Lady Vols Roll to Final Four

Not since Sherman's March to the Sea almost a century and two score ago, has a force swept through competition en route to Atlanta like Tennessee has while qualifying for a record 14th NCAA Final Four.

The Lady Vols continued their remarkable roll to the Final Four by ripping through No. 2 seed Villanova 73-49. To appreciate its level of dominance consider that this was the smallest margin of victory in Tennessee's four Mideast Regional wins.

Going from south to north in succession without leaving the cavernous confines of Thompson-Boling Arena, No. 4 Tennessee knocked off Alabama State by 52, Virginia by 30, Penn State by 28 and Villanova by 24. That's four wins by an average of 33.5 points per game for a Tennessee team has never trailed at any point in the tournament.

Given the quality of No. 11 Villanova, which ended UConn's 70-game win streak while compiling a 28-6 mark and reaching its first ever Elite Eight, Tennessee may have saved its best performance for last.

As they have throughout the tournament, the Lady Vols got out to a quick lead behind strong performances by seniors Gwen Jackson (20 points, eight rebounds) and Kara Lawson (15 points, eight rebounds), along with another sterling effort by sophomore Shyra Ely who scored 14 points and grabbed nine boards.

When the underdog Wildcats closed the gap to 30-29 with 1:48 left in the first half, Tennessee turned up the defensive heat only allowing Villanova to score three points over the next 10 minutes of play while assuming a 53-32 advantage.

From there all the patience in the world couldn't help Villanova's disciplined and deliberate half-court offense that aimed to milk the clock and drain the perimeter jumper.

But Tennessee really crushed Cinderella's glass slipper by crashing the glass with dash and flair. The Lady Vols enjoyed a 42-17 rebounding advantage and a 13-2 edge on the offensive boards.

With that type of rebounding cushion and big lead for most of the game, it's not surprising Tennessee also had more free throw attempts as the Lady Vols connected on 13-of-14 free throws compared to 0-of-1 for Villanova. Tennessee was whistled for only five personal fouls the entire game.

After hitting 12-of-28 from the field in the first half, Tennessee connected on 16-of-28 in the second half to finish 50 percent (28-of-56) for the game. However, the real difference was in Villanova's production from first to second half. After hitting 12-of-23 in the first half including 5-of-8 three-point attempts, the Wildcats were held to only 8-of-27 in the second half and 4-of-13 from trey land.

When interviewed at intermission of Monday's ESPN broadcast, UT coach Pat Summitt indicated she was expecting more from her defense in the second half.

"First we've got to do a better job taking care of the ball," Summitt said. "Secondly, we've got to change our defense up to get more from our players and to do a better job as a team."

The Lady Vols may have surprised Villanova by coming out in a zone defense in the second half and by the time the Wildcats adjusted, Tennessee (32-4) had spurted with an 18-0 run and was never threatened again.

"I'm most excited for our basketball team," said Summitt. "I thought we played defense, rebounded and executed our plays in the half court."

The Lady Vols, who committed only five turnovers in the game while recording 12 assists, next tangle with No. 2 Duke on Sunday, a team they lost to by 21 on Nov. 24 in the Jimmy V Classic.

"It never gets old," Tennessee's Gwen Jackson said of returning to the Final Four. "We knew this would be a tough game, but we showed why we're one of the best teams in the country."

If Tennessee can continue to play near this level, it may well be America's best.

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