Monday, April 02, 2007

Lady Vols rally into NCAA championship

(1) Tennessee 56, (1) North Carolina 50

CLEVELAND -- With Candace Parker making the big steal, Tennessee sneaked back into the NCAA championship game.

Parker wrestled the ball away from North Carolina's Alex Miller in the final minute and the Lady Vols rallied to beat North Carolina 56-50 in a national semifinal on Sunday night, setting up a NCAA title date with Rutgers.

The Lady Vols (33-3) set a Final Four record with 20 steals and outscored the Tar Heels 20-2 over the final 8:08 to earn their 12th trip to the title game.

It was sweet revenge for Tennessee, which had lost the Cleveland Regional final on the same floor one year ago to the Tar Heels (34-4).

"At the eight-minute mark, I said, 'We don't want to go home, we're not leaving here without a national championship,"' coach Pat Summitt said.

Parker finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds, and Nicky Anosike added 14 points, none bigger than her layup with 2:04 left when Tennessee, down 48-36 with 8:18 to play, finally caught the Tar Heels at 50-all.

North Carolina collapsed down the stretch, just like its men's team did last week against Georgetown.

In the Tar Heels' last 15 possessions, they scored just two points, missed all eight field-goal tries and had seven turnovers.

All-American Ivory Latta had 13 points, but missed three 3-pointers in 1:15 as North Carolina was unable to pull it out.

There were few dry eyes in the North Carolina locker room where the normally upbeat and smiling Latta's eyes were reddened.

"I'm just sorry," she said, "because I felt like we should have won and I could not get the shot."

When the final horn sounded, Tennessee's players poured onto the floor in celebration. Parker, though, walked to midcourt and said, "One more," reminding her teammates there's still work to be done.

It was an ugly win, but a win nonetheless for the Lady Vols, who won despite shooting a measly 27 percent from the floor -- the lowest ever by a winning team in the Final Four -- and making 21 turnovers.

Tennessee hasn't won it all since 1998 -- a drought in Knoxville.

"Everyone wearing orange would say it's been way too long since Tennessee won a national championship," Parker said. "I'm tired of not seeing a banner that has all our names written all over it."

The Tar Heels appeared in control when Latta drove to the basket and was fouled while making a scoop shot with 8:50 left. She flexed her biceps, let out a scream in the direction of Carolina's supporters and sank her free throw to make it 46-36.

North Carolina's lead swelled to 12, but Parker and the Lady Vols weren't about to let another title shot slip away.

They upped their defensive pressure, forced the Tar Heels into six turnovers on seven trips and held the nation's highest-scoring team to two free throws by Latta and no field goals in the final 8:01.

It was the second straight season North Carolina came up short in the semis. Last year, they lost to eventual champion Maryland when Latta injured her knee.

She'll now have to deal with the end of a brilliant career that doesn't include a national title.

Anosike's free throw put the Lady Vols ahead 51-50. On Carolina's next trip, the Lady Vols double-teamed Miller near half court and Parker was able to strip her of the ball before being fouled.

She made both free throws to make it 53-50, and when Latta missed two more 3-pointers, Tennessee fans could begin thinking about a possible seventh championship on Rocky Top.

As she walked onto the floor for the opening tip, Latta placed her hand to her ear, asking the Carolina fans if they were ready. She got a loud ovation, clapped her hands and mouthed, "Y'all are ready."

Turns out the Tar Heels weren't, and neither were the Lady Vols.

It's probably a good thing tip-off was at nearly 9:30 p.m. EDT. Anyone staying up to watch the first half on TV was treated to basketball unfit for a Final Four and certainly not becoming of two No. 1 seeds.

Shots clanged off the rims. Bodies were thrown to the floor. The basketball basics -- dribbling, passing and rebounding -- were almost nonexistent. It made the Rutgers-LSU game look like a classic.

And topping it off, the game's two biggest stars, Parker and Latta, were reduced to cheerleaders for the first half because of foul trouble.

Parker picked up two fouls and spent the last 12:28 of the first half three seats down from Summitt. Latta was whistled for her third personal with 8:57 left, a call that drew a roar from Tennessee's orange-clad backers.

But nothing was all right as the teams combined for 29 turnovers.

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