Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Pat Summitt Atop the Summit

Atop the summit. Sum it up. Pat at the pinnacle. However you want to say it, Pat Summitt is now the winningest basketball coach in NCAA history.

And from now on, every University of Tennessee basketball player - men and women - will play on a floor named The Summitt.

The evening began with Pat Summitt crying because her mother made it to the historic game and ended with her crying when the university surprised her with the announcement about the floor. In between, the Lady Vols made it to the Sweet 16, which was Summitt's sole goal for the evening.

Tennessee took out Purdue , 75-54, on Tuesday night to advance to the regional in Philadelphia and to allow Summitt to surpass Dean Smith in career wins with no. 880, an event that has garnered nearly unprecedented media coverage, even for this storied program.

Summitt had to mute her own television Monday night because her pursuit of the record was all she heard. The primary concern was that the players would come out pressing - as in uptight - because of the pressure.

They didn't. The Lady Vols never trailed in the game.

"I think coach helped us with that," UT senior forward Shyra Ely said. "She always kept us focused on the game and not the record. At the same I think we're mature enough to be able to separate and focus on the moment."

Tennessee jumped out to a 30-17 lead, still led 39-32 at halftime and then put Purdue away in the second half. Four players were in double figures - Tye'sha Fluker tied a career high with 18 points and also had 10 rebounds - and 38 of the team's points came in the paint. The other top scorers were Ely with 16 points, Shanna Zolman with 15 and Nicky Anosike with 11.

"First of all I'm excited that this basketball team is headed to Philadelphia, and I appreciate the fact they managed to get it done tonight," Summitt said. "We played in spurts at times but good enough to advance, and that's what you do in post-season. Survive and advance. I'm proud of this team and proud for this team. We'll enjoy this tonight and start thinking about Texas Tech immediately."

The Lady Vols will play Texas Tech on Sunday (either noon or 2:30 p.m.). Rutgers and Ohio State will play in the other regional semifinal at Liacouras Center on the campus of Temple University. The winners will meet March 30 for the right to go to the Final Four in Indianapolis.

"I never really thought about winning X number of games," Summitt said. It's more about winning the next game. Trying to win another championship. Every team I want to reach their full potential."

To get to Philadelphia, Tennessee, 28-4, first had to beat Purdue, 17-13. The Boilermakers were considerable underdogs - the Lady Vols have never lost an NCAA tourney game at home and now have 36 wins - and are a relatively young team prone to turning over the ball.

"It definitely hurt as without question," said Purdue coach Kristy Curry, who first opened her statement to the media with congratulations for Summitt.

Purdue was led by Katie Gearlds with 13 points and Sharika Webb with 16. The day before the game, Curry said her team needed to have less than 15 turnovers to be successful. The Boilermakers had 16 in the first half and finished with 26. Tennessee scored 26 of its points off of turnovers.

"Against any good basketball team you have to take care of the basketball, and Tennessee is a great basketball team," Gearlds said. "We mishandled a few times, and they took advantage of it. But coach said this was something to learn from, but give them credit as they took advantage of our turnovers.

Tennessee was having trouble hanging on to the ball, too, and finished the game with more turnovers (18) than assists (15.) But the Lady Vols also had 15 steals - including a career high six by freshman center Anosike - and seven blocks in what was a solid defensive effort, especially after Summitt's halftime speech.

"At halftime I was not real happy, because I didn't think our defense had the level of influence that it should have had," Summitt said. "This Purdue team they can make shots obviously, and they play well together. I didn't think that we disrupted them. I told them at halftime that's the way we built this program. That's how you win in March with defense and board play. I thought we really picked up our defensive intensity in the second half."

But Purdue also has reasons to feel good after the game. The Boilermakers were a bubble team to make the tournament and beat New Mexico in the first round. The experience should pay off next season.

"That is what I told them is that you have to learn from these experiences, and it is important to understand they can either make you better or make you worse," Curry said. "There is no staying the same. We have to get better so that a year from now we have two Big 10 Champion rings on our fingers, one from the tournament and regular season. We look up a year from now we are headed to the Sweet 16, and we are going to be in a situation to be on our home floor. So you turn the experiences into a positive, and I told them that I loved them, and I was proud of them."

Although Purdue was behind the entire game, the players never quit and held the rebounding edge on Tennessee until the Lady Vols squeaked ahead, 42-40.

"That's huge, you know, because we never really hung our head," Gearlds said. "I think that shows how far we have come along since the season began. ... They gave it to us a few times, but we did not hang our heads, and we kept battling. I am proud that we didn't quit. I saw a lot of fire out there in people's eyes, and that is something to look forward to in the future."

