Rutgers, 27-5, which went 16-0 in the Big East, deserved a much-better fate than to meet Tennessee in a regional semifinal. Coach Pat Summitt said so, as did Scarlet Knights coach C. Vivian Stringer. But the Lady Vols were nonetheless elated to move on in a region being called the bracket of doom.
"I hope one thing," Summitt said. "I hope we never see Rutgers again in a regional tournament. It seems like we've met them so many times. It's tough to play against one of the best friends in this profession and someone I have so much respect for.
"We've met so many times. I just really felt for Vivian. She's a great lady; she had an awesome year. Y'all know how I feel about her and being here. It's just hard. She's had a tough go of it, and I really have a lot of respect for her. … She will come right back and be on the same type stage next year (in a regional matchup). There's no doubt in my mind. I just hope we're not there with her."
"The selection and the brackets have been a joke," Stringer said in no uncertain terms. "I would have said something earlier, but I was afraid that they'd (NCAA) send me to the regional in Alaska, and they don't even have one there. I don't want to see Pat at the regionals again."
Rutgers brought a game effort, but Tennessee got a career-high 29 points from senior guard Shanna Zolman, who played 40 minutes, and 29 more from freshman forward Candace Parker, who was one minute short of going the distance. Sophomore guard Alexis Hornbuckle, chipped in 10 points – 3-4 from the field; 4-4 from the line – despite playing in only her third game since breaking her wrist Feb. 12.
The Scarlet Knights also had three players in double figures with 22 from senior guard Cappie Pondexter, 24 from sophomore guard Matee Ajavon and 10 from freshman center Kia Vaughn.
Pondexter got her average, but she was 7-20 from the field and was hounded most of the game by Tennessee's post player Nicky Anosike, who, as she has done all season, picked up a smaller player on the perimeter.
"Nicky Anosike is one of the most competitive people I have ever coached," Summitt said. "She is cut out of a very special cloth. I tell her all the time that what you're made out of is something that is unique to our basketball team. She is one of our best leaders as a sophomore, one of our most vocal players, she's one of our best perimeter defenders as a 6'3, 6'4 player. She likes to be responsible for what some players would call the dirty work, and that's play defense and clean up the boards.
"She took a lot of responsibility today for defending Cappie and disrupting their offense. That's as important to her as anything. She's just very special. She wants the ball in any pressure situation whether she's on offense or defense. She wants it."
Summitt got a stellar performance from another sophomore in Hornbuckle. She played 25 minutes and recorded five rebounds – including four on the offensive glass to give Tennessee extra possessions – three assists, one steal and only two turnovers despite having to wear a splint and tape to protect her still-healing wrist.
The injury didn't slow her down. She hit the floor, hopped off the court in pursuit of loose balls and basically needed a lot more than the 94 feet of court space to contain her game to the delight of many of the 8,428 fans in attendance.
"They need to extend it just a little bit so I have room to slow down," Hornbuckle said. "Maybe 98 (feet) will do."
Summitt was asked if she worried about Hornbuckle's headstrong dashes from end to end and beyond. She expressed more concern for the cheerleaders and spectators.
"I worry about the people that don't have any kind of protection," Summitt said. "Seriously, I think she's fine. There's no way the doctors would have allowed her to play if they weren't very confident in the device she has on her hand, which is going to protect her. That's just Alexis. I guess I have to live with that. Actually today I enjoyed all the energy that she brought. If I worried about her every time she hit the floor then I'd be a mess. I couldn't coach. She's on the floor a lot."
It was a senior who filled up the box score with a career high on 10-14 shooting. The 29 points – 5-9 from behind the arc – were the most since Zolman scored 28 this season against Alabama. Her 1,695 points moved her past former Lady Vol Shyra Ely for ninth place on the career list. She has already set career and single-season program marks for three-pointers – 100 this season and 263 career. With four made free throws she moved into first place for all-time NCAA career free throw percentage of 91.6 percent (306-334).
After the game Zolman's teammates and coach applauded the performance. Zolman didn't miss in the second half - she was 6-6 from the field - which was a big reason why Tennessee as a team shot 61.9 percent in the final 20 minutes and 47.2 percent for the game, despite a shaky start of 37.5 percent in the first half.
