Tennessee puts on the pressure

Jeremy Stone

TAMPA, Fla. – Don't ever sleep on Tennessee.

The Lady Vols stormed to consecutive national titles here on Tuesday, dominating Stanford 64-48 for their eighth championship overall and sending Candace Parker to the WNBA as a two-time titlist.

The better team smacked the hotter one, which demonstrates that three months of momentum isn't anything that a tenacious pressure defense can't demolish.

Especially when so many pundits declared that Tennessee, with an injured Parker, wouldn't be able to slow down the Cardinal, much less limit them to their lowest point total in the NCAA tournament since an 82-48 loss to Maryland in 1982.

"All year, somehow as defending national champions we've flown under the radar, not lived up to expectations and been criticized for not playing a 40-minute game," said Parker, only the fourth woman to be named the tourney's Most Outstanding Player twice. "But all of that stuff doesn't matter as long as you pull it together at the end and we did that, and I think that we used our criticism as motivation and it fueled our fire and I think the reason why we're here today is because of that criticism."

Of course, Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt is the one responsible for a lot of the "not playing a 40-minute game" criticism. But, for a change, Summitt didn't have to manufacture the underdog mentality leading into Tuesday's game, even though Tennessee (36-2) was a No. 1 seed and Stanford (35-4) a No. 2.

"I'm telling you … it was a personal thing for them," Summitt said. "The fact that all of the ESPN talent, we got Kara Lawson who played at Tennessee, not giving us a chance, really. I mean, that just really – that fired them up.

"And it was probably the best thing that could happen to us, if you think about it. Because it wasn't like they felt pressure to win."

Stanford, however, felt the pressure – maybe not so much pressure to win, but instead pressure simply to advance the ball. The Lady Vols pressured the Cardinal occasionally in their loss at Stanford in December, but not like they did Tuesday.

"A lot of people underestimate our defense," Parker said. "And when you get on the court with us, it's a little bit different than what you see on TV or anything like that."

Or different than when you face them in the regular season. On your home court.

Stanford had averaged 85 points per game in the tournament heading into to the title game. Tennessee scored just 47 on Sunday. Frankly, the Cardinal looked better than the Lady Vols on Sunday.

But Summitt and Tennessee knew they were going to do what no team had dared do to the Cardinal much since, well, the teams met in December. The Lady Vols cranked up the pressure.

"They were jumping; they were in passing lanes," said Stanford's Wade Trophy winner, Candice Wiggins, who was held to 14 points in her final game. "And usually when people are pressuring you, you have to be able to get by them. I think we didn't really start attacking the pressure until later in the game. I think it would have really helped us if we started attacking maybe a little bit earlier."

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer had said Monday that having beaten Tennessee in the regular season – for the first time since 1996 – might help the Cardinal and give them confidence that the Lady Vols could be beaten.

But if anything, that confidence worked against Stanford. Because the Cardinal hadn't seen much pressure since then, and the pressure the Cardinal beat in December wasn't the same pressure they faced Tuesday.

"I feel like we went over in practice how aggressive they were going to be and how to break the press. But you can't practice that kind of aggressiveness," Stanford guard JJ Hones said. "We would push the ball up the court, but there would look like there was nowhere to go."

And so, even with a superstar injured so badly that she probably wouldn't have played were it a regular-season game, Tennessee captured the national championship.

That's what the Lady Vols do. They've won a title with a 10-loss team (1997). They've won titles with arguably the best team ever assembled (the following year). And now they've won back-to-back titles for the second time, with their superstar playing through a dislocated shoulder.

They just win titles. And that's why you don't ever sleep on Tennessee.