CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- You wouldn't have given a plugged nickel for the chances of the Tennessee women's basketball team to get out of the cavern they dug themselves into in the first half of yesterday's NCAA East Regional final against Virginia.
The fourth-ranked Lady Vols shot 19 percent and scored a season-low 14 points in the half -- the lowest output by a regional finalist in the 15-year history of the women's tournament.
Yet, the Lady Vols came back from a 13-point halftime deficit to steal a berth in Friday's Final Four against Connecticut with a gritty 52-46 win over the dumbfounded, 11th-ranked Cavaliers before a sellout crowd of 8,379 at University Hall.
This will be Tennessee's record ninth trip to the Final Four, but given the circumstances, it was the most improbable.
"It was probably the guttiest performance I can remember from a Tennessee team, but then they had a ways to go, because we were horrible in the first half," said Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, whose team lost to UConn in the championship game last season.
And while the Lady Vols (30-4) started to plan their trip to Charlotte, N.C., Virginia (26-7), the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference champion, was left wondering how things could go so wrong in such a short period of time.
"This team was very prepared and very loose. They were jacked and ready to play. As a coach, I will definitely look at this as a game we should have won," said Virginia coach Debbie Ryan.
Said senior forward Wendy Palmer: "It still hasn't set in that we lost. Right until the last second, I thought we were going to win. We left it all out there. There's nothing more to be said. I guess it just wasn't in God's plan."
The Cavaliers, who have lost nine of 10 all-time meetings with Tennessee -- six in the postseason -- led by 17 points with 17: 08 to go, when freshman forward DeMya Walker put back a miss and appeared to have shaken the Lady Vols albatross for at least this season.
Virginia played a brilliant defensive first half, forcing Tennessee's guards, Michelle Marciniak and Latina Davis, to operate well above the three-point circle while confounding freshman sensation Chamique Holdsclaw with a series of defenders.
"When was the last time Tennessee was held to 14 points? Let's get real. That shocked me," said Ryan.
In a sense, it shocked the Lady Vols, too, and snapped them back into consciousness. Summitt, who has won three national championships at Tennessee, said she appealed to her team's sense of honor more than to its competitive drive during the halftime talk.
"I told them, 'This is going to be a great Final Four and I want you all to enjoy it,' " said Summitt. "I said, 'I'm not even going to ask you to win this game. Just keep it close.' That insulted them, I'm sure."
The Lady Vols made a slow but inexorable climb back with little spurts.
They were assisted mightily when senior guard Jenny Boucek, Virginia best perimeter defender, picked up her fourth foul with 13: 18 to go, and her backcourt mate, junior Tora Suber, who had 11 points in the first half, collapsed with a knee ailment with 12: 25 remaining that kept her out for five minutes.
From there, Davis and Marciniak, the team's only seniors, went to work, with five jumpers in the next eight minutes to whittle the Virginia lead to five with 5: 45 to go, starting the 12-0 run that would give Tennessee the lead on a Holdsclaw leaner with 2: 28 to play.
"We hit a few big shots, and each time someone hit a shot, we got more confidence," said Marciniak, who hit her last six free throws and joined Davis, the Most Outstanding Player of the regional, and Abby Conklin with 12 points each.
The Cavaliers, stripped of their momentum, went scoreless for nearly the last six minutes, save for a free throw and a meaningless jumper by Suber in the final 24 seconds.
By then, the Virginia collapse was complete, and the Lady Vols were packing for a most unlikely trip back to the Final Four.
NCAA women's tournament
East Regional final
Tennessee 52, Virginia 46
Mideast Regional final
UConn 67, Vanderbilt 57
Midwest Regional final
Georgia 90, La. Tech 76
West Regional final
Auburn vs. Stanford