"Shanna was unconscious today," said Parker, who moved past Chamique Holdsclaw into third place for most points by a freshman (602). "She was unconscious. She was unreal."
"She played extremely well today; she played extremely smart," Hornbuckle said. "She took the shots that were open, and she knocked them down. You can't ask for anything more than that. That's her job basically is to shoot it. Hit the open shots, and if they're taking something away, counter it. That's what she did. Shot fake, get to the paint, get them up in the air, hit a shot. She played well. She kept her head. She led on the floor. She did everything that was needed of a senior tonight."
It was Zolman's calming influence on the game that got Summitt's attention.
"You could take Shanna, and you could put our entire basketball team and our entire coaching staff in a room and she has more poise and more composure than any of us, and it shows up on the court," Summitt said. "I could be out there just about to lose my mind, and she's just as calm. She stays that way. I think this year she has really matured as a leader that understands how to impact and communicate with her team in a way that does bring calmness. Because we do have a lot … they're wired pretty tight. She can come over when everybody else is screaming, and say, ‘OK, we just need to settle down.' She even calms me down, which is no good."
Zolman, who struggled at times this season to become accustomed to a leader's role, has embraced it in the postseason. When Hornbuckle went out she had to not only assume the point position but also lead the team on the floor. A sharp-shooting guard was suddenly pulled from her comfort zone and asked to run the show and score.
"That is what I try to bring most importantly for this team is just the calming effect and keeping my composure no matter what the circumstances, situation or who we're playing," Zolman said. "And against a team like Rutgers who brings so much defensive pressure that's very, very important. They want to speed you up, they want to get you playing so fast that you do things uncharacteristic of yourself and of your team. Things were a little bit rough offensively to begin with but we wanted to keep our composure, wanted to get the ball inside, wanted to calm down and get open shots to fall, and then most importantly get easy shots from defensive transition points as well."
Rutgers led by nine points in the first half, 23-14, with 7:08 to play as Tennessee surrendered a seven-point lead with a series of misfires offensively and turnovers.
"I just said, ‘We've got to be ahead when we go to the locker room. I'm just telling you. You figure out how you're going to do it. We need to be ahead,' " Summitt said.
They did. Zolman hit two free throws and a jumper, Hornbuckle hit a jumper and converted a steal into a layup, and Parker hit two layups, a free throw and a jumper.
At halftime, Tennessee led, 29-27, and controlled the boards, 20-15.
"I also told them the second half our true character will be how we finish out here defensively and on the boards, because that's what we're all about," Summitt said. "I thought most situations they responded really well."
Tennessee lost the battle of the boards, 37-29, but they committed only three turnovers in the second half after logging nine in the first, and added five blocks to finish with seven.
"It seemed like a 70-minute game, but the second half was obviously a lot better for our basketball team," Summitt said. "I thought both teams fought extremely hard in both halves, but I really thought in the second half we were much more in sync offensively. Certainly when you're shooting the ball 61 percent it's going to allow you to generate some offense and also energy on defense. I thought the fact we were struggling offensively in the first half we struggled defensively. Overall you look at Shanna Zolman, you look at Candace Parker and the numbers they put up for our team when we had a couple not scoring for us today and then the big-play making ability of Nicky Anosike. Her defense I thought was really key. We had to have that type of effort from her. Just a great win for our program. I am proud of our team."
Summitt also singled out the efforts of junior forward Sidney Spencer, who was 0-6 from the field but led the team in rebounds with six, assists with seven (a career high) and steals with three.
"I couldn't shoot a BB in the ocean, but it doesn't matter," Spencer said. "I've learned as a player coming in the Tennessee program it's obviously defense and boards, but it's also that one part of your game can't affect the other. You can do other things. Candace and Shanna are scoring so why not give them the ball? I was just trying to rebound. Coach is always talking about rebounding. You can never have enough rebounds so I was just trying to get to the boards, passing, following shots, just trying to do the other things that are important in the game as well. It's not just offense."
Zolman has talked about not wanting to play her last game in a Tennessee uniform unless she's going out with a title.
