"It was a sense of relief and obviously we know it's not the championship game but at the same time we deserved to celebrate, because that was a big-time trial and fate that we were facing, oh and two the last two times we met," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "We knew they wanted it, but we knew how bad we wanted it."
Tennessee's season ended in Quicken Loans Arena a year ago to North Carolina in a regional final. The Lady Vols also lost to the Tar Heels last December in the regular season. The Tennessee players told each other in timeouts that they were not going out without a fight. One of the players who wasn't even in Cleveland last year, Alberta Auguste, went one step further and said they were not returning to the locker room – the same one they used a year ago – in tears.
"What's funny about it is Bird was actually the one that said, ‘Nobody's coming in here with tears,' and she wasn't even a part of the team last year," Hornbuckle said. "Our passion from last year just carried over to the team this year, which is a great feeling. I agree. If we're going to cry over something it better be tears of happiness so we definitely came in here with that attitude."
The Tennessee locker room was – in stark contrast to the North Carolina locker room just down the hall where even the coaches were in tears – a place for cheers and shouts of joy. The players tried to explain the start – a flurry of turnovers on both sides – and the finish – North Carolina was held without a basket for the final eight minutes – to explain a win in which they came back from 12 points down on a night when points were precious and few.
"I think it was a combination of the speed – matching up in the lineups – but at the same time you're very anxious in the Final Four realizing they're two up on us in the previous matchups and this game means the most out of both of those matchups," Hornbuckle said. "We came out and everybody just wanted everything so obviously it's going to be an up-and-down game and a lot of turnovers."
When Candace Parker was told that Tennessee had set a record for lowest shooting percentage in the Final Four – 27.0 percent – with a win, she laughed softly and asked what North Carolina shot. When told it was 35.1 percent, she said, "so they shot better than us," and she laughed again in almost disbelief.
How to explain that?
"To be honest with you I don't know," Parker said. "I don't even care. I know we were missing easy shots that we normally hit. Lex had a couple out. I know I did. I had a couple of my shots roll out, but I had a free throw roll in so it worked both ways. I'm just happy that we stepped up defensively. We learned our lesson from earlier in the season where we didn't shoot a great percentage and we lost. So we learned that we need to bring our defense, and I knew I wasn't shooting well so I needed to get on the boards and just help my team any way I could."
Tennessee out-rebounded North Carolina, 43-42. Parker led all rebounders with 13 boards – seven defensive and six offensive. She had help from Nicky Anosike, who had seven, and Hornbuckle, who had eight.
It was a night when defensive stops and schemes would determine the outcome, and the offensive stars of past games had to find other ways to win. Tennessee was led on both ends by Anosike, who played the entire 40 minutes and had five steals and four blocks. She also scored 14 points and had three assists.
"She had heart," Sidney Spencer said. "I could see her heart beating through her jersey it seemed like. She was determined, stepping up, getting steals, deflections, incredible. A lot of times the things she does go unnoticed – the second chance points, she knocked down her free throws.
"She did a great job. She played so hard and took so much pride in Tennessee basketball. I'm so excited for her."
Parker could tell Anosike was ready before the game tipped.
"Nicky was huge for us," Parker said. I saw that look before the game in her eyes. She was definitely a warrior. She was definitely the most steady player I think we had on the court."
In the locker room after the game Anosike looked like she could go another 40 minutes if need be.
"I think I'm just in really good shape right now," Anosike said. "I'm in the best shape of my life."
Parker played 28 minutes – all 20 of the second half and only eight in the first half because of foul trouble.
"I thought about putting her back in," Coach Pat Summitt said. "The way the game unfolded and the calls, I didn't trust it. I was pleased that we could just hang in there."
Tennessee actually led at halftime, 22-21, thanks to two 3-pointers by Shannon Bobbitt, and four points from her fellow junior guard, Alberta Auguste. Anosike had five points at the break.
But it wasn't so much who was scoring for Tennessee as who was not scoring for North Carolina. Larkins, who had dominated the game in December, had zero points at the break. Her defender was Spencer.
The matchup resembled the Tennessee-Pitt game earlier in the NCAA tourney when Spencer went inside to guard Marcedes Walker so that Anosike could pick up players on the perimeter. Once again, it was a scouting report by Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell that led to the defensive scheme.
Larkins finished with four points on 2-4 shooting, which came when Spencer had switched off.
"She didn't get any on Sid," said Summitt, who grinned and added, "We finally found a place where Spencer could be effective on defense. Look how many games it took us. I have to give Nikki Caldwell total credit for this."
Spencer had gotten fired up over her defense on Walker.
