Tennessee used some of the open public practice as a public relations event and the players spent the last 11 minutes of the 55-minute session trying to accommodate as many autograph seekers as possible. By NCAA rule once the time limit is expired all personnel with one team must clear the court area for the next team's practice.
Orange-clad fans were scattered among the crowd and included local coaches from Pittsburgh who wore Lady Vols clothing and came with Summitt's books that she wrote with sportswriter Sally Jenkins. They also had a bag of Halls cough drops for the coach.
"Let me just say that this game has been so good to me and blessed me in so many ways, and the one thing I've tried to do is give back to the game, and it's one of the reasons I wanted to write the books," Summitt said. "If I in some small way can help inspire little girls to grow up and be a part of our great game or coaches, always very open and receptive to sharing with other coaches and do a lot of clinics. I think it's important that the coaches in our game – and so many of them do this – that you give back to the game."
Summitt's team was headed to the court after the press conference and she sounded hoarse as she spoke.
"It sounds like I could use one right now," Summitt said of the cough drops. "Everyone asks me all the time, ‘What do you put in your mouth during the game?' And I said, ‘Well, just cough drops.' You wouldn't believe how many people have mailed me bags of Halls cough drops, all flavors. Stick with cherry if you're going to (spend) your money."
That line brought laughter from those assembled in the room, including the players.
The fact the room was full of media and a crowd of a couple of hundred waited to watch a short practice spoke to how far the game has come since Summitt started 33 years ago. Tennessee, 28-3, has participated in every NCAA Tournament – the only school to do so since Louisiana Tech didn't make the draw this year – and will tip off against Drake, 14-18, on Sunday at 7 p.m. (ESPN2, Lady Vols Radio Network).
"I don't think I envisioned that early in my career, because we went to a lot of empty arenas, we went to press conferences with a couple of people there," Summitt said. "It's been quite a journey for women's basketball and to be a part of it having coached at Tennessee throughout all those years I've seen a lot of changes and it's great to see what's happened in women's basketball. Now we're talking parity. We didn't talk parity back then. We're talking about the excitement, the arenas, the sell-out crowds, sold-out Final Fours. It's something you can sit around and dream about, but the reality is now here and it's great for women's basketball certainly.
"But as I think about this stage the student-athletes are on they have no idea what it was like before they were born and now they're reaping the benefits of a lot of administrative commitment across the country to this game, obviously a lot of dedicated coaches and student-athletes along the way that kind of paved a path for them."
Summitt was asked if the players have an understanding of what happened before them.
"No, they don't understand, and I don't know that I understand it completely," she said. "If you're going to understand it you have to understand the history of women's basketball, and I think someday maybe they will understand and appreciate it even more. But while you're going through it you're a student-athlete, you're a competitor, you're excited about the opportunities but really not completely aware of how it was 25 years ago."
Tennessee seniors Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding are aware that this is the final NCAA Tournament in their college careers.
I think about it. I definitely do think about it," Spencer said. "I just try to give it all I have."
"It's special and we just hope and pray that our teammates go out there and play with a lot of heart because it's our last go-round," Redding said.
Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (8.3 points per game, 1.4 rebounds per game 2.9 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (10.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.2 apg, 3.2 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (11.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (19.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (7.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg).
"We've pretty much stuck with this lineup," Summitt said. "I like it. I think people are comfortable with their roles. Alex (Fuller) is coming in and doing a great job for us off the bench. She could easily start for us, but I like what she brings when she comes in a game. It's a spark, and she can make shots."
Drake Coach Amy Stephens is expected to start: Lindsay Whorton, 6'0 junior guard, No. 15 (14.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.9 apg), has started all 32 games this season, has 70 three-pointers this season and 192 for her career placing her fourth all-time at Drake, entered the 1,000-point club March 1; Lauren Dybing, 6'2 sophomore guard, No. 34 (5.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 1.0 apg), averaged 15 ppg in the Missouri Valley Conference tourney to help lead her team to the title, also shot 63.1 percent from the field in those four games; Ashleigh Brady, 5'10 sophomore guard, No. 4 (5.7 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.4 apg), has started 12 games this season, scored in double figures five times; Kelsey Keizer, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 24 (5.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.3 apg), has started 20 games this season, had a career high 20 points against Wichita State to help bring the team back from an 18-point deficit, played 45 minutes in an overtime game against Evansville; and Monique Jones, 5'10 freshman forward, No. 45 (8.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.0 apg), has started 19 games this season with double-digit scoring 14 times, had a career-best 17 points in the overtime game against Creighton that catapulted Drake into the NCAA tourney.
