Monday, March 31, 1997
They can't hold a candle
to Holdsclaw

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Chamique Holdsclaw makes no empty promises. Her word is as good as her post moves. When she makes a vow, she sees to its vindication.

Sunday's NCAA Women's Championship was effectively settled at halftime, when Tennessee's superlative sophomore approached coach Pat Summitt and assured her she would play better in the second half.

''I wasn't going to disappear,'' she said. ''I just thought I had to go out there and make big plays.''

Tennessee defended its national title with a 68-59 victory over Old Dominion at Riverfront Coliseum, and most of the credit and nearly all of the net went to Holdsclaw. Old Dominion would overcome a 15-point deficit, and some dubious officiating, but it never found an answer for Holdsclaw.

She did not disappear. She refused to hide. She rose to the occasion as if launched like a rocket. In her moments of truth, Holdsclaw seldom took a false step.

With seven minutes to play Sunday night, Old Dominion had clawed its way to a two-point lead, 49-47. The Lady Monarchs had the momentum, and they seemed to have the muscle. What they didn't have was a single player who could take command in a crisis. And that's where this game was decided.

Chamique Holdsclaw was not a one-woman team, but she had at least one hand on most of the critical plays down the stretch. It was her layup that tied the game at 49-49, and her consecutive assists that made the Lady Vols' lead permanent. She scored 10 of her 24 points in the last 6:48 of the game - personally matching ODU's offensive output during that span.

''In the first half, I thought she was forcing things a little bit offensively,'' Summitt said of her All-America forward. ''But regardless, she has such a presence on the floor for our team whether she touches the ball or not. She is a very gifted athlete with great basketball skills. But something that she has that's really really special ... that she has a tremendous desire to win. She is a fierce competitor, and the more pressure, the more she looks to get the ball and make plays. I told her to quit passing the basketball. There are a lot of great players out there, but I think she's the best in the college game.''

If she is not already acknowledged as the best women's college player, that would seem an inevitability. Sunday's championship was Holdsclaw's sixth straight - counting four New York state high school titles and two NCAA crowns - and she announced afterward that, ''The sky's the limit.''

''I feel like we have our place in history,'' she said.

History is subject to revision. ''We could be the first program to win four back-to-back championships,'' Holdsclaw said.

Holdsclaw wears the No. 23, not out of some fixation with Michael Jordan, but out of appreciation for the 23rd Psalm. (''The Lord is my shepherd,'' etc.) Her piety is genuine.

Once, while Tennessee tried to protect its lead in the late going, Holdsclaw clasped her hands in prayer. Later, when the outcome became clear, she put her hands to her head as if in disbelief at her blessings.

''I remember looking at the clock with 5:32 left,'' she said. ''I took a deep breath and said, just play through this. Five more minutes.''

Shortly thereafter, she rebounded a missed jump shot by ODU's Amber Eller, a possession which led to a Tiffani Johnson layup and a six-point lead. Then she made two layups, blocked a shot, made another layup, and hit two free throws.

''I couldn't have done it,'' she said, ''without great passes from my teammates.''

This much was modesty. If Chamique Holdsclaw had disappeared, Tennessee was toast.