April 02, 2004

This year's Lady Vols in Final Four because of Summitt

The years and victories run together for her now. That happens when you've been coaching this long and winning this routinely.

Upon reflection — if/when she ever takes time to reflect — don't be surprised if Pat Summitt looks back on this as her best coaching job in 30 years of directing Tennessee's Lady Vols.

Indeed, 2003-04 has been one for the books for a coach who has co-written two of them. Summitt has steered UT to a 15th Women's Final Four in what was supposed to be a down year. Stop me if you've heard it before. Summitt rebuilds quicker than a colony of ants after a thunderstorm.

After losing to UConn in the national championship game last season, the Lady Vols lost their best inside player (Gwen Jackson) and best outside player (Kara Lawson) to graduation. On Jan. 24, junior point guard Loree Moore, a trend-setter on offense and defense, suffered a season-ending knee injury.

But neither Summitt nor her players flinched. In recent games, the Lady Vols have played survivalist basketball, somehow making it to yet another Final Four with their wits. Yes, there is considerable talent on hand, but not in the customary truckloads.

The Lady Vols are making do with a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Shyra Ely is the most decorated player but isn't making any first-team all-America lists. This is victory by committee.

Sure, Summitt and the Lady Vols benefited from an absurd ruling by officials in their regional semifinal victory over Baylor.

Instead of sending the game into overtime, the refs consulted a TV replay and somehow decided that two-tenths of a second should be put back on the clock, allowing Tasha Butts to win the game at the foul line.

Only two coaches in the women's game, Summitt and UConn's Geno Auriemma, would get such a call. Sometime, we have found, a coach's reputation supersedes the officials' sound judgment. If so, Pat Summitt earned the benefit of this doubt.

Her victory total stands at 851 … and counting. She is the third-winningest college basketball coach in history — men's or women's. This season, she passed Clarence ''Big House'' Gaines and Jim Phelan on the all-time list, and now trails only Adolph Rupp (876 wins in 41 seasons) and Dean Smith (879 wins in 36 seasons).

If she has another 30-win season — and there have been 12 on her watch — Summitt will pass Smith and move into first place. Considering her age (51) and level of drive (think: Ferrari 575M on the autobahn), it is altogether likely that she will win 1,000 college basketball games.

And she shows no signs of slowing down. She has outlasted four UT presidents, two athletics directors, five men's basketball coaches and four UT beat writers for The Tennessean.

I mention the latter because it was in 1989 that Pat Summitt dropped her businesslike approach to her sport when she was informed, by phone, that one-time UT beat writer F.M. Williams had died. Williams had befriended her during a period when the women's game was struggling through growing pains and the two had become close friends.

Upon hearing of his death, Pat Summitt cried openly for more than a minute before asking if she could call back. Several minutes later, she spoke eloquently of Williams' contributions to women's basketball at a time when the wide majority of male journalists dodged any mention of the sport.

Then as now, she could be counted upon to make the right call.

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