- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Tennessee is looking like, well, Tennessee again.

Mercedes Russell scored a career-high 25 points and grabbed 15 rebounds and the seventh-seeded Lady Vols continued their surprising run in the women’s NCAA Tournament with a 78-62 victory over Ohio State in a Sioux Falls Regional semifinal Friday night.

The surge comes after Tennessee’s worst regular season in program history. The Lady Vols (22-13) started the season ranked No. 4 in the country and ended up in seventh place in the SEC. Now they’re in a regional final for the fifth time in six years and will play Sunday against No. 4 Syracuse, which stunned top-seeded South Carolina 80-72 in the first semifinal.

“We talk a lot about this as a new season,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “These kids come to Tennessee because of our tradition, but they have to make their own legacy. So we talk a lot about not focusing on the past or what’s ahead of us in the future. Just stay in this moment, and I think that’s what they’ve done.

“It’s up to us to carry that on. These young ladies have always understood it, but they’re doing something about it.”

Russell and fellow post player Bashaara Graves combined to make their first 13 shots from the field before Russell missed a tough one in the middle of the third quarter. The two combined for 22 of the Lady Vols’ first 28 points as they got out to a 43-35 halftime lead.

“They got off to such a great start around the basket, it shook us,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said.

Russell finished 12 for 16 from the field, and Graves, who was 6 for 9, had 14 points and nine rebounds. Te’a Cooper added 16 points and Jaime Nared had 11 rebounds.

Tennessee outrebounded the Buckeyes 53-26 and outscored them 50-22 in the paint in the follow-up to its upset of No. 2 seed Arizona State.

“Honestly, it wasn’t that easy,” Russell said. “Us being aggressive helped us a lot, especially in the first quarter when they pressed us. Passing and attacking off the dribble was great for us.”

Ameryst Alston led the Buckeyes (26-8) with 21 points and Kelsey Mitchell had 20 while playing all 40 minutes.

Tennessee led by as many as 22 points against a short-handed Ohio State team that stuck with a six-player rotation despite having two players with four fouls. The Buckeyes came in without starting guard Cait Craft, who broke her left hand in practice Tuesday, and with Alston still not 100 percent because of a sprained right wrist.

“It’s no excuse,” McGuff said of the injuries. “Tennessee was great tonight. That was the story. We were a little bit off and didn’t play our best game. That had a lot to do with Tennessee. We’ve had tough injuries, but that’s part of the game.”

Mitchell, who set an Ohio State NCAA Tournament record with 45 points in Sunday’s win over West Virginia and had gone over 40 in three of her previous five games, never found her rhythm. She made only five of 15 shots, including shooting 2 of 9 from 3-point range.

Tennessee had to come back from a 17-point deficit in the last seven minutes to beat Gonzaga in the regional semifinals last year. Not as much sweat was involved this time.

“It took us a long time to jell. We went through injuries, we had new leaders and it just took us along to develop,” Warlick said. “The last three games we’re really playing well together and as a team. At the beginning of the year, you didn’t see that fire we have and that togetherness. We had it in us, it was just about trying to learn more about each other, how to play with each other. I’m excited we’re peaking right now at this moment.”

TIP-INS

Tennessee: The Lady Vols have won 10 of the last 11 meetings with Ohio State. … They’ve won six of their last seven after a 2-4 stretch in February. … The regional final against Syracuse is a rematch of a November game Tennessee won 57-55 at home.

Ohio State: Mitchell came in averaging 30.3 points in four career NCAA Tournament games. … The Buckeyes committed only seven turnovers while forcing Tennessee into 18.

ABOUT THOSE UPSETS

With Syracuse beating South Carolina and Stanford defeating Notre Dame, two No. 1 seeds went down Friday.

“It shows where women’s basketball is headed,” Warlick said. “Kids are getting better, they’re starting at a younger age. I understand the pressures of Notre Dame and South Carolina. We’ve been there. You’re supposed to win. You weren’t supposed to have any challenges. So I get it.”

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