Sunday, November 04, 2007

Ever-persistent Summitt, Tennessee ready for title defense

As we enter this year with Tennessee as preseason No. 1, let's go back several months. To one of those moments that only happens in corny movies … or when you're at a program like Tennessee.

Last April, the Orange Crush seemed about to get crushed itself … again. Tennessee was in yet another Final Four, but folks have long ago stopped really "celebrating" such things in Knoxville.

This was going to be another so-called "disappointment." North Carolina was leading the Tennessee by 12 points in the second half of the national semifinal. Coach Pat Summitt called a time out with just more than eight minutes left.

"I went to the huddle, and I screamed at the top of my lungs, 'We're not leaving here without a national championship!" Summitt said recently, reflecting back on that pivotal moment. "Then I said, 'Can we make a stop?' Because I thought we had really broken down defensively."

That's when Candace Parker, the national player of the year, asked her teammates, "Can we make five consecutive stops?"

Summitt said that is what's called the "persistence drill" that Tennessee does almost daily in practice: get five stops in a row. That's really what sports comes down to so often isn't it? When players remember, "Hey, let's just do what we do in practice!"

It's not so easy, of course, to translate that single-minded objective in a practice setting to being on your sport's biggest stage with so much at stake. But it's exactly what Summitt's players did.

"Right then is when everyone took ownership," Summitt said. "We had seven consecutive stops."

North Carolina's offense dried up, the Tar Heels' fouls piled up, and Tennessee cleaned up. Then it was on to a championship game with Rutgers for which Summitt gave her team so much confidence going in that the Scarlet Knights were all but running uphill on court.

Summitt ended up with another NCAA title -- "Seventh Heaven" as it's referred to at Tennessee -- and, sure, that took a season-long effort to achieve.

Yet it was that one absolutely critical juncture with everything hanging in the balance when Summitt said exactly the right thing … and had the right players to hear it.


Now, plenty of coaches could scream this (or many other things) at the "top of their lungs" … and the result would not be the same. And in fact, no amount of screaming anything had worked for Tennessee in terms of winning the title since 1998.

Parker is, obviously, a huge element to what was different in 2007: a player so talented that normal glowing adjectives seem stale when used to describe her. Tennessee couldn't have won the championship without Parker, no question.

Yet what got Tennessee title No. 7 was that every piece came together right when it needed to on both nights at the Final Four in Cleveland. Parker was magnificent. But also, Shannon Bobbitt hit critical 3-pointers and was a defensive spark plug. Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle rebounded very well from the post and guard spots, respectively. Both more than carried their weight on defense, as did everyone else once they hunkered down.

That blue-collar team effort was critical. Because while Parker was the top player at the Final Four, overall Tennessee wasn't clearly superior across the board to North Carolina or Rutgers last season. Tennessee had lost at North Carolina and at home to Duke during the regular season, then to LSU (before the Pokey Chatman mess publicly exploded) in the SEC tournament semifinals.

Things like that happen in the SEC tournament, which is always a collection of pretty good to extremely good teams, but this one shook up Tennessee. In a productive way.

"Sometimes you need to lose to find out the personality of your team," Anosike said. "We had won a lot of games in a row, and we probably felt like we could just step on the court and win. It can be easy to get complacent, but that game was really a reality check. We realized it doesn't matter who's on the court; we had to work to win."

Summitt said Tennessee had its best practices of the season after the LSU loss. Then it worked to Tennessee's advantage that in the Final Four, there was such eerie similarity to the end of the previous season.

Tennessee and North Carolina also had matched up in Cleveland in the 2006 tournament. That game was a regional final, and Tennessee lost.

Anosike said what went through her mind during the aforementioned timeout in the 2007 national semifinal was, "Let's do whatever we have to do so we don't have to end up like last season: losing on the exact same floor to the exact same team."

Then before the championship game with Rutgers, Summitt had a feeling of calm that really only comes when you've "been there and done that" before. She knew that Rutgers was going to feel a lot of pressure to get coach C. Vivian Stringer her first NCAA title. And it was clear in the remarks Stringer made after the loss that she had felt that pressure as well and did not alleviate it in her players.

Summitt has felt excessive pressure to the point of it being counter-productive in past Final Fours -- even after she'd won a few titles. What was different this time was that she didn't feel that way.