The two teams will play different styles of basketball. Tennessee wants to run. Drake wants a slower pace.
"I think we're a contrasting style," Summitt said. "I think Drake, from everything that I've seen, they are very comfortable in the half-court offense, running their sets or running their flex offense (passing, screening and ball reversal in a motion offense) and making sure the right people are touching the ball and getting Whorton a lot of shots. I think that they're comfortable in that setting.
"We like up-tempo and not that they won't push the basketball, but we're going to push, we're going to press, we're going to play the way that I think this team plays best. We spend a lot of time trying to generate points off of our defense and our board play and so it's going to be a contrasting style of more deliberate versus up and down."
Drake, which has been gutted by injuries this season, was forced to change its style mid-season.
"We've had to change some things as we went through personnel changes due to injury and what-not so we're not playing a style that we'd like to play exactly at Drake," Stephens said. "Our style right now has been to do whatever it takes to get a victory. There's no doubt that Tennessee will come out and pressure and they'll want an up-tempo style of play. We'll try to control the tempo so I think that's the biggest key, and turnovers will also dictate that and how well we have the ability to take care of the ball.
"We're 13th in the country in taking care of the ball so we feel good that we can do some things as long as we're smart and we play as a team. But I think you'll definitely see two contrasting styles of play."
Stephens conceded being nervous about the Tennessee game, but it's not because her 16th-seeded team must take on a one seed. It's because Drake men's coach Tom Davis might make an appearance.
"I've got to admit I've been pretty nervous this week," Stephens said. "Bruce Pearl was at the University of Iowa and coached with Dr. Tom Davis. There're are a lot of rumors going around that Dr. Tom is going to show up tomorrow with a blue ‘D' on his chest and I've been sick to my stomach that I might actually have to put a cheerleading skirt on. I'm just praying that that doesn't happen tomorrow, as much as we'd love to see Dr. Tom in the stands."
That remark brought a lot of laughter from the room. Pearl, the UT men's coach painted his chest orange with a white ‘V' for a Lady Vols game this season. Summitt reciprocated by donning a cheerleader's outfit and singing "Rocky Top" during a timeout at a men's game.
Tennessee players will be glad to see something besides orange on the floor Sunday. They have spent the past two weeks in intense practice sessions at Stokely Athletics Center and are ready to see the jersey color of an opponent.
"Stokely? The same practice players?" Spencer said by way of mentioning other sights the team had seen a lot of lately while waiting for a real game. "I'm ready."
Just watching some television coverage of the tourney Saturday in the team hotel seem to whet the team's appetite for action.
"I think we're real ready to tip off," Parker said. "We played in the SEC Tournament and lost to LSU, and we've had some tough practices since then, and I think we're just ready to get back on the court and just play. All of us are really excited to get this tournament underway, just watching the games on television has gotten us really excited."
Spencer said the lopsided seeds – a one versus a 16 – wouldn't affect the team's preparation. It shouldn't after Saturday's action in which higher seeds got threatened and even knocked off, including Ohio State, which lost to Marist in the Dayton Region.
"This is the NCAA Tournament so I think at any point, any given night, any team can win so we just prepare ourselves knowing what we're trying to do and what we're trying to accomplish and our goals for this season," Spencer said.
"We've been getting mentally ready and the (veterans) talked to us a lot about being prepared and how important it is to win," Auguste said. "It's serious basically. One game at a time."
"I'm very excited," McMahan said. "I get to see new places. I'm just ready to get going. I think we're ready to get here and bounce back from what happened in our last game. We've got a lot of proving to do to people. I don't think that anybody thinks that we can do this."
Anosike noted that despite words from the returning players there's no replacement for just getting in that first game.
"That's what happened to me," Anosike said. "I just got thrown into it, and I got through it pretty well so same thing for her (she said of Bobbitt, the fifth starter). You've just got to experience it for yourself."
"I'm real excited," Bobbitt said. "It's my first time in the NCAA Tournament so I don't know what to expect. I'm just going to follow the players that were here already and just go with the flow."
Anosike echoed what other players had said – the team is ready for an actual game.
