Lady Vols Shoot for Place in History
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 1998; Page C1
NASHVILLE, March 24 The questions create more questions. Debate engenders more debate. Try to pin down one conclusion and others emerge instead.
Are the Lady Vols the best women's college basketball team ever? Well, is Tennessee's Pat Summitt the best coach of all time? Or is Chamique Holdsclaw the best female player? As a junior? Does Tennessee have the best women's program in history? Could it become a dynasty for the ages, offering a sequel or two for the newly released film about the Lady Vols' 1997 title?
"For the last several years, they have had graduation, adversity and injuries, and they don't skip a beat," said long-time Penn State coach Rene Portland. "When they have a hole, all of the sudden it closes up. It's like lava coming off a volcano."
Two victories from a third consecutive national championship and only the third undefeated full season in women's NCAA history, Tennessee has been accruing admiration and recognition at about the same rate it has been rolling up victories rapidly. The Lady Vols, who play Arkansas in Friday's Final Four semifinal, have an NCAA record 37 consecutive victories to no losses this season, their most recent coming over North Carolina in Monday's Mideast regional final. The streak is 46 dating from last spring.
It was in February that former Old Dominion star and Hall of Fame player Nancy Lieberman-Cline, who is now a TV analyst and newspaper columnist, declared the Lady Vols the best women's college team ever. And the regular season hadn't even ended. Lieberman-Cline, awed by Tennessee's 31-point drubbing of Vanderbilt on Feb. 16, also called Holdsclaw the best player in history.
Lieberman-Cline didn't mention anything about Summitt but perhaps she didn't have to.
Summitt might be the team's least debatable all-time best. Her five national titles exceed the total won by anybody woman or man except UCLA legend John Wooden, who won 10. Since taking the helm at Tennessee in 1974, she has won more games (662) than any women's coach other than Texas's Jody Conradt, who had a five-year head start and can't match Summitt's all-time winning percentage of .822.
Known to be explosive and exacting some speculate she is the reason the NCAA enacted a rule about prohibiting practices immediately after games Summitt has the ability to stir her players' emotions. Players said it was Summitt's anger during a timeout huddle Monday night that provided the motivation to come back from a 12-point deficit in the waning minutes.
"There's something about Pat that I can't describe because it emanates from within," said '70s Montclair State College star Carol Blazejowski, who played under Summitt on the 1980 U.S. national team and now is an official with the WNBA's New York Liberty. "It's the motivational aspect as a coach it oozes out of her. She makes you want to run through walls for her, play better, run faster. I never had that feeling with any other coach. It's a special magic with Pat."
A handful of coaches and close observers of the women's game find it telling that Summitt's prized prospect, Holdsclaw, wears No. 23, the number Michael Jordan made famous. The fact that Holdsclaw chose the number to remind her of the 23rd Psalm, not His Airness, doesn't quell the comparisons.
Holdsclaw is widely viewed as a player who can carry the women's game to new heights, possessing more chin-dropping skills than Cheryl Miller, the early '80s star from Southern California who became the first woman to dunk in a game, or Lieberman-Cline, the first female to play in a men's professional league. There are other collegiate legends whose company Holdsclaw keeps or rises above: Kansas's Lynette Woodard, Old Dominion's Anne Donovan, UCLA's Ann Meyers and Texas Tech's Sheryl Swoopes.
"In terms of the total package, what she brings to the game of women's basketball, she's just in a league of her own," said Donovan, now the head coach at East Carolina.
"She can score, she thrives under pressure," Blazejowski said. "That's what I like about her. When the game is on the line, she says, 'Give it to me.' "
Besides her youth, the attribute that seems to push Holdsclaw above others is her ability not merely to be a star, but also to make her teammates stars. In the last six years dating from her freshman season in high school, she has been part of six championship teams, having won two NCAA titles with Tennessee and four straight league titles in New York City at Christ the King High School. This year's Tennessee team includes two freshman starters, forward Tamika Catchings and guard Semeka Randall. There are no senior starters and only one senior guard Laurie Milligan on the roster.
"If you put Holdsclaw on another team, that other team would be just as dominant," said Texas's Conradt, whose team went undefeated in winning the 1986 national championship. "She's a difference maker. I think she is the best player the women's game has seen. She is so special and the whole team benefits from her."
Tennessee's Catchings, a second-team all-American, has already been called the next Chamique. And Randall, an honorable mention all-American, seems only a step behind Catchings. Along with Holdsclaw, they are called the three "Meeks" because of their first names the nickname is no reflection on their on-court personalities. They average about 65 percent of Tennessee's points.
The excitement created by their fast-paced, pressure-packed style of play is reflected in Tennessee's average home attendance of 14,952. Many of those fans dressed in orange and drove to Nashville for Monday's game, crowding around the court with their cameras during warm-ups, staying long after the game to cheer the team.
"I don't think they fit in" with other great teams in history, Penn State's Portland said, "because they've given this a whole new perspective. I think it's absolutely wonderful that little girls can be in eighth grade and want to play for Tennessee."
Only two other women's teams have finished the NCAA season undefeated, Conradt's Texas team (34-0) and Geno Auriemma's 1995 Connecticut team (35-0). In the pre-NCAA days, Louisiana Tech went 34-0 in 1980-81; Delta State went 28-0 in 1974-75, and Immaculata went 20-0 in 1972-73.
Other teams, too, had clusters of stars.
Miller and the McGee twins Paula and Pam were a dominant trio, starring for the 1983-84 national champion Southern Cal team. Four players from Conradt's undefeated Texas team have found careers in pro ball Clarissa Davis-Wrightsil (ABL), Fran Harris (WNBA), Andrea Lloyd (ABL) and Beverly Williams (ABL). Another, Mary Ethridge, was a 1988 Olympian. Lieberman-Cline and Donovan played on the 1980 Old Dominion national championship team in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW).
Connecticut's undefeated team was armed with three players who have since turned pro, Rebecca Lobo (WNBA), Kara Wolters (ABL) and Jennifer Rizzotti (ABL).
But among the candidates to be called the best team in history, only the 35-1 Louisiana Tech team in 1981-82 handled its schedule with the ease of the Lady Vols. Tennessee's average margin of victory is 30.5 points Louisiana Tech managed an NCAA record 33.0 with just three victories by less than a double-digit margin, including Monday's wild, 76-70 victory over North Carolina.
The Lady Vols defeated then-third-ranked Old Dominion by 24. They defeated 14th ranked Vanderbilt by 61; third-ranked Connecticut by 15; No. 11 Stanford by 18; and No. 2 Louisiana Tech by 14. And, oh yes: the Lady Vols handed unranked DePaul a 79-point defeat.
"They are one of the most athletic, most exciting, most high-paced and energized teams," Blazejowski said. "And the best thing is, you can take one player out, and put another in, and they don't miss a beat.
"But in my view, if you talk about great teams and talk about history, I think it comes down to their winning. They're on an undefeated streak here, but they've got to win the big one."