Monday, March 28, 2005

Tennessee ready for Rutgers in rematch of 2000 Final Four

PHILADELPHIA -- Tennessee's Shyra Ely plans on going home next week to play for a national championship. She even has her goal scrawled on the back of her sneakers: Homeward Bound.

Rutgers is looking to deny her the chance of a happy homecoming.

Five years after Rutgers and Tennessee played in the Final Four in Philadelphia, the teams are playing in the same city for the right to advance to the national semifinals in Indianapolis.

``Playing in the Final Four would be awesome, and just to be in Indianapolis makes it that much better,'' said Ely, the 2001 Indiana Miss Basketball from Ben Davis High.

With the way the top-seeded Lady Vols are playing, Ely might get her wish.

Tennessee continued to cruise through the NCAA tournament, this time with a 75-59 win over fourth-seeded Texas Tech on Sunday to move into its 20th regional final.

Standing in the way is Rutgers, which used a bruising defense to post a 64-58 victory over Ohio State in the other regional semifinal game.

``Words really can't describe how I feel,'' Rutgers guard Cappie Pondexter said. ``Believe me, I'm definitely happy, but we have to play Tennessee next. We're focused.''

And the third-seeded Scarlet Knights should also be confident going into Tuesday's regional final.

While the Lady Vols are 10-2 against the Scarlet Knights -- including a 64-54 win in a national semifinal game in Philadelphia in 2000 -- Rutgers was a 65-51 winner on Dec. 29 at the Rutgers Athletic Center.

Rutgers not only won, it embarrassed Tennessee (29-4). The 51 points tied for the second-fewest scored by the Lady Vols in a game, and the 16 first-half points was two points shy of the Lady Vols' record low set in 1996.

That was the start of three straight wins over Top 10 teams for C. Vivian Stringer's team.

``We were never in that game, so I certainly respect her team,'' Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said.

A whole lot has changed for the Lady Vols since. They've won 11 straight and again looked like championship contenders, without even a scare through the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament.

Summitt would love to add three more wins to her career record victory total this season. She considers her Tennessee team good enough to get those wins -- and a national title.

``I think we're one of the teams that can win a championship,'' said Summitt, who has 881 career victories.

Ely scored 23 points, Alexis Hornbuckle scored 14 points, and Nicky Anosike added 11 points and 11 rebounds as part of a balanced offense for Tennessee.

Ely got the Lady Vols going midway through the first half, scoring six straight points to help build a 15-point lead. When Ely scored another easy inside basket late in the half, the couple hundred orange-clad fans who made the nearly 625-mile trip erupted in cheers.

Ely already told her parents they can dole out tickets only to fans who have been to a Tennessee game this year -- not a bandwagon jumper. Those on the fence might want to rush to Philly.

``I plan on going home next week and playing for a national championship,'' she said. ``It would just be icing on the cake to finish my career where I started and to be in Indianapolis in front of friends and family.''

The Lady Vols used a smothering defense to shut down the fourth-seeded Lady Raiders (24-8). Texas Tech entered with four players scoring in double figures, but never got any offensive rhythm.

The Lady Raiders missed their first eight shots and made only nine baskets on 30 attempts in the first half. LaToya Davis had 12 points and Judith Smith added 10.

Tough defense seemed to be the theme.

Rutgers got physical on defense, bumping and shoving Ohio State All-American Jessica Davenport and the rest of the Buckeyes. While Davenport still scored 22 points, the Scarlet Knights still shut down the second-seeded Buckeyes and moved a win from their first Final Four appearance in five years.

``It was physical and there was a lot of bumping for 40 minutes,'' said Davenport, 6-for-11 from the field.

Pondexter scored 24 points, Matee Ajavon added 14, and Rutgers turned 15 Ohio State turnovers into 22 points.

Brandie Hoskins scored 12 points for Ohio State (30-5).

In reaching the regional final, Rutgers has avenged regular-season losses to Temple and Ohio State. The Buckeyes beat the Scarlet Knights 52-50 on Jan. 16.

Now comes the hard part -- trying to beat the Lady Vols for a second time.

``Even though we beat Tennessee, they are a great team and playing a lot better,'' said Rutgers senior Chelsea Newton, who scored 13 points. ``They are not the same team that came to the RAC.''

Summitt and Stringer are longtime friends who have seen women's basketball evolve from the days when coaches drove the vans and recruited players from the dorms.

Now they're trying to deny each other a shot at the title -- one that was blown wide open when three-time defending champ Connecticut lost 76-59 to Stanford on Sunday night.

``If I needed someone in this profession, she's on the very short list of someone I would call,'' Summitt said of Stringer. ``I admire what she's done on and off the court.''

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