WASHINGTON — The Lady Vols basketball team visited the White House on Tuesday to be feted for their back-to-back national championships, but coach Pat Summitt was looking forward more than backward.
Four of the five starters in the Lady Vols’ march to the title, all WNBA draft picks led by All-American Candace Parker, couldn’t make the ceremony. Their professional teams played games Tuesday night.
But their former teammates, mostly underclassmen who will lead next year’s young squad, got to soak in a day of congratulations from President George Bush and the Tennessee congressional delegation.
“I think they can look around the table and know they have big shoes to fill,” Summitt said. “There’s high expectations at Tennessee, no matter who graduates. With a group of freshmen coming in — six of them, who are going to be very young — I think they understand they’ll have to set the example every day.”
The President honored the Lady Vols at a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, along with 19 other collegiate championship teams, including the Georgia men’s tennis and women’s gymnastics squads.
“It’s hard to become a champ, and that’s why we love to honor people here at the White House when you become one,” Bush said. “One of the things I tell people is, is that if you work hard and become a repeat champion, I look forward to welcoming you back to the White House. However, this time it’s not going to work. My eligibility has run out.”
Earlier Tuesday, the Tennessee congressional delegation celebrated the Lady Vols’ back-to-back championships at a luncheon.
“I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but we just want to make this an annual event,” said Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., who represents Knoxville.
Sophomore Vicki Baugh, who tore her ACL in the NCAA tournament final against Stanford, said the team was excited to visit the White House.
“It’s great to be here,” she said. “All along, we said we wanted to get here, so this is just a great experience.”
This past season’s team went 36-2, capping off their championship season with a 64-48 win over Stanford.
The Lady Vols were led by a talented veteran core that included Parker, who was taken by the Los Angeles Sparks first overall in April’s WNBA draft; fellow first-rounder Alexis Hornbuckle, now with the Detroit Shock; and second-round picks Shannon Bobbitt of the Sparks and Nicky Anosike of the Minnesota Lynx.
“I think that the players we had recruited in that class, in particular with Nicki and Alexis and Candace, they wanted to leave their legacy at UT in a significant way,” Summitt said. “They talked about it (and said), ‘We were too highly touted coming out of high school not to win two championships.’”
Alberta Auguste, also a graduating senior and a key starter during the postseason, said the second championship was extra rewarding given that the Lady Vols played with a target on their collective back all season.
“Every opponent was after us,” said Auguste, who was drafted in the third round by the New York Liberty but released after training camp. “Everybody knew we were the national champions and played harder against us. We knew what was at stake and how hard it would be to get back to the Final Four.”
Next year’s returners will include just one senior (forward/center Alex Fuller), one redshirt sophomore, three true sophomores and a redshirt freshman.
The Lady Vols also will welcome the six freshmen widely hailed as the nation’s top recruiting class.
“I think we might struggle a bit in the beginning, but once we get our chemistry together, I think we’ll be fine,” said Baugh, who should be fully recovered from her injury by fall. “We lost so many seniors, and we’re basically starting as a whole new team, so we’ll really need to get to know each other and know what we can do on the court.”
Bush is the fourth president Summitt has met in her 34-year career that includes an Olympic gold medal and eight national titles at Tennessee.
She met Jimmy Carter in 1980 as coach of the Olympic team, which missed the games in Moscow due to the U.S. boycott. She has also met Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush with Lady Vols trips.
“Any time you have an opportunity to win the national championship and go to the White House and meet the president, that puts the stamp of approval on what we accomplished,” said Summitt, the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history. “It’s truly a tremendous opportunity for these young women to get to meet the President of the United States.”