ROSEMONT, Ill. — Pat Summitt isn’t sure she’ll coach Tennessee beyond this season. So if the Lady Volunteers are looking for some extra motivation, there it is.
Not that they really need it.
They’ve missed the Final Four the past three years and will try to break that streak starting Saturday in the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee (24-8) drew the second seed in the Des Moines regional and a first-round matchup with face 15th-seeded Tennessee-Martin, where Summitt played from 1970-74. Beat the Skyhawks (23-8) and the Lady Vols meet seventh-seeded DePaul (22-10) or 10th-seeded Brigham Young (26-6) on Monday.
Fifth-year senior Vicki Baugh says she’s “fortunate” to play for a legendary coach such as Summitt and Tennessee is peaking “just in time” after experiencing some inconsistency this season.
“We’re fortunate to play for such a legendary coach and one of the best coaches — the best coach — in the nation,” center Vicki Baugh said. “We definitely want that for her. All it takes is pride, and all she asks for us is to play 40 minutes and not have to coach effort. That’s one thing, we’ve had to mature and grow up and learn, and I think we’ve done that just in time.”
Tennessee has played in every NCAA tournament and won eight national championships, but a Final Four run is no sure thing for the Lady Vols. They’ve come up short the past three years after winning the 2008 national championship, and the only player left from that team is Baugh, in her fifth year. The rest of the seniors who were part of a heralded recruiting class are still trying to reach a Final Four, something every four-year player at Tennessee before them has done.
That alone would be enough motivation. Summitt’s health just gives them another incentive.
“When we came here, we wanted to play for her and we wanted to win games for her. It’s her program,” said senior Glory Johnson, averaging 14.1 points and 9.4 rebounds. “Now that she’s dealing with this, it’s just more motivation for us.”
The icon with the most victories in NCAA history, Summitt announced in August that she has early onset dementia. She said this week she’s not sure if she’ll coach beyond this season. On Saturday, there’s a chance — however slim — that her career could end against the school where her college basketball career began.
“Not only has she coached — and been a great coach — but she’s been quietly leading a cause for women in sport, and that’s the bigger picture,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno said.
It’s a picture that Tennessee-Martin coach Kevin McMillan sees up close. Many of his players grew up dreaming of playing for Summitt, including his top scorer, Heather Butler.
“I’ve watched them since I was in middle school,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to play against Tennessee. I really have.”
Now, they have a chance to accomplish something unexpected and knock off the mighty Lady Vols. Tennessee is 13-2 all-time against Middle Tennessee State, and the only losses were in 1971 and 1972, during Summitt’s playing career.
This hasn’t been the easiest season for the Lady Vols.
Summitt has delegated more responsibilities to her assistants, with associate head coach Holly Warlick handling interviews, and there have been plenty of ups and downs on the court.
Tennessee got blown out at Stanford and Notre Dame and dropped a program-high three games at home, including a 76-67 loss to Baylor in which the Lady Vols led at halftime. But they seem to be hitting their stride just in time for the NCAAs, with four straight wins after falling in overtime to Arkansas.
They pounded Florida and then breezed to their third straight SEC tournament championship, with double-digit victories over Vanderbilt, South Carolina and LSU. Now, they’re eyeing the biggest prize, but there are obstacles.
DePaul, which Tennessee beat in December at the Maggie Dixon Classic, made the Sweet Sixteen last year. No. 3 seed Delaware looms as a potential opponent in the regional semifinals, and then there’s a possible rematch against top-seeded and unbeaten Baylor with a trip to the Final Four at stake.
All that, of course, is assuming Tennessee gets through the first round.
That’s something it failed to do in 2009 after winning it all the previous season, the only time the Lady Vols got knocked out in the opener. Then came a loss to Baylor in the 2010 regional semifinals and Notre Dame in the regional finals last year.
This time, they’re going against the nation’s top-scoring team — Middle Tennessee State is averaging 81.1 points, with Butler averaging 24.
“Tennessee girls, basketball means something to them,” McMillian said. “It’s meant something to them since they were real little. And the reason it means something in the state is because of Pat and the UT Lady Vols.”