While Tennessee is left to ponder a rare early exit from the women’s NCAA Tournament and the future of its coach, UCLA remains in the hunt for another trip to the Sweet 16.
The Bruins put a rapid end to Tennessee’s 38th consecutive appearance in the tournament, blunting a second-half comeback bid and using an impressive performance by Michaela Onyenwere to secure an 89-77 opening-round victory Saturday.
After squeezing into the tournament with an at-large bid, the No. 11 seeded Lady Volunteers erased a 17-point deficit before losing in the first round for only the second time in school history. The only other time it happened was in 2009 against Ball State.
Tennessee is the lone program to compete in every NCAA Tournament since the event was first held for women in 1982. The Lady Vols finished 19-13, failing to reach 20 wins for the first time since 1975-76.
“Losing doesn’t feel real good,” said coach Holly Warlick, who signed a three-year extension in August but could end up being forced to take a buyout worth approximately $690,000 if Tennessee chooses to move in another direction.
“It’s out of my control. I love this program, I love what it stands for,” Warlick said. “Do I want to continue coaching? Absolutely. But if it needs to go in a different direction, that’s not up to me.”
While Warlick and the Lady Volunteers headed in the direction of home late Saturday, sixth-seeded UCLA began preparations for a second-round matchup with host Maryland, the No. 3 seed, which advanced with a win over Radford.
With a victory Monday, the Bruins will reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth year in a row.
Onyenwere had 22 points and 15 rebounds to help UCLA survive against Tennessee.
After going up by 16 early in the third quarter, the Bruins fell behind 65-62 with 5 minutes left in the game. It was 70-all with 3:34 remaining before UCLA rattled off 10 straight points.
Onyenwere began the spree with a layup and Kennedy Burke made successive layups before Japreece Dean sank two free throws. A layup by Onyenwere capped the run and made it 80-70 with 1:22 to go.
“I didn’t think we executed our game plan to the level I (wanted),” coach Cori Close said. “We told them it was all going to be about defense. We scored 89, so it shows how much I know. The reality is, we’re going to have to play a little more consistently.”
Especially under their own basket.
“Defense is our anchor,” Onyenwere said. “During the fourth quarter we stayed poised. We realized that we weren’t playing defense as hard as we could. Once we ramped that up, it kind of went in our favor.”
Tennessee’s poor shooting at the foul line — 13 for 25 overall — was also a factor.
Rennia Davis had 21 points and 10 rebounds for the Lady Vols and Kasiyahna Kushkituah added 16.
The Bruins raced to a 25-8 lead and shot 10 of 20 from the field during a 28-point first quarter.
“They could have thrown in the towel the first quarter and they fought,” Warlick said of her players. “We talk about the fight that we have; I was really proud of them to come back and compete and play as hard as they did throughout the game.”
Tennessee went 10 for 30 from the field and had nine turnovers in a first half that ended with UCLA up 44-32.
After Onyenwere scored the first two baskets of the third quarter, the Lady Vols went on a 20-4 run to pull even at 52. Kushkituah and Mimi Collins each scored six points in the surge and Westbrook had five.
Tennessee found the lane open in the fourth quarter and exploited the weary UCLA defense for a variety of layups and short jumpers. But the Bruins made up the difference on the other end during the pivotal 10-0 run.