KNOXVILLE, TENN. — KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The bearhug between Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt and her star center, Dana Johnson, with less than a minute to go in last night's Mideast Regional final spoke volumes.
Three years of coming ever so close but not quite getting over the hump had come to a glorious end as the third-ranked Lady Vols earned their way to next weekend's Final Four with an 80-59 thumping of No. 5 Texas Tech.
And it was Johnson and fellow senior Nikki McCray who powered the Lady Vols (33-2) into Minneapolis, combining for 46 points and 21 rebounds to set off the celebration among a raucous Thompson-Boling Arena crowd of 13,466 that saw Tennessee extend its home-court winning streak to 64 games overall and its tournament record in Knoxville to 26-0.
McCray scored 19 of her 22 points in the first half to get Tennessee started. Then Johnson (Western), the former Baltimore Sun Player of the Year, scored 14 of her 24 in the second half to knock the Red Raiders (33-4) out.
"I'm very proud of how these two young ladies have handled NCAA play from the beginning," said Summitt. "They have been responsible from both ends of the floor, and their willingness to take the floor, play to win and attack on every possession has been key to our style of play."
The Tennessee seniors had compiled a 120-10 record over their four years here but hadn't advanced to the national semifinals, a sore point for the most successful program in women's basketball, the only one to win three Division I championships.
"I feel very fortunate to be at this point," said McCray, a 5-foot-11 small forward from Collierville, Tenn. "We've worked very hard to reach this goal, but there's more."
"Dana gave me a hug in the dressing room last year after we lost to Louisiana Tech [in the regional semifinals]," said Summitt. "I saw how much they were hurting. Dana said, 'I'll never let you down again.' I would say she's a woman of her word."
To a large extent, the preparation for this Final Four trip began in the off-season, when Summitt put together a rigorous schedule that included games against 18 ranked opponents.
The seven other regional finalists were on the schedule.
The Lady Vols went 16-2 against top opposition, losing only on the road in January to top-ranked Connecticut and to ninth-ranked Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference title game three weeks ago.
Said Summitt: "I think the hardest thing to do is what you're supposed to do. As I told them in the dressing room after the
game, our goal is not to get to the Final Four but to win the national championship."
"They're the best team in the country," said Marsha Sharp, who coached the Red Raiders to a national title two years ago.
"On a neutral court, they will be the one to beat. They've played the best schedule in women's basketball, and if there was anybody else who played that schedule, they would have had a lot more than two losses. It will be a great advantage having played that schedule when they get to Minneapolis."
The Lady Vols broke open what had been a reasonably close game with a 16-6 run to start the second half, behind three straight three-pointers from Michelle Marciniak and Abby Conklin that widened the gap from a nine-point halftime Tennessee lead, to a 19-point bulge.
"That really kind of broke our backs. We were playing catch-up big time after that," said Sharp.