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Lady Vols cruise into Final Four

RUSTY MILLER • Mar 28, 2007 at 1:15 AM

DAYTON, Ohio - Candace Parker yearns to win a national championship. Now she and Tennessee are just two games away from ending the Lady Vols' nine-year drought.

With Parker dominating at both ends and the talented Lady Vols getting contributions from almost everybody on the roster, they rolled over Mississippi 98-62 and into their 17th Final Four on Tuesday night.

"I really wanted to make it to the Final Four," said Parker, selected as the Dayton Regional's most outstanding player. "Tonight I wanted to do whatever I could for my team, whether it was playing defense or giving energy at either end. That was my goal tonight."

Mississippi's Carol Ross has been a head coach for 16 years in the Southeastern Conference, so she has intimate knowledge of almost all of Tennessee and coach Pat Summitt's six national titles. She said the current Lady Vols have what it takes to win the program's first title since 1998.

"Pat's the best at getting her team to postseason play," Ross said. "She had them ready to go. They looked every bit as good as any Tennessee championship team I've ever seen."

By winning the Dayton Regional, top-seeded Tennessee (32-3) Tennessee (32-3) moves on to play North Carolina in the national semifinals in Cleveland on Sunday. LSU (30-7) and Rutgers (26-8) meet in the other game.

"I felt like this was our best game of the tournament, without a doubt," Summitt said. "One thing we had talked about was against Marist (in the third round) we had played well the first 20 minutes but then had lots of lapses in the second half.

"If we're a team who wants to win a national championship, we can't take possessions off."

Parker scored 24 points and had 14 rebounds, but she dictated the game in many ways. She hit 10 of 14 shots from the field and also had three assists, three steals and five blocked shots in a virtual highlight film of a game.

She might have posted even gaudier numbers if Summitt hadn't rested her at the end of the first half and for the final 12:10 of the game.

"Candace is a player who is extremely hungry to win a championship," Ross said. "It's been well documented that she doesn't want to be compared with other great Tennessee players until she wins a championship. Her talent has always been there, and always will be, but her ability to inspire her teammates for a national championship is a credit to her desire to be a champion."

Sidney Spencer had 16 of her 22 points in the second half. Shannon Bobbitt had 14, including 10 of Tennessee's first 24 in a fast start. Alberta Auguste added 12.

Armintie Price dazzled for 30 points for seventh-seeded Ole Miss (24-11), which has been within a game of the Final Four five times and has lost every time. Ashley Awkward chipped in with 14.

"They came out with a championship mind-set, a will to win," Price said. "They just dominated."

The Lady Vols shot 52 percent from the field and hit 8 of 11 3-pointers while limiting Ole Miss to just 32 percent shooting from the field. The Rebels were just 3-of-20 behind the arc.

"This team is very special," Summitt said after she was presented with the regional championship trophy. "Congratulations, ladies. Let's move on!"

Parker, one of the most acclaimed players in the country, was at her very best. After point guard Bobbitt, who averages 8.5 points, had 10 points in the opening 7 minutes, the 6-foot-4 Parker took over. She had 14 points, nine rebounds, four blocked shots and three assists in the first half as the Lady Vols coasted to a 51-22 lead.

Parker wasn't alone, either. The Lady Vols shot 59 percent from the field, going 5-of-7 on 3s, to build the big lead. They were crisp on offense, tough on defense and seemed to come up with every loose ball.

"Everything we tried, they did it better," Ross said.

No one can argue with Tennessee's incredible NCAA legacy, which is backed by a series of staggering numbers. The Lady Vols are the only team to be included in all 26 tournaments, in which they have a 96-19 record. In regional championship games only, they are 17-5. Ole Miss, which lost 81-69 when the Southeastern Conference rivals met in the regular season, had hoped to set a frantic pace with its fullcourt pressure and fastbreak offense. But it was the Lady Vols who scored early and often to take control while completely disrupting the Rebels' plans. Bobbitt hit 3s from opposite corners on the first two possessions. And Tennessee was off and running. "They come out with that swagger, and then those two 3s put gas on the fire," Awkward said.

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