KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The ceiling at Thompson-Boling Arena would be crowded if the Tennessee Lady Vols hung a banner for all their trips to the Final Four.
There already are six national title banners squeezed up there, and coach Pat Summitt would like to make room for another.
But as she prepares for her 16th Final Four, Summitt still believes that just making the national semifinal is a great accomplishment — no matter whether the Lady Vols win or lose.
"I'm proud of the teams that have been there and played in championship games and just got us to the Final Four. That's no easy task," she said Thursday. "I think sometimes when you're in the role we're in, people think if you don't win a championship you've somehow failed. That's not true."
The Lady Vols (30-4) face Michigan State (32-3) in the national semifinals Sunday, while LSU and Baylor meet in the other game.
Tennessee last won it all in 1998, but has come up emptyhanded in four trips to the Final Four since then, losing to Connecticut in the title or semifinal game each time.
"There's no shame to playing in a national championship game and losing to a team that has really been dominant for the last three years like a Connecticut," Summitt said. "I think you have to accept it for what it is and then try to keep getting back there. Because if you get back there enough times, hopefully you put yourself in a position to win."
This time, Connecticut didn't reach the Final Four, and Summitt is by far the most experienced coach going to Indianapolis. Michigan State's Joanne P. McCallie and Baylor's Kim Mulkey-Robertson are making their first trips while LSU's Pokey Chatman is returning for a second straight year.
Summitt, who broke Dean Smith's NCAA record for career wins in the second round, believes there is some advantage to being a Final Four veteran. Her three seniors — Shyra Ely, Loree Moore and Brittany Jackson — are making their fourth trip.
"As a team and a coach that's been there, you do know what to expect, but every trip for me has been different as I'm sure it has for the players," Summitt said.
She says it is important to manage time well, not get distracted by family or friends and still have fun.
McCallie has been to Final Fours before when she was an assistant at Auburn, and her staff includes former Lady Vols assistant coach Al Brown and former Lady Vols player Semeka Randall.
McCallie credits Summitt with helping her get on the way toward becoming a head coach. While at Auburn, McCallie used Summitt as one of her references when she applied for the head coaching job at Maine, which she held before going to Michigan State.
"I think Pat is a terrific person, a fabulous coach, and I just think what she's done for women's basketball — it's so hard to talk about because it's just so incredible and will never be duplicated," McCallie said.
Summitt took the Lady Vols to the Final Four in 1982, 1984 and 1986, losing to Louisiana Tech and twice to Southern California, before winning a national championship in 1987 by finally beating Louisiana Tech.
She learned some important lessons each time to help the team be more prepared.
One lesson was "get a few more players if you want to beat the people that have been beating you," Summitt said.
The other was dealing with open practices. Fans are allowed to watch some of the practices, which end up being more like spectacles than real drills. Summitt now has her team work on strategy in closed practices away from the Final Four arena either before or after the open practices. She learned that lesson in 1986 when Tennessee lost in the semifinals.
"The next day when we lost to Southern Cal and it was over I remember Dawn Marsh saying to me, 'You know coach, my legs were tired,'" she said. "I just thought I will never make that mistake again. It will be all about us and not about what's going on around us. Actually I thought that helped us a lot."