"I hadn't thought about that," said Spencer, who is Zolman's best friend, about the possibility of every game being the last one together. "We're going to fight. We're going to go down fighting whatever happens. Our team doesn't give up. We're just trying to do what coach asks us defensively and offensively. I think our team can do well if we just take care of the ball and own the boards."
Spencer, who is second on the team in made three-pointers with 52, recognized a great shooting night.
"She did amazing," Spencer said of Zolman. "I thought she had some key shots. She wasn't necessarily always left wide open. She was creating and taking smart shots. I thought all around she played really well. She was a great leader. She was always talking to us. Her shot was definitely on, and that's something that we need from her. She's a big-time player so I'm glad."
Rutgers was as sad as Tennessee was happy. Stringer softly answered questions – except for the one about the brackets and playing Tennessee so early – and was asked to talk about the loss of Pondexter, a senior who delayed a career in the WNBA to come back for a fifth year to try to win a national title.
"I really haven't said goodbye and I am not going to address that right now," Stringer said. "I love Cappie very much and I am going to stay away from her for a while. She's real special. It's like losing your daughter to college or marriage. I would cry at both of those. This whole class is different – very special. I would enjoy going to the movies, having tea or coffee or just having them over to my house for dinner. They're just like daughters to me."
When Stringer was asked about the post-game hug with Summitt and how both coaches looked disappointed, the tears came.
"You never want your friends to be disappointed or hurt," Stringer said in explaining Summitt's soft words at center court. "I think we both feel that it is tough to play against someone you are personal friends with. Pat's professional enough and a good enough individual not to gloat about a win. That's just the way she is."
"I never want to see her in this situation again. I don't," Summitt said. "This is such a competitive world in terms of basketball and in terms of the teams that consistently have stayed in the top 20. Obviously their program has done that, our program has done that, and I was hoping more than anything that Vivian and I would not have to face each other. I was thinking, well, after facing them last year maybe we won't have to do it. She's a special, special lady."
Summitt sought out Pondexter after the game to offer her the highest compliment.
"I said ‘Cappie, I have tremendous respect for you,' " Summitt said. "Because it had hit me that she came back for her fifth year. She's the heart and soul of that team; she's just a great competitor. I do have tremendous respect for her and I wanted her to know that. Maybe she didn't get what she wanted as far as a national championship, which every student-athlete aspires to obtain – but I've watched her play a lot, watched her on tape a lot. She's truly a winner through and through."
Zolman also embraced Pondexter after the game and said she felt sadness for her.
"Honestly I do," Zolman said. "I was talking to both Nicky and coach before we came in here (for the press conference) and realizing Cappie came back her fifth year to get a ring and beat us. I really do feel for her – I'd rather still win – but I still do feel for her … and she fell in the exact same way she did last year. As much as I do feel for her I am glad that we are moving on."
Pondexter also will be moving on as one of the top picks in the WNBA draft next month.
In the final minute of the game Pondexter allowed herself to realize her collegiate career was finished.
"That is when it finally hit me that it was my last game," she said. "It's hard, especially when I worked so hard to come back, and to be disappointed. I hope I taught the team a lot. Going into next year Matee can do more and help the team do what they want to do. I just have to move on with my life."
Pondexter was a major focus of Tennessee's pre-game scouting defense, and Summitt wanted her team to make Pondexter earn every point.
"I thought it was important to make her (Cappie) work for all of her touches," Summitt said. "I'd say 80 percent of the time we did that, but we obviously broke down at times. We knew that she would be a big-play person for them. Matee is a great player to come to the ball, and I thought we probably gave her a lot more open looks, and we did not adjust as well with her throughout the game as we did with Cappie.
"But overall our defensive effort was good; our communication did break down at times on switches. Anosike, you've got to praise the intensity and the passion that she brings on the defensive end very game and she maintained that this game. Unfortunately she got in foul trouble early but I thought in the second half she really stepped up and effected what we did on the defensive end in a positive way."
Anosike also added seven points with three field goals and three assists. She only had two rebounds, both offensive, but because she was chasing Pondexter around the perimeter she was often out of rebounding position.
