Lady Vols come home to celebrate with fans

The Lady Vols celebrated with thousands of fans inside the Convention Center on Wednesday, but it was the three assistant coaches who cheered the loudest when they were presented with Mercedes to drive for a year. Pat Summitt joked that she would just keep driving her pickup truck.

"We need to win again," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick told Coach Pat Summitt as she re-took her seat after leaving the stage to get a closer look at the three SLK280 Mercedes sports cars in white, silver and light blue.

"Maybe Dean can find a woman," Summitt joked about her bachelor assistant, Dean Lockwood.

Lockwood stood up and dangled the keys to the audience of at least 3,000 fans, which filled an exhibit hall at the downtown center.

The Mercedes were donated for the assistants, Warlick, Lockwood and Nikki Caldwell, to use for a year by Mercedes-Benz of Knoxville, in what the company called its MVP program for the assistants. When the assistant coaches were asked to be acknowledged Lady Vol player Alex Fuller raised her hand. In Fuller's player bio when asked what she would do if she were head coach for a day she said she would drive Summitt's Mercedes. The head coach may have a pickup – and her farming roots make it likely – but she also drives a Benz.

Several of the players left the stage with the coaches and got inside the cars and blew the horns.

The coaches got the cars, but the entire team and staff came home with the 2007 NCAA women's basketball national championship trophy.

The team held a final press conference in Cleveland on Wednesday morning and then flew home to Knoxville. After the celebration, the players had to leave – some had evening classes – and attempt to restore some normalcy to their lives after the whirlwind events of the Final Four that ended with Tennessee's 59-46 win over Rutgers to claim the program's seventh national title.

"Certainly, this group has been just exceptional in terms of wanting to come together to have one common goal and to hold each other accountable along the way," Summitt said at the morning press conference. "This one has been a team and a journey that was a joy to coach. It is a team that had great passion for getting it right. They obviously came together at the right time. This group will always be very special to me."

Summitt has gotten choked up when talking about this team, and she did again Wednesday at the celebration. She also acknowledged how much the fans mean to her.

"How are the best women's basketball fans in the country feeling today?" Summitt asked.

Needless to say that question elicited a loud roar of approval.

"Cleveland turned orange, and then we get back to Knoxville, and you're here," said Joan Cronan, the women's athletics director.

Summitt used her time to tease President John Petersen, who came to Knoxville from UConn, about his orange socks, which became a symbol of good luck for the final six games of the season.

"The best decision he's ever made was to get out of Connecticut," Summitt said.

One speaker after another lauded the Lady Vols. The mayors of Knoxville and Knox County declared it to be Lady Vol day by proclamation. UT Chancellor Loren Crabtree noted the team's overall GPA was 3.22.

"Now the evil empire has ascended to seventh heaven," said Crabtree, noting the comparisons between the Lady Vols and the New York Yankees.

"Pat Summitt built NCAA women's basketball," Crabtree said.

Summitt acknowledged each one of her players for their work all season and mentioned Shannon Bobbitt's three-pointers in the title game. Summitt admitted that when Bobbitt lofted a few she said, "Nooooo …. Good shot!"

She also gave a nod to her backup point guard, Cait McMahan, for being the "kind of player who puts power in everybody else."

Summitt cited the leadership of Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle, who will be seniors next season. This year's seniors, Sidney Spencer (who was drafted Wednesday by the Los Angeles Sparks) and Dominique Redding, and walk-on Elizabeth Curry also were singled out.

"What a way to go out – on top," Spencer said.

"I can't wait to come see them play in Tampa, because we're going to win it again," said Redding, who slapped hands with her teammates before taking her seat.

Next year's Final Four will be held in Tampa.

When Summitt's son, Tyler Summitt, 16, spoke to the crowd, he said, "See you next year in Tampa."

"Even my son puts pressure on me," Summitt joked.

Summitt closed the celebration by thanking the fans.

"You separated us out from the rest of the nation, and we love you all," she said.

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