Then when it was over, and she'd ended the (cough) drought for Tennessee -- which hadn't won the NCAA title since 1998 -- what Summitt took away from 2007 was that it was really a blast to coach her team.

"I didn't celebrate this one any more than any other championship," Summitt said. "I think, honestly, the first one [1987] was the most gratifying, because we'd been to seven Final Fours and four title games before we won it.

"But this one was great in terms of our personnel. I loved my coaching staff. And the previous team [in 2005-2006] really had not been the most enjoyable group. I don't think they understood how important it was for them to all be on the same page every day, every possession, all the time. And we had some injuries as well, which really hurt us.

"After that year, they decided, 'We're going to do this.' Watching that was gratifying, particularly Nicky, Alexis and Candace stepping up their leadership. I was proud for them."

Those three players are back, as is fellow starter Bobbitt. Tennessee lost starter Sidney Spencer, who made an impact with the Los Angeles Sparks this summer, and reserve Dominique Redding.

Tennessee has another alliteratively named "Sydney" (different spelling) in Sydney Smallbone among its four freshmen. She's a 5-foot-10 guard; the others are 6-4 center Vicki Baugh, 6-foot wing player Angie Bjorklund and 6-6 center Kelley Cain.

"All four have a chance to contribute," Summitt said. "I think right now, the two freshmen that have really fit in the quickest and seem to be very comfortable are Vicki and Angie.

"And Alexis is a natural leader, which I see even more right now. She has done a great job with these incoming players, helping to teach them and being really positive with them. Which is important with the transition they have to make to the college game. She's been terrific."

Summitt acknowledged, though, that the senior Hornbuckle needs to score more consistently this season.

"She did not shoot the ball well in the [NCAA] tournament," Summitt said, adding with a little chuckle, "I've told her we won in spite of her offense. She worked hard in the offseason on her offensive game."

Ah, yes, the offseason … there was that little dust-up, if you will, about Tennessee's schedule and some team that Summitt decided not to play this year. It seemed to raise quite a fuss, especially up in the Northeast.

In all seriousness, Summitt has not said specifically why she ended the most famous rivalry in women's hoops: the series with Connecticut.

Huskies coach Geno Auriemma told the Hartford Courant that, "I think she should just come out and say she's not playing us because she hates my guts."

Naturally, Summitt is never going to publicly say any such thing.

"I had my reasons, and I only shared them with Geno," Summitt said. "And that's pretty much all I've said."

Summitt took a lot of heat from fans and media, and she was expecting most of that. Still, the extreme to which she was criticized by some was absurd. Disagreeing with the decision and feeling it's a loss for the sport is one thing. To accuse Summitt of not caring about women's hoops as a whole is nonsensical and ignores Tennessee's history of being willing to play any and every other program that elevates itself in the sport.

"I did what I felt I needed to do," Summitt said. "I was a little surprised at how strongly some people responded and some of the things I read. But I didn't spend any time thinking, 'Maybe I shouldn't have done this. Why are they saying this?' I knew it was not going to be a popular decision."

Speaking of unpopular decisions, it seems like Parker will make one that will disappoint Tennessee fans when this season ends. Despite being a junior (she redshirted the 2004-2005 season with a knee injury) she'll be eligible for the WNBA draft and could join Spencer (and Lisa Leslie) in Los Angeles.

Because of her academic status, Parker also could have declared for the draft last spring. Summitt said during last season that she really didn't discuss the "leaving early" issue much with Parker, and it's the same way now.

"I want Candace to just enjoy the moment," Summitt said. "I think the feeling is that this is her last year -- and if she can arrive at that decision, she's got a lot of things going on. With the WNBA, and with USA Basketball, wanting to make that Olympic team next summer. The main thing I want her to do is what's best for her."

She'd like for Parker to experience another championship first, and Summitt said she has not had to do any special motivation to prepare this squad for its the title defense. The players, taking Summitt's lead, are thinking about another mountain to scale.

The "persistence drill" got them through the most treacherous part of the climb last year. It got them seven stops in a row.

And when you think about it, Summitt has been doing her own "persistence drill" for decades now. Tennessee's got seven titles to show for it.

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