Lady Vols overcome subpar regular season for '97 title

Updated: March 31, 2006, 12:17 AM ET
By Melanie Jackson | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: As the NCAA celebrates its 25th season of women's basketball, ESPN and ESPN.com count down the top 25 moments of NCAA Tournament history. Here, we continue the countdown with memorable NCAA moment No. 10, Tennessee's improbable run to the 1997 national title after losing 10 regular-season games.

pat summitt
Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols didn't let 10 regular-season losses dissuade them.

They were the defending NCAA champions, and with Chamique Holdsclaw on board for her sophomore season, the Lady Vols had high hopes for the 1996-97 season.

But Tennessee quickly learned that the season would be more of an emotional roller-coaster ride than magical.

Just four games in, the Lady Vols suffered their first loss, 66-64, at Louisiana Tech. Five games later, they dropped back-to-back contests -- which was just as rare then as it is now for Pat Summitt's teams -- to Georgia and Stanford. When it happened again in early January, in losses to Connecticut and Old Dominion, Tennessee fell to 11-6 overall -- and out of the top 10 rankings for the first time since 1986.

Over the final month and a half of the regular season, Tennessee made more history -- and not the kind you brag about. The Lady Vols lost to Arkansas and Florida for the first time in program history, dropped another pair of back-to-back games and, for the first time, failed to qualify for a bye in the opening round of the SEC tournament, which they were eliminated from in the semifinals.

But, amazingly, it was their last loss of the season.

After losing 10 regular-season games -- Tennessee's most defeats in a season in 11 years -- the third-seeded Lady Vols beat their first four NCAA Tournament foes, including a 10-point win over previously undefeated and top-seeded Connecticut in the Elite Eight, by an average of 20 points.

Just reaching the Final Four in Cincinnati was an accomplishment, and even something Summitt wasn't expecting. As noted in Sports Illustrated that year, Summitt "usually buys her Final Four outfit by January, [but] didn't make this year's purchase until March 25," the day after the win over UConn. "Shopping had to be put on hold as the team negotiated an unfamiliar landscape of injuries and individual and collective funks."

But everything came together at the right time, though Tennessee still was far from the favorite. No. 1 seed Stanford, which faced Old Dominion in the other national semifinal, had won 32 straight games. The Lady Monarchs, another 1-seed, were 29-1.

While Tennessee had an easy time in its Final Four matchup against sixth-seeded Notre Dame, winning 80-66, ODU came from behind and needed overtime to eliminate Stanford, 83-82.

The next day, on March 30, 1997, Tennessee and Old Dominion clashed for the second time that season. Nearly three months earlier, ODU had scored an 83-72 win at home over the Lady Vols. But their NCAA title game meeting would end differently.

Tennessee raced to a 15-point lead, only to fall behind with 9 minutes to play as ODU rallied for a 44-43 advantage. That's when Chamique Holdsclaw heated up and the Lady Monarchs seemed to lose a little steam. ODU extended the lead to two points, 49-47, before Holdsclaw ignited the Lady Vols on a 12-2 run that sealed it. In the end, Tennessee captured the program's fifth national title with a 68-59 win.

"Of all our runs to a championship, this one is really the most unexpected," Summitt said. "It came from a team with tremendous heart and desire."

The Lady Vols became the second team in women's NCAA history to win two straight titles, the first team with more than six losses to win the championship and helped Summitt pass Kentucky's Adolph Rupp for second place for most career NCAA titles.

Holdsclaw was a unanimous choice for the Final Four most outstanding player honor, tallying 24 points on 11-for-20 shooting and seven rebounds. Another sophomore, guard Kellie Jolly, set a championship game-record with 11 assists and a Final Four-record 20 dishes.

Summitt wound up in a white pantsuit that day. And to celebrate their win, the Lady Vols wound up doing the long-forgotten centipede on their bellies across the court, which to this day is almost as memorable as Tennessee overcoming 10 losses to win it all.

Click here to see when the next memorable moment will air in our countdown.

Melanie Jackson | email

Women's Basketball
Melanie Jackson is ESPN.com's women's basketball editor.

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