"Any time you get a win in the NCAA Tournament you should be very, very happy," UT Head Coach Rob Patrick said. "Alabama A&M really made it hard on us by not giving us any free points. I thought we served pretty tough and Alabama A&M really stuck in there by keeping the ball in play. I challenged the team after the break to improve their blocking and I thought we did a nice job of responding to that.
"Another thing I am very excited about is having three freshmen and a sophomore come in and play a good, solid match in their first NCAA Tournament. When you have almost half of your starting lineup playing in their first tournament match and you can hit .466, that's something we should be proud of."
Three members of the Big Orange squad reached double-digits in kills, led by sophomore DeeDee Harrison who hit .550 with a match-high 13 hammers. Just behind her with 11 putaways each were senior Nikki Fowler and Kayla Jeter, who hit .529 and .667, respectively. Defensively, freshman Kelsey Robinson topped all players with 11 scoops, followed by nine from fellow rookie Ellen Mullins. Senior Leah Hinkey and Harrison tied for the team lead with three blocks each.
"Our passing was pretty good, which allowed our setters to move the ball around," Patrick said. "They did a wonderful job of carrying out our game plan in the match. Our team is built on spreading the ball out and our hitters did a fantastic job of hitting very efficiently against a team that was digging a lot of balls and touching a lot of balls on the block."
As a team, Tennessee bested Alabama A&M in virtually every statistical category. In addition to holding a 50-27 advantage in kills, the Orange and White doubled up the Lady Bulldogs in digs, 47-24. UT also set a season-high with eight service aces, paced by three from Fowler alone, to just two for A&M.
The Lady Vols wasted little time getting things rolling in their favor, taking the opening frame, 25-11, after out-hitting Alabama A&M, .417 to .115. Jeter led the Big Orange effort with four kills on .667 hitting, while Harrison pounded out three and Hinkey added a pair of putaways and two blocks.
In what proved to be a harbinger of things to come, Fowler kicked off the contest with a blast from the back row. Just seconds later, a shot by Hinkey started what would turn out to be a 13-3 run that gave Tennessee a comfortable 17-6 advantage. The final 10 scores in that spree would come in the span of just 12 plays as UT posted a pair of five-score spurts, during which it notched three aces and got kills from three different players.
Although a Lady Bulldog timeout netted a trio of points to put the tally on the scoreboard at 17-9, the Big Orange picked up right where it left off by winning eight of the final 10 points to claim the set, 25-11. Robinson got the run started with a shot from the outside and quickly added an ace for good measure. Following a ball-handling error, A&M reached double-digits with a kill on a rollshot from the back row.
UT answered right back with back-to-back kills from Jeter and a huge block by Hinkey and sophomore Leslie Cikra. Another Bulldog kill proved to be their final point of the set before Hinkey brought the frame to a close with a blast to the back-left corner of the court and a solo putback.
Despite zero attack errors by Alabama A&M in the second set, Tennessee was able to keep rolling, claiming the frame, 25-19, thanks to 21 total team kills on .421 hitting. This time Robinson and Cikra took over, crushing out five kills each, while Harrison tallied four and Fowler and Jeter each had three.
After a couple of quick points by the Lady Bulldogs early on, the Big Orange started to find its rhythm again, putting together a pair of 4-0 spurts, separated by just a single A&M score. Robinson was simply on fire during that stretch, starting it with back-to-back putaways before finishing it off with three consecutive kills. In between her runs, Fowler dropped down two straight hammers as the Lady Vols raced ahead 9-3.
Alabama A&M would continue to battle, however, remaining within striking distance until the set reached the 20-15 mark. UT quickly moved to set point with a kill by Harrison, an ace from Robinson and consecutive kills from Cikra, but the Bulldogs refused to give up, scoring three straight to put the score at 24-19. Cikra finally finished off the frame with an absolute laser down the right side of the court.
In the third set, Tennessee simply rode its three hottest hands to victory, as Fowler, Harrison and Jeter notched all 16 of the team's kills and combined to hit a scalding .577. The Big Orange would finish off the sweep with a 25-16 triumph due mainly to the trios efforts.
The Lady Vols did have to shake off a bit of a sleepy start, however, as A&M jumped out to an early 3-1 lead and forced Patrick to burn his first timeout of the match. UT would respond emphatically though, scoring five straight points and seven of the next eight to regain an advantage it would hold the rest of the way.
That wasn't to say the Lady Bulldogs folded, however, as they remained within three scores as late as the 16-13 mark. At that point though, Tennessee decided it had seen enough and used two kills from Fowler, another by Harrison and an A&M miscue to stake claim to a commanding 20-13 advantage. Just moments later, back-to-back blasts off the right hand of Harrison would bring the contest to a close.
With the win, the Lady Vols advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. They will square off with either Indiana or Miami (Fla.) at 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon in Bloomington.