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MUSIC CITY MADNESS
It was certainly noteworthy that the meeting between No. 1 Vanderbilt and No. 2 Tennessee last Saturday night in Nashville was the first game in women's basketball history to be sold out weeks in advance. It was also noteworthy that the game was the first matchup between a women's No. 1 and No. 2 from the same state. But what really made this a milestone was the weeks of magnificently absurd hype that is usually reserved for important men's games. As far as we know. Saturday's 73-68 Tennessee win marked the first time that:
•NBA and NFL stars weighed in with predictions on a women's basketball game. The Phoenix Suns' Charles Barkley, a pal of Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster's, picked the Commodores, while Philadelphia Eagle All-Pro Reggie White, a former Tennessee defensive lineman, stuck by the Lady Vols.
The game was a statewide phenomenon. Tennessee was No. 1 until it lost to Maryland on Dec. 30 and Vanderbilt took over the top spot. Busloads of fans from across Tennessee rolled into Nashville, including a caravan ferrying about 1,000 people from Shelbyville (pop. 14,000), the hometown of Vanderbilt forward Misty Lamb and Tennessee forward Michelle Johnson and guard Tiffany Woosley. Before Saturday the Commodores' average home attendance had been 3,542, and that figure included children under five who entered free. While that policy might someday pay dividends for women's basketball, on Saturday it meant that there were more people admitted to Memorial Gym than there were seats. In fact, before the game an announcement was made asking spectators to scoot closer together in the bleachers so more people could squeeze into the arena. Even with this togetherness, some fans were left with their noses pressed against the glass.
"It was just another game," said Lamb afterward. Then she paused and added. "That the fans went crazy over."
"We're talking about two things here. We're talking about a basketball game and an event," said Foster before the game. The glorious result for women's basketball was that the game and the event were worthy of each other. The Lady Vols' thrilling victory returned them to the top spot in the rankings and gave their sport a major boost. "That was a terrific environment for both teams, for women's basketball," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. "What made it exciting was the crowd. I'd love to play in that environment every night."
The Commodores and the Lady Vols treated the crowd to as good a show as any it could have found across town at the Grand Ole Opry. Neither team led by more than five points during the last 18 minutes of the game, and Tennessee held a lead of only 69-68 with 10 seconds left, when Vanderbilt point guard Rhonda Blades missed the first free throw of a one-and-one. The Lady Vols' Woosley then sank four free throws, set up by a questionable intentional foul call, to hold off the Commodores.
Nearly everyone involved in women's basketball acknowledges that much of the public still needs to be sold on the sport, and every game that gets noticed is a chance to win converts. "It's almost more important to play well [than to win]," said Heidi Gillingham, Vanderbilt's center, before Saturday's game. "With so many fans, many of whom are testing out women's basketball to see if they like it, we need to show them the high level at which women can play. We need to convince them they should come back."
But before people can be convinced, they have to sec a game, and it was a shame that potential fans around the country didn't get a chance to watch these teams play. Only WSMV in Nashville televised the game. (Memo to ESPN, SportsChannel and Raycom: It was a terrific game. You should've been there.)
The victory was the 11th straight for the 18-1 Lady Vols, who arc on such a roll that they can leap seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Take junior guard Nikki Caldwell, for instance. Five days before the game Caldwell had a cardiac catheterization—a procedure in which a wire is inserted into the heart—to correct a rapid heartbeat. On Saturday she came off the bench to give Tennessee 16 solid minutes.