Commentary

Summitt: '98 squad 'best I ever coached'

Updated: February 28, 2009, 4:48 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Editor's note: While covering the UConn women's perfect run in 2001-02, ESPN.com revisited each of the previous undefeated seasons in women's college basketball history.

Pat Summitt's 1997-98 University of Tennessee women's basketball team had already won two consecutive national titles and had the country's best player, junior forward Chamique Holdsclaw, but no one inside the Lady Vols family really, truly ever imagined a perfect season.

pat summitt
Pat Summitt has guided Tennessee to eight national championships.
"Looking back," Summitt said, "I never had a goal as a coach to have an undefeated season. I didn't think in this program, with the schedule I had constructed, it was a possibility.

"My philosophy is always to play the best competition every year. We took some hard licks in my early years, trying to build our program. There were times when people thought I had lost my mind. But as I reflect on that, it has been instrumental in the success we've had."

Among the teams Tennessee played that year, in chronological order: No. 2 Louisiana Tech, No. 10 Stanford, No. 5 Illinois, No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 25 Arkansas, No. 3 UConn, No. 8 Vanderbilt (twice), No. 12 Florida, No. 17 Georgia, No. 3 Old Dominion, No. 20 Alabama (twice) -- and that was before the NCAA Tournament even began.

"It's hard to believe when I look back at who played us," Summitt said.

Only one team, Alabama, was able to stay within single digits. The Lady Vols hung on 73-66 during the regular season and 67-63 in the SEC finals. The first three games of the NCAAs were all blowouts, but when Tennessee met No. 7 North Carolina in the Mideast Regional final, it looked like the Lady Vols were toast.

"We're down 12 with 7:19 to play," Summitt said, crunching the numbers as if the game had been played the day before. "I knew we'd have one of those, I just hoped we'd survive. Everyone wants to be there (the Final Four). The teams that expect to go, sometimes they don't relax and play their best basketball."

Tamika Catchings, then a freshman and now a player for the Indiana Fever of the WNBA, remembered feeling slightly hysterical.

"This game right here is the only ticket to the Final Four," she said. "Lose the game and it's all over. We went into that (7:19) timeout and (Kellie) Jolly sat on her chair. She was like, 'If we want to win, we've got to start right now. Let's come out and play Tennessee ball.' We dominated the last seven minutes."

Outscoring North Carolina 27-9 in the time remaining, Tennessee won 76-70 and eased into the Final Four in Kansas City. The tough schedule paid off as the Lady Vols cruised, defeating teams they had already beaten handily, Arkansas, 86-58, and Louisiana Tech, 93-75, for their third national championship. Holdsclaw, who swept a dozen player of the year awards, was the MVP of the Final Four.

The final record, 39-0, was the best record ever for a men's or women' s basketball team. Tennessee led the nation in scoring (88.8) and won its games by an incredible margin of 30.1 points -- incredible in light of the brutal schedule that included 17 ranked opponents. The Lady Vols were widely viewed as the best team in women's basketball history.

Summitt won't go quite that far.

"A lot of people argue who had the best team to date," she said. "It's all who you talk to. I'll just say that team was the best pressing, running team that played. The only team that played similarly was the 1986 Texas team. It was man-on-man, run and jump.

"Looking back, that was the best team I've coached."

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.