"I think we're definitely ready, hungry for any type of competition," Anosike said.
"We're pretty excited," said Alex Fuller, a key reserve. "We're ready for whatever's thrown at us. We've been practicing extremely hard trying to become better as a team so we're all ready."
Tennessee's last game was a loss to LSU in the SEC tourney semifinal. The team has had two weeks to wait for a chance to get back on the court. The loss lingered for a few days and helped motivate the team in practice.
"It did to some extent," Parker said. "I don't dwell on big games that I have, and I don't dwell on bad games. That's something that my parents have instilled in me ever since I was younger. … You're never going to get over it completely and forget about it, but you've got to move on. You've always got to think about it."
Parker had four points in that game and was 2-11 from the field.
"She took ownership," Summitt said. "Candace is not one to shy away from responsibility. She knows that her performance was costly for us. Let's face it. She's obviously been there night in and night out. She just didn't have the type of game that we hoped she'd have and didn't seem to be able to get herself out of that throughout the course of that game."
Hornbuckle used the tournament to break out offensively and get in postseason form. She scored 46 points over two games.
"Lex played very well," Summitt said. "She had a great tournament. She's a different offensive player. Let's remember a year ago she had her hand in, well it wasn't really a cast, but it might as well have been. She's a different player this year. She's a lot more mature, a lot more settled offensively and really understands what she has to bring to the team, and she's willing to do that for us."
Hornbuckle sat on the dais Saturday with her right arm free of the cumbersome splint she had to wear last March after she broke her right wrist in mid-February.
"Last year my wrist wasn't healed 100 percent so I had to play with a protective (device) on my wrist," Hornbuckle said. "Very frustrating considering I'm right-handed. I'm thankful and I'm blessed that this year I had no injuries and this year I come in with both hands able to do exactly what's asked of me."
The presence of Bobbitt and McMahan also has meant that Hornbuckle has been free to play primarily on the wing this season.
"I'm glad that Shannon and Cait have done a great job for us at the point guard position," Hornbuckle said. "They've opened up a lot of opportunities as far as pushing tempo and running the ball, getting us set up. They've done a great job of getting us in our sets and doing what's asked of them by coach."
Bobbitt has already learned one thing in the postseason. The Tennessee fans will travel. She noted that the games in Duluth, Ga., in the SEC tourney seemed like home games. The crowd there was about 80 percent in favor of the Lady Vols and was very loud in its support.
"That's amazing," Bobbitt said. "It was crazy. I was like, ‘Wow, we have a lot of support, and we have a lot of people pulling for us to win the national championship.' We're well-liked."
Hornbuckle would like to stay on track offensively. She was 12-18 from the field against LSU and scored 29 points. She also hit 4-5 from behind the arc.
"I'm going to have the same mindset going into the NCAA as I did going into the SEC – give it 110 percent and every night that I walk off the court I want to feel like I didn't let my team down," Hornbuckle said. "I'm going to come out being confident, being a leader, very vocal and just let the game come to me. I feel like that's what happened at the SEC."
Hornbuckle was a different offensive player in Duluth in that she was hunting her shot from both outside and via dribble penetration.
"It's kind of like when I was in high school to be honest where you just go play," she said. "More so in the LSU game I knew I had to score because Sid and Candace were off and things weren't going well for them and I knew somebody had to step up. Every night I'm capable of stepping up but I'm the type of player, Candace is a go-to player so we have to get her the ball, Sid's our shooter, let's get her as many touches as possible early and let mine come to me. Their shots weren't falling or Sid wasn't getting open, I knew I had to step up.
"Sometimes I overpass, and I'm over-generous. That's the type of player I am, but I know if we want to win we need all five players on the court no matter what to be a scoring threat. Respect isn't given; you have to earn it. I think that's what I was basically trying to do for SEC. If your jumper is falling – I'm the type of player I like to get to the paint. I like to create and get to the paint and create for other people – so if my jumper is falling now you have to respect my jump shot. It makes it easier to drive. I think I have that mindset."
The team's mindset is on winning a national championship and the first step starts Sunday against Drake. But it was inevitable that Parker would also be asked Saturday about dunking. She became the first women's player to dunk in a NCAA tourney game when she stuffed two last season against Army. She was asked if dunking was on her mind.
"My focus is on winning a national championship, to get through one game at a time," Parker said. "We tell ourselves we have six games, and we have to take it one game at a time. That's not on my mind right now. I think I've proven that I can do that. That's last year so we're looking for bigger and better things this year."
It wasn't just a media fixation. The crowd at Tennessee's open practice chanted, "Dunk it. Dunk it," and Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell smiled and joined in. But Parker, who had to sit out a day of practice this week because of knee swelling, opted to forego any aerial displays. Instead she used the end of practice to join her teammates and sign autographs and pose for photos for the fans lined up near the baseline.
Parker has presented matchup issues for every opponent this season because of her versatility and size.
"Candace Parker is an amazing athlete," said Dybing, who will be one of the players assigned to defend her. "I really admire her and her game, and I'm just really excited to go against the best. I'm just going to go out there like I do every other game and focus on what I need to do – great defense and rebounding. I'm just really excited to play the best."
The Drake coach and players were fully aware of the unlikelihood of beating Tennessee, but they promised to compete.
"I think there's no doubt that we're an underdog going into this game, just from the seeding alone, the sixteen versus the one, it's improbable odds for us," Whorton said. "But at the same time I think we look at it two ways. First, that we've been in that position before and when you are the underdogs that you have to focus on the things that you can control. And that may not mean being the most talented player on the floor because at a lot of positions they're going to be more talented, they're going to be more athletic, they may out-size us, but what we've talked about as a team is the ability to be a great competitor and just go out and play hard and take care of the things that we can control, which are defense, rebounding and execution.
"So I think we have that in mind, but at the same time, we see it, secondly, as a great opportunity to play the best and to be measured against historically one of the best teams in women's basketball. What a great opportunity for us as individuals and as a team to see what we can learn and what we can take from such a talented team with a great tradition."
Stephens has made no secret of her admiration for Summitt and the Tennessee program. But she also wants to use the principles of that system to show what Drake is capable of achieving. The fact Drake got to the tourney is proof already.
"Last November we had a team meeting, we had goals set for our program and one of our goals was to participate in the NCAA Tournament," Stephens said. "Never in our wildest dreams did we think we would be on the journey that we're on to get here. This was an expectation for our program and will continue to be an expectation for our program. We hope that this is just the beginning of many greats things to come for our women's basketball program at Drake University.
"We just never dreamt that we would lose three of our top five starters to injury and to surgery. We never dreamt that we would be plagued with surgery and the flu. We never dreamt one of our young ladies would have a heart procedure. The adversity that our team went through to get here certainly makes this experience just that much more special for everyone in our program. It's been an absolute delight to share that with so many friends and family, administrators and everybody involved in our program.
"Our young women have showed off all season long their hearts, their determination, their character. We've gotten to show off our value system, which is what Division I women's basketball is really all about: character, commitment, loyalty, perseverance. So this has just been a terrific experience that we're all just trying to cherish."
Stephens has already earned the admiration of Summitt. Tennessee's coach knew of Stephens and her accomplishments at Drake, where she is in her fourth year, but she never really got to see the team play until she watched some scouting tapes.
"Obviously she's done a great job," Summitt said. "I know she's obviously got to be very excited about coming into this setting. I didn't know until someone told me that she had really studied the Tennessee system and been a fan of our program. Certainly what she did with her basketball team and overcoming injuries and being able to bring this team to the position of the NCAA through her conference championship, I think it's just great.
"I look forward to letting Amy know how much I've enjoyed scouting her team. They run some really good offensive sets, particularly in the half-court. Just watching her demeanor courtside, she may be young, but she's very talented and looks to be a great communicator just watching her in the huddles and watching her in that championship game in particular."
And regardless of tenure this is the time of year when all coaches get excited.
"This is truly the time of the year when everyone is truly excited about getting started with postseason play," Summitt said. "Our team is looking forward to getting things going. It's been a good journey for us as far as our regular season and going into postseason, good preparation. We have some days off and good days of preparation, and now it's time to play."
Hornbuckle, like her coach, feels a difference when the calendar flips to March.
"I think it is a difference," Hornbuckle said. "You have to have a whole new mindset. All year you want to have the mindset, ‘I want to go out here. I want to play hard. Take little to no possessions off,' and in the postseason you don't have an option. It's one and done. If you lose you're going home. My mindset is I want to win. I know our team wants to win, and it's a whole new attitude, it's a whole new era. When you step on the court you can just tell."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Drake game. Here is his assessment.
