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Wheeler scores 20 second-half points, MTSU erases 18-point hole to beat Louisville in NCAA tourney

Wheeler scores 20 second-half points, MTSU erases 18-point hole to beat Louisville in NCAA tourney

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Middle Tennessee guard Savannah Wheeler, the Conference USA player of the year, missed her first six shots, committed two fouls and a turnover during the first 18 minutes of the Blue Raiders' women's NCAA Tournament opener against Louisville on Friday.

But when she finally scored her first points on a layup with 1:16 left in the first half, a game that Louisville had dominated early was about to change.

Wheeler scored 20 of her 22 points in the second half, and No. 11 seed Middle Tennessee stormed back from 18 points down to defeat sixth-seeded Louisville 71-69 in the first round of the women's NCAA Tournament on Friday.

“I kept telling myself to keep staying aggressive and just keep playing within myself and eventually one is going to fall,” said Wheeler, who hit five of her seven second-half shots, including all three 3-pointers she put up. “We’re a team that we don’t give up. We keep playing hard. We keep fighting.”

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

Center Anastasiia Boldyreva had 11 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots for the Blue Raiders, who matched the third-largest comeback in tournament history to advance to the second round of the tournament for the fifth time and first since 2007.

MTSU will play Sunday against No. 3 seed LSU, a 70-60 winner on Friday over 14th-seeded Rice.

Olivia Cochran had 17 points and 10 rebounds, and Nina Rickards scored 12 points for Louisville (24-10), but Cochran was whistled for her fourth in the middle of the third quarter, and was subbed out with Louisville still holding a five-point lead.

“We made a big push when that happened,” MTSU coach Rick Insell said. “They didn’t have anybody else like her — and we didn’t either.”

When Cochran checked back in in the fourth quarter, MTSU had a slim lead, and Cochran had little choice but to shy away from contact on the defensive end.

“We fouled too much,” Cochran said, her voice cracking. “Some of those calls were dumb fouls on me. Some of them were tough calls. ... I'm sorry.”

The Cardinals had advanced to five straight regional finals before this season and hadn't lost in the first round since 2005-06. They nearly came back from an eight-point deficit in the final two minutes.

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.

“It’s on us as a team as and as players,” Russell said through tears as she made a point of defending her coach, Jeff Walz. “We know the culture here. We know the standard here and this is not it. ... This is not who we are. I feel like failure.”

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 missed 10 of their first 13 shots, and the first period ended with Russell stealing the ball from Boldyreva for a breakaway layup to give the Cardinals a 28-12 lead.

Russell's 3 made it 38-20 with 4:18 left in the second quarter, but MTSU's comeback began soon after.

Scott's layup, Gregory's 3 and Wheeler's layup cut it to 38-27 at halftime. Wheeler's second 3 of the third quarter cut it to 44-40. And 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 finished an explosive drive through several converging defenders with a layup, capping an 8-0 run that put the Blue Raiders in front 50-48 and set up a tension-filled fourth quarter.

“That’s why she’s player of the year in our conference. That’s why she’s MVP of the conference tournament,” Insell said. “She’s a scoring machine.”

BIG PICTURE

MTSU: The Blue Raiders continued to rely heavily on their starters. This was the seventh time this season they had no bench points.

Louisville: After shooting nearly 47% in the first half, the Cardinals made just 33.3% in the second, when they missed six of seven 3-point attempts. The Cardinals lost despite outrebounding MTSU 41-34 and outscoring the Blue Raiders 34-22 in the paint. Walz also said that Taylor was trying to play through an illness.

“Sid gutted it out for 30 minutes, and Sid’s sick,” Walz said. “Sid’s never asked to come out of a game and she asked five or six times. ... You could see it energy-wise from her.”

UP NEXT

The Blue Raiders put their winning streak up against the defending national champions, while Louisville's season ended one victory short of a potential opportunity to face former teammate Hailey Van Lith, now with LSU, in the second round.

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