For No. 1 Lady Vols, It's One for the Books
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 30, 1998; Page A1
KANSAS CITY, Mo., March 29 Pat Summitt has said she will remember the 1997-98 Tennessee Lady Volunteers for giving her the most pleasurable coaching experience of her storied 24-year career. Tonight at Kemper Arena, the Lady Vols etched the final chapter of this fantastic season deep into the heart of the coach they love. And they etched their names in college basketball history.
Tennessee capped the greatest single season the National Collegiate Athletic Association game has ever seen from the men, or from the women with a blur of brilliant basketball this evening, as the Lady Vols defeated Louisiana Tech, 93-75, in the NCAA title game. Undefeated, and rarely challenged, throughout this landmark season, Tennessee finished 39-0, the best record ever recorded by an NCAA team at any of the organization's three levels of play.
Led by junior forward Chamique Holdsclaw, who is widely considered the greatest women's college player in history, the Lady Vols did more than win their third consecutive NCAA title, and sixth total. They played a heart-stopping style of basketball that left fans powerless to leave the arena, no matter how fat Tennessee's lead grew on the scoreboard.
"The best team doesn't always win, but tonight I thought the best team won the championship they deserved," Summitt said. "I am so happy for this team, because of their love for the game and their competitiveness and their chemistry. It has been an incredible year."
Summitt's players mobbed her as the clock expired tonight, and the women's half of a mad March a March marked by upsets and overtimes, unlikely heroes and unfathomable plays came to an electric conclusion.
The men wrap up their own thrilling tournament Monday night in San Antonio, where the surprising Utah Utes, coached by colorful Rick Majerus, will try to upset Kentucky, which features one of the most storied programs in men's college basketball history. Already, the men's Final Four has featured an overtime thriller Kentucky eked out a one-point win over Stanford Saturday and the Utes followed with a shocking victory over top-ranked North Carolina.
Tonight, though, belonged to the Tennessee women, who have listened to outsiders whisper that they just might be "the greatest women's team ever" for much of this season, and set out to prove that tonight. They became the first team to win three consecutive titles since the NCAA took over the tournament from the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women in 1982 (Immaculata College and Delta State had accomplished that feat). Their 61 total tournament wins better the totals of any other program in the country (Louisiana Tech is second with 46).
It is more than mere numbers, though, that sets this group of Tennessee players apart. Together, these women have taken women's college basketball to an entirely new level, one that was on vivid display tonight. The Lady Vols play an aggressive, attacking game, one marked by both speed and athleticism, and one capable of creating arresting on-court moments.
"This year, I thought they really added a lot to women's basketball," said Louisiana Tech Coach Leon Barmore. "I think they do things I haven't seen before. . . . I feel like everybody else we'd like to be a little better so we can play them."
The Lady Vols were on fire from the start of tonight's game. Guard Kellie Jolly hit effortless three-pointers. Forward Tamika Catchings grabbed offensive rebounds and put them back without blinking. Guard Semeka Randall danced through the lane, and at one point embarrassed three defenders as she drove, spun and dropped in a basket without getting bumped.
Holdsclaw simply did anything, and everything, the entire night. She hit baseline jumpers. She drove to the net with not one, not two, but three defenders awaiting her, and slipped in a bucket without showing a flicker of concern. She stripped the ball from the opposition. She fed Catchings for pretty plays in the lane. When she missed, she often grabbed her own rebounds and went straight back to the basket.
Every big play in the early minutes brought legions of orange-clad Tennessee fans to their feet not to mention most of the members of the Tennessee bench. And there were so many laudable moments, all coming so quickly, that it felt as if the coronation party was underway from the start.
"We got up and down the floor and there were a lot of exciting plays," said Holdsclaw, who finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists and was named most valuable player of the Final Four. "For people watching and watching at home it was women's college basketball at an entirely new level."
The Lady Vols beat Arkansas by 28 points the largest margin in women's Final Four history in the semifinals on Friday, and afterward Arkansas Coach Gary Blair held out hope that this year's championship game, at least, would be competitive.
Tonight's game pitted the greatest women's program of the 1980s, Louisiana Tech, which won three titles (one AIAW, two NCAA) in that decade, against the greatest program of the 1990s.
"I think it's ironic that perhaps the greatest team that's ever played the game, Tennessee, has to play the other team that has meant as much to basketball as Tennessee," Blair said. "Louisiana Tech has meant that much, because it gives the little guy a chance."
The little guys had little chance tonight. Tamicha Jackson, the 5-foot-5 starting guard for Louisiana Tech, made a few eye-popping plays in the first half, but they seemed lost in a blur of orange and white. They were playing the best team ever, and it showed.
That label "best ever" was one the Lady Vols shied away from discussing this entire weekend. But with a team that graduates just one senior (a bench player), Holdsclaw was more than happy to address the issue tonight.
"Next year's team will be the best team ever," Holdsclaw declared.
College basketball, beware.