Never-say-die attitude carries Spartans to final
INDIANAPOLIS -- There's a difference between just being hungry and starving. On Sunday night, the Michigan State Spartans were the latter.
"Coach [Semeka] Randall told us before the game that we needed to feel more than hunger," senior center Kelli Roehrig said. "We had to be starving. We had to want it that bad."
And after knocking off perennial powerhouse Tennessee 68-64 in front of 28,937 at the RCA Dome on Sunday, Michigan State now has the opportunity to partake in the ultimate buffet. The Spartans will meet Baylor in Tuesday's title game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).
The Spartans' accomplishment Sunday was thrilling, stunning and sobering.
"We're the blue-collar team," said senior guard Kristin Haynie, whose steal and ensuing layup with 52 seconds remaining gave the Spartans a 64-62 lead. "Everybody always seems surprised when we do the things we do, but we believe in ourselves. We believe that we can go into any situation and win.
"We knew we were underdogs but that didn't matter. We came here to compete for a national championship and that's exactly what we're doing."
Actually, Michigan State is simply serving notice that it is a team that no one can look past. On Sunday, it erased a 16-point halftime deficit to top the Lady Vols. Last week, the Spartans came from behind to knock Stanford out of contention in the Kansas City Regional. And before that, the Spartans rallied to beat Southern California in the second round in Minneapolis.
Additionally, the Spartans, who have won a school-record 33 games this season, also posted overtime wins against Boston College, Notre Dame and Illinois during the regular season. Their comeback Sunday tied the largest women's NCAA Tournament comeback, a mark previously held by Notre Dame when the Fighting Irish topped Connecticut in 2001.
Even more telling, however, is that the Spartans are 4-0 this season against teams ranked in the top five.
"This team has a lot of guts," Michigan State coach Joanne McCallie said. "I can't even begin to tell you how much. They have heart and guts and you saw that combination tonight."
Tennessee saw it, and felt it, too.
"We never imagined that we would lose this game," said junior guard Shanna Zolman, one of the few Lady Vols with dry eyes in the locker room after the game. "I think everyone in the building with the exception of a few Michigan State fans thought we would win.
"But you have to give Michigan State credit. They not only came from behind, but they came from behind against us. That says a lot about them. They showed their heart tonight -- more so than any other game of the season. They had two hearts tonight."
A stoic Pat Summitt echoed those sentiments.
"They deserve to be moving on, but this hurts," said Summitt. "Obviously they've done a great job with this program. They've got good guard play and had four people in double figures. They dug down deep and pulled this thing out.
"Obviously this is a very, very disappointing loss. It will be a long time before I get this one out of my system. I'm sure the players probably feel the same way."
What hurt the Lady Vols the most was their loss of composure down the stretch. You can't give a starving team a free steak and not expect them to take a big bite. Michigan State junior forward Liz Shimek sank a jumper after a timeout with just more than three minutes remaining to pull the Spartans within four points at 62-58.
Junior guard Lindsay Bowen then hit a pair of free throws with 1:50 left to cut the Lady Vols' lead to 62-60, followed by sophomore guard Victoria Lucas-Perry's two free throws that tied the score at 62.
"I think the second 20 minutes really reflected the greatness and the heart and soul of our team," McCallie said. "To come back from the deficit and to finish the game in the manner in which our team did I am certainly very proud, but not the least bit surprised given what our team has done all year long."
Added Shimek: "The whole game we all believed. We've been in so many similar situations this year. We just know there's plenty of time left on that clock and it's not over until it's over and that's what happened to night."
What will happen Tuesday night is anyone's guess at this point. This year's final will feature two new teams in green who are both starving for respect, and striving for greatness.
"We always give a fight and we never give up," Lucas-Perry said. "That's what makes us so great. There's nothing this team can't do. That's why we're so good."
Miki Turner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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