Belmont hungry for more vs. Lady Vols with Sweet 16 on line

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A visit to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame drove home to the Belmont Bruins what the Tennessee Lady Vols mean, especially in March.

The chance for Belmont’s first Sweet 16 appearance makes it much easier to focus on the task at hand rather than the opponent’s history.

“I know we’re not going to be scared of these guys,” Belmont coach Bart Brooks said. “We’re going to come out and come out swinging.”

The 12th-seeded Bruins (23-7) play fourth-seeded and 18th-ranked Tennessee (24-8) in the second round on Monday night. The winner of this in-state showdown will play top-seeded Louisville, a 68-59 winner Sunday night over Gonzaga, on Saturday in Wichita, Kansas.

Belmont comes in confident after winning its second straight NCAA Tournament opener Saturday night, knocking off fifth-seeded Oregon in double overtime. The former NAIA program that is leaving the Ohio Valley Conference for the Missouri Valley on July 1 is 2-6 in the tournament.

The Bruins are 6-4 all-time against Tennessee, though only one came when Belmont was a Division I program. Tennessee won the last meeting, 84-76, on Dec. 30, 2018.

The NCAA Tournament has never been held without Tennessee in the field.

The Lady Vols’ gaudy pedigree features eight national championships and more NCAA Tournament games both played and won than any other program. The Lady Vols will be trying to earn their 35th regional semifinal berth and first since 2016.

Nobody on Tennessee’s current roster has played in a Sweet 16. These Lady Vols kept the program a perfect 24-0 in the first round, beating Buffalo on Saturday.

Tennessee is 22-1 at home in the second round, the loss coming in 2018, the last time the Lady Vols hosted.

“I’ve never passed the first round, actually,” said Tennessee forward Alexus Dye, a graduate transfer from Troy. “And I’m pretty sure my teammates would love and cherish this memory forever if we were able to make it to Sweet 16.”

Belmont became the first Ohio Valley Conference program to win an NCAA Tournament game in March 2021, upsetting 14th-ranked Gonzaga in the Texas tournament bubble. Then the Bruins lost to fourth-seeded Indiana.

All five Belmont starters are back from that team, and Brooks lined up a tough nonconference schedule to test them. The Bruins beat Mississippi and visited Louisville, Georgia Tech and Arkansas while hosting Auburn.

“They’ve played a tough schedule,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “They made a run last year. And this is a very experienced basketball team, and they’re going to come out and fight and do what they do and what they do has been pretty good.”

Belmont can shoot 3s. It ranked 20th nationally with an average of 8.4 a game, and the Bruins knocked down 12 against Oregon, a program record in the NCAA Tournament. Sophomore guard Destinee Wells, the Bruins’ leading scorer, is from Lakeland, Tennessee, and knows the Lady Vols’ history.

“I’m so happy to be here, can’t wait to play in front of that huge crowd, on this big stage,” Wells said. “I mean, it’s going to be amazing.”

Tennessee’s biggest strength is rebounding and defense. The Lady Vols rank second nationally averaging 47.9 rebounds during the season, and they’re fourth nationally allowing 34% shooting.

This hasn’t been the season Tennessee hoped for, not with injuries knocking out Marta Suarez before the season opened. Key reserve Keyen Green tore an ACL in January, and the Lady Vols have been without leading scorer and rebounder Jordan Horston since the middle of February.

A win Monday night might give Horston a chance to return in Wichita as she recovers from a broken left elbow.

The Lady Vols have to advance first.

“There’s no doubt that there are some of those players over there that are very motivated to play their in-state team,” Harper said of the Bruins. “To me, it could be a little bit more than just playing in the NCAA Tournament. And so I think they’ll be inspired and ready to go.”

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More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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