Tennessee seniors get last shot at Final Four

Pat Summitt said while she may or may not coach after this year,

she’ll worry about her future at another time.

Her only goal now is to win a ninth national championship.

The Tennessee women’s basketball coach has spent this season

adjusting to life with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.

”I love this game. … I may or may not coach. It is what it

is,” Summitt said Wednesday. ”I just want to try to get another

championship for this group.”

It’s the first time in recent weeks Summitt has addressed her

future. Not that her team needs any extra motivation – the Lady

Vols seniors realize this is their final shot.

The once-heralded recruiting class hasn’t yet played in a Final

Four, something every four-year player at Tennessee before them has

done. Glory Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen, Alicia Manning and Briana

Bass aren’t planning on becoming the first group to miss out.

”If there’s something I can do a little bit harder, I will,”

Johnson said. ”I’m trying to leave everything out there, whether

it’s rebounding as hard as I can or playing as best as I can. You

never know when the last time you’re going to play a game for the

University of Tennessee is.”

Summitt is putting it all on their shoulders, too.

The coach started the four of them along with fifth-year senior

center Vicki Baugh – the only player left from Tennessee’s 2008

national championship squad – in a senior-night win against Florida

on Feb. 26. Summitt liked what she saw from them in the 75-59 win

so much that she kept them as the starters all the way through the

Southeastern Conference tournament.

That worked out well for the Lady Vols, who blew through the

tournament, beating LSU 70-58 in the championship game on March 4.

So Summitt said she is going to keep on starting the seniors.

The SEC tournament never has been the problem for this senior

class; they’ve won three of them now. Johnson thinks she and her

classmates are ready for the pressure of starting during the NCAA

tournament.

”I love it,” she said. ”That’s what we were thinking about

way before the senior night. I was like, `Man, if we just have the

responsibility, if we have everything on our shoulders it’s our

fault if we don’t start off strong in the first 4 minutes of the

game. It’s our fault if we start losing the game early.’ I love it,

and I know the rest of my classmates love it.”

The seniors were freshmen when Tennessee suffered its first and

only loss in the opening round of the tournament in 2009. Since

then, they’ve lost to Baylor in the 2010 regional semifinal and

were bounced in 2011 tournament by Notre Dame in the regional

finals.

Baugh said she thought the responsibility of starting and

setting the tone for the rest of the Lady Vols in the last four

games has really made the rest of the seniors act more like the

leaders they need to be. They’ve been playing tougher and demanding

more out of their teammates.

”I think the seniors are realizing our time is winding down and

we can either play six games or we can play one game, so it’s up to

us,” Baugh said. ”That’s just going to take determination and

motivation and having a great start and continuing to play great

defense and rebounding.”

The second-seeded Lady Vols’ quest begins Saturday in Chicago

against 15th-seeded Tennessee-Martin (23-8), Summitt’s alma mater.

Beyond that, Tennessee could face No. 7 seed DePaul, No. 3 seed

Delaware and overall top seed Baylor.

The Lady Vols know that’s no easy road to the program’s 19th

Final Four, but they’re confident they can make it.

”We know it’s do-or-die. We’ve got to take it one game at a

time. Right now our focus is UT Martin. We’re very hungry,”

Stricklen said. ”We haven’t been to a Final Four, and that’s our

main goal. We’re going to give it everything we’ve got and that’s

starting with our first game against UT Martin.”