Lady Vols to play for national title

TAMPA – Pat Summitt didn't see the final shot. She saw the missed shot and was wondering how much time would be left to try to get the ball back. Then, she saw the ball fall through the basket. It was the biggest shot of Alexis Hornbuckle's career, and it sent the Lady Vols into the national title game with a 47-46 win over LSU on Sunday night.

"I got shielded off," Coach Pat Summitt said. "Nicky went up and I didn't realize Lex is the one that made the shot. When Nicky missed the shot I looked straight up at the clock to see how much time we had. Next thing I know the ball is going in."

Alexis Hornbuckle had been 0-7 to that point, but she scooted down the floor – she had in-bounded the ball on the other end – and went straight to the glass.

LSU Coach Van Chancellor had said Saturday that the way to beat the Lady Vols was to keep them off the offensive boards. That plan pretty much worked until the last second of the game.

"They did the first 39 minutes and 50-some seconds," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "We didn't get a lot of second-chance points, and neither did they. She figured out a way to get the rebound and the putback. That's typical Lex."

Tennessee, 35-2, will now play Stanford, 35-3, on Tuesday night. The Cardinal defeated, Connecticut, 36-2, in the first semifinal, 82-73.

The second semifinal featured no such offensive production and the 93 combined points was the lowest-scoring game in Final Four history, beating the 94 scored by Rutgers (59) and LSU (35) last year by one point.

It was a battle of two SEC heavyweights who know each other so well and circled the court with neither team able to deliver a knockout punch until .7 seconds was left in the game.

Tennessee was frustrated at the break – had either team shot well it could have been sitting on a hefty halftime lead – as the score was 22-18. The Lady Vols had shot 28.6 percent. LSU was barely better at 30.8 percent.

"Both teams were going at it defensively, getting contested shots, trying not to leak out for transition," Hornbuckle said. "Coach said we're shooting this poorly, and we're still up."

Summitt said her role in the course of the game switched from coach to cheerleader. She saw a spent Candace Parker, who was emotionally and physically drained from the ordeal with her twice-dislocated left shoulder, and a frustrated Hornbuckle, who could not hit a shot.

"I was very frustrated obviously all night as far as offense was concerned," Hornbuckle said. "Last year Coach told me we won a championship without you (offensively), and we can't win number eight (the same way).

"Every missed shot it was going through my head, ‘I don't want to be the reason my team doesn't advance.' I was just trying to stay positive, play defense, trying to get on the boards, trying to do the little things."

So Summitt relied on her assistants to devise strategy, and she switched to addressing her team's mental needs.

"In the second half I realized for the whole team that my role was one of a cheerleader," Summitt said. "And I compliment my assistants; they gave me a lot of good suggestions, what to run offensively and defensively. And for the most part I was really just trying to be very engaged with the emotional level of our team and keep things positive."

LSU, 31-6, was being carried by Sylvia Fowles, who finished with 24 points and 20 rebounds and was unable to come to the post-game press conference because of cramping. Quianna Chaney added nine points but was 1-6 from behind the arc thanks to smothering defense by Tennessee.

"I think we did a good job on Quianna Chaney of stopping her from shooting open jumpers and threes," Alberta Auguste said.

Parker led the Lady Vols with 13 points and double-digit help from Shannon Bobbitt, who scored 11 points and Auguste, who added 10, mostly by attacking the basket.

"I remember the last game (in Nashville) I attacked a lot and they didn't really play good defense on me, and my job was to attack," Auguste said. "I knew my strength against them was attacking the basket."

"Huge," was the word Parker used to describe the offensive efforts from Bobbitt and Auguste – who celebrated at center court after the game in a joyous eruption of emotion – in a game in which the All-American forward was 6-27 from the field.

"It is an ugly line, but my teammates pulled it out," Parker said. "I don't think I've ever done that in my entire career. I picked the national semifinal game to do it. Bird was huge for us. She lifts her game anytime we go to the Final Four."

Parker's teammates had said Saturday that they would pick her up. Anosike and Hornbuckle struggled offensively – though Anosike knocked down two jumpers in a game in which offense was scarce – and both got on the boards.

Hornbuckle also played lockdown defense and had just one turnover against stiff ball pressure from LSU. Her one assist – she got it on a feed to Bobbitt behind the arc – was the 500th of her career. She also had two steals, including a pickoff of the final heave by LSU.

