Knoxville, TN — Tonight was a very special night at Thompson-Boling Arena as yesterday marked the beginning of the 6th Annual SEC “We Back Pat” Week- the first since the world lost the legendary Coach Pat Summitt to Alzheimer’s disease last June.
The week began as the Tennessee community gathered to celebrate the opening of the new UT Medical Center Pat Summitt Alzheimer’s clinic, and it will continue as SEC women’s basketball teams show their support for the Pat Summitt Foundation and the fight against Alzheimer’s at their home games this week.
The stands were packed with fans proudly wearing UT orange shirts stating “We Back Pat”, as they gathered to show their support for the Lady Vols, as they took on No. 6 Notre Dame -- and for the legacy of the woman who was not just a coach, but an inspiration and a role model to so many: Pat Summitt.
The excitement from the crowd and the spark from the Lady Vols were undeniable from tip-off. It was clear that Tennessee was playing with a very special kind of determination and heart. That being said, the Lady Vols began the first quarter strong.
Diamond DeShields and Mercedes Russell exemplified a quick-moving and skillful offense, but it was their defense that did not hold up against the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame rattled the boards with an impressive 14 rebounds and three players scoring three-pointers. The period ended with Notre Dame in the lead at 25-18.
Their supporters cheered the Lady Vols on to step up their defense in the second stanza, but the Fighting Irish was not fazed by the vocal fans and the sheer volume in the arena, and they continued to run the court. “Nothing but net” was all they seemed to hear, as two players, Marina Mabrey and Brianna Turner, already scored in the double digits by the end of the first 2o minutes of play.
The Lady Vols left the court down by 13 points and the understanding that they must step up their defense to lessen the fight in the Fighting Irish.
And that is exactly what they did. In the second half, the momentum of the game completely changed thanks to one player in particular: DeSheilds. DeSheilds, who ended the game with 20 points, six rebounds, and four assists, brought Tennessee to just a two-point deficit in the fourth quarter, with a score of 62-60.
“In the second half, we could not get a rebound,” said Notre Dame’s Head Coach Muffet McGraw. “I was really disappointed in out effort defensively.”
Yet, where they lacked defensively, the Fighting Irish made up for offensively. They quickly answered back by shooting nothing other than another one of their infamous three-pointers.
But, Lady Vols’ Schaquilla Nunn would be a big spark off the bench as she scored three more points and pulled down huge offensive rebounds. With the help of her energy and with four minutes left in the game, Tennessee was only down by one.
The crowd was on their feet. The screams of excitement were piercing. The Lady Vols ultimately turned the game around to show that they would not back down -- just as Coach Pat Summitt would’ve wanted.
Yet, just like their mascot, the Fighting Irish would be anything but complacent as they continued to fight. After scoring on both sides, Notre Dame’s Lindsay Allen tied the game at 69-69.
However, then, with 10 seconds left, Jamie Nared scored two. And just like that -- an upset.
In the post- game interview, Jordan Reynolds sat holding the game ball: “I will never let go of this ball until I graduate,” she joked. “ But, it was our first time beating them since 2011. This is an upset, yeah, because of our record. But, we know what we’re capable of. We had a couple of tough losses earlier, but I think it just goes to show what we’re capable of, and that’s why I’m holding on to it.”
“We were tired of being beat by Notre Dame,” continued DeShields. “Just tired of getting beat in general. Our team is full of winner, and I think that our hearts showed tonight. We were willing to sacrifice and do what we needed to do for each other to get this win. It wasn’t about any individual tonight. We played team basketball.”
Not only were the Lady Vols victorious on the scoreboard, but they also played with a sense of pride for their school, community, and the incredible legacy of Pat Summitt. As ecstatic as the team and the players were, the score did not seem to be the most important thing this evening.
The real joy in Thompson-Boling Arena came from celebrating and supporting the Pat Summit Foundation. As the Lady Vols continue on during “We Back Pat” week, the players and fans will remember what is really important -- playing with courage and teamwork and acting with kindness, just the way Coach Summitt taught and lived.
“They just had a huge belief in each other,” said Head Coach Holly Warlick, “and that’s something we’ve got to carry on with us….and to honor Pat the way we did, to play like a Lady Vols team should, with big heart- like Pat did. I’m glad we could represent her the way we did.”