As the game turned: After leading by only two points over No. 16 seed Northwestern State at halftime the No. 1 seed Lady Vols basketball team came out much stronger in the second half.
Their head coach did too.
"We always kind of feed off of all of our coach's energy," freshman Mercedes Russell said. "We knew she was feeling down, and we knew we needed to finish strong."
After a dreadful first half of shooting the ball by both teams, in which they combined to shoot 15-of-59 (.254), Tennessee went on a 10-2 run that was capped off by Isabelle Harrison's jumper to put the Lady Vols ahead 34-22 with 15:26 left in the game.
Then, it was freshman center Mercedes Russell's turn to take over.
The former No. 1 recruit scored six of her 12 points in a span of just under two minutes as she took full control of the height advantage that Tennessee had over the Lady Demons, who had two players over six feet or taller compared to the Lady Vols' six.
Her second successful 3-point opportunity put her team up by 15 points, and from there on out UT continued its success at the free throw line and prevented the Lady Demons from making any runs.
"The and-one opportunities were great," Russell said. "[Assistant coach] Dean [Lockwood] is always telling me to go up strong and finish the basket even when I get fouled. I've been working on my free throws a lot lately. I struggled a lot on them early on in the season and it's something I've got together now."
In the final eight minutes of regulation, the Lady Vols shot 9-of-10 from the free throw line and missed only one in 18 attempts throughout the game.
"We have struggled from the free throw line throughout the season and I'm glad we only missed one today, it speaks to the hard work we've been putting in," said junior forward Cierra Burdick, who scored eight points and had seven rebounds. "It's all about having confidence. I think we shoot so many in practice that we are finally having that confidence in ourselves when we step up to that line."
Spotlight: For the second time in her last three games, Russell scored in double figures, shooting 5-of-6 from the field and knocking down both of her free throw attempts in 18 minutes of action, which was her largest volume since receiving 20 minutes in a Feb. 23 match up with Missouri.
"She stepped up big," Burdick said. "She's one of our go-to players inside and she did a great job of coming in and making an impact."
Russell, along with sophomore Nia Moore, gave Harrison and forward Bashaara Graves, who finished with a team-high 12 rebounds, the night off through the last 11:39 of the game.
"The more playing time that Mercedes gets, the better that she is getting," Warlick said. "We are going to need her down the stretch.
"I have a lot of confidence in her coming in and helping this basketball team, especially if Isabelle or Bashaara are struggling."
The other guys: Northwestern State's Trudy Armstead finished her career with a strong performance, scoring 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting to go along with six rebounds, a steal and a block.
Outside the box score: The Lady Vols avoided becoming the second team to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. Harvard is the only team to have accomplished that task when they beat top-seeded Stanford in the 1998 NCAA tournament.
Say something: Northwestern State co-head coach Brooke Stoehr on what this game accomplishes for the Lady Demons program: "It certainly won't hurt it. What it does for those kids in our locker room, it tells them when you believe in something and you buy into it, you can do a lot of good things."
By the numbers
58.1%: After shooting 22.6 percent in the first half, the Lady Vols responded by shooting 58.1 percent from the floor in the second half.
94.4%: Tennessee shot 94.4 percent from the free throw line, the best they've posted from the charity stripe all season.
4: Four players had three or more assists for the Lady Vols.
Up next: The Lady Vols will take on St. John's in a second round matchup tonight at 9 p.m. inside Thompson-Boling Arena.