Alex Fuller and Vicki Baugh came off the bench – Parker sat for about two minutes late in the second half to catch her breath – and each hit a shot. Baugh had five rebounds, including four on defense, and Fuller grabbed three boards.

"I felt it," Parker said of her support. "They definitely stepped up. They were good teammates. I needed to keep going because I was kind of doubting myself. It was tough because I normally have a counter. I can go to my counter left hand, but I couldn't go to my counter so I was dominant right-handed. I was a little hesitant in the beginning to rebound, but Coach got on me."

Parker finished with 15 rebounds and 11 of those came on defense. LSU got just seven points off second-chance shots. Tennessee got 10 with none more important than the last two by Hornbuckle.

Tennessee was clinging to a one-point lead, 45-44, when Hornbuckle missed with the shot clock running down and 11 seconds left. LSU's Erica White got the ball and headed down court. She was fouled near the sideline by Hornbuckle, in what was a risky strategy.

LSU had been missing free throws – they were 7-19 for the game – and Hornbuckle thought White was going to drive to the rim or hit Chaney for a spot-up three. That would have left Tennessee little to no time for an answer, so she fouled her.

"I think that's Lex," Summitt said. "She's got a pretty high basketball IQ, and she saw that right away."

"I knew she was going to push tempo, and I didn't want her to drive and kick to Chaney for a three or get past me," Hornbuckle said. "I took a chance and fouled. She made both free throws. We were blessed to get that opportunity for that tip-in at the end."

White, who finished with seven points, made both free throws in between a timeout by Tennessee to give LSU the lead, 46-45, with 7.1 seconds remaining in the game.

"I definitely felt good about our chances," White said. "I knew I'd knock it down. And I felt confident in our defense."

LSU called timeout to set its defense, and Angie Bjorklund subbed in for Auguste.

Hornbuckle in-bounded the ball to Parker, who dribbled down the right side of the court, while Hornbuckle sprinted down the left. Parker went through the LSU defense without resistance.

"I thought the problem was we were wanting to turn her (force Parker to change directions), never did turn her one time," Chancellor said.

"We failed to make a play at the end," White said. "If we made Candace Parker just cross the ball over one time, I think we'd win. But we failed to do that and so we lost."

Parker drew the LSU defense to her, including Fowles – thus taking her out of rebounding position – and passed the ball to Anosike, who missed the shot.

Hornbuckle came in from the left side unblocked and banked the shot in with a grab-and-shoot motion.

"I crashed the boards and I looked up and I said, ‘I don't want to pull this down. With my luck (shooting the ball) I might as well try to tip it in.' And, luckily, it went in."

It's a drill Tennessee has worked on in practice since postseason began – sometimes with seven seconds on the clock and other times with five – and in those drills Parker takes the ball the length of the floor and either goes to the rim or finds an open teammate.

"I'm glad we took it seriously," Parker said of that drill.

When the ball nestled through the net, Parker had an experience like no other on the basketball court. She had no clue where she was for a few seconds.

"When Nicky missed the layup, I saw Alexis coming and she hit the shot and I blanked out completely after that," Parker said. "I don't remember anything that happened."

She also ended up on the floor near center court and was helped up by a teammate.

"I don't remember that," Parker said. "I'll have to watch the tape."

Parker had been instructed to attack the basket, but when half of the LSU defense greeted her as she got to the lane, Parker did what she did in the practice drill – she found an open teammate.

"Coach was like, ‘Candace, you get the ball and attack. Just go to the basket until someone fouls you,' " Auguste said. "I'm looking and I'm like, ‘Go, go, go.' And Sylvia stepped up and she dished off to Nicky. Nicky got fouled, but they didn't call it."

Auguste saw Hornbuckle swoop in from the other side and for a moment nearly ran to her teammate.

"I almost jumped up and ran on the court to give her a hug, but I was like, ‘The game is not over,' " Auguste said. "It was exciting. That was one shining moment."

Bjorklund was on the floor in place of Auguste at that moment for offensive reasons and turned to chest-bump Hornbuckle.

"I didn't know what to do when Lex made that tip," Bjorklund said. "I just ran. I jumped. I gave her a hug and we were both like, ‘Get on defense. The game is still going.' "

But the officials had to view the replay to determine exactly how many tenths of a second were left when Hornbuckle scored. So the players went to their benches, and the Lady Vols remained giddy.

