Meighan Simmons scored 22 points off the bench and Tennessee rallied past 11th-seeded Kansas 84-73 Saturday and advanced to its second straight regional final.
Glory Johnson added 18 points for the second-seeded Vols (27-8), who’ll meet the winner of Georgia Tech-Baylor on Monday night for a spot in the Final Four.
The Vols trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half, but they cut it to five by the break. Tennessee took the lead for good with a 19-9 run to open the second half, as Simmons had 16 points in the final 20 minutes.
Angel Goodrich had a game-high 23 points and Aishah Sutherland had 19 for Kansas (21-13), which fell to 0-3 in regional semifinals.
Tennessee couldn’t do anything right for the first 11 minutes, falling behind 26-12 to a Kansas team that finished below .500 in the Big 12.
But there’s a reason the Vols are headed to their 25th regional final in 31 years.
The Jayhawks found out why from the moment the second half began, as Tennessee’s superior depth and athleticism simply overwhelmed the underdogs.
The Vols finally took the lead, 44-42, thanks largely to back-to-back threes from Ariel Massengale, and a pair of free throws made it 53-46 Tennessee with 11:07 to go.
Freshman post player Chelsea Gardner did her best to keep the Jayhawks close with 14 points and 10 rebounds. But Simmons hit a layup off a give-and-go from Baugh to give the Vols their first double-digit lead, 63-53, with 7:07 left.
Shekinna Stricklen had 16 points and nine rebounds for Tennessee, which shot 51. 5 percent in the second half.
This looked like the ultimate mismatch at the outset. Kansas was playing in just its third regional semifinal, while Tennessee was playing in its 30th – and shooting for a record 19th Final Four.
But early on, the Jayhawks looked like the only ones awake for the late morning start.
Gardner bullied her way for four inside buckets in the opening five minutes, and back-to-back layups through the paint by Goodrich gave Kansas a surprising 18-10 lead. The Vols called timeout in an effort to quell the run, but Goodrich and Tania Jackson buried 3s to help push the lead to as much as 26-12.
That’s the kind of deficit that will get anyone’s attention. They Vols came out of a timeout with considerably more energy, responding with an energetic 19-5 run to get back within 31-29.
Tennessee went into halftime trailing 35-30 – and knowing it could have been much worse.
Kansas lost star Carolyn Davis to a knee injury last month, but rallied to earn its first regional semifinals berth since 1998 with upsets of Nebraska and third-seeded Delaware.
Though Kansas was the better team to start the game, the Vols finished it and gave their seniors the opportunity to avoid becoming the first four-year class in school history to miss the Final Four.