It was 45 minutes before game time and Tennessee coach Pat Summitt was still in her car, stuck in a five-mile-long traffic jam last Wednesday night on Knoxville's Neyland Drive. Finally she bailed out, left her car on the side of the road and hoofed it the rest of the way to the new Thompson-Boling Arena. When Summitt got there, she found several thousand people massed outside the arena doors, unable to get in. That's because inside there were already 24,563 fans, many of them still scrambling for the unreserved seats, even up to the aluminum benches just beneath the rafters.
At 25 minutes to tip-off, Summitt made it into the arena. There at court-side Charlie Moore, a representative from the Guinness World Records Museum in nearby Gatlinburg, stood by to verify that an attendance record was indeed being set for women's basketball on this planet. Pat Summitt, of all people, should have known that this was a day to leave a little early for work.
The Tennessee women's athletic department had coupled this superpower meeting between No. 1 Tennessee and No. 2 Texas with a superduper promotional ticket giveaway, in hopes of making one giant slam dunk for womankind. The day was historic, but, alas, not all that its boosters had hoped for. In short, the people were there, but the game didn't quite make it.
The bad news was the score. Former NCAA champion Texas two-stepped past jittery defending champion Tennessee 97-78 in a display so cold, clinical and convincing that those groaning stands began emptying with seven minutes to go. Lady Longhorn Clarissa Davis, a serene 6'1" junior who was the Naismith Player of the Year last season, stilled the assemblage with a career-high 45 points, repeatedly silencing meek runs by the Lady Volunteers with a brilliant blend of turnaround jumpers and power moves. She was in a class by herself. "We're not entertainers," Davis says. "But it makes it more exciting when the fans go, 'Whoa! I can't believe a girl just did that!' "
While Davis was providing a tantalizing hint of the women's game of the future, both coaches of the present were praying for a down-to-the-wire epic that would steal headlines and attract new fans. Both were disappointed. "We can hope that people saw the potential," said Summitt afterward, "but obviously we didn't do the sales job we intended to do." Even Texas coach Jody Conradt had a tempered view of her team's stunning show, which elevated Texas back to its accustomed AP No. 1 spot. "It would have been better if the score had been closer," she said. "But there are limits that even I have for promoting the game."
The crowd was certainly all anyone could have wanted. It demolished the existing NCAA paid-attendance mark of 15,615, set at last season's NCAA tournament finals in Austin. Wendy's restaurants regional headquarters in Knoxville had bought up 20,000 seats for the game, printed up an extra 60,000 tickets and then passed them out as first-come, first-sit ducats, free with a purchase at Wendy's. The attendance for this one game exceeded the season totals of each of the other nine Southeastern Conference women's teams last season.
The count was duly confirmed by Moore, Guinness's verifier, who double-checked each of the 29 turnstiles and instructed Tennessee officials to bag the stubs, as well as make a video scan of the stuffed arena for posterity. Said Moore, "Guinness will not accept a guesstimate."
By all guesstimations before the game, the on-court matchup figured to be memorable. "A dream game," Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore called it. Texas and Tennessee are mirror images of one another, beyond their dominant colors (orange) and initials (UT). They split a pair of games last season. Each is a highly athletic, hard-D perennial that, after a decade of door-knocking, was led by a freshman to the promised land: Davis steered the Lady Longhorns to their first NCAA title in 1985-86; guard Tonya Edwards sparked Tennessee to the title last season.
For this showdown, each club would be without a top player or two because of injuries, but that didn't figure to cool the usual passions. "This is an opportunity for each of us to see how good we are," said Tennessee guard Dawn Marsh. "The competition between us is always unreal." Last season, in fact, when things got rough during Texas's 88-74 win over Tennessee at a tournament in Miami, Conradt walked down the sideline and went heatedly nose-to-nose with Summitt for three minutes as play went on. "What you have to understand is, I say what I feel," says Conradt. "It was warranted at the time, but we've both moved on."
The coaches' pregame approaches for the Wednesday extravaganza centered on preparing for the huge crowd. Summitt called on Tina Buckles, a sports psychologist who has worked with the Lady Vols for three years, to help dispel anxieties and develop "attentional focus." Conradt, on the other hand, went quietly along, assuring her team it had nothing to lose. "Having been in a lot of games with big crowds, I know I've felt a lot of pressure as the home team," she said. "You have a lot of first-time fans and you want them desperately to come back."