CINCINNATI - Tennessee was good enough this season to win its second straight national championship in women's basketball. But just wait. The best may be yet to come.
Start with the fact that all but two players return from this year's team, including All-America forward Chamique Holdsclaw, who was voted the outstanding player in the Final Four and is just a sophomore.
Add to that a recruiting class that's rated No. 1 in the nation and might rank among the best of all time.
Then throw in the considerable coaching skills of Pat Summitt, who already has taken the Lady Vols to five national titles, plus a tradition of refusing to accept failure, and ... can you say dynasty?
When Holdsclaw was asked what she could do for an encore after Tennessee beat Old Dominion 68-59 in Sunday night's championship game, she replied, "Go for two more. The sky's the limit. We want to be the first program to win four (straight)."
It's not a stretch to imagine that.
Tennessee does lose two key players in forward Abby Conklin and center Pashen Thompson. Conklin scored 12 points in the championship game on 4-for-5 shooting. Thompson added eight points, making all four of her shots and grabbing six rebounds.
But look at what returns along with Holdsclaw, who scored 24 points in the title game. Tiffani Johnson, a 6-foot-4 junior, will be back to patrol the paint. Point guard Kellie Jolly, who set a championship game record with 11 assists, is a sophomore. The other starting guard, Kyra Elzy, is a freshman. So is forward Niya Butts, a top reserve.
The recruits are led by 6-foot Tamika Catchings of Duncanville, Texas, the Naismith Player of the Year in high school. The incoming class also has 5-11 point guard Kristen Clement of Broomall, Pa., a Naismith award finalist; 5-10 Semeka Randall of Cleveland and 6-3 center Teresa Geter of Columbia, S.C.
"It's probably my best class," Summitt said. "On paper, they're very impressive. They won all the individual awards in their respective states. But the thing I like about them, I think they're good people and they're great competitors."
Of course, a great recruiting class doesn't necessarily ensure a championship.
Georgia's seniors of La'Keshia Frett, Tracy Henderson and Kedra Holland-Corn were ranked No. 1 nationally when they arrived and while the Lady Bulldogs twice went to the Final Four, they never won it all. Iowa's current junior class was rated the nation's best as recruits and they haven't even made it to the Final Four.
Still, having talent certainly is better than not having it.
"By Tennessee standards, we're a little lean on talent right now," Summitt said. "But we've got some coming."
Lean or not, Tennessee still had enough to become the first team in 13 years to win back-to-back titles. This would have been the year to stop Tennessee and it didn't happen.
The Lady Vols were beaten down by a rugged schedule early on and they stood 10-6 after losing to Old Dominion 83-72 on Jan. 7. Jolly missed the first 16 games because of a torn knee ligament. Five games after she returned, her replacement, Laurie Milligan, was lost with a knee injury.
Tennessee finished only fifth in the Southeastern Conference and for one week, the Lady Vols fell out of The Associated Press top 10 - the first time that had happened in 10 years.
But when the calendar turned to March, the Lady Vols turned it up. And in Summitt's view, it all went back to the loss at Old Dominion.
"That was the time that I thought our team really took ownership for what was happening, for what was going to happen," she said. "I've never seen them so emotional. I think they realized that we all have to step up here and be accountable if we're going to survive what's in front of us.
"When your team takes ownership, that's when I think you hit a turning point."
Jolly returned after that game, the Lady Vols won 11 of their next 12 and they were on their way to turning skeptics into believers.
"The only people that believed in us were us, our coaches and friends," Thompson said. "Nobody else did. We just did it."
They might be doing it for a long time to come.
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