Second chances give Lady Vols seventh title
CLEVELAND -- No coach in the history of women's basketball has more experience than Pat Summitt when it comes to cutting down the net after a national championship. But after capturing her seventh title on Tuesday night, Tennessee's legendary coach should have considered trading in the scissors for a screwdriver and taking the entire rim with her back to Knoxville.
After all, the cylinder had as much to do with the 59-46 win as the net it supported. And it already comes in orange.
Candace Parker cemented her place as one of the college game's greatest players (she'll have at least one more season to work on staking her claim as the best of all time after reaffirming her intentions to return next season after the game) with a team-high 17 points and most outstanding player honors in the Final Four.
And yet as Parker, Alexis Hornbuckle, Alberta Auguste and Dominique Redding playfully argued over who got to hold the ball as the final seconds ticked off the clock (Redding, one of the team's two seniors, received the honor of lobbing the ball off the scoreboard high above the court), it was hard to deny that the victory had everything to do with the willingness of the team assembled around Parker to do the dirty work on the boards.
"You can have the greatest running back in the world and the greatest quarterback," Tennessee assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "But if you ain't got some guy that's mean and nasty and willing to pump snot out of somebody's nose by hitting them hard, you ain't going to have a good football team. And that's what rebounding is the equivalent of in basketball."
And a team Summitt once claimed might rank as her worst rebounding edition ever was at its best Tuesday night when the ball careened off the rim following a missed shot.
"I've always believed that obviously rebounding wins championships," Summitt said. "And tonight, I think we saw the effort on the board was significant in this win."
The Lady Vols controlled the boards throughout the game, especially during the opening 20 minutes. Led by Nicky Anosike's 16 rebounds, they finished with eight more total rebounds than the Scarlet Knights and 24 offensive rebounds -- the fourth time this season they had at least that many on the offensive glass.
It was a definitive return to the defense and rebounding long associated with Summitt's brand of basketball but seen only in spurts in recent seasons.
"I think early on, this team, we didn't have it to the level that we have it now," Lockwood said of the rebounding and defense historically associated with Tennessee. "We've covered some ground, and the credit is theirs. They've embraced it. There have been a couple of meetings where [Summitt] has really hammered rebounding and toughness, and that we weren't as tough as we needed to be and we weren't as tenacious rebounding as we needed to be. And rather than get defensive and rather than try to place blame somewhere else, this team really embraced the responsibility that it takes to be a championship team."
Off a tip from Hornbuckle's active hands, Anosike pulled down Tennessee's first offensive board just 14 seconds into the title tilt. Seconds later, the Lady Vols also had their first second-chance points when Shannon Bobbitt, in what became her trademark move in the postseason, calmly sank a wide-open 3-pointer from the wing.
By the end of the first half, the Lady Vols had 12 offensive rebounds, 13 second-chance points and an 11-point lead, erasing any gains Rutgers might have made after holding Tennessee, a team which shot 50 percent or better in four of six games during the NCAA Tournament, to 37 percent shooting.
|“||We were flirting with being the worst rebounding team ever in Tennessee history. And toward the end, when we got to the SEC tournament and the NCAA Tournament, coach said we had to buckle down and actually win on the boards in every game. That wins championships. Offense sells tickets, defense wins games, but rebounds win championships. ”|
|— Tennessee senior Dominique Redding|
"It breaks your back when you play good defense and then with five seconds to go [we] shoot and we get the rebound and we get a new 30," Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "It's a little bit demoralizing. Rutgers, they play hard on defense and we knew that. And we knew we were going to have to get second and third shots. And that's basically what it boiled down to, because we got more possessions than they did."
The same Rutgers team that had neutralized Duke's Alison Bales and LSU's Sylvia Fowles couldn't control the size Tennessee could put on the court at almost every position other than point guard (and even Bobbitt got in the act with an offensive rebound late in the game).
"Notwithstanding Tennessee was big and all those other things, but they killed us on the boards," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. "And it was a matter of blocking out. We have played against other big people. Blocking out is an effort thing and everybody can do it. When you look at a team as big as that, you have to do it. And we just didn't."
That's exactly what the Lady Volunteers had been working on throughout a season that opened with them averaging just 11.2 offensive rebounds in their first seven games.
"Good teams try to block you out," Lockwood said. "An average team will accept the block out. There are ways that you can combat it. You can spin around, you can step back and slice and get even. So our goal was at least get in the position of 50-50."
The execution on display against the Scarlet Knights was a far cry from the team that heard repeatedly from Summitt that it wasn't tough enough or physical enough early in the season.
"We were flirting with being the worst rebounding team ever in Tennessee history," Redding said, lounging in her locker with the championship trophy and net clutched against her chest. "And toward the end, when we got to the SEC tournament and the NCAA Tournament, coach said we had to buckle down and actually win on the boards in every game. That wins championships. Offense sells tickets, defense wins games, but rebounds win championships."
They did just that on the road to the title game, winning the rebounding margin in the last six games. Tuesday, they didn't quit until the final buzzer.
With just less than three minutes remaining and the Scarlet Knights mounting one final desperate push with seven consecutive points to close the deficit to 50-42, Parker missed a driving layup, only to have Hornbuckle slice into the lane and come away with another offensive rebound. After pulling the ball back out and running off more time, Hornbuckle missed her own driving layup, only to have Parker get the offensive rebound and draw a foul. Two free throws later the lead was back to double digits and the celebration could begin.
Not bad for the worst rebounding team in Summit's tenure in Knoxville.
"She's been saying it to us the whole year," Anosike said. "And I think it's because she knew what would happen in postseason. And we took into account what she said, and it won us a championship."
As the confetti fell from the rafters and a ladder was raised to the rim, there was no doubt the Lady Vols had made the most of their second chance.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.