After Northwestern tied the game in the first two minutes after halftime, Tennessee pounded the ball inside and took advantage of some empty possessions by NSU to score 12 unanswered points to finally get control. The Lady Vols finally pushed the margin over 20 points for the first time with 5:52 left.
"I could not be more proud of my team and the way the competed. I think fearless was a word that we kept using over and over this week," said co-head coach Brooke Stoehr, who along with her husband, Scott, took over a six-win program and led it to 21 wins and a NCAA Tournament berth in just two seasons.
"I'm just so proud of their fight, their effort, and their will to compete for each other and our staff," she said. "I'm so excited for them to experience and atmosphere like this, and go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country."
Northwestern State (21-13) had a two-point deficit at halftime, and a jumper by Janelle Perez tied the game at 22-22 early in the second half. The Lady Vols (28-5), who had an obvious height advantage, scored six times in seven possessions before the 15-minute mark to open the game to a 34-22 lead. During the run, Northwestern State missed two layups and two jumpers.
Tennessee jumped out to an 11-2 lead by the 16:01 mark in the first half, but the Lady Demons cut the gap to 11-7 on a 3-pointer from freshman Beatice Attura and jumper from Janelle Perez. Two free throws from UT's Jasmine Johnson extended the lead to 13-7, but Kourtney Pennywell and Armstead scored on back-to-back layups to cut the lead to two.
The two teams went back and forth until Kourtney Pennywell landed one free throw and a jumper to cut a five-point deficit to two. Cierra Burdick scored on two free throws to make it a four-point game before Pennywell scored again on another jumper that ended the half.
"When you believe in something and you buy into it, you can do a lot of good things," said Stoehr, who tried unsuccessfully to hold her emotions in check talking about her team's effort and commitment in the postgame press conference. "They went toe-to-toe in the first half, and UT started the run in the second half, and we knew it was coming. We did not stop fighting for a moment. I told them to challenge themselves to get better in areas to make this team better during the offseason."
"For them to get to an NCAA Tournament and win a conference championship builds confidence," said Stoehr. "Winning breeds winning. It's hard to teach people how to win, and these kids are looking at it. I'm so proud they got to experience that."
Armstead, who finished her career eighth on NSU's all-time scoring list with 1,505 points, had 12 points and six rebounds in the game. She finished sixth on the all-time rebounding list with 787 boards.
Freshman Beatrice Attura finished with 11 points, nine on three 3-pointers. Northwestern State was uncharacteristically off the mark from distance, 3-of-19 (16 percent) from behind the arc, and managed just 36 percent aim overall (19-53). Both NSU (29 percent) and UT (23 percent) shot poorly in the first half.
"We had some open shots, some good looks, we just didn't hit," said Armstead. "But their defense and their pressure, they pressured us and it made a difference. But we had some good looks, just didn't knock them down."
The Lady Vols scored 18 buckets in 31 attempts for 58 percent in the second half. NSU was 11-for-25. UT outrebounded NSU 47-27, and had 17 offensive boards to Northwestern State's 21 defensive boards. The Lady Volunteers finished with 18 second chance points and 38 points in the paint.
Despite facing a full-court press for much of the game, NSU only turned the ball over 14 times and forced UT into 12 turnovers.
"Tennessee is a great team. After they started with that 11-2 run, I guess we were a little nervous, but after coach called a timeout, we gathered and we were OK," said Perez. "We went out there and competed, just did what we had to do."
Perez and Pennywell finished the game with eight points, Keisha Lee scored four points and Robin Richardson had three.
Once Tennessee jumped out to its 12-point lead, the Lady Demons cut the deficit to 10, twice, but could never break into single digits.
NSU loses two seniors this season, Armstead and Meredith Graf. Both endured the six-win season and helped the Lady Demons turn the culture into a winning program and led NSU to its first NCAA tournament and postseason appearance in 10 seasons. NSU had not won 20 games since the 2003-04 season didn't have 11 wins in conference since 2004-05.