The game had been over for an hour, the championship rings long since handed out and the cheering temporarily quieted, but Tennessee coach Pat Summitt still clutched a basketball net tightly in her right hand. Michelle Marciniak, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, wore the other Charlotte Coliseum net around her neck. After the Lady Vols' 83-65 drubbing of Georgia in the NCAA title game on Sunday night, neither player nor coach could believe that the crown they had expected to win a year ago had finally arrived. Better late than never. "In a week," Summitt said, "I'll probably still be shaking my head saying, 'Did this really happen?' "
The Tennessee-Georgia final marked the second time two Southeastern Conference teams have met for the championship (Tennessee beat Auburn in 1989) and the first time the women's final has drawn more spectators than the men's. A crowd of 23,291—the largest ever to watch an NCAA women's final—attended the game in the Queen City. Only 19,229 could be accommodated at the Meadowlands, site of Monday night's men's final.
To rev up the huge contingent of Lady Vols' fans before the game, Tennessee's mascot, an undergraduate dressed as Smokey, the bluetick coonhound, pummeled a stuffed red bulldog at midcourt. When Smokey administered a hard elbow, the bulldog's head exploded, spewing tiny foam balls all over the floor. The tip-off was delayed slightly for cleanup, and Smokey was banned from the court for the game. Bad dog.
Smokey's antics served as an omen, though: Tennessee was about to knock the stuffing out of the Lady Bulldogs. The Lady Vols had been waiting for this title chance since March 1995, when Rebecca Lobo and Connecticut knocked them off in the women's final. That Tennessee team had been awesome—loaded with top-to-bottom talent and a trio of outstanding seniors. "Last year we felt an awful lot of pressure," recalled Summitt. "We felt like we had to win the title."
This year's Lady Vols didn't carry that burden. And on Sunday, playing with poise and precision, the) shut down a Georgia team that had been averaging 82 points per game this season. Lady Vols forward Chamique Holdsclaw—the country's top freshman—scored 16 points and pulled down a team-leading 14 rebounds. Sophomore center Tiffani Johnson added 16 points. Marciniak, a senior point guard, contributed 10 points and five assists. "When people said this was a rebuilding year for our team, it was a little bit of an insult because it was like they were saying we didn't have any good players left," said Tennessee's junior forward Abby Conklin, who hit 4 of 5 three-pointers and scored 14 points.
The Lady Vols' 18-point margin of victory was the second largest in NCAA women's championship history. Tennessee also owns the record for the most lopsided title triumph, a 67-44 win over Louisiana Tech in 1987. That '87 victory earned the Vols their first crown and began what has become the closest thing to a dynasty in women's basketball.
Overseeing the success has been Summitt, who took the Tennessee job in 1974, at age 22, so she could support herself while training for the 1976 Olympic team. Now she's mentioned as a candidate every time the Tennessee men's basketball job opens up, but taking that position would mean a cut in pay. She's such a hit that Nashville musician Clifford Curry, a popular practitioner of "R&B beach music," recently released a tune called Pat Summitt, Dat Gummitt, which was getting airplay in the Music City before the Lady Vols even entered the tournament. By now it has probably gone platinum. Only UCLA legend John Wooden, with 10, has won more NCAA basketball championships than Summitt, whose last title was in '91.
Last month's East Regional final at Virginia is what made Summitt believe this team could win it all. The Lady Vols trailed the Cavaliers at halftime 27-14 (a Tennessee record for the fewest points scored in a half) but rallied to win 52-46 behind 12 second-half points from senior guard Latina Davis and 6-for-6 free throw shooting down the stretch by Marciniak. After that comeback, Summitt told her team, "If you can win in Charlottesville, you can win in Charlotte."
But in Charlotte the first thing Tennessee had to do was beat Connecticut, something the Lady Vols had never done. In Friday's semifinal, UConn's Nykesha Sales hit a three-pointer with 4.2 left in regulation to force overtime, but in another installment of what has become a phenomenal series, Tennessee made 7 of 8 free throws in the final 1:43 and Johnson blocked a potential game-tying three-point attempt by Jennifer Rizzotti to forge an 88-83 victory. In the Huskies' locker room after the game, UConn coach Geno Auriemma asked his tearful team whether any players deserved to end their careers with a championship as much as seniors Rizzotti and Jamelle Elliott. "No," came the reply. "Well," he said, "how about Latina Davis and Michelle Marciniak?"
On Sunday, Davis showed why she's a cornerstone of the Lady Vols' zone defense. She held 5'7" Georgia guard Saudia Roundtree, the Naismith Player of the Year, scoreless in the second half and to eight points (3 of 14 from the field) for the game. "From the scouting report, the coaches told us [Roundtree] likes to shoot from the left side at the free throw line," said Davis, "so I tried to take that away from her."