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Resilience of Tennessee Pays Off in Women’s Final

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt brought this team to the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Women’s Final Four: five freshmen, two sophomores and three seniors. Only the seniors had played collegiate basketball before this season.

Summitt left here Sunday with her second national championship in three years. How it happened is beyond the imagination of most. It was a tribute to the resilience of youth and the ineffable bond of teammates who drew close amid tumult.

Tennessee overwhelmed Auburn, 76-60, to win the women’s national championship Sunday before 9,758 in the Tacoma Dome. It was a game between Southeastern Conference teams, the No. 1 Volunteers (35-2) and the No. 2 Tigers (32-2), to settle the No. 1 ranking that only the two of them had held this season.

The game, played before a national television audience, not only did that, it illustrated more. Tennessee’s hard-nosed defense and steady offense has been born of necessity this season. Auburn, which made its second straight appearance in the championship game, may not have had as much to fight for this season.

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The Tigers made a fight of it in the first half, leading by as many as five points. But the Vols came back to lead, 35-27, at the half.

“At halftime, Tennessee had done a tremendous job of controlling the boards,” Auburn Coach Joe Ciampi said. “I believe at halftime we had 13 turnovers. With those two negative statistics you are not going to win many games. Their defense totally disrupted us.”

Much of that work came from the three Vol seniors; forward Bridgette Gordon, who had 27 points and 11 rebounds, guard Melissa McCray, who had 10 assists and center Sheila Frost, who had 12 rebounds and five blocked shots.

Gordon proved herself to be a hard worker in addition to a great scorer. Frost, especially, took over in the second half. Tennessee held an iffy lead, 50-47, at 9:47, but Gordon hit three straight baskets to send the Vols on a 13-2 scoring streak.

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Auburn never recovered. The Tigers had some success inside with Linda Godby and Vickie Orr, who had 13 and 16 points, respectively, but they never got over the hump.

“Every time we would make a run, they would counter,” Ciampi said.

That big Tennessee surge gave them a 63-49 lead that was extended to as much as 18.

A jubilant Summitt first thanked her seniors after the game. “I would like to say to the three seniors sitting here how much I respect and appreciate what they have done,” she said. “I have been touched by their dedication and leadership.”

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Tennessee was a team dependent on guard Tonya Edwards, who was the most valuable player of the Vols’ 1987 championship game. When Edwards blew out her left knee this season on Jan. 31, it seemed her team’s chances at the national championship had been gravely injured, too.

Edwards’ injury was both the nadir of Tennessee’s season and the start of the team’s stubborn ad steady rise. It marked the emotional regrouping of the Tennessee team and quite possibly prevented complacency.

“This team handled adversity better than their coach,” Summitt said. “They handled Tonya Edwards going down much better than I did. It’s a real credit to their character and their determination.”

Edwards agreed that something happened to the Vols then. “I think it was a time for the team to see the light. I was gone,” Edwards said. “A lot of them came to me and said, ‘We are going to do it for you, T.’ That took a load off me because I was thinking I had let the team down. The team really rallied from that point on.”

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This was not a position where the Vols were deep. Tennessee’s other point guard, Kris Durham, quit the team after four games.

Much fell to freshman Dena Head, who hadn’t played the point guard since high school.

“We had a meeting when we got back to Knoxville after T’s injury,” Frost said. “The three seniors knew we had to make Dena Head learn. We were like coaches to her and she did learn. As you all saw today.”

Head was hesitant in the first half and then poured in 15 second half-points. Head, who is an intense and reserved pre-med student, was the player Summitt told her team to key on, “She’s your ticket to the national championships,” Summitt said in the Fall.

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“I think the last two months are going to be very special to me,” Head said. “I had to grow up in a hurry. I had no choice.”

There is the case of Carla McGhee, a 6-3 forward.

McGhee was a passenger in a car involved in a five-car accident in 1987. Her face was smashed; her jaw was broken in five places, her cheekbone was fractured and her hip dislocated. The bones in McGhee’s face are held together with wire and she must play with goggles. She has no peripheral vision.

“They told me I would be lucky to ever run again, let alone play basketball for Pat Summitt,” McGhee said.

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Her rehabilitation took one year. McGhee said that when Edwards was injured it may have helped her overcome her own lingering pain and fear.

“I realized I was feeling sorry for myself,” McGhee said. “I wanted to show Tonya that I could come back from an accident and so could she.”

There is the case of Daedra Charles, a 6-3 center.

Charles was raised in Detroit by her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother, “my best friend,” died before her freshman year at Tennessee. Charles wanted to dedicate that season to her grandmother. She didn’t get the chance. Charles sat out last season, a victim of Proposition 48.

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“It hurt that I couldn’t play for my grandmother,” Charles said. “When T went down, it was worse. I just wanted to have the best season I could, for both of them.”

Charles had 13 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench.

Final Four Notes

Named to the All Tournament team were: Sheila Frost and Bridgette Gordon of Tennessee, Venus Lacy of Louisiana Tech, Vickie Orr of Auburn and Deanna Tate of Maryland. Gordon was named most outstanding. . . . Ben Tucker gets the award for fervent fandom. Tucker, a farmer from Crossville, Tenn., rode a bus 72 hours to get here to watch the Vols, his favorite team. . . . Three championship game records were tied or broken Sunday, all from Tennessee players. Gordon’s 27 points tied her with USC’s Cheryl Miller (1983) and USC’s Cynthia Cooper (1986) for most points, Melissa McCray’s 10 assists tied her with Kamie Ethridge of Texas (1986) and Frost’s five blocked shots broke the record of four by Erica Westbrooks of Louisiana Tech (1988). . . . Tennessee gets $35,200 for the victory. However, according the Vols’ women’s athletic director, Joan Cronan, it cost the school more than $50,000 in the postseason tournament.

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