The past three years, the Texas women's basketball team has had one of the best records in the nation, winning 92 percent of its games. But the undefeated and top-ranked Longhorns would have thrown all that away for what they earned tonight: a spot in the NCAA championship game.
The Longhorns, who never had made the Final Four despite their regular season dominance, proved tonight that they can win at this level, defeating Western Kentucky, 90-65, before 9,894 at Rupp Arena, a record for the women's national semifinals.
The Longhorns will play Southern California for the championship Sunday afternoon. The Women of Troy outscored Tennessee, 24-6, in the last 7:53 of the first half in tonight's second semifinal en route to an 83-59 victory.
Texas improved to 33-0 with its victory over Western Kentucky, which closed out the season 32-4.
"This is a team that has waited a long time for this," said Texas Coach Jody Conradt. "It was a game I was never in doubt."
Coming into the game, the Longhorns did have some concerns, playing a team that had kept them from the Final Four last year by defeating them in the regional final.
At times, it appeared as if the Longhorns were going to have to wait until the final minutes to see if their time had come.
But when Western Kentucky all-America Lillie Mason fouled out with 7:18 to play and Texas leading, 64-53, the Hilltoppers had lost their scoring and rebounding leader and perhaps the game.
With the 6-foot-2 senior forward on the bench, Texas freshman Clarissa Davis was unstoppable. She finished with a career-high 32 points and 18 rebounds in 27 minutes. Fran Harris added 20 points for Texas.
"If there is a better freshman in the country, I would be shocked," Conradt said of Davis. "I felt if she played under control early in the game, that would be the difference."
One of the differences was 23 turnovers by the Hilltoppers, who outrebounded the Longhorns by one. But Texas turned the ball over only eight times and Western Kentucky's sure-handed point guard, Clemette Haskins, who led the Hilltoppers with 21 points, had 10 turnovers alone. In addition, Texas stole the ball 13 times, Western Kentucky zero.
"I've said since the beginning of the season that we weren't a physical and rebounding team," said Western Kentucky Coach Paul Sanderford. "And Texas put in a tall lineup, and Clarissa Davis was fantastic. They just got too many second and third shots."
After Mason fouled out, the Longhorns scored nine straight points, six by Davis. "I think if we had kept Lillie in the ball game, we could have kept it closer," said Sanderford.
In the first half, Texas played its type of game -- fast-paced -- and used its talented bench to take a 39-34 lead.
The Longhorns were much quicker than the Hilltoppers. They swarmed on defense, always getting a hand in the face of a Western Kentucky shooter. Meanwhile, the Hilltoppers' 2-1-2 zone was allowing too much room in the lane, where Texas worked the ball consistently for close-range shots.
Davis scored eight points inside during one three-minute stretch, including a spinning drive along the base line to put the Longhorns ahead, 23-16, with 7:13 remaining in the half.
When Davis came out, Gay Hemphill went in and scored twice from the same spot in the lane. Two minutes later, she stole the ball and passed to Williams for a layup, and the Longhorns led, 35-22.
Mason scored three baskets near the end of the half and Haskins two as Western Kentucky cut the deficit to 39-34 at intermission.
In the second game, third-ranked Southern California (31-4) took a different route to victory, building a 42-23 halftime lead, then holding off a mild rally by Tennessee (24-10) in the second half.
The Women of Troy will be trying for their third national title since four-time all-America Cheryl Miller came to USC. Tonight, Miller played her usual all-around game, scoring a team-high 17 points and getting seven rebounds and five assists.
Cherie Nelson had 16 points, Cynthia Cooper 14, Karon Howell 14 and Rhonda Windham 10 for USC. Bridgette Gordon led Tennessee with 17 points.
Southern California's half-court pressure was the difference. "Our press -- what it does eventually is wear teams down," said USC Coach Linda Sharp. "I thought our press was very effective."
"Our shot selection in the first half could have been better," said Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt. "But related to that is their half-court pressure. . . . Sometimes people forget that they're a balanced team."