It isn't important how the Texas women's basketball team got to this town of bluegrass and white fences. What's important to the undefeated and top-ranked Longhorns, after escaping with a 66-63 victory over Mississippi last week, is that they finally made it to the NCAA tournament semifinals.
"It sure wasn't easy," said Texas Coach Jody Conradt, whose team (32-0) will play Western Kentucky (32-3) Friday night at 7 at Rupp Arena. "I told the players I didn't care if they won ugly. I just wanted them to win."
To get to Sunday's 1 p.m. final, the Longhorns might have to get even uglier. In a tournament in which three highly ranked teams -- Georgia, Virginia and Louisiana Tech -- have lost, being undefeated doesn't seem to count for much.
"I recognize the fact that this Final Four is open," said Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, whose team (24-9) plays Southern California (30-4) in the second game at 9. "I'm not a bettor. I lost at the race tracks last night."
The Western Kentucky-Texas game, Summitt said, should be an emotional game. "I see Western having great fan support and Texas with six seniors who want the national championship."
Tennessee's meeting with the Trojans should be equally emotional, as a result of a physical encounter between the two teams earlier in the season, won by Southern California, 85-77.
In that game, Southern California's four-time all-America, Cheryl Miller, was ejected four minutes into the second half -- with the Volunteers leading by 12 -- for punching Tennessee sophomore center Karla Horton. The rematch should be just as physical.
"First of all, I'm excited to have a physical basketball team," said Summitt. "Thank goodness we have a team that can stand up and fight. I think women's basketball is a physical game." Said freshman center Sheila Frost: "When we're physical inside, we know we're playing good."
Miller, going for her third national championship, is playing with a broken ring finger on her nonshooting hand. She said Tennessee will try to lure her into physical play. "Probably more so [than the first game]," she said, "because it was effective in the first game. What we can't do is get caught up in it."
Miller averaged 26 points this season, but as shown in their come-from-behind victory earlier against the Volunteers, the Trojans have other strong players. Cynthia Cooper scored 19 points against Louisiana Tech in the West regional final, and freshman Cherie Nelson, along with playmaker Rhonda Windham, are invaluable.
Tennessee is a Cinderella team of sorts, having edged Louisiana State (67-65), Georgia (85-82) and Iowa (73-68) in the regionals.
Texas is playing against a Hilltoppers team that was impressive in games preceding the Final Four. Western Kentucky, led by Lillie (Magic) Mason, the Sun Belt Conference Most Valuable Player, defeated Atlantic 10 powers Rutgers and St. Joseph's to get here.
The Longhorns, although just getting by Mississippi, won easily in their first two games against Oklahoma and Missouri. Texas is led by Fran Harris, Clarissa Davis and Beverly Williams, who have each averaged 15 points in the tournament.