Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Victim list long, everlasting for Summitt

You'll have to use a little imagination, please. Andy Landers, Jim Foster, Debbie Ryan, Joe Ciampi, Van Chancellor, Sue Gunter -- they don't actually wake up in a cold, tenement apartment in England, the shutters banging in the wind outside, a candle snuffed out on the bedside table, wearing a nightshirt and a nightcap.

Well, not that I know of, anyway. At the very least, they don't do it in the 1800s-setting I'm lamely trying to create here. But for the sake of this story, picture it like that. We're going to borrow from Charles Dickens, here, you see.

So they wake up with a start, and there is a dimly glowing figure in the dark room: the Ghost of Victories Lost. And The Ghost looks just like ... Tennessee coach Pat Summitt.

It could be any one of those coaches, or several others for that matter. The Ghost is wearing what I call that orange pajama outfit Summitt wore -- the one with the big, gold buttons -- in the 1996 NCAA title game. It's in the Hall of Fame now -- not the fashion hall, mind you, but the Naismith Hall in Springfield, Mass. -- and it sits in a glass case. Only Summitt could have pulled off wearing that outfit and still look chic.

But, again for the purposes of this story, The Ghost is wearing it, and it speaks to the coaches in a soft Tennessee drawl.

"Just came to say, I'm kind of sorry about some of those tough games my team won over yours," The Ghost says. "I know you pretty much thought you had some of those victories, they were right in your grasp, but we took them away. So ... like I said, I'm kind of sorry about that."

Yeah, right, the coaches say. Why are you haunting me? Hasn't the real you done enough damage to my psyche?

But, hey, let's say this: Summitt only haunts the best. Now she has 879 career victories -- the latest coming Sunday against former Tennessee player Kellie Harper's Western Carolina team in the NCAA Tournament's first round -- and has tied North Carolina legend Dean Smith.

The sheer volume of Summitt's victories is one thing to behold. This latest Summitt milestone is all about a gigantic number. Her Tennessee teams almost always win the games they're supposed to. The Lady Vols always have -- and always will under Summitt -- beat some teams before the game even starts. They beat them by being "TENNESSEE!!!" before they even actually have to go on the floor and be Tennessee.

That's powerful stuff. And Summitt has won a lot of games against gritty, pretty evenly matched foes just because she made a great coaching move or instilled the confidence into the right player at the right time or demanded exactly what was needed -- or did all of the above.

But what I always think about with Summitt's unbelievable career is how many games her team has won where you thought, "Nah, not this time, Tennessee. You're walking the plank. The guillotine's dropping. You're hitting the canvas. You're going to LOSE!"

Hah! And in a fashion that's sometimes Houdini and sometimes The Hulk, Tennessee pulls out the victory. Somebody else cries. Summitt sends her condolences (wink-wink) -- and marches away with a trophy or the chance for another trophy. You might call it "The Summitt Magic" if you love Tennessee, or "The Summitt Curse" if you don't. I don't know what to call it, I just know it exists.

The SEC has been the best league, consistently, in women's hoops in the NCAA era. Seven SEC schools have made the Final Four -- Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Vanderbilt -- and programs such as Mississippi, Florida and South Carolina have had Final Four-caliber teams.

Yet only one SEC program has ever won a national championship: six-timer Tennessee. And a lot of the Orange Crush's NCAA success has come at the expense of its fellow SEC schools.

Former Auburn coach Joe Ciampi lost to Summitt in the 1987 Elite Eight, 1989 NCAA title game and the 1991 Elite Eight. Georgia's Andy Landers lost to Tennessee in the 1984 Elite Eight, the 1995 NCAA semifinals and the 1996 national championship game.

Tennessee kept former LSU coach Sue Gunter from the Final Four in 1986, winning by two points in the Elite Eight, and then -- with an ill Gunter watching on TV -- Tennessee beat LSU last year in the national semifinals in a "how did they do that?" ending.

Tennessee beat Jim Foster when he was still at Vanderbilt in the 2002 Elite Eight. Former Ole Miss coach Van Chancellor fell to Summitt's team in the 1983 Sweet 16 -- by seven points in overtime. Then Georgia beat Tennessee in the Elite Eight that year -- we don't want it to seem like Tennessee and Summitt have never had their setbacks, of course -- but, as noted, Tennessee has richly paid back Georgia for that one.

Speaking of payback ... Virginia and Tennessee have met nine times in the NCAA Tournament. Poor Cavs. Tennessee is 8-1 in those meetings. The one Virginia victory was in the 1990 East Regional final, which prevented Tennessee from playing in the Final Four it was hosting in Knoxville that year.

Oh, did that draw Summitt's wrath. In the two highest-profile Tennessee-Virginia games since, Summitt's group won in the 1991 NCAA title game (in overtime) and the 1996 East Regional final (after being down 17 points).

Great coaches, great teams, great players ... they've all fallen at the big moments to Summitt. Some weren't close games, but some were. Some seemed so close to belonging to somebody else. Instead, they became another link on the chain that The Ghost of Victories Lost rattles.

Heck, even UConn's Geno Auriemma -- who has had the best of Summitt and Tennessee the last four times they've met in the NCAA Tournament -- might get a visit from The Ghost every once in awhile. His Huskies fell in overtime to Tennessee in the 1996 national semifinals and then lost by 10 in the 1997 Midwest Regional final.

And it remains to be seen whether Duke is truly going to be haunted by The Ghost. The Blue Devils made their first Final Four trip -- in 1999 -- by beating Tennessee in the East Regional final and taking away Chamique Holdsclaw and Co.'s chance at a fourpeat. The Ghost is gluttonous, by the way.

Duke and Tennessee have met one time since in the NCAA Tournament -- in the national semifinals in 2003 -- and Tennessee won. What a surprise.

And we haven't even brought up the fact that since the tide turned in the Tennessee-Louisiana Tech series -- in the 1987 NCAA title game that gave Summitt her first national championship -- Tennessee is 19-6 against La. Tech.

While we're piling on: Tennessee has won nine in a row against Stanford -- including the Midwest Regional final last year -- and ... let's not even be cruel and bring up Tennessee's series record with Vanderbilt.


The Ghost is insistent.

Oh, all right. Tennessee leads 45-6, including three victories this season, the most recent by three points in the SEC tournament semifinals. And I would strongly advise never asking a Stanford or Vandy fan, "Hey, do you remember that time you ALMOST beat Tennessee?"

Bottom line is, The Ghost gets around. And since Summitt shows no signs of slowing down, that might be one busy ghost for a lot longer.

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