Lady Vols Rally, Step Past Tar Heels
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 24, 1998; Page E1
NASHVILLE, March 23 Since the beginning of the NCAA women's tournament, Tennessee's Lady Vols have been compared to the best college teams of all time. Undefeated. Unsurpassed. Unchallenged. They had yawned through so many victories, their presence in the Final Four this season seemed to be something assumed.
But not by the North Carolina Tar Heels, who almost pulled an incredible upset tonight in the Mideast Region final. Despite a frenzied effort by the Tar Heels, the Lady Vols righted their world and won, 76-70, to advance to their 11th Final Four this weekend in Kansas City, Mo.
It sure didn't come easily.
Unlike the Lady Vols (37-0), the Tar Heels (27-6) haven't suffered from comparisons. They have simply been ignored, presumed to be merely another bump in Tennessee's path to a third straight national title.
Second-seeded North Carolina took a 12-point lead with about seven minutes remaining, but Tennessee fashioned a 13-1 run over the next 3:30 to come charging back.
Tennessee, which had not led since the first two minutes of the half, tied the score, 62-62, with 4:57 remaining. Using the full-court press that worked so well all night, Tennessee's Tamika Catchings tipped an inbounds pass to guard Kristen Clement, who dished to a wide-open Chamique Holdsclaw, who scored. The margin would seesaw from that point on.
"Even though we were down by 12, I did not want to panic," said Coach Pat Summitt. "Chamique was struggling but the freshmen were able to step up. ... We needed our quickness to overcome Carolina's tough defense."
The fact that North Carolina was even in this game was something notable. Tennessee had defeated its previous tournament opponents by an average of 31 points. It had defeated its opponents during the season by an average of 32.
Of course, the Tar Heels weren't exactly counting their blessings as time wound down. Holdsclaw made two free throws to put Tennessee ahead, 68-67, with two minutes remaining. Then North Carolina guard Jessica Gaspar was stripped of the ball. Tennessee took it up court, and Teresa Geter who scored seven crucial points during the Lady Vols' run put back an offensive rebound for a three-point lead with 1:13 left. Holdsclaw added a pair of free throws with 37.8 remaining, stretching the lead to five.
North Carolina's Chanel Wright hit a three-pointer seconds later, but Kellie Jolly hit a pair of free throws with 19.9 seconds left to give Tennessee a four-point lead. Holdsclaw put the finishing touches with two more free throws with 5.1 seconds left.
Tennessee was the lone No. 1 seed remaining in the tournament. The Lady Vols advanced to Friday's semifinal against the winner of tonight's Western Region final between Arkansas and Duke.
Semeka Randall, only a freshman, carried Tennessee early in the second half, as Holdsclaw struggled to find the basket. Holdsclaw scored just two points from the 10:58 mark of the first half until more than 10 minutes had ticked off in the second. However, she finished with 29 points, including 17 in the second half.
"North Carolina frustrated me for most of the game," Holdsclaw said. "[But] I am fired up to go to Kansas City."
The Tar Heels plainly unveiled their game plan in the game's first minutes: Run like crazy. They attacked from the start, whether on frenetic fast breaks or on penetration by guards Nikki Teasley and Gaspar, who displayed eye-blinking spin moves to set up shots for themselves or wide-open teammates.
After the Tar Heels trailed by six at the end of the first half, they took the lead less than two minutes into the second half on a three-point play by Tracy Reid, the ACC's most valuable player this season, and expanded the lead to three on Teasley's layup at about the 18-minute mark.
North Carolina, keep in mind, had not been on any magazine covers throughout the tournament (the Lady Vols had been on two). No books or movies are due out about the team (the Lady Vols have one of each). The Tar Heels were as large an underdog as their overmatched fans, almost invisible in the sea of orange sweaters and T-shirts of the fans from the home state.
The Tar Heels don't have the credentials, either; they advanced to the round of 16 last year but didn't even make the tournament in 1996 after a 13-14 season.
Tennessee increased its defensive pressure early in the game, giving North Carolina a look at a high-pressure full-court press. The pressure helped create 14 first half turnovers, which led to points for Tennessee and frustration for North Carolina.