MINNEAPOLIS -- Three weeks ago, when the third-ranked Tennessee women's basketball team drilled No. 12 Georgia by 22 in the regular-season finale, Georgia coach Andy Landers bemoaned his team's lack of effort.
Yesterday, when the Lady Vols eliminated the Lady Bulldogs, 73-51, in an NCAA tournament semifinal, Landers had no complaints about effort, for his team ran into something that great effort rarely overcomes: a clearly superior opponent.
The Lady Vols (34-2), who will play today for their fourth national championship, were dominant in all phases of the game.
"You can cut through a lot of the parts or areas of the game and get right to the heart of the matter. And the heart of the matter is that Tennessee is a much more aggressive basketball team than Georgia," Landers said. "If you aren't aggressive and the aggressive team has talent--and Tennessee does--then it's going be a long afternoon."
The Lady Vols did what they've done all season: control the boards on both ends, make the most of their transition opportunities and play stifling defense, thanks to senior forward Nikki McCray.
The two-time All-American from Collierville, Tenn., had 22 points and eight rebounds, and played brilliantly on defense and in transition, where she used her superior speed to either get open shots or layups.
"We had to keep our focus to be in the position that we wanted to be in, which is playing [today]. We just have to concentrate and stay focused and not relax," McCray said.
McCray wasn't alone. On a day when the vaunted Tennessee inside game was largely ineffective on the offensive end, the Lady Vol transition game was in high gear with McCray and guards Latina Davis and Michelle Marciniak.
Davis, a 5-foot-6 junior from Winchester, Tenn., had six of Tennessee's first 10 points, to finish with 10; Marciniak, a 5-foot-9 junior from Macungie, Pa., had just eight points, but 10 assists and three steals.
"We played together and we were focused," said Marciniak. "Once we got going and started to run, it was easy to get going. We just fed off each other."
Said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt: "We learned a valuable lesson in the SEC tournament [where they lost in the finals to Vanderbilt] about our perimeter game. That really helped us and made me a better coach. If we don't give the perimeter players the green light to shoot 15-footers, we wouldn't have had a chance to get to Minneapolis and the Final Four."
Tennessee was likewise dominant on the boards, out-rebounding Georgia 51-33, including 16-13 on the offensive end.
"It was very important to us to affect how they rebounded," said Landers. "We had some success at that early in the game, but they whipped us badly in the second half in the area of rebounding. When you affect rebounding, you affect second-chance scoring opportunities, and they got some of those."
Said Summitt: "One of our things this year is, 'No rebounds, no rings.' Early in the game, we set the tone on the boards and maintained our aggressiveness offensively."
The Lady Vols, who have won their five tournament games by an average of nearly 24 points per game, started slowly, missing on three of their first four possessions. They quickly righted themselves behind their perimeter trio to take a 21-8 lead.
The Lady Bulldogs (28-5) twice were able to slice the deficit to seven points but could get no closer. Two three-pointers late in the first half, from Marciniak and reserve forward Abby Conklin, gave Tennessee a 40-25 halftime lead. Georgia never got closer.
"They got to the offensive boards. They got into transition and got some quick, cheap, easy layups," said Landers. "Conklin's three was a big play. Without that, it might have been a 10 or even nine-point game before the half. We would have been more comfortable with that."
With the win, the Lady Vols get to the place they've been aiming for all season: a chance at a national championship.
"We had six cards to play at the start of the NCAA tournament. "[Yesterday] I gave them their fifth and I want to play the trump [today]. [Yesterday], the card said 'National' and it said soar with the eagles. You can figure out what [today's] card will say."