It was 45 minutes before game time and Tennessee coach Pat Summitt was still in her car, stuck in a five-mile-long traffic jam last Wednesday night on Knoxville's Neyland Drive. Finally she bailed out, left her car on the side of the road and hoofed it the rest of the way to the new Thompson-Boling Arena. When Summitt got there, she found several thousand people massed outside the arena doors, unable to get in. That's because inside there were already 24,563 fans, many of them still scrambling for the unreserved seats, even up to the aluminum benches just beneath the rafters.
At 25 minutes to tip-off, Summitt made it into the arena. There at court-side Charlie Moore, a representative from the Guinness World Records Museum in nearby Gatlinburg, stood by to verify that an attendance record was indeed being set for women's basketball on this planet. Pat Summitt, of all people, should have known that this was a day to leave a little early for work.
The Tennessee women's athletic department had coupled this superpower meeting between No. 1 Tennessee and No. 2 Texas with a superduper promotional ticket giveaway, in hopes of making one giant slam dunk for womankind. The day was historic, but, alas, not all that its boosters had hoped for. In short, the people were there, but the game didn't quite make it.
The bad news was the score. Former NCAA champion Texas two-stepped past jittery defending champion Tennessee 97-78 in a display so cold, clinical and convincing that those groaning stands began emptying with seven minutes to go. Lady Longhorn Clarissa Davis, a serene 6'1" junior who was the Naismith Player of the Year last season, stilled the assemblage with a career-high 45 points, repeatedly silencing meek runs by the Lady Volunteers with a brilliant blend of turnaround jumpers and power moves. She was in a class by herself. "We're not entertainers," Davis says. "But it makes it more exciting when the fans go, 'Whoa! I can't believe a girl just did that!' "
While Davis was providing a tantalizing hint of the women's game of the future, both coaches of the present were praying for a down-to-the-wire epic that would steal headlines and attract new fans. Both were disappointed. "We can hope that people saw the potential," said Summitt afterward, "but obviously we didn't do the sales job we intended to do." Even Texas coach Jody Conradt had a tempered view of her team's stunning show, which elevated Texas back to its accustomed AP No. 1 spot. "It would have been better if the score had been closer," she said. "But there are limits that even I have for promoting the game."
The crowd was certainly all anyone could have wanted. It demolished the existing NCAA paid-attendance mark of 15,615, set at last season's NCAA tournament finals in Austin. Wendy's restaurants regional headquarters in Knoxville had bought up 20,000 seats for the game, printed up an extra 60,000 tickets and then passed them out as first-come, first-sit ducats, free with a purchase at Wendy's. The attendance for this one game exceeded the season totals of each of the other nine Southeastern Conference women's teams last season.
The count was duly confirmed by Moore, Guinness's verifier, who double-checked each of the 29 turnstiles and instructed Tennessee officials to bag the stubs, as well as make a video scan of the stuffed arena for posterity. Said Moore, "Guinness will not accept a guesstimate."
By all guesstimations before the game, the on-court matchup figured to be memorable. "A dream game," Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore called it. Texas and Tennessee are mirror images of one another, beyond their dominant colors (orange) and initials (UT). They split a pair of games last season. Each is a highly athletic, hard-D perennial that, after a decade of door-knocking, was led by a freshman to the promised land: Davis steered the Lady Longhorns to their first NCAA title in 1985-86; guard Tonya Edwards sparked Tennessee to the title last season.
For this showdown, each club would be without a top player or two because of injuries, but that didn't figure to cool the usual passions. "This is an opportunity for each of us to see how good we are," said Tennessee guard Dawn Marsh. "The competition between us is always unreal." Last season, in fact, when things got rough during Texas's 88-74 win over Tennessee at a tournament in Miami, Conradt walked down the sideline and went heatedly nose-to-nose with Summitt for three minutes as play went on. "What you have to understand is, I say what I feel," says Conradt. "It was warranted at the time, but we've both moved on."
The coaches' pregame approaches for the Wednesday extravaganza centered on preparing for the huge crowd. Summitt called on Tina Buckles, a sports psychologist who has worked with the Lady Vols for three years, to help dispel anxieties and develop "attentional focus." Conradt, on the other hand, went quietly along, assuring her team it had nothing to lose. "Having been in a lot of games with big crowds, I know I've felt a lot of pressure as the home team," she said. "You have a lot of first-time fans and you want them desperately to come back."