"Pat is like, ‘Settle down. Act like you've been here before,' " Bjorklund said. "I looked at her and said, ‘But I haven't.' "

Summitt wasn't the only one taking on the role of team psychologist during the game. The players spent considerable time talking to each other during any breaks in play. Auguste sought out Hornbuckle on one occasion.

"She struggled a whole lot of the game, but I told her to keep her head up and some way somehow she was going to get an opportunity to score and tonight that was her big bucket," Auguste said.

"We had positive feedback from each other, as well as Nicky. She told us to keep digging deep. I think we did a good job on defense, but we just couldn't find our way on offense. We just kept attacking. Candace attacked on the last possession."

Parker was enduring an offensive nightmare as she missed badly on some shots and had two rejected by Fowles, including one that went straight down, caromed off an LSU player and energized the Lady Tiger fans among the 21,655 in attendance at the St. Pete Forum.

"She struggled, but she knows what kind of player she is," Auguste said. "She knows how to find ways to score, and she did that. She kept asking for the ball, and she kept attacking Sylvia Fowles. Sometimes she was frustrated, but we told her to pick her head up, everything is all right.

"We checked up on her, made sure everything was all right with her shoulder. We talked to her a whole lot. She wasn't really frustrated, but she was kind of down because her shot wasn't falling."

After one shot was blocked, Parker was particularly annoyed, Auguste said.

"I told her don't worry about it, the next bucket you're going to score, which she did," Auguste said. "She got an ‘and-one.' "

Auguste also was scoring on 5-9 shooting and although she got to the rim, she hit a crucial basket after playing inside-out catch with Parker and losing her defender with a pump fake in the lane as the shot clock trickled to two seconds.

"Bird and Candace's inside-out game was huge," Bjorklund said. "That's what makes the difference on this team is different players stepping up. Candace didn't have her best game. Bird stepped up and hit that big shot."

Auguste's basket gave Tennessee a 45-42 lead with 51 seconds to go.

After Auguste hit the shot, her teammates made the flying bird signal by interlocking their fingers, and Auguste pointed to the Tennessee section.

"My family and Sidney Spencer," Auguste said of whom she was pointing at in the stands. "I saw her the whole time cheering for us. My sister, my best friend and my mom were there. My dad is coming (Tuesday). It means a whole lot."

Spencer was on last year's national title team, and the official UT section is filled with family, administrators and former Lady Vols.

At one point late in the game Bjorklund and fellow freshman Sydney Smallbone stood up on the bench, pointed to the orange-filled sections across the court and implored them to be louder.

Tennessee needed any boost it could get in what was a slugfest for 40 minutes with a wounded Parker and an inspired LSU team that was making its fifth straight trip to the Final Four and still seeking a semifinal win.

"We expected it to be tough out there," Anosike said. "They're a physical team. We need to match that, and we knew that we could match that. All the work that we do in the weight room it came in handy definitely."

Tennessee was 21-69 for the game (30.4 percent) and got to the line just seven times, making two, for a percentage of 28.6 percent. The Lady Tigers prevailed on the boards, 47-45.

"If you look at the stat sheet I'm still trying to find out how we won this game," Summitt said.

But LSU was enduring its own struggles. The Lady Tigers were 19-54 for the game (35.2 percent) and 1-9 (11.1 percent) from behind the arc. They hit just 7-19 free throws (36.8 percent) with Fowles going 4-11 from the stripe.

"I think the bottom line was our motto throughout this whole tournament has been, ‘If we're not scoring, they had better not be scoring either,' Anosike said. "That has really been our mindset."

Parker, who wore a long-sleeve white shirt under her jersey for the first time in a game this season – she practices in long-sleeve shirts – has carried Tennessee offensively this season. She dislocated her left shoulder twice in the regional final win over Texas A&M and has rehabbed extensively for the past five days.

It was apparent that the braced shoulder affected her shooting and ability to maneuver as she prefers around the basket.

"No question," Chancellor said. "She ain't never been 6 for 27 in her life. She had a gutsy performance tonight."

Parker was offered a chance to point to the shoulder as a problem, but she refused to blame it for her offensive woes. Her right shoulder – the one she injured in preseason last October – also got tweaked yet again.

