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Tasha Butts keeps Tennessee title drive in gear

| Sunday, April 4, 2004

NEW ORLEANS -- Throughout their journey to the Final Four, the Tennessee Lady Vols have had plenty of close calls.

Thanks to Tasha Butts' last-second, game-winning shots, they've managed to survive them and are in the running for a seventh NCAA championship. But Tennessee's next showdown -- in the semifinals tonight -- will be against an LSU team that has been in top form lately.

Butts isn't too worried about the matchup with the Southeastern Conference rival.

"I think we're a much better team than a last-second shot," said the 5-foot-11 senior guard. "I think our team deserves to win. We've been though so much this year, a lot of hard work and adversity. We faced so much and dealt with it all."

Especally Butts.

Against Baylor in the Midwest Regional semifinal, she hit two free throws with 0.2 seconds left to put Tennessee on top. In the final, she won the game with a leaning shot around Stanford All-American Nicole Powell with 1.7 seconds remaining.

Her rise didn't come quickly. She's been working hard for three-and-a-half years while waiting in the shadows of more established players such as Kara Lawson and this season's starting point guard, Loree Moore.

Butts' time came when Moore tore up her knee Jan. 24 at Duke, and she's made the most of it. Butts averaged 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists in her last five regular-season games. And she did it while moving into the less-familiar point guard position.

"I'm comfortable at point guard now," Butts said. "But it took a while and a lot of work to get there."

Now, she will be asked to do even more.

In order to help Tennessee (30-3) advance to the championship game, Butts will have to shut down Seimone Augustus, LSU's hot-shooting guard who is averaging an NCAA Tournament-best 26.3 points in LSU's four games.

"I think anytime you guard a great player you have to make it hard for them to touch the ball or make them take the most difficult shot," Butts said. "She's a scorer, she's going to score. We just have to try to limit her touches and play our game."

LSU (27-7) has had its own share of adversity this season, including the loss of coach Sue Gunter, who was forced to take medical leave in February.

The Tigers lost to Tennessee, 85-62, in the regular season. Two games later, Vanderbilt knocked them out of the SEC tournament. Acting coach Pokey Chatman called that loss the best thing that could have happened to LSU.

A players-only meeting was held and the team emerged refocused.

"It gave us an opportunity to express ourselves and allow everybody to get an understanding of how we felt," point guard Temeka Johnson said. "We really needed just to come together on our own and try to get things squared away before the NCAA tournament started."

Mission accomplished. The Tigers won four straight to get to the first Final Four in school history.

"We've worked really hard, but we know the job isn't done yet," forward Tillie Willis said. "Tennessee is a good team, but we aren't intimidated by anyone. We want this a lot. I think it's going to be a really great game."

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