CLEVELAND – When the Lady Vols cut down the nets in Kansas City, Mo., finishing the 1997-98 season with a 39-0 record and winning a third straight championship and No. 6 overall, the question wasn't when Tennessee would win its next title.
It was how many more Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt would win.
But then Duke shocked Chamique Holdsclaw and company in 1999 and Connecticut beat the Lady Vols three times in the title game and Michigan State rallied from nowhere to beat Tennessee in the 2005 Final Four.
And here we are, nine years since that late March night at Kemper Arena, and Tennessee is facing Rutgers on Tuesday with a chance to end that title drought, to win in first title since current Wade Trophy winner and Lady Vol star Candace Parker was in fifth grade.
"It's always tough to be on that stage and lose," Summitt said Monday. "But quite honestly, I don't know that we had a team that was really favored during that time. … In a lot of cases we overachieved.
"But the missing ingredient was just having the players that, on that stage, could step up and make the big plays."
In Parker, Tennessee now has that player. And she knows her career as a Lady Vol won't be complete without a title.
"She would tell you she definitely needs a title to validate her career and her place at Tennessee because people compare her to Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdslcaw," Summitt said. "Don't talk about Candace Parker along with Chamique and Tamika until Candace Parker's a part of a national championship."
Now only Rutgers stands in their way. But its head coach has waited even longer for a title, and unlike Summitt, C. Vivian Stringer doesn't have all those earlier titles to fall back on.
Both Summitt and Stringer led teams to the first NCAA Women's Final Four in 1982. Stringer led Cheyney State to the title game. Both lost to Louisiana Tech.
Two schools and a quarter-century later, Stringer is back in the title game for the first time.
Of course Stringer's coaching career predates the NCAA Final Four by a decade. She has been a head coach three years longer than Pat Summitt, a pioneer of the sport.
But never a national champion.
That she has the chance Tuesday, with this team, surprises even her.
"Every year we believe we can win the national championship," Stringer said. "This year [was] different. I really didn't think so. I didn't even know if I could last as a coach."
So when she is asked whether she is unfulfilled about failing to win a national title in her first 35 years on the bench, despite 777 victories (third on the all-time list), Stringer answers with the voice of experience and passion that have defined her as a coach for two generations.
"To be here now, I'm not going to spoil it by being obsessed with it," Stringer said. "There are people who have won a national championship that you would probably have a hard time remembering their names right now. Because it's a flash in the pan; it just happened overnight.
"I think most people will think about me because somehow we're that team that you're going to always have to mention because we're going to be somewhere tat's dangerously close."
Secure in her legacy? You bet. Still longing to win it just once?
"Pat has won a lot of times," Stringer said of her longtime friend. "I really would like to know what it feels like, and I don't need her to tell me what it feels like.
"I want to experience it myself. And who wouldn't?"
Now the only thing that stands in her way is the program that knows what it feels like better than anyone else – and that has been waiting almost a decade to feel it again.
- Pat Summitt
- Candace Parker
- Chamique Holdsclaw