TAMPA, Fla. – For Tennessee, it's a chance to add to the gap between the Lady Vols and Connecticut. For Stanford, it's a long-awaited opportunity to regain its spot as one of women's basketball's perennial championship-level powers.
So, as always, plenty more is at stake than just this year's national championship.
But Tuesday's game shouldn't define the legacies of Lady Vol junior Candace Parker and Cardinal senior Candice Wiggins. The Wade Trophy winners already have returned their programs to the lofty levels they once occupied.
A generation ago, Tennessee and Stanford traded titles. The Lady Vols and Cardinal combined for five of six national championships between 1987 and 1992.
But as the '90s progressed Tennessee kept winning titles, three in a row from 1996 to 1998. Stanford kept making the Final Four, but after an 83-82 overtime loss to Old Dominion in 1997 – the last one-point game in the Final Four until the Lady Vols' 47-46 win over LSU on Sunday – the Cardinal hadn't returned until this year.
Tennessee has had no such stretch. Tuesday's game will mark the 13th time Pat Summitt's team has played for the championship in the 27 years of the NCAA tourney.
But until Parker arrived, the Lady Vols had slipped – to second in the country. Had they fallen off the map? Of course not. But three losses in five championship games to UConn had made the Huskies the team of the decade by 2004. UConn had won four titles in five years. Tennessee had won six overall (just one more than UConn), but 1998 seemed so long ago.
But nobody in Knoxville was relaxing their expectations. Summitt tried to make sure recruits knew what they were getting into.
"If you're not a great competitor and you're not committed to hard work, and there's a reason they call it 'hard' work, don't come here," Summitt said. "Because you'll be miserable, and I'll be miserable. And when I ain't happy, ain't nobody in the camp happy."
Parker has embraced the pressure. In ESPN promos for the tournament, she says that anything less than a title at Tennessee is a failure.
If that's true, Tennessee had experienced seven consecutive failures until Parker started devouring Lady Vol opponents. Now that she has delivered the elusive title No. 7, she has been able to enjoy her final days as a college player – even while she grimaces through a painful dislocated shoulder.
"You know, I just really think this is a great experience," Parker said. "To be able to grow from an 18-year-old kid to a 22-year-old adult and experience a championship is amazing. And I'm thankful for everything, and like I said, I'm living in the moment. Tuesday night I think it's really going to hit me that it's over."
Sounds like someone who knows her legacy is secure.
So is Wiggins'. Title or not on Tuesday, Wiggins will be remembered at Stanford as the school's greatest player and the one who led the Cardinal back to the promised land after a 10-year drought that some had feared might never end.
That has allowed her simply to savor the moment.
"You know, I've been to three Final Fours before this, and I've been on the outside looking in," Wiggins said. "So this year, it's like I'm on the inside looking out, and I'm gonna love that because I know what it's like to be on the outside looking in. … I make sure I see all the signs that say Stanford on them, and appreciate all the support and all the fans, and sign the extra autographs, and just really (have) fun on the court."
Cardinal head coach Tara VanDerveer also seems to be relishing this trip to the Final Four, perhaps more than when Stanford made it six times in eight years. And now that Stanford has a chance to become the third school with at least three titles, VanDerveer has proved to any skeptics that the game never passed her – or her program – by.
"The competition is much different than it was in 1990 and 1992," VanDerveer said. "Also, I think that for our team, the three years we went to the Elite Eight (from 2004 to 2006), we could just as easily have been here as this year. … So I never felt that we were – I didn't feel like we dropped off the map. I felt we were right there."
- Candace Parker
- Candice Wiggins