"She's a great player; we knew that coming in," Anosike said. "I was trying to keep her off-balance as much as I could, just try to frustrate her and make it easier on myself by not letting her catch the ball. She's a great player, but I knew a big part of us winning would be my defensive effort on her."
Another key to the win was the start of the second half as Tennessee put separation between itself and Rutgers on the scoreboard. Parker scored 10 of Tennessee's 13 points in the first five minutes – Zolman hit a three-pointer – and the Lady Vols built an 11-point lead, 44-33. Rutgers stayed close but could never get the lead under seven points. Zolman and Parker seemed to take turns hitting big shots at that point.
"I think Shanna knew she had to perform big for us to win, but how many seniors do you see that struggle because they put an enormous amount of pressure on themselves?" Summitt said. "That's why I have enormous respect for how she played and hopefully we can keep her in the zone that she's in. Because she's really been playing super here of late. I think her confidence, her composure, is really effective with our basketball team.
"Candace has a lot of that, too, and then we've got some others that are kind of off the wall, bouncing around. I give credit to Spencer today – couldn't buy a basket but she came up with some other plays, got on the boards."
Parker's flurry of points to start the second half opened up the outside and gave Tennessee a deadly inside-outside combo of Parker in the low block and Zolman prowling the perimeter.
"We always want to initially go inside so yes, getting Candace the ball was definitely high on our priority list," Zolman said. "When she scored the first however many points they had to double down on her, and that always opens things up on the outside for me. Things were falling today a little bit more so than usual, but it definitely was an emphasis on our part to get the ball inside."
Parker credited Zolman's shots for unclogging the paint. Parker was 5-13 in the first half with one free throw; she was 4-9 in the second half and 10-12 from the line. Parker also moved to the low block, and Rutgers simply had nobody who could stop her.
"I think it was definitely my positioning," Parker said of the first-half problems. "I was being pushed out so there was not good spacing to pass it into the post. We talked about it at halftime about how I had to post up as close to the paint as I can, and I think I made the adjustment, and it was better in the second half. I don't think it was in my mind to shoot more, but it was like when I had the ball on the block my coach and my teammates were counting on me to score so I was just looking for that because it opens up more things when they start doubling down on the post.
"We go inside first and then we told each other if they start doubling down on me I'm going to look for Sid and Shanna on the outside. That was our game plan, and it worked. It opened up things a lot in the lane for us down low."
Rutgers started with guard Essence Carson on Parker and then had to switch to center/forward Mariota Theodoris. Both players fouled out.
"Essence has to deny her first, there's no way we can stop her once she gets it in there; that's the reason you saw us switch to a center," Stringer said. "What makes Candace difficult (to guard) is that she starts out on the perimeter and sets you up like a guard and moves down to post up. Either you have a player with that size and versatility, or you try to cover that.
"When Essence had no answer for her down low, we switch to Mariota Theodoris, who was much more physical and a better matchup against her. Candace started giving the ball up more. We tried to go into a zone, but we aren't that type of team, so that was short-lived. Parker is a great talent. She steps up and answers the call."
Stringer was left to come up with some words of comfort for her team and her seniors – Pondexter, Theodoris, Michelle Campbell, Courtney Locke and Aquisha Cahoe.
"I would do anything to prevent the hurt that we experience and we have experienced," Stringer said. "You learn in life that you do everything you possibly can and when that is not enough you learn to accept that and you know tomorrow the sun will come up and we're going to go on with our lives. We are going to continue to work hard to get better.
"Tennessee is a great program. Those young ladies are classy and they're great individuals. Whatever team comes out of our region is going to be able to represent in a big way. It's one of those games that in the end where you don't really get into the technical of why. It is what it is. We hoped we would have been a little sharper on everything, but it was what is was and that's the way it is.
"We have five seniors, and I have avoided thinking about them leaving. I don't think I could say good-bye. It has been tough. I appreciate the great year that the team gave me, and we have a bunch of classy young women."
Tennessee's players intended to spend Sunday enjoying the win and then get back to practice Monday. At the time of their press interviews they didn't yet know who the next opponent would be as North Carolina and Purdue were just getting ready to tip off. They did sit in the stands with their family members to watch the game.
