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Champions return home

April 4th, 2007 11:36 pm by ELIZABETH A. DAVIS

KNOXVILLE - Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and the Lady Vols were welcomed home Wednesday by the band playing "Rocky Top" and hundreds of cheering fans ready to celebrate a seventh national championship.

Tennessee waited nine long years for this title after getting a three-peat from 1996-98. The Lady Vols beat Rutgers 59-46 Tuesday night in Cleveland.

"How are the greatest basketball fans in the country?" Summitt asked the big crowd of people mostly wearing orange and many already donning championship T-shirts. "I just want to thank you for really setting the standard. You have been awesome."

"Obviously I'm extremely proud to be your coach and coach of the team that brought home the 2007 national championship!"

Summitt did most of the talking at the event held at the city's convention center because Thompson-Boling Arena is undergoing renovations. She had a big surprise for her three assistant coaches.

Holly Warlick and Nikki Caldwell, both former players, and fellow assistant Dean Lockwood were each presented a Mercedes SLK 280 roadster by a local dealership. The three looked stunned, and the players cheered in excitement and ran to the cars that were driven inside the exhibit hall. One of them honked the horn.

"Maybe Dean can find a woman," Summitt said after the presentation, and Lockwood, a former men's coach, stood up and shook the keys to his new ride at the screaming crowd.

The fans in attendance included football coach Phillip Fulmer and men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl. They had planned to attend the game Tuesday night but could not take off from the airport because of a bad storm.

T-shirts and other memorabilia of the championship have already gone on sale in Knoxville. The school is issuing a season highlights DVD for the first time.

Wednesday was declared a special day for the Lady Vols by Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam and Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale.

After waiting so long to win another crown, Summitt let loose a little and even took a jab at arch-nemesis Connecticut. She thanked UT President John Petersen for his support, particularly wearing the same orange socks to all the NCAA tournament games. Petersen was provost at UConn before being hired to oversee the statewide university system

"The best decision he ever made was to get out of Connecticut!" Summitt said. And the fans roared some more.

The Lady Vols brought the trophy with them, and women's athletic director Joan Cronan said there will be room in a large glass case outside Summitt's office in the arena that already holds the other six.

"We have a spot," Cronan said before the ceremony. "We've been waiting for it."

Summitt called out each player and described how important each was to the title run.

Candace Parker, who had 17 points, seven rebounds and three assists on Tuesday, was named Most Outstanding Player, becoming the fifth Lady Vol to be so honored.

Summitt has four incoming freshmen to look forward to next season when Tennessee goes for its eighth national championship.

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