When Drake has the ball: "They're very good at their half-court set offense. They have good shooters. They run flex offense a lot, they run a number of sets, they screen for the shooters very well. They're a good screening team overall. They're going to try to free up some shooters and try to be very patient and deliberate I would think."
Lockwood said the coaches were aware of how motivated a team can be in the underdog role and it was the staff's job to point out that advantage but to also not oversell it.
"We can't make too much or too little out of it," Lockwood said. "I think if we ballyhoo it too much it's a little bit almost fabricated to your players and if you pay no attention to it then I think you're not doing your job in preparation. We're going to talk to them about their trail a little bit. They were the seven seed going into their conference tournament. They played it at home, they defended their home court. They did what they were supposed to do, they rose to the challenge.
"So this is a team that is capable and shown it is capable of rising to a challenge. They're going to know they're playing a Tennessee, a team that went undefeated through the SEC, so they're going to have a little bit of the giant killer mentality. What we want to do honestly is we want to take their heart from them as quick as we can. We'd like to overwhelm them and just make it a very physical and very fast game so that they're catching their breaths and not zeroing in on running an offense and doing what they want to do. We want to really impose our will on them early."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We want to really run. We want to push the tempo. We want to get the ball inside. Just establish a fast tempo. This team we don't think wants to play in a track meet type of a game so we want that and then we want to punish them inside."
WHITHER DRAKE? Some oddball questions are always asked at the press conferences. The three Tennessee players present, Candace Parker, Sidney Spencer and Alexis Hornbuckle, were asked if they knew where Drake was located.
"My grandparents live in Des Moines, Iowa, so I was aware of Drake," Parker said. "My brother played in the Missouri Valley Conference (at Bradley) so I've always been aware of Drake. I've always known the school."
"Yes, I have a few friends that go there," Spencer said.
"I never knew where Drake was," said Hornbuckle, who is from rural West Virginia, to much laughter from those assembled in the room. "I've heard of Drake, but I didn't know exactly where it was or anything like that."
There is one player on Tennessee's roster, walk-on Elizabeth Curry, who is very familiar with Drake. Curry is from New Virginia, Iowa.
"It's obviously unique that I get to play Drake and that's who I grew up watching," Curry said.
Curry served as a manager for the team until this season when Summitt asked her to help fill out a short roster.
"She came to Tennessee because she was quite a Lady Vol fan and wanted to be a part of our program," Summitt said. "This season we went and asked her if she would consider being a walk-on and she was absolutely thrilled and has fit in great with our team."
Curry was thrilled when the brackets were announced last Monday and Drake's name popped up under Tennessee's.
"You could tell she was excited," Hornbuckle said. "She wants to get an opportunity to get on the court against Drake as well."
Curry getting into a game as a walk-on means Tennessee has done well on the scoreboard.
"I think, for me, any game getting in and getting some time it's fun," Curry said. "But most importantly if the team's doing well that's what triggers that. I'm just excited for the tournament as a whole and the team to see where we're headed one game at a time.
"It's definitely an entire different mentality going from worrying about the equipment and operations (as a manager). Obviously as a player your mindset is on the opponent and not (taking care of) the team and the focus is Xs and Os. It's totally different preparation. Having seen it you kind of know what to expect, too. It's an easier transition, but it's definitely a different ballgame."
POIGNANT QUESTIONS: Two questions in separate press conferences brought the game of basketball into perspective.
The first was when Candace Parker was asked about Maggie Dixon, the head coach of Army who died shortly after the season ended last March. Dixon had been an assistant at DePaul and had recruited Parker.
"Maggie Dixon and I have been friends for a long time, and she recruited me when she was at DePaul," said Parker, who got teary-eyed as she spoke and often referred to Dixon in present tense. "I have a lot of memories of Maggie. She's a great coach, but she's a better person. She's an even better person. She's greatly missed, and I feel like just coming here and the irony of her brother being the (men's) coach here, it's just really gotten my mind on Maggie. She's missed. She went out on top, and we're blessed to all have known her."
Dixon's brother, Jamie Dixon, is the head coach at Pitt. The Panthers beat VCU in the second round Saturday to advance to the Sweet 16. Tennessee and the other seven teams in this sub-regional pod will play on Pitt's home floor at the Petersen Events Center.
