CLEVELAND - Up the ladder she climbed, and when Pat Summitt was within arm’s length of the rim, she clipped the final strand of the net.
In one motion, the coach swung the nylon above her head and pumped her fist in the direction of Tennessee’s hootin’ and hollerin’ fans.
The nine-year drought is over. The Lady Vols reign again.
Showing it was much more than a one-woman team, the Lady Vols captured an elusive seventh national title Tuesday night, beating Rutgers all over the floor in a 59-46 win to reclaim their customary place above all other programs.
“We were a team that didn’t want to be denied,” Summitt said. “We weren’t going to leave here without a championship.”
After five Final Four trips since 1998 ended without an NCAA title trophy, the Lady Vols arrived in the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame intent on leaving with a shiny souvenir. And after beating Rutgers at its own game with a swarming defense and relentless rebounding, the Lady Vols have the rest of the country looking back up at ol’ Rocky Top.
“This,” Candace Parker said, “is why you come to Tennessee.”
Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer had hoped to win her first title, 25 years after her first national championship game appearance. Instead, Summitt won her seventh, 20 years after her first.
Parker scored 17 points to lead the Volunteers (34-3), but the most outstanding player got plenty of help from Shannon Bobbitt and a supporting cast of less-heralded teammates, who too often this season stood around and watched her.
Not this time.
The Lady Vols wanted this title — badly. Almost from the outset, they outworked the young Scarlet Knights (27-9), who waited until the final game of an improbable tournament run to show their inexperience.
Matt Sullivan / Reuters
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt talks to Candace Parker during their victory over Rutgers on Tuesday.
After building a 16-point lead and then holding off a late push by Rutgers, the Lady Vols spent the final 30 seconds dribbling out the clock under the Rutgers basket. When the final horn sounded, Dominique Redding flung the ball high enough to hit the scoreboard as Tennessee’s players, some in tears, danced at midcourt as orange, blue and gold confetti fell on them from above.
“To win anything you have to be a tight team,” Summitt said. “They believed in each other and they all had one goal, to be here in Cleveland and cut down the nets.”
Rutgers, which knocked off No. 1 Duke earlier in the tournament, was attempting to become the third straight first-time winner following Baylor in 2005 and Maryland in 2006.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
“This is not about winning No. 7,” Summitt said. “This is about this team winning their first.”
Parker, too, had been looking to solidify her place among the best to ever wear UT’s orange and white. She knew only a title would fulfill her legacy and allow her to be mentioned along with Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Bridgette Gordon.
She belongs in their class now. And, despite talk she would skip her final two years in Knoxville and turn pro, she’s not going anywhere.
“I’ll be back,” she said. “I’m coming back to Tennessee. I’ll be back wearing orange next year to hang the banner. We left our mark at Tennessee.”
Duke coach said that after winning his second gold medal in men's basketball would be his Team USA finale. That may not be the case anymore.
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