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James, Rivers help No. 3 seed NC State hold off No. 6 seed Tennessee to reach Sweet 16

RALEIGH, N,C, (AP) — Tennessee didn't wilt when North Carolina State built a 20-point lead. Just as importantly, the Wolfpack didn't either after Lady Vols climbed all the way back within a single bucket.

And that sent Wes Moore's squad on to the Sweet 16 of March Madness again.

Aziaha James scored 22 points and had two critical late buckets as the third-seeded Wolfpack held off the sixth-seeded Volunteers 79-72 in Monday's second round of the NCAA Tournament, a win that came after N.C. State had squandered nearly all of that huge third-quarter lead.

“I'm just proud of them for keeping their heads up,” Moore said. “They could have real easily let the pressure get to them.”

It helped to have the backing of a boisterous home crowd at the venerable Reynolds Coliseum on campus, as well as James stepping up in the clutch for the Wolfpack (29-6) to hold on despite a huge game from Tennessee star Rickea Jackson.

James came up big in the critical moment amid the Lady Vols had closed to within 65-63 on Tamari Key's basket inside. First the 5-foot-9 junior scored on a floater over the outstretched arms of the 6-6 Key. Then, after Baldwin blocked a shot from Jackson from behind, James curled around the left wing to catch and feed from Saniya Rivers and stick a huge 3-pointer for a 70-63 lead at the 2:48 mark.

Tennessee, which had made a huge comeback in a loss to top-ranked South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, didn’t get it back to a one-possession game again.

“We knew it was a possibility,” said Rivers, who had 20 points for N.C. State. “We watched the game when they played South Carolina ... so we didn't want it to happen. But it happened, and like (James) said: we just kept our head up, stayed together.”

Now N.C. State is set for a date with No. 2 seed Stanford in the Portland 4 Region.

Jackson had 33 points and 10 rebounds in a dominating showing for the Lady Vols, including 12 points in the first 5 minutes before finishing 13 of 22 from the field. Tennessee was trying for its third straight trip to the regional semifinals. And the Lady Vols flirted with tying the second-biggest comeback in women’s tournament history.

“They've done it a lot this year,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said. “They've been able to wipe away a lot of big leads. And I think the one thing that has always helped us: our emotions rarely get the best of us.”

N.C. State appeared on its way with a strong finish to the first quarter and an absolutely dominant second. After trailing 23-17 early, N.C. State outscored Tennessee 32-8 for the rest of the half — including a 16-2 burst that carried right into the locker room with reserve Maddie Cox’s catch-and-fire corner 3 giving the Wolfpack an 18-point margin.

Mimi Collins scored in the first minute of the third quarter, pushing N.C. State to its biggest lead at 51-31 before the Lady Vols started the long climb back.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Lady Vols opened the year ranked No. 11, but fell out of the AP Top 25 after Thanksgiving and didn’t return. Their near-misses included falling to the Gamecocks on a banked-in 3-pointer at the buzzer after rallying from 23 down to take a late lead on March 9. There’s no questioning in the fight after another comeback Monday, though Tennessee ultimately fell short again.

“I would have loved to have continued to take this team on the journey that we were on," Harper said. “Again, playing their best basketball at the end of the year. They were a lot of fun to coach.”

N.C. State: The Wolfpack took the opposite trajectory from the Lady Vols, going from unranked in preseason to No. 3 by early December after nonconference wins against Connecticut and Colorado. Now Moore’s club is heading to a fifth Sweet 16 in six tournaments, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2022.

CONNECTIONS

The game marked the first meeting between the programs, as well as deeply intertwined sidelined connections. There was Harper facing off against a program she led for four years in the difficult aftermath of the passing of late Hall of Famer Kay Yow.. There was also coaching against Moore after working on his staff at Chattanooga.

SWEET PAIRING

N.C. State men's basketball coach Kevin Keatts sat on a front-row seat behind the press tables for this one to see if the women's team could join the men in the Sweet 16, that program's first since 2015. Now the school has its first double-dip since the 1988-89 season.

SHE SAID IT

“I'll give credit to Reynolds Coliseum. It was very loud. Our team had a difficult time communicating our sets. That happened several times.” — Harper on the Vols' second-quarter struggles.

UP NEXT

The Cardinals awaits the Wolfpack – in what will be an Atlantic Coast Conference pairing with next year's realignment — on Friday in Portland, Oregon.

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness