The freshman forward was speaking in the locker room at Alltel Arena after the semifinal loss in the SEC tourney in Little Rock, Ark., to Auburn. Ironically, the 1997 team lost nine regular season games and then lost to Auburn in the semifinals in the conference tournament. That 1997 team then went on an improbable run to the national title with wins over Grambling, Oregon, Colorado, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Old Dominion, to claim the trophy in Cincinnati, Ohio.
This year's Final Four is in another Midwestern state – St. Louis, Mo. – and the Lady Vols quest for another improbable run begins Sunday night when No. 5 seed Tennessee, 22-10, takes on No. 12 seed Ball State, 25-8, at 9:30 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2) at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky.
Pat Summitt had mentioned at the conclusion of the regular season that she would likely show the 2008-09 team the HBO award-winning film on the 1996-97 team. HBO followed the team from beginning to end on and off the court, and the entertainment company thought it would be documenting a dominant program coming off the 1996 national title. As the losses piled up during the regular season, higher-ups at HBO told the producers to bail on the project, but Jon Alpert and Maryann De Leo successfully fought to stay on, sensing a great story developing.
"It is entertaining. I just cringe when I watch it, though," Summitt said.
It was a difficult season. Sophomore point guard Kellie Jolly tore her ACL in preseason but was back by midseason in the shortest turn-around ever for a Lady Vol recovering from major knee surgery.
HBO's cameras were everywhere – they had all-access to the team that season – and they captured the agony, including Jolly crying in the bathroom before a game because she still could not play. The locker room scenes were tumultuous with trashcans being kicked across the room and lots of tears flowing. Tennessee lost back-to-back road games to end the regular season to LSU and Louisiana Tech in 1997 – the Lady Vols of 2009 lost their last road game of the season at LSU – and then lost to Auburn on a neutral floor in the SEC tourney.
The current players were aware of the parallels, but they didn't want to repeat the 10 losses.
"That was not what we were shooting, for but if it turns out how that turned out that would be great if we ended up winning the whole thing," Angie Bjorklund said. "I think we could do anything. If we play how we can play and our best game we'll be right there. We've just got to stay positive and believe that we can do it and go hard every possession."
Summitt had planned to show the team the documentary – it was just a matter of when – and Debby Jennings, the chief of media relations, got a copy to the coach. Summitt sees similarities in the two teams.
"If you look at that team and this team and the losses, the tough losses that they had and that these teams have had and going into postseason it's a new season and just getting them to understand it doesn't matter what's happened before, it matters what you're going to invest in what's going to happen now," Summitt said. "Never has a scouting report been this important to you because it's one and done. If you don't get it done you go home. This team has had it a little more challenging just because of its youth."
The team will practice Friday and then travel by bus to Bowling Green. The open practice and media interviews are scheduled for Saturday at the arena. While en route the team will view "A Cinderella Season – The Lady Vols Fight Back."
"They're excited," Summitt said. "They want to see it."
The open practice is scheduled for 2:10 to 3:10 p.m. at E.A. Diddle Arena, and the Lady Vols' clothing will match. Since the loss to Kentucky a month ago the players have been providing, and washing, their own practice clothes, and they lost access to their locker room. But the NCAA has a mandatory requirement about players wearing numbers at the open session, and there are requirements as to logo size and quantity that can be displayed. Some of the players' attire has been of the rec league variety, and they have used tape to cover non-adidas logos. Rather than having the players look like ragamuffins Summitt will break out the team clothes.
"They have to be in their gear," Summitt said. "We have to match."
Summitt had said the gear needed to be earned back, and she had been leaning in that direction with the official Lady Vol mesh jerseys being used at practice this week.
"They've gotten better," Summitt said with a smile.
A new shipment of shoes also arrived this week, and most of the players had switched in practice from blue shoes to orange ones.
Summitt has been pleased with the practice focus all week – she was a tad peeved on Sunday – as the players seem eager for postseason. Getting the brackets on Monday evening seemed to help them zero in on the task.
"Now you know who you're playing," Assistant Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow said. "The one thing I always say to the kids, ‘Don't say things you can't back up. You need to take one game at a time. You can't take any team for granted. You can't look at their record. You can't think at the league they're in. Because everybody is gunning for us.'
"That will be their ‘Cinderella Season' to be able to beat Tennessee. You've got to focus on what we need to do to get better. Go out and execute, bring our ‘A' game, play good defense and rebound and that's really about it, and pay attention to details. We're going to have it scouted. They've just got to pay attention to details."
The top seed at Bowling Green is No. 4 Iowa State, 24-8, which will play No. 13 seed East Tennessee State, 20-10, on Sunday at 7 p.m. Eastern. The winners meet Tuesday for the right to advance to Berkeley to meet the survivor of the Duke, Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee State and Michigan State sub-regional.
The assistant coaches split the three teams in Bowling Green for scouting purposes – Dean Lockwood has Ball State – and Summitt watched tape on Ball State and Iowa State.
"I watched the first half of Iowa State last night and that's unusual for me, but one of the main reasons I did is because my staff told me that there are so many similarities between these two teams in all their flare screens and back screens and down screens," Summitt said. "That helped today coming in to practice to see what we have to go against, and I think it will help our team just going against a lot of different action."
The first action to guard is that of the Cardinals. Summitt said the game film showed her a Ball State team that has balanced scoring. Four players average double figures, led by the 13.7 ppg of Emily Maggert, who connects on 54.2 percent of her shots. Audrey McDonald averages 11.4 ppg and hits 40.8 percent of her threes. They average 7.2 made threes per game. As a team the Cardinals shoot 36.2 percent from behind the arc.
They shoot 78 percent from the free throw line as a team, and four of the starters shoot 82 percent or better from the stripe, led by Danielle Gratton, who averages 12.2 ppg and connects on 89.4 percent of her free throws.
"I think the biggest thing is the balance that they have," Summitt said. "They just run really good offensive sets. We've got to really defend the three ball, know when we're switching, keep them in front of us. And at the same time I think they're going to sag off of us. I would see them just trying to get us to live and die from the outside, and it's going to be key for us to get the ball inside."
A significant portion of practice this week was spent on defense, especially identifying and switching on perimeter shooters. The Lady Vols also tweaked some looks with the ball in their hands with an emphasis on finding Kelley Cain in the paint.
"We wanted to defend their action – what they wanted to do, whether it was the flare screens or the back screens or down screens – that was our point of emphasis," Summitt said after practice Thursday. "I thought we got a lot of good sets covered, and we needed to, and we'll finish up tomorrow. And then we turned our focus to what we want to do."
The Lady Vols won't be playing on a lower seed's home court in the opening rounds – Western Kentucky didn't make the field of 64 – as Tennessee did in 2007 against Pitt and in 2008 against Purdue. Summitt didn't mind if it meant fans in the seats.
"I think in the women's game if you can have venues that will bring in people that's what we want," Summitt said. "Even if I have to play on someone's home court I like the fact that you've got people in the stands. Obviously Tennessee fans travel but just in general I think it's good for women's basketball when you turn on the TV and you've got fans for all the teams that are represented."
Chattanooga or Bowling Green had been Summitt's preferred sites – Bowling Green is about an hour north of her hometown of Henrietta, Tenn. – and the close proximity to Nashville could also boost attendance, not to mention the regular packs that travel to see the Lady Vols from all over.
"When you look at when we go over and play in Nashville we have a great turnout," Summitt said. "I know a lot of folks are excited – we didn't go to Chattanooga – and we're going to Bowling Green instead. I think from that standpoint it will be really important for our team because they are young, and they always respond better when we have a lot of people there in orange."
Charles-Furlow was a first-year player in 1988-89 when the Lady Vols played a regional in Bowling Green for the right to go to the Final Four in Tacoma, Wash. Tennessee beat Virginia, 80-47, in the semifinal and then had to face national power Long Beach State in the regional final.
Charles-Furlow was a major contributor on the team and most remembers how little pressure she felt because of having senior teammates Bridgette Gordon, Melissa McCray and Sheila Frost.
"There was no pressure for me," Charles-Furlow said. "I felt no pressure. My job was to go in and play. That was the reason why I chose the University of Tennessee because there were other players just as good as myself and all I was doing was just going in and help keep the level of play up. I never looked at that as pressure. I was up for the challenge."
Charles-Furlow had to sit out her freshman year because of academic reasons – the now-discarded Prop 48 rule, and Charles-Furlow ended up graduating with honors – and she had not been allowed to even practice with the team.
"I remember sitting out that whole year saying, ‘Dang, I can't wait until I play,' " Charles-Furlow said. "Because I wanted to play that bad and now that I had the opportunity it was like, ‘OK, just get out there and play.' I had nothing to lose but everything to gain from the experience.
"I was splitting time with Carla McGhee because Carla was starting. It was a battle, and they told us it was going to be a dogfight. I had watched them play in previous years and knew Long Beach was going to be a tough team, but I knew we had Bridgette. I felt good about (Melissa). She always had the toughest assignments and always was able to lock people down, and then Sheila in the middle. Sheila was a rebounding sister that was getting all the balls and blocking all the shots. We felt confident, but it was a dogfight.
"Long Beach for as long as I could remember was always one of those teams that was always a difficult team to beat. They had Penny Toler and Cindy Brown, and there were a couple of other players on the interior that were really explosive. They were what you would consider beasts in the posts. You had Penny Toler that could shake 'em and bake 'em."
