KNOXVILLE — Minutes before tip-off, she walked purposefully toward the Tennessee bench, her arrival accompanied by the kind of applause and adoration normally reserved for football coaches and star quarterbacks in Big Orange Country.
This night belonged to Pat Summitt.
By evening's end, Summitt had secured career victory No. 880, the most ever by an NCAA basketball coach. Dean Smith won 879 games in 36 seasons at North Carolina. Smith retired in 1997.
After the 75-54 victory over Purdue in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, UT officials announced that the court at Thompson-Boling Arena had been named The Summitt in her honor.
A tearful Summitt waved to the crowd after the announcement and hugged her mother, Hazel Head.
''She's always worked hard to be the best at everything she did,'' Head said. ''I'm proud of her. We're all proud of her.''
At a press conference later, Summitt said the naming of the court for her was ''an incredible honor for me personally.''
''I never expected anything like that.''
Several of Summitt's former players, including four members of her first Lady Vols team from the 1974-75 season, were in the house for the historic game.
A total of 13,188 attended the 880th victory of Summitt's coaching career. That is in marked contrast to win No. 1 on Jan. 10, 1975. On that day, the Lady Vols beat Middle Tennessee State 69-32 at UT's Alumni Gym in front of a crowd listed at 53.
Clearly, Summitt has been involved in a growth spurt in women's basketball in general and Lady Vols ball in particular.
''I've got a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old at home and both of them think Pat Summitt is the biggest name in sports,'' Jeanette Hurst of Jefferson City, Tenn., said as she entered the arena last night.
''They want to grow up and play for the Lady Vols. That's their dream. There are a lot of little girls who feel the same way, and I think Pat is the reason for that.''
Even in the heart of Big Orange Country, where football dominates most sports conversations, the Lady Vols' game was the hot topic of the day.
Many of the callers to the popular SportsTalk radio show on WNOX-AM yesterday focused on Summitt's attempt to pass Smith in total victories.
Some in the national media have argued that the event was contrived.
Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser suggested on the ESPN show Pardon The Interruption that women's basketball and men's basketball are different sports, and thus the victory totals of Summitt and Smith belong in different categories.
But there is no argument that the quest for victory No. 880 has drawn attention to women's basketball at a time when the nation usually is fixated on the men's version of March Madness.
''People hear about all of Pat's wins and that gets them interested in the women's game,'' said LSU Coach Pokey Chatman, whose team beat Arizona in last night's first game at Thompson-Boling Arena. ''Anything that brings in more fans and creates more interest is good for our sport. We all owe Pat a lot for what she has done to bring more fans to our game.''