LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — It's been an up-and-down season for Tennessee, so it figured the Lady Vols would start their NCAA Tournament run in a similar fashion.
Diamond DeShields scored 24 points to lead fifth-seeded Tennessee to a 66-57 first round victory over Dayton on Saturday.
The Lady Vols (20-11) used a strong second half to pull away from the 12th-seeded Flyers (22-10), shooting 52 percent after halftime to earn the victory. DeShields and Mercedes Russell wouldn't let the Flyers couldn't mount a comeback. They scored 23 of Tennessee's 37 points in the second half to lead the way.
For DeShields, the daughter of former baseball star DeLino DeShields, she said the second half play came from what she learned from watching her father and brother play ball.
"When you're on the big stage, you can't shy away from that," said DeShields, who made 8-of-14 shots.
Tennessee shot 70 percent in the third, with DeShields getting two jumpers 26 seconds apart that gave the Lady Vols a 46-41 lead with 4:09 left. Dayton never got any closer the rest of the way.
"You got to credit her," Dayton coach Shauna Green said. "I thought our defense was good, and we contested (those shots) the way we wanted to contest it. She rises up high, and she made plays."
Dayton started the game miserably. After getting two free throws in the opening 14 seconds to take an early lead, the Flyers made just one of their first 16 shots. That enabled the Lady Vols to take an 18-4 lead after a Schaquilla Nunn layup with 1:33 left in the opening quarter.
But that's when Tennessee went into a cold streak of its own. The Lady Vols made just 4-of-16 shots in the second quarter. The Flyers went on a 9-2 run midway through the period, with Jordan Wilmoth's 3-pointer cutting Tennessee's lead to just 25-22 with 2:21 remaining in the half. They continued chipping away from there, with Lauren Cannatelli's free throws with 16 seconds left tying the game at 29.
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said her team has had moments this season where the team has checked out mentally in games. However, that wasn't the case Saturday.
"I was just pleased with how they played and how they finished the game," she said. "It's a product of how we've been practicing."
Dayton again took the lead in the opening seconds of the third quarter, on an Alex Harris layup. However, the Flyers scored just three points over the last six minutes of the quarter as Tennessee led 51-42 after three.
Russell and Nunn finished with 14 each.
Harris and JaVonna Layfield led the Flyers with 10 points each. Harris also grabbed 14 rebounds.
Dayton: The Flyers entered the tournament among the top teams in the country in shooting defense, but Tennessee was able to use its size, namely the 6-6 Russell and the 6-3 Nunn, to offset the Flyers' post players. Saicha Grant-Allen averaged 10 points and 8.8 rebounds a game, but the 6-5 center finished with just six points and a season-low one rebound. Meanwhile, Nunn pulled down 15 boards, while Russell got 10.
Tennessee: The Lady Vols may not be as powerful as they once were, but they're still hard to beat early in the tournament. With the win Saturday, Tennessee, the only school to make every tournament, is now 29-1 in first round games.
"If I can just get them to act like the tournament's all year round, I'd be in business," Warlick said.
Guards Kelly Austria and Jenna Burdette came into Saturday leading the Flyers in scoring, averaging 12.3 and 12.2 points respectively. While they finished scoring seven and nine, they shot just a combined 7-of-26. Still, that didn't deter Green from giving them the go-ahead to keeping firing.
"If you're a scorer, and you're a shooter and you shoot like we shoot, you keep shooting," she said.
The Volunteers will play host Louisville in the second round on Monday.