Tennessee, 30-4, will play Michigan State, 32-3, in a semifinal game after the Spartans sent Stanford home in the Kansas City Regional. LSU, 33-3, and Baylor, 31-3, face off in the other semifinal. The winners will meet for the national title. The Final Four features two teams making their first appearance in Baylor and Michigan State, and two SEC foes in Tennessee and LSU.
But to get to Indy, Tennessee first had to survive a street brawl in Philly. A large portion of the crowd of 6,452 at the Liacouras Center wanted to see the Scarlet Knights send the Lady Vols home for the season.
"I think just staying tough the whole entire way," Ely said when asked how Tennessee was able to hold on down the stretch.
Tennessee led at halftime, 30-24, after doing a good job of holding onto the ball – six turnovers – in the face of Rutgers' relentless pressure defense. Tennessee was scoring from the foul line – nine points – and via its own pressure with 13 points off of Rutgers' turnovers. Brittany Jackson, who had been in a shooting slump for the first three games, connected on both of her three-point attempts in the first half.
But Tennessee got careless with the ball in the second half – 12 turnovers in the final 20 minutes – and then lost point guard Loree Moore to foul trouble. Rutgers took the lead, 33-31, with 14:48 to play, and the crowd got raucously loud.
"I was concerned that we were throwing the ball around and just not executing," Pat Summitt said. "When you struggle offensively, you have concern that it will impact how you play defense. I was encouraged by what they did defensively when we were struggling offensively."
A jumper by Alexis Hornbuckle and free throws by Zolman and Tye'sha Fluker pushed Tennessee back in the lead, which it never surrendered again. However, Rutgers, behind the shooting of Cappie Pondexter, stayed on UT's heels and was only down by two, 49-47, with 1:08 remaining, after Essence Carson hit two free throws on a foul by Moore that sit her to the bench for good with five.
Rutgers, 28-7, misfired in the final minute and forced to foul, kept sending Lady Vols to the line. Zolman, Ely, Hornbuckle and Nicky Anosike connected on 10 straight free throws to seal the win.
Rutgers was led by Pondexter with 25 points and Matee Ajavon with 12. Zolman had 16 for Tennessee, followed by Anosike with 14 – 10 of which came from the stripe. Ely and Hornbuckle had nine points apiece.
"We knew that they were going to go for a lot of our fakes," Zolman said. "So we tried to give a lot of shot fakes and be able to go inside. When we did that, our posts did a great job of being aggressive and drawing fouls."
Tennessee went to the line 35 times compared to 13 for Rutgers, and the Scarlet Knights were called for 10 fouls in the first half before the Lady Vols were whistled for one. The crowd didn't care for it and cheered derisively when Anosike was assessed a personal with 6:18 to go in the first half; however Rutgers could have been called for even more. The officials allowed a lot of contact, and most of the calls that went against them occurred in the paint, where the Scarlet Knights were outsized and out-rebounded, 38-28.
"It was rough," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said in her opening statement to the media. "It was a great game, and I am really proud of how our team came back within minutes. We had a chance to have a different outcome, but some elements of the game we weren't able to control and while I haven't seen the stat sheet, I am sure (Tennessee) out-rebounded us and hit some big-time shots.
"I can't say they wanted it more because I don't know if anybody could've wanted it more than us. I do know that we made some crucial errors, and I think some of that had to do with our youth."
Ely and Zolman definitely wanted this game. They had talked all season about getting home to Indiana for the Final Four. Ely played at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, and her family still lives there. Zolman played at Wawasee High School in tiny Syracuse, Indiana, and said, "I know my whole entire town will be there."
"One busload," Summitt quipped.
Ely and Zolman embraced after the game before being mobbed by teammates.
"We stood at half-court and said, ‘We're going home,' " Zolman said.
POST-GAME CELEBRATION: The seniors are getting skilled at climbing ladders. Three weeks after snipping down the net strand-by-strand in Greenville, S.C., after winning the SEC tourney, they claimed another net in Philly after winning the regional final.
Each player ascended the ladder, followed by staff members and then the coaches. Once again, Holly Warlick had to be retrieved from the post-game radio show for her turn on the ladder. Pat Summitt, accompanied by son Tyler, cut the last strands.
Shanna Zolman cut two strands in a touching gesture. She handed the first one to Sidney Spencer, who was on crutches beside the ladder, and then snipped one for herself. Zolman is wearing Spencer's no. 1 jersey in recognition of her close friend. Spencer tore her ACL in February and has had season-ending knee surgery.
Zolman again led the band in "Rocky Top" and added a fashion statement. She looped her strand of net through the clasp on her championship hat and turned the ball cap backwards.
Tye'sha Fluker, Alexis Hornbuckle and Dominique Redding danced. New UT men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl hugged Summitt after the game. Pearl sat in Tennessee's section with men's athletic director Mike Hamilton, who also made the trip to Philadelphia.
A Philly icon, Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens, also was sitting behind UT's bench. Owens, who played at UT-Chattanooga, had an orange-and-white shaker in hand.
ALL TOURNEY-TEAM: The media voted for Tennessee's Shyra Ely and Shanna Zolman, Rutgers' Cappie Pondexter and Matee Ajavon and Ohio State's Jessica Davenport. Pondexter was selected as the Most Outstanding Player.
GAME NOTES: Tennessee will make its fourth straight trip to the Final Four and ninth in 11 years. Pat Summitt is 16-4 in regional finals. The Lady Vols now have a 12-game win streak. Not a single UT opponent in this year's NCAA tourney has scored 60 points. Texas Tech came the closest with 59. Rutgers also didn't allow an opponent in the tourney to score 60 points, and Tennessee came the closest with 59.
PRESS ROOM VISITOR: Pat Summitt watched the final minutes of the Stanford-Michigan State game in the media workroom, which was right down the hall from Tennessee's locker room. Summitt had heard the game was close and wanted to see the end. Since the closest TV was in the media room, she joined the circle of reporters crowded around the television.