It has been a March to remember for the Belmont Bruins women’s basketball team.
On Saturday, the No. 12-seed Bruins became just the second team in NCAA Tournament history to win a game in consecutive seasons as a 12-seed or lower by knocking off No. 5 Oregon 73-70 in double overtime.
On Monday night, the Bruins very nearly pulled off an upset for the ages. Seeking the program’s first-ever Sweet 16 appearance, Belmont (23-8) fell just short as the No. 4-seed Tennessee (25-8) prevailed 70-67 at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville.
“I can't be more proud of a group than I am of our group,” Belmont head coach Bart Brooks said. “I've got the best job in the world working for the greatest people in the world, the greatest university in the world. I still pinch myself when I walk across campus and say I get to work here every day.
“The best part of it is the people I get to work with, and these young ladies, I've told them, this has been a hard year. This has been an exhausting year. But, man, it has been fun to coach this group, and it beats working for a living, that's for sure. But I can't be more proud of the effort.”
It looked like the dream was out of reach early on as the Lady Vols led by as many as 14 in the third quarter. But the Bruins — led by terrific performances from a trio of sophomores in Destinee Wells, Tuti Jones and Madison Bartley — chipped away at the Tennessee lead.
Belmont was neck-and-neck with their in-state foes for the entirety of the fourth quarter. The Bruins were withstanding Tennessee’s best shot in front of an amped up orange-and-white crowd, even managing to re-take the lead 66-64 with 2:22 left in the game.
Belmont held onto the lead until Tennessee's Sara Puckett drained a three-pointer with 18 seconds remaining to put the Lady Vols ahead 67-66.
A pair of free throws from Tamari Key kept Tennessee in the lead at 69-66 with nine seconds left in the contest. Instead of allowing the sweet-shooting Bruins the chance at a game-tying 3-pointer and an instant classic March Madness moment, the Lady Vols opted to foul Destinee Wells with four seconds left.
Wells made the first free throw, then missed the second on purpose to give Belmont another chance at tying, or winning, the game. However, Key grabbed the rebound, the Bruins fouled, and Key split a pair of free throws to cement the final score of 70-67.
Wells’ potential game-tying shot just missed at the buzzer, sending Tennessee to the Sweet 16 for the 35th time in program history where they will face No. 1 Louisville.
“I feel for all of them,” Brooks said. “They're all hurting really bad right now because they're competitors, and I think everyone who watched the game understands how competitive and tough this group is.”
Wells finished with a game-high 22 points to go along with six rebounds, four assists and two steals. Jones had a nearly identical line of 17 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals. Bartley added 16 points, six rebounds and two blocks.
The trio combined for 55 of Belmont’s 67 points. The future is bright at the Curb Event Center should all three remain with the team.
“I would definitely say we're going to leave here with our heads high,” Jones said. “Like Bart said, it's been a long season. We've grown so much together. We've grown a lot as a team. It was tough losing, of course, but we're definitely going to leave with our heads high. We're so proud of each other.”
“In my opinion, I proved that we can keep up with anybody, and that's just plain and simple,” Bartley added. “We showed everybody what we could do. We didn't come up with the win, but being that close with Tennessee is something that we should be really proud of and something that the world should look out for next year.”
Alexus Dye paced Tennessee with a 20-point, 11-rebound double-double. Key (18 points) and Sara Puckett (12) also scored in double-figures for the Lady Vols.