Originally created 04/01/97

Tennessee champs get giant welcome



KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Cybill Shepherd dressed in Tennessee orange on Oprah. The White House on the phone to the Pat Summitt household. An HBO crew that stuck with the defending champions even through bleakest January.

Those were moments from Tennessee's 1997 national championship season, the fifth national title for the Lady Vols and their first back-to-back.

More than 2,000 cheering, pom-pom waving fans greeted Summitt and her team as they arrived at Thompson-Boling Arena in limousines Monday to celebrate the victory. The home court score board read: Tennessee 68, Old Dominion 59.

"We've never had such a wonderful reception," Summitt said. "You know if it took five to get this many, wait till we get six, OK?"

The crowd, many of them little girls, cheered wildly.

Moments in the championship run and in the season were recounted. Summitt had something special to say about every member of the team - from star Chamique Holdsclaw to supporting cast.

Joan Cronan, UT's women's athletics director, told of seeing Memphis native Cybill Shepherd on the Oprah show Monday aglow in Tennessee colors in tape-delayed celebration of Tennessee's Midwest regional victory over rival Connecticut.

Summitt mentioned the president phoned her at home Monday afternoon with congratulations.

"Pat, this has got to be really, really gratifying," Clinton told her.

"It is," she replied. "Of all the championship runs this one truly is very special because it was such an uphill battle for us."

By mid-January the defending champions were 10-6 and on the verge of dropping out of the AP Top 10 for the first time in years.

After losing by 18 to Connecticut, by 11 to Old Dominion and playing poorly against St. Joseph's, senior Abby Conklin recalled, "We were just asking Pat, don't give up on us. And she told us she wouldn't."

A two-person HBO crew that chronicled the season didn't give up either although Tennessee had the look of a loser to their New York headquarters.

A portion of their video, accompanied by the song "Only the Strong Survive," shows Summitt in the locker room after that early ODU loss. She praised her team, and said, "If you play this way, I'm telling you right now, we are going to be there in March."

Summitt said Monday, "I try to give our players confidence and they have confidence in each other and confidence in us. But I don't know anything more about basketball today than I did three years ago or five years ago.

"So what you have to say is. We had a game plan and these young ladies just went out and played. And did you ever see a team play any harder or more determined?"

And the crowd cheered.