketball, and to be able to share that moment with him was just – it was just amazing.”

Key sealed the game at the free throw line in the closing seconds and when Belmont’s last-second half-court heave hit the backboard, the celebration erupted.

“I just love this team, and they’ve been so much fun to coach, and I’m so proud of them,” Harper said.

While the Lady Vols historically have been a mainstay in the Sweet 16, the parity in women’s basketball has made it much harder to advance in the NCAA Tournament. Top teams Iowa and Baylor both fell Sunday in second round games on their home court. Tennessee didn’t want to join the list of higher seeds upset at home.

Thanks to the shot of a freshman’s life and the poise of Tennessee down the stretch, the Lady Vols survived and advanced.

“When you really have to fight for something, when it doesn’t come easy, it makes it more special,” Harper said. “And they have fought. They have gone through adversity. They’ve hung together. They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do. I wanted so bad for them to get rewarded with more basketball.”

Maria M. Cornelius joins Knox TN Today Inc. as a new contributor, focused on UT women’s athletics.

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