"Just watching her team perform you could just tell when they played against us, they were so well-coached, they were so together and when the tragedy happened I think everyone in our profession we were touched emotionally," Pat Summitt said. "It was a very difficult time. She left her mark on the game. And I think Candace probably said it best. She was a terrific person and a woman of character that greatly cared about her student-athletes. What she did as a basketball coach was obviously very good but as a person everybody respected, admired and loved what she stood for.
Parker, a native of Chicago, "went to camp and spent time at DePaul," Summitt said. "She was around the program a lot and played pickup over there. She knows her better than anyone else in this room I'm sure. She's someone that obviously impacted a lot of lives, the young student-athletes she worked with, people around the game.
"Just never take a day for granted. Never."
The second poignant moment came later when Agnus Berenato, the Pitt women's coach, was asked about N.C. State Coach Kay Yow. Berenato knows Yow well. She played against her at North Carolina and coached against her for 17 years at Georgia Tech – two as an assistant and 15 as the head coach.
Berenato was the losing coach when Yow got her 500th career win, and Berenato returned to the court for the post-game celebration that included a large cake.
"I think I was a quarter of the cake," Berenato said. "A quarter of those wins were mine."
When Berenato tried to talk about Yow's health – the coach has battled cancer this season and had to leave the team earlier before making it back – the tears filled her eyes and she spoke with some difficulty.
"Kay's wonderful," Berenato said after a pause to regain her composure. "Kay's a good friend. It's a game and Kay is fighting for her life and is still in the game."
PITT-JAMES MADISON: The Panthers of Pitt, 23-8, and the Dukes of James Madison, 27-5, will meet in the second game Sunday (9:30 p.m. ESPN2) with the winner to face the winner of Tennessee-Drake on Tuesday evening.
"It is a really exciting day for the University of Pittsburgh," Coach Agnus Berenato said. "A long time ago we said that when we received a bid, not only did we want to host a great event but that we wanted to be in it. We wanted to dance at our own party, and it has become a reality."
The matchup features two teams who are on a big stage with players that haven't experienced an NCAA postseason game. Pitt had success in the WNIT last season, but this is the Panthers' first appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Berenato took the time to thank the selection committee for the at-large bid.
James Madison last appeared in the NCAA tourney in 1996. Coach Kenny Brooks, who is in his fifth year, is a 1992 graduate of James Madison and played guard for the Dukes' men's team.
"Obviously we're very happy to be here," said Brooks who thanked the three players on the dais with him, Lesley Dickinson, Meredith Alexis and Andrea Benvenuto, "who took a blind leap of faith" to help get the program back to the NCAA tourney. "We still have some basketball left to play."
Brooks downplayed the effect on either team of not having been on such a stage before.
"Once the ball's thrown up that's all that matters," he said. "It's going to be which team wants it more."
The players weren't concerned about having to be on Pitt's home court and noted that last week they had to play Delaware on its home court in a semifinal of the Colonial Athletic Association tourney. James Madison won that game before falling to ODU in the title game.
"I think that prepared us," said Alexis, a senior center.
The players emphasized how special it was to get to this point in the season, and they were not going to fret over home court.
"Once the ball goes up we're just doing what we do," said Dickinson, a senior guard.
"It's a dream come true right now," Alexis said. "It's phenomenal – words can't describe how exciting it is."
A delightfully excited Berenato was not at a loss for words. She talked about the excitement of hosting, her husband and five children – she invited those in the room to her house, even providing the street name, and said she would rather have a large dinner party of 30 than just dine with her husband – the game of basketball and the larger role of coaches as educators.
Her players shared her enthusiasm.
"I've always dreamed of getting into the NCAA Tournament," said Xenia Stewart, a sophomore guard/forward.
"I'm not really nervous," said Shavonte Zellous, a sophomore guard. "Our team is ready to play on national television."
Berenato also welcomed the national TV audience to her bigger home.
"I am so proud of being at home and being a host," she said. "To me the Petersen Events Center is a great venue to share with the nation. At one point it was known to be the best kept secret. I don't want it to be a secret. I want to broadcast it so that it puts us in the national limelight."
PITTSBURGH POD: "The Pete" certainly is hosting one of the best collection of teams and personalities in the tournament.
