KNOXVILLE — Tennessee coach Pat Summitt hopes her deep bench equals a long run in the NCAA tournament.
All 13 Lady Volunteers played before halftime and all of them scored by the final buzzer Saturday during a 99-34 win over Stetson in the opening round of the Dayton region.
“Depth is a real factor for us,” Summitt said. “To have the depth that we have to keep people fresh, move people in and out and not have to deal with fatigue is really special. This team is very special.”
Top-seeded Tennessee (32-2) has its sights set on a return to the Final Four after two seasons of frustration in the tournament, and the 16th-seeded Hatters were little more than a warm-up act. The Lady Vols will face eighth-seeded Marquette or ninth-seeded Texas on Monday.
The Lady Vols have scored an average 23.6 points more than their opponents this season and previously had their best offensive game of the year in a 90-65 win against Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship. They hit a school-record 16 3-pointers and shot 70.4 percent in the second half in that game.
Still, Summitt had been unhappy with her team’s defensive and rebounding efforts in the SEC tournament. After two weeks of grueling practices, the Lady Vols out-rebounded the Hatters 63-31 and limited them to just 18.2 percent shooting.
The two-week layoff between tournaments didn’t seem to slow Tennessee, either, as it shot 55.7 percent and hit eight 3s against the Hatters. Glory Johnson had 14 points and 10 rebounds, Shekinna Stricklen scored 15 points, Angie Bjorklund had 13 and Alyssia Brewer added 10.
“I wouldn’t choose to play them, honestly, but the committee didn’t give us much choice,” Stetson coach Lynn Bria said. “Our next goal is to get a higher seed and have a chance to advance in the NCAA tournament.”
Stetson managed to hit a few early shots to keep up with Tennessee, which led 10-9 with 15:13 left in the first half. The Lady Vols’ size and shooting became too much for the Hatters, though, and a 23-0 run put the game away early.
The Hatters (20-13) hit no field goals and only five free throws during an 11:11 stretch before halftime. Tennessee shot 57.9 percent and had a 34-13 rebounding margin at the break.
Tierra Brown, Victoria McGowan and Natasha Graboski each scored seven points for the Hatters (20-13), who shot just 21.2 percent in the first half.
“I couldn’t wish for anything better my senior year,” Graboski said. “I went out with a bang. I couldn’t ask for anything more to be conference champions and make it to the NCAA.”
Stetson went through a 15:37 scoring drought in the second half as Tennessee expanded its lead on nearly every trip down the floor. The drought ended when McGowan hit one final layup with 29 seconds left to play.
The Lady Vols nearly tied their largest margin of victory in a first-round game, which came during an NCAA-record 111-37 victory over North Carolina A&T in 1994.
Atlantic Sun tournament champion Stetson had surprised a lot of fans just by reaching the NCAA tournament for the second time in program history. The Hatters had been picked to finish 10th of 11 in the conference, and needed a 55-foot shot from McGowan at the buzzer for a 69-50 victory over Belmont in the A-Sun semifinals.
By contrast, Tennessee has played in all 30 NCAA tournaments. The Lady Vols’ only defeat in the first or second rounds came two seasons ago at the hands of Ball State, a loss that has stuck with them for two seasons.
“We just have to go out there and play hard, never underestimate our opponent and continue to play together,” Tennessee point guard Meighan Simmons said.