This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly column written by RTI columnist Lexie Little
It’s been approximately 32 billion years without sports. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But fans across the country nonetheless lament the pause of pastimes. Thankfully, the NFL stepped in last week to provide some comic relief with an alternate reality in which Tom Brady plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Wait. That’s actually true.
Also true is the fact this column continues, business as usual, recounting past events in Tennessee’s athletic tradition. Break out the Big Orange house pants, mute Zoom, and take a look back at this week in UT sports history as the world awaits its own (re)opening day.
March 24, 2003
Pat Summitt wanted revenge. In 1990, the Virginia Cavaliers beat the Lady Vols in the East Regional Final of the NCAA Women’s Tournament, effectively ending Tennessee’s season and dashing hopes of playing in Knoxville for the Final Four. Summitt had called it her worst defeat.
She would not lose this game.
The Lady Vols soundly defeated Virginia, 81-51, in Thompson-Boling Arena on March 24, 2003. Jumping out to an 11-point lead early, Tennessee worked to fend off a stingy Virginia offense that came creeping back within three points, 25-22, before resurging to a 33-24 lead at halftime.
Though the Cavaliers outrebounded Tennessee 42-41, the at-large team with 13 losses failed to compete late in the game thanks to some clutch Lady Vol shooting. Forward Shyra Ely, the self-proclaimed “hot hand,” led Tennessee with 17 points in the game. She also led the Lady Vols in rebounds with nine total.
“Ely’s just been playing so well,” Summitt said of her standout sophomore as reported by The Tennessean. “I think she’s playing with a lot of confidence, and her teammates have a lot of confidence in her.”
Shooting guards Shanna Zolman and Brittany Jackson threw down consecutive threes to put them in double-digit scoring at 10 and 13 points, respectively. Lady Vol turned analyst Kara Lawson finished the day with 11 points including an early 3-point shot to give Tennessee its 14-3 opening lead. Lawson made sure everyone understood playing at home did not give them the edge.
“Home court does not win basketball games,” Lawson said of playing in Knoxville. “We still have to go to class while the other team doesn’t…Normally, we would be sleeping in and going through film. It is kind of like a regular season game in sleeping at home.”
Virginia coach Debbie Ryan watched as “the floodgates opened up” against her ailing team, which entered the contest at 17-13 overall. Tennessee improved to 30-4 with the win.
“I thought we played hard, and we had the game plan properly,” Ryan said. “We just could not put the ball in the basket…We couldn’t stop them.”
Tennessee eventually advanced to the NCAA Championship in Atlanta, Georgia, where they lost to archrival UConn on April 8, 2003, by a score of 73-68.
March 27, 2004
Basketball winds down in Tennessee in March, but baseball remains in full swing. A March conference match-up pitted the No. 12 team against the No. 13 team 16 years ago. Tennessee (20-4, 2-2 SEC) stood one position ahead of Auburn (19-6, 2-2 SEC) heading into a three-game series in Knoxville. The day prior, the Vols lost by one run, 4-3. However, they remained poised for another close game at home.
Vol Michael Rivera hit a walk-off RBI single to give Tennessee a 7-6 win in 10 innings as Brian Cleveland shuffled across home plate. Cleveland had doubled to left, barely beating the throw, with two outs in the extra inning.
The SEC rivals battled back and forth for the lead as Tennessee grabbed a 2-1 lead, and Auburn roared back 3-2 in the second inning. Eli Iorg put the Vols on top, 6-4, in the fifth with a two-run double before Auburn rallied to tie on a two-run triple in the sixth inning.
Pitcher Scot Drucker picked up the win, striking out eight batters in a little more than four innings. Five Tennessee hurlers pitched in the game, combining for a season-high 15 strikeouts through 10 innings.
Drucker, a senior, started his career at Florida having grown up in Miami. He transferred to Tennessee and sat out one year before playing in 2004. He went 8-3 as a closer in his only season in Big Orange, picking up five saves. The Oakland A’s selected him in the 13th round of the MLB Draft. He went on to pitch for teams in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Taiwan, and Venezuela.
The Vols lost the rubber match as Auburn picked up a 7-3 win. Tennessee then went on to win eight consecutive games, including series with Kentucky and Georgia. The Orange and White finished the season 38-24 overall with a losing conference record of 14-16, however.
March 25, 1959
Football also lasts into spring with practices ahead of new seasons. And in 1959, head coach Bowden Wyatt had his squad running wind sprints and scrimmaging in hard-hitting sessions.
The Knoxville News-Sentinel’s Frank Bailes said the practice looked like the Kentucky Derby as the Vols sprinted for 20 minutes. Taking to the track, Vol fullbacks also engaged in some drills in pole vaulters’ sawdust pit.
Diving and blocking in the pit, end Cotton Letner missed his block and ended up under a defensive back in a mad scrimmage scramble for the ball carrier. He carried around an icepack on his forehead for the remainder of the day.
Wyatt looked for discipline and tenacity as he tried to gauge who might start in the fall. Ultimately, though, he wanted to strengthen his squad’s endurance in a heyday of Southeastern Conference football (though, when is it not a heyday, comparatively…?).
“We needed that running,” Wyatt said. “And we’ll be doing some more…We should know something about this squad by the last of the week.”
The 1959 Vols finished near the bottom of the SEC that fall with a record of 5-4-1 overall, 3-4-1 SEC. No. 5 Georgia won the conference that year with a perfect 7-0 conference record and an overall record of 10-1. Tennessee did, at least, finish ahead of No. 19 Florida (5-4-1, 2-4 SEC), though the two did not meet that season.