April 05, 2004

Even Rival Must Marvel at Summitt's Latest Run


SHE has no one player of national acclaim. She lost her point guard along the way. Devoid of those twin driving forces of the women's college game, Pat Summitt still made it to the final day of the women's college basketball season last night, her unimposing but resourceful team in tow, the crush of Halloween orange that is the Tennessee fan base close behind.

Trick or treat? Depends on the color of one's crusade, but even a longtime antagonist, the Yankee enemy who tagged Tennessee as the Evil Empire, has to grudgingly admire Summitt's latest climb to the national title game, after a third straight 40-minute scrape for survival and a 52-50 victory over Louisiana State.

"At places like Tennessee, that's what's expected," said Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma, who understands the concept and lived up to his end when Minnesota couldn't quite complete a second-half rally and dropped a 67-58 decision in the second semifinal.

This isn't to depict Tennessee, of all schools, and Summitt, of all coaches, as Cinderella in sweats, or to forget the endgame assist they received against Baylor from bumbling officials in the Round of 16. But three straight 2-point victories obviously speak to a common denominator called coach. Without that aforementioned go-to player or the injured point guard, Loree Moore, Summitt has driven her team to a 31-3 record, in the pursuit of her seventh championship.

"She probably does her best coaching when she doesn't have the superstar with the big ego, when she doesn't have to worry about getting any one player her shots," said Mickie DeMoss, Summitt's former assistant and chief recruiter, who this season became the head coach at Kentucky.

Believe me, Summitt would have taken another scorer, while watching her team stagger into tomorrow in the lowest-scoring Final Four game in history, with 32 percent shooting, and behind a high scorer, Shanna Zolman, with all of 12 points. But the signature move was defensive, a decision to press and double-team Temeka Johnson, the 5-foot-3 L.S.U. point guard, who played hurt and hard, but turned the ball over in traffic, in the backcourt, leading to LaToya Davis's layup with one second left.

"Fortunately, we survived," Summitt said. Soon, she was peeking at the television screen, keeping an eye on Auriemma and UConn, L.S.U. already in the rear-view mirror, like all the others left behind along the road to 15 Final Fours and 11 title games.

Auriemma beat Summitt last year in the final and has won the last two, three of four. He has been to the Final Four an unprecedented five straight years and 7 of 10. But compared to Summitt, who won her first national title in 1977, he's Derek Jeter alongside Lou Gehrig.

How many coaches in all of sports have remained relevant, much less dominant, in four different decades? Summitt won during the pre-N.C.A.A. women's era when the competition was Immaculata and Southern Connecticut (for those in the Nutmeg State who think Auriemma invented the game). She grew along with the women's sports movement, building the three-peat powerhouse around Chamique Holdsclaw in the mid 1990's, climaxing with her last title and an unbeaten season in 1998.

From the outside looking in, it must not be difficult — especially for those threatened by uncompromisingly competitive women — to be tired of seeing Summitt stalking the sideline, year after year.

The obvious exception would be DeMoss, who after 18 years gathered her emotions and left the nest in Knoxville to embrace the chore of putting Kentucky on the map in the conference shadow of the mother of all women's programs.

"I look at Tennessee so much clearer now," DeMoss said. "When you're in that situation for as long as I was, you almost get a tunnel vision. You see Pat's system as the only system, Tennessee as the only standard. Now Pat will say to me, `Oh, we looked terrible last night,' and I'll say, `Pat, did you see the score?' "

By next year, reloaded with a fresh batch of high school all-Americans, Summitt won't have to beg, borrow and steal her way to 52 points anymore. In 50 years, no one will remember how ugly her offense was last night, especially during a 19-point first half, about which Summitt said, "I probably should talk about my lack of ability to coach the first 20 minutes."

The Lady Vols improved enough to make it to the last six seconds of emergency surgery, the extraction of another gut-wrenching victory.

After all the happy parity talk based on hotly contested regionals, the final pits irascible Geno against pit bull Pat, the fourth such occasion in the last 10 years.

As the primary target of Auriemma's pointed needling that is certain to surface today, you know Summitt is burning to deny him the three-peat he covets, with Diana Taurasi on her way out.

"Pat's a Southern country girl who doesn't know how to respond to Geno," Mickie DeMoss said. "I've told her, `Don't take it personally, take it light-hearted.' "

Pat Summitt, light? That'll be the day.

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