When the team entered from stage right a roar erupted. Senior Sidney Spencer walked straight to the trophy and kissed the top of it. She was quickly surrounded by her teammates, who touched, rubbed and hugged it.
A celebration that had been nine years in the making finally erupted for Tennessee on Tuesday after the Lady Vols, led by Nicky Anosike on the boards and Shannon Bobbitt from behind the arc, eliminated Rutgers, 59-46, in the last game of the season at Quicken Loans Arena before a crowd of 20,704.
Candace Parker, the most outstanding player of the tournament, grabbed a defensive rebound off a Rutgers miss with 29 seconds to go and just stopped in the backcourt with the basketball and allowed a huge smile to break across her face. The Tennessee players passed it among themselves until opting to let it settle in the hands of senior Dominique Redding. As the clock ticked to zero Redding heaved the ball in the air, where it bounced off the side of the scoreboard.
By the time the ball landed, the players were in full celebration at center court as pieces of brightly covered paper – including orange – fell from the ceiling and covered the floor. As Parker waited for a television interview to begin she reached up to catch some of the paper with her hand.
It was a cathartic celebration as the coaches hugged each other, their players, former players and family members. They donned white T-shirts and khaki ball caps that said national champion while an arena crew began to assemble a stage for the presentation of the winner's NCAA champion plaque.
"It's amazing, it's unbelievable, it's hard to put into words all the feelings you feel right now," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "Obviously a sigh of relief, obviously we're happy. I'm just happy to be a part of this team. I couldn't have planned out this season any better. I was blessed, and we were all blessed to go through this season without any serious injuries and to come out and let our hard work pay off for us."
The title game was a testament to hard work as two of the tournament's toughest defensive teams were the last two standing. Rutgers used a mixture of zone and man-to-man looks to try to surround Parker with defenders.
It was a relatively effective strategy – Parker scored 17 points but was 5-15 from the field and got sent to the free throw line 10 times – but Bobbitt got loose for four 3-pointers and sunk any chance that Rutgers had of winning the game. Combine that with the relentless work of Anosike on the boards, and it was inevitable that Tennessee would win the game.
The Lady Vols scored the first five points of the game – off a three-pointer from Bobbitt on an assist from Sidney Spencer, who hit a short jumper on the next possession off an assist by Alexis Hornbuckle – and only trailed once, by two points.
Tennessee had a double-digit lead at halftime, 29-18, and started the second half by either maintaining it or building on it. But Rutgers chipped away at the lead and had it down to seven, 35-28, when Kia Vaughn hit a jumper off a missed three-pointer by Brittany Ray.
But then Bobbitt slipped free and swished three 3-pointers in the span of three minutes – with a steal and an assist to Hornbuckle mixed in – and suddenly Tennessee led 46-30 with 10:16 left. The fact that Bobbitt was able to create enough space to get off the shots against Rutgers' usually solid defense left Coach C. Vivian Stringer flabbergasted.
"First of all, she's a midget on the floor," Stringer said. "So all you had to do was be relatively close. So that's disturbing. But it might speak to the respect that she commands also because she is so little and then so quick with the ball. So we stayed off way too far. And in retrospect maybe I should have played Essence (Carson) on her (instead of Epiphanny Prince). But no one would have thought that she was going to drop threes like that. She is one of their better 3-point shooters, shooting players, but that very clearly broke our back.
"But when I get visions of this game, I see Shannon Bobbitt knocking those threes down and us really not coming out and playing her. Which is unusual when you are playing for a national championship you play anything and everything. If you see a gnat moving on the floor you try to stomp it out. You don't second-guess, you react. This was kind of strange."
Bobbitt's performance earned her a place on the All-Tournament team. So did Anosike's. Her 16 rebounds tied for the third-most in NCAA championship game history and were the most ever by a Lady Vol in the title game.
