Pre-national championship game pep rally for the Lady Vols
TAMPA, Fla. - Tennessee spread its wings and soared to the grandest heights Tuesday night.
"That's what's called the metamorphosis of a basketball team,'' UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "The cocoon broke and the butterfly was in full bloom, colors flying.
Before a crowd of 21,655 at the St. Pete Times Forum and an ESPN national television audience, the Lady Vols emerged as the team they intended to be all along: Defending national champions.
The emphasis was on defending.
The Lady Vols parlayed a ferocious effort into a 64-48 victory over Stanford, winning the program's second consecutive national championship and the eighth overall.
The feeling was fresh for senior Alberta Auguste, who was holding the national championship trophy in her hands afterward in the locker room.
"It's like a new-born baby,'' she said.
Tennessee (36-2) brought the Stanford scoring show to a stunning halt, holding the Cardinal to a season-low point total that was 37 points below its tournament scoring average. The Lady Vols also had an aggressive hand in 25 turnovers, twice as many as Stanford's NCAA average. The turnovers resulted in 26 Tennessee points.
"They did the things that give us trouble,'' Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "They have the bodies and the experience to do that. A lot of teams don't."
With Auguste serving as the primary defender, Stanford star Candice Wiggins was held to 14 points, nearly half of her tournament average.
Center Nicky Anosike played at the front of UT's press and was the chief turnover gatherer with six steals.
"I was possessed out there,'' Anosike said. "I don't know what got inside me. I don't know what it was. But I'm glad it was inside me."
Tennessee's shooting percentage, which started out hot, dropped below 40 percent during the course of the game. Moreover, freshman Vicki Baugh went down with a left knee injury.
But the defense never wavered, lifting UT to the soaring finish.
Candace Parker led Tennessee with 17 points and nine rebounds. Shannon Bobbitt scored 13. Anosike had 12 and eight rebounds. All three made the all-tournament team with Parker being named the most outstanding player.
Jayne Appel scored a team-high 16 for Stanford (35-4).
Given its shooting struggles in the national semifinals against LSU, Tennessee couldn't have started much better. The Lady Vols' 60-plus percent accuracy across the first seven minutes amounted to a tropical heat wave.
The hot start wasn't Parker's doing either. Instead, Bobbitt nailed a pair of 3-pointers and Anosike got to work on her surprise scoring. Parker set a perfect screen for Bobbitt to score a driving layup. The basket gave Tennessee a 17-9 lead.
After a hot start, Stanford hit a wall, going nearly five minutes without a point. Wiggins, who swished the Cardinal's first basket, disappeared from the scoring column for nearly 15 minutes.
The Lady Vols were following their defensive game plan to the letter, which is exactly what they didn't do in a 73-69 overtime loss to the Cardinal on Dec. 22 in Stanford, Calif. They limited Wiggins' time and space by hounding her through screens and, in Lockwood's words, "mucking up" the Cardinal's set plays.
"If you give Candice Wiggins room, she'll eat you alive,'' Auguste said. "My job was to follow her, get in her face. I don't talk trash. I just get in people's heads by defending them and I think I got in her head in the first half.''
The Lady Vols' shooting eventually cooled off but not their defense. The Lady Vols helped force four consecutive turnovers right after their top defender, Alexis Hornbuckle, drew her second foul and departed for the first half's duration with 7:40 left.
Stanford stayed within striking distance after Wiggins, who also made the all-tournament team, got going again with three baskets. One was a 3-pointer that she swished after scooping up a loose ball. Jillian Harmon's desperation shot ended the half and cut UT's lead to 37-29.
Stanford struck first in the second half, scoring the first four points. Tennessee regained control with defense and rebounding. The Lady Vols had a hand in three more turnovers, and Anosike cleaned up a Hornbuckle driving miss with a rebound basket.
A conventional 3-point play by Parker off a driving layup gave UT a 46-35 lead.
Anosike picked up her third foul and departed with 16:46 left. She returned with 10 minutes left but Auguste picked up her fourth foul and sat down with 8:11 left. At that point, UT still led 53-42.
Auguste returned less than a minute later but it wasn't by design. She replaced Baugh, who crumbled to the floor after a driving layup and had to be helped off the court.
Jenny Moshak, the Lady Vols assistant athletic director for sports medicine, called the injury a sprain and said Baugh would be re-evaluated after the team returns to Knoxville today.
Although they couldn't hold on to the ball, the Cardinal tried to hold onto some hope.
"We kept reminding ourselves we were down 11 last time,'' said Appel, referring to the teams' first meeting.
That was December. This was April and Tennessee was blooming - champions again.
Celebration: The Lady Vols will arrive in Knoxville at 3 p.m. today. Fans are invited to a celebration at Thompson-Boling Arena starting at 5:30. Doors open at 5. Admission is free. Parking will be available in the G-3, G-4, G-5 and G-10 garage. Fans should enter the arena through the concourse.