The city got two number one seeds in the field in Tennessee and North Carolina. There are up-and-coming coaches in Drake's Amy Stephens and Cal's Joanne Boyle. Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, a legend as a player at Southern Cal and for the Houston Comets of the WNBA, is the coach at Prairie Valley A&M, which takes on North Carolina on Sunday.
Boyles' Golden Bears team takes on Notre Dame of Golden Dome fame. The Big East has a big presence with Notre Dame and Pitt. The Panthers team has former UConn star Shea Ralph on the staff as an assistant coach.
"I think it's very appealing," Pat Summitt said. "When I was talking to Cynthia Cooper today we went back to the '84 championship game and I remember Coach (Billie) Moore told me, Cheryl Miller and the McGee twins are good, but watch out for Cooper.' Late in that game she opened that game up. Now she's here coaching. And having North Carolina and Tennessee both here, too, as far as where we're ranked and we're respected teams and programs, it should be a good draw."
As of Friday, 10,000 tickets had been sold – 4,000 for the first session and 6,000 for the second session.
Stephens is certainly happy to be here. She opened her press conference by thanking the citizens of Des Moines and Iowa, the city of Pittsburgh, the University of Pittsburgh, the NCAA, the fans of Drake and the Drake administration.
"This last week has been an experience that I don't think any of us will ever forget," Stephens said. "As many of you know we're the Cinderella story that has worn blue all week. The outpouring of emails and phones calls have just been overwhelming. There's no doubt that our program and our staff and our players are greatly appreciative of that support."
Stephens got to meet Saturday morning with Tennessee Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick, who recruited Stephens when Warlick was an assistant at Nebraska.
"I'm originally from Alliance, Nebraska, which is a small town in western Nebraska," Stephens said. "It's not exactly the easiest place to get to from Lincoln, Nebraska, and she drove out there on a cold, wintry night and had the opportunity to see me play. We went out for pizza afterwards and then she came back to the home and had a cup of coffee with my folks and probably stayed until 12 or 12:30 in the morning.
"So it's very easy to see why Tennessee is so good because Holly is a special person with a lot of charisma. I asked her if she would come say a few words to our team. She's the first Lady Vol to have her jersey retired and Kodak All-American and just a tremendous player, and she's the best of the best. To have that opportunity to expose our young women to the best of the best in college women's basketball I think is a great opportunity to afford our young women.
"One of the things that we admire about the Tennessee program is not just the winning but how they do it. And that's what we do at Drake, and that's what it's about is how our kids go through the journey. Our value system is really important to us about doing things the right way, the classy way. We have young women that are achieving great things in the classroom so it's really about the total package so there's been that influence with my interaction with Coach Warlick."
BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee's numbers in the NCAA Tournament are staggering in terms of success. The Lady Vols are 38-0 in first and second round play and have made every Sweet 16 in 25 years.
Pat Summitt has coached in 111 NCAA games and has a record of 92-19. Her win total is the highest in NCAA history, men's or women's. The next closest challenger in the women's game is UConn's Geno Auriemma with 58 wins. On the men's side Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski is first with 68 victories in the tournament.
The Lady Vols have been known to score points in the early going. In 1999 Tennessee put up 113 against Appalachian State. They have gone over the 100-point mark against North Carolina A&T in 1994 with 111 points; Liberty in 1998 with 102; and Army in 2006 with 102 points.
This will be the first meeting ever between Tennessee and Drake. Tennessee's record on March 18 is 8-1. The lone loss was to Valdosta State, 83-80, in 1978.
The Bulldogs do a good job of taking care of the ball with 14.3 turnovers a game. The Lady Vols average 15.9. Tennessee is more likely to take it away with 12.2 steals per game compared to 7.7 for Drake. Tennessee, despite its rebounding woes this season, does hold the edge in this game 38.0 to 33.8 for Drake. The Lady Vols score 74.3 points per game; Drake averages 63.5. Tennessee is shooting 36.9 percent behind the arc. Drake connects at a rate of 33.5 percent. The Lady Vols average 15.7 assists per game. Drake averages 12.6. Tennessee swats 5.4 shots a game. Drake rejects 2.9 a game.
Drake has had some success in the NCAA Tournament against SEC teams. The Bulldogs defeated Kentucky in 1986 and Ole Miss in 1995. This is Drake's first tourney appearance in five years.
