TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Phoenix nearly rose here in the Valley of the Sun. And Tennessee almost ended an up-and-down season on a very big down Friday. But when they needed it most, the Lady Vols got a few huge plays and prevailed 59-53.
Green Bay, the No. 10 seed in the Sioux Falls Region, was trying to upset No. 7 seed Tennessee on the home court of Arizona State. Only once before in program history have the Lady Vols fallen in the NCAA tournament's first round; as a No. 5 seed, Tennessee lost to No. 12 Ball State in 2009.
In both that season and this one, the Lady Vols struggled to establish consistency all year; still, the 2009 loss was a big shock. Friday, it would not have been such a surprise -- not if you've watched Tennessee this season and know Green Bay's history of being a big threat to giants.
And for a lot of the game, the Lady Vols looked like the team that suffered dispiriting losses to LSU and Alabama at the end of the regular season.
But there was a key difference: Even when things weren't going well for Tennessee -- which was much of the game -- the Lady Vols were able to keep their composure. And make just enough key baskets to prevail.
How the game was won: It really came down to performing at crunch time -- something the Lady Vols haven't done that well all season. But on this day, when they needed it most, they did. Tennessee was able to get some huge stops, and the offensive execution that had given Green Bay the chance at the upset faded a bit down the stretch.
Player of the game: Tennessee freshman Te'a Cooper finished with 15 points. She came off the bench and provided the Lady Vols some needed calm and offensive poise. She fouled out with 38.2 seconds left, but had done enough to get Tennessee through to the second round. "I thought she was the key for them, especially in the fourth quarter," Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth said.
Turning point: Bashaara Graves' layup with 3:09 left put the Lady Vols up 52-49; it was just her second basket of the game. Then after an empty Green Bay possession, Cooper made a jump shot for a 54-49 Lady Vols edge that they did not give up.
X factor: Tennessee went to a zone defense in the closing minutes, and that ended up being effective. Earlier in the game, the Phoenix got the ball inside pretty well, but missed far too many shots inside.
Stat of the game: Green Bay was just 3-of-17 from 3-point range. The Phoenix weren't a great 3-point shooting team this season -- they came in at 32.8 percent from long range -- but being that cold from the outside was deadly.
What's next: Tennessee will face the winner of Friday's second game between the No. 2 seed Sun Devils and No. 15 New Mexico State on Sunday here in Tempe.