No. 1, with a mission: Lady Vols on Final Four quest

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If the Tennessee women's basketball team winds up winning at the Final Four next April in Minneapolis, they'll probably point to a little preseason chat between coach Pat Summitt and senior forward Dana Johnson as one defining moment.

Summitt, who had met with all her seniors individually, asked Johnson what she wanted to accomplish this season. Johnson said simply that she wanted to win a national championship.

That was all Summitt needed to hear.

"I said, 'OK, if that's what you want to do . . . I'm going to do the very best I can do from a coaching position in terms of discipline and structure and practices," said Summitt.

If the first two weeks of the season are a harbinger, then Johnson -- a Western High graduate who leads the top-ranked Volunteers into tonight's meeting with Maryland at Cole Field House -- and the other three seniors may very well get their wish.

"She [Summitt] is going to do whatever she can to help us," said senior forward Nikki McCray. "In return, we have to be able to listen and focus and do what she says. We really want to go to the Final Four and I think we're willing to do whatever it takes to get there."

In a certain respect, this Tennessee team, which dominated No. 2 Stanford, 105-69, Thursday night, looks a lot like the rest of the squads that Summitt has molded in 21 years in Knoxville.

The 1994-95 Volunteers (3-0) are athletic and talented, with all 12 players having made one high school All-America team or another before coming to Tennessee, as usual.

What is different this season is the mind-set of their coach. In light of Johnson's declaration, Summitt decided to crack the whip, or at least get tougher than she had been in recent years.

"I'll shoot you straight: I've been tough," said Summitt, who got her 500th coaching victory last year. "I've been tough before, but not since Dana came to Tennessee and not since I recruited this senior class that was so highly touted and came in as individual stars, but not team players necessarily."

"It took us a long time to bring them together and to mesh their talents and get them on the same page. I think we are."

When they aren't on the same page, Summitt wastes no time throwing the book at them. Already this season she has suspended two seniors, center Vonda Ward and guard Tiffany Woosley.

Ward didn't play in the season-opener against Louisiana Tech because she accepted a small gift, a minor NCAA violation. Woosley, the starting point guard, was booted from the team for two weeks for a violation of "team philosophy." She is in Knoxville and won't play tonight.

The suspensions came as no surprise to Johnson and McCray, both All-America candidates.

"If you don't fit the team mold, then you don't belong with the team," Johnson said. "She told us from the beginning how it was going to be and if we didn't comply with what she wanted, that was what was going to happen."

Said McCray: "Pat is sending out a message that either you do it or you don't. If you don't, you won't play. That's a great message for our team. It's helping everybody on our team individually. The team is the focus. It's one goal and one team."

So far, the focus has paid off. In dispatching the Cardinal at home Thursday, the Volunteers turned in what Summitt said was as complete a performance as she has seen from a Tennessee team in five years.

"It was for us to get our confidence up, to see how well we really can play," said Johnson. "Now we know what kind of level we have to play at in every game."

There is, to be sure, a sense of urgency that permeates this season's Tennessee squad.

For all its rich tradition -- Tennessee has three NCAA championships, more than any other women's program -- and a three-year record of 88-8 entering this season, the Volunteers have not visited the Final Four in three seasons.

And if the Volunteers fail to get to the national semifinals this season, the senior class will be the first to go through four years in Knoxville without reaching the Final Four, something that has not been lost on Summitt or her players.

"We were the best recruiting class that Pat has ever had, and we've fallen short of the Final Four," said McCray. "We've had great winning seasons, we haven't lost a home game and we've only lost [eight] games in our career. But the Final Four was what we came to Tennessee for. Now is the time. We know what we have to do."

Said Summitt: "For me as a coach, I would feel like I would have let them down if they had given their all and we had not been one of the best teams in March. They would feel likewise, like they had let down their teammates and the program. I just don't want to let them down.

"I really like this team, and I want to see Dana, Vonda, Nikki and Tiffany and all of them at least have a chance at a Final Four."

TONIGHT'S GAME

NO. 1 TENNESSEE WOMEN (3-0)

at MARYLAND (2-1)

Site: Cole Field House, College Park

Time: 7

Outlook: The Lady Vols, who routed No. 2 Stanford, 105-69, on Thursday, will be without two seniors, G Tiffany Woosley (suspension) and F Nikki McCray (broken hand). Senior F Dana Johnson (Western) has not played well offensively, but has made up for it defensively. Maryland freshman F Kelley Gibson (twisted knee) is out. The Terps will need vastly superior inside play to stay with Tennessee. The Terps lost, 64-48, to the Lady Vols last season, but won, 77-72, two seasons ago when Tennessee also was top-ranked.

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