"Spencer just loved it," Summitt said. "And if she thinks it good we just have to follow up on it."
"We watched a lot of film on her, just her tendencies," Spencer said. "She wants to go left on every play so my whole thing was, like against Pittsburgh, face guard. Do the dance thing. But if she catches force her right. That was the whole thing was to just try to force her right.
"I've seen a lot of film. She's an amazing post player. She's so strong. I believe she had 11 rebounds. She's an incredible player, and we just wanted to try to keep her off the offensive boards (nine of the 11 boards were defensive), not let her get any points in transition, and take away her left shoulder. Sometimes in the press break we would get switched off so several possessions I didn't have her."
Spencer said the job she did on Walker convinced her she could do it again against Larkins.
"It really just gave me confidence I felt like," Spencer said. "My teammates were like, ‘We've got your back.' And a couple of times in the first half Shannon and Lex came through with steals when I was fronting and that just gave me confidence that they've got me. My teammates have got my back, trust them and do what the coaches ask."
Larkins sat on a chair after the game by herself outside the showers in North Carolina's locker room and with red-rimmed eyes and a soft voice tried to explain why what Tennessee did was so effective.
"I think it was what her teammates were doing," Larkins said of the help provided by the guards. "I was a little bit surprised that she came out on me defensively, but she played me pretty much the same way Nicky Anosike played me back in December. So I wasn't surprised, but her teammates did a great job of coming in there and (getting) a steal. I'm posting up. I don't have time to look around my back. Alexis Hornbuckle she came in from the blind side a couple of times. I think without the help of her teammates it would have been really tough for her.
"Every time I turned around and began to make a move it was Bobbitt or Hornbuckle coming from behind me and getting the ball. They did a great job of doing what coach wanted them to do."
The defensive scheme required several parts. The perimeter defenders had to disrupt the ball handlers so that they wouldn't have easy entry passes into the paint. That's why Anosike was sent to the outside with Bobbitt and Hornbuckle, and Spencer dropped into the paint with Larkins. It was a physical battle the entire game with Larkins fighting for position and Spencer shadowing her every move from behind and in front.
"We told Sid before the game that we needed her desperately to guard her because I was needed on the perimeter and couldn't guard her," Anosike said. "She did a great job. She really has come through for us in big games, where we've had big post players, Pittsburgh and now North Carolina."
North Carolina continued to try to make post feeds to Larkins, and it was a strategy that Coach Sylvia Hatchell second-guessed after the game.
"If I had to do it over we would have just taken the ball to the basket and not tried to get the ball inside," Hatchell said. "Because it was hard for us to run anything because they were denying everything, especially the passes into the post. And we were dribbling the ball too much. We weren't passing it, moving it around. … But again they had us a little bit out of sync, and that's usually what we do to people."
North Carolina had 29 turnovers with 15 coming in the first half. The last time these teams played in Cleveland, North Carolina had 13 for the entire game. The Tar Heels have been known to turn over the ball this season, but it's usually out of their fast break attack.
"We didn't have a lot of fast break turnovers," Larkins said. "A lot of those turnovers were in the half-court set and trying to get me the ball."
When North Carolina put the ball on the floor a Tennessee defender was usually right there harassing the ball handler. The Lady Vols had 20 steals to North Carolina's 11, and although Tennessee had 21 turnovers for the game, only seven were committed in the second half.
Still, North Carolina led by 12 points, 48-36, with 8:18 left, because Tennessee was missing jumpers and layups, and the Tar Heels did what they had done all season – they got out and ran off missed shots. But when Larkins hit the jumper to put North Carolina up by 12, it would be the Tar Heels' last field goal of the game. They didn't score again until Ivory Latta hit two free throws at the 3:43 mark to put North Carolina up by four, 50-46.
Tennessee had managed to cut the lead with a series of defensive stops, a layup by Hornbuckle and free throws by Parker and Anosike.
When Tennessee was down by 12 the players didn't panic. Summitt told them they weren't leaving Cleveland with a loss this time.
"We just focused on this idea of a warrior mentality this whole tournament, and I think that we just had to pull that out and have that warrior mentality," Anosike said. "We were just thinking we didn't want to go home with a loss, and it was now or never."
Summitt used the huddles to keep her team calm.
"When we were down we just looked at the clock and said, ‘You know what? We have forever,' " Hornbuckle said. "I know it sounds crazy, but we had a lot of time and all we have to do is knock down at this lead by defensive stops. We need stops, and we need scores, and that's what we tried to come out here and do."
There was no bigger stop than the one Spencer got on Little when it was a two-on-one break for Carolina with 5:10 to go and the Tar Heels still up by six. Anosike had made two free throws, and Tennessee set up a full court press. North Carolina zipped down the floor with only Spencer back.
