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A perfect ending for a perfect team. (Tennessee women's basketball)

From: The Sporting News  |  Date: 4/6/1998  |  Author: Jones, Anna M.

Tennessee completed its perfect season by whipping Louisiana Tech 93-75, to win its third straight national championship. The Lady Volunteers finished the season 39-0 and are considered perhaps the greatest women's team of all time.

Tennessee's waltz to another title started a year ago, when scholarship spots were kept open for the fab four

Chamique Holdsclaw can now replace that question mark drawn on the inside edge of her right hightop.

Found among the designs on the white-and-black Nikes of the greatest women's player ever are everything from the opening words of the 23rd Psalm, to "Astoria's finest," to the standard "Rebound and Defense." And then there's the "'96, '97, ?" that stands out in black marker right above the ankle--an inscription that now can be followed by a '98 after Tennessee dominated Louisiana Tech, 93-75, last Sunday in the national title game in Kansas City.

Tennessee became the first NCAA Division I women's team to win three consecutive national championships. But don't look for Holdsclaw to be dancing in the streets or getting all goofy over the team's historic 39-0 season. (No men's or women's team has ever posted such a record.)

"I guess I'm just kind of used to winning right now," says Holdsclaw, a native of Astoria, N.Y., who has laid claim to two Final Four MVP awards and won seven consecutive championships, including four in a row at Christ the King High School. "I've kind of been there, done that . . . so I'm not going to be crying or anything like that."

Holdsclaw had 25 points and 10 rebounds against Louisiana Tech in a game in which Tennessee bolted to a 42-17 lead and make it look easy. The big question now: Will a '99 be added to that inscription?

Just 15 months ago, it was a different story in Knoxville. Tennessee coach Pat Summitt even considered chucking the stress and frustration of working with today's college kids. Maybe it was time to call it quits, to pack up the four national titles and Olympic gold. Retire at the age of 44 after 23 seasons.

But last Friday, hours before the tipoff for a national semifinal against Arkansas, Summitt was very much at home in the locker room, being bodyslammed, oh-so-carefully, to the floor by a freshman and loving it.

"It didn't take me long. I just picked her up and gently slammed her on the ground," guard Semeka Randall says with a giggle. "She told me she's got to get strong because I've got some good muscles, so I was like, `One day, you can be like this.'"

Summitt and her players have talked all season about how much fun this year has been. How they didn't feel the pressures of past success or a pending title of greatness being bestowed upon them. And the best core of freshmen ever assembled on one women's team believed because those young women really knew so little beyond their high school successes. And they believed because Summitt said it was so. But it took far more than Summitt's aura to build this team, the one that will go down as the greatest of all time.

Four months ago, Randall, the spunk and spirit of the fab four recruiting class (Tamika Catchings, Kristen Clement and Teresa Geter make up the rest of the gifted foursome), never would have dreamed of tossing Summitt to the ground and throwing "punches" at her.

"(Summitt) had trusted me for a very long time," Randall says. "It was just me realizing I had to trust her. Now that I've come to my senses, I do. At first I was so caught up in, `I got to play better,' I didn't ever give myself room to make a mistake. She said you need to trust me and I can help you. So now that I've got this communication going, it's a great relationship and I wouldn't want to lose it"

Finding that trust was one of the final building blocks of this team.

To help balance the numbers between men's and women's athletics, the NCAA provides women's basketball programs with 15 scholarships--two more than the men. Fair? Probably not Practical? Not exactly.

"In my 13 years, we've never had 15 on scholarship and never will," Tennessee assistant/recruiting coordinator Mickie DeMoss says. "That's too many people to try to keep happy. I don't know if we've ever had more than 13; we might have had 14 one year."

And it's not unusual for any program to hold a position or two for a year in hopes of catching a particular player. But Tennessee went to just 11 scholarships in 1996-97, bypassing the chance to pick up some much-needed guards with visions of capturing standout recruits Randall, Clement and Catchings. Then sophomore point guard Kellie Jolly went down with a torn ACL in October 1996. When she returned three months later, the Lady Vols were 10-6. Summitt hadn't lost more than six games in a season since 1986 and thoughts of not making the NCAA Tournament for the first time became prevalent With commitments from the fab four rolling in, though, thoughts couldn't help but turn to this season.

"We questioned ourselves many times on (holding those spots)," DeMoss says. "When our numbers got down, when we had injuries . . . we just had to keep reminding ourselves the reason we did this was because of that class that was coming in. We had to save some spots--not really scholarships, but playing-time spots. So we took our chances."

Losing three of the final five games heading into the '97 NCAA Tournament didn't help, either.

That squad struggled to find its motivation and drive from the first day, but Summitt seemingly put every ounce of her desire into that team, and it paid off with a national-championship victory over Old Dominion--but not before those thoughts of calling it quits came up.

