KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The ceiling at Thompson-Boling Arena would be crowded if the Tennessee Lady Vols hung a banner for all their trips to the Final Four.
There already are six national title banners squeezed up there, and coach Pat Summitt would like to make room for another.
But as she prepares for her 16th Final Four, Summitt still believes that just making the national semifinal is a great accomplishment — no matter whether the Lady Vols win or lose.
“I’m proud of the teams that have been there and played in championship games and just got us to the Final Four. That’s no easy task,” she said Thursday. “I think sometimes when you’re in the role we’re in, people think if you don’t win a championship you’ve somehow failed. That’s not true.”
The Lady Vols (30-4) face Michigan State (32-3) in the national semifinals Sunday, while LSU and Baylor meet in the other game.
Tennessee last won it all in 1998, but has come up empty-handed in four trips to the Final Four since then, losing to Connecticut in the title or semifinal game each time.
“There’s no shame to playing in a national championship game and losing to a team that has really been dominant for the last three years like a Connecticut,” Summitt said. “I think you have to accept it for what it is and then try to keep getting back there. Because if you get back there enough times, hopefully you put yourself in a position to win.”
This time, Connecticut didn’t reach the Final Four, and Summitt is by far the most experienced coach going to Indianapolis. Michigan State’s Joanne P. McCallie and Baylor’s Kim Mulkey-Robertson are making their first trips. LSU’s Pokey Chatman is returning for a second straight year.
Summitt, who broke Dean Smith’s NCAA record for career wins in the second round, said there’s an edge to being a Final Four veteran. Her three seniors — Shyra Ely, Loree Moore and Brittany Jackson — are making their fourth trip.
“As a team and a coach that’s been there, you do know what to expect, but every trip for me has been different as I’m sure it has for the players,” Summitt said.
She said it’s important to manage time well, not get distracted by family or friends and still have fun.
McCallie has been to Final Fours before, as an assistant at Auburn. Her staff includes former Lady Vols assistant coach Al Brown and former Lady Vols player Semeka Randall.
McCallie credits Summitt with helping her get on the way toward becoming a head coach. While at Auburn, McCallie used Summitt as one of her references when she applied for the head coaching job at Maine, which she held before going to Michigan State.