Tennessee senior forward Abby Conklin was reclining on the trainer's table in a Riverfront Coliseum locker room on Sunday night, addressing the media as if from a shrink's couch. With her sprained right ankle elevated and with a cap that said WOMEN'S 1997 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS sliding off her head, Conklin was describing how her team had picked its way through a minefield of a season, one marked by hard luck and uneven play. "Once we got to the tournament," she said, "we took it two games at a time, just two games at a time." The first two at home, against Grambling and Oregon. The next two at the Midwest Regional in Iowa City, against Colorado and top-ranked Connecticut. The last two in Cincinnati, against Notre Dame and Old Dominion, in Tennessee's third consecutive Final Four appearance.
An orange-clad visitor interrupted Conklin to congratulate her on the Lady Vols' hard-fought 68-59 win over Old Dominion for the national championship. Conklin raised her head and smiled. "Hey!" she said to the well-wisher, Don Sundquist, the governor of Tennessee. "Can you believe it?"
The governor shook his head in disbelief, and Conklin let hers fall back on the table. Her hat tumbled to the floor. She was still a little dazed by the realization that the Lady Vols had earned their second straight national title and fifth since 1987.
All of those championships have come under coach Pat Summitt, who with Sunday's victory moved past Adolph Rupp, the famed Kentucky coach, into second place on the alltime list of most national titles. She now trails only John Wooden, whose UCLA teams won 10. For Summitt, who has coached in Knoxville for 23 seasons, this championship might have been the sweetest, earned as it was by a team with a relatively dismal—by Summitt's standards—record of 29-10. No Tennessee team had lost that many games since the 1985-86 squad went 24-10. Summitt's last four teams before this season had lost a total of 12 games.
"Fifth in the SEC and Number 1 in the country," proclaimed Summitt after Sunday's game. "Doesn't that just sum up what this learn has accomplished? We have faced a lot of adversity. This team will always be very special to me, both personally and professionally."
The Lady Vols' appearance in Cincinnati was so unexpected that Summitt, who usually buys her new Final Four outfit by January, didn't make this year's purchase until March 25, the day after Tennessee knocked off undefeated Connecticut in Iowa City. Shopping had to be put on hold as the team negotiated an unfamiliar landscape of injuries and individual and collective funks.
Sophomore point guard Kellie Jolly tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in October. Five games after Jolly returned in January, her replacement, junior Laurie Milligan, dislocated the patella in her right knee. Conklin broke the little toe on her left foot when she stubbed it on her couch in January, but she continued to play, mystifying her teammates by actually performing better. Meanwhile the Lady Vols earned one negative distinction after another: They became the first Tennessee team to lose to Arkansas. The first to lose to Florida. The first to not get a bye on the opening day of the SEC tournament. The first since 1986 to drop out of the Top 10. "We were setting so many bad records," said sophomore forward Chamique Holdsclaw last week, "we were wondering if anything positive would come out of the season."
Holdsclaw's MVP run in the Final Four ensured that the season would end splendidly. Like USC, the last women's team to win back-to-back titles (in '83 and '84), Tennessee owes a lot to its one transcendent player. USC had Cheryl Miller, and Tennessee has Holdsclaw, a two-time All-America who scored 55 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and dished out six assists last weekend. "Chamique is the best player in women's college basketball today," said former Old Dominion star Nancy Lieberman-Cline, who was in Cincinnati doing TV commentary. "I think Cheryl is the best ever, but before all is said and done, Chamique could be better."
Holdsclaw, who wears number 23 in tribute to the 23rd Psalm and because she is a Michael Jordan fan, owes her grace and poise in part to a brief career as a reluctant grade school ballerina and tap student. Her court vision, her ball handling and her high-arcing shot, she attributes to a long apprenticeship on New York City's playgrounds, where she competed against boys and learned to leap and spin to avoid the hands in her face. But the playground is nowhere to be found in her conversation. Holdsclaw, who was raised in Queens by her grandmother, June Holdsclaw, speaks with almost Victorian propriety.
"I don't think females should be allowed to decide to go pro," she said last week when asked about players possibly leaving school early to join one of the two new women's leagues. "The leagues need mature young ladies who have their degrees."