When Parker was asked if she intended to sightsee in Cleveland on Monday, she looked incredulous.
"Do what?" she said. "We're going to practice and rest."
But the rest of Sunday was set aside for game watching, relaxing and eating.
"Right now we're going to relax a little bit for the rest of today, but the coaches will definitely be doing their thing with scouting, getting a game plan," Zolman said Sunday afternoon from the locker room. "Starting tomorrow we're going to be focused on who our next opponent is and trying to do whatever we can in the meantime of getting prepared."
"We go to work," Summitt said when asked what was next for her as she stood outside her locker room. "My staff I'm sure is out watching right now. This is obviously a team that we're getting ready to face – if in fact it's North Carolina or Purdue – everybody wants to go to the Final Four. So whoever our next opponent might be we just know that we have to lay it all on the line. I don't want our kids to think about it until practice tomorrow. We'll come up with a game plan. I can't say enough about my staff and how they help at this point in time. They're spoon-feeding me like I'm a little baby. I won't have to worry as much, just say, ‘OK, give it to me. What are we going to do?' "
Anosike said at this point in the season – and especially with one day between regional games – the emphasis is what Tennessee will do.
"It's not about the other team; it's about us," she said. "We're just going to focus on what we need to do. Whoever we have next that's fine. We've just got to focus on ourselves."
North Carolina will be next after the Tar Heels got a layup by guard Ivory Latta with 2.8 seconds remaining to slip past Purdue, 70-68. North Carolina was led by forward Erlana Larkins with 23 points and Latta with 19.
"There's no moral victory in this," Purdue coach Kristy Curry said. "It kind of came down to who had the ball at the end. We didn't have time to make one."
Latta may have scored the final bucket, but Larkins was the difference-maker for North Carolina with her work on the offensive glass. She was 10-13 from the field and had seven rebounds.
"With her playing the way she's playing we have a good chance of a national championship," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said.
North Carolina entered the NCAA tourney ranked No. 1 in RPI with Tennessee No. 2. The fact they are meeting in a regional final instead of a Final Four has rankled both coaches.
"I watched the game earlier today," Hatchell said. "They're big; they're a very, very good team. I told the girls in the locker room I felt like somewhere down the road we would play Tennessee. I expected it to be in the Final Four, not in this situation. It's just a shame that both teams are ever having to play this early in the brackets. They're an excellent team, they're playing very well right now, and it should be a great game."
Tennessee now has a six-game postseason win streak after taking three in the SEC tourney and claiming three NCAA victories so far. The next team to win three in a row will be crowned the 2006 national champions. Tennessee or North Carolina will have to survive a stacked region in Cleveland to even get to Boston.
"We knew coming in that we were coming to a mini-Final Four," Parker said. "There are just so many talented teams, but we've got to be that behind us. Our goal is to come out of this regional and go to the real Final Four.
"We don't feel invincible, and we're not content by any means. We're happy, but we're not content. We still have a lot of prove because not many picked us going to the Final Four. We were supposed to make it to this point, but we want to be there in the end. We want to be the last one standing."
ODDS AND ENDS
BEST CELEBRATION: Nicky Anosike after she scooped in a layup and crashed to the floor late in the second half. Rutgers had cut the lead to seven when Anosike took a pass from Sidney Spencer and converted the basket to push the lead to 64-55 with 5:11 to play. She was fouled by Mariota Theodoris, her fifth and final infraction.
"Down the stretch she had a great ‘and-one' play," Pat Summitt said.
Anosike landed on her back and kicked her legs and threw her arms in the air. She sort of looked like a beetle that gets turned over and can't get right-side up again.
"It was getting late in the game," she said. "We just needed a spark. Something to get us going. It just happened to be me. I was just trying to get us going and be aggressive and give the team some more energy."
BEST SHRUG: Alexis Hornbuckle after she banked in a shot in the first half from the area inside the top of the key. After the shot hit the back of the glass and went in, Hornbuckle turned up court, raised her arms partway and shrugged her shoulders.
