Friday, April 01, 2005

Tennessee-Michigan St. Preview

(1) Tennessee (30-4) vs. (1) Michigan St. (32-3)
Game Info: 9:30 pm EDT Sun Apr 3, 2005
National Semifinals - RCA Dome (Indianapolis, IN)

Although Michigan State is playing in its first Final Four, the Spartans say their focus Sunday will be squarely on Tennessee -- and not the hype surrounding the tournament's last days.

``The Final Four is a circus. It's crazy,'' said Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie, who made the trip twice as an Auburn assistant coach more than a decade ago. ``But we've got players who are pretty good at handling their stuff. We'll be ready.''

Michigan State's rise to national prominence under McCallie, now in her fifth season, has the Spartans in uncharted territory. They had not advanced past the second round in five previous trips to the tournament.

Tennessee, on the other hand, is in its fourth straight Final Four. The Vols have been there 16 times in the last 24 years under Pat Summitt, who became the winningest coach in college basketball history this season.

The Lady Vols have won six national titles, most recently in 1998. But the Spartans say that doesn't faze them as they prepare for Sunday.

``You have respect for their program, where it's come from and where it's been,'' Michigan State guard Victoria Lucas-Perry said. ``But we're just playing the five people they put on the court. We're not focused on the legend that they have because we're creating our own legend here this year.''

Michigan State relies on a balanced attack and a deep bench, allowing it to survive off nights from its top players.

The Spartans beat second-seeded Stanford 76-69 in Tuesday's Kansas City Regional final despite getting just four points on 1-for-8 shooting from Lindsay Bowen, their top perimeter scoring threat.

Leading scorer Liz Shimek had 24 points, Kristin Haynie added 20 and two other Spartans scored in double figures, marking the fourth time in as many games of this tournament that four Michigan State players reached double digits.

Tennessee is also deep, led by Shyra Ely's 14.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. Shanna Zolman is the only other Lady Vol scoring in double figures at 12.5 points per game, but five other players average at least 5.9 points.

Along with depth, Tennessee's vast experience -- and the presence of Summitt -- have been invaluable in the Lady Vols' return to the Final Four. Three of the team's highly touted freshmen were sidelined by knee problems this season, including the most acclaimed member of that group, Candace Parker.

Late in the season, reserve Sidney Spencer was lost to a knee injury. Summitt, as usual, made the right adjustments.

``If you had told me going into the year that come March we would be without (those) players, I would have said that it was going to be a long and very challenging year for us,'' Summitt said.

``Yet this team just handled it so well and just pulled it together. I think coaches, behind the scenes, sometimes panic. But it is all about the players handling adversity and they have done it very well and played with maturity.''

Summitt's three seniors, Ely, Loree Moore and Brittany Jackson, are making their fourth trip to the Final Four.

``As a team and a coach that's been there, you do know what to expect, but every trip for me has been different as I'm sure it has for the players,'' Summitt said.

Michigan State's players don't plan on dwelling on Tennessee's experience as they chase the title.

``I don't think it will be hard to focus at all,'' Lucas-Perry said. ``We don't want to just get to the Final Four. We want to get a national championship.''

Sunday's game will be just the second meeting between Michigan State and Tennessee. The Lady Vols won the first matchup 76-62 on March 23, 1977 in Minneapolis.

The winner will face LSU or Baylor in Tuesday night's championship game.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee - F Ely (14.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg), F Alexis Hornbuckle (8.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg), C Nicky Anosike (6.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg), G Shanna Zolman (12.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg), G Moore (5.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.4 apg). Michigan State - F Kelli Roehrig (13.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg), C Shimek (14.7 ppg, 9.1 rpg), G Haynie (10.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg), G Bowen (13.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg), G Lucas-Perry (7.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg).

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Tennessee - Automatic bid, SEC tournament champion; beat No. 16 Western Carolina 94-43, first round; beat No. 9 Purdue 75-54, second round; beat No. 4 Texas Tech 75-59, Philadelphia Regional semifinals; beat No. 3 Rutgers 59-49, regional final. Michigan State - Automatic bid, Big Ten tournament champion; beat No. 16 Alcorn State 73-41, first round; beat No. 8 USC 61-59, second round; beat No. 5 Vanderbilt 76-64, Kansas City Regional semifinals; beat No. 2 Stanford 76-69, regional final.

ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD: Tennessee - 89-17, 24 years. Michigan State - 7-5, 6 years.

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