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OKLAHOMA CITY – When the final buzzer sounded and Tennessee's rousing comeback had fallen short, senior Taber Spani dropped to her knees and started sobbing.
The Lady Vols' season was over in the regional finals for the third straight season, following an 86-78 loss to upstart Louisville on Tuesday night.
For most programs, three straight trips to the round of eight would be an accomplishment. But Tennessee, home of eight national championships and 18 Final Four appearances, isn't just any program.
"Any Tennessee team that doesn't make a Final Four doesn't reach expectations. That's the amazing and the great thing about this program is no matter what the transition was, no matter what it looked like, no matter what excuse you might put it out or if you're a young team or not, the bar is the Final Four. And I think that's what makes this program special," Spani said.
"To come short of that is disappointing."
Two nights after taking down Brittney Griner and defending national champion Baylor, Shoni Schimmel scored 24 points the fifth-seeded Cardinals (28-8) built a 20-point lead before withstanding a second-half comeback by the powerhouse Lady Vols (27-8) and celebrating another big victory.
When it was over, the Cardinals huddled at center court and celebrated. Tennessee headed home with a third straight loss in the regional finals, failing to make the Final Four for a fifth straight year.
"We ruined the entire party," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "We're the ugly ducklings that ruined the party. No one gave us a chance and we shocked everybody. It's a journey and we're going to continue."
Spani led the Lady Vols with 20 points, and Meighan Simmons and Kamiko Williams chipped in 12 apiece. Tennessee's season began with an uncharacteristically low ranking instead of the usually lofty expectations, with longtime assistant Holly Warlick replacing NCAA wins record-holder Pat Summitt.
"We thought we had a good year, but we didn't have a great year. That's just the nature of our program and our expectations," Warlick said.
"Whether you're Pat Summitt or myself, it's just what we're all about. It's in our blood. It's in our makeup."
Louisville joined the school's men's team in the Final Four, marking the 10th time that a program had both teams make it that far. Only Connecticut has won both titles in the same season, in 2004 — the last time the women's champion was crowned in New Orleans.
The Cardinals became only the second No. 5 seed to reach the national semifinals, joining Southwest Missouri State's 2001 team that featured guard Jackie Stiles, the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history. Only seven teams outside of the top four seeds have ever made it to the Final Four since the NCAA tournament started in 1982.
No team seeded higher than fourth has ever won a game at the Final Four.
But the seemingly impossible hasn't stopped this group of Cardinals yet.
First, they took down Griner and her Baylor team that had lost just once in 75 games. Then, it was the eight-time national champion Lady Volunteers.
"No one wanted to see us beat Baylor and Tennessee and we did both of those and now we're going to the Final Four," Schimmel said.
Next up is a Sunday showdown in New Orleans against California, the Spokane regional champion.
The Cardinals' only other Final Four trip was in 2009, ending in a loss to Big East rival Connecticut in the championship game.
Louisville rode a hefty rebounding advantage and another solid 3-point shooting outing — especially when compared to Tennessee's 0 for 9 start — to take a 49-29 edge 90 seconds after halftime following back-to-back 3s from Antonita Slaughter and Schimmel. That same tandem combined for 12 of the Cardinals' 16 treys, matching the NCAA tournament record, in an epic upset of Baylor.
Spani finally broke Tennessee's 3-point drought right after that, and the Lady Vols were able to chip away at the 20-point deficit. Their full-court pressure, which wasn't tight enough to prevent over-the-top passes for layup s in the first half, started to be effective.
Tennessee gave up just one basket over an 8-minute span, and Williams' short jumper at the end of an 18-6 rally got the Lady Vols as close as 68-65 with 4:28 remaining.
Spani missed a 3-pointer from the right wing that would have tied it on the next possession, and Tennesee's comeback fizzled after that.
"We just needed to make that 3 to get the momentum, and it just didn't go down," Warlick said.
Schimmel had a pair of driving layups and sister Jude Schimmel hit a 3-pointer and set up Slaughter for a reverse layup in a 9-3 burst for Louisville. Even when Simmons, who started out 1 for 22 in the two games in Oklahoma City, hit three late 3-pointers, it wasn't enough for Tennessee.
"We believed in each other, our coaching staff believed in us and we just stuck together as a family. We just bonded and I love that about my teammates and my coaching staff. ... I'll take this team over the past three teams that I've been on because I've never seen so much fight in a group of girls and I absolutely love that and appreciate it," Williams said.
"No matter what, they always had our back and we knew we could count on them. Unfortunately, we fell short today but we fought and that's all I could ask for."
Louisville came out firing from long range again and connected four times in first seven attempts while building an early 21-11 advantage. Then, it was a sticky 1-3-1 zone defense that propelled Louisville on an 8-0 run, keeping the Lady Vols scoreless for a 5½ minute stretch, to expand the lead out to 31-14 after Sherrone Vails' putback with 3:51 to go until halftime.
Just like in the previous round, when a 19-point lead disappeared before Monique Reid's winning free throws in the final seconds, the Cardinals had to hang on for dear life at the end.