Emotion is vital in any sport, to athletes, coaches and fans alike, and emotions were definitely high Sunday night as the Lady Vols won their 16th SEC tournament, defeating the LSU Lady Tigers 70-58.
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who even casually follows women’s college basketball that Coach Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols would leave Nashville with a trophy, but it was anything but business as usual for the team or the fans. Last night’s win was undoubtedly for Pat Summitt. It was evident on the faces of the players, the assistant coaches and the hundreds of fans who stood and sang Rocky Top, many wearing the “We Back Pat” shirts.
It has been a long year for the Lady Vols basketball program. The burning determination to win this season has been there from the start regardless of some halting stops and starts along the way. For these players Pat Summit is not just a basketball icon, the winningest coach in NCAA history but a beloved coach who has taught them and all of us a little bit about grace under pressure. She has shown us the courage it takes to face down demons all while under the microscope of the media and never leaving the sidelines.
While winning may be nothing new for this Coach, this particular win may have been just a little more poignant than some of the past. Last night was an opportunity for Pat Summitt to start “cutting down nets.”
After her diagnosis with early onset dementia last August, Coach Summitt made it clear that she was not considering retirement and that she was looking forward to winning more championships. According to early projections at this point the Lady Vols are expected be seeded No. 2 in the upcoming NCAA tourney and will likely face the Baylor Bears and powerhouse player Brittany Griner.
Senior Glory Johnson walked away as the tourney MVP and summed it up succinctly when she commented, "It's one thing doing it for ourselves, our families, our fans, for God, but Pat has been through so much. We want to let her know we're willing to work for her, to go to bat for her."
Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen and the rest of the seniors pulled together during the SEC tournament, leading the team in each game en route to the tournament title. Johnson had 20 points and 11 rebounds, Stricklen added 16 points and senior Vicki Baugh added 10 points against LSU.
LSU, which upset regular-season champion Kentucky to reach its ninth championship game, missed a shot to win its third tournament title in coach Nikki Caldwell’s first season. Caldwell, a native of Oak Ridge, TN, won six titles as a Tennessee player and assistant coach, but no former Lady Vols player has ever beaten Coach Summitt.
“I wouldn’t be the coach that I am right now without that competitive spirit by playing at Tennessee,” Caldwell said. “I’m going to make sure our team is prepared to beat not just Tennessee but anybody that steps up in front of us. Like I told them, they stood toe-to-toe with a giant today.”
The Lady Tigers outshot Tennessee 43.8 percent to 42.3 percent, but the Lady Vols held a 39-23 rebounding advantage and went 21 for 24 at the free-throw line.
The game ended with the crowd chanting “We Love Pat” and it was a moment that framed the extraordinary circumstances under which this team has played all season. Pat Summitt climbed the ladder and snipped down the net, twirling it over her head to the applause of the mostly orange clad crowd and her players. Despite the obstacles that face her and her team in the upcoming tourney and into the future, it was easy to see how Sunday night’s win was bigger than basketball. It was a testament to a lifetime of success and a very brave woman who continues to inspire every single day.