Monday, January 26, 2004

Lady Vols in line to regain top spot after beating Duke

Women's basketball

The Associated Press

DURHAM, N.C. - Nearly three years after last earning the No. 1 ranking, Tennessee is poised to return to the top of women's college basketball. The Lady Vols hope it's just a step on the way to winning their first national championship since 1998.

Coach Pat Summitt won in her first trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium, leading the second-ranked Lady Vols past No.  1 Duke 72-69 Saturday. Shyra Ely and Shanna Zolman each scored 15 points for Tennessee (16-1) in its ninth straight win.

The victory figures to put the Lady Vols back atop The Associated Press poll for the first time since the week of Feb. 25, 2001.

"I think our basketball team, having played the kind of schedule that we have, should feel good about themselves," Summitt said. "But it's January. ... We take this and certainly we're proud, but we've got to keep getting better."

Tennessee had not fared well in previous No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchups, losing five straight as the second-ranked team.

They ended that streak Saturday by shooting 58 percent after halftime and coming up with big shots down the stretch.

Though the Lady Vols have won six national championships under Summitt, they have been eclipsed lately by Connecticut.

Since Tennessee's last six NCAA title six years ago, the Huskies have claimed three championships to emerge as the top program in women's basketball.

The Huskies have ended the Lady Vols' season in three of the last four NCAA Tournaments, including twice in the title game.

The recent drought is about the closest thing to "hard times" this program has seen recently under Summitt, the nation's winningest women's basketball coach with 837 victories in 30 seasons.

This year's team does not have a Chamique Holdsclaw-type star. Ely leads the team with 14.2 points a game, one of just two players averaging double figures.

But five others average at least six points a game, giving the Lady Vols plenty of balance.

On Saturday night, Ely and Zolman led the way with 11 second-half points, allowing Tennessee to overcome a 26-22 halftime deficit. Tennessee shot just 26 percent in the first half.

Ely said the 9,314 rowdy fans probably made for the loudest crowd the Lady Vols have heard. But the team seemed unfazed as it gradually pulled ahead of the Blue Devils (15-2) in the second half.

"That's why you come to a program like (Tennessee), to play in situations like this," Ely said. "The atmosphere was definitely fun."

Summitt knows this team differs from last year's 33-5 squad, which relied on seniors Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson for leadership.

This season, every player feels responsible for how the team executes on each possession.

Tennessee should be the third team to hold the top spot in this year's rankings. Duke took the top spot after beating then-No. 1 Connecticut 68-67 Jan. 3.

The shuffling could be a sign that the race for this year's title is open - unlike the last two seasons. After losing a total of one game the two previous seasons, the two-time defending champion Huskies have lost twice this month.

Tennessee hosts Connecticut Feb. 5.

Also, third-ranked Texas beat Duke to open the season and won at Tennessee in December.

"We want to win in March and April," Summitt said. "And (Saturday) was a step in that direction."

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