From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, April 7, 1997
FOR LADY VOLS COACH PAT SUMMITT, WHO HAS COACHED in Knoxville for 23 seasons, this championship, capped with a 68-59 win over Old Dominion on March 30, might have been the sweetest, earned as it was by a team with a relatively dismal—by Summitt's standards—record of 29-10. No Tennessee team had lost that many games since the 1985-86 squad went 24-10. Summitt's last four teams before this season had lost a total of 12 games. "Fifth in the SEC and Number 1 in the country," proclaimed Summitt after the game. "Doesn't that just sum up what this team has accomplished? We have faced a lot of adversity. This team will always be very special to me, both personally and professionally."
The Lady Vols' appearance in Cincinnati was so unexpected that Summitt, who usually buys her new Final Four outfit by January, didn't make this year's purchase until March 25, the day after Tennessee knocked off undefeated Connecticut in Iowa City. Shopping had to be put on hold as the team negotiated an unfamiliar landscape of injuries and individual and collective funks.
Sophomore point guard Kellie Jolly tore the ACL in her right knee in October. Five games after Jolly returned in January, her replacement, junior Laurie Milligan, dislocated the patella in her right knee. Meanwhile, the Lady Vols earned one negative distinction after another: They became the first Tennessee team to lose to Arkansas. The first to lose to Florida. The first since 1986 to drop out of the Top 10. "We were setting so many bad records," said sophomore forward Chamique Holdsclaw before the championship game, "we were wondering if anything positive would come out of the season."
Holdsclaw's Most Outstanding Player run in the Final Four ensured that the season would end splendidly. The two-time All-America scored 55 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and dished out six assists during the championship weekend.
In the title game Tennessee faced Old Dominion, which handed Stanford its only loss of the regular season and rode a 32-game winning streak into the Final Four. The Lady Monarchs had come from behind to beat the Cardinal, and they soon fell into a 15-point hole against Tennessee. They began their comeback bid in the final second of the first half with a desperation 30-foot heave by Aubrey Eblin that banked in at the buzzer. Eblin's four-point play with 9:06 remaining in the game gave the Lady Monarchs their first lead of the night, 44-43.
But Tennessee roared back. Thanks to several timely assists and a steal by Jolly, the Lady Vols regained the lead and stretched it to six points. With 26 seconds remaining and Tennessee ahead 65-59, Holdsclaw took a wide-open layup and missed. She laughed, revealing her bright-orange mouthpiece. Her shooting touch might have faltered, but Holdsclaw knew that the victory, and something more, was secure. As she sat in the locker room after the game, Holdsclaw savored the moment. "Only one other team has done what we've done—win championships back-to-back," she said. "We have our place in history now."