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 today in the NCAA tournament.
Tennessee (24-8) drew the second seed in the Des Moines, Iowa, regional and a first-round matchup with 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 said she’s “fortunate” to play for a 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,” 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. 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. Today, 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.”