Good, Better, Best An unprecedented third consecutive NCAA championship answers the question, Are the 39-0 Lady Vols, with an all-star cast led by Chamique Holdsclaw, the greatest ever?

April 05, 1998

Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore is something of an expert on
the Tennessee Lady Vols, having been a sideline witness to so
many of their triumphs. His Lady Techsters were the victims when
Tennessee won its first national championship in 1986-87, a
67-44 conquest that remains the most lopsided NCAA women's title
game in history. And who do you suppose was in the house when
Tennessee raised its 1996-97 championship banner at
Thompson-Boling Arena on Nov. 21?

Yes, Barmore had seen a lot and heard even more about Tennessee,
particularly this season, as the Lady Vols rolled along unbeaten
in their quest for a sixth NCAA women's title and an
unprecedented third in a row. He had heard the "greatest ever"
hype, but he had refused to jump on the bandwagon. Other teams
had gone undefeated only to crash in the postseason, he had
warned. Let's see this team win it all. So, on Sunday night, as
Tennessee and Louisiana Tech faced off for the national
championship at Kansas City's Kemper Arena on the western edge
of Missouri, Barmore took his seat, clasped his hands together
and, in effect, said, "Show me!"

As they had for most of the year, the Lady Vols made their case
for greatness swiftly and decisively. With the first half not
even half finished, national player of the year Chamique
Holdsclaw, wearing the signature shoes of another Final Four
legend, Sheryl Swoopes, had scored 16 points--one more than
Tech--to put Tennessee ahead 36-15. The junior All-America
forward would add nine more points and finish with 10 rebounds
and six assists to earn her second consecutive Final Four Most
Outstanding Player award. Anyone who had suspected that
Holdsclaw might be growing bored with winning championships--she
has now won eight in a row: three NCAA titles, four New York
state high school titles at Christ the King and an eighth-grade
championship in Queens, N.Y.--was greatly mistaken.

"In the first 10 minutes of the game, when she was hitting jump
shots with people in her face, taking it to the hole, I knew it
was her night," Lady Vols freshman guard Semeka Randall said of
Holdsclaw. "She wasn't going to let anybody take that
championship home except Tennessee."

Neither were her teammates. Freshman forward Tamika Catchings,
playing in front of her father, Harvey, a former NBA center, led
all scorers with 27 points. Junior point guard Kellie Jolly
added a career-best 20 points, including four three-pointers.
Two of her treys came on back-to-back possessions that Barmore
said "shut the door" on his team, which had trailed by 23 points
at halftime but had closed to within 18 of Tennessee.

By the end of the Lady Vols' 93-75 win, their NCAA-record 39th
this season and 45th in a row, Barmore counted himself among the
converted. "We got beat by the best women's team I've personally
ever seen," said Barmore, who has coached for 16 years and been
to the NCAA title game four times. "Whatever they needed, they
got it done."

That has been the mark of this Tennessee team, one that coach
Pat Summitt says has been more fun to coach than any of her
previous 23. "I am so happy for the players, because of their
love for the game, their chemistry, their competitiveness and
their love for each other," she said. "I could not have imagined
them not getting what they deserved."

The acclaim for this group started bubbling up around the time
that Tennessee dispatched Louisiana Tech in November, a game
that also served as a coming-out party for the vaunted freshman
class of Catchings, Randall, Kristen (Ace) Clement and Teresa
Geter. Listeners to WIVK radio in Knoxville have gotten a
regular dose of a ditty about the three "Meeks"--Holdsclaw,
Catchings and Randall--sung to the tune of Calendar Girl. Fan
worship in Tennessee, substantial even in nontranscendent years,
reached such a fever pitch in the postseason that Summitt put
her players off limits for autographs in Kansas City, except in
scheduled sessions. The Final Four frenzy made it hard for the
players to go out without security guards or team managers as
escorts.

The madding crowds in Kansas City were nothing new to Holdsclaw,
who says she now knows what life must have been like for
Tennessee football star Peyton Manning the last four years in
Knoxville. "Whenever I go to the mall, I have a line of people
wanting autographs," she says. Even so, she videotaped just
about every one of her waking moments at the Final Four. When
she had to carry something else, like her Kodak All-America
award or any of the five player of the year awards she picked up
last week, she handed her camera to a team manager so he could
capture the moment for posterity. "I'm making my own
documentary," she said, flashing her braces.

Surely she wishes she had had that camera with her during a trip
to DePaul in January, when the Lady Vols visited Michael
Jordan's Chicago office. As the players filed in, His Airness
recognized Her Airness right away. "As soon as we came in, he
said, 'What's up, 'Mique?'" recalls Holdsclaw. "I was in awe.
Then he challenged me to a game of one-on-one, and I was just
speechless!"

