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Marciniak leads Lady Vols to '96 title game

Editor's note: As the NCAA celebrates its 25th season of women's basketball, ESPN and ESPN.com count down the top 25 moments of NCAA Tournament history. Here, we continue the countdown with memorable NCAA moment No. 19, Tennessee's 88-83 overtime victory over Connecticut in the 1996 national semifinals.

First, she was the hero. Then, she was humbled.

Michelle Marciniak appeared to have put the finishing touches on a dramatic national semifinal matchup, sinking two free throws for a three-point Tennessee lead over Connecticut with just 12 seconds to play at the 1996 Final Four.

But on the ensuing possession, the Lady Vols' senior guard gambled -- and got burned as UConn's Nykesha Sales drained a 3-pointer from the top of the arc with 4.2 seconds left to tie the score at 75 and force the game into overtime.

Luckily for Tennessee, Marciniak had more magic in store. And behind her team-high 21 points, Marciniak led the Lady Vols to an 88-83 overtime victory, paving the way for their first of three consecutive championships.

Nowadays, the Tennessee-Connecticut rivalry has grown to become the best in the game. But back in 1996, the rivalry was only getting started. Tennessee already had won three titles, but five years had passed since its 1991 championship. And Connecticut had won all three previous games in their budding series.

And while Diana Taurasi has put together her fair share of highlight-reel material against Tennessee, and the Huskies and Lady Vols have met in four national title games, some still argue that the best game in the series came on March 29, 1996.

While the game's waning minutes are what really made it special, this contest was also full of hold-your-breath-here-they-come-again runs. The Lady Vols dominated the opening minutes, especially with Husky center Kara Wolters in early foul trouble. With five minutes to play before the break, Wolters had drawn her third foul and Tennessee led 28-17. But UConn cut the lead to just 34-30 after a furious rally to close the half.

The Huskies then tied the score at 47 after the break, and the teams traded leads until Tennessee steadily built a 10-point advantage. Then, with Wolters fouled out in the final minute and watching from the bench, Sales' last-second heroics sent the game into the extra period.

Marciniak also had seven rebounds, six assists and three steals. Teammate Latina Davis added 15 points, and, of course, freshman Chamique Holdsclaw -- a newly named Kodak All-American -- had a hand in the victory, too, chipping in 13 points. (Not bad for someone who had strained a ligament in her knee just two weeks before the NCAA Tournament started.) Tiffani Johnson also contributed 13 points for the Lady Vols, who downed Georgia 83-65 in an all-SEC final two days later.

Sales tallied 28 points, six boards and five assists for UConn.

Moment No. 18 will be unveiled Monday during ESPN2's Michigan State-Ohio State game.