In his heart of hearts, Arkansas women’s basketball coach Gary Blair knew his team had blown its last chance.
For about a half of Friday night’s NCAA Tournament semifinal at Kemper Arena, Blair’s Razorbacks had hung around two-time defending champion Tennessee, forcing a few mistakes here and there, hoping to stay close enough to throw a scare into the Volunteers down the stretch.
But unbeaten UT blew Arkansas away with a 15-3 run to start the second half, winning 86-58 and earning a chance to capture an unprecedented third straight NCAA title, as well as cap an unbeaten season.
Tennessee and Louisiana Tech will play for the national championship Sunday.
“We’re right where we want to be,” said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.
All-America forward Chamique Holdsclaw completed a day on which she was named Naismith Player of the Year with a gamehigh 23 points and 10 rebounds. Teammate Semeka Randall had 22 points, 14 in the first half.
The Volunteers (38-0) were hardly at the top of their game, committing turnovers and showing sloppy play galore, but Holdsclaw, Randall and fellow “Meek” Tamika Catchings, who chipped in 13 points, were good enough to dominate Arkansas (22-11), its Southeastern Conference neighbor, which it had beaten early in the year in conference play.
“I thought our first-half defense was right where it needed to be, but our shot selection was poor,” said Summitt. “I thought we did a much better job of shot selection in the second half.”
In particular, the Volunteers neutralized All-SEC point guard Christy Smith, who had just three points and had great difficulty negotiating the Tennessee press.
“It was just the nature of me coming out and forcing her to make more turnovers,” said Randall, who guarded Smith for most of the night.
The Razorbacks, the ninth seed in the West Regional and the lowest seed ever to make a Final Four in the women’s tournament, were out-manned at the game’s start, and had to play a near perfect game to stay close.
Instead, Arkansas committed 28 turnovers, but was actually able to stay in the game because of Tennessee’s less-than-flawless first-half play.
However, when the Volunteers began their second-half blitz, led by Holdsclaw, who had five points in the run, the Razorbacks’ Cinderella run had effectively ended.
Early on, Arkansas, which lost to Tennessee by 30 in January, showed no signs of fear against the Volunteers pressing and trapping them and slowing down their transition game, seeming to frustrate Tennessee.
However, Arkansas could not capitalize on its success because it was too busy turning the ball over, usually with little Tennessee provocation. The Razorbacks committed a whopping 17 turnovers in the first half, and Tennessee’s inability to convert many of them was about all that kept Arkansas in the contest.
Arkansas was able to connect from long distance, hitting four 3-pointers to keep Tennessee from breaking the game open. Junior Treva Christensen hit two threes in the final 4 minutes of the half to keep the Tennessee lead within 10.
The Razorbacks were on the verge of making it a game going into the half, but Randall found a wide-open Kellie Jolly, who drained a 3-pointer just before the buzzer to give Tennessee a 39-28 halftime lead.
Tennessee 86, Arkansas 58
Arkansas (22-11) - Karlin 4-8 1-1 9, Jones 0-0 1-2 1, Smith 1-11 2-4 4, Willits 1-3 0-0 3, Messer 3-10 0-1 7, Adams 2-7 4-4 8, Wright 0-0 0-0 0, Stancle 4-6 3-3 12, Bragg 0-4 0-4 0, Christensen 3-8 6-6 14, Satterfield 0-1 0-0 0, Anderson 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 18-59 17-25 58.
Tennessee (38-0) - Holdsclaw 8-16 7-11 23, Catchings 5-9 3-5 13, Stephens 2-7 1-2 5, Jolly 5-7 0-0 11, Randall 7-19 8-9 22, Butts 0-0 0-0 0, Milligan 0-0 0-0 0, Greene 1-1 0-0 2, Laxton 0-2 0-0 0, Clement 2-6 0-0 4, Geter 1-1 4-6 6. Totals 31-68 23-33 86.
Halftime-Tennessee 39, Arkansas 28. 3-Point goals-Arkansas 5-15 (Christensen 2-4, Stancle 1-2, Willits 1-2, Messer 1-3, Smith 0-4), Tennessee 1-3 (Jolly 1-2, Holdsclaw 0-1). Fouled out-None. Rebounds-Arkansas 40 (Stancle 7), Tennessee 48 (Holdsclaw 10). Assists-Arkansas 9 (Smith 3), Tennessee 19 (Jolly 5). Total fouls-Arkansas 24, Tennessee 21. A-17,976.