After the game, the NCAA revised its policy and had the losing team holds it press conference first. That allowed Summitt and her team to remain on the floor for a ceremony to honor her achievement. Sue Donohoe, the NCAA's vice president for Division I women's basketball, and Lynn Parkes, the chair of the NCAA Women's Basketball Committee, presented Summitt with the game ball and a commemorative plaque at center court.

Then Women's Athletics Director Joan Cronan and UT President John Petersen made the surprise announcement that the floor at Thompson-Boling Arena will be named The Summitt. It will be a permanent logo on the floor - THE SUMMITT, KNOXVILLE - and will remain in place for all basketball games played at the arena.

"I had no idea," Summitt said. "It really touches me. It's a tremendous honor. I never even thought about anything like that. I don't think there could have been a better gift. It's an incredible honor for me personally and for my family as well."

Summitt had tears in her eyes after a poster-board replica of the court was unveiled.

"That was shocking," senior guard Loree Moore said. "She was crying, and we were crying. This is a great moment for her to have that named after her. It's wonderful. I'm just mad I can't play on it. I want to play on the court, too. It's special. She deserves it. She's done so much for the program and women's basketball."

"I think it's awesome," said senior guard Brittany Jackson . "It's well-deserved. Too bad I'm not going to get to play on it. I think it's really neat. It's exciting to be a part of it."

"We didn't see that coming by any means but very well deserved," Zolman said. "It's so cool to say, 'Let's go play on the Summitt.' "

Ely joked with reporters that she has always played on The Summitt, even if it wasn't officially called that. When the post-game celebration ended Ely, a senior playing in her final game at home, kneeled down to kiss the court before leaving it for the last time.

"I've been playing on the Summitt," Ely said. "I'm so proud of her. I'm happy to be a part of it."

Ely said the gesture was "to show my appreciation and kiss it good-bye and acknowledge the Summitt, a lot of emotion."

Summitt was emotional before the game when her mother, Hazel Head, made a surprise trip to Knoxville from her home in Middle Tennessee with other members of Summitt's family, including her siblings.

"I was really sad because my mom and dad weren't going to be able to be here (as Summitt's father, Richard Head, has been ill)," Summitt said. "It was just great when my family walked in, and I walked around the corner and there's my mother. Of course she's crying. So what do I do? I cry. That's what you do. When your mother cries, you cry. It's really special. The longer that I'm in this profession, the more I realize I have a lot of my mother in me. That's a good thing. That means I've mellowed."

It was Summitt's maternal nature that helped her secure a recruit four years ago that is one of this team's most-important players.

"I think it was important to come here because I knew that I would become an adult, become a better person and be disciplined, just be able to take care of myself," Ely said. "I'm such a homebody, a little girl at heart. I think it was important for my parents just knowing that Pat was going to take care of me while I'm away from home. She's done nothing but that. One thing that influenced me to come here was the family atmosphere, and I know that Pat Summitt genuinely cares about every single one of us. I think that's what makes it so special that we are a family."

Summitt, however, wasn't always mellow during the game. She stalked the sideline, encouraged her players and didn't hesitate to stomp her feet and raise her voice when something displeased her.

One target of her ire was freshman guard Alexis Hornbuckle , who had one assist to four turnovers. Hornbuckle did chip in five points - including a driving off-balance layup that she converted into a three-point basket after a foul - and five rebounds. But by Hornbuckle's standards, it was sub-par, though she is happy to be going to Philly, where she played a few times in high school for AAU basketball.

"Definitely excited. My first Sweet Sixteen," Hornbuckle said. "It's big. I'm ready for another game. Got to redeem myself from tonight."

Another player, Jackson, was held scoreless, but earned Summitt's praise because of other efforts, including four rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block.

"That's big. I want her to be able to be on the floor when she's not scoring and do other things," Summitt said. "I think that's really important ... with her being a senior and wanting her to be on the floor now."

"My shot didn't fall so I was just trying to do the other things," Jackson said. "It was an exciting game and it was fun to play. I didn't score, but I didn't care. Different people step up every night. I think that's the fun thing about this team."

On this night Fluker stepped up - she earned the oversized sunglasses award for best focus, Moore got the ring for leadership and Anosike kept the hat for attitude.

"I felt good tonight," Fluker said. "My teammates gave me the ball, and I was able to finish and play with my teammates."

"Tye Fluker had great focus tonight and stepped up and made really big plays for us," Summitt said. "I hope she'll keep those glasses for awhile."

The entire team was focused as they blocked out the distraction of Summitt's record and concentrated on getting a win. It wasn't easy. An electric crowd of 13,188 cheered and held up signs of 880 before, during and after the game.

