PHILADELPHIA(Ticker) -- Rutgers could only hold Tennessee All-America Tamika Catchings in check for so long.
Catchings was held to 13 points, but she scored five during a key second-half run and freshman Kara Lawson tied a season high with 19 as Tennessee advanced to its ninth national championship game with a 64-54 triumph over Rutgers in the semifinals.
Tennessee (33-3) notched its 20th straight win and is in the title game for the fifth time in six seasons. The Lady Vols, who have won six national championships, will face Connecticut on Sunday at the First Union Center.
Catchings had scored in double figures in six of her last seven contests, but was held to two points in the opening half on a layup with 40 seconds left. She showed no ill effects of a severely sprained right ankle that she incurred Monday against Texas Tech, which forced the junior forward to sit out eight minutes in the first half.
Catchings would not be denied as her 3-pointer with 12:30 left gave the Lady Vols their biggest lead at that point, 43-38. She added a layup and Lawson and Michelle Snow scored four points apiece in the 13-3 spurt as Tennessee opened a 49-39 cushion with 7:55 to play.
"I think Rutgers defense is something we haven't seen a lot this year, but once we got more comfortable we were able to exploit the baseline and the middle and we were able to break them down," Lawson said.
In its first Final Four in school history, Rutgers would not go down quietly. The Scarlet Knights scored six straight points to move within 49-45 with 6:40 left and had their faithful thinking upset. Linda Miles scored four points in the burst and closed it with two free throws.
Tennessee eventually prevailed as it picked apart Rutgers' vaunted two-three zone defense. The Lady Vols were able to penetrate into the lane with ease and earned multiple trips to the foul line, scoring all their points there during a 9-0 burst. Lawson had four in the run, including a pair with 3:10 left for a 56-45 lead.
"Kara Lawson, nothing she does surprises me," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who has been in as many Final Fours (12) as legendary UCLA men's coach John Wooden. "She was able to beat Rutgers off the ball and run the halfcourt game that we wanted to play. She's got a great mind for the game and she's one of the best freshmen I've seen in running the halfcourt game." When the second-half carnage was over, Tennessee had outscored Rutgers, 36-28, and shot 44 percent (10-of-23) from the floor and 15-of-18 from the line. The Scarlet Knights were held to 33 percent (12-of-36) and were 3-of-5 from the stripe in the final 20 minutes.
"We were able to push the tempo and went into attack mode to defeat the Rutgers defense, and again we seemed to get much better looks than they did," Summitt added. "We were very aggressive on rebounding and we were able to stand against their zone." The Lady Vols finished 22-of-29 from the line, including 15-of-18 in the second half, as they improved to 9-3 in the national semifinals. Rutgers was 6-of-10 from the stripe for the game.
It is the third time in as many seasons that Tennessee has been victorious at Rutgers' expense. The Lady Vols won, 92-60, in the 1998 Mideast Region semifinals and on January 3 of last season, 68-54, at Madison Square Garden.
Snow added 10 points and a career-high seven blocks to help the Lady Vols' starting frontcourt outscored the Scarlet Knights', 42-20. Catchings grabbed 12 rebounds, the fourth time in six games she reached double figures in that category.
Shawnetta Stewart, Natasha Pointer and Linda Miles finished with 11 points apiece as Rutgers fell for just the second time in 11 contests. Stewart fouled out with 61 seconds left and received a thunderous ovation from the Scarlet Knights' fans in her final game.
"I'm glad our team got to this point," said Stewart, a Philadelphia native. "I feel I have been a success story. If I had to make the decision where to go to college, I would have done the same thing. It's hard to describe in words the last moments of your career, but I know that in a couple of days I'll be able to describe it." The loss ended a tremendous season for Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer, who became the first coach to take three different teams to the Final Four. She guided Cheyney State to the first Final Four in 1982 and returned with Iowa in 1993.
"Each one had its own personality and each time I believe we had a chance to win," said Stringer, who fell to 1-2 in the national semifinals. "We were lacking sleep and we were not feeling totally prepared. We missed a lot of second-chance opportunities and it's inexcusable. I bet the next time we'll be a lot more prepared." The Scarlet Knights shot 37 percent (23-of-62) overall and just 2-of-8 from 3 point range.
Rutgers took its biggest lead, 23-17, with a 10-1 first-half run. Stewart scored four points in the run, as did Usha Gilmore, who capped it with a layup with 3:42 left. But the Lady Vols scored the next eight, capped by Lawson's 3-pointer, which gave them a 25-23 cushion with 81 seconds left.
Point guard Kristen Clement scored eight points and drilled both of her 3-point attempts as Tennessee led, 28-26, at halftime. Pointer paced Rutgers with seven points and Stewart and Gilmore added six apiece.