The Lady Vols ended up winning on the boards, 42-34, because Rutgers, behind the effort of Kia Vaughn (10 rebounds), closed the gap. But it wasn't even close in the first half, 23-12, and at one point was 12-3 in Tennessee's favor with nine of those coming on the offensive end.
"There were a number of times that they get three and four opportunities at the boards," Stringer said. "You cannot win with that kind of relentless pursuit. And that's what they did. Now, for a smaller team what they have to do is instead of trying to jump with them – you're not going to jump with them and we will never jump with them; they're too big – but what we should have done is stepped in and boxed out."
Anosike took advantage of every opening. She had 10 offensive boards and six defensive ones.
"Sixteen boards?" Cait McMahan said in Tennessee's locker room when she saw the stat sheet. "That is just tremendous."
Parker and Hornbuckle had seven each. Alberta Auguste had five, all in the first half, with four on the offensive end.
"She did an outstanding job on the boards," Hornbuckle said of Anosike. "She can tell it to you best. She said coach emphasized offense sells tickets, defense wins games, and rebounding wins championships. She said that stuck with her, and sometimes that's all you need is that trigger word, and was it for Nicky. She owned the glass tonight."
It's a Summitt mantra and one she has told her teams for years. She repeated it to this team before the title game.
"I was thinking about it the whole game," Anosike said. "My shot wasn't falling. I wasn't making my free throws. It just seemed like everything was going wrong. But Pat's words before the game really just stuck with me, and I just knew that if I didn't do anything else I had to rebound."
Tennessee, 34-3, shot 34.5 percent for the game, but it found enough offense from Parker (17 points), Bobbitt (13 points), Spencer, (11 points) and Auguste (10 points) to prevail.
"Bird gave us tremendous minutes," Hornbuckle said. "She was a scorer, she was a rebounder, she was a defensive stopper. She did everything that coach asked her to do. You couldn't ask for more. She came in here, she played her role and even more, and we're proud of her."
Rutgers, 27-9, was led by Vaughn with 20 points and Essence Carson and Matee Ajavon, who had eight each. Vaughn and Ajavon made the All-Tournament Team.
Tennessee had already proven it could win without shooting well. The Lady Vols managed to beat North Carolina with the worst-ever shooting percentage in Final Four history for a winning team by holding the Tar Heels scoreless from the field for the final eight minutes.
"I think we expected our shots to be off," Anosike said. "We expected not to shoot well. We didn't shoot well against North Carolina. We've learned that we have to defend, and we have to rebound and that will carry us through no matter what's happening on the offensive end."
Tennessee would score in spurts – a testament to Rutgers' stout defense – but the Scarlet Knights seemed tentative at times and although they got close again late – the score was 50-42 with 2:35 left – Tennessee was well in control throughout the second half. The Lady Vols went to Parker in those final minutes, and she hit six consecutive free throws to snuff out any thoughts of a Rutgers' rally.
"I am so proud of this basketball team," Coach Pat Summitt said. "It's hard for me to put into words what they have meant to me personally, to our coaching staff, to the university, to our fans. They have just been one of the best groups because they decided they wanted to be good in the off season and worked really hard and came together and they have been very, very coachable and we have just grown as a team, and obviously our goal all along was to win a national championship. I just felt like they were a team that did not want to be denied, and they did what they had to do to make it happen."
The team enjoyed every moment of the post-game celebration on the floor of the arena. After the stage was built at center court, the PA announcer asked, "Will the members of the 2007 national championship team assemble on the awards stage?" That caused the crowd to erupt in cheers.
The players climbed the stairs and took turns running their hands along the title plaque with Spencer reaching it first. After Summitt took the stage and was formally presented with the plaque, the players folded their arms and nodded their heads. A few pulled up their T-shirts so they could pop their jerseys.
Parker was interviewed on stage and said, "This is what all of us came to Tennessee to do, and we did it."
When Parker was asked by ESPN if she was returning to school – Parker has repeatedly said she was but has been repeatedly asked at the Final Four – the crowd booed the question. That quickly changed to cheers when Parker said, "Come on now. Why wouldn't I come back and wear orange for another year? I love my teammates."
