WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick left the Mackey Arena floor during Purdue’s first-round NCAA women’s basketball game Sunday, turned a corner in the tunnel and saw coach Pat Summitt.
“Pat,” she said, “it is loud out there.”
“Well,” she responded, “good.”
Numerous coaches complain about playing lower seeds on the road, a product of the women’s tournament still lacking enough popularity to use only neutral sites. Following a 66-59 loss to lower-seeded Purdue on Sunday night, for instance, an annoyed Utah coach Elaine Elliott said, “Everybody is better at home. Good for them.”
Summitt delivered a different message to Purdue fans Monday: Bring it on. Wear black and gold and come in droves. Be loud.
“I hope everybody comes,” she said. “I hope we have a sellout crowd and a great environment for women’s basketball.”
Summitt, 34 years into her coaching career, still puts the promotion of women’s basketball before herself. She relished the opportunity to play in front of a raucous crowd at eighth-seeded Pittsburgh last season — the Lady Vols won 68-54 — and wants a similar scene tonight at 7.
She also has selfish reasons. During a grueling nonconference schedule designed to prepare the Lady Vols for an atmosphere like they’ll see tonight, Summitt noticed her team played better under adverse circumstances. They lost at Stanford in front of about 7,000 fans and dropped a home game to LSU.
“I’d rather the gym be packed and they boo us for 40 minutes than have a sparse crowd and us get complacent,” Summitt said. “For whatever reason, our players like a lot of people being there. So if they like it, I like it.”
A 46-0 home record in the NCAA tournament is another reason Summitt won’t complain about tonight’s draw. Especially since win No. 46 came against Purdue in 2005, which also held another significance: overall victory No. 880 — breaking Dean Smith’s NCAA Division I record — for Summitt.
“All I remember is that it was Pat Summitt’s 880th win and they were already giving out the newspapers 10 minutes before the game ended,” said Purdue’s Natasha Bogdanova, a freshman on that team. “It was a little frustrating. They kept replaying it on ‘SportsCenter’: ‘Pat Summitt got her 880th win vs. Purdue.’ I was like, ‘Wow, at least we’re making the news.’
“But it was a great environment. They had so many fans and everything was sold out and everything was really orange. I just remember it being a tough atmosphere to play in. This year, we have a great advantage to play at home and have the same atmosphere.”
Summitt made history the last time these two teams met in the NCAA tournament. Purdue can do the same tonight with an upset of the top-seeded Lady Vols, who have never failed to make the Sweet 16.
The Boilermakers are 12-3 at home this year and are riding a seven-game winning streak at Mackey Arena. According to unofficial attendance numbers, Purdue ranks fourth nationally behind Tennessee, UConn and Oklahoma with 9,434 fans per game. The Boilermakers are 18-5 at home in NCAA tournament games.
“Obviously, if we had it our way, we wouldn’t want to play here,” Tennessee’s Candace Parker said. “But we played Pittsburgh last year on their home court. It’s not something that we’re not used to. Like Coach Summitt said, we like to play in a packed house any day, whether they boo us or they cheer for us, because it’s great for women’s basketball.”
Summitt’s call for a sellout crowd tonight is more surprising because of her troubled past at Mackey Arena. In 1992, Western Kentucky stunned the Vols here in the Sweet 16. And in 1998, Purdue ended Tennessee’s 48-game winning streak with a 78-68 win at Mackey Arena.
“I don’t want to talk about my memories of this place,” Summitt said, only half-joking. “This is a new day, a new beginning. It’s interesting, because in the past it’s not been real kind to Tennessee and Coach Summitt and the team. We’re going to change that.”