Nothing But Positive

TAMPA - Only one team can win, but tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum, home of the 2008 Final Four, everybody left winners.

Sure, No. 1 Tennessee ultimately pulled out this nailbiter by the final score of 70-67, but Oklahoma proved while their talent came up short tonight, their heart never faltered.

"I'm incredibly proud of our team," coach Sherri Coale said after the game. "I thought we played very hard. It could have easily gotten away from us and they didn't let it happen. I thought our young guys just handled the grand stage and the pressure and everything that goes with it beautifully and I am really thankful that we had this opportunity to face this team here in November."

The other big winner tonight? The game of women's basketball.

The top-ranked team in the nation against the No. 9 team certainly did not disappoint. Of course, you could tell this was only the second game of a very young season - there was nothing in sync about the game played tonight - but you could also tell that on the floor was two of the very best teams in the country.

With that said, there could be only one winner, and Tennessee showed why they are the defending champs by proving they could win against adversity.

What adversity you ask?

Try getting seven points and nine rebounds from two starters in last year's national title game, two players who are preseason Wade Trophy candidates, in seniors Alexis Hornbuckle and Nicky Anosike.

"I sucked tonight offensively," Hornbuckle said after the game, jokingly blaming her poor performance on the 9:30 p.m. start being past her bedtime.

But to make up for Anosike's and Hornbuckle's performances, the other two returning starters from last year's title team went off.

You expect 28 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks from Candace Parker. What you don't predict before a game is little 5-foot-3 senior Shannon Bobbitt going off for 27 points - a career high - including 22 points in the second half alone - which would have been her career high had she not scored at all the first half.

Bobbitt also finished with four assists and four rebounds, but most importantly, hit dagger after dagger from long range in the second half.

"I just took what the defense gave me," Bobbitt said, when asked if she felt she needed to step up for her teammates. "They definitely crowded Candace and that’s what I like. Candace did a great job of finding me and I just had to knock down the shots.

"I have high expectations of me. I just think I am going to continue to do what I did last year, nothing was broken. Pretty much everybody is versatile. Tonight I just had the open three and I was in the zone and my teammates just did a great job of finding me."

But because of the poor games from Hornbuckle and Anosike, and because the freshman played like, well, freshman, Tennessee let a tough OU team hang around all game long. And it almost came back to bite them in the end.

With six minutes to go in the game and a three-point lead for Tennessee, Parker converted on a nifty layup, followed that on the defensive end with a gargantuan blocked shot and Bobbitt immediately sank a coffin-nailing three to extend the Vols' lead to eight with five minutes to play.

But just when it looked like Oklahoma would be able to handle no more, the Sooners scratched and clawed their way right back into the game.

Starting with about four minutes to play, the Sooners embarked on an 8-0 run led by - who else? - Courtney Paris - who finished with 19 points and 16 boards to continue her consecutive streak of double doubles to 63 in a row - and managed to tie the game at 65 with just over a minute to play.

Then the game got wild. After a Parker free throw made it a one point Tennessee advantage, Paris did her damage, scoring on a put-back with 33 seconds to play to give the Sooners a 67-66 lead.

That's when Hornbuckle, who struggled all game, decided to put the ball in her own hands, drove to the lane of her own volition - according to Pat Summitt - and was fouled. She would hit both charity shots to grab the lead right back for the Lady Vols with only 26 seconds left.

Tennessee's defense would tighten on the next possession and Coale's designed play didn't work - although she swears it would have if executed properly - and the Lady Vols got the ball back, were fouled, and the star of the night, Bobbitt, nailed both free throws to ice it for the No. 1 team in the nation.

It was certainly a finish worthy of highlight reels, and one that will help both teams grow exponentially. In fact, coach Coale said she would rather be 0-2 against No. 4 Maryland and the Vols, then be 2-0 against inferior opponents.

Play of the Game:
Well, the play of the game, was going to be the sequence above where Parker scored, blocked a shot and then passed it to Bobbitt for an open three starting around the six minute mark of the second half, but Oklahoma would grab the lead back, so that wasn't the play that gave the Vols the victory.

Instead, the play of the game was by the player who probably had one of the worst nights on the floor. Down one with 30 seconds to go, Alexis Hornbuckle wanted the ball in her hands. She drove the lane in traffic, got fouled and sunk both free throws to give the Lady Vols the lead for good.

"That was just 'Lex attacking," coach Pat Summitt said afterwards. "Her knee was bothering her a little bit at the beginning but she is going to give you everything she's got."

Player of the Game: Shannon Bobbitt, Tennessee
Standing just 5-foot-3, this New Yorker seemingly gets better every night. She came alive to lead the Vols to their seventh national title last year in the Final Four and throughout the NCAA Tournament and she picked up the slack for her struggling teammates tonight, pouring in a career high in the second half alone, and finishing with 27 points while playing the entire game.

Quote of the Game:
Pat Summitt on the atmosphere of the St. Pete Times Forum:
"I didn't know we'd have that many people dressed in orange," Summitt said, clearly underestimating the traveling prowess of one of the best fan bases in women's hoops. "I don't know why I should doubt our fans, they are always traveling. They got their money's worth. They got to see a great game. Hopefully that will generate some excitement for the Final Four."


Great game ladies. Richard

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)