Toler would tell defenders, "If you reach, I'm gonna teach," Charles-Furlow said. "She was very good with the basketball. Bridgette's (saying) was, ‘Tricks are for kids.' I just remember the eyes of Bridgette, Sheila and Melissa. They were so very focused and it was a battle. … I know it was a battle from the beginning to end. If you ask me about points I couldn't tell you that, but it was a very hard-fought game."
Tennessee won that game, 94-80, and then went on to beat Maryland and Auburn in the Final Four for the program's second national championship.
"It was very exciting because that was one of my goals, to be a part of a Final Four team," Charles-Furlow said. "In high school I had gone twice and lost both times so to be able to go and play at this level with the Tennessee team, knowing they had already won a national championship, I felt real good.
"I felt like Pat had the information. All we had to do was just execute it. I was excited. I was exhausted. I remember getting on my knees and pointing up to my granny because she had passed my first year. I went to my knees and was thanking God we had won, and I wished she could have seen me."
This weekend should stir memories for Charles-Furlow as those regional games also were played at E.A. Diddle Arena. She doesn't think she will share any stories with the team – those games were played in March of 1989. None of the freshmen and sophomores on this year's team had even been born.
"It'll be good for myself, but I don't know if they can relate to that and the only reason why I am saying that is because they weren't born and it may be boring to them," Charles-Furlow said. "But I can remember after we won and we were going to the Final Four, how it made me feel.
"Now, this is not the step. We've got a couple more steps to go to get there, but that was the step. We needed those two games, and we got those two games in that arena."
If Tennessee is to continue its streak of never missing a Sweet 16 in NCAA tourney history this year's team also must get two wins in Bowling Green. Charles-Furlow knew her role in 1989, and after 32 games with 12 different starting lineups and a host of freshmen being asked to make major contributions, she thinks the current team has delineated such, too.
"I think they know what their role is," Charles-Furlow said. "I just think that on a consistent basis it's been difficult for them to keep that train rolling. A good example, the SEC Tournament I thought we did some really good things. I thought we had grown up. I saw the fire in our eyes because they wanted it. They knew what was at stake.
"And then we take that second half of the Auburn game where that team went to another level, and we still stayed in the same gear and it wasn't that they weren't trying to go higher. I just think they hit a wall. It was like, we get scored on, OK, we get scored on again, OK, then we get scored on again and it's oh, no."
Tennessee led Auburn at halftime, 31-26, but then gave up 52 second-half points and lost by 20.
"It was almost like we were satisfied in the first half and then we come out flat in the second half and we can't do that," Bjorklund said. "It's a 40-minute game."
Both teams were tired – Tennessee was playing its third game in a row, and Auburn relies heavily on its starters – but Charles-Furlow said defeating fatigue is what separates teams in the postseason.
"It's difficult, but you've got to be mentally tough," Charles-Furlow said. "Auburn, to their credit, they were tired but they found a way to get it done, and we've got to find a way to get it done. Now, the difference between that and this now, we've got one game, we're not playing back to back. We've got time to rest, we've got time to recoup, we've got time to scout."
Charles-Furlow can still relate to spring break and not having to go to class and she thinks the break arrived at the right time for this team. She also knows how many more distractions they have that her generation didn't.
"Back when we played we had to be focused because we didn't have nothing else really to do," Charles-Furlow said. "We didn't have distractions like there are now. I'm glad I wasn't growing up in this time, because there are a lot of distractions. There are a lot of things going on, and you try to keep them as focused as you can.
"I just think that once we get away from here and we get in our hotel it's different. We can kind of control, we can micromanage what's happening. No cell phones, no computers unless they're doing schoolwork. No MySpace. No Facebook. None of that. It's not that it's a bad thing. It's just that when you're playing at this level and we're wanting to be in St. Louis and try to win a national championship all that other stuff you've got to let go. It's got to be academics first and basketball. That's the order.
"Some of them have papers that they're working on, but it's like a mental relief from academics. I know I loved this time of the year when we had a break. It's tournament time."
Alyssia Brewer and Manning were already familiar with the parallels to the 1997 team after the loss to Auburn in Little Rock. Both knew the 1997 team had lost to the same team at the same point of the tournament.
"We tried not to, but if it's fate to have the road like they did and win like they did I'm good with that," Brewer said, "because next it's do or die, one and done."
Summitt said the win-or-go-home format has been emphasized to her team but won't be now.
"We've talked about it enough," Summitt said. "We want their focus to be on winning, not losing. I think from what I've seen in practice they are very focused, and their execution is getting better. Their defense has gotten better, and that's something that's going to have to stand up for us.
"You never know how a young team is going to shoot the basketball or how many times they're going to turn it over. This is a first for so many of them going into postseason. But just playing defense covers up a lot. It potentially could help us a lot."