The team posed for photographers while the crowd chanted, "We are UT." Then it was time to cut down the net and one by one the players climbed the ladder to snip off some memories. Summitt went last and as she held the remnants of the net in the air, the band played "Rocky Top."
The Lady Vols locker room was a vastly different place than it was in Cleveland a year ago when Tennessee lost to North Carolina in the regional final. There were tears then and a resolve by the returning players to get back to the same place and win a title. On Tuesday night those players hugged each other and tried to let the moment sink in.
Redding sat in her locker with the national title plaque and net and never turned loose of it. Spencer, who was in the post-game interview room, had carried it from the floor. McMahan had fashioned her snippet of net into a bracelet.
When asked if she would ever take it off, McMahan smiled and said, "I will actually give it to my mom."
McMahan had done the same thing with her piece of net from the Dayton Regional that sent Tennessee to the Final Four.
"I'm going to give her this one, too," McMahan said.
The team got its national champion trophy at about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday in a celebration with fans at the downtown theater.
"Good morning national champions," Sue Donohoe, NCAA president of Division I women's basketball, said to the fans minutes before the team and coaches came onto the stage.
When the players walked out followed by Summitt, Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick, Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell and Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, the UT pep band started playing "Rocky Top." Summitt grabbed the microphone and sang along, as did her players.
She got choked up when she told the crowd, "This team is so special to me. They were willing to put it all on the line."
The players took turns thanking the fans, especially for turning Dayton and Cleveland into "a sea of orange," Anosike said.
"Amen," Bobbitt said. "I love the orange."
"It's about time we ended that drought," Hornbuckle said, "so we're about to let it rain." As Hornbuckle uttered "let it rain," the entire team joined in and used their arms to mimic falling rain. Appropriately enough it had actually started to rain outside right after the game and was raining during the celebration.
Summitt acknowledged the number of former Lady Vols who had attended the game and were also gathered near the stage, including some members of the first national title team in 1987, and also gave the fans a shout-out.
"We want all you fans to know we love you, and you're a part of our family," Summitt said.
As the players posed with the trophy and Summitt held the crystal ball aloft the fans chanted, "We're number one," and "It's great to be a Tennessee Lady Vol."
The band broke into another rendition of "Rocky Top," as the team prepared to leave the stage, and Summitt took the microphone and said, "Hold up a second." The band immediately stopped, and Summitt said, "The power of a woman," which brought laughter and cheers.
Summitt wanted to remind the fans of Wednesday's celebration in Knoxville at 5:30 p.m. at the Knoxville Convention Center.
The players had said throughout the postseason that they wanted to win a title for the seniors. They also wanted to be the team who brought a national title home to Knoxville for the first time since 1998.
"I said it on my ESPN interview when they said what are you playing for. I said I was playing for my seniors because they had yet to win a national championship," said Hornbuckle, who played in a Final Four in 2005 when the Lady Vols lost in the semifinal game. "You never know when you're going to get back to this stage, and we just wanted to seize the moment and seize the day. It's great to go out like that, a feeling that you actually accomplished something. You didn't fall short this time."
Spencer and Redding, who had been roommates for four years, shared a hug as they left the team hotel before their final game.
"When I was leaving the hotel I was like, ‘Man, this is it. Let's go do it,' " Spencer said.
The media was about to leave the locker room and the team would change into warmups to go to the trophy presentation, where hundreds of fans awaited their entrance. That meant Spencer had to pull off her Tennessee jersey for the last time.
"I never want to take it off," Spencer said. "The memories have been incredible but to go out a champ it's a dream come true. I can't believe it."
Parker was standing a few feet away encircled by media who were firing questions at her in rapid fashion. What was going through her mind at that moment?
"We won a national championship," Parker said. "Nobody can take that away from us. We are the national champs for a year. I'm ready for the rings. I'm ready for the banner."