Sunday, March 06, 2005

No. 5 Tennessee 76, No. 18 Vanderbilt 73

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Tennessee coach Pat Summitt knows the kind of effort her team needs in its next game against No. 1 LSU -- the same type it gave Saturday night in a win against Vanderbilt.

``I'm really proud of this team for finding a way to win against a team that ran its offense very well against us,'' Summitt said.

Summitt won her 877th game to move past Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, and the fifth-ranked Lady Vols reached the Southeastern Conference championship game with their ninth straight victory over state rival Vanderbilt, 76-73.

The win sets up the SEC's dream final with Tennessee (25-4) facing LSU for the title Sunday. A victory there would draw Summitt within one of Dean Smith's all-time mark of 879 victories, with the NCAA tournament ahead.

``It's going to take a solid team effort'' to beat LSU, Summitt said. ``They have good balance.''

Sounds a lot like Tennessee.

When Vanderbilt (22-7) was raining 3s late in the game -- six of the Commodores' 11 3-pointers came in the last 11 minutes -- Shanna Zolman and Brittany Jackson were there to answer with long-range shots of their own.

When the Commodores got going down low with Ashley Early, Tennessee freshman Alexis Hornbuckle scored three straight short jumpers to keep the Lady Vols out front.

And when Vandy's defense forced turnovers in the final minute, Tennessee's Tye'sha Fluker deflected a critical pass and converted an open layup for the final points.

``That's just our team,'' Zolman said. ``We're that way night in and night out.''

Vanderbilt overcame an 11-point deficit in the second half, and was trailing 74-73 and in possession of the ball in the final minute. But a pass down low to star Carla Thomas was knocked away by Fluker. Moments later, Fluker was alone underneath the basket and converted the simple layup with 44 seconds left.

The 18th-ranked Commodores had two good looks from behind the arc to tie the game in the final seconds. But Abi Ramsey missed everything with her attempt and Caroline Williams' try from the left corner hit the rim and bounded away.

Tennessee ran out the final seconds as the largely orange-clad crowd at the Bi-Lo Center cheered and screamed.

The Lady Vols have won 23 of their past 25 meetings with Vanderbilt over the past decade.

``I really thought my team tonight showed a lot of heart,'' Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. ``They executed the game plan as we asked them to. Down the stretch, we had the opportunity to win and were in the position we wanted to be in, but the shots just didn't go.''

Zolman had 18 points and four of the Lady Vols' seven 3-pointers. Jackson, who had the other three long-range baskets, added 15 points and Hornbuckle had 14.

Earley led Vanderbilt with 20 points. Ramsey finished with 19. Point guard Dee Davis had 11 points and 10 assists. She also had nine of the Commodores' 14 turnovers.

It seemed Tennessee had control of this one midway through the final half when Zolman hit a 12-footer and a 3-pointer for a 54-43 lead with 12:54 to go.

But Vanderbilt wasn't finished. Williams had two 3-pointers and Davis' layup drew the Commodores to 56-55.

Hornbuckle followed with three straight baskets to restore Tennessee's lead to 62-55. But Ramsey made four 3-pointers over the next five minutes to keep the Commodores alive. Her last one, with 1:40 to go, brought Vanderbilt within 74-73 and set up the final, scrambling moments.

Tennessee, the second seed, is aiming for its 11th tournament title, but first since 2000.

Despite the loss, Vanderbilt is still expecting its sixth straight NCAA tournament trip.

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