"I just remember my first foul in the second half I just hacked Camille Little," Spencer said. "I didn't want her to get a layup, and they had just gotten four offensive boards in a row so I was like, ‘OK, she's going to earn this.'
Bobbitt pointed out to Spencer that she could have taken a charge then instead of fouling Little.
"Everybody was like, ‘Sid, you could have taken a charge right there.' " Spencer said. "So in my mind I was like, ‘OK, I've got to take a charge.' So here they come, same scenario. I was with Erlana and Camille, and I just stepped up. I saw her bobble the ball a little bit so that's when I just went."
The charge was Little's fifth foul and it forced LaToya Pringle to immediately come back in with four fouls. Pringle was gone in less than a minute with her fifth when she fouled Parker, who had grabbed an offensive board. That forced Jessica Breland into the game, and she committed a turnover. Parker hit a layup to cut the lead to two, 48-46, and suddenly the momentum had completely shifted to Tennessee.
When Anosike hit a layup to tie the game at 50-50 with 2:04 to go, the Tennessee fans in the sold out "Q" – the arena holds 20,500 – let loose a deafening roar.
"Our crowd is huge for us," Parker said. "And they have been there for my whole career and for this whole season. You always look up in the crowd, and you can see a whole bunch of orange. And they were very big in our comeback."
When Anosike hit the second of two free throws to give Tennessee a 51-50 lead with 1:44 left, the crowd – the majority of which was wearing orange and white – let loose again.
"I just knew I had to focus for my team," Anosike said. "I had no choice but to hit the second one. I didn't want to go home and be like, ‘Oh my God I lost the semifinal championship.' I just knew I had to knock it down."
Tennessee made one more defensive stand by switching Hornbuckle to Latta in the closing minute because of Hornbuckle's longer reach on the perimeter. Latta missed her last two shots.
"We knew that she was going to want to take shots, and we knew that she was their go-to player, and I'm a little longer than Shannon," Hornbuckle said. "Coach just wanted to throw up a little different matchup."
Parker and Spencer were perfect down the line from that point on, and Tennessee secured the win at the free throw line.
"We have the Wade Trophy Player of the Year on our team so obviously we want to get the ball to her and not just that but we want to get paint points," Spencer said of the strategy in the final minutes of the game. "I was like, ‘Give it to Candace. She's been clutch for us all year long' and go rebound. I just tried to go in there and see what happens. And when they started fouling I wanted the ball to be in my hands."
Summitt had nothing but praise for her team after the game. She leaned against a wall outside the locker room and answered every question with a smile. A year ago she leaned against the opposite wall in the same hallway and had to explain a loss to North Carolina.
"I'm really proud for our team," Summitt said. "I'm just so excited for them because they have been so together. They've been on the same page. We haven't had to deal with issues with this team. It's just been a joy, a process I've enjoyed so much. I think they've had fun. My staff's had a great time. It just didn't seem like it would be fair for us to have to go home with this kind of game."
The game was a defensive battle and one tailor made for a Summitt team in the postseason.
"Our defense flat out changed how Carolina played the game," Summitt said. "All five people committed to it. A couple of times I tried to play defense. I was at half-court. It was our defensive intensity and pressure and covering the passing lanes and moving. That turned this game around."
Summitt was able to laugh about her team's offensive struggles.
"Alexis, she couldn't shoot a BB in the ocean, but she kept shooting," Summitt said. "The thing about Alexis, let's say other players don't shoot well. It affects the rest of their game. With Alexis it affects her game in a positive way. She's going to come up with a steal, she's going to get a rebound, she's going to have a hustle play, she's going to make a defensive stop. While some players might cave in to that mentally and let it affect their defense and they'll not play defense or rebound or elevate their game."
Hornbuckle was 4-16 from the field. Bobbitt was 2-11. Parker was 3-12. It was not a game for offensive highlights.
"Rough night as a team. Great accomplishment as a team," Hornbuckle said. "I myself played terrible on the offensive end. I (did) hit a couple of shots at the end. My defense and my leadership spoke volumes. I never sat there and said, ‘I'm going to quit on my team because my shot's not falling.' I never became a selfish player, and I think my team fed off that and it fed off other people that weren't having a great offensive night."
Hornbuckle's roommate, Auguste, one of three players in the locker room who were not in Cleveland a year ago, was one of the ones most adamant that Tennessee would wipe out the 12-point deficit.
"We basically looked at the clock and said there's time to come back," Auguste said. "Don't give up. We're going to fight for this. We're not going home crying. We want to win a championship. Lay it on the line."
