Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Final Four is birthright for Lady Vols

The Associated Press

        KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It's as close as it comes to a hoops guarantee: Play four years at Tennessee, and you'll reach the women's Final Four at least once.

        The eight sophomores and freshmen on this year's team already are penciled in to join that incredible list of Lady Vols.

        Monday night's 68-63 win over Vanderbilt for the Midwest Regional title propelled coach Pat Summitt's latest squad to San Antonio for Tennessee's 13th Final Four appearance. The Lady Vols, who have won six titles, will play top-seeded Connecticut on Friday.

        Coming into this season, Summitt had coached 125 players since 1974, when women's basketball was still played under the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. Every player on that list who completed her eligibility at Tennessee — 103 in all — reached the national semifinals or better, some more than once.

        “It's so exciting to come in my first year and make it to the Final Four,” freshman forward Brittany Jackson said.

        Summitt has led the team to each final round, surpassing John Wooden with the most trips of any men's or women's college coach. She and the former UCLA coach had been tied at 12 apiece.

        “It's a dream come true for them. I never once doubted this group (Monday night),” Summitt said. “They've earned it, they've worked for it and never quit believing.”

        What's less certain for each Lady Vol is leaving Tennessee with a national championship ring. Out of the Final Four participants, 44 have.

        The graduation of Tamika Catchings, Kristen Clement and Semeka Randall a year ago left Tennessee without any player who had won a national championship. Those three were freshmen on Tennessee's 39-0 title team in 1998.

        The last Tennessee team with no championship winners was 1994-95, when Tiffany Woosley, Nikki McCray, Vonda Ward and Dana Johnson lost in their final game to Connecticut for the championship. The Lady Vols won the national title the following season.

        On this year's team, only the seniors and juniors have experienced a Final Four before now.

        Michelle Snow was a sophomore, and Kara Lawson, Gwen Jackson and April McDivitt were freshmen on Tennessee's most recent Final Four team, which lost 71-52 to Connecticut in the 2000 championship.

        An early loss to LSU in the Southeastern Conference tournament and a disappointing No. 2 seed in the same regional with Vanderbilt made the Final Four this year look doubtful. Tennessee's defense and intensity has been inconsistent throughout the year.

        But the Lady Vols were hosts once again for the NCAA first and second rounds, beating a scrappy Georgia State and then cruising past defending champion Notre Dame.

        In the regional semifinal, Tennessee looked sluggish before beating BYU to meet in-state rival Vanderbilt for the third time this season.

        The Lady Vols still had trouble containing Commodores center Chantelle Anderson, who finished with 35 points and 12 rebounds. However, Tennessee had more scorers than Vanderbilt, and Snow hit key baskets to cushion the lead down the stretch.

        Playing Vanderbilt for a third time this season was no easy way into the Final Four, and neither will be facing Connecticut to reach the title game. The Huskies beat Tennessee 86-72 in January.

        The Lady Vols last met Connecticut in the national semifinals in 1996, when Tennessee beat the Huskies and then Georgia for the championship.

        “Everyone looks, I know a lot of fans, too, to culminate the season with a UConn-Tennessee matchup. It's happening a little bit earlier this year, but the stakes are just as high,” Lawson said.


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