No. 2 Tennessee 84, No. 16 Alabama 70
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) _ Nikki McCray scored 17 of her 19 points in the second half Sunday to lead No. 2 Tennessee to an 84-70 victory over Alabama in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The Lady Vols (29-1) advanced to their 10th final in the tournament’s 16 years, and will seek their seventh title against the winner of the Georgia-Vanderbilt semifinal in Monday’s championship game.
Alabama (20-8) was led by Niesa Johnson with 24 points and Pam Duncan with 13, all in the second half.
For Tennessee, Dana Johnson scored 14 points and Abby Conklin added 12, including eight straight in a key stretch of the second half.
Michelle Marciniak took up McCray’s scoring slack in the first half with 14 of her 20 points as the Lady Vols built a 38-30 lead.
The key was a rare zone defense called by Tennessee coach Pat Summitt after Johnson riddled the man-to-man for 12 straight Alabama points and an 18-12 lead.
``The zone was a good change-up today because Niesa Johnson is a great player, tremendously hard to guard even with the best defensive player in the country on her,″ Summitt said, referring to McCray.
McCray converted two three-point plays, one after a technical foul on Alabama coach Rick Moody, in a 14-4 run to start the second half for a 52-34 Tennessee lead.
``I wasn’t pleased in the first half, and went to Nikki at halftime,″ Summitt said. ``She’s not been feeling well, but I felt she needed a challenge and she responded.″
Alabama answered with eight straight points to cut the margin to 52-42 with 12 minutes left, and got as close as 58-51 on a 3-pointer by Madonna Thompson with 7:46 to go.
A pair of 3-pointers by Tennessee’s Conklin and a bucket by McCray made it 70-55 with 4:19 to go and Alabama couldn’t recover.
``We put forth an outstanding effort, but we still didn’t play the complete game we’re capable of playing,″ said Alabama coach Rick Moody. ``With that in mind, a 14-point loss to one of the greatest teams in the history of this conference has to be taken as encouraging.″
Alabama got 23 offensive rebounds in Saturday’s quarterfinal victory over Arkansas, but found them harder to come by Sunday, with just two in the first half and nine for the day.
``They had 44 opportunities to rebound a shot, and only got nine. That’s our magic number,″ Summitt said.
Although Moody rejected any notion of moral victories at this point in the season, Alabama’s performance did ease some of the nightmare of a 95-44 whipping from Tennessee during the regular season.
``At first we got beat by 51 points,″ Niesa Johnson said. ``This was 14. I still think that’s a little out of proportion.″