Vanderbilt has had some remarkable basketball teams play on West End.
However, there is only one Vanderbilt team that has made it to a Final Four: the 1993 Women’s Basketball team.
It’s been 25 years since coach Jim Foster’s squad made school history by making it to the Women’s Final Four in what was a remarkably dominant season. The team went 30-3, taking down powerhouse teams such as Geno Auriemma’s UConn Huskies. They were the first Vanderbilt team to earn a national #1 ranking, reaching the top of both the AP and USA Today polls during the season.
According to Renee Allen, a senior guard on the 1993 team, they had a goal in mind from the very beginning.
“We set the tone at the beginning of the year, or rather the coaches did, by making the code into our locker room ‘0404,’” Allen said at a chalk talk panel led by longtime Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball announce Charlie Mattos. “So every time we walked in to get ready for practice or games, we knew what the goal was: to be playing come April in the National Championship. We pushed each other, we had great support from the community.”
According to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, the Commodores went on a program-record 17-game win streak during the season. However, the biggest moment of the season came on January 30 when they took on Pat Summitt’s Tennessee Lady Vols in a battle of #1 vs. #2. While the Commodores fell short in that one, it was the raucous atmosphere that stuck with the players.
The game was sold out 16 days in advance of the showdown, a rarity for a women’s basketball game at the time. They had to turn away 4000 people at the door. The crowd was a mix of Vanderbilt and Tennessee fans, but regardless it was an unforgettable night.
“The energy on the court,” said 1993 Kodak All-American Heidi Gillingham. “It was a sold-out crowd, and the feeling of that warmup time. We knew were going to have a great game. All the anticipation was tangible. The excitement was tangible. I’ve never experienced anything again like that, and don’t really expect to in my life. It was hard, hard work that got us there, great coaching and it was magical. The moment. I remember thinking ‘This is what the guys experience. We have arrived in this moment.'”
According to Jeff Lockridge of The Tennessean, then-Chancellor Joe B. Wyatt could not get into the building for the game due to the overflow crowd. Even well before the game was set to begin, Allen knew that they were about to experience something special.
“I was saying last night, Ginger [Jared] and I would come and warm up because my job as a defensive specialist was to push Julie [Powell] and Rhonda [Blades] and Shelley [Jarrard] to make sure that they were ready for the game,” said Allen. “We would come out really really early, and we could see people already on the third level just ready in anticipation of this game.”
“I’m used to coming out there and it being maybe a handful of people and we walked out and said ‘What is going on?’ We heard later that there were 4000 people outside. To have that much excitement around women’s basketball in Nashville at the time for Vanderbilt, a private university where we were known for intelligence, that was awesome.”
Vanderbilt took down Cal, Stephen F. Austin and Louisiana Tech in the NCAA Tournament on their way to the Final Four in Atlanta. In the semifinal, they ran into a Texas Tech team featuring one of the greatest basketball players of all time: Sheryl Swoopes.
Before she became the first-ever WNBA signee, won four WNBA titles and became enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Swoopes was a stud on the Lady Raiders. She put up a whopping 31 points en route to a 60-46 win over Vanderbilt. Texas Tech would go on to win the title in their next game with Swoopes putting up 47 points.
The players on the chalk talk panel agreed that they expected to win the title and were crushed when they fell short. Their legendary coach, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, lauded the technical greatness of his team.
“What made this team special was cerebral, very smart players,” Foster said. “It allowed us to do a lot of things defensively that caused teams problems. We had a lot of good shooters, which allowed our post players to have a lot of freedom around the basket.”
As the 2017-18 Commodores were set to take the floor against the Lady Volunteers, Foster, now the head coach at Chattanooga, noted how different today’s college athletes are.
“I think technology is great, there’s a lot of good things about it, but there’s some bad things about it,” Foster said. “I think one of the reasons that they can so comfortably sit with each other was that they did get to know each other. When I want to go off on my team’s lack of communication, I say ‘Listen, I’m petitioning the NCAA that we are allowed to play with cell phones so that I can text you what I want you to do defensively. You’ll be able to respond a lot quicker.'”
Other participants in the chalk talk included Rhonda Blades Brown, Lesly Smith Riddle, Maura Cunningham, Julie Powell, Misty Lamb Thompson and Sheri Sam. The group was honored at halftime of Vanderbilt’s game against Tennessee.