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ASU Basketball: Sun Devils struggle from deep, fall to 7-seed Tennessee

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ASU's highest-seeding in an NCAA tournament didn't result in its best showing, as the Sun Devils succumbed in the Round of 32 to Tennessee.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

ASU got through the first round of the NCAA tournament thanks to the strength of their three-point shooting and dominance on the boards.

On Sunday, both of those tables were turned back on the Sun Devils as the 7-seed Tennessee Lady Volunteers came into Wells Fargo Arena and led the Sun Devils from start to finish, ending ASU's season with a 75-64 win in the second round of the Women's NCAA Tournament.

"Give them credit, they're pulling it together," ASU head coach Charlie Turner-Thorne said of a Tennessee bunch that was widely seen as a dangerous 7-seed. "Ask any coach, they're the team they didn't want to play. For us, possibly the worst matchup we could have asked for."

The Sun Devils opened the game with the same starting lineup they trotted out for Friday's matchup against New Mexico State, but soon realized that they weren't going to match up well against the Lady Vols' size with that lineup. Tennessee was led early by 6'6" Mercedes Russell,  who was matched up against 6'1" Sophie Brunner early and took total advantage of the size disparity.

The Lady Vols ran their first quarter offense through Russell, and she responded with 12 first half points that forced the Sun Devils into a different gameplan to account for the Lady Vols forward.

"We knew the game was about the boards," Turner-Thorne said. "They ended up plus-six. If we would have been plus six, I think we would have won. We kind of softened our pressure a little bit to keep them in front of us"

After Russell's early domination opened up a lead for Tennessee, 6'4" Quinn Dornstauder was inserted in to account for Russell, and they spent the rest of the night going at each other. Dornstauder played admirably, chipping in 15 points on 6-10 shooting while playing tough defense against Russell, who didn't score in the second half.

ASU's senior guard Arnecia Hawkins led the Sun Devils' perimeter attack with a pair of three pointers as the Sun Devils and Tennessee entered the half tied at 33 points apiece.

While Dornstauder was able to neutralize Russell, Tennessee's guard play stepped up on both ends of the floor to make up for Russell's inability to continue her domination down low.

Diamond DeShields - the Lady Vols' leading scorer all season - struggled in the first half but caught fire in the second, helping pace the Vols out to their first double-digit lead of the game late in the third period.

Meanwhile, ASU's guards couldn't get into a shooting rhythm, especially senior guard Katie Hempen. Hempen - who tied her career high with six treys against New Mexico State - made one in the first quarter and then shot 0-3 from three and 0-7 from the field the rest of the night.

Tennessee's main guards - 6'0" Jordan Reynolds and 6'1" DeShields suffocated ASU's guards on the defensive end, as ASU shot 39% from the field in the defeat.

Elisha Davis ended the third quarter with a bang that gave Wells Fargo Arena hope, making a Steph Curry-esque three-pointer at the buzzer to pull ASU back within seven points, but the comeback just wasn't meant to be.

DeShields scored 18 of her 24 points in the second half, making multiple clutch buckets in the fourth quarter to stave off a would-be comeback from the Sun Devils.

The Lady Volunteers now advance to play the 3-seed Ohio State while the Sun Devils go back to the drawing board, with another landmark season ending in disappointment.

"I love this team, they've been a blast to coach," Turner-Thorne said. "They have been amazing. Definitely have not under-achieved. They have had an incredible year and have an amazing spirit, and I've just been so proud of everything they've accomplished."