The top-seeded Tennessee Lady Vols took care of business in Knoxville's Thompson-Boling Arena on Monday night, keeping their perfect 54-0 in NCAA Tournament home games intact by defeating eighth-seeded St. John’s, 67-51, in the second round. The Lady Vols (29-5) now move on to make their 32nd appearance the Sweet 16 in the 32 years the women's tournament has been held. Tennessee now heads to Louisville where on Sunday the Vols will face the winner of Tuesday night's contest between fourth-seeded Maryland and fifth-seeded Texas, which tips off at 7 p.m. EDT in College Park, Md.
Though St. John’s never held a lead throughout the contest, they managed to keep things close for much of the first 30 minutes. The Red Storm were slow to find their footing, as Tennessee headed out to a 14-5 lead early in the first half. But the Johnnies quickly regrouped, as Amber Thompson, Aliyyah Handford and Danaejah Grant combined to fire off on a 12-1 spurt, bringing St. John's to within a single point, 22-23, with 7:48 remaining in the opening frame.
The Vols answered to regain some separation, but St. John's was now back in the game, keeping things within reach; the intermission saw Tennessee on top, but by just four points, 39-35.
The early going of the second stanza saw some great defensive work by both sides, but little scoring by either. Handford finally broke the ice with a layup, two minutes in, to bring St. John's within two (37-39). A minute later, Tennessee's Cierra Burdick put Handford at the line, where she coolly drained both penalty shots to knot the score at 39. Now we had a ballgame.
The two teams battled tooth-and-nail over the next five minutes, with St. John's still within easy striking distance (41-43) when Handford knocked down a jumper at the 12-minute mark.
The prospect of a tournament loss on a home stage seemed to get the Lady Vols in gear, however. Out of the media timeout, Tennessee launched a 16-2 run over the next six-and-a-half minutes, ballooning the lead to 16 points (59-43) with 5:54 left to play, a lead the Vols stretched to 21 points (67-46) as the game entered its final two minutes.
St. John's showed no quit, despite a score by then so obviously out of reach. The defense battened down to hold Tennessee scoreless over those two final minutes, as Briana Brown drained a three and Grant tacked on two free-throws. Still, it was too little, too late, as all the Red Storm could hope to do at that juncture was make the final margin somewhat more respectable.
Handford, a 5-9, sophomore, led all scorers with 23 points. Jade Walker came off the bench for St. John’s and contributed eight points, but also had a game-high four turnovers.
Burdick led the Vols with a double-double of 21 points and 11 rebounds, while her teammate Meighan Simmons scored 17, making all six of her free throws. Isabelle Harrison also doubled with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Simmons, a senior who has averaged double-digit points all four of her years at Tennessee, left the hardwood of Thompson-Boling Arena, for the final time to a loud ovation from the 5,961 mostly Tennessee fans in attendance, with 1:57 to go and the game well in hand.
For a contest in which, at intervals, so much of the game was being played at the charity stripe, the Red Storm did not shoot free throws well, going 10-19 (52.6 percent) from the line. Tennessee was certain no object lesson in this department, but did take much better of its opportunities from the foul line, knocking down 17 of its 25 (68 percent) of its penalty shots.