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Tennessee's next big test is upstart Michigan State



Published: Sat, April 2, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The Lady Vols have the most tradition of the Final Four teams.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

INDIANAPOLIS -- Tennessee has it all: a gym full of trophies, rafters crawling with NCAA championship banners, the winningest coach in history and All-Americans who could line the highway halfway back to Knoxville.

They are the Lady Vols, and they enter this year's Final Four with history on their side.

Michigan State couldn't seem to care less.

"They have a tradition," Spartans 6-foot-4 senior center Kelli Roehrig said, smiling. "But the thing with us is when we step on the floor, it's us versus them. Michigan State of now versus Tennessee of now."

Now, there's some confidence.

To those with only a passing interest in women's college basketball, tonight's second semifinal between Tennessee (30-4) and Michigan State (32-3) would appear to be a mismatch.

Career leader

On one side, it's the Lady Vols, making their fourth straight Final Four appearance and seeking their seventh national title under Pat Summitt, who recently passed Dean Smith for the most career coaching wins -- 882 and counting.

On the other is Michigan State with a solid football program, Sparty the helmet-wearing, muscle-bound mascot and a men's hoops team playing in the Final Four at St. Louis.

But that naive assessment is totally unfair to these Spartans.

With a headache-inducing matchup zone defense, four starters averaging double figures and a strong inside game, Michigan State comes in riding a 16-game winning streak while driving over some high-profile programs on the road to Indy.

This is their first Final Four and first time in the national spotlight. But the Spartans don't expect to be blinded by the glare.

"It's another game," senior point guard Kristin Haynie said. "We've played great teams this season. We've had a great schedule, and we're ready."

The Tennessee-Michigan State winner will play either Baylor (31-3) or LSU (33-2) in Tuesday's title game.

LSU-Baylor

A stumble, a loose ball, a last-second basket and just like that it was over for Temeka Johnson and LSU, a stunning, gut-wrenching end to the Tigers' first Final Four trip.

The entire team was disconsolate, no one more so than Johnson, the feisty point guard whose turnover led to the winning basket in LSU's 52-50 loss to Tennessee in the national semifinals last year.

"I think I've grown up as a person, which helped me mature as an athlete," Johnson said Saturday as she sat amid reporters. "That particular situation helped me as an individual and that allows me to help my teammates."

With the score tied and time running out, Johnson tripped as she was bringing the ball up the floor and lost it. Tennessee's Shyra Ely picked it up and fired a pass to LaToya Davis, who made a layup with 1.6 seconds remaining, putting the Lady Vols in the title game and sending LSU home to think about what might have been.

If ever a team had something to draw on for motivation, that was it. Except Johnson never saw it that way.

"I didn't really have to," she said. "With the growth and maturity of our team, I knew what we were capable of doing."

So far, the Lady Tigers (33-2) have realized that potential. They were ranked No. 1 for 11 weeks this season, went 14-0 in the Southeastern Conference and were the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

Baylor (31-3), making its first Final Four trip, also had all spring and summer to stew over a sour finish, and Tennessee was involved in that one, too. Tasha Butts hit two free throws with 0.2 seconds remaining after a questionable call to give Tennessee a 71-69 victory in the regional semifinals.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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