OF LEADS AND LEADERSHIP

On a night when Tennessee's scoring, assist and rebound leaders were true freshmen, the Lady Vols could have used a few more senior moments in the NCAA semifinal against Michigan State.

Instead they got senior mistakes and misfires as battle tested, veteran leaders Shyra Ely and Loree Moore combined to commit 11 of Tennessee's 18 turnovers, including several down the stretch in which the Spartans staged the most momentous come-from-behind victory in women's Final Four history.

It was a particularly disappointing performance by Ely, who was hoping to close out her college career with a national championship in her home city of Indianapolis. She was also looking for her first big Final Four outing after fizzling in such contests the last three years. But Ely appeared to be pressing early and never got untracked, finishing the game with nine points on 4-of-14 shooting and six turnovers. The Lady Vols fate has always been tied to Shyra Ely's production and she had consistently answered the call this season until Sunday's contest.

Point guard Moore had five turnovers and only two assists, although she did hit a couple of key shots to help build the Lady Vols' double-digit advantage, and finished with 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting, highlighted by a 3-point basket. What she didn't do was steady the ship when it was tossed by the storming Spartans. When ball security was Job One UT's one guard was often missing in action. On MSU's steal and go-ahead basket that made the score 64-62, Zolman was pushed nearly trapped without a dribble and no Lady Vol came to the ball. Miscues and missed free throws proved to be the difference in the game which featured two big rallies and major momentum swings. The Lady Vols closed out the first half on a 21-7 run to take a 31-26 lead after trailing 18-10. The key to the comeback was pressure defense that triggered a transition attack and didn't allow the Spartans match-up zone to get set. Stepping on the throttle to start the second half, Tennessee built its cushion to 45-29 with 16:04 remaining in the game capping what appeared to be a back breaking, 35-14, run.

That's when the teams changed identities with Michigan State looking like the team that had been there and won that, while Tennessee came unraveled like a Final Four first-timer. The Spartans finished the game with 15 turnovers vs. 16 assists (plus 1) compared to the Lady Vols 18 turnovers vs. 12 assists (minus 6). UT's last two turnovers resulted in the go-ahead and game-sealing basket that accounted for MSU's four-point margin of victory. Both field goals were on open lay-ups following steals.

Tennessee won the battle of the boards 41-31 and each team made 26 field goals. However the Lady Vols were a miserable 5-of-13 (38.5 percent) on free throws while the Spartans nailed 9 of 11 (81.8 percent) of their charity tosses.

Freshman Alexis Hornbuckle led Tennessee with 16 points and six assists, connecting on 7 of 11 from the field, grabbing eight rebounds and recording two steals in a stellar big-stage performance. Fellow first-year player Nicki Anosike pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds but struggled at the foul line — making just 1 of 5 of her free-throw attempts — and from the field where she was good on only 3-of-10. The 6-foot-4 Staten Island center exhibited a nice handle

Of further surprise was UT's inability to score from close range as the 10-of-31 shooting effort from the front-line trio of Ely, Anosike and Tyresha Fulker graphically attests. Tennessee's failure to produce in the paint was was compounded by the shortage of open looks from the perimeter as the Lady Vols made 3-of-8 three-point attempts compared to 7-of-15 by the Spartans.

Shana Zolman made 1 of 4 from beyond the arc. The last of those misses would have given UT the lead in the last minute of play but she couldn't connect from the corner. It was one of perhaps two open looks Zolman had in the game as Michigan State's 2-3 match-up zone protected the perimeter before collapsing inside to swipe at the basketball.

After losing four players to injury this season including three freshmen all-Americans with a two-time national player of the year, and key role player Sydney Spencer, reaching the Final Four for the fourth straight year and winning the SEC Tournament title were particularly noteworthy achievements. But this was a title they had a chance to steal, given the inexperienced field of finalists and that's the most disappointing part of the defeat. Even LSU cooperated by losing to Baylor, but the Lady Vols couldn't make the 16-point advantage hold up.

Give Michigan State all due credit, but it appeared after a tight start followed by an intense run, Tennessee relaxed with the large lead and never regained focus — much less momentum. It's the type of thing that can happen to any team given the right circumstances, but it's not the type of thing that happens to a Pat Summitt team in the Final Four.

The good news is that the Lady Vols have the weapons to come back in a big way next season and the loss could serve as added momentum. The bad news is equality is coming to the women's game and the road to championships is already perilous.


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