Tennessee 66, Duke 56
ATLANTA (AP)—Tennessee is back on a familiar stage and, somewhere, Laura Jackson is leading a huge cheer.
Thanks to a late charge by her granddaughter, Gwen Jackson, the Lady Vols are in the women’s national championship game for the 10th time after defeating Duke 66-56 Sunday night in a semifinal matchup.
Jackson, drawing strength from a beloved relative who died last month, scored 13 of her 25 points in the final 6:08 to avenge an earlier loss to the Blue Devils.
Now they’ll try for their seventh championship on Tuesday night against defending champion Connecticut, a 71-69 winner over Texas in the second semifinal.
“My inspiration came from the last two games I played (that) she watched, I got to talk to her the day she died. Her memory and the love I have for her is what keeps me going,” Jackson said.
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt knew exactly where Jackson’s power surge was coming from.
“I think she focused on what she wanted to do and how she wanted to handle the adversity and loss of her grandmother,” she said. “She’s here for the third time, very inspired and I’m very proud of her.”
Duke (35-2), which had won 15 straight, was denied a second trip to the finals despite 29 points from All-American Alana Beard, who went past 2,000 points for her career.
Even after Tennessee seemed to have the game put away, Beard kept the Blue Devils threatening.
Her three-point play off a spin move in the lane cut the lead to 57-54 with 1:13 left. Then she ripped the ball from Tennessee’s Ashley Robinson, who had intercepted a pass, and made a layup to draw her team to 60-56 with 55.7 seconds to play.
But Tennessee beat the press to get a layup by Shyra Ely, and when Beard missed at the other end, Kara Lawson rebounded for Tennessee and was fouled. Her two free throws with 33.8 seconds to play secured the victory and the Lady Vols were on the way to the NCAA finals—again.
“I never thought we lost the momentum,” Beard said. “I thought as a team we continued to fight our way through. We kept working hard. I don’t think it was at one point we ever gave up.”
It wasn’t the prettiest game for the longest time, a conglomeration of missed shots, errant passes, scoring droughts and mad scrambles on the floor.
Then, down the stretch, both teams started answering each other with big shots.
Tennessee (33-4) seemed on the verge of breaking it open when Brittany Jackson hit a leaner in the lane and a jumper 29 seconds apart for a 41-35 lead.
It was 43-38 after Lawson banked in a jumper, but back came Duke.
When Beard grabbed Iciss Tillis’ airball and banked a layup softly off the glass, Duke led 44-43 with 6:35 to play.
Then it was Gwen Jackson’s time to shine.
After getting only three points since 13:49 of the first half, she took over—and how.
“We really had no answer,” Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. “Gwen Jackson played a phenomenal game for them.”
Jackson scored nine straight Tennessee points to erase Duke’s lead, capping her run with a 3-pointer to make it 52-49. Brittany Jackson, who’s right-handed, drove the lane for a left-handed scoop shot and Gwen Jackson sank two free throws, putting the Lady Vols ahead 56-49 with 2:34 remaining.
Beard had a tough moment when, with her team trailing 58-54 with 1:03 left, she missed the front end of a 1-and-1. There was no mistaking the angry look on her face as she headed back down the floor.
The Blue Devils lost in the 1999 finals to Purdue; their only other loss this season was to Connecticut.
“I think we all expected more of each other,” said Duke’s Mistie Bass, tears in her eyes as she sat alone in a corner of the locker room. “Just key points in the game where certain individuals didn’t do the job. That hurts the team.”
Jackson also grabbed 15 rebounds to lead Tennessee’s 41-30 edge on the boards. Loree Moore added 11 points for the Lady Vols, while Lawson had eight points, 11 rebounds and five assists.
All those rebounds were critical, Summitt said, especially with the Lady Vols struggling on offense until Jackson got going.
“I thought we picked up our defensive intensity and got on the boards,” Summitt said. “Got some second-chance points and just really brought a lot more intensity.”
Mosch scored 10 for Duke. Tillis, who was averaging 14.6, scored only nine on 4-for-11 shooting.
“It was a self-inflicted loss,” Tillis said. “I feel like we stopped ourselves. That’s kind of what we’ve been doing the whole tournament.”
Duke ended the first half with two 3-pointers, the first an improbable bank shot by Tillis from the right corner. The ball kissed off the upper right corner of the backboard and dropped through as the shot clock buzzer sounded, putting Duke up 26-25.
Tennessee answered with Moore’s basket in transition, but Duke got the final shot and Beard made a 22-footer from the right side with under a second to play for a 29-27 lead.
That gave Beard 2,000 points for her career, the second Duke player and 12th in the Atlantic Coast Conference to reach that mark.
The Lady Vols managed only four points in the first five minutes of the second half but held Duke scoreless during that stretch.
Then, Jackson took control.
“My teammates look for me to score, but they also look to me to play defense,” Jackson said. “My defense looked good. My offense was great. I try to carry that on the floor.”