Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said the best women's basketball team in the country won the NCAA championship. Auburn Coach Joe Ciampi agreed.
"This is the most athletic team I've ever had," Summitt said Sunday after her Lady Volunteers pulled away in the final nine minutes to beat Southeastern Conference rival Auburn 76-60 for Tennessee's second NCAA title in three years. "I felt like this team was the best team in college basketball starting the year. I wanted to do everything I could to keep it motivated."Ciampi's Lady Tigers lost in the championship game for the second-straight year in the Tacoma Dome.
"If you look at that (Tennessee) roster, it's a great roster," Ciampi said. "It's a `who's who' roster."
The best "who" for the Lady Volunteers was 6-foot senior forward Bridgette Gordon, who scored 27 points and pulled down 11 rebounds. Her 27 points tied the record of the most points in a championship game set by University of Southern California's Cheryl Miller in 1983 and tied by Cynthia Cooper of Southern Cal in 1986.
When Auburn cut Tennessee's eight-point halftime lead to 50-47 with 8:43 left, Summitt told her players during a timeout that they had to start trying harder or they weren't going to win.
"What I had to say had nothing to do with basketball," she said. "I told them I couldn't believe the Auburn players wanted it more than they did. I felt like it was a matter of effort and we weren't intense enough then."
Gordon, who will play professionally in Europe or Japan next year, then went out and hit three straight jumpers in the next two minutes, igniting a 13-2 run for a 63-49 lead.
Summitt said she didn't tell her players specifically to go to Gordon at the critical time, but that it just worked out that way.
"It was in our game plan to go to Bridgette on the baseline if she was open," Summitt said. "We made good decisions after the timeout."
For Gordon and 6-4 senior center Sheila Frost, Tennessee's inside defensive and rebounding force, it was a sweet ending to a highly succcessful collegiate career that saw them win an NCAA championship as sophomores with a victory over Louisiana Tech.
Louisiana Tech beat Tennessee in the semifinals of last year's Final Four.
Tears just weren't for the losers Sunday. Tennessee's players also cried after their 16-point win before 9,758 fans. It was an emotional victory. Tennessee won its final 17 games after losing starting point guard Tonya Edwards with a season-ending knee injury in its only loss of the season, at Texas on Jan. 31.
"Over the years, I've seen a lot of people come in and help me," said Gordon. "A lot of credit has to be given to my teammates. They've made me the player I am.
"I also have to give a great deal of credit to the coaching staff. They gave us a game plan. All we had to do was execute."
"It's a feeling that you can't explain," Frost said. "Not many people have won two national championships."
Next year's NCAA Final Four will switch from Tacoma to the Lady Vols home in Knoxville, Tenn. Summitt is losing three starters - Gordon, Frost and guard Melissa McCray - but she'll have two key players back. Edwards will return from her knee injury.
Dena Head, a freshman who was thrust into Edwards' starting job, scored 19 points, 15 in the second half, and 6-3 forward Daedra Charles, a sophomore, had 11 points off the bench in the second half and 13 in the game.
McCray had 10 assists against Auburn to tie a championship game record set by Kamie Ethridge of Texas in 1986. Frost blocked five shots to equal a title game mark set by Erica Westbrooks of Louisiana Tech last year.
Ciampi, 42, watched his Lady Tigers blow a 14-point second half lead in losing last year's title game 56-54 to Louisiana Tech.