Seventh title a long time coming for Tennessee

CLEVELAND -- Nine years ago, Tennessee won a national championship but didn't celebrate. Well, not really.

Coach Pat Summitt smiled. The players cut down the nets at Kemper Arena in Kansas City. The band played Rocky Top. The fans clapped and stomped. But it didn't feel like a true celebration. It felt expected. It felt routine. It felt … almost boring.

Tennessee's top player then, junior Chamique Holdsclaw, said in the postgame news conference that she wasn't going to put on a show and act as if she was overjoyed. She was happy, sure, but this was her third title. This was just "supposed" to happen.

At that point, Tennessee had won three consecutive titles and six of the previous 12. Tennessee finished 39-0 in 1998. People were wondering when any other school would win a national championship again.

Who knew a drought was coming?

"I never thought it would be nine years," longtime Tennessee assistant coach and former player Holly Warlick said Tuesday, shaking her head and smiling in the winners' locker room after Tennessee had defeated Rutgers 59-46 in the NCAA final.

Yes, women's basketball almost made it a full decade without the Orange Crush reigning supreme.

In that time, Connecticut won four titles, including a three-peat for Diana Taurasi. Duke rose to national prominence -- although not to a national title. Purdue had a senior backcourt come through in a dream season. Notre Dame's iron women, led by center Ruth Riley, won it all. Kim Mulkey added an NCAA title as a coach at Baylor to what she had won as a player at Louisiana Tech. Maryland's Terrapins proved overtime was "their time."

And Tennessee looked on -- mad, puzzled, bewildered, somewhat like a queen who suddenly found her throne didn't belong to her alone anymore and wondered, "Wait! How did this happen?"

Tennessee didn't fall off the map or anything. Holdsclaw finally tasted NCAA Tournament defeat at the hands of Duke in 1999. But even with her gone, the very next year Tennessee was playing in the NCAA title game. But UConn won that.

The next season, Tamika Catchings was injured and missed the last few months of her senior year. Tennessee never quite recovered, and lost in the Sweet 16 to Xavier. In 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005 were four more Final Four visits. All ended in disappointment.

That last one, in particular, was bitter. Nobody ever feels sorry for Tennessee, right? Of course, not … but if you were going to, it would have been in 2005. Would-be rookies Candace Parker and Alex Fuller were sidelined all season with knee injuries. Sophomore Sidney Spencer suffered a torn ACL in February.

All three had to watch from the bench as Tennessee let a 16-point lead in the national semifinals get away against Michigan State. Spencer sure didn't forget that.

"When we got up by 16 tonight, we referred to that in one of the timeouts -- about never getting comfortable," Spencer said of the loss to the Spartans at the RCA Dome. "That was probably the worst. I was about two weeks out of surgery in Indianapolis, but the pain I felt was a lot deeper with that loss.

"But it's so awesome to still be here at Tennessee and to get a title."

Spencer, an Alabama native, says she can recall looking up to Summitt from the time she was 5 years old. And she also remembers very well watching that "three-peat" era led by Holdsclaw.

"Little kids always make dreams like they want to be astronauts or whatever," Spencer said. "I wanted to play for Tennessee. How rarely do they come true? But hard work has really paid off."

That sounds trite, but nothing could be more true. Just ask the Tennessee staff. Any of the coaches will tell you this group of players did everything that was asked of them. Last season ended in frustration with a loss in the regional final to North Carolina. Then, the returning players put in the time during the offseason. They practiced very hard. They understood their roles. They didn't resent when the team was referred to as "the Candace Parker Show."

Tuesday, Parker earned the Final Four's most outstanding player award, with 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists. She was splendid this entire tournament. But her teammates all did what they needed to do as well in the title game.

Nicky Anosike rebounded as if her life depended on it, finishing with 16 boards. Shannon Bobbitt hit critical 3-pointers, scored 13 points and was a complete pest on defense. Alexis Hornbuckle rebounded well from the guard spot and helped harass Rutgers into 18 turnovers. Spencer scored 11 points. And Alberta Auguste came off the bench for 10 points, making the Scarlet Knights pay when they collapsed on Parker.

"I can't describe the feeling," Parker said. "It's amazing."

Yes, Tennessee really did celebrate after this title. The fans erupted. The players hugged each other hard. Summitt was glowing, but she made the point that this was not really about her winning her seventh national championship as a coach. It was about this group of young women winning their first.

Summitt doesn't forget that players such as Michelle Snow, Kara Lawson, Tasha Butts, Loree Moore, Shanna Zolman, Brittany Jackson, LaToya Davis, Ashley Robinson and Tye'sha Fluker all came to Tennessee with the goal of winning a national title -- and didn't get it. She didn't want to see another senior class leave Knoxville without one.

And it won't.

"You see other teams have their glorious ending," said the senior Spencer. "And it happened to us."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.