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Tennessee volunteers, Duke declines

ATLANTA -- One year removed from an NCAA semifinal loss to Oklahoma, the Duke women's basketball team worked all year to climb the next rung in the ladder of national prominence. After struggling to get through the first four rounds of the 2003 NCAA Tournament, the Blue Devils hoped to discover their best basketball in Atlanta.

The same sickening feeling returned to the Duke bench Sunday night, however, as Tennessee pulled away late in a hard-fought contest to win the semifinal matchup 66-56, ending the Blue Devils' national title aspirations.

"It's called survive and advance," said Volunteer head coach Pat Summit. "That's what we were able to do tonight against a Duke team that I thought played very well together."

Power forward Gwen Jackson led Tennessee with 25 points and 15 rebounds, a dominating performance that propelled her side to victory. Duke's Alana Beard countered with 29 points of her own, including 10 straight during a three-minute stretch late in the second half.

The First-Team All-America selection received little help from her teammates though, and her single-handed effort was not enough to help the Blue Devils overcome the Lady Volunteers' 41-30 rebounding advantage and 15 second-chance points, nine more than Duke.

The officials let both teams play aggressively and Tennessee picked up on the game's physical nature early, Jackson said.

"Coach told me I didn't have anything to lose," she said. "If they weren't calling over the back, go pursue it. A lot of times, defensive and offensive boards are about heart. You can't let the other person outwork you."

That rebounding played a key role in her team's win weighed heavily upon Duke's Iciss Tillis, herself a Kodak All-American, but who struggled to post just nine points and five rebounds.

"That's how they scored: in transition, off offensive rebounds and from the free throw line," she said dejectedly from inside her locker. "Those are all things that we feel like we can control.... We feel like we beat ourselves."

Earlier, Beard had done all she could to prevent another exit in the national semifinals. As Tennessee began to pull away late in the game, the ESPN Player of the Year fought desperately to keep Duke within striking distance. She connected on multiple spinning layups, fending off three Lady Volunteer defenders at a time.

Beard's heroics nearly pulled Duke back in the basketball game with 1:04 remaining, when--with her Blue Devils down just 58-54--the junior strode to the foul line for a crucial one-and-one. Her first effort clanged off the back rim, though. Duke would never again be closer than four points.

Despite looking calm and relaxed during pregame warmups, Duke started the contest tight, as has been its tendency during the Tournament. Tennessee jumped out to an early 15-8 advantage, forcing turnovers and pulling down several offensive rebounds.

Her team looking somewhat out of sorts, Duke head coach Gail Goestenkors implemented a few defensive wrinkles following the second official timeout. The Blue Devils alternated between a full-court trap and a matchup zone, confusing the Lady Volunteers to great effect.

"We went to a 2-2-1 [press] into a 3-2 zone," she said. "Tennessee is so good when they get comfortable with your defense, and they do a good job of picking it apart."

Duke ignited for a quick 6-0 spurt, with all three baskets coming in transition. The game's momentum dramatically altered, Summit called a timeout to regroup.

Defense dominated in the first half, as each side struggled to establish an offensive rhythm. Neither team shot above 41 percent from the floor, and the Blue Devils eked out a 29-27 halftime edge only after Beard swished a three-pointer as the halftime buzzer sounded. Beard finished the opening half with 13 points to lead all players.

"I definitely thought that the shot at the end [of the half] would give us the momentum," she said.

Instead, Duke began the second half ice cold, scoring just six points in the opening 10 minutes. Down 41-35 with 9:14 to play, and facing its largest deficit since early in the first half, Duke responded. Mosch connected on a trey from the corner and then followed a Tennessee basket with a mid-range jumper.

Tillis and Beard would follow suit over the next minute and a half, and Duke pulled ahead, 44-43. They would never lead again.

Afterward, from inside Duke's subdued locker room, Mosch struggled to explain why her Blue Devils ended their season playing beneath themselves.

"I don't know why we haven't played well these past five game," the captain said, tearfully. "We're always excited, we're always pumped up before the games.... I have no idea why. I wish I did so we could have changed."

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