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.
The darkest horse to arrive in New Orleans was Connecticut. On the surface, the semifinal matchup between Virginia coach Debbie Ryan and UConn's Geno Auriemma, who had assisted Ryan for four years, ran a neat parallel to the men's Final Four confrontation between North Carolina coach Dean Smith and his former aide, Roy Williams of Kansas. But the reunion in New Orleans had all the tranquillity of Saturday night on Bourbon Street. Shortly before Auriemma left Virginia for UConn in 1985, Ryan had a crisis of confidence. "It just didn't seem like I fit in the profession," she recalls. "It was a real crossroads in my life." NCAA executive director Dick Shultz, then the Virginia athletic director, did his best to encourage Ryan, and she also began seeing Bob Rotella, the team's sports psychologist.
Auriemma's exit helped Ryan arrive. Direct and driven—"The first time people see me," Auriemma says, "they don't like me, because they think I act like I know everything about everything"—Auriemma had pushed, prodded and occasionally overpowered Ryan. "I didn't have a philosophy of life then, and it used to drive Geno crazy because he did," she says. "It wasn't until he left that I developed a lot of my sense of myself."
Both parties realized a break was necessary. "The bottom line is I went to Virginia and did everything I could to help the program reach national prominence," Auriemma says. "[But] having me around while you're going through growing pains is no trip to the beach, believe me. And you can ask my wife that."
In six years at UConn, Auriemma has transformed the Huskies from Big East doormats to the conference's first-ever envoy to the Final Four. This season, he welded an assortment of odd parts into a powerhouse led by Kerry Bascom, a 6'1" center as capable of popping three-pointers as of posting down low. "We have a 5'11" power forward, a 6'1" center who shoots the three, and our entire team isn't afraid to put it up—no hesitation," Bascom says. "We're crazy."
The Cavaliers ignite their explosive offense with a ball-pressure defense that forced an average of 25 turnovers a game. Given the task of harassing Bascom was Tonya Cardoza, a lithe 5'10" senior who last year watched the Final Four in her Roxbury, Mass., living room while on academic suspension. Cardoza's dogged defense—"Every time I made a cut, she was right behind me," said Bascom—and her flashy open-court moves (12 first-half points) helped the Cavs open up a 34-24 spread at intermission. But Virginia lapsed into an all-too-democratic one-pass, one-shot system that overlooked Cardoza and allowed UConn to cut the lead to 55-53 with 26 seconds left.
Ultimately, the Huskies held the Cavs to 35.3% shooting, including a 3-for-16 game from Staley, who was hampered by leg cramps in the second half. But Cardoza sank four free throws down the stretch—her only second-half points—and then Staley stole the ball with seconds to go to seal a 61-55 victory for Virginia.
In the other semifinal, defending champion Stanford couldn't overcome its physical woes against Tennessee. Center Trisha Stevens had ruptured a tendon in her right knee during the first minute of a 73-47 victory over Washington in the West Regional semifinal on March 21. Stevens underwent surgery and wore an ankle-to-hip cast to New Orleans. Then, with four minutes to go before last Saturday's tip-off, another Stanford post player, leading scorer Julie Zeilstra, pulled a calf muscle during warmups. She was outfitted with bandages and ice and sat glumly on the end of the bench for the game.
The injuries left coach Tara VanDerveer with one experienced player down low, 6'3" sophomore Val Whiting, who, with an array of weak-side help, limited Charles to just two free throws in the first half. With All-America point guard Sonja Henning performing twisting double Lutzes in the teeth of the Tennessee D for 18 points and seven assists, the crippled Cardinal raced to a shocking 28-21 lead at intermission.
Summitt's halftime speech left her hoarse, though she managed to bellow to Charles: "Nobody in the country can stop you one-on-one!" Charles got the message, blasting for eight of the Lady Vols' first 13 points in the second half to trim the margin to 36-34. Stanford sagged while Tennessee soared. The Lady Vols outshot (53.3% to 38.5%) and outre-bounded (26 to 17) the Cardinal after halftime, and Charles finished with 18 points and nine rebounds in the 68-60 Tennessee win.
To ensure a national network audience for all three games over the weekend, the NCAA played its women's final less than 24 hours after the second semi. Staley wolfed down a cheeseburger and a baked potato on Saturday night and, as a precaution against leg cramps (of which she has a history), was scheduled to receive added nutrients intravenously. Instead, the Cavaliers merely had an assistant trainer standing by to massage Staley's legs if the cramps occurred. Perhaps sensing Staley's vulnerability, the 5'10", 160-pound Head repeatedly bulled past her early on. But Staley answered right back, either whirling in or dishing off for 10 of Virginia's first 18 points as the Cavs roared to a 10-point lead.
Despite the Cavaliers' identical twin towers, 6'4" sophomores Heather and Heidi Burge, Tennessee mastered the glass at both ends to take a 27-26 lead at halftime. But the Burges (a combined 18 points and 17 rebounds) stiffened, and with 1:25 to play, Virginia reclaimed a 60-55 edge. Then, as she had all day, Head got help from a high screen to break free for a left-side bank shot, and a foul by Cardoza made it a three-point play. Staley came down and missed a wild runner, and as Head was penetrating once again at the other end, she was hammered by Staley with seven seconds to play.
Head drilled both free throws to tie the game at 60. Then Staley made one last mad end-to-end dash, shaking past Head and barreling into the lane. With her left hand cradling the ball, she had a clear path to the basket that would give Virginia the national championship. But Head hadn't quit. "The only thing I could do was try to block her shot from behind," she said. "I just got a small piece of the ball, but that small piece prevented it from going in." Acknowledged Staley, "It was just a great defensive play."
The overtime had drama, too, but it was minimized by Virginia's five misses in as many free throw attempts. Summitt slyly switched from her bread-and-butter man-to-man to a matchup zone, and Head continued to sink clutch shot after clutch shot. "One thing she kept saying to me was, 'Daedra, this is for you, this is for you,' " Charles said. "That made it even sweeter, because she wasn't just playing for Dena. She was playing for me, playing for the university, playing for Pat."
Hmm, playing for Pat. Sounds like a good way to win a national title.
Charles's second-half power-play basket left Virginia's Heidi Burge (34) empty-handed.
Cardoza gave the Cavaliers their last lead with this acrobatic lean-in jumper in overtime.
Staley (24) overcame leg cramps and tight Head-to-head defense to take MVP honors.
The net result after Sunday's final: Summitt (above) once again hit the heights, and Charles (far left) and Nikki Caldwell were impish snips.
[See caption above.]