When the LADY
VOLS ARRIVED IN CLEVELAND FOR THE FINAL FOUR on March 29, 2007, they must have
felt an eerie sense of déjà vu. This was the scene of last year's premature
exit from the NCAA tournament, when they fell to North Carolina 75–63 in the
Cleveland Regional final, failing to make the Final Four for the first time in
five years. Here they were a year later, in the same arena in the same city,
ensconced in the same locker room and facing the same opponent. But no one in
the Lady Vols contingent saw these coincidences as anything but a positive
portent. "It was meant to be," said coach Pat Summitt.
After all, this
was a substantially different team from the one that arrived in Cleveland last
year. The personnel hadn't changed so much as the collective mind-set.
"Last year we always tried to take the short way out," says guard
Alexis Horn-buckle. "We had a lot of offensive power, and a lot of times we
came into games with the wrong intent: Let's outscore this team. How about,
Let's stop this team as well as outscore this team? That's the kind of mind-set
this team has. You can just feel it when you step onto the court. I know my
teammates have my back. If I get beat, I know Candace [Parker] or Nicky
[Anosike] is going to be here. We weren't on that same page last year."
The forging of
this team's unity began in the summer, "after we had finished pouting"
about the regional final loss, says Hornbuckle. The returning players and four
newcomers, including Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste, the first junior
college transfers on the squad since 1977, worked out daily and gathered weekly
for Family Night at the house of seniors Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding.
They would have a cookout and then play spades or Scrabble or go bowling. On
the court they helped each other with individual weaknesses, thereby becoming
more invested in each other's success. "If Dom came to me and said, 'Look,
I want to learn how to defend dribble penetration,' I'd help her out," says
Hornbuckle. "Likewise, Sid helped me on my jump shot, and I helped Bert on
her ball handling."
didn't stop there. Summitt brought in team-building experts in the preseason to
teach the players to trust one another. On Jan. 5, the eve of the game at
Connecticut, Anosike drew up a Lady Vol Pact with eight principles—such as
"I will give my all on both ends of the court"—that each player signed
and promised to abide by. "For a few games after that, we would stand in
the locker room and recite it so it was fresh in our minds before games,"
says Anosike. "But after a while it became second nature."
Perhaps the most
important step in the evolution of this team came after a 63–54 loss to LSU in
the SEC tournament. Parker had just four points and her defense was slack.
After the game the players held a three-hour meeting. "Candace said she was
tired, that she couldn't get into it, and the other players called her out on
it," says associate head coach Holly Warlick. "They were pretty tough
on her. The message was, We need you on both ends of the floor."
In part because
Parker had responded so well, elevating her game both offensively and
defensively, the Lady Vols arrived in Cleveland leaving a trail of crushed
upstarts in their wake. In their first four tournament games they had destroyed
the dreams of four would-be Cinderellas. Top-seeded North Carolina, the winner
over Purdue in the Dallas region, would be a different animal. After four
straight losses to the Lady Vols, the Tar Heels, led by their demonstrative
point guard Ivory Latta, had beaten them twice in a row—first in Cleveland in
March 2006, then in Chapel Hill in December, a chaotic affair in which the two
teams combined for more turnovers (31) and fouls (22) than field goals (21) in
the first half.
Fans at the
Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland knew the rematch would be a defensive battle,
but they were hoping for something more elegant than the 59–35 drubbing of LSU
by Rutgers that they had just witnessed. Like the showdown in December,
however, the nightcap was a sloppy mess: Tennessee struggled to score (it shot
just 27% for the game, a Final Four record low), and neither team could hang on
to the ball (together they turned it over 50 times in 40 minutes). Somehow
North Carolina built a 48–36 advantage with 8:18 to go in the game. "At
that point," says Parker, "we looked at each other and said, If we're
going to go down, we're going to go down fighting."
two unanswered layups to draw the Lady Vols to within eight. During a media
timeout with 7:13 to go, Summitt fixed every one of her players with her
signature ice-blue stare. She said, "We are not going home without a
Tennessee's calling card throughout the tournament, kicked into high gear.
Except for two free throws by Latta with 3:43 to go, North Carolina wouldn't
score the rest of the game. After Tar Heels center LaToya Pringle and forward
Camille Little fouled out within 45 seconds of each other with around five
minutes to go, Parker went to work. She scored six of her 14 points and got
three of her 13 rebounds and a critical steal in the last 4:38. After Spencer
sealed the Lady Vols' 20–2 run with two free throws for a 56–50 win, Parker
extended her index finger and said, "One more game."
talked about one performance in particular that had really impressed her.
"Pat was great on the bench tonight," she said. "Really, I don't
think I've seen her that good in a championship situation in a long