There is no more compelling a story out of the Des Moines Region than the University of Tennessee's Lady Volunteers, who were eliminated last night when the unbeaten (38-0) Baylor Bears trounced the Vols, 77-58.
Despite Shekinna Stricklen's 22 points for Tennessee (27-9) and Glory Johnson's 19, they became the first four-year Lady Vols class not to reach a Final Four.
And if this was Pat Summitt's last game as a coach, after having been diagnosed earlier this year with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's style, it remained a game very nearly the way she would have wanted to go out....a standing ovation by the fans gathered at Wells-Fargo Arena....her players, ever physical, ever aggressive, got into a scuffle with the Bears in the last 46 seconds of a game that was never in doubt. It wasn't the first physical game they've played in the 2011-12 season. They made it to the Regional finals by pummeling (literally) the DePaul Blue Demons at the Allstate Arena last Tuesday night, 63-48.
However, Summitt seemed resigned to her fate.
"Though animated throughout the game, the Des Moines Register reported, as defeat became apparent, Summitt sat silently on the bench."
And at the end of a tough season, an agonizing question hangs over the picturesque Knoxville, Tennessee campus....
What should we do now?
What happens with the legend-in-her-own-time coach Pat Summitt, the architect of the modern women's basketball game, who put NCAA women's basketball on the map worldwide.... the woman who brought eight national championships while tutoring future WNBA stars like Naperville's own Candace Parker and future stars Johnson and Stricklen, earned a NCAA record 1,098 wins and a gold medal for the US Olympic Basketball team in 1984 with Kim Mulkey, the Baylor coach who took Summitt out of the Final Four by showing the same aggression, not to mention a 6'8 center named Brittany Griner?
Last week at the Allstate Arena, it was agonizing for those who truly love Summitt to watch a woman so in command of her game and movements gaze passively, straight ahead for several minutes, then rise up with ferocity in the next minute, shaking her fist at an official, or giving individual encouragement to a player, then sit and become passive again.
In Des Moines, Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick broke into tears, as she told the Associated Press and other media gathered:
"This team is about Pat Summitt. This team has battled all year," she said. "I'm proud of them. I thought our team and coaching staff obviously was in a difficult situation. But I thought this team was responsive. I wouldn't trade anything that we did this year."
As the Des Moines Register reported, when the NCAA Tournament began two weeks ago, Summitt told a UT publicist she still wanted to coach. Nothing has changed, the publicist said Monday night, as far she knew.
Her son, Tyler, told the Des Moines Register last week the family plans to sit down in the next few weeks and discuss whether Summitt will continue to coach.
Whatever decision Summitt makes in the long run, one thing is clear: it must be HER decision. For all she has given to the game of women's basketball, she must be allowed the grace and dignity to choose what is best for her, with the support of her family and the University Administration. She has fought many battles, and won. Throughout this season, she has fought to keep her mind intact and sharp, and according to her players and staff, she continues to coach and encourage, one-on-one. As uncomfortable as the passive face may be, Pat Summitt would never want to be pitied. She would want us to see that she is still fighting to be the Pat Summitt we know. The Pat Summitt we love, and the Pat Summitt who changed the face of basketball for women everywhere. We all owe her a debt of gratitude for the game.
When we see her again, let's see her in that light...bathed in the glory of her accomplishments, and her spirit.
If she thought we pitied her efforts, she would take herself out of the game first.
She has earned that right...to choose the time of her passing the torch.