"Play in the moment," Ely said when asked about her mindset. "You look in the crowd and see 880. You just kind of have to separate it and live in that moment. Take care of the business."

Zolman was impressed with how her coach handled the attention and accolades, even before the ball was tipped.

"I don't know how she did it, be able to stay focused like she does constantly and be intense in the moment," Zolman said. "We're not really relieved (the pursuit of the record is over), but it's nice to be able to focus solely on the tournament right now - but giving her all due respect and all the props for what she's done because it's amazing.

"I didn't feel any more tightness because of the record or anything else. She did a very good job of keeping us focused, and she continually told us this is a game, a tournament."

Summitt had tried all week to deflect attention away from the record - she tied it Sunday with a win over Western Carolina - and steer the emphasis back to her players.

"I just want to keep my focus on this team. That's all I was thinking about today and just getting them ready to play," Summitt said. "I didn't want the players to feel pressure from this. I think they handled it very well. They said to me it would be special to them because they would be a part of it always."

The moment was shared by a lot of people - former Tennessee men's coach Buzz Peterson sat with Summitt's family and football coach Phillip Fulmer also was in the stands - including Summitt's former players and staff members. One of them was Mickie DeMoss, an assistant to Summitt for 18 years who recruited many players on this team and now the head coach at Kentucky.

"At first I thought, ho-hum, Pat's breaking another record," DeMoss said after the game in the Lady Vols locker room. "The more I thought about it and the more I watched it on ESPN and the magnitude of it and the significance of it I thought if there's any way I could work it out to be here, I wanted to be here."

It meant a lot to Summitt that she made it, but the coach is also glad that's it over.

"Yes I am glad that it's over because now it's strictly about this team, and that's the way it should be," Summitt said. "This team has got the chance to do something special."

Summitt ended her press conference by thanking the reporters in attendance.

"Thank you all for being here," Summitt said. "I always appreciated what the media has meant for the growth of our sport."

She ended the post-game celebration by taking a courtside microphone and thanking the fans.

"You're such a part of this," Summitt said. "This has been a special year. This basketball team is on a mission so stick with us."

THE UNDERCARD: In the evening's first game, LSU beat Arizona, 76-43, to advance to the Sweet 16 in the Chattanooga Region. LSU will face surprise winner Liberty, which has beaten Penn State and DePaul. The other semifinal in that region will pit Duke against Georgia.

LSU, 31-2, dominated Arizona, 20-12, from beginning to the end. The Lady Tigers leaped out to a 28-8 lead in the first half and never looked back.

LSU point guard Temeka Johnson was perfect from the floor - 4-4 in field goals, including two 3-pointers and 4-4 from the line - to finish with 14 points. Johnson also had 10 assists, four rebounds and two steals. Seimone Augustus had 18 points - she has scored in double figures in a school record 59 straight games - and Scholanda Hoston added 12 points.

Arizona was led by Dee-Dee Wheeler with 13 points and Shawntinice Polk with 10. Forward Danielle Adefeso led all rebounders with 12 boards. Wheeler finished her career as Arizona's all-time leader in steals (306), games played (124), games started (118) and minutes played (4,031). She is second in the Wildcats' record book in points with 1,968.

"Right from the get-go they jumped on us and unfortunately for us that set the tempo for the rest of the game," Arizona coach Joan Bonvicini said. "They really put us back on our heels. They are a super-athletic team. ... It is going to take someone special to beat them."

LSU coach Pokey Chatman was pleased with how her team set the tempo from the start of the game.

"I thought from the very first possession on defense we established ourselves with an entry to the post with a quick trap," Chatman said. "I think Temeka was the one who secured the steal in transition and that sort of became the theme for the first half."

Arizona's center agreed.

"Early we saw them play a lot of one-on-one in the post, and tonight they doubled and tripled, and I was not expecting that," Polk said. "I have faced it all year (from other teams), but mentally I was just making some bad turnovers (six)."

Augustus said the disruption is part of the plan.

"I think every time we go out, we want to try to make the other team's offense not even have a chance to run their offense," she said.

During pre-game warmups and once during the game, Arizona's band played "Rocky Top," much to the delight of Tennessee fans already in the arena.

"I guess it didn't really work as well as Arizona hoped it did," Johnson said. "We don't feed into all that stuff."

Chatman, however, was glad to be in Knoxville.

"I'm glad I'm in the building to have the chance to possibly witness that," Chatman said before Tennessee's game about Summitt breaking Smith's record. "So many people pick up the newspaper or tune into the game because it's monumental. I think it's tremendous."

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