Tennessee senior forward Abby Conklin was reclining on the
trainer's table in a Riverfront Coliseum locker room on Sunday
night, addressing the media as if from a shrink's couch. With
her sprained right ankle elevated and with a cap that said
women's 1997 national champions sliding off her head, Conklin
was describing how her team had picked its way through a
minefield of a season, one marked by hard luck and uneven play.
"Once we got to the tournament," she said, "we took it two games
at a time, just two games at a time." The first two at home,
against Grambling and Oregon. The next two at the Midwest
Regional in Iowa City, against Colorado and top-ranked
Connecticut. The last two in Cincinnati, against Notre Dame and
Old Dominion, in Tennessee's third consecutive Final Four
An orange-clad visitor interrupted Conklin to congratulate her
on the Lady Vols' hard-fought 68-59 win over Old Dominion for
the national championship. Conklin raised her head and smiled.
"Hey!" she said to the well-wisher, Don Sundquist, the governor
of Tennessee. "Can you believe it?"
The governor shook his head in disbelief, and Conklin let hers
fall back on the table. Her hat tumbled to the floor. She was
still a little dazed by the realization that the Lady Vols had
earned their second straight national title and fifth since 1987.
All of those championships have come under coach Pat Summitt,
who with Sunday's victory moved past Adolph Rupp, the famed
Kentucky coach, into second place on the alltime list of most
national titles. She now trails only John Wooden, whose UCLA
teams won 10. For Summitt, who has coached in Knoxville for 23
seasons, this championship might have been the sweetest, earned
as it was by a team with a relatively dismal--by Summitt's
standards--record of 29-10. No Tennessee team had lost that many
games since the 1985-86 squad went 24-10. Summitt's last four
teams before this season had lost a total of 12 games.
"Fifth in the SEC and Number 1 in the country," proclaimed
Summitt after Sunday's game. "Doesn't that just sum up what this
team has accomplished? We have faced a lot of adversity. This
team will always be very special to me, both personally and
The Lady Vols' appearance in Cincinnati was so unexpected that
Summitt, who usually buys her new Final Four outfit by January,
didn't make this year's purchase until March 25, the day after
Tennessee knocked off undefeated Connecticut in Iowa City.
Shopping had to be put on hold as the team negotiated an
unfamiliar landscape of injuries and individual and collective
Sophomore point guard Kellie Jolly tore the anterior cruciate
ligament in her right knee in October. Five games after Jolly
returned in January, her replacement, junior Laurie Milligan,
dislocated the patella in her right knee. Conklin broke the
little toe on her left foot when she stubbed it on her couch in
January, but she continued to play, mystifying her teammates by
actually performing better. Meanwhile the Lady Vols earned one
negative distinction after another: They became the first
Tennessee team to lose to Arkansas. The first to lose to
Florida. The first to not get a bye on the opening day of the
SEC tournament. The first since 1986 to drop out of the Top 10.
"We were setting so many bad records," said sophomore forward
Chamique Holdsclaw last week, "we were wondering if anything
positive would come out of the season."
Holdsclaw's MVP run in the Final Four ensured that the season
would end splendidly. Like USC, the last women's team to win
back-to-back titles (in '83 and '84), Tennessee owes a lot to
its one transcendent player. USC had Cheryl Miller, and
Tennessee has Holdsclaw, a two-time All-America who scored 55
points, grabbed 12 rebounds and dished out six assists last
weekend. "Chamique is the best player in women's college
basketball today," said former Old Dominion star Nancy
Lieberman-Cline, who was in Cincinnati doing TV commentary. "I
think Cheryl is the best ever, but before all is said and done,
Chamique could be better."
Holdsclaw, who wears number 23 in tribute to the 23rd Psalm and
because she is a Michael Jordan fan, owes her grace and poise in
part to a brief career as a reluctant grade school ballerina and
tap student. Her court vision, her ball handling and her
high-arcing shot, she attributes to a long apprenticeship on New
York City's playgrounds, where she competed against boys and
learned to leap and spin to avoid the hands in her face. But the
playground is nowhere to be found in her conversation.
Holdsclaw, who was raised in Queens by her grandmother, June
Holdsclaw, speaks with almost Victorian propriety.
"I don't think females should be allowed to decide to go pro,"
she said last week when asked about players possibly leaving
school early to join one of the two new women's leagues. "The
leagues need mature young ladies who have their degrees."
Holdsclaw, a political science major, will have more than a
degree when she leaves Tennessee in two years. She could easily
add another two NCAA titles to the two she already has and the
four state titles she won at Christ the King High. Holdsclaw
hasn't had a season end with a loss in six years. "I'd like to
see that continue," she said after scoring 24 points on Sunday
night. "I guess luck is on my side."
The photo on the cover of Tennessee's media guide shows the Lady
Vols scaling a giant NCAA trophy next to the words making the
ascent again--and hints at one of Holdsclaw's few known
imperfections: She's afraid of heights. In the photo she and her
teammates are wearing rock-climbing gear, but Holdsclaw is
standing just three rungs up a ladder. Even at that modest
altitude she looks as though she is about to lose her lunch.
Holdsclaw was happy to make the climb figuratively, however.
