KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee avoided an embarrassing loss because its biggest weakness became a strength at least for one night.
The ninth-ranked Lady Vols made 13 straight free-throw attempts during a 22-0 run in the third quarter Wednesday as they rallied for a 65-55 victory over Stetson. Tennessee erased a 20-point deficit to produce the second-biggest comeback in school history.
Tennessee ended up shooting 25 of 30 from the foul line. The Lady Vols had been making just 58.9 percent of their free throws before Wednesday.
"What had been our Achilles heel was one of the best things we did today," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said.
Tennessee needed that accuracy from the line to survive a surprisingly strong challenge from Stetson, an Atlantic Sun school whose only win this season came against NAIA program Webber International.
Stetson (1-7) led 42-22 before Rennia Davis' 3-pointer capped the 22-0 spurt that gave the Lady Vols their first lead with 2:43 left in the third quarter. The game was tied 46-all before another Davis basket put Tennessee ahead for good with 7:21 remaining.
Tennessee's only bigger comeback came in January 2009, when the Lady Vols rallied from 23 points down to beat Rutgers 55-51.
"In the second half, they came out more aggressive, and that was the end of it," Stetson guard McKenna Beach said.
Davis had 24 points and nine rebounds to spark the rally, while Evina Westbrook added 20 points. They shot a combined 20 of 21 from the free-throw line.
Sarah Sagerer scored 19 points and Addi Walters had 17 for Stetson. Walters scored 13 points in the first quarter.
Tennessee started the night lethargic and looked increasingly flustered as Stetson grabbed a 38-22 halftime lead. Tennessee had no answers for a patient Stetson offense that used up most of the shot clock on each possession.
Stetson went on a 14-0 run that lasted over 5 1/2 minutes midway through the first half. Tennessee didn't make its first basket of the second quarter until Davis hit a layup on a fastbreak with 3:07 left in the half.
"We just came in with low energy," Westbrook said. "We weren't there defensively, especially. Kudos to them, to the other team. They played their butts off the first half, but we shut them down in the second half. We just can't start like that."
Stetson: The Hatters shot 8 of 28 overall and 1 of 10 from 3-point range in the second half after going 15 of 29 overall and 4 of 9 from beyond the arc in the first half. Walters didn't blame the second-half struggles on fatigue. "They really amped up their pressure and we kind of spooked a little bit," Walters said. This game still ought to give the Hatters plenty of confidence. Stetson's effort Wednesday made it hard to believe how this team lost its first six games of the season.
Tennessee: The Lady Vols have a habit of producing slow starts and fast finishes this season, most notably when they rallied from 12 down to beat UAB in overtime. But they can't afford to continue this pattern as their schedule gets tougher in the coming weeks.
Tennessee played a second straight game without injured starting center Kasiyahna Kushkituah, and her absence was evident in the first half as Stetson continually drove into the lane. Warlick described Kushkituah's status as day to day after the game.
Tennessee trailed 42-22 when Westbrook was fouled while attempting a 3-pointer. Westbrook made all three free throws to start that 22-0 run.
Westbrook entered the night having made just 50.9 percent of her career free-throw attempts, but the sophomore guard was 9 of 9 from the line Wednesday.
Tennessee's chances of staying in the top 10 next week likely depend on how it fares Sunday at No. 12 Texas.
Stetson: At No. 12 Texas on Dec. 16.
Tennessee: At No. 12 Texas on Sunday.