The Lady Vols left Indianapolis on Monday and watched, if they wanted to, the title game back home in Knoxville. The seniors, Shyra Ely, Brittany Jackson and Loree Moore, will finish the last month of school before graduating in May and wait to see if the WNBA comes calling. The returning players will soon start individual workouts and then spend the summer honing their skills.
After the game, coach Pat Summitt was profoundly disappointed in the outcome but she still took the time to laud her seniors and praise her freshmen.
"I feel for the team right now," Summitt said outside the locker room. "They're obviously hurting. I told them I'm not going to remember just this game. It's been a great journey with this team, and I've watched them all grow up and get a lot tougher and get a lot better. We're here. It wasn't like it was an easy road. They can all learn from this. Players coming back can learn a lot.
"I was really proud of our two freshmen. They were gutsy and played tough. I thought Loree Moore played tough. These seniors they've been to four Final Fours. They have nothing to be ashamed of. They are winners, and they go out of this program being known for their impact on the success of our program."
Moore's eyes were full of tears in the locker room as she spoke of leaving the team and playing for Summitt, but she can pull off her uniform for the last time knowing she left everything on the floor. She had 11 points, six rebounds, two assists and three steals in 38 minutes of play. Moore's protégé, freshman Alexis Hornbuckle, played 35 minutes and had 16 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals.
"I'm very disappointed in how we played, but at the same time I can't take away my experiences here," Moore said. "I feel like I made sure that I gave it all I've got. You never know when it's going to come up short. I'm very proud of how we all played and fought. I'm looking forward to talking to (Summitt) and telling her how much she means and how much of an impact she's been on my life. I wish I could have actually (won) another championship for her, but I fought as hard as I could."
Ely broke down in tears in the post-game press conference and struggled to maintain her composure in the locker room. Still, she stood before every camera and reporter and tried to explain what happened. Ely scored nine points and had eight rebounds but only made 4-14 shots. She had two turnovers in the final 2:08 that Michigan State converted for points. It was not the ending she imagined in her hometown of Indianapolis.
"Disbelief. Hurting. It seems like nothing else matters," Ely said. "They executed; they got some easy buckets. We were careless with the ball at critical times. Everyone's competitive mindset of wanting to do something to help the team, wanting to make a difference so badly that at times you just made mistakes. Therefore, you have a loss."
Jackson was sure that her senior year would end with a national title. The seniors had already scaled two important peaks – a win over UConn in the regular season and an SEC Tournament championship. A national title would have completed the trifecta.
"We just made mistakes defensively, couldn't score offensively. We couldn't stop them. I don't know," Jackson said as she struggled to find the words to describe what happened. "They came at us, and we just folded and never stopped the run. It happened so fast. We made little mistakes that cost us in the end. I'm definitely not satisfied (with the other achievements). I thought we were going to get one this year. I give them all the credit. They played hard, but we should have won the game."
That sentiment was expressed throughout the locker room. Everyone gave credit to the Spartans and then shook their heads at how the game slipped away. With 14:30 to go in the game, Tennessee was leading 49-33. It should have been a comfortable margin, but at least one player on the bench was nervous.
"It's definitely frustrating because we're on the bench and talking about the lead and how uncomfortable we felt with that lead," said sophomore Sidney Spencer, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in February and watched the game in street clothes. "I just felt so uncomfortable. I knew Michigan State was a comeback team. They came back against Vanderbilt; they came back against Stanford. They don't quit. It's tough because I knew we needed stops, we needed box-outs. I love to rebound. That really frustrates me a lot. Our team played with heart. You can't do anything about it."
The players are left to ponder how they squandered such a lead.
"It's like how could you lose a 16-point lead?" Moore said. "We were having a hard time scoring. We couldn't hit anything. It seems we couldn't get anything on defense as well. A loss is so depressing right now. I wanted so much more for my teammates. They out-worked us today."
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood sat somberly in the locker room and tried to reconstruct what had just happened. Back in the fall, assistant coach Holly Warlick had assessed a practice – former Lady Vol Kara Lawson was on the practice squad – and she noted that the players needed to get some work defending her because they had a tendency to leave three-point shooters open. It turned out to be a fatal flaw. Michigan State's Victoria Lucas-Perry and Lindsay Bowen both got free and buried three-pointers in the second half.
"In a game like that you've got a number of dynamics at work," Lockwood said. "We weren't scoring. We were offensively very ineffective for a stretch. In turn they were highly effective. You had two players during that stretch who were making big three-point shots – Perry and Bowen. Both of those players, highly effective.
"Their inside people were making enough plays that we could not stretch our defense. We had to respect them. We had to play them straight-up. While they hadn't been killing us, they were certainly doing enough damage to occupy and really be a concentration point.
"Now you've got two ends of their offense working – their outside and their inside. At that point if you're not getting big stops, you'd better be scoring. And we were not. If you're not getting stops to hold the fort, you'd better be making some big shots. You'd better be making plays or getting fouled. You look at our free throw shooting – we're five of 13. None of it was going.
"Every dynamic you had – them scoring, us not scoring, us not getting fouled as much as we wanted to and then when we were, we're not converting free throws. You put all those in a pot and cook them, you've got a 16-point lead that can be erased like that."
The swiftness with which it was erased – a 16-point lead at 14:30 had dwindled to four, 51-47, at the 9:11 mark – was stunning for a team used to putting teams away for good.
"They just came at us, and they played hard," junior center Tye'sha Fluker said. "They were knocking down shots, and we weren't. They were getting stops, and we weren't."
Tennessee, 30-5, also had some bad breaks – the kind that haunts teams in games like this. Michigan State, 33-3, scored the go-ahead basket – a layup by Kelli Roehrig – after Fluker went down in the lane.
"I got tripped up," Fluker said. "I tried to get back up as fast as I could, but it was too late."
With Tennessee down two in the closing seconds, Shanna Zolman had an open look from deep in the left corner, but the ball hit to the left of the iron and caromed away. Hornbuckle got the rebound – she played well all game despite playing with a gash on her hand after running into a media table and splitting open her palm on a power outlet – and put up a jumper that was just long. Freshman post player Nicky Anosike grabbed yet another rebound – she had 13 for the game, including six on the offensive end – but missed the short jumper.
Zolman "got a good look from the corner but then we got two good boards and two good putbacks," Summitt said. "Obviously didn't go in. We needed them to fall."
The shots didn't fall, but Tennessee's fans and players will replay them in their minds for days to come. Two of the saddest players in the locker room last Sunday were two who never got to play a single minute this season because of knee injuries. Candace Parker and Alex Fuller sat shell-shocked in their lockers and watched as reporters swarmed on the seniors and other players.
"All of our losses have hurt, but … , " said Parker, her words trailing off as her voice barely rose above a whisper. "In the second half I looked at the scoreboard, and we were up by 16, and I started to feel comfortable. And Sidney said, ‘No I still don't feel comfortable with this.' It's hard sitting there, but I trust my teammates. They've gotten us this far. They played hard. Definitely it's frustrating for the four of us (injured players) because we can't do anything about it, but they played hard and they got to this point. They put in the sweat and work, and I just hate it for them."
Hornbuckle gets three more shots at a national title and will hook up with Parker, Fuller, Spencer and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, who also returns from injury. She never wants to feel this way again.
"Learn from it. Move on," Hornbuckle said with tears in her eyes. "The seniors can't move on. They'll never forget this. We'll never forget this. (Summitt) said she enjoyed the journey with us. She's proud of us because we fought, and she's going to be behind us 100 percent."