Lady Vols Down Duke, Advance to Finals

Tennessee's 66-56 victory over Duke in the NCAA semifinals wouldn't qualify as a work of art, but as blue collar performances go it was a thing of beauty.

Dominating the boards 41-29 and playing stifling defense in Tennessee's trademark manner, the Lady Vols were able to overcome a substandard shooting night and subdue No. 2 Duke (31-2) to advance to Tuesday's championship game where they'll renew an intense rivalry with UConn.

The victory before a sellout crowd at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta also avenged a 21-point loss to Duke in the Jimmy V Classic played on Nov. 24 of this season. The 31-point swing in contests played on neutral courts is an indication of how much Tennessee (33-4) has improved in four months. That should give the Lady Vols a shot of confidence entering the championship tilt against a UConn team which scored a 63-62 overtime victory over Tennessee in their Jan. 4 meeting played at Hartford, Conn.

While Tennessee shot only 42 percent from the field against Duke and connected on only 1-of-9 from 3-point range, senior Gwen Jackson came through with the arguably the finest game of her stellar career, scoring 25 points and grabbing a game-high 15 rebounds. Jackson hit 7-of-13 field goals, 10-of-12 free throws and took over down the stretch when the game and UT's season hung in the balance. Jackson scored 11 points in the final six minutes of play and nailed Tennessee's only 3-point basket with 4:00 remaining to put the Lady Vols on top 52-49.

That turned out to be the last lead change in a seesaw struggle and the most critical basket of the game. The Lady Vols would go on to build six-point advantage thanks to some clutch free throw shooting (17-of-21 for the game) and a critical contribution from Brittany Jackson who came off the bench to score seven points on 3-of-4 shooting in 12 minutes of play.

Jackson has been Tennessee's most outstanding player during the NCAA Tournament and credits her out standing play to the inspiration she gets from her grandmother Laura Jackson, who died last month after a lengthy battle with cancer.

"My inspiration came from the last two games I played that she watched," said Jackson. "I got to talk to her the day she died. Her memory and the love I have for her is what keeps me going."

Duke All-American guard Alana Beard kept the Blue Devils close by scoring 29 points and grabbing a team-high six boards. She scored seven points in a span of 29 seconds capped by a lay-up with 53 seconds remaining to cut UT's lead to 60-56.

However Tennessee countered with a 6-0 run in the final 40 seconds on a basket by Shyra Ely and two free throws each from Kara Lawson and Shanna Zolman. Lawson scored only eight points in the contest but added 11 rebounds and a game-high five assists. Loree Moore was the only other Tennessee player in double figures with 11 points.

Duke finished the game shooting 39 percent, hitting 24-of-61 from the field. The Blue Devils shot only six free throws during the game and hit five.

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who will be taking Tennessee to its 10th NCAA championship game, credited rebounding and Jackson's inspired play with carrying the Lady Vols to the threshold of their seventh national title.

"I think she focused on what she wanted to do and how she wanted to handle the adversity and loss of her grandmother,'' Summitt said. "She's here for the third time, very inspired and I'm very proud of her.''

Tennessee lost to UConn in Jackson's prior two Final Four appearances in 1999 and 2002. With one last shot at UConn and an NCAA championship, Jackson and Lawson know that the sound of revenge has a great ring to it.

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