MTSU storms back from 18-point hole to upset Louisville in second-half thriller

BATON ROUGE, La. — Savannah Wheeler scored 20 of her 22 points in the second half, and No. 11 seed Middle Tennessee overcame an 18-point, second quarter deficit to defeat sixth-seeded Louisville 71-69 in the first round of the women’s NCAA Tournament on Friday.

Jalynn Gregory scored 24 for MTSU (30-4), which won its 20th straight game and has not lost since falling to Grand Canyon on Dec. 30.

The Blue Raiders matched the third largest comeback in the opening rounds in tournament history.

Middle Tennessee guard Jalynn Gregory (10) celebrates with teammates after defeating Louisville in a first-round college basketball game in the women’s NCAA Tournament in Baton Rouge. AP

Center Anastasiia Boldyreva had 11 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots for the Blue Raiders, who advanced to the second round of the tournament for the fifth time and first since 2007.

MTSU will play Sunday against the winner of Friday’s game between No. 3 seed LSU and 14th-seeded Rice.

Olivia Cochran had 17 points and 10 rebounds, and Nina Rickards scored 12 points for Louisville (24-10), which nearly came back from an eight-point deficit in the final two minutes.

The Cardinals had advance to five straight regional finals before this season.

Louisville guard Nina Rickards (15) comforts guard Merissah Russell (13) after losing to Middle Tennessee. AP

Sydney Taylor’s 3 with 5 seconds left made it 71-69, and MTSU’s Ta’Mia Scott missed two free throws. That allowed Merissah Russell to try a half-court shot for the win that hit the backboard and rim before bouncing out.

Louisville built a big early lead in part by hitting four of its first five 3-point attempts, with a different player making each one.

The Blue Raiders appeared unnerved early, missing 10 of their first 13 shots.

Savannah Wheeler tallied 20 of her 22 points in the second half to lift MTSU past Louisville in a big first round upset. SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network / USA TODAY NETWORK

Middle Tennessee guard Savannah Wheeler and forward Courtney Whitson, right, trap Louisville guard Merissah Russell (13) during the first half of a first-round college basketball game in the women’s NCAA Tournament. AP

The first period ended with Russell stealing the ball from Boldyreva and converted a breakaway layup just before the final horn to give the Cardinals a 28-12 lead.

Louisville led by as many as 18 points when Russell’s 3 made it 38-20 with 4:18 left in the second quarter, but that’s when MTSU began to close the gap.

Scott’s layup, Gregory’s 3 and Wheeler’s layup cut it to 38-27 at halftime, and MTSU carried that momentum into the third quarter, closing to 44-40 on Wheeler’s second 3 of the game.

Olivia Cochran (44) drives the ball as The Louisville Cardinals take on the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders in the 1st round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament in Baton Rouge, LA. SCOTT CLAUSE/USA TODAY Network / USA TODAY NETWORK

Another Wheeler 3, followed by Scott’s three free throws after she was fouled on the perimeter, tied it at 48 with 1:33 left in the third.

Wheeler then converted an explosive drive through several converging defenders into a layup, capping an 8-0 run that put the Blue Raiders in front 50-48 and set up a tension-filled fourth quarter.

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