"I'm not going to make excuses," Parker said. "I stepped out there on the court and I was going to give 100 percent. Obviously points wasn't what I was giving the team so I figured I had to rebound and play defense."

Parker's 13 points did move her past Tamika Catchings (2,113 points) and into third place on the all-time Lady Vol scoring list (2,120). Only Bridgette Gordon (2,462) and Chamique Holdsclaw (3,025) have scored more points.

Bobbitt managed to find some points for Tennessee by getting loose behind the arc. Her three 3-pointers – two came in the second half – were the only long-range shots the Lady Vols made in the game.

"Shannon, she is always stepping up," Bjorklund said. "I remember watching her last year stepping up at the Final Four. This year it's no different."

Bobbitt, who was told by Summitt to hunt for some looks, found herself draped by a defender for most of the night – though she did manage to penetrate the LSU defense once and get to the rim – so she fired the shots as soon as she had a sliver of room.

"They were doing a great job of limiting me touches and when I had the opportunity to shoot the three ball, I took advantage of it and took it and knocked it down," Bobbitt said.

Anosike said the team did what it has done all season – minus the two regular season losses to Stanford and LSU – and that is pull out the victory in some fashion.

"We always find a way to win no matter what adversity we face," Anosike said. "I was confident, and Lex came through for us again. She hit that big three against Texas A&M. We've really been depending on her to hit the clutch shots."

"It's a good thing for us or we wouldn't be here," Summitt said.

Hornbuckle hit a 25-footer against A&M to get Tennessee to Tampa in what was hailed as the biggest shot of her career.

"Now this is the biggest shot," Hornbuckle said. "I don't want another big shot. I want a comfortable win, but obviously that is going to be tough playing Stanford."

The shots could be called lucky. Anosike doesn't see it that way. The players stayed together when the shots wouldn't fall and that gave the team a chance to win.

"I think it's the experience that we had out on the floor," Anosike said. "We've been through a lot this season. We've faced a lot of adversity. We've been through a lot of games that went down to the wire, and we knew not to panic in situations like that.

"We've all been there and done that, and we knew how to handle it. I think our experience is what really got us the win tonight."

Bjorklund has leaned on that experience to guide her through her first postseason. The freshman had two points, a rebound and an assist in 14 minutes of play. She combined with seniors Auguste and Hornbuckle to have zero turnovers. As a team, Tennessee had just seven total. Three of those came from Bobbitt, but she also had three of the Lady Vols' six assists.

"These five veterans have led the way the whole way," Bjorklund said.

The coaches let the veterans lead on the floor. They took over the mood from the bench, especially during timeouts, by greeting the players as they came to the huddle and high-fiving them.

"You have to stay positive," Warlick said. "We were trying to get them to push the ball, trying to get to the free throw line. We couldn't make a play so we were making stops. When you make stops then you're OK. You just have to hang in there with them."

The on-court celebration erupted as soon as Hornbuckle grabbed the in-bounds pass near center court. Bobbitt jumped in the arms of Fuller, who carried her around on the court. The players pointed to their families and friends in the Tennessee section. The orange-clad fans in attendance were both elated and in shock.

The celebration continued in the locker room.

"Everybody was jumping and screaming," Warlick said. "They're a great group. They were very happy."

It was an emotional moment, too.

"A couple of the freshmen cried," Auguste said. "This is their first time going to a national championship game. It was just exciting. When the excitement comes the tears fall. We're not satisfied. We're happy but we know we have one more shot."

The players will meet with the media for interview sessions Monday and then conduct a closed practice. On Monday night the upperclassmen intend to have one last meeting with the youngsters.

"We definitely will talk as a team (Monday) night and everybody's focus will be on what's at stake Tuesday night," Auguste said. "We'll have a meeting with the freshmen. This is our last game with them. It's going to be sad, but we're going to fight to the very end."

One of those freshmen, Baugh, had some solid minutes against LSU, just as she did in the SEC tourney title game.

"We needed Vicki," Summitt said. "Vicki had played really well for us and I felt like last weekend she wasn't as much as a factor for us. I didn't say a whole lot to her because she is a freshman. She stepped up here."

Summitt expects Parker to be ready to go Tuesday after surviving a gut-wrenching game Sunday.

"I think Candace has been through so much, and she was emotionally whipped," Summitt said. "I think maybe she was over-thinking things. I think she's right where she wants to be and you'll see a different Candace."

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