For the seniors, Spencer and Dominique Redding, it guaranteed them one final game in their collegiate careers. They made it to a national title game in 2004. This is their first time back there since then.
"It's really special," Redding said. "We're all just going to have to play together and take one possession at a time and make sure that we go out there and play with a lot of heart."
Spencer, who has noted how much she has savored this last season, is usually loquacious when talking about the special moments and last times that accompany a senior season. But when asked what it meant to get to the championship game, her eyes moistened for the first time, and the words came slowly.
"You just don't know," Spencer said softly. "It's a dream come true. It's something that you work for and to be in it … Dom and I were there our freshman year but our senior year is really special."
RUTGERS-LSU: A Rutgers fan held up a sign "It's Knight Time" late in the second half. The fan could have flashed it at halftime.
The Scarlet Knights, behind eight first-half 3-pointers, led LSU by the score of 37-19 at the break and went on to win, 59-35.
Rutgers jumped out to an early lead over the Tigers and was essentially never threatened. The Scarlet Knights were led by Essence Carson with 15 points and Matee Ajavon with 16. The duo combined for seven 3-pointers.
LSU didn't have a single scorer in double digits, and its most fearsome player, Sylvia Fowles, finished with five points and seven rebounds. LSU shot 26.4 percent for the game.
The Scarlet Knights shot 39.2 percent overall but 50.0 percent from behind the arc (10-20).
"Wow," Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer said. "That's the best way to describe what's happening right here."
Rutgers post player Kia Vaughn was able to neutralize Fowles, so much so that a sportswriter in the post-game press conference termed it as muscling her into "irrelevance."
"Tried to be tough with her," Vaughn said. "She was a strong body, and I just tried to physically make her move and keep her away from the basket as far as I could."
When Fowles wasn't too far away from the basket, she was too deep under it. She was 2-10 from the field and lofted shots that sailed over the rim. When Fowles missed a short turnaround right in front of the basket in the first half – shots she had drained all postseason – she screamed in frustration as she ran down court.
"I just think I had a sluggish game from the get-go and couldn't get in rhythm, and I couldn't do anything to help my team out from the jump ball," Fowles said.
Fowles can get flustered when she gets out of sync, and this game was Exhibit A for that tendency.
"Every now and then Sylvia gets frustrated," LSU Coach Bob Starkey said. "She doesn't hit her first shot or she doesn't get a call and sometimes for whatever reason it's difficult for her to play through. She's done that in the past. She doesn't do it nearly as much as she used to. … But obviously the goal next year I would think would be for her to work through that on a consistent basis where it never affects her."
Rutgers won the tip, and then won the game with relative ease. The Scarlet Knights' vaunted defense disrupted LSU inside and out, but it was Rutgers' offense that really surprised.
"I'm not sure if I had a game like that before," Ajavon said of her prolific long-range shots. "It was just in the flow of the game. My teammates did a great job of recognizing that I was hitting the shots and passing it back to me."
"We were just hitting all of our shots," said Rutgers freshman Brittany Ray, who had six points. "They're a great defensive team. I acknowledge that they are a great defensive team. We just came out to play today. Just like our coach tells us everyday. Take it one game at a time. Just play, and defense wins games. That's what we tried to do."
Rutgers and Tennessee will hold private practices Monday and meet with the media. The two teams will meet Tuesday evening for the national title.
"We're happy to be here," said Stringer, after lauding her team for believing in itself. "That's why I'm so very proud of each and every person here. And just continue to keep the ball rolling. So I guess we'll see all of you guys here on Tuesday, right?"
ODDS AND ENDS
HOTTEST SCOREBOARD: The one at Quicken Loans Arena. Literally. When the starters were introduced one by one, flames shot out of the neck of the oversized guitars on the four edges and warmed up media row.
The scoreboard also help the math-impaired by giving the number of points behind for the losing team in between the two point totals. The players couldn't see it without looking directly up, but it was likely unpleasant viewing for the fans of teams that were behind in the games, especially when it was by large margins.
The graphics in the arena were top notch. The names of all 64 teams in the tournament and their logos wrapped around the upper level. On the lower level were the words "And Then There Were Four" with the names and logos of the Final Four teams.
Stats also were lit up on the outer wall of the scorer's table with in-game shooting percentages, rebounds and turnovers for both teams in a very fan-friendly display of information.
SUPPORT FOR NICKY: Nicky Anosike's family attended the game and held up a large sign that said "We (heart) Big Nicky." They cheered and waved the sign when she was introduced before the game.
Two sections over from them, a group of fans held up a sign that said: "Staten Island Loves Nicky Anosike. Go Vols."
