KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Funny, how folks deal with losing around here.
The football team went undefeated, and after winning the national championship Monday night, the players talked about how much last year's Orange Bowl defeat had motivated them.
The women's basketball team -- the beloved Lady Vols to everyone in the so-called "Orange Nation" -- suffered their first loss in more than a year back in mid-November, and the players, not to mention coach Pat Summitt, talked in the same cliches.
Can you imagine how motivated Tennessee would be if it loses again, say today on its trip to Storrs for a much-anticipated showdown with top-ranked Connecticut? Can you imagine how much more tightly wound Summitt would get if the words "losing" and "streak" were ever mentioned together?
Those who remember Summitt's reaction to a 10-point loss to Purdue can't fathom the idea.
Summitt, by her own admission, had turned soft during the preseason and blamed herself for the team's first loss in 46 games.
"This team had spoiled me," Summitt admitted after practice one day last month, the memory of the 78-68 loss to the Boilermakers still fresh. "I was so sure that everything would be the same as last year. I didn't do a good job of seeing it as a new year."
The personnel from a team that had won the school's second straight national championship had been remarkably unchanged. Led by "The Three Meeks" -- senior guard Chamique Holdsclaw, sophomore guard Sameka Randall and sophomore forward Tamika Catchings -- the Lady Vols seemingly had been strengthened by recruiting.
But the freshmen spent much of the preseason gaping at the awesome talents of players such as Holdsclaw, the veterans assumed that the newcomers would step right in, and Summitt simply figured that she didn't have much to do but X-and-0, rather than explain and opinionate.
"We thought we could just automatically turn it on and off," said Randall. "Maybe we were all too complacent. It was a really quick reality check."
Here's a little piece of reality for the rest of women's college basketball: The Lady Vols are back.
Since losing, Tennessee has won 11 straight to improve its record to 12-1 and move back to No. 2 in the country. Among the victories was a 19-point road win over then No. 2-ranked Louisiana Tech two weeks later, a 14-point win over No. 16 Duke in Orlando Dec. 6, a 23-point blowout of No. 8 UCLA at home Dec. 21, and a 14-point win over No. 15 Rutgers at Madison Square Garden last Sunday.
But today, the Lady Vols will face their toughest test against a Connecticut team that has won this season's first 12 games and features a top freshman, 6-foot-2 forward Tamika Williams. The Huskies, coached by Geno Auriemma, will want to avenge last season's 15-point loss at Tennessee.
While Summitt has gotten her focus back, the fire isn't quite what it used to be.
Summitt, who went from All-American here to coach in a matter of months nearly 23 years ago, once was the Bobby Knight of the women's game. She didn't throw chairs or cause international incidents, but she was just as demanding and, at times, demoralizing for those she intimidated.
"When I played for her, she was still pretty close to her players in age, and she had to make sure she had total authority," said Holly Warrick, who is now in her 14th season as an assistant coach. "One of the things Pat has learned is how to handle players better. She picks her battles better than she used to."
Summitt and those who know her point to the birth of her son, Tyler, more than eight years ago as the event that helped shape a new philosophy toward coaching.
"I think motherhood has certainly been a factor," said Summitt, 46. "It's not the only reason. Maturity. Years of experience. Kids are different. You take those factors, and all of them have played a part.
"I've learned from situations where I was too tough. Filming practices and games, I've also critiqued myself. I've sat at home and said, 'You're too tough on a player' or 'You're not tough enough.' "
After her then 4-year-old son started sobbing one day after Summitt had been critical of something he had done, she began to realize that her players were not much different. She still reminds them of how to do things the right way, but as she said, "You have to tell them things that will help them, not hurt them."
With this season's team, that has meant bringing along freshmen Shallon Pillow and Michelle Snow a little slower than she might have wanted.
It has meant being a little more patient with sophomore Kristen "Ace" Clement, trying to persuade the talented guard that she need not be perfect on every possession.
It has even meant realizing that Holdsclaw, perhaps the greatest female player ever, can err.
But sometimes the old Summitt takes over, demanding to the point of ridicule. It happened when the Lady Vols went through the motions in the second half of last month's blowout of DePaul.
"We have to learn how to play 40 minutes and be as intense as we were last year," said Holdsclaw. "You don't play down to your opponent. We think we should put out the effort. Thus far, we haven't done that."
Things have come around in the last month.
Given the attention the football team received locally, the Lady Vols have been playing in relative anonymity. That will change today, and in the next two months, as the Lady Vols try a three-peat.
Folks around here are not used to losing.
Pub Date: 1/10/99