Tennessee has played one other Missouri Valley Conference foe in the NCAA Tournament in 1991 when the Lady Vols defeated Missouri State. Tennessee is 5-0 all-time against the MVC with wins over Missouri State, Illinois State and Southern Illinois.
ODDS AND ENDS
BEST COOKIES: The green Shamrock ones available in the media room and in the teams' locker rooms. Saturday was St. Patrick's Day and the mood was festive in the pubs near the Pitt campus.
HAPPIEST PENNSYLVANIA FANS: Cindy Brown and Sue Scialabba of Butler County who are Tennessee fans and had front row seats for the open practice.
"We couldn't believe it," Brown said of Tennessee's placement in Pittsburgh during the Selection Show last Monday.
"I was in bed," Scialabba said. "I jumped out of bed and went to the Internet to get tickets."
BEST HUG: That exchanged between North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell and Prairie View Coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke on the court between practice sessions Saturday afternoon.
"I coached Cynthia, and we actually saw each other this morning and were talking about her playing for me on a few USA teams," Hatchell said. "We've known each other a long time, and I'm not surprised that (Prairie View) is doing well. … In fact we were showing film this morning, and I described a few of the players' moves as Cynthia Cooper moves. It's great for these players to have her as a coach."
BEST HUDDLE CHANT: That led by pint-sized UNC guard Ivory Latta when the wings and guards gathered: "One, two, three. Little people!" Latta wore a practice T-shirt that read: "Don't Blink" on the front and "Catch Us If You Can" on the back.
BEST DANCE: That uncorked by Shannon Bobbitt in the Tennessee huddle to chants of "Go Shannon, Go Shannon," from her coaches and teammates.
BEST SIGN: That held up by a young girl that stated: "Welcome to the 'burgh Coach Summitt."
BEST PRE-GAME PREPARATION: That done by Sidney Spencer. She tested the rims by repeatedly throwing a ball against them to gauge the give. She pronounced them to be soft.
BEST ASSIST: That credited to a beaming ball girl who tossed Candace Parker a basketball that had bounced out of bounds. Parker missed the three attempt and got the ball back. She tossed it to the ball girl so she could pass it to Parker again. This time Parker drained the three and pointed to her and high-fived the little girl to acknowledge the assist.
BEST HOSPITALITY: That extended by Pitt Coach Agnus Berenato and the three players who accompanied her to the media press conference, Xenia Stewart, Marcedes Walker and Shavonte Zellous.
The foursome walked through the entire room and personally greeted each member of the media and the work crew handling the production of the press conference. Once everyone had been greeted and thanked they ascended the steps to the dais.
BEST DESCRIPTION OF HER PLAYERS: Berenato, when asked if it was a concerned that James Madison's starters led the nation in combined college starts. She shook her head and said "Frick, Frack and Tack" here – meaning Stewart, Walker and Zellous – had also played a lot of minutes.
FUNNIEST ANSWER: That provided by James Madison's Lesley Dickinson and Meredith Alexis when asked about what was exciting about being in the tourney. They both mentioned the police escort of the team bus to the Petersen Events Center.
"It put everything in perspective and the importance and excitement factor," Alexis said.
"I just think the police escort was pretty great," Dickinson said. "I didn't know the bus could go that fast."
James Madison also will have some fans on hands. The school chartered three buses carrying supporters from Harrisonburg, Va., to Pittsburgh.
The women's lacrosse team decorated the basketball team's bus with balloons, purple and gold streamers and personalized signs for the five seniors, Alexis, Dickinson, Benvenuto, Shirley McCall and Shameena Felix.
The Dukes have one more bus story. Their driver is Roger Myers, a retired banker who wanted to stay busy. He drives the athletes to and from games and used his Thanksgiving vacation to take 54 students and faculty members to Biloxi, Miss., on a Hurricane Katrina relief trip. His giving extended to his wife. Myers gave her a kidney eight years ago.
He was honored by James Madison in 2006 with an "All Together One" award that recognizes people who make a difference in the community.
BEST ANECDOTE: Berenato talking about the pioneers of the women's game. The native of New Jersey went to camps at Immaculata College in Pennsylvania when the legendary Cathy Rush was the coach. Berenato and her sisters could not afford camp costs so Rush let them attend in exchange for washing dishes.
"It's not just about that little round ball," Berenato said of the game.