Fortunately, Holdsclaw's burgeoning popularity has done nothing
to subvert her play or her blithe spirit, both of which have
blossomed this season. After two tours of duty on the U.S.
national team last summer, she has developed her game to the
point where even the exacting Summitt feels comfortable heaping
on praise. "I think she's the best," says Summitt. "I've said
that all year. Before this season I didn't think she was
committed to running the floor, and her defense was average, and
her ball handling was below average." Because she is now
surrounded by other prolific scorers, such as Catchings and
Randall, who averaged 18.2 and 15.9 points, respectively,
Holdsclaw's offensive burden has eased, and she has been able to
work on other parts of her game.

"This year I realized how good I can be," says Holdsclaw, who
led the national team in scoring and rebounding, as its only
collegian. "What was holding me back was that I never wanted to
consider myself one of the top players. That's the way I
motivate myself. I always put a person ahead of me and try to
climb up to that person. Last year the player that I put on that
pedestal was Nykesha Sales [of Connecticut]. From playing on
that USA team, I got it in my head that no college player in the
country was getting the experience that I was getting. So I
figured I better go back to college with some kind of work
ethic, some knowledge of the game."

Defense, says Lady Vols assistant coach Mickie DeMoss, has been
Holdsclaw's "most glaring" area of improvement this season.
"Everyone in the country knows that I can score," says the 6'2"
Holdsclaw. "I figured, I'm quick, big, athletic, and I know I
can stop someone. When I see all these players around me--even
those that aren't as gifted athletically as I am--go out there
and play great defense, I say, 'Mique, you've got to pick it up
a little bit. You can't have any weaknesses in your game."

Not that her teammates have seen any lately. "When you're
guarding Chamique Holdsclaw, you can't back off of her," says
Jolly. "You can't go guard her for the three. You can't assume,
when she starts penetrating, that she'll take it all the way;
she can pull up and shoot a jump shot. And she finishes. It
doesn't matter if she has an open look, and it doesn't matter
where she's shooting from, she finishes. She has elevated her
game, and the game of women's basketball."

(She has even elevated the virtual game: The Michigan men
players, who spent most of their free time at the Atlanta
subregional playing the video game March Madness 98, found out
they could make the virtual Holdsclaw dunk but not the animated
version of Connecticut's Sales.)

"Chamique has been so coachable this year," says DeMoss. "Last
year there were times when she got frustrated. I know she felt a
lot of pressure to carry the team. Pat may get on her about
something, and she'd say, Well, I'm doing all I can. Now you
say, Chamique, you didn't switch on that screen, and she'll say,
'I know, my fault.' I think it's maturity, and I really don't
think she feels the pressure anymore. She may, but she looks
like she's really having fun this year."

That could be the main reason Holdsclaw will stay in Knoxville
next season rather than become the first female undergrad to
challenge the pro leagues' no-underclassmen rule. "If they're
going to pay you $25 million, sure you go," she says of the ABL
and the WNBA. "But right now the salaries aren't enough for me
to get up and leave. I have a commitment to this program, a
commitment to my grandmother [to get a diploma] and a commitment
to this team. We all get along great, we're winning. If we have
the team that's considered the best this year, it's going to be
better next year. We've got some recruits coming in."

DeMoss worries that Tennessee will be expected to keep
replenishing the wealth of talent that Summitt's staff has
assembled. "This team is so good, honestly," says DeMoss. "Now
we've created this monster, this standard, and I don't know if
we'll be capable of ever repeating this. I've been recruiting 21
years, and I knew Randall and Catchings were two very special
athletes. That quality doesn't come around very often. And for
us to get both of them? Along with Chamique?"

Could the Lady Vols become the UCLA of women's basketball and
match the Bruins' streak of seven consecutive championships?
They took another step in that direction on Sunday with their
resounding victory, which was something worth celebrating as the
night ticked away. But first there was one little thing
Holdsclaw had to attend to. Before the Final Four she had
written "'96 '97" and a "?" on her right shoe. Was there ever
really any question?

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO STATE OF THE ART Holdsclaw yanked down 10 rebounds to go with her 25 points and six assists in Tennessee's 93-75 victory. [Kellie Jolly, Monica Maxwell, Chamique Holdsclaw and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO JOLLY GOOD Tamicha Jackson (35) couldn't thwart Jolly's career-high run of 20 points. [Kellie Jolly and Tamicha Jackson in game] COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER MAKE WAY One of the Vols' vaunted freshmen, Randall met high expectations. [Monica Maxwell, Teresa Geter, Semeka Randall and Kellie Jolly in game]

"I could not have imagined them not getting what they deserved,"
Summitt said of her Lady Vols.

"Holdsclaw has elevated her game and the game of women's
basketball."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)