BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — March madness claimed an unlikely NCAA tournament victim Sunday night.
Tennessee, winners of the past two women’s basketball national championships, went down in stunning fashion, losing to first-time participant Ball State 71-55 before a crowd of 3,907 at E.A Diddle Arena.
Led by guard Porchia Green’s game-high 23 points, the 12th-seeded Cardinals (26-8) pulled away in the second half of the Berkeley (Calif.) regional first-round game, leaving the Lady Vols battered, beaten and looking more like tournament neophytes.
“I thought we were tentative, maybe uptight,’’ said UT coach Pat Summitt, who described the loss as the toughest of her 35-year career. “You have to give credit where credit is due. (Ball State) had a lot more toughness than we did.”
Shekinna Stricklen led No. 5 seed Tennessee (22-11) with 17 points. The Lady Vols were hurt by losing center Kelley Cain, who left in the first half with a sore knee.
The loss was a first-round first for UT, which had reached at least the round of 16 in the 27 previous NCAA tournaments.
Ball State will play Iowa State, an 85-53 first-round winner over East Tennessee State, on Tuesday.
Along with Green, Audrey McDonald scored 18 points for Ball State. Sixteen of her points came in the second half as the Cardinals shot 57.1 percent from the floor (12-for-21) after halftime.
Tennessee bolted to an early 8-3 lead but the signs of trouble began to gather shortly thereafter.
First, jittery freshman Glory Johnson got an early hook, which helped to illuminate the defensive problems Green was about to cause. Without Johnson to guard Green, UT turned to forward Alex Fuller. Green immediately blew by Fuller for a layup.
On a subsequent possession, Green ran Fuller off a screen and ended up being guarded by Cain. Green promptly swished a 3-pointer, part of her 11 first-half points.
The Cardinals overcame UT’s 44-34 rebounding advantage and 16-4 edge in second-chance points by scoring from all points on the floor, leading by as many as three points before halftime.
Tennessee, on the other hand, was relying primarily on the scoring of Cain, who had 10 points. But then she limped to the bench 4:27 before halftime, after her surgically repaired right knee took the brunt of collision with another player.
“Usually I can bounce back from these things,” she said, “but I couldn’t.”
Cain tried to warm up before the second half but was unable to return. She never left the bench after the break, finishing with 10 points and eight rebounds in 14 minutes.
She had to watch while her teammates unraveled in the face of Ball State’s determined play.
“It’s one of the hardest thing I’ve had to do,’’ Cain said. “My heart said one thing but my body told me (something else).”
The offseason figures to be even harder for a team whose tradition took a huge blow with the loss.
“If no one is motivated right now then they need to leave,’’ said UT guard Angie Bjorklund, who scored 14 points. “Everyone needs to go to work.”