THE GAME had been over for an hour, the championship rings long
since handed out and the cheering temporarily quieted, but
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt still clutched a basketball net
tightly in her right hand. Michelle Marciniak, the tournament's
Most Outstanding Player, wore the other Charlotte Coliseum net
around her neck. After the Lady Vols' 83-65 drubbing of Georgia
in the NCAA title game on Sunday night, neither player nor coach
could believe that the crown they had expected to win a year ago
had finally arrived. Better late than never. "In a week,"
Summitt said, "I'll probably still be shaking my head saying,
'Did this really happen?'"
The Tennessee-Georgia final marked the second time two
Southeastern Conference teams have met for the championship
(Tennessee beat Auburn in 1989) and the first time the women's
final has drawn more spectators than the men's. A crowd of
23,291--the largest ever to watch an NCAA women's final--attended
the game in the Queen City. Only 19,229 could be accommodated at
the Meadowlands, site of Monday night's men's final.
To rev up the huge contingent of Lady Vols' fans before the
game, Tennessee's mascot, an undergraduate dressed as Smokey,
the bluetick coonhound, pummeled a stuffed red bulldog at
midcourt. When Smokey administered a hard elbow, the bulldog's
head exploded, spewing tiny foam balls all over the floor. The
tip-off was delayed slightly for cleanup, and Smokey was banned
from the court for the game. Bad dog.
Smokey's antics served as an omen, though: Tennessee was about
to knock the stuffing out of the Lady Bulldogs. The Lady Vols
had been waiting for this title chance since March 1995, when
Rebecca Lobo and Connecticut knocked them off in the women's
final. That Tennessee team had been awesome--loaded with
top-to-bottom talent and a trio of outstanding seniors. "Last
year we felt an awful lot of pressure," recalled Summitt. "We
felt like we had to win the title."
This year's Lady Vols didn't carry that burden. And on Sunday,
playing with poise and precision, they shut down a Georgia team
that had been averaging 82 points per game this season. Lady
Vols forward Chamique Holdsclaw--the country's top
freshman--scored 16 points and pulled down a team-leading 14
rebounds. Sophomore center Tiffani Johnson added 16 points.
Marciniak, a senior point guard, contributed 10 points and five
assists. "When people said this was a rebuilding year for our
team, it was a little bit of an insult because it was like they
were saying we didn't have any good players left," said
Tennessee's junior forward Abby Conklin, who hit 4 of 5
three-pointers and scored 14 points.
The Lady Vols' 18-point margin of victory was the second largest
in NCAA women's championship history. Tennessee also owns the
record for the most lopsided title triumph, a 67-44 win over
Louisiana Tech in 1987. That '87 victory earned the Vols their
first crown and began what has become the closest thing to a
dynasty in women's basketball.
Overseeing the success has been Summitt, who took the Tennessee
job in 1974, at age 22, so she could support herself while
training for the 1976 Olympic team. Now she's mentioned as a
candidate every time the Tennessee men's basketball job opens
up, but taking that position would mean a cut in pay. She's such
a hit that Nashville musician Clifford Curry, a popular
practitioner of "R&B beach music," recently released a tune
called Pat Summitt, Dat Gummitt, which was getting airplay in
the Music City before the Lady Vols even entered the tournament.
By now it has probably gone platinum. Only UCLA legend John
Wooden, with 10, has won more NCAA basketball championships than
Summitt, whose last title was in '91.
Last month's East Regional final at Virginia is what made
Summitt believe this team could win it all. The Lady Vols
trailed the Cavaliers at halftime 27-14 (a Tennessee record for
the fewest points scored in a half) but rallied to win 52-46
behind 12 second-half points from senior guard Latina Davis and
6-for-6 free throw shooting down the stretch by Marciniak. After
that comeback, Summitt told her team, "If you can win in
Charlottesville, you can win in Charlotte."
But in Charlotte the first thing Tennessee had to do was beat
Connecticut, something the Lady Vols had never done. In Friday's
semifinal, UConn's Nykesha Sales hit a three-pointer with 4.2
left in regulation to force overtime, but in another installment
of what has become a phenomenal series, Tennessee made 7 of 8
free throws in the final 1:43 and Johnson blocked a potential
game-tying three-point attempt by Jennifer Rizzotti to forge an
88-83 victory. In the Huskies' locker room after the game, UConn
coach Geno Auriemma asked his tearful team whether any players
deserved to end their careers with a championship as much as
seniors Rizzotti and Jamelle Elliott. "No," came the reply.
"Well," he said, "how about Latina Davis and Michelle Marciniak?"
On Sunday, Davis showed why she's a cornerstone of the Lady
Vols' zone defense. She held 5'7" Georgia guard Saudia
Roundtree, the Naismith Player of the Year, scoreless in the
second half and to eight points (3 of 14 from the field) for the
game. "From the scouting report, the coaches told us [Roundtree]
likes to shoot from the left side at the free throw line," said
Davis, "so I tried to take that away from her."
Davis's efforts helped Marciniak finish her career with the
title she has long dreamed of. Growing up, she didn't pretend to
be Larry Bird or Michael Jordan when she played hoops in her
driveway in Macungie, Pa. She pretended to be herself, winning a
national title for her college team. "Ever since I was a little
girl I had a dream of cutting down the nets, being out on the
floor with a national championship team," she says. "I can't
believe it's come true."
Four years ago, when Marciniak decided she wanted to transfer to
Tennessee from Notre Dame, Summitt asked her why. "Because I
want to play for someone I think is the best coach in the
country, and I want to have an opportunity to win a national
championship," she replied.
The move proved to be a net gain for Marciniak, in more ways
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Johnson helped chop down Naismith Player of the Year Roundtree, who had only eight points. [Saudia Roundtree being blocked by Tiffani Johnson]