Tennessee, North Carolina rise to advance Vols rout scrappy Rutgers

Tar Heels rally, edge Illinois

Women's NCAA Tournament

Mideast Regional

March 22, 1998|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It's not supposed to be this easy, and for a while in last night's Mideast Regional semifinal, it wasn't easy -- for the top-ranked and unbeaten Tennessee women's basketball team.

The two-time defending champion Lady Vols were given a bit of a challenge by a scrappy Rutgers team, which earlier this season had ended Connecticut's 53-game Big East winning streak.

But Tennessee showed the poise and patience that has fueled a 42-game win streak, along with quite a bit of emotion in turning back the Scarlet Knights, 92-60, before a regional record 14,711 at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym.

As per usual, All-America forward Chamique Holdsclaw provided the principal source of poise and patience -- as well as 25 points and 10 rebounds -- along with freshman Tamika Catchings, who had 23 points.

Freshman Semeka Randall provided the emotion and intensity, with 17 points, a game-high 13 rebounds and four steals.

"I wanted to come out and make a statement and give it all to my team defensively," said Randall. "Today was 'take care of business.' We want to come out and play each game to the best of our ability. It started today."

Said Holdsclaw: "She was fired up and wanted to take care of business."

Tomorrow night's regional championship game will match the Lady Vols (36-0) against North Carolina (27-6), which beat Illinois, 80-74, in the second semifinal last night. Tennessee, which has won five national titles overall, will attempt to advance to a record 11th Final Four in the 17 years the NCAA has sponsored a women's tournament. The Tar Heels, who won it all in 1994, will look to reach their second Final Four.

Tennessee blew open a relatively close game with a 6-0 run, which became a 10-2 spurt, which mushroomed into a 22-8 blitz to start the second half.

The Lady Vols forced 27 Rutgers turnovers -- 14 in the second half -- and made the Scarlet Knights pay for just about all of them after halftime, with 29 points off those turnovers.

"I really felt like we could defensively disrupt Rutgers' offense if we played at our level of intensity," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. "I thought they played a good first half against us, but I was really unhappy at halftime with our defense. We did a much better job in the second half."

And how. The Lady Vols were able to convert their steals into easy baskets, as they shot 62 percent from the floor for the half.

"Sometimes, bringing the ball up, it came down to once you got past one defender, there were two or three that would double-team and triple-team you," said Rutgers point guard Natasha Pointer. "I don't think we have seen a lot of traps this season where a team was all over the ball like they were."

Said Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer: "I thought if we could put more pressure on them, we could have caused them to back down a bit. These are great athletes and unless you are on the floor playing against them, you can't appreciate how quickly they get the ball down the floor."

Though Randall provided the fire, Holdsclaw was the fulcrum of the decisive run with eight points, including a pretty finger-roll that sent a murmur through the partisan Tennessee crowd.

"I know when it's time to take it up a notch. I have good body language and everybody sort of follows along," said Holdsclaw.

In the second game, the seventh-ranked Tar Heels, the No. 2 seed in the region, made up a six-point halftime deficit with a 28-8 run that gave them a 14-point lead with 11 minutes behind the hot shooting of junior forward Chanel Wright (Western), who led North Carolina with 25 points, including the final two free throws with 10 seconds left.

"In the first half, we were a little nervous and we were trailing," Wright said. "We knew we were in the game. Illinois is a very good team with an All-American. To stop them, we had to step our defense up. Hopefully, Monday, we'll start off playing good."

The Illini (20-10), ranked 17th and seeded third in the Mideast, shaved the lead to four with 30 seconds to go, with senior guard Ashley Berggren scoring a game-high 28 points to lead the charge.

North Carolina All-America forward Tracy Reid missed four free throws down the stretch, but blocked a Berggren shot with less than 20 seconds to go to preserve the win.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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