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All eyes on Summitt at Madison Square Garden

NEW YORK -- The sparse Madison Square Garden crowd, clearly punch drunk from an 11:00 a.m. tipoff, got its first glimpse of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt late in the second half of top-ranked Baylor's win over St. John. This was the early game of the annual Maggie Dixon women's basketball doubleheader, and when the Lady Vols coach arrived at center court during an extended time out, the crowd of 2,000 or so woke up and cheered.

As the Jumbotron squeezed in on Summitt's famous face (clenched teeth, then a smile), and the public address announcer extolled parts of her famous resume, Summitt graciously received the Maggie Dixon Courage Award, honoring the late Army women's basketball coach, who died of arrhythmia at age 28 in 2006. She then embraced Baylor coach Kim Mulkey on her way off the court, but not before slapping hands with some Lady Bears players, and receiving a hug from Baylor All-America junior center Brittany Griner, a moment where the past, present and future of women's hoops all formed as one on the Garden floor.

This is how it is these days for Summitt. Wherever Tennessee travels, everyone wants a piece of the coach to let her know they are behind her in her public fight against dementia and Alzheimer's. [Information for her foundation can be found here. Five days earlier, she and a group from the Tennessee administration had flown to New York City to be honored along with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski as SI's Sportswoman and Sportsman of the Year. There, she was feted in front of 300 people including Chris Evert, Wayne Gretzky, Sugar Ray Leonard and David Robinson. "Pat Summitt is our John Wooden," said Mulkey, who competed against Summitt as a player while at Louisiana Tech and played for her at the 1984 Olympics. "She means to the women's game what John Wooden meant to the men's game. After you let me out of here [the press room], I'm going to go out and watch her game. Because you never know how many games she has left to coach."

Against DePaul, Summitt won for the 1,076th time at Tennessee, a comfortable 84-61 win by the country's seventh-ranked squad. It was Tennessee's fourth time playing at Madison Square Garden, which includes the largest crowd (15,735) ever to see a women's basketball game in New York City, when Tennessee beat Rutgers on Jan. 3, 1999. While the attendance on Sunday was far from robust, those who were there were dressed in orange and clearly rooting for the famous lady from Knoxville.

Watching Summitt on the sideline, you see flickers of the old Pat -- the trademark arms folded, and the 1,000-mile stare at the refs.

But she's much less animated these days and there is a clear division of labor among her assistants. Associate head coach Holly Warlick runs the defense and calls plays in the huddle. She also handles the post-game press conference. Assistant coach Mickie DeMoss handles the offensive sets and does the postgame radio interviews. Summitt is privy to their thinking so everyone is in sync but she's often an observer now.

With high expectations and hopes that its star freshman point guard (Ariel Massengale) would provide the missing piece for a program that has excited the tournament early than expected the past two seasons, Tennessee started the season with two losses (Baylor and Virginia) in its first four games but have since rebounded to improve to 5-2. (Massengale is averaging 7.2 points and 5.8 assists but missed the DePaul game due to an injured finger.) The Lady Vols have a grueling schedule over the next nine days, with a road game at Rutgers on Tuesday followed by a West Coast trip to UCLA (Dec. 17) and No. 4 Stanford (Dec. 20). "We're a seasoned group and we know that Pat has to pace herself," said DeMoss. "We're mindful of Pat getting rest. She makes sure she gets to bed at the right time and we don't have many early practices on the road. But at this point, she's been fine. She's mindful of getting to bed early and getting up and doing her exercises and things like that."

While most in attendance focused on Summitt, the Baylor-St. John's game turned out to be the more competitive half of the doubleheader. Given the dual resumes -- Baylor (10-0) is the top-ranked team in the country while St. John's (5-5) had struggled without its best player, Da'Shena Stevens� you would have predicted an easy blowout for the Lady Bears. But Baylor played in a fog early, especially All-America sophomore guard Odyssey Sims, who missed all four of her shots in the first half and had more personal fouls (two) than assists (one). St. John's stayed close thanks to the backcourt play of junior guard Eugenei McPherson and junior guard Nadirah McKenith -- they combined for 19 points on 8 of 14 shooting in the first half. The Red Storm took a 32-30 lead into halftime on a driving layup from McPherson's driving layup with 27 seconds. It was an eye-opening first half for the home team.

St. John's extended its lead to 36-30 after the break, but finally Baylor showed up, and its huge advantage in size and athleticism took hold. Mulkey inserted junior forward Destiny Williams into the lineup -- she had sat out the first half due to a team suspension -- and Baylor amped up its defense, extending across the court. The active defense prompted an 18-3 run, with Griner scoring six points and blocking two shots during the streak. Junior Brooklyn Pope led Baylor with 19 points while Griner had 17 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks in a grind-it-out 73-59 win. "Our basketball team did not play well today but give St. John's credit," Mulkey said. "When you have No. 1 plastered in front of you, you will get everyone's best shot."

Blame New York City. Baylor attended a showing of Spider-Man on Broadway Saturday night (and then had to be up at 6 a.m.), and also cheered on Heisman Trophy winner (and Baylor junior quarterback) Robert Griffin III from the red carpet prior to his award ceremony. (Griner said the team was texted news of Griffin's win, and collectively let out a cheer during the Spider-Man performance). After the game, Mulkey said RG3 has been begging her for years to let him have a dunk-off against Griner. (Don't bet on it.)

For now, Griner will focus on one of her biggest challenges of the regular season: Baylor hosts No. 2 and undefeated UConn on Dec. 18 in a game that has been sold out for weeks. "That game," Griner said, "has been highlighted on my calendar."

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