The gumbo and the grilled chicken had been served, and the nine honorees stood on the dais in the Hyatt Regency ballroom in New Orleans last Thursday night, acknowledged for their achievements in the initial 10 years of the NCAA women's Final Four. Nora Lynn Finch, who was the first chairperson of the NCAA Women's Basketball Committee, approached the microphone. "As we stand up here," she said, "we are reflecting an era." Finch paused a moment and then singled out a particular luminary: "Does that make you feel old, Pat? To be reflecting an era?"
The Pat in question was Tennessee coach Pat Summitt—even her players call her Pat—and she let her Lady Volunteers deliver her reply three days later before 7,865 folks at Lakefront Arena. There, Tennessee responded to all the thrusts of a quicksilver Virginia team and gutted out a 70-67 overtime victory, the Lady Vols' third national title in the last five seasons. In just a fleeting decade, the 38-year-old Summitt has earned more NCAA championship titles than any coach but UCLA's John Wooden, Kentucky's Adolph Rupp and Indiana's Bob Knight. She has deployed a total of 37 players since 1981-82; 27 of them now wear championship rings.
Reflecting an era? Heck, Summitt practically embodies it. She has taken her teams to seven Final Fours, including the first one in Norfolk, Va. "The NCAA has made a real difference for women," Summitt said after Sunday's final. "And I feel very fortunate to be a part of all the growth and development."
One constant in Summitt's 17 seasons at Tennessee has been the Lady Vols' ferocious post play, which saps opponents' wills and weakens their knees. (Summitt's assistant coaches use football tackling dummies to toughen up their kids in practice, and the Lady Vols even take the dummies on the road with them, discreetly concealed in garment bags.) But while 6'3" All-America center Daedra Charles came up big in the final (19 points, 12 rebounds), the knockout shots were delivered from the outside by Dena Head, a junior guard from Canton, Mich., who scored 28 points and grabbed nine rebounds. More important, Head scored five points in the last 1:15 of regulation to erase a 60-55 deficit, then thwarted a last-gasp drive by Virginia's Dawn Staley at the end of regulation, and buried five of six free throws to account for half of Tennessee's scoring in OT.
For last Saturday's semifinal game against Stanford, Summitt had pared down Head's various duties on offense and made her a shooting guard. But on Sunday, Summitt coaxed a grin out of the normally dour Dena by reinstalling her at the point. When the starting lineups were announced for the final, Head charged onto the floor, beaming. "I was like, Oh my god, Dena is smiling, what is wrong?" Charles said. "But I knew right then that Dena was going to come out and do the little things to help the team succeed."
Said Head, "A lot of emotion flows throughout my body. I'm just not one to jump up and down." When time had run out, though, and the title was in hand, Head proceeded to jump up and down, bounding over to engage Summitt in an impromptu Tennessee waltz.
The Lady Vols' celebration was not just a frolic, it was an exorcism. Last year, Virginia tripped Tennessee 79-75 in overtime in the East Regional final, thus keeping the Lady Vols from defending their 1989 title in Knoxville, the site of the 1990 Final Four. Summitt called that defeat her most difficult time in coaching, and her peevishness about the loss is now legendary in Knoxville. Flying home from a recruiting trip this past September, the pregnant Summitt suffered labor pains and was faced with the untimely birth of her first child while in the air. But she gamely held out until she had passed through Virginia airspace, and Ross Tyler Summitt was safely delivered, on the ground, in Tennessee. The baby was at Sunday's game sporting a CAVALIER BUSTER insignia across his tiny chest.
At practices every day this season, Summitt had her players wear last year's prematurely printed T-shirts that read: TENNESSEE AND THE FINAL THREE—SOLD OUT. With Charles as her only senior, the coach helped her callow club along until it was mean enough to whomp opponents on its own. When the Lady Vols reached New Orleans, Summitt sounded confident. "I like our chances," she said last Friday. "We never play well early. I'm just a slow teacher. I don't throw all the pieces to the puzzle out on the table and try to match them. I go one piece at a time, and it's March before it all comes together."
But Staley, the nation's consensus player of the year, nearly upset Tennessee's table once again. On Sunday she lived up to her billing with 28 points and played over her 5'6" head with 11 rebounds. She was named the tournament's outstanding player (in a vote taken before Head's last-minute flurry), though that was small consolation. "I gave it all I had to give, and we lost," said Staley, a junior. "But we'll be coming back."
Virginia should be back next year, but reaching the Final Four is getting to be a tough proposition. This year, two of the game's hardiest perennials, Texas and Louisiana Tech, bowed out in the first round of the tournament, and top-ranked Penn State went down 73-71 to James Madison in the second. The Lady Vols found themselves sharing the Final Four floor with opponents wholly new to them. "There may not be that many 'A' players around, like Cheryl Miller or Teresa Edwards," says Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore. "But the 'B' player today is better, and there are more of them." Progress, thy name is parity.