With her ability to create shots all over the floor, she carried
much of the offensive load for the Lady Vols during the rocky
parts of their season and finished with averages of 20.2 points
and 9.4 rebounds per game. Where would the Lady Vols have been
last weekend without Holdsclaw? "Spring break," said Conklin.
Despite Holdsclaw's contributions, Tennessee was in such
disarray in early January that Summitt and her staff pored over
the rest of the Lady Vols' schedule in search of enough likely
wins to make the NCAA tournament. The team had just suffered a
stinging loss at No. 1 Connecticut to fall to 10-5, and a game
at No. 2 Old Dominion was up next. Assistant Mickie DeMoss
didn't see Tennessee getting 20 victories. Would 15 be enough?
Summitt wondered if her inconsistent Lady Vols could win even
five more games. As she said last week, "I never knew what team
was going to show up from one game to the next."
The day before the Old Dominion game, Summitt canceled practice
and held a team meeting in which she questioned her players'
motivation and wondered aloud if she had made a mistake in
recruiting them. "Pat was fed up," recalled Holdsclaw last
weekend. "She told us to quit acting like babies. She also set
game goals. For instance, if we made more than 15 turnovers or
gave up too many rebounds, we'd have to run extra sprints. I
think that really helped turn things around."
After losing at Old Dominion 83-72--the Lady Vols' first defeat
by the Lady Monarchs in 14 years--Tennessee did turn it around,
winning 13 of its next 17 games and securing a No. 3 seed in the
Midwest (the first time in 10 years that Summitt's team didn't
enter the NCAAs with a No. 1 seed). After surprising Connecticut
91-81 in Iowa City, the Lady Vols cruised past upstart Notre
Dame 80-66 in their national semifinal last Friday.
"This team always finds a way to win," said Milligan on Friday.
"Other teams may be better, but they have to have a bigger heart
than we do to beat us."
If any team had a bigger heart it might have been Old Dominion,
which handed Stanford its only loss of the regular season and
rode a 32-game winning streak into the Final Four. But the Lady
Monarchs struggled to find their offense early in the
tournament. In the second round they edged Purdue 69-65 in
overtime, and in the Mideast Regional final they squeaked past
Florida 53-51. Awaiting Old Dominion in Cincinnati was a rematch
with Stanford, the tournament favorite after Connecticut's
ouster. The Cardinal was loaded with post players and eager to
avenge coach Tara VanDerveer's only defeat in her last 17 months
of Olympic and college coaching.
In Friday's semifinal Stanford senior forward Kate Starbird, the
Naismith Award player of the year, nearly buried the Lady
Monarchs with 21 first-half points. But Old Dominion, which won
the last of its three national titles in 1985, turned up the
defensive pressure in the second half. The Lady Monarchs rallied
from a 15-point deficit to tie the game at the end of regulation
and went on to win 83-82 in overtime.
Although Old Dominion's national-championship trophies were a
little dustier than Tennessee's, the Lady Monarchs were now the
team to beat. They featured two foreign All-Americas, 6'5"
senior forward Clarisse Machanguana, a native of Mozambique, and
senior guard Ticha Penicheiro of Portugal, a fiery, flashy floor
leader reminiscent of Lieberman-Cline.
Like New Yorkers Lieberman-Cline and Holdsclaw, Penicheiro honed
her game against boys on the playground, but her playground was
an ocean away, in Figueira da Foz, a beach town on Portugal's
northern coast. Penicheiro, whose dad is a coach and whose
brother Paulo is a professional basketball player, was dribbling
a ball through her house "by the time I could walk," she says.
By age 14 she was the starting point guard on the Portuguese
national junior team. Two years later she was spotted by Allison
Greene, then a player on a Portuguese club team and now a Lady
Monarchs assistant. Greene eventually lured Penicheiro and
Machanguana, both of whom were playing on a club team in
Portugal, to Old Dominion. Defensive stopper Mery Andrade, also
from Portugal, joined the Lady Monarchs a year later.
Penicheiro, who led the nation in assists this year with 7.8 per
game, has such otherworldly skills that when she arrived at Old
Dominion, her teammates couldn't handle her passes. "On my first
day, I'd throw a no-look pass, and people would get it in the
face or the stomach," she says. "I had to adjust to them, and
they had to adjust to me."
Adjusting was what the Lady Monarchs seemed to do best in the
NCAAs. After their come-from-behind win over Stanford, they fell
into a 15-point hole against Tennessee. They began their
comeback bid in the final second of the first half with a
desperation 30-foot heave by Aubrey Eblin that banked in at the
buzzer. Eblin's four-point play with 9:06 remaining in the game
gave the Lady Monarchs their first lead of the night, 44-43.
But Tennessee roared back. Thanks to several timely assists and
a steal by Jolly, the Lady Vols regained the lead and stretched
it to six points. With 26 seconds remaining and Tennessee ahead
65-59, Holdsclaw took a wide-open layup and missed. She laughed,
revealing her bright orange mouthpiece. Her shooting touch might
have faltered, but Holdsclaw knew that the victory, and
something more, was secure. As she sat in the locker room after
the game, Holdsclaw savored the moment. "Only one other team has
done what we've done--win championships back-to-back," she said.
"We have our place in history now."