Lawson lifts Lady Vols, 64-54; Tenn. reaches 5th final in 6 years; UConn next


PHILADELPHIA -- Getting to the Final Four and playing for a national title has become old hat for the second-ranked Tennessee women's basketball team, so it took a novice to get them over the hump.

Freshman point guard Kara Lawson poured in 19 points, including all eight of her free throws in the second half, to jump-start the Lady Vols' offense to a 64-54 win over No. 8-ranked Rutgers in the national semifinals. The victory propelled Tennessee to the NCAA tournament final for the fifth time in six seasons and set up a title game against Connecticut, which beat Penn State, 89-67.

Lawson, Tennessee's lone freshman starter, played with the poise of an upperclassman, providing the spark when her All-America teammate, Tamika Catchings, was slowed by the Rutgers defense.

"I like playing in the Final Four and I like playing on this stage and I like playing in a tournament where if you lose, you go home," said Lawson, a 5-foot-9 Springfield, Va., native. "We're just happy we're going to be in the championship game."

"Nothing Kara Lawson does at this point surprises me," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. "I have very high expectations of her. When we call something, I know she's going to make good decisions for us offensively. She can beat people off the dribble, she can step out and hit the three. As a freshman, I haven't had one quite like her in the half-court situation. She's got a great mind for the game and makes great decisions."

The Lady Vols (33-3), who had looked to play a patient offense against the Rutgers 2-3 matchup zone, looked, at times, tentative in the first half, passing up open shots and playing into the Scarlet Knights' strategy.

Catchings, the consensus national Player of the Year, was particularly bothered by Rutgers' defense, which kept a body on her throughout every possession and swarmed when she touched the ball.

As a result, Catchings, who has averaged nearly 19 points since the Southeastern Conference tournament in early March, took three shots and had just two points in the first half, the size of Tennessee's lead at the break.

"In the first half, Rutgers played great defense, and I mean I couldn't get open," Catchings said. "I couldn't get the ball, and it got kind of frustrating."

And that's where Lawson came in. Emboldened by a fiery halftime speech by Summitt, Lawson began to drive the middle, a move that seemed to free Catchings, who had 11 of her 13 points after intermission.

"She did it all for us," Catchings said. "She stepped up her game, just driving and penetrating. That's what we really needed. We could have easily just stood out there and quick-shot the ball and shot threes all night, but Kara made it a point to go in and draw a foul and hit free throws."

Said Lawson: "The Rutgers defense is something that we haven't seen a lot this year, but once we got more comfortable, we were able to exploit the baseline and the middle, and we were able to break them down. Halftime was a big key for us. We just decided that if we came out and played Tennessee basketball, we could put ourselves in the championship game."

That aggressiveness paid off at the foul line, where the Lady Vols had 29 attempts to 10 for the Scarlet Knights (26-8). Tennessee shot 39 percent from the field for the game but scored 16 more points from the line. With 7: 40 to go, the Lady Vols had committed four more team fouls than Rutgers yet were shooting in the double bonus before Rutgers because of their aggressiveness.

In particular, the Lady Vols, who will make their ninth title game appearance and play for their seventh championship, broke open what had been a four-point game with a 7-0 run, all from foul shots over a five-minute span.

"The game of basketball is all about spurts, and if you get your spurt at the right time, then you're fine," said Rutgers guard Tasha Pointer. "They had [29] free throws [attempts]. That's a lot. You can't win like that. You can't win with them at the free-throw line and you're not getting to the line as well."

One other component of Tennessee basketball is rebounding, and the Lady Vols held their own on the offensive glass, giving themselves extra opportunities to score. Catchings had a game-high 12 rebounds, three on the offensive glass.

"The shot opportunities were second chances, and that's what hurt us," said Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer. "There's no way in the world that you can force them to shoot, then watch them get second opportunities. That's what hurt us. Tennessee stepped up the pressure, and we hesitated."

"Tennessee is great. They are capable of taking away what you want to do," Stringer added. "That's why I keep on saying that there's something special about them."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad