Saturday, April 02, 2005

Spartans not fearful of Lady Vols

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tennessee has it all: a gym full of trophies, rafters crawling with NCAA championship banners, the winningest coach in history and All-Americans who could line the highway halfway back to Knoxville.

They are the Lady Vols, and they enter this year's Final Four with history on their side.

Michigan State couldn't seem to care less.

``They have a tradition,'' Spartans 6-foot-4 senior center Kelli Roehrig said, smiling. ``But the thing with us is when we step on the floor, it's us versus them. Michigan State of now versus Tennessee of now.''

Now, there's some confidence.

To those with only a passing interest in women's college basketball, Sunday night's second semifinal between Tennessee (30-4) and Michigan State (32-3) would appear to be a mismatch.

On one side, you have the Lady Vols, making their fourth straight Final Four appearance and seeking their seventh national title under Pat Summitt, who recently passed Dean Smith for the most career coaching wins -- 882 and counting.

Over yonder is Michigan State with well, a solid football program, Sparty the helmet-wearing, muscle-bound mascot and a men's hoops team playing in the Final Four at St. Louis.

But that naive assessment is totally unfair to these Spartans.

With a headache-inducing matchup zone defense, four starters averaging double figures and a strong inside game, Michigan State comes in riding a 16-game winning streak while driving over some high-profile programs on the road to Indy.

This is their first Final Four and first time in the national spotlight. But the Spartans don't expect to be blinded by the glare.

``It's another game,'' said senior point guard Kristin Haynie. ``We've played great teams this season. We've had a great schedule, and we're ready.''

The Tennessee-Michigan State winner will play either Baylor (31-3) or LSU (33-2) in Tuesday's title game.

Although the Spartans are dismissing Final Four experience as being a factor, someone older and wiser knows better.

For Summitt, a trip to the Final Four has become a personal rite of spring. This is her 16th time in the national semifinals in 31 years since she took over the UT program as a 22-year-old.

On Saturday, Summitt recalled a jittery first visit ending with a loss to Delta State.

``I can remember I didn't understand what I was going into and at that point I was nervous,'' said Summitt, a mind-boggling 882-171 at Tennessee. ``And obviously, you try and keep that from your players and just try to prepare them. We probably practiced more than we do now.

``We don't prepare any less in terms of scouting, but on the floor it's more about getting used to the floor and the rims and the lighting.''

Michigan State's players got to experience the spaciousness of the RCA Dome for the first time on Saturday during a one-hour practice. They've played in big arenas before but nothing on the scope of the 40,000-seat home of the Indianapolis Colts.

Although the game is in Indiana, Spartans coach Joanne P. McCallie didn't make like Gene Hackman's character in ``Hoosiers'' and measure the rims to prove to her players that 10 feet is 10 feet no matter the court.

McCallie, who once scored 20 points for Northwestern in a game against Tennessee, is confident her players won't be intimidated.

Why is she so sure her team won't succumb to stage fright?

``Well, beating UConn by 16 in front of 15,000 people,'' said McCallie, the AP's coach of the year. ``Beating Notre Dame at Notre Dame in front of 7,000 in overtime. Beating Ohio State in front of 14,000. To me, our schedule has prepared these kids. We're not even in Knoxville.''

Michigan State went 15-3 this season against NCAA tourney teams. Awarded a No. 1 seed for the first time, the Spartans then beat Vanderbilt in the opening round before toppling top-ranked Stanford in the regional final.

Tennessee and all its lore is next. The Spartans can't wait.

``It's pretty much poetic justice that we would play Tennessee, given the schedule we have had this year,'' McCallie said. ``Why not bring on such a great program. It seems fitting, really.''

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