Tennessee players looked shell-shocked afterwards, but sat in their locker stalls and fielded questions from the media. Senior Shyra Ely broke down in the post-game press conference, and seniors Brittany Jackson and Loree Moore were red-eyed and sad.
It was a bitter end to the season for Ely, an Indianapolis native, and Shanna Zolman, who hails from Syracuse, Indiana, but Zolman said the loss hurts no matter where it happened.
"I don't care where it's at," Zolman said. "It could be in Alaska, and I wouldn't care; it's a loss. Obviously it's all the excitement and coming into it, yeah in your home state, in front of family and a home crowd, but a loss is a loss. It doesn't matter if it's here or Nova Scotia, it's a loss. So it's not any more depressing."
Michigan State, 33-3, jumped out to an eight-point lead in the first half, but Tennessee led 31-25 at halftime thanks to nine points from Alexis Hornbuckle and seven from Moore. However, the Lady Vols had only made 2-8 from the free throw line, a statistic that would haunt them by game's end.
"What really bothers me is you have got to make lay-ups and free throws if you want to win," UT coach Pat Summitt said. "Obviously defense and board play are key. But those easy shots, you've got to make free throws."
Tennessee was 5-13 from the line for the game. Michigan State was 9-11 from the stripe.
The Spartans were led by Lindsay Bowen with 18 points and Liz Shimek and Victoria Lucas-Perry with 14 apiece. Kelli Roehrig had 12.
Hornbuckle finished with 16 points for the game, and Moore had 11. Zolman had 13 points.
With Tennessee down by two with 18 seconds to go, Zolman missed a 3-pointer from the corner. Hornbuckle got the offensive rebound but missed the jumper in the lane. Nicky Anosike grabbed the rebound and missed a short shot. Roehrig grabbed that rebound and fired an outlet pass to Bowen, who found Lucas-Perry for the layup. That was the ballgame.
It was an outcome that left the Tennessee players in tears and wondering how a game slipped away that was seemingly won.
The Spartans got free in the second half for some three-pointers – they made seven for the game – and started chipping away at the lead, which was 49-33 with 14:30 to go. They had it to four, 51-47, with 9:11 to go, and Tennessee could never surge ahead by more than eight again.
A steal by Kristin Haynie with a minute to go put MSU up 64-62. Moore tied it with a jumper in the lane, but Roehrig scored on a layup after UT's Tye'sha Fluker was tripped up in the lane to put the Spartans up 66-64.
After the game Summitt pointed to UT's lapses on defense, turnovers and an "I've got to do it" mentality by the players, especially Ely who finished her career with nine points but pressed too hard at times and had two consecutive turnovers near the end of the game.
"I know she struggled some tonight and usually it's when she's trying to do too much as opposed to not stepping up to make plays," Summitt said. "So you've got to respect the fact that she was trying to get the job done and had those turnovers late in the game, because they really keyed on her on the inside.
"But she's not the only one. I just thought that we played a little bit more like ‘I've got to do it.' Every player was like ‘I've got to do it' as opposed to continuing to run what we needed to run offensively, so we lost our composure as a team on a number of possessions."
Tennessee, 30-5, shot as a team 42.4 percent, which usually was good enough to win, as long as UT played solid defense and protected the ball down the stretch. But that didn't happen Sunday.
"I guess the thing that stands out in my mind is we didn't deny the middle of the floor," Summitt said. "We let them run their offense and get into a good rhythm. We didn't identify the three-point shooters. We shot the ball, I think, well at times, well enough probably to win for a Tennessee team, if we buckled down and played great defense and had more impact with our defense. Our rebounding was good enough to win, our defense wasn't, and our turnovers were costly."
It was a breakout game for Hornbuckle, who played solid defense and had eight rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals to go with her 16 points. But she was distraught in the locker room, and her eyes were red from crying. Still, she sat before the glaring lights of the TV cameras and answered every question asked of her. She talked about her best friend Moore and the other seniors and how much she would miss them. She talked about how sad she was that she didn't get them a national title.
"I just want to say I'm sorry," Hornbuckle said. "I gave it my all. Each and every second I was on the court, I gave it my all. I am just sorry it fell through at the end."