"Knoxville was due for a championship," Tennessee star Candace Parker said after leading the Lady Vols to their seventh NCAA women's basketball title in a 59-46 rout of upstart Rutgers. Leading up to the Final Four, she'd talked of ending Tennessee's title drought.
It had been nine years, and in the intervening seasons Tennessee had been to the Final Four five times and the Championship Game twice. Things are a little different in Knoxville when it comes to women's basketball, the bar's a little lower when it comes to declaring a drought.
It's been more than nine years for Rutgers, let's just say, which was after its first championship. It's also been more than nine years for the other Final Four teams, North Carolina, winners in 1994, and LSU, which has never won.
But there are people who believe the natural order of women's college basketball is for Tennessee to be at the top. Most of them wear orange a lot. Tuesday night in Cleveland it looked unfortunately like the team in red believed it too.
Rutgers, a 4-seed that shocked Duke early in the Tournament and put itself in position to become the lowest seed ever to win the title, looked terrible. The Scarlet Knights, a team without a senior, seemed to start thinking at just the wrong moment that maybe they didn't belong on the same floor with the game's most storied program, best player -- Parker -- and greatest coach, Pat Summitt.
The Scarlet Knights looked jittery and lost. Guard Epiphanny Prince, who knows better, dribbled into a triple team at one point, and at another, she puzzlingly refused to pick up a ball she'd fumbled, incorrectly thinking she'd be called for a travel. Her ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep a Tennessee defender from the loose ball was a notable exception to Rutgers' apparent steadfast refusal to box out.
"Maybe we read the headlines or realized it was a National Championship Game," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. "We looked like a deer stuck in the headlights."
Too bad, because the game was there for the taking early. Despite having every physical advantage there is to be had -- size, speed, quickness, strength -- and dominating the boards to a ridiculous degree, Tennessee let Rutgers stay in the game.
Tennessee got seven of the game's first eight rebounds, and 11 of the first 13. Of those 11, seven were offensive rebounds. At about that point, six and a half minutes into the game, Essence Carson of Rutgers hit a little jumper in the lane for an 8-6 lead.
"With all the second chances they've given Tennessee, how do they have the lead?" ESPN announcer Mike Patrick asked his broadcast partner, Doris Burke. Patrick was speaking rhetorically, but at the time, Tennessee had missed eight straight shots, three of them 3-pointers that weren't shining examples of shot selection. Senior Sidney Spencer was the chief bricklayer, having started 1-for-4, 0-for-2 from beyond the arc.
A few moments later, after a ninth straight missed shot and a fourth straight missed three, this one by Alexis Hornbuckle, ESPN showed Summitt yelling at her team: "No! More! Jump-shooting!"
Over the next nine minutes or so, Tennessee went inside and made six of nine shots, none of them 3-pointers, and scored 16 points in 10 possessions. The Lady Vols led 22-14. Rutgers never again got closer than six points.
But they hung around, thanks mostly to the efforts of center Kia Vaughn, who had six points and four rebounds in the first six and a half minutes of the second half. Vaughn scored on a put-back to bring Rutgers to 35-28 with 13:31 to go, as close as they'd been since 20-14 late in the first half.
That's when Shannon Bobbitt went on a run that put the game away. Following yet another offensive rebound, the 5-2 guard took a pass on the left wing from a triple-teamed Parker and let fly. Three points. Vaughn posted up Parker and got a decent look, a 10-foot jumper in the lane. It rattled out. Bobbitt missed a three at the other end, and after another miss by Rutgers, she tried again from the right side. Three points.
Ballgame, 41-28. The drought was over in Knoxville.
Bobbitt added a steal that led to a layup by Hornbuckle and a 15-point lead, but that and everything after it were just part of the celebration.
Parker, a red-shirt sophomore, had an off shooting night, hitting five of 15, and she didn't dominate the box score, finishing with 17 points and seven rebounds. But she was Tennessee's clear leader, scoring, defending, rebounding and, perhaps most importantly, passing out of double- and triple-teams. Even if Rutgers hadn't had the yips early, it would have been hard-pressed to stop Tennessee once the Lady Vols stopped jacking up ill-advised 3-pointers.
There'd been speculation Parker would declare for the WNBA draft, which she would have had to do by Wednesday morning. ESPN's Mark Jones asked her about it on a public-address microphone after the game, and she said to the crowd, "Come on, now. Why wouldn't I come back and wear orange another year? Why wouldn't I? Why wouldn't I?"
And pass up WNBA thousands? Why wouldn't she indeed. Not for Parker the traditional coyness of male players in the face of that question, demurring until a press conference long after their minds are made up.
With Parker returning and Spencer the only graduating player in the rotation, Tennessee figures to enter 2007-08 as the solid favorite to win the championship. The dark years of crushing failure appear to be over in Knoxville.
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Eddie Robinson dies [PERMALINK]
Legendary Grambling football coach Eddie Robinson died Tuesday night at the age of 88. Robinson, who was the winningest coach in college football history when he was forced out in 1997, had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years.
Cold, Hard Football Facts.com has a nice "by the numbers" feature as a tribute to Robinson. It points out that Robinson and Grambling -- a Division I-AA school -- produced four future NFL Hall of Famers: Willie Brown, Buck Buchanan, Willie Davis and Charlie Joiner.
Only 11 schools have turned out more, and all of them except Southern Methodist are not only Division I-A programs, they're BCS teams. And SMU was once a power of that magnitude. Morgan State, a I-AA school, and San Francisco, which dropped football as a Division I sport in 1951, have also produced four Hall of Famers.
Robinson sent the first player from a historically black college to the NFL, Tank Younger, who signed with the Los Angeles Rams in 1949. That put the school, known as Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute when Robinson was hired in 1941 and Grambling College at the time, on the map. It became Grambling State University in 1974.
Doug Williams, a star quarterback for Robinson and eventually his successor as coach, became the first black quarterback to play in and win a Super Bowl. He was the MVP of the game following the 1987 season. He was one of more than 200 players Robinson sent to the NFL.
"I'm thinking about Eddie Robinson the man," Williams told the Associated Press Wednesday, "not in today-time, but in the day and what he meant to me and to so many people."
It would simply be impossible for a coach today to have the same impact Robinson had in his time. Historical forces led to the positive notion that black quarterbacks and coaches, not long ago considered unthinkable in the NFL, are today simply a part of the league's landscape. That probably would have happened whether Robinson had come along or not.
But history played out the way it did, and once you start following the historical threads of black players and coaches in pro and college football, they tend to keep leading back to a once-obscure teaching college in northern Louisiana and the coach who began building his legend in his second year on the job, when the Tigers went 9-0 and didn't surrender a point. Robinson was 23 at the time.
Previous column: Florida beats Ohio State for the title
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