PHILADELPHIA, March 29 -- Throughout the NCAA tournament, Tennessee senior forward Shyra Ely spoke about how badly she wanted a trip home for the chance to end her career where it began. She even wrote "Homeward Bound" on her sneakers to remind everyone of her goal. Ely will return to Indianapolis for the Final Four, but only because of a fellow Hoosier.
Shanna Zolman, the junior guard from Syracuse, Ind., ensured her teammate's wish by scoring when no one from Tennessee seemed capable of making a basket. Zolman scored nine of her 16 points in the second half to lead the top-seeded Lady Vols to a 59-49 victory over third-seeded Rutgers in Tuesday night's Philadelphia Region final.
Tennessee's Shanna Zolman scored nine of her 16 points in the second half against Rutgers to set up a showdown against Michigan State in a national semifinal Sunday.
(Miles Kennedy -- AP)
"We're so excited" to be going home, Zolman said. "Before the game was even over, we were standing at half-court saying: 'We're going home.' . . . It will be so exciting."
Tennessee (30-4) advanced to its fourth consecutive Final Four and fifth in the past six years. The Lady Vols will play Michigan State in Indianapolis on Sunday at 9:30 p.m. in the national semifinal.
Ely, the 2001 Indiana Miss Basketball from Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, had been the only player to score in double figures in each of Tennessee's NCAA tournament games. On this night, however, Rutgers stifled her. Ely finished with nine points, missing 9 of 11 shots. Instead, it was Zolman, the 2002 Indiana Miss Basketball, who carried Tennessee. Zolman sank several key baskets late in the game to keep the Lady Vols out in front.
The 6,452 fans at Liacouras Center -- a clash of deep crimson and bright orange -- mostly favored Rutgers (28-7), which seemed to give the Scarlet Knights a boost throughout the game. But despite the strong crowd support, Rutgers failed to generate enough offense to win.
"Some elements of the game we weren't able to control," Rutgers Coach Vivian Stringer said. "They out-rebounded us, hit some big-time shots."
The Lady Vols won despite making only four field goals in the second half and 13 overall. Most of their scoring came at the free throw line, where they went 29 of 35. Rutgers was 8 of 13 from the line.
"We wanted to take advantage of getting to the line," Ely said. "We did a really great job of connecting [at the free throw line], especially in crunch time."
Tennessee had a slow start in the second half, missing its first six shots and turning over the ball seven times. The Lady Vols didn't make a field goal until nearly eight minutes into the half when Alexis Hornbuckle sank a jump shot to tie the score at 33.
With Tennessee struggling to score, Rutgers capitalized. The Scarlet Knights opened up the half with a 7-1 run to tie the score at 31 less than five minutes into the second half. They took their first lead since 4-0 on Matee Ajavon's jump shot 5 minutes 13 seconds into the half.
After making one of its first 10 shots, Tennessee finally sank its second field goal with 9:04 left to take a 39-35 lead. The Lady Vols didn't have a player reach 10 points until Nicky Anosike made a pair of free throws to put them ahead 41-37.
"I was encouraged what we did on the defensive end when we were struggling offensively," Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt said. "I'm very proud that they found a way to be tough down the stretch."
Each team finished the first half 9 of 25 from the floor. Rutgers made one more three-point basket than Tennessee, but trailed 30-24 because the Lady Vols took more trips to the free throw line. The Scarlet Knights had 10 team fouls before Tennessee picked up its first. The Lady Vols were 9 of 12 from the free throw line while Rutgers made 2 of 5 foul shots in the first half. When Tennessee finally was called for its first foul with 6:18 remaining until halftime, a loud cheer arose from the Scarlet Knights' fans. By halftime, four Rutgers players had two or more fouls.
The foul troubles and Chelsea Newton's injury midway through the first half caused Rutgers to go deep into its bench. After teammate Matee Ajavon was called for a charge with 11:05 left until halftime, Newton remained on the floor, clutching her left knee. She was carried off the floor and taken to the locker room. She did not return until 38 seconds into the second half with her knee wrapped in an bandage and protected by a knee brace. Newton played 27 minutes but finished with only two points.
Cappie Pondexter kept Rutgers in the game. She scored the Scarlet Knights' first 10 points and 16 of the team's 24 first-half points. She finished with 25 points.