Pat Summitt was a legend. Tributes to her, her contributions to Tennessee, and her contributions to women's basketball have filled the internet. Rather than rehash those, I wanted to tell the story of the time her Lady Vols played Joe Ciampi in the biggest women's athletic event that's ever happened at Auburn.
In the late 1980s, Auburn's football team was in the middle of a three-peat of SEC titles. The men's basketball team was in a stretch where they went to five straight NCAA tournaments. Arguably, the two programs were never better than they were at that time. But they both paled in comparison to the best program on Auburn's campus at that time, Joe Ciampi's Lady Tigers. Auburn won either the SEC regular season crown, the SEC tournament, or both from 86-87 through 89-90. They appeared in three straight NCAA final games, falling painfully short in each.
On January 6, 1989, Auburn opened the SEC schedule at home against their biggest rival, Pat Summitt's Lady Vols. Both teams came into the night undefeated. Auburn was 13-0 and ranked #3 in the nation. The Lady Vols were 11-0 and ranked #1.
Pat Summitt was already a legend in 1989. Tennessee had won the national title in 1987 and most of the SEC crowns Joe Ciampi didn't claim. She had incredible charisma on the sideline. The students treated her like they would Wimp Sanderson.
Auburn's 1989 team was loaded led by Vikki Orr, Ruthie Bolton, and Carolyn "CJ" Jones who went on to be Olympians. The Vols were led by Bridgette Gordon, who won gold for USA basketball in the previous summer's Olympic games.
The game was the biggest event in the history of Auburn basketball be it men's or women's. I was part of the record 7,150 into Beard Eaves that night. To this day, it is the third-largest Auburn home crowd in the history of Women's Basketball.
It was a great game. All night, Auburn would build a lead and Tennessee would erase it. Auburn won that night, 67-59. The game was put out of reach with three minutes to play when Patrena Scruggs finished an old-fashioned three point play to put the Tigers up 62-56. Jones and Orr scored 18 each for the Tigers. Orr battled Gordon all night in the paint and the Tigers outrebounded the Lady Vols 41-37.
The win catapulted Auburn to #1. They remained undefeated until Pat Summitt got revenge at the SEC Tournament and again in the NCAA finals. That year, Summitt won one of her eight national titles.
While this night is unique in my memory, I bet most programs in the SEC could tell a similar story about a night Pat Summitt came to town. Her teams were always great and wherever the Lady Vols went, record crowds went to watch. Summitt goes on the list along with other coaches who transcended their sport like Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi. She will be missed.