Saturday, January 05, 2008

Pat Summitt's traveling road show

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- In contrast to shades of brown and gray marking winter's residue outside that even Bob Ross would have struggled to liven up, layers of lime green and orange inside the Joyce Center complemented the festive atmosphere of a full house on hand Saturday as Tennessee beat host Notre Dame 87-63.

Such is life for Pat Summitt's traveling road show these days.

"Obviously, I enjoy it," Tennessee's coach said. "The hard part would be to get this team to play well when we didn't have a lot of people in the stands. I think they thrive on it."

The Lady Vols have long been famous for pulling in crowds at home to watch the team play on the court that now bears the coach's name, but the fervor doesn't stop at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. In their first six games away from home this season -- three on the road and three at neutral sites -- the Lady Vols played in front of an average of 7,182 fans. On the current trip alone, DePaul and Notre Dame, both ranked at the time, each filled their gym for the first time this season when Tennessee came to town.

Put another way, Tennessee is averaging more fans on the road this season than all but seven other programs did at home last season.

Tennessee drew record crowds on the road before Candace Parker showed up in Knoxville, including a program-best average of 9,208 in 2002-03. But No. 3 is clearly a big part of the reason this year's team is one of the toughest tickets this side of Hannah Montana. Regardless whether this season is Parker's collegiate farewell tour, she draws a level of individual attention matched by only a handful of other female team-sport athletes -- names like Abby Wambach, Cat Osterman and Jennie Finch.

Parker took the court by herself a little less than an hour before Saturday's game to get in a few shots. Before she could have pinned any letters on someone in a game of H-O-R-S-E, a crowd of people two-deep gathered along the baseline to snap pictures or simply marvel. Even if she chooses to view herself simply as an ambassador for the program, she's undeniably the chief diplomat in women's basketball.

"I came to Tennessee because I was one of those people lining the court," Parker said, recalling a childhood trip to DePaul to see Summitt and the Lady Vols. "To be a fan of women's basketball is to be a fan of Tennessee. And that's a responsibility that we have to represent our school. It's something we don't take for granted."

It's not just about good vibes and snapshot memories, either. There is a reason opponents shoot 62 percent from the free-throw line against Tennessee players who can't do anything but stand and watch. And there's a reason beyond offensive and defensive tactics why Tennessee answered a 3-0 Notre Dame lead Saturday with a 30-7 run.

Stopping Parker would be tough enough in front of an empty gym. Doing it with adrenaline and nerves pushing all those coaching instructions out of your head in front of a sea of orange and waves of noise is next to impossible. One breakdown begets another, and all of sudden, Angie Bjorklund finds herself standing alone on the 3-point line often enough to shoot 7-of-9 from behind the arc.

The spectacle that is Tennessee basketball affects things on the court almost as much as it affects the atmosphere in the stands.

"They are a great program and a great team, and I think that we played against that a little bit today," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "I expected that maybe at the beginning of the game we would play like that and loosen up. But I thought that definitely we were intimidated."

Parker said after putting up 20 points, eight rebounds and four assists that she was glad to be heading home, as she called Knoxville, after spending most of a week in the cold and snow of her other home region. But after a one-game homestand against Auburn to open SEC play, it will be back on the road for eight more games.

And everywhere the Lady Vols go, the crowds will follow. For Parker and Tennessee, they're as much a part of life on the road as hotel keys and elevator rides.

"I never want them to take this for granted," Summitt said. "There were the days I started coaching and we had 50-some-odd people come to games, and you could count them all."

You can still tally the crowds pretty easily. Just check the arena capacity.

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