"You don't win a basketball game in the first half, but you certainly can lose one," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "We just got too far into a hole. We were just trying to get back into the game and what happened was that they answered everything. When we battled back, they answered. … We just got ourselves in a tough position and when we came back, we cut it to five or six, we never could get the stop that we needed and you have to give them the credit for that."
North Carolina's Ivory Latta was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Cleveland Regional. She was joined on the All-Tournament team by teammate Camille Little. Tennessee's Candace Parker and Shanna Zolman also made the team, along with Rutgers' Cappie Pondexter.
Summitt applauded the excellence of North Carolina in her opening remarks in the post-game press conference but also took the time to acknowledge her seniors, Zolman and Tye'sha Fluker, and give a nod to the future in Parker.
"I'm really proud of what this team has accomplished this year," Summitt said. "They have faced tremendous adversity and come through it. They have great character and have been a great group to coach. To our two seniors, I appreciate their dedication to the University of Tennessee and this basketball program. I wish both of them the best. And Candace Parker, obviously without Candace on this team, we'd miss a lot of points and rebounds. She is just a great, great player and great teammate. Also, North Carolina, give them all the credit. They are one impressive basketball team. If they play like they played tonight, it'll be hard for this team to lose."
Parker, in yet another display of her season-long unselfishness, said her concern was not about the loss but for the seniors. In a barely audible voice in the Lady Vols' locker room she lamented the missed opportunities and lauded both of them.
"You never want to go out on a loss," Parker said. "Obviously it hurts the same as it did before, but we need to use this as motivation. I'm really sorry for the seniors. That's my main concern right now."
Junior forward Sidney Spencer, who will be a senior next season, seconded the sentiment.
"It's so hard; they've been unbelievable this year," Spencer said. "They've been great leaders. They've really stepped up their roles as players. I'm losing a best friend in Shanna, and that's really tough. It's time to grow up. I'm going to be a senior so it's time to come back strong like we did."
Spencer shook off her scoring woes in the regional semifinal to score 13 points against North Carolina. Parker led Tennessee with 20 points, and Zolman also hit double figures with 11. Fluker had eight points to go with a game-high 11 rebounds.
North Carolina was led by Latta with 20 points and Little with 17. Forward La'Tangela Atkinson added 10 points, including a killer three-pointer – that appeared to come after she traveled by lifting both feet without releasing the ball – in the second half when Tennessee had cut the lead to five points, 59-54. The Lady Vols could never get closer than six points after that, and North Carolina had an answer for every attempt to cut down the lead.
"Everytime we came at them, they answered," Parker said. "When we got close, they made a steal or a three or something like that. We just needed a better first half and that would have solved everything because in the second half, we competed."
The first half ended up being too much to overcome. Tennessee had 12 turnovers and was 1-7 from behind the arc. Parker picked up her second foul at the 15:29 mark – the call was a charge, but replays showed otherwise – and instead of Tennessee taking the lead with an and-one play, the score remained 9-8. Parker had to come out of the game, and Little hit a layup on the Tar Heels' next possession.
"It bothered Candace and it bothered our team," Summitt said. "When your best go-to player goes out of the game, obviously, I wasn't happy at all about that foul, because it was the biggest game we've played all year long. But, it happened and I thought that's when the wheels just fell off. We lost our composure and it forced us into almost a panic mode with the basketball. We were trying to do too much and we just didn't play together. We had a hard time running our offense."
North Carolina had a lot to do with why.
"You have to give them credit," Summitt said. "This was by far the quickest, most aggressive defense we've seen all year. They took us out of what we wanted to do. We had no choice at times but to go one-on-one. You can't go one-on-one against five great defenders with the type of athleticism that they brought."
Lady Vol sophomore guard Alexis Hornbuckle replaced Parker in the first half and struggled against North Carolina's pressure. She fell hard on her right wrist – only six weeks removed from surgery after breaking the navicular scaphoid bone – and seemed to be favoring it the rest of the game.
"It didn't bother me," Hornbuckle said in dismissing the pain. "But I wasn't taking myself out of the game. An injury's an injury. That has nothing to do with the game as far as their pressure. They did a great job of executing what they wanted to do and getting all over us, and we didn't handle it well. I had six turnovers, which I can't have as a point guard. That's basically like four too many. I think the game was lost in the first half in turnovers."
Summitt agreed that the first half was a lot to overcome, but she was proud of her team for fighting back in the final 20 minutes.
"It was a tough game to coach, particularly the first half," Summitt said. "We just kept trying to get our team refocused. I felt like in the second half, we had them in a good place. We got some good looks, hit some big shots. Spencer stepped up; Zolman settled down.
"I told them then, ‘We can still do this,' and make this run, but I thought that was when North Carolina stepped up. Their defense did exactly what it did in the first half, and that was step up and make stops when they had to make stops. We played them even in the second half, but we just got too far behind. Had we played two halves like that, obviously it would have been a better contest. Against a team as explosive as North Carolina, you can't get in a hole like that and try to work your way out of it. I'll give our team credit; we never quit. We were frustrated, but we did not have any quit in us."
After the game North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell decried the fact this game was played in a regional final and not the Final Four and saluted her colleague.
"First of all, I just want to say what an honor it is to play the University of Tennessee and to have won this game," Hatchell said. "Pat and I are very good friends. I went to graduate school at Tennessee. Much of my success as a coach and my opportunities have been because of Pat Summitt."
Summitt thanked her seniors after the game but she also quickly turned an eye to next season. She addressed each underclassman one by one and told them to be ready to compete in 2006-07.
"We certainly have a lot to build on with our returning players and the recruits coming in," Summitt said. "The expectations in this program don't change year in and year out. The schedule will be difficult as always. A great deal of our play next year will depend on the work ethic of these individuals in the off-season.
"I took time in the locker room to remind each player that they had to make a big commitment this off-season. There's so much parity in this game and kids are better, they work harder. We have to do exactly what we did a year ago. We had a great off-season last summer. I expect the same from this team. I expect no less, that's for sure."
There is perhaps no better example of what the Lady Vols had to overcome this season than Hornbuckle. Her roommate, sophomore guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, transferred at mid-season. Hornbuckle had to take over the reins at point. In February she broke her wrist while pursuing a loose ball. Despite a diagnosis that she was done for the season, Hornbuckle made it back for the NCAA tourney.
In the locker room after the loss she acknowledged Tennessee's shortcomings in the game but took the time to remember what went right this season.
"This team has just been fun to be around, and they're hard-working girls with a lot of heart," Hornbuckle said. "It's not the best feeling right now but all in all I'm proud to say that I was a part of this team right here this year."