Battle-tested Vols back for more

Lou Raguse

Minnesota’s run to its first-ever Final Four has been the feel-good story of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

On the other side of the bracket looms top-seeded Tennessee, which has been hanging around through controversial finishes and last-second heroics on the way to its record 14th Big Dance.

Despite not having a big-name player like Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen, UConn’s Diana Taurasi or LSU’s Seimone Augustus, the Volunteers (30-3) stand as a favorite to win the tournament because of the big name on their jersey fronts.

“We haven’t relied on a player that scored 25, 30 points a game,” coach Pat Summitt said. “That forces everyone to step up, do more and be more accountable.”

Summitt – the all-time winningest women’s coach at 851 victories – said she hopes to breathe easier during the Volunteers’ final two games than she did in the two that got them there.

“But to be honest, I don’t expect to with this field,” Summitt said. “And I think we’ve all benefited by the close games.”

Volunteers senior Tasha Butts bailed her team out of two tight situations in the Midwest Regionals, starting last Sunday against Baylor.

In that semifinal game, Tennessee won 71-69 on the heels of a controversial call to end the game.

In the closing seconds and with the game tied 69-69, Butts went up for an offensive rebound and made contact with Baylor guard Jessika Stratton.

Referees called Stratton for a foul as the final horn sounded, reset the clock to 0.2 seconds and sent Butts to the line where she iced the free throws.

That win sent Tennessee to the Region Finals, where sixth-seeded Stanford gave Tennessee another run.

Again, enter Butts.

With the score tied 60-60 and eight seconds remaining, she took an inbound pass and nailed the game-winner.

“We have been very poised – Tasha in particular,” Summitt said. “In the close games, everyone follows her lead.”

Summitt said she looks forward to the Final Four field, in which mainstays Tennessee and Connecticut are joined by newcomers Minnesota and LSU.

The parity created by upstart teams such as those is something Summitt said she expects to continue, and gives her team more to shoot for.

“At Tennessee, you know everyone’s coming at you, having the toughest schedule and the history,” Summitt said. “We have to be ready.”