INDIANAPOLIS, April 3 -- In a state where the underdog's triumphs take on mythical status, Michigan State is writing its own version of "Hoosiers."
The scrappy Spartans, who trailed by 16 early in the second half, rallied from the largest deficit in Final Four history to defeat Tennessee, 68-64, on Sunday night at the RCA Dome. They will play Baylor, a winner over Louisiana State in the earlier semifinal, in Tuesday night's championship. Neither team has won a national title.
Michigan State players celebrate their 68-64 win over Tennessee as the Lady Vols' Alexis Hornbuckle walks off the court dejectedly.
(Darron Cummings - AP)
"The second 20 minutes really reflected the greatness and the heart and soul of our team," said Michigan State's Joanne P. McCallie, the Associated Press coach of the year. "To come back from that deficit and to finish the game in the manner in which our team did, I am certainly very proud, but not the least bit surprised given what our team has done all year long."
Tennessee, which had not lost a semifinal game to a team other than Connecticut since 1988, had three chances to tie the score or go ahead at the end, but came up short each time. Shanna Zolman's three-point attempt hit the rim, Alexis Hornbuckle missed her jump shot and Nicky Anosike's put-back refused to fall. Kelli Roehrig finally secured the rebound for Michigan State, and Victoria Lucas-Perry got the ball, and pushed it ahead for the layup and winning margin.
On Friday, the Spartans practiced at Hinkle Fieldhouse, where tiny Milan High School won the 1954 state title that inspired "Hoosiers." And just like in the film, the school that wasn't given much of a chance seems poised to create its own memorable destiny.
Michigan State (33-3) had not advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament until this season. Few thought the Spartans would match up against Tennessee with its six national titles and 16 Final Four appearances, including four in a row.
But the Spartans weren't intimidated by Tennessee's impressive pedigree. They came into the game brimming with the confidence that comes from a 16-game winning streak and simply refused to fold even when the Lady Vols took what appeared to be an insurmountable lead.
"Our whole team stuck together," Michigan State point guard Kristin Haynie said. "Everyone was hitting big shots, getting the rebounds; everybody contributed in their own way, and that's what [good] teams do and that's what got us the win is our hustle toward the end of the game."
With former Tennessee and current Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning looking on, the Lady Vols (30-5) failed to hold off the Spartans in the final minutes as Michigan State went on a 12-2 run to end the game.
"They had the composure, and we lacked it at times," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "They made the defensive plays, and we were on our heels. I don't understand it, because it's not the way we have played to get here."
Tennessee, which led 49-33 early in the second half, watched its lead slowly evaporate as the Lady Vols became careless with the ball. Tennessee had seven of its 18 turnovers in the final 11 minutes.
Lucas-Perry sank a three-point basket with less than five minutes remaining to pull Michigan State to 57-56. Zolman answered with a jump shot, and a three-pointer by Hornbuckle put the Lady Vols ahead 62-56 with 3 minutes 45 seconds remaining.
Liz Shimek made a jump shot and Lindsay Bowen sank a pair of free throws to cut Michigan State's deficit to two. After a Tennessee miss, Lucas-Perry was fouled by Anosike. She sank a pair of free throws to tie the score at 62. The teams traded baskets until Roehrig sank a jump shot to put Michigan State ahead 66-64.
Tennessee had not let a team score more than 60 points in the NCAA tournament, but Michigan State had too many scorers for the Lady Vols to stop. Four players scored in double figures for the Spartans, led by Bowen's 18 points. Lucas-Perry nearly doubled her season scoring average, finishing with 14 points.
Michigan State led most of the first half but came undone just before halftime when Haynie had to take a seat on the bench with her second foul. Even though Haynie had played poorly to that point -- four turnovers, zero points -- her departure with 4:44 remaining until halftime caused the Spartans to lose their offensive rhythm. They turned over the ball on five of their last eight possessions of the half. Tennessee took advantage of Michigan State's miscues, going on an 11-2 run to end the half.