NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It seems only fitting that if the Tennessee women's basketball team is going to be crowned the greatest team in history that it should have to earn it, and the Lady Vols certainly did last night in the Mideast Regional final.
Trailing second-seeded North Carolina by 12 with 7: 35 to go and facing perhaps their sternest test of the season, the two-time defending champion Lady Vols dug down from some well of resilience and turned back the Tar Heels, 76-70, to earn a berth in Friday's Final Four in Kansas City, Mo.
Junior forward Chamique Holdsclaw, the leading candidate for national Player of the Year honors, strapped the Lady Vols (37-0) to her back with 29 points, including the final two free throws with 5.1 seconds to go.
Holdsclaw, who hit just eight of 26 shots, made 13 of 14 free throws, and her last 11 foul shots over the final 8: 29, said she flashed back to the 1996 East Regional final in which the Lady Vols made up an 18-point, second-half deficit to win.
"I don't want to be a player who chokes," Holdsclaw said. "My teammates have faith in me and they were telling me, 'Meek, you have to do it.' I was on the bench, praying, 'Please let us get it done.' We got the W."
But not without a major scare from the Tar Heels (27-7), who were led by Western alumna Chanel Wright with 21 points.
The Lady Vols, who have captured five championships overall, advance to their 11th Final Four in the past 17 years and will attempt to become the first team since the NCAA began sponsoring women's championships in 1982 to win three straight titles.
"In March, it's survive and advance," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. "I told our team these [regional finals] are the hardest games to play, because every player dreams of playing in a Final Four, but you have to win the regional championship."
The Tar Heels, who lost in their final Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season game at North Carolina State, then stormed through the ACC tournament, refused to be intimidated by either the Tennessee mystique or by the 14,848 spectators at Memorial Gym, nearly all of them wearing Tennessee orange.
Trailing by six at the half, North Carolina stormed out of the dressing room with an 11-2 run to take the lead at 38-35. While Tennessee went without a basket for nine minutes, the Tar Heels were forcing the tempo by running at Tennessee, a strategy that had seldom, if at all, been attempted all year on the Lady Vols, who had won all but two previous games by double digits.
"We came into Tennessee's house and took it to them. I thought we did an outstanding job. I felt like we played well enough to win and we should be going to Kansas City," said North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, adding that the 15 additional free throws the Lady Vols attempted were due to poor officiating.
"We were beating them down the floor time after time," said North Carolina forward Tracy Reid, who had 20 points and 13 rebounds. "You could see fear on their faces. They hadn't seen that all season. The looks on their faces were unbelievable."
When Jessica Gaspar sank a short jumper in the lane with 7: 35 to go, the Tar Heels led 61-49 and Tennessee was rocked back on its heels.
But the Lady Vols responded with a breathtaking display of defensive pressure in a 13-1 run, fueled by the crowd and capped by Tamika Catchings' steal and feed to Holdsclaw for a layup to tie the score at 62, then another Holdsclaw layup off a steal to put Tennessee ahead.
In all, Holdsclaw had 14 points in Tennessee's closing 27-9 run.
"We knew we did not want to lose," said Catchings, whose Lady Vols had won their first three NCAA games by an average margin of 32 points. "Pat [Summitt] came in and said, 'You guys are getting beat at your own game.' That picked us up the most. We started playing the Tennessee game and it got us back in the game."
After Wright tied the score at 62 and 64 with a jumper and two free throws, North Carolina regained the lead once, at 67-66 on a free throw by Reid with 2: 57 left.
But Holdsclaw answered with two free throws, Teresa Geter put back Holdsclaw's miss and Holdsclaw sank two more free throws, making it 72-67.
A three-pointer by Wright drew Carolina to 72-70 with 21.5 seconds left. But Kellie Jolly sank two free throws with 19.9 seconds to go for a 74-70 lead and North Carolina's final hopes died with Nikki Teasley's air ball from the top of the key with 5.1 seconds remaining.
Tennessee had sealed its invitation to the Final Four -- again.
Women's Final 4
At Kansas City, Mo.
North Carolina State (25-6) vs. Louisiana Tech (30-3), 7 p.m.
Tennessee (37-0) vs. Arkansas (22-10), 9: 30 p.m.
Semifinal winners, 8: 30 p.m.
Pub Date: 3/24/98