Before the tip-off, the Vols seemed charged by the surge of the home crowd. The visitors, meanwhile, showed little more excitement than they would over, say, a large order of fries at Wendy's. "We try to stay cool, calm and collected, like Miss Conradt," said guard Beverly Williams. Their coach was indeed just that. A Vanderbilt grad student was monitoring the pulses of both coaches for an experiment, and in a pregame greeting, Conradt snuck a glance at the meters. Summitt's pulse was pounding at a rate of 127 beats a minute; Conradt's was a mere 94.
The Vols were in trouble from the outset, frazzled more by Texas's pressure than by the eyes of Tennessee upon them. Texas senior Yulonda Wimbish harassed Edwards into a furious pace. "Her hands were all over me," Edwards said. "I was trying to protect the ball and see the players, and I got into rushing." Edwards missed early and often, finishing with four frustrating points. Wimbish, who scored 18, is, like most of her cohorts, state-of-the-art in matter-of-fact. "My defensive mentality?" she asks. "Get in their shirt."
Wimbish's roommate, Davis, meanwhile, was having no trouble finding a flow. Her shot is effortless ("Everything has been easy for me") and her explosiveness always evident ("Sometimes I laugh on the court because I can't believe what I do"). As a freshman two seasons ago, she was tagged as being "out of control" by Conradt, who is now happy to redefine the term. "If I could run as fast as she can run, and jump as high as she can jump, I'd be out of control all the time," Conradt admits. "It looks like an awful lot of fun."
When Davis was growing up in San Antonio, she sharpened her game by taking on an aunt who played for Way-land Baptist, and she became a point guard for John Jay High. Today she is one of the rare female players with the strength and hangtime to follow a shot for a tip-in. She can reach five inches above the basket but can't dunk because her hands are too small. Still, she can see where she—and the game—is going. "In 10 years I'll be an announcer, Clarissa Vitale, and I'll be saying, 'What a dunk! Can you believe it?' "
The present looks bright enough for Davis, who scored 12 points in the first 10:29 as the Lady Longhorns went ahead 28-13. Tennessee, led by 6'4" Sheila Frost (21 points), scratched back to make it 41-38 with 1:23 left in the half. But then Davis hit a layup off a steal; Davis drove from the wing, was fouled and converted two free throws; and Davis ripped one of her team-high eight rebounds, passed to Pennee Hall, and slapped her palms to the floor with glee as Hall's 35-foot, three-point heave beat the buzzer.
"We're not real emotional like other teams," Wimbish said. "We just sit back and observe. If something really good happens, then we'll acknowledge it. Like that." Tennessee never got closer than 10 the rest of the way.
"Clarissa was amazing," Summitt said. "She's so tough without the ball she can get in position for high-percentage shots. We didn't make it easy for her, but her concentration was outstanding. She's a money player." Davis literally shot the lights out during a 10-minute stretch in the second half. She hit six of eight, and a power outage dimmed Texas's side of the court. "I felt more focus tonight than I ever had before," said Davis. For the game she hit 16 of 27 from the field. Her career shooting percentage is .642, and she has shot 77.5% in nine NCAA tournament games. If she gets any more focused, somebody will have to call Guinness again.
The folks at the World Records Museum probably have their eyes on Conradt already. Now in her 19th season—12 of them at Texas—she has won 80.9% of her games, and her 476 victories are the most by an active women's coach. A native of Texas, Conradt found little counsel available early in her career as an aspiring coach. So she sent $5 to North Carolina coach Dean Smith for a mimeographed handout on the run-and-jump defense—which Texas still uses rather ferociously. Conradt remains bent on winning, but she's equally determined to promote her sport.
"To be in a setting where we're able to draw fans has probably kept me in the profession," says Conradt, whose team drew an NCAA-record 6,639 fans per game at home last year. "The time of women's basketball has arrived, and I honestly mean it when I say the biggest pressure in this game is that I have to put on a good show. We don't have to play flawlessly, but play with intensity and be credible. It's exciting to be where we are. I used to say if there were 50 people in the stands, it meant somebody's family was in town."
After the game Conradt and the Longhorns headed for an in-your-face feast at Wendy's, where the manager asked them to pose for a photo. Smiles were flashed, along with Hook-'em Horns finger signs. Conradt—and everyone else in the picture—hoped that more than a few new fans had been hooked on women's hoops.