"I'll never make a decision about anything that's really, really important to me if I'm too high or too low," Summitt says. "I think the thing that I struggle with as a coach--and Mickie and Holly (Warlick, another assistant) really help in this area--is to just really lay it on the line. If you are a lazy player, you do not need to come to this program. I don't care if you are the most talented, skilled player at the high school level ever, don't come here if you're lazy--and don't come here if you're selfish. And I now understand that."

So, when practice for this season began last October, the A-No. 1 goal was make the freshmen feel welcome. Even the rite of hazing was kept to a minimum.

"I think that we knew they were great players coming in and we knew that they needed to feel a part of our team," Jolly says. "And the veterans, we were really excited about them coming in."

From the moment Summitt saw this team run the court, she knew she had to change her system: She had to give these players the freedom to create on the court. It meant surrendering some of that control she cherishes so much. "I think the staff this year, the one thing they have done is they've convinced me to run the basketball consistently, even when we take those quick shots and I'm ready to pass out," Summitt says.

Even those in Knoxville, already a devoted and faithful lot, quickly realized there was something special about this team.

"This team, as soon as they took the court and started to play in the opening game, it became the buzzword: `You have to watch the Lady Vols,'" Summitt says. "Not only did it filter throughout Knoxville, but then I think once people started to see them, they were really being talked about (nationally)."

Catchings and Randall gave enormous support to Holdsclaw, who averaged more than 23 points this season. Catchings, who scored a game-high 27 points against Louisiana Tech in the title game, averaged 18 points this season, and Randall was right at 16.

As the wins rolled in and each of last year's 10 losses was avenged, Summitt's greatest problem was avoiding sitting back and simply enjoying it all. "I've been in this business for 24 years and I've never had this much fun," she says. "It's been a great learning experience. They're really special people, they care about each other, they love the game and they believe they can go out and win. And I like being with people like that."

Counting NCAA and SEC titles, Summitt and her aides don't have enough fingers for all of their rings. So, from Day One this season, the coach let the players know that her motivation was a desire to get them a ring as well. And again they believed.

"We understand that she's a legend already. She doesn't need more national championships to put her on a pedestal," says Jolly, who scored 20 points in Sunday's final and was eyeing which finger a third national title ring would go on. "Let's see, this (right ring finger) is last year's ring. And this left ring finger) is two years ago. Then I wear my SEC championship ring on my little finger. I'm sure I can find another place for that third (national title) ring."

With 11 of 12 players--including Holdsclaw, who will be a senior--returning next season and two standout post players coming in, Jolly might want to start thinking of a place for No. 4. "You know what?" Holdsclaw said after the game. "Next year's team will be the best ever."

RELATED ARTICLE: Are the Lady Vols too good?

Tennessee's early blitz of Louisiana Tech in the national title game may well be the greatest opening minutes ever played by a women's team. The Lady Vols rode behind-the-back, no-look passes, 360-degree spin moves to the hoop and sheer dominance of the second-best team in the country to a 42-17 lead just 13 minutes into the game.

There's no question what this Tennessee team--with its remarkable combination of the greatest coach of all time, the top player ever and the best team in history--has meant in conveying just how far the women's game has come.

"Believe me, what they did this year is very good for our game," Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore says. "We saw athletes on the same team do things we probably hadn't seen before."

But what if the Lady Vols keep on winning national crowns? "if this were to continue for, say, three years, it (could be detrimental to the game)," ESPN analyst Mimi Griffin says. "But of the Sweet 16 teams, seven had three or more underclassmen in their starting lineups--that bodes well for

But one of those seven was Tennessee.

The men's game survived UCLA's stranglehold--10 title in 12 years--just fine. And you have to remember that Tennessee's dominance this season went beyond coaching and athleticism:

1. The women's game as a whole was down. Connecticut and Stanford were injury-riddled, and many SEC teams were rebuilding.

2. Home-court advantage. Of Tennessee's 14 regular-season wins against ranked opponents, only two came on an opponent's home court.

3. Tennessee's big three of Chamique Holdsclaw, Kellie Jolly and Tamika Catchings didn't miss a game.

The women's game always will have its toptier teams, just as the men have had in North Carolina and Kentucky. The key is keeping the game competitive. And recruiting (there are more talented players nationwide than ever before), early departures to the pros and even injuries could swing the balance of power.

Recruiting is the key. Connecticut has commitments from five of the nation's top 20 seniors. In addition, overseas and junior-college talent can turn good teams into outstanding ones.

There is little doubt Tennessee, with Holdsclaw coming back, will dominate again next year. Beyond that, who knows. "Everybody else better catch up," Tennessee assistant Mickie DeMoss says, "because we're not slowing down."

Anna M. Jones is an associate editor for The Sporting News.

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