KNOXVILLE – Covering Tennessee women’s basketball for 31 years afforded me an appreciation for the full scope of the NCAA tournament.
I covered six of the Lady Vols eight national championship runs from the first game’s opening tip to the final strand of the net-cutting celebration. The scope of my beat-writing career also included 12 of their 18 Final Four journeys.
Those numbers tend to obscure another postseason achievement that was equally worthy, namely 27 consecutive trips to the Sweet 16 round.
If this year’s tournament hadn’t been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, the competition would be entering the second weekend.
My experience gave me a greater respect for this juncture, especially the perils posed by an Elite Eight game.
UT coaching legend Pat Summitt often sweated a regional final more than any other tournament game. Didn’t take me long to understand why.
In my first season, the Lady Vols needed a monster performance by All-American Bridgette Gordon to overcome a dangerous Long Beach State team in the East regional final in 1989.
A year later, Dawn Staley and Virginia came of age at UT’s expense in another East Regional final, depriving the Lady Vols of a chance to play in a Final Four on their home court. The 79-75 overtime loss in Norfolk, Va., was perhaps the most painful of Summitt’s 38-year career. More on that later.
In the meantime, here are some other Elite Eight games that stick out in my memory:
Glory and guts: A 53-45 victory over Texas A&M in the 2008 Midwest Regional final offered a full accounting of All-American Candace Parker.
I’ve never seen a better offensive performance than the 6-foot-5 forward’s first-half display. She combined her considerable skills with her underappreciated basketball IQ to score 16 consecutive points at one point.
Then I never saw a gutsier effort after she suffered a separated shoulder and came back to top of her 26 points.
She never was better. Jimmy Delaney, the Lady Vols’ director of marketing and promotions, rose to the occasion, too. He rummaged through the undercarriage of the VIP bus at halftime to find UT guard Alberta Auguste’s spare shoulder sleeve, which Parker wore in the second half.
“I was never so happy to dig through dirty laundry in my life,” he said.
Choice of comebacks: Tennessee’s run of three consecutive championships during the second half of the 1990s wouldn’t have happened without two memorable second-half comebacks.
After reviewing both rallies, I’d argue that UT’s 12-point comeback against North Carolina in the 1998 Mideast Regional final was greater than 17-point rally to beat Virginia in the East final two years earlier.
That’s saying something, considering UT was playing Virginia on its home court. But that comeback was well underway less than six minutes into the second half.
North Carolina, meanwhile, was a more formidable opponent. Chanel Wright and Tracy Reid combined to score 41 points. Furthermore, UT’s rally unfolded in the final seven-plus minutes.
Since the game started late, and deadline was looming, I remember composing the lead for a story about a loss before clearing my computer screen. Guess I could say that the Lady Vols edited me. It’s the only time I recall that happening.
Speaking of painful: The feeling after a 69-63 upset loss to Duke in the 1999 East Regional final recalled Norfolk. Yet it was different.
The loss ended Tennessee’s run of three consecutive championships. In this case, Summitt hurt more for seniors Chamique Holdsclaw and Kellie Jolly. Holdsclaw cried on Summitt’s shoulder after tying her season low with eight points and shooting 2 for 18 from the floor.
I marveled at Holdsclaw’s productivity throughout her career. It seemed as if he had 12 points just by pulling on her uniform. She was so productive that I don’t remember her for that final game.
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who covered University of Tennessee athletics from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.