When Vice President Al Gore called to congratulate the Lady Vols for winning their third straight NCAA title Sunday night, Tennessee star Chamique Holdsclaw took the receiver from Coach Pat Summitt and, according to Summitt, asked Gore:
“Are you going to get tired of seeing me at the White House?”
Holdsclaw’s question was as relevant as it was bold. Not only will she be making her third trip to the White House in as many collegiate seasons, but there is no reason to believe she won’t be making a fourth White House visit. On Sunday, Holdsclaw promised to return for her senior season instead of going pro.
The Lady Vols, who topped off a perfect 39-0 season with Sunday’s 18-point victory over Louisiana Tech, will lose only one senior to graduation this spring. And even after Holdsclaw graduates in 1999, this year’s freshman starters--guard Semeka Randall and forward Tamika Catchings--will be entering their junior seasons.
In other words, there could be many, many more White House visits for Summitt’s teams. All that talk about Tennessee being the greatest team ever? The subject now has turned to the Lady Vols’ dynasty-in-the-making, one that could rival the most awesome dynasties of all time. This year’s title makes it six in 12 years.
“Certainly with this freshman class and Chamique coming back, and Kellie [Jolly] will be a senior, we should have a terrific team,” Summitt said. “If we stay healthy . . . I think we’re capable of doing it [again]. I think you are going to see an exciting team next year.”
Louisiana Tech Coach Leon Barmore worries that Tennessee’s success could prove to be too much of a good thing.
“This year I thought they really added a lot to women’s basketball,” Barmore said. " . . . I think for a couple of years that’s great. But if they run off five, six, seven in a row, now I don’t think that’s good for women’s basketball.”
This season, Tennessee received credit for drawing more people than ever to the women’s game, culling attention because of its remarkable winning streak and unprecedented playing style. The Lady Vols’ aggressive, running, take-it-to-the-hole philosophy had not been employed by a women’s college team to this extent. Though Holdsclaw was the team’s anchor, Summitt said, it was Randall and Catchings who brought a more fast-paced approach--to which even Holdsclaw had to adapt.
Holdsclaw actually increased her championship streak to seven with Sunday’s victory. She won four straight titles with New York’s Christ the King High before arriving at Tennessee.
“I guess I’m used to winning right now, and everyone is [saying]: ‘Meek, you’re not really excited,’ ” she said, shrugging. “I’ve been there, so I’m not going to be crying or anything like that.”
Added Holdsclaw: "[I want] to come back as a better player, win another championship and leave here in style.”
If Holdsclaw does indeed bypass the WNBA and ABL, the two professional women’s leagues, the Lady Vols bring back their entire starting lineup: Holdsclaw, Jolly, Randall, Catchings and center LaShonda Stephens. Catchings, along with Holdsclaw, was named a first-team all-American last week. Jolly, the point guard, scored a career-high 20 points in the final game, including four of five three-point attempts. Randall, who provided the most dazzling moves in Sunday’s game, is regarded as just a notch below her all-American teammates.
Summitt should have no trouble attracting even more of the nation’s best high school players to her program. An HBO movie about the Lady Vols’ 1997 title season recently aired. Summitt just released an autobiography and will spend the next couple of months on a book tour. In the past few weeks, Summitt appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Holdsclaw made the cover of Ebony. There’s no telling what’s ahead.
But, according to Summitt, the best reason to expect future success from the Lady Vols is not the team’s level of talent, or the upcoming recruiting classes. It’s the attitude of this season’s young players. Summitt called this her most enjoyable season coaching in 24 years, saying this team mirrored her drive and motivation like no other has.
Last year’s title-winning team, by contrast, drove Summitt to the brink of retirement with its laid-back approach. After losing 10 games during the regular season, the team rebounded during the tournament. This team never once fell off the track.
“I am so happy for this team because of their love for the game, their competitiveness and their chemistry and love for each other,” Summitt said. “I cannot imagine this team not getting what they deserve. They deserve a national championship.”