SAN ANTONIO - After Monday's regional final victory over Vanderbilt, Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt was asked if advancing to the Final Four ever gets old. Summitt's response was immediate - no, because each team is unique and she never loses that desire to have every team experience the ultimate success.
This year's team perhaps reminded her more than any other of her reasons for continuing to coach at the collegiate level. From the get-go, the 2001-2002 team struck her as one of unlimited, untapped potential.
The team was a mystery, mainly because it was an underclassmen-filled lineup. For the first time in years, there were no "Meeks" to be found on the roster.
And for the first time in years, there was and still is no clearly defined superstar to point to as the heroine of the Lady Vols. This season, the Lady Vols have earned their way to the elite level of women's basketball - the Final Four - by role playing.
Through the season, Tennessee has clearly had its ups and downs. Some of that can be attributed to the loss of a strong class of seniors to graduation and the gradual acclimation of the freshmen to basketball at the collegiate level. Some of the problems emerged from the need for upperclassmen leadership. But most of the season's stretches could simply be summed up as growing pains.
Each player on Tennessee's 14-player roster had to stretch into the role defined for her, whether that role is as a starter accumulating lots of minutes or as a seldom-used reserve relied on for leadership and bursts of enthusiasm off the bench.
When Tennessee faced Connecticut in January, the young team had shown its potential in a 13-0 start. But against experience-laden UConn, their hidden weaknesses were revealed. A cohesive Husky team, with four starters who are seniors, overcame an early deficit and blasted past the Lady Vols.
Since then, the Lady Vols have taken other lessons on the chin from opponents. Against Vanderbilt, they learned that a lack of commitment to defense will leave you far behind. In their loss to Texas, they learned that a reliance on one player to pull you through would ultimately destroy you. And against LSU, they learned that underestimating an opponent can and does bring you down.
In the postseason, the fruits of those lessons have emerged.
Faced with one of the toughest paths to the Final Four, Tennessee went into practice and regrouped. In the first round against Georgia State, the Lady Vols appeared with defensive presence and a new starting lineup. In Summitt's 15th different starting lineup of the season, freshmen Shyra Ely and Brittany Jackson and juniors Kara Lawson, April McDivitt and Gwen Jackson took to the court with quick intensity to fight off the Panthers.
That same lineup hit the court two days later against defending national champion Notre Dame. The Lady Vols blasted out of the gate against the Fighting Irish, utilizing a full-court press to force Notre Dame turnovers and scoring easy baskets in transition.
The difference between a good Lady Vol team and a great one, it turned out, was all in commitment - a commitment to defense, to rebounding, but most of all to each other. The roles were clearly defined. Each player who comes onto the court for Tennessee must maintain the level of intensity left by her teammates, because one play can make or break the game.
Against BYU, the task was in not underestimating the No. 11 seed. Though the game was hard-fought, Tennessee did not look past the Cougars to the SEC showdown ahead.
Vanderbilt finished the season in strong fashion, picking up the SEC tournament title and a No.1 seed in Tennessee's division. Tennessee, though, learned from the two games before. Chantelle Anderson was allowed to get her points, but a sweeping defense stopped the rest of her team, and hence, stopped Vandy.
Tennessee's next test emerges as the toughest one of all.
Connecticut will come into Friday's matchup undefeated and trying to pick up the program's third national title. The experienced Huskies challenge from all areas of the court.
They utilize the type of sweeping pressure defense that Tennessee used efficiently against Vanderbilt and Notre Dame. A team defending them can't key on any one player - senior point guard and consensus Player of the Year Sue Bird may hit you one day, while sophomore phenom Diana Taurasi will light you up the next.
Many have said that Tennessee stands no chance in this matchup of women's superpowers. I won't say for certain that I know how Friday's game will turn out. But I will say this: though UConn hasn't digressed in talent since the January matchup, Tennessee has done nothing but get better.
The best basketball I've seen played by Tennessee in the three years I've been covering them has been played over the last two weeks. A team unlimited in its potential is finally tapping into it. Freshmen are playing like veterans; upperclassmen are leading by example; and the players are committed to each other.
As Summitt has said, there is no limit to what this year's team can do - granted that they simply believe and play to that unlimited potential.