Western Carolina won the Southern Conference Tournament and earned the school's first trip to the distaff Big Dance. They were led there by former Lady Vol point guard, Kellie Jolly Harper, who is now the Catamounts' coach.
"I can tell you that we are excited to be here," Harper said. "This is our first trip to the NCAA Tournament, and we are going to have a lot of fun. We want to enjoy this time because it is an honor to be in the NCAA Tournament."
Summitt has two former players in Knoxville this weekend on different teams – Harper at Western Carolina and Bridgette Gordon, an assistant coach for Stetson.
It is those players and all the ones before and after them that Summitt hearkens when asked about the record.
"I haven't read where I scored a point," said Summitt, who again credited the University of Tennessee for hiring her at such a young age (22), the first three volunteer assistants in Sylvia Rhyne Hatchell (now at North Carolina), Sharon Fanning (now at Mississippi State) and Judy Wilkins Rose (now the athletic director at UNC-Charlotte), and the UT administration for the support over the years. "And the players – it's all about the players. There have been more Olympians and All-Americans at Tennessee than any other program.
"And you think about the loyal assistants. You think about Mickie (DeMoss, now at Kentucky) and Holly (Warlick) and now, Nikki Caldwell and Dean Lockwood. It's incredible. When you look at the history, you look at the faces. The people got it done."
Before Summitt can tie any records – a win would set up the record breaker Tuesday night against either New Mexico or Purdue – the Lady Vols must get past Western Carolina. Tennessee has never failed to get to the Sweet 16 in tourney play. Harper knows her team faces nearly incalculable odds.
"I have tried to explain to them what they are going to see," Harper said, referring to UT's size, quickness and Summitt's postseason fire. "The intensity level will be unlike any other they have faced throughout the year. I did this not to scare them and not to worry them, but to prepare them."
The coaching staff tried to pump up the physicality at practice, but "there is no way we can physically simulate Tennessee," Harper said. "We don't have the size, and we don't have the speed. It has been a challenge for the coaching staff about trying to get our point across about what they are going to see on Sunday night."
It sounds like Lori Tanner, who played at Bearden High School in Knoxville, got the message.
"Me being a smaller post, I've been working on how to get my shot blocked and keep going if that happens," Tanner said.
Western Carolina is led by Tanner, a 5'10 senior forward (9.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg); and Jennifer Gardner, a 5'11 senior forward (13.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg). Three other seniors also start: Ki-Ki Glass, a 5'9 guard (3.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.3 apg); Sigita Maleraite, a 6'0 guard (6.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg); and Shaketia Barnes, a 5'9 guard (6.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg).
"It's like any other game," Gardner said about preparing for Tennessee. "We work on our game first. We practice hard, drills and scouting. We'll take it as every other game – to win."
Tennessee also is emphasizing the use of scouting reports. Last year's team made it to the title game – in part, Summitt said – because of their commitment to the report.
"We need to come ready; we need to come focused," said junior center Tye'sha Fluker. "Of course our coaches are going to get us prepared like they always do. We need to use our scouting report defense. Obviously we haven't seen this team so we need to just prepare well and come focused and ready to play."
When asked for her thoughts on Western Carolina, UT senior point guard Loree Moore struck a similar chord.
"Just on going by what the scouting report said and what assistant coach Dean has said to us is that they are a team that can get after it, and they are more a half-court offense, penetrating and getting to the basket, as well as creating for their teammates," Moore said. "We will have to come out and play our style of play of pressure defense and getting up and down the court and the things that we have been working on in preparing ourselves for in this game."
Moore is expected to start tonight along with freshman guard Alexis Hornbuckle and junior Shanna Zolman on the perimeter. Senior Shyra Ely and freshman Nicky Anosike will open up play in the paint. With only nine scholarship players available now because of injury, all four reserves are key for Tennessee, especially senior Brittany Jackson, who like Zolman, can stretch a defense with her long-range shooting.
"The three seniors have done a great job," Summitt said. "From the beginning of the year to now, they have stepped up their game. They have been great teammates. We have put a lot of responsibility on them, maybe more than they had anticipated. They have had a direct influence on this team in the SEC Tournament and the progression of games, this team just got better and better."
Tennessee and Western Carolina held back-to-back practices Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena that were open to the public. The Lady Vols were met with rousing cheers that grew louder during shooting drills as player after player knocked down three-pointers. At the end of the 50-minute session – as the players and a few staff members often do after practice – they heaved some half-court shots.
Assistant coach Nikki Caldwell sank the first one. Then graduate assistant Tasha Butts nailed one. The crowd erupted in cheers for the former players. Then Moore and walk-on Abby Canon drained two half-court shots, and the crowd exploded again.
When Harper took the floor with her team, a chant of "Kellie Kellie" started, and she received a standing ovation from the Catamount and Lady Vol fans. She smiled and waved to the supporters.
Saturday was definitely a day of smiles, but Sunday will be serious. That doesn't mean it won't also be fun.
