Lady Vols depart for Indianapolis

Tennessee's seniors practiced Thursday for the last time at Thompson-Boling Arena and then left for Indianapolis in search of their first national title. <p> After taking one day off the court Wednesday - the team arrived back at 5 a.m. after winning the regional final in Philadelphia - the Lady Vols watched a little film on Michigan State and practiced for two hours Thursday evening. <p>

They then left for Indy, where game preparations will continue Friday and Saturday. Tennessee plays Michigan State on Sunday at 9:30 p.m. at the RCA Dome. LSU and Baylor meet at 7 p.m. The winners play Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. for the national championship.

The players were a little sluggish Thursday - they had to attend classes Wednesday and Thursday - but thrilled to still be in the hunt, especially the seniors.

"Coming in at 5 in the morning Wednesday and coming out here practicing and getting ready to leave again, it's kind of overwhelming, but at the same time very exciting," said a visibly tired Loree Moore. "I love going to the Final Four. It's kind of like a reunion. You see everybody, meet and greet. But at the same time it's business, and you know what you have to do."

Moore, Shyra Ely and Brittany Jackson said they weren't thinking about this being their last practice at home until reminded of it.

"It's been great," Moore said. "I enjoyed every moment here and every chance I got to play on this court. Having this last practice you kind of just want to lay it all on the line, even though you're tired, even though your body's aching, but this is it. I'm glad I've been a part of a lot of history made at Tennessee."

"I probably wouldn't have thought of it if you hadn't have mentioned it," Ely said. "I'm pretty happy about the whole thing. I've enjoyed everything that I've done here, and I'm excited about what's happening right now in this moment. I'm also excited for the future."

"It's crazy," Jackson said. "I guess we won't be practicing on this floor. There's so many emotions, just excited about going, I hadn't really thought about it. It's sad."

But Jackson and the seniors were happy to have survived the regional final against Rutgers. The regional final games are often the toughest to win. The 1997-98 team went undefeated but first had to survive a scare from North Carolina. The 1998-99 team was heavily favored to repeat as national champions - it was Chamique Holdsclaw's and Kellie Jolly's senior years - but fell to Duke in a regional final.

Tennessee had to beat Rutgers in what was essentially a home game for the Scarlet Knights. The Lady Vols prevailed 59-49 with clutch free throw shooting and 16 points from Shanna Zolman and 14 points from Nicky Anosike. Ely struggled from the field - she was 2-11 - but hit 5-7 free throws and finished with nine points.

"I think without question that she was probably a little overanxious at times," coach Pat Summitt said. "She had been to three consecutive Final Fours and on top of that Shyra was trying to get back home. Combine that with Rutgers' defensive intensity and I think that without question, she might have forced some things.

"Now that we have made it there, I think that it should give her a chance to relax and play without being in some type of panic or mental anxiety of making it back to her home state and hometown to play in the Final Four. I thought Shyra, as far as being able to do other things, since at times she didn't shoot the ball well or might not rebound the ball as well, but I thought her defensive board play was significant.

"Shanna Zolman just made big shots. When she read the defense, going under the screen by (Tye'sha) Fluker in the second half to knock down that three, that was one of the biggest shots that she had made all night. It was very timely for us. Obviously she is playing with a great deal of confidence."

Ely is a native of Indianapolis and had said all season she wanted to end her collegiate career at home. She wrote "Homeward Bound" and "Nap-Town" on her shoes.

"That was a big deal to me," Ely said. "I think I put a lot of pressure on myself, which as a result I didn't play as well as I wanted to. I know that now, and I'll be able to learn from it and take different steps for the Final Four."

The seniors are very familiar with what happens at the Final Four - they will be at their fourth in four years. They would like for this one to end with a trophy.

"I think, as a team and a coach that has been there, you do know what to expect," Summitt said. "But every trip for me has been different as I am sure it has been for players. It seems like now at the Final Four there are so many different time demands, but I think that the one thing you do as a coach is try to prepare your freshmen, your first-timers for what to expect and how to avoid a lot of the distractions. You can get pulled in a lot of different directions.

"Shyra, going back home, has all of her family there and Shanna will be very excited as well. They have to be mindful of really keeping their focus, having been there before they should be better prepared in what to expect and how to handle it."

By 5 p.m. Thursday, Ely's cell phone battery had died from fielding calls from folks back home wanting tickets.

"This has been probably the busiest day of my life," Ely said. "My phone won't stop ringing. It's actually dead. My battery is already up. They're coming out of the woodwork. My first boyfriend ever from ninth grade, his aunt called me and asked for a ticket."

Ely said she can only get tickets for immediate family and "really, really" close friends so she had to say no to the aunt.

The seniors do feel good about their chances of finally winning a Final Four.

"I think there's no better way to go into the Final Four than with this team," Jackson said. "I feel really good about the way we're playing."

GAME AWARDS: The award winners after the Rutgers game were Tye'sha Fluker for attitude (the hat); Shanna Zolman for focus (oversized sunglasses); and Dominique Redding for leadership (a ring).

Former player and now graduate assistant Tasha Butts is in charge of the awards and said Redding won for her leadership from the bench.

"She kept them going, kept them in good spirits," Butts said.

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