DULUTH, Ga. - One moment the basketball belonged to Tennessee's Shekinna Stricklen and the next instant it didn't.
And then suddenly, the ball was hers again.
"It was nuts,'' said Tennessee teammate Taber Spani, describing the chaotic second-half sequence Saturday against Vanderbilt. "It was like a ping pong ball for a second."
Stricklen answered a steal with one of her own before driving through heavy Commodores traffic and dishing to Spani for an easy layup.
"I would describe it as hustle and not giving up,'' Stricklen said.
The Lady Vols had a firm grip on those qualities, as demonstrated by 68-49 victory over their in-state rival in the SEC women's basketball tournament semifinals at Gwinnett Arena. The hard-earned result advanced the tournament's top seed to the championship game against No. 2 seed Kentucky at 6:30 tonight (TV: ESPN2).
The Wildcats (25-6) rallied in the other semifinal for a 76-65 victory over Mississippi State.
The hustle for No. 4 Tennessee (29-2) was reflected by its 42-27 rebounding advantage and by holding Vanderbilt (22-10) to 31.7 percent field-goal shooting. The Commodores, who were playing their third game in three days, shot 17.6 percent (3-for-17) on 3-pointers.
The not-giving-up part of the Lady Vols' effort involved cracking open Vanderbilt's zone defense. Instead of four double-figure scorers, as they had on Friday against Ole Miss, the Lady Vols had to make do with two. Alyssia Brewer scored a game-high 15 points and Angie Bjorklund added 12.
Instead of opening with 70 percent shooting, a springboard to Friday's 50-point first half, the Lady Vols missed 12 of their first 16 shots.
"It was kind of hard to get the ball inside at first,'' forward Glory Johnson said. "We were just throwing up some shots and our percentage wasn't good at the beginning."
UT adjusted by increasing the pace and precision of their ball movement. In the process, Brewer worked free for eight of her points by halftime.
"If the ball gets stuck in people's hands, it's easy for the zone to guard,'' Spani said. "We just tried to swing it quickly and that helped a lot. It opened stuff up."
Actually, Bjorklund was open from the outset as the smaller Commodores concentrated on UT's post players. Yet the junior guard misfired to a 1-for-6 shooting start.
"I have to step up, especially postseason, and hit those shots,'' Bjorklund said.
While a shooter's touch was temporarily failing her, a shooter's mentality carried the day. She kept shooting.
"If Coach (Pat Summitt) thinks I'm shooting too much, she'll tell me,'' Bjorklund said. "But she doesn't tell me that too often."
Bjorklund warmed up enough to finish with four 3-pointers. Combined with Stricklen's two treys, the Lady Vols achieved enough scoring balance to shake free from the stubborn Commodores.
The Lady Vols' 21 turnovers turned out to be their biggest problem. Three in a row late in the first half sabotaged their momentum and contributed to a scoreless stretch of 4 minutes, l0 seconds.
They also factored into the game's conclusion. Stricklen had to be hustled back into the game briefly with 1:24 left to clean up a mess created by the reserves, who wasted nearly half of UT's 20-point lead.
In the end, Bjorklund and Stricklen played 37 and 36 minutes, respectively. They will be drawing upon their willpower tonight along with what's left of their stamina.
"You're a little sore,'' Stricklen said, "but you have time to get everything better and get some rest."
Now is not the time to be thinking about fatigue.
"It's all mental,'' Brewer said. "You have to push your mind to a different place."