NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It seems only fitting that if the Tennessee women's basketball team is going to be crowned the greatest team in history that it should have to earn it, and it certainly did last night in the Mideast Regional final.
Trailing seventh-ranked North Carolina by 12 with 7: 35 to go and facing perhaps their sternest test of the season, the two-time defending champion Lady Vols dug down from some well of resilience and turned back the Tar Heels, 76-70, to earn a berth in Friday's Final Four in Kansas City, Mo.
Junior forward Chamique Holdsclaw, the leading candidate for national Player of the Year honors, strapped the Lady Vols (37-0) to her back with 29 points, including the final two free throws with 5.1 seconds to go.
The Tar Heels (27-7), who lost in their final Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season game at North Carolina State, then stormed through the ACC tournament, refused to be intimidated by either the Tennessee mystique or the 14,848 spectators at Memorial Gym.
Led by 21 points from Chanel Wright (Western), North Carolina stormed out of the dressing room at halftime with an 11-2 run to take the lead at 38-35. While Tennessee went without a basket for nine minutes, the Tar Heels were forcing the tempo and taking the game to the Lady Vols, who had seldom been challenged that late in the contest, winning all but two previous games by double digits.
When Jessica Gaspar sank a short jumper in the lane with 7: 35 to go, the Tar Heels led 61-49.
But the Lady Vols responded with a breathtaking display of defensive pressure in a dazzling 13-1 run, capped by a Tamika Catchings steal and feed to Holdsclaw for a layup to tie the score at 62, then another Holdsclaw layup off a steal to put Tennessee ahead.
Holdsclaw, who had had a horrendous shooting night, going 6-for-23 in the early going, took over in the final five minutes, with 14 points in Tennessee's 27-8 run to win.
North Carolina regained the lead once, at 67-66 on a free throw by Tracy Reid with 2: 57 left.
But Holdsclaw answered with two free throws, Teresa Geter put back Holdsclaw's miss and Holdsclaw sank two more free throws, making it 72-67.
A three-pointer by Wright drew Carolina to 72-70 with 21.5 seconds left. But Kellie Jolly sank two free throws with 19.9 seconds to go for a 74-70 lead and North Carolina's final hopes died with Nikki Teasley's air ball from the top of the key with 5.1 seconds remaining.
Semeka Randall added 20 points for Tennessee and Geter finished with 11. Reid scored 20, one less than Wright, for North Carolina.
On its first two possessions, North Carolina elected to run with the Lady Vols, a generally foolhardy strategy, but the Tar Heels had the athleticism to stay with Tennessee, and Reid and Teasley scored layups to give North Carolina an early 4-0 lead.
The Lady Vols then ran off eight straight, but North Carolina didn't wilt, attacking the Tennessee pressure when the situation presented itself, trailing by no more than four through most of the half, and tying the score at 21 with 6: 53 when Wright hit a baseline turnaround with 6: 52 left in the half.
But Tennessee leaned on the crowd, which in theory was supposed to be neutral, but given Vanderbilt's three-hour proximity to Knoxville, was anything but. Randall and Jolly motioned for the crowd to make noise and the throng responded.
Just after Wright's jumper, Randall hit her own turnaround on the baseline, and on the ensuing inbounds play, Jolly knocked down a Reid pass and fed it to a cutting Catchings for a layup.
Suddenly, the Lady Vols were up four and the crowd was on its feet. Reid threw away another pass, then missed two foul shots, and Randall sank a short jumper in the lane to give Tennessee a 27-21 lead.
Wright connected on a short putback and a layup to keep things from getting out of hand, but Randall hit two free throws with 3.3 seconds left to put the Lady Vols ahead by six at the break, their slightest halftime lead of the NCAA tournament.
Neither team shot particularly well, as North Carolina hit for 38 percent from the floor, while Tennessee hit just 35 percent of its shots.
Perhaps more tellingly, the Tar Heels held their own on the boards, drawing even with Tennessee at 22 rebounds apiece.
NORTH CAROLINA -- Reid 8-14 4-7 20, Wright 9-16 2-3 21, N.Walker 0-3 0-0 0, Brown 2-9 0-0 4, Teasley 5-12 3-4 13, Gaspar 3-7 2-4 8, Barksdale 1-3 0-0 2, S.Walker 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 29-66 11-18 70.
TENNESSEE -- Holdsclaw 8-26 13-14 29, Catchings 4-13 3-4 11, Stephens 0-2 0-0 0, Jolly 0-3 4-4 4, Randall 8-19 4-6 20, Clement 0-4 1-2 1, Geter 4-4 3-3 11. Totals 24-71 28-33 76.
Halftime--Tennessee 33-27. 3-point goals--North Carolina 1-8 (Wright 1-1, Brown 0-1, Gaspar 0-1, Teasley 0-5), Tennessee 0-9 (Holdsclaw 0-1, Randall 0-1, Clement 0-2, Jolly 0-2, Catchings 0-3). Fouled out--N.Walker. Rebounds--North Carolina 40 (Reid 13), Tennessee 45 (Holdsclaw 9). Assists--North Carolina 13 (Teasley 6), Tennessee 11 (Catchings, Jolly, Clement 3). Total fouls--North Carolina 25, Tennessee 16. A--14,848.
Women's Final 4
At Kansas City, Mo.
North Carolina State (25-6) vs. Louisiana Tech (30-3), 7 p.m.
Tennessee (37-0) vs. Arkansas (22-10), 9: 30 p.m.
Semifinal winners, 8: 30 p.m.
Pub Date: 3/24/98