CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Even after carrying her team into tomorrow's national championship game, Tennessee guard Michelle Marciniak said last year's 70-64 loss to Connecticut in the NCAA women's championship game stings most of all.
The Lady Vols can't get that title back, but they will play Georgia for a record fourth championship tomorrow because Marciniak wouldn't forget last year.
The senior guard's grit and determination were the core of fourth-ranked Tennessee's 88-83 overtime win over No. 2
Connecticut in the first of two national semifinals last night.
Marciniak scored a team-high 21 points to go along with six assists and seven rebounds and provided emotional support, when Tennessee surrendered a 10-point lead in the last nine minutes.
"We won this basketball game as a team. Everybody made big plays. That's what got us here to this point," said Marciniak, a 5-foot-9 guard from Macungie, Pa.
But Marciniak's plays were the biggest. With 2: 01 left in regulation, she hit an off-hand layup to give the Lady Vols (31-4) a one-point lead, and sank two free throws with 12.9 seconds left to provide Tennessee with a three-point lead, which vanished when Connecticut's Nykesha Sales nailed a three-pointer with 4.2 seconds remaining to tie it at 75.
Marciniak, who overran Sales on the shot, nearly hit a three from 30 feet out at the buzzer to give Tennessee a regulation victory, but it bounced off the front rim.
It was at that point that Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt noticed the one and only slump in Marciniak's demeanor.
"I didn't like the looks on our faces as we were coming to the bench, and Michelle was beating herself up," said Summitt. "I told her the first three minutes of the overtime were going to be key. We needed to win the tip and take control, and then she turned the ball over."
Perhaps, at another time, Marciniak and the Lady Vols would have folded to Connecticut, which had not only beat them in the title game last year, but also had snapped Tennessee's record 69-game home winning streak.
But Marciniak, who transferred to Tennessee after one year at Notre Dame, shook off the miscues and scored five of the Lady Vols' 13 overtime points, including a foul shot with 1: 43 to break an 82-82 tie and then two free throws with 17.5 seconds to go in the extra session that provided Tennessee a little breathing room.
"To come out of all of that was a real compliment to Michelle and her ability to make big plays," said Summitt.
To their credit, the Huskies, who were in foul trouble most of the night, displayed the kind of resilience they have exhibited through their splendid two-year run at the top of the sport, with 69 wins in 73 games.
"I can't tell you what kind of feeling I had in that locker room because you haven't been a part of this team and seen the kind of effort this team has displayed," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. "I don't think you're going to see a defending national champion come in here and give you the performance this team gave."
Indeed, the Huskies, who had stolen wins from the Lady Vols in the last five minutes of each of their three meetings, looked to be on the verge of another when Sales, a sophomore, gave Connecticut a 70-68 lead with 3: 10 to go on a baseline drive.
But, for a change, it was the Volunteers who showed mental toughness in the stretch.
"They made some really tough shots when they needed to. They hit foul shots. They played a great game," said Connecticut guard Jennifer Rizzotti.
Pub Date: 3/30/96