"It's fun and exciting," Gardner said. "I'm just trying to soak it up right now. It's my senior year, and I'm just enjoying the moment."
For Tennessee's seniors it's another shot on their home floor. The official "Senior Night" was held Feb. 24 for the last regular season home game, but they knew they had at least one more, and hopefully two, at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Ely's parents, Shy-Quon and Jean Ely, missed the February event, because her little brother, Shyron-Quonel, was having his "Senior Night" back home in Indianapolis, and Ely asked them not to miss his tribute.
"I haven't really thought about it, but now that you mention it, it is," Ely said. "It will be better for me because my parents will be able to be here."
"It does," Jackson said when asked if the tournament games feel like senior night. "Whenever we're having senior night, we're like it's not actually the last game. It will definitely be weird Tuesday – not looking ahead or anything – just really being the last game we ever play here. It will be emotional. But we're in a crucial part of the season right now so we can't really think about stuff like that."
Hornbuckle said her goal this season is to hold senior night April 5, the date of the national title game in Indianapolis.
"I consider senior night championship night actually, because senior night is your last game," Hornbuckle said. "Hopefully we won't be having that anytime soon."
"I think we all want a title," Fluker said. "We've got to go out there and do what we need to do to get this championship, because we all want it."
Summitt preaches scouting report defense if the team wants to survive and advance.
"Being aware of using our scouting defense – that's one thing we put a lot of emphasis on this time of year," Summitt said. "We have in the second half of the season, especially SEC teams. Taking the game plan and implementing it and sticking to it, and when you have breakdowns, refocus, go back. It's important that we defend personnel and sets from here on out. Have a good mental approach to what we have to do and then physically get it done."
Summitt's other postseason staples are defense and rebounding. She's gotten through to sophomore forward Dominique Redding.
"Defense and boards," Redding answered when asked what will go through her mind when she steps on the floor Sunday.
Tennessee has the pieces in place to make a serious run at a championship. The Lady Vols are still riding the momentum of winning the SEC tourney for the first time since 2000. They had two solid weeks of practice in which players solidified their roles. They also are shooting very well from the perimeter, and the return of Ely to power forward has galvanized the post play.
"I've always wanted to know what it was like to be on a team that's peaking at the right time," Zolman said. "It seems like we go through all these different games, we did this wrong, we did this right, we did this wrong, we did this wrong, some more things wrong. We never felt like we were playing all the people that could possibly play. Not that we can't get any better than we are right now, but there's no better time to be doing that than right now when we have six games left before the end of the season. I definitely think this is great timing."
Ely also senses that the team is ready.
"I feel good about our path to the Final Four, and I think we are on a mission," Ely said. "I can speak for all three of us seniors in that we have a sense of urgency … these past two weeks as we have prepared to play in the tournament. It has been two long weeks, and we are getting antsy and are ready to play."
Both teams will have to wait a long time today. The game probably won't tip until 9:45 or 9:50 p.m.
"I was just telling coach Harper today that I don't think I've ever played a game after 7 p.m. I'd rather it be 9:45 p.m., than 9:45 a.m.," said Tanner, speaking like a true college student.
STAT WATCH: Western Carolina leads the all-time series against Tennessee, 9-8. Summitt's record is 4-2 with all six meetings coming in her first three seasons in Knoxville. The teams first played in 1968. The last meeting was in 1977, an 85-48 victory by UT. In the Southern Conference tourney title game, Gardner scored 45 points. She now holds two tourney records with 106 total points and 43 rebounds. Tennessee's record on March 20 is 5-0. Ely and Zolman are the leading scorers for Tennessee with 14.5 ppg and 11.9 ppg, respectively. Summitt's record is 85-17 in the NCAA Tournament. She has already passed Dean Smith in one category. He coached in 23 consecutive tourneys from 1975 through 1997. Summitt will coach in her 24th straight tourney today.
"I'm shaking my head at what has happened here. I live in the moment. I don't look at the records." -Summitt, trying to put the record in perspective by both marveling at what her staff and players accomplished and downplaying her own contributions.
"That is definitely in the back of our minds. We definitely want to win this game for coach." -Jackson, on how the players regard the record.
"They don't have to remind me. I am well aware of it. I think it would be icing on the cake. It is kind of like a fairy tale ending." -Ely, on the Final Four being held in her hometown of Indianapolis on April 3-5.
"Being in college, we're kind of used to staying up late. It may be a little different playing a game, but it won't be too bad. We usually hang out pretty late – well, we have curfew." –Gardner, to much laughter as Harper looked at her about hanging out late.
"I've seen them play. I watched coach Harper play when she was here. Lady Vol fan? I enjoyed the games. You can say that." –Tanner, when asked if she grew up a Tennessee fan.
"I spoke with Pat this morning. We were just chitchatting. I just love to sit down and talk to her. I could talk to her all day. It will never get old. She is incredible." –Harper on when she had a chance to see Summitt in person.