CLEVELAND - Up the ladder she climbed, and when Pat Summitt was within arm's length of the rim, she clipped the final strand of the net.
In one motion, the coach swung the nylon above her head and pumped her fist in the direction of Tennessee's hootin' and hollerin' fans.
The nine-year drought is over.
The Lady Vols reign again.
Showing it was much more than a one-woman team, the Lady Vols captured an elusive seventh national title Tuesday night, beating Rutgers all over the floor in a 59-46 win to reclaim their customary place above all other programs.
"We were a team that didn't want to be denied," Summitt said. "We weren't going to leave here without a championship."
After five Final Four trips since 1998 ended without an NCAA trophy, the Lady Vols arrived in the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame intent on leaving with a shiny souvenir. And after beating Rutgers at its own game with a swarming defense and relentless rebounding, the Lady Vols have the rest of the country looking back up at ol' Rocky Top.
"This," Candace Parker said, "is why you come to Tennessee."
Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer had hoped to win her first title, 25 years after her first national championship game appearance. Instead, Summitt won her seventh, 20 years after her first.
Parker scored 17 points to lead the Lady Vols (34-3), but the most outstanding player got plenty of help from Shannon Bobbitt and a supporting cast of less-heralded teammates, who too often this season stood around and watched her.
Not this time.
The Lady Vols wanted this title - badly. Almost from the outset, they outworked the young Scarlet Knights (27-9), who waited until the final game of an improbable tournament run to show their inexperience.
"Maybe we read the headlines or realized it was a national championship game," Stringer said. "We looked like a deer stuck in headlights."
After building a 16-point lead and then holding off a late push by Rutgers, the Lady Vols spent the final 30 seconds dribbling out the clock under the Rutgers basket. When the final horn sounded, Dominique Redding flung the ball high enough to hit the scoreboard as Tennessee's players, some in tears, danced at midcourt and orange, blue and gold confetti fell on them from above.
"To win anything you have to be a tight team," Summitt said. "They believed in each other and they all had one goal, to be here in Cleveland and cut down the nets."
Rutgers, which knocked off No. 1 Duke earlier in the tournament, was attempting to become the third straight first-time winner following Baylor in 2005 and Maryland in 2006.
Summitt's 947th career win could be one of her sweetest. The Hall of Fame coach - joined on the floor afterward by her mother, Hazel Head, in a wheelchair - had captured six national titles from 1987-98, but had been shut out for No. 7 despite having some of her most talented teams.
"This is not about winning No. 7," Summitt said. "This is about this team winning their first."
Parker, too, had been looking to solidify her place among the best to ever wear UT's orange and white. She knew only a title would fulfill her legacy and allow her to be mentioned along with Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Bridgette Gordon.
She belongs in their class now. And, despite talk she would skip her final two years in Knoxville and turn pro, she's not going anywhere.
"I'll be back," she said. "I'm coming back to Tennessee. I'll be back wearing orange next year to hang the banner. We left our mark at Tennessee."
Bobbitt scored 13 points - nine on three 3-pointers in a lightning-quick span in the second half - and Nicky Anosike, who made her teammates sign a pact in January to reinforce their commitment to winning it all, had 16 rebounds for the Lady Vols, who had 24 offensive boards.
"I've always believed that rebounding wins championships," Summitt said, "and our defense was a difference maker."
Kia Vaughn had 20 points and 10 rebounds to pace Rutgers. But the Scarlet Knights made far too many mistakes (18 turnovers) and didn't have enough to challenge the Lady Vols down the stretch.
Several times, Stringer, back in the championship for the first time since leading Cheyney to the 1982 game, put her hands to her head in disbelief at seeing unforced turnovers and lackluster defense.
Stringer had called her senior- less squad of five freshmen, three juniors and two sophomores a "team of destiny." As it turned out, only Tennessee will leave fulfilled.
"It hurts a lot," Stringer said. "But I still love this team. This was no doubt the most rewarding year I've had."
Trailing by 11 at halftime, Rutgers, trying to become the lowest- seeded team to win the women's tourney, settled down early in the second half by matching Tennessee's intensity and closed to 35-28 on Vaughn's putback with 13:33 left.
That's when Bobbitt, a 5-foot-2 bundle of energy, hit the first of three 3s in a span of 2:43. The first one came after two offensive rebounds by the Lady Vols.
After a Rutgers turnover, Bobbitt drained another 3. As the Knights brought the ball up the floor, Bobbitt was waiting for them. She forced a turnover that led to a layup by Alexis Hornbuckle, and for the first time all evening, Tennessee's fans sensed this might be the Lady Vols' night.
They were feeling even better one minute later when Bobbitt hit another 3.
Still, the Scarlet Knights weren't going to quit on Stringer, who earlier this season kicked her players out of their locker room and took away their Rutgers gear written on it because she felt they weren't playing up to the school's standards.
A 3 by Matee Ajavon ended a 7-0 run that brought Rutgers to 50-42, but Parker made six straight free throws in 37 seconds to make it 56-44 with 1:08 left. As she went down the floor, Parker looked at the bench where senior Sidney Spencer was crying, knowing all the hard work during the offseason would end the best way possible.
Seconds later, Stringer, who dropped to 0-6 in NCAA tourney matchups against close friend Summitt, began clearing her bench.
Still, this tournament ended the same way it has nearly one-third of the time since it started - with Tennessee setting up ladders to cut down the nets.
"This is something we all wanted from day one," Parker said. "I can't describe this feeling. It's amazing."
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