- Associated Press - Monday, March 23, 2015

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tired of losing and eager to play for a winner, Pittsburgh guard Brianna Kiesel pondered transferring earlier in her career before deciding to stay and see whether a coaching change could spark a slumping program.

Little did she know she’d have an opportunity to play a game quite like the one that closed her remarkable career.

Kiesel scored 24 of her career-high 32 points in the second half Monday as Pittsburgh made a frantic rally in the closing minutes before falling 77-67 to Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“I gave it all I had today,” said Kiesel, who started every game of her college career. “I absolutely love the University of Pittsburgh. The last four years I couldn’t have asked for a better university to play for.”

Tennessee’s Bashaara Graves had 21 points and 14 rebounds as the second-seeded Lady Vols (29-5) improved to 56-0 in NCAA Tournament home games and advanced to a Spokane Region semifinal Saturday against No. 11 seed Gonzaga (26-7).

But the victory didn’t come easily. Kiesel made sure of it.

“What a gutsy performance by their point guard,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “She was incredible. She was a handful.”

After trailing by 14 with 4½ minutes left, Pittsburgh (20-12) cut the lead to 69-65 on Kiesel’s three-point play with 37.8 seconds remaining. Ariel Massengale went 6 of 6 on free throws and made a steal in the final 37 seconds to seal Tennessee’s victory.

All night long, though, Kiesel displayed the tenacity that had helped her rejuvenate Pittsburgh’s program. The Panthers had endured four straight losing seasons before emerging as perhaps the Atlantic Coast Conference’s biggest surprise this season.

“It was no secret if you watched us on film or watched us play all year long,” Pittsburgh coach Suzie McConnell-Serio said. “We played through Brianna Kiesel. She was our playmaker, our scorer, our 3-point shooter.

“She dictated the tempo defensively. For her to come in and have that type of performance, down the stretch I wasn’t putting the ball in anyone else’s hands but her, whether she was taking the shot or making the pass. She was going out with a bang.”

Kiesel was equally complimentary of McConnell-Serio, who talked Kiesel into staying with the Panthers rather than looking elsewhere.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better coach to play for the last two years,” Kiesel said. “She’s the one that changed me into the player that I am.”

The Lady Vols won in part because one player from each team didn’t come close to repeating her first-round performance.

Tennessee’s Cierra Burdick had gone scoreless Saturday in a 72-61 victory over Boise State, though she did have 11 rebounds and five assists. She made the game’s first basket Monday and finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds.

Pittsburgh’s Stasha Carey, who had 16 points and 13 rebounds in a 51-40 opening-round triumph over Chattanooga, had no points and three rebounds against Tennessee.

Massengale had 16 points and Andraya Carter added 10 for Tennessee, which outrebounded Pittsburgh 46-29. Yacine Diop had 18 points and nine rebounds for Pittsburgh.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: This marked the fifth time overall and the second time in NCAA Tournament play that the Panthers had faced Tennessee. The Panthers have lost all five meetings, including a 68-54 decision in a 2007 NCAA second-round game at Pittsburgh. Tennessee went on to win the national title that season.

Tennessee: In their final game at Thompson-Boling Arena this season, Lady Vols set a school record with their 18th home victory of the season. This marks the 12th time Tennessee has posted a perfect home record, but the Lady Vols didn’t play as many as 18 home games in any of those other seasons.

NOTABLE NUMBER

Tennessee has a plus-17½ rebound margin through its first two NCAA Tournament games.

QUOTABLE

“I asked (Kiesel) going down the hall if she wanted to go to Spokane with us,” Warlick said. “I’m sure we’d find some kind of uniform for her.”

NEXT UP

Pittsburgh heads into the offseason needing to figure out how to replace Kiesel, who ends her career as the only player in school history with more than 1,500 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists.

Tennessee faces No. 11 seed Gonzaga in a Spokane Region semifinal Saturday.

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