"Nicky was terrific," Pat Summitt said. "The thing about Nicky she has great competitive drive. She has a thorough knowledge of the game. She has composure. She's got toughness. She's got leadership skills. She's kind of the unsung hero on this team because she's not the one that people are asking questions or writing about or featuring, but she is one stable constant – a player that's always there constantly doing what she needs to do."
Her roommate and fellow New Yorker, Shannon Bobbitt was proud of Anosike.
"Of course, of course, of course," Bobbitt said.
Even though Anosike told ESPN that Bobbitt, who is Anosike's roommate, has a mouth that makes up for her lack of size?
"Of course, of course, of course," Bobbitt said while laughing.
"She did tremendously," Bobbitt said. "She held the boards down, she made crucial free throws, blocked shots, stole the ball. She did well for us."
"I love her so much," Dominique Redding said. "She left everything out on that court. She played with a lot of heart. That's how she's been ever since she was a freshman. She just goes in there and plays so hard. She's going to go in there and bust it. I love her for it, and everyone does. We're just so happy she's on our team."
MORE ROOMMATE KUDOS: Alberta Auguste and Alexis Hornbuckle are roommates. They also team up on the court when Tennessee needs a defensive presence at the top of the key.
Auguste came in early in the first half to help the Lady Vols set the tone on defense.
"I told you about that wingspan," Auguste said. "Lex just looked at me and said, ‘Bird, you know what you're out here to do.' And I said, ‘All right, Lex. I'll do it the best I can.' I went out there and helped them out on defense. I shot the ball pretty well. Points don't matter right now. I'll do whatever I can to help the team win. I'm happy."
"She came in and played big," Hornbuckle said. "She's been playing well this whole tournament. We're proud of her. She stepped up, and her game is peaking at the right time. She comes in with a lot of heart, and she does everything that she needs to do."
The two skipped off the court together after the game.
NICKY DEFENSE: Nicky Anosike had two fouls in the first half but that didn't stop her from getting a block on a Tar Heel in the open court on a fast break attempt and then snatching the ball out of the air.
"I probably shouldn't have done that but luckily it worked to my advantage," Anosike said.
SID DEFENSE: The charge Sidney Spencer took in the second half drew praise from Nicky Anosike and Pat Summitt.
"She took the biggest charge," Summitt said.
"There were a lot of charges called, but I think hers was the most important for us," Anosike said.
ODDEST QUESTION: Nicky Anosike was asked in the locker room if when she missed the first of two free throws when the score was tied, 50-50, she thought of Duke's Lindsey Harding, who missed two free throws with less than a second to go and her team down by one. When Anosike took her free throws, the score was tied and there were nearly two minutes left in the game.
"I definitely didn't," said Anosike, who looked rather puzzled at first. "I don't think about stuff like that. That doesn't go through my mind. I'm a totally different person and I'm on a totally different team. That didn't go through my head."
CELEBRATION EXPLANATION: The Tennessee players erupted when the game was over out of relief over last year's loss and the fact the win meant the Lady Vols would play for a national title. But they were happy for another reason.
"Mainly for coach because we want to win for her because she hasn't been in the championship (game) in awhile," Alex Fuller said. "It just shows how strong we are as a team and how far we can go."
Pat Summitt used the timeouts to tell her team a national title was waiting. But Summitt has said all season that if she never wins another game – she has 946 for her career and is already in two halls of fame – her legacy is already set. She wants these players to win one.
"She basically told us we weren't going to go home with a loss, just told us what we needed to improve on and told us that we had to beat them on the boards in order to win, and we did that," Nicky Anosike said.
"After we lost the regional finals we were crying, and we just knew we didn't want to feel that again. We didn't want to come back crying again. We would rather feel tears of enjoyment than tears of pain."
MASCOT SUPPORT: All four mascots at the Final Four wore armbands with the name of Jason Ray, the mascot for the North Carolina men's basketball team who was fatally struck by a vehicle while he was in New Jersey for the NCAA tourney. The Lady Vol cheerleaders had Ray's initials written on the tape on their wrists.
BEST HUG: That between Alberta Auguste and Shannon Bobbitt at center court after the game. The juniors are playing their first season for Tennessee and were signed by Pat Summitt out of junior college – the first ones in three decades – because the Lady Vols needed help at the guard spots.
"We were just happy and excited that we're actually playing for Tennessee," Auguste said. "We made it this far. We're going to the championship game."
"Just an emotional feeling right there winning that game, being down by 12," Bobbitt said. "It shows how much heart we really have right there, and Bird played a tremendous game. I definitely had to give her a hug. She helped us get this win."
Auguste added, "We're not done. One game to go."