KNOXVILLE — The thought was in the back of their minds even as they sat next to one another, heads hung low, on the dais in the bowels of New Orleans Arena last April.
Shyra Ely and Shanna Zolman had just lost in the national championship game to Connecticut, but they couldn't help but think … ''Next year, we can go home.''
Ely and Zolman's Lady Vols (30-4) will play Michigan State in the Final Four on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. in Indianapolis. Ely and Zolman are two of the most decorated high school women's basketball players ever to come out of Indiana.
''That was their goal,'' UT Coach Pat Summitt said. ''The two of them had an awful lot to do with us getting there.''
Michigan State (32-3) knocked off No. 1-ranked Stanford 76-69 on Monday night to advance. LSU (33-2) and Baylor (31-3) will play in the other semifinal at 6 p.m.
Rutgers nearly canceled Ely and Zolman's homecoming date. The Scarlet Knights stayed with the Lady Vols until 12 consecutive free throws at the end of the game gave UT a 59-49 win in the Philadelphia Regional final on Tuesday night.
''We're so excited,'' Zolman said. ''Before the game was even over, we were standing there at half court, just saying, 'We're going home.' It's so amazing to have this opportunity.
''It's a dream almost. Hopefully it's a fairytale ending.''
Ely went to the largest high school in Indiana — Ben Davis High in Indianapolis. It's just 12 miles away from the RCA Dome where the Final Four games will be played.
Zolman went to Wawasee High School in Syracuse, Ind. — a town of less than 3,000 people about three hours north of Indianapolis.
''I know that my whole entire town is going to be there,'' Zolman said. ''There's probably going to be buses traveling and caravans. There's not too many people there.''
''One busload,'' Summitt quipped.
Zolman did her part Tuesday night with a team-high 16 points, but Ely's offensive struggles were nearly disastrous for Tennessee.
She shot 2-of-11 from the floor and missed forced and easy shots alike. She finished with nine points and seven rebounds.
''I wasn't tight,'' she said. ''A lot of my shots were just in and out, and they weren't falling. I really couldn't get in a rhythm.''
The Lady Vols started the game with no rhythm. After Rutgers guard Cappie Pondexter made a jumper to start the game, she and UT's Alexis Hornbuckle had words.
Still staring at Pondexter, Hornbuckle got in the way of Ely's inbounds pass, and it sailed over Loree Moore's head out of bounds.
''We played ugly,'' Ely said. ''I think we just had to step back from the situation and just really refocus. We were playing really rushed and hurried and not together.''
Tickets: The Lady Vols will hold a ticket lottery today at Thompson-Boling Arena for the chance to purchase two tickets to the Final Four. The arena will be open from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., and ticket stub numbers will be read beginning at 5:30.
Late night: With the Rutgers game not tipping off until after 9 p.m. Eastern, the Lady Vols took yesterday off from practice. They did not get into Knoxville until 5 a.m.