Tennessee 66, Duke 56
Tennessee senior Kara Lawson realized at halftime that if she and fellow senior Gwen Jackson didn't do something soon their college careers would be over, and they would have no national championship to show for it.
So the Lady Vols' veterans took matters into their own hands and gave themselves one last shot at that national championship.
Behind strong performances from their seniors, the Lady Vols earned a hard-fought 66-56 semifinal victory over Duke tonight before a sellout crowd of 28,210 at the Georgia Dome.
Tennessee (33-4) will seek its seventh national championship -- its first since 1998 -- when the Lady Vols meet Connecticut in Tuesday night's title game. This is Tennessee's 10th appearance in the national championship game and its second in five years.
Duke (35-2) was denied its bid for a spot in the national title game. The Blue Devils have appeared in three Final Fours but have not won a national championship.
"Halftime was a wake-up call for us," said Lawson, whose team trailed Duke 29-27 at intermission. "When you stare down 20 minutes and you realize this could be the last 20 minutes of your season, and for Gwen and I our careers, that puts things in perspective."
Lawson and Jackson were freshmen in 2000 when Tennessee last made an appearance in the national championship game. With their careers quickly coming to a close tonight, Jackson, in particular, played with a sense of urgency. She was a force inside for Tennessee, scoring nine of the Lady Vols' first 13 points. She finished with 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting and grabbed 15 rebounds for her sixth double-double of the season.
"Gwen Jackson played a phenomenal game for them," Duke Coach Gail Goestenkors said. "She was exceptional."
Lawson (West Springfield High School) struggled with her shooting but contributed in other areas. She made only 3 of 12 field goal attempts to finish with eight points but had 11 rebounds and five assists.
"Sometimes Kara just tries a little bit too much, and she has got to relax," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "The important thing is she still continued to lead, and she rebounded the basketball."
After her strong start, Jackson cooled off and was scoreless for nearly a 22-minute stretch spanning the first and second halves. She finally broke through when she was fouled making a layup with 12 minutes 6 seconds remaining. She converted the three-point play to put Tennessee ahead 37-35.
"When I started off, I didn't rush," Jackson said. "The more I got the ball, I was more open than I thought I would be, and I kind of rushed a lot of shots. Once my teammates started talking to me, I got a chance to relax and play my game."
Jackson's basket was part of a 9-3 run, but just when it appeared Tennessee was about to put the game away, Duke stormed back.
The Blue Devils scored six straight points to reclaim the lead, 44-43, with 6:33 left.
Then Jackson took over, scoring 11 of Tennessee's next 13 points to put the Lady Vols ahead to stay, 56-49.
Duke all-American Alana Beard valiantly tried to keep the Blue Devils in the game. She scored Duke's final 10 points and finished with 29 points on 12-of-24 shooting.
As would be expected in such high stakes game, it was tightly contested throughout with 16 lead changes and six ties. Tennessee came into the game having won its four NCAA tournament games by an average of 33.5 points, but Duke never allowed the Lady Vols to gain a comfortable lead.
The Lady Vols had the advantage in two crucial areas. They outrebounded Duke, 41-30, and made more than three times as many free throws. Tennessee went 17 of 21 from the foul line, while the Blue Devils made only 5 of 6 free throws.