"I didn't call bank; I thought I was going to brick it horrendously," she said. "Because when he came off (her hands), I was like, ‘Ooh, that's hard.' And then it banked in. I was like, ‘Ohhh.' "
BEST SIDELINE INSTRUCTION: The fast teaching delivered by assistant coach Nikki Caldwell to Hornbuckle. She had come into the game to give Candace Parker a breather, but Summitt summoned Hornbuckle back to the bench within a minute. She took a seat by Caldwell, who scratched out a lesson plan.
"I was confused on the defense," Hornbuckle said. "They went over a defense that I was out on the sideline watching (when she was out with a broken wrist), and I didn't understand so they had to break it down for me."
BEST FOCUS: Hornbuckle's. She was a spotty free throw shooter – sometimes under 70 percent in a game – before breaking her wrist. Since then, she's hitting at a much-better clip and was perfect at the line against Rutgers.
"I think it's concentration," Hornbuckle said. "Free throws for any player is repetition and concentration. I've definitely been practicing that because I don't want to get up there and embarrass myself. I definitely concentrate a lot more. I think whenever the splint comes off it's still concentration, even though it's back to normal, instead of taking everything for granted. So I think the injury has helped me as far as concentrating in all aspects."
FASTEST TIMEOUT: The one used by Tennessee in the first 26 seconds of the game. A player called it to avoid a held ball call. Summitt would have preferred that they play on.
"I didn't call timeout; one of my players called timeout to keep from giving up the ball," Summitt said. "I guess I gave them that freedom to do that, but at that moment I didn't want to call timeout. We had a long day ahead of us."
PRE-GAME OOPS: The coaches from Rutgers and Tennessee were still trying to shake hands when the notes of the national anthem started. They had to quickly hustle to line up with the players on the floor.
ONE MORE: Tye'sha Fluker was introduced as having jersey No. 55, which belongs to Nicky Anosike. In Norfolk, Anosike was introduced as Alex Fuller.
BEST IN-GAME ADVICE: Anosike to an official: "That was a moving screen." She was right, but Anosike was called for the foul as she tried to get outside to cover Cappie Pondexter.
BEST PRESS BREAK: The one executed by Hornbuckle when she entered the game at the 15:59 mark of the first half when Anosike picked up a second foul. She dribbled free within six seconds and found Spencer in the corner. She missed the 3-pointer but followed her shot, got the rebound and kicked out to Shanna Zolman behind the arc. Spencer got the assist when Zolman nailed the shot.
BEST JERSEYS: Those worn by Aliah Marie, 9, and Alandon Timothy, 5. They both wear No. 44 in honor of their big sister, Alex Fuller.
BEST-DRESSED FANS: Three for Tennessee from the Big Orange Army with shields with the Lady Vol logo. They also wore shiny silver-colored helmets and sunglasses.
MOST-ENTERTAINING BAND: Purdue's. They sang all sorts of songs when North Carolina players went to the free throw line, including "I Wish I Were an Oscar Mayer Weiner" and "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" when Ivory Latta was shooting. Other selections were the "I Love You" theme from Barney, "The Wheels on the Bus," and "I've Been Working on the Railroad."
SMARTEST MASCOT: Smokey. When a fan in the front row asked for Smokey to come pose for a photo, Smokey shook his head and pointed to the edge of the court and then to an NCAA official. The Stanford Tree was exiled from the NCAA tourney for dancing in an undesignated area.
HIGHEST PERCH: Definitely the one the coaches and players sit on for the post-game press conferences. A reporter sitting on the front row can't be seen by the team members and can't even see the players' name placards.
"These steps are like going down a mountain." Summitt said as she descended from the podium.
BEST SOCKS: The old school ones worn by North Carolina. The socks have the colored stripes at the top and are worn at knee or calf length. Add some canvas Chuck Taylor's, and it could be the 1970s again.
BEST WORDSMITH: Candace Parker. The redshirt freshman is a writer and keeps a journal. Shanna Zolman turns to her during the press conferences when she wants a suggestion for word use. Sunday's discussion was interrupted by laughter when Zolman tripped over the word buckets and it came out sounding like a combo of buckets and biscuits. Parker suggested the word basket was safer.
When Zolman was asked about her career high in points, she said, "Tonight, I was just feeling it … " and she looked to Parker, who offered "with excessive force" to finish the sentence.