Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore is something of an expert on the Tennessee Lady Vols, having been a sideline witness to so many of their triumphs. His Lady Techsters were the victims when Tennessee won its first national championship in 1986-87, a 67-44 conquest that remains the most lopsided NCAA women's title game in history. And who do you suppose was in the house when Tennessee raised its 1996-97 championship banner at Thompson-Boling Arena on Nov. 21?
Yes, Barmore had seen a lot and heard even more about Tennessee, particularly this season, as the Lady Vols rolled along unbeaten in their quest for a sixth NCAA women's title and an unprecedented third in a row. He had heard the "greatest ever" hype, but he had refused to jump on the bandwagon. Other teams had gone undefeated only to crash in the postseason, he had warned. Let's see this team win it all. So, on Sunday night, as Tennessee and Louisiana Tech faced off for the national championship at Kansas City's Kemper Arena on the western edge of Missouri, Barmore took his seat, clasped his hands together and, in effect, said, "Show me!"
As they had for most of the year, the Lady Vols made their case for greatness swiftly and decisively. With the first half not even half finished, national player of the year Chamique Holdsclaw, wearing the signature shoes of another Final Four legend, Sheryl Swoopes, had scored 16 points—one more than Tech—to put Tennessee ahead 36-15. The junior All-America forward would add nine more points and finish with 10 rebounds and six assists to earn her second consecutive Final Four Most Outstanding Player award. Anyone who had suspected that Holdsclaw might be growing bored with winning championships—she has now won eight in a row: three NCAA titles, four New York state high school titles at Christ the King and an eighth-grade championship in Queens, N.Y.—was greatly mistaken.
"In the first 10 minutes of the game, when she was hitting jump shots with people in her face, taking it to the hole, I knew it was her night," Lady Vols freshman guard Semeka Randall said of Holdsclaw. "She wasn't going to let anybody take that championship home except Tennessee."
Neither were her teammates. Freshman forward Tamika Catchings, playing in front of her father, Harvey, a former NBA center, led all scorers with 27 points. Junior point guard Kellie Jolly added a career-best 20 points, including four three-pointers. Two of her treys came on back-to-back possessions that Barmore said "shut the door" on his team, which had trailed by 23 points at halftime but had closed to within 18 of Tennessee.
By the end of the Lady Vols' 93-75 win, their NCAA-record 39th this season and 45th in a row, Barmore counted himself among the converted. "We got beat by the best women's team I've personally ever seen," said Barmore, who has coached for 16 years and been to the NCAA title game four times. "Whatever they needed, they got it done."
That has been the mark of this Tennessee team, one that coach Pat Summitt says has been more fun to coach than any of her previous 23. "I am so happy for the players, because of their love for the game, their chemistry, their competitiveness and their love for each other," she said. "I could not have imagined them not getting what they deserved."
The acclaim for this group started bubbling up around the time that Tennessee dispatched Louisiana Tech in November, a game that also served as a coming-out party for the vaunted freshman class of Catchings, Randall, Kristen (Ace) Clement and Teresa Geter. Listeners to WIVK radio in Knoxville have gotten a regular dose of a ditty about the three "Meeks"—Holdsclaw, Catchings and Randall—sung to the tune of Calendar Girl. Fan worship in Tennessee, substantial even in nontranscendent years, reached such a fever pitch in the postseason that Summitt put her players off limits for autographs in Kansas City, except in scheduled sessions. The Final Four frenzy made it hard for the players to go out without security guards or team managers as escorts.
The madding crowds in Kansas City were nothing new to Holdsclaw, who says she now knows what life must have been like for Tennessee football star Peyton Manning the last four years in Knoxville. "Whenever I go to the mall, I have a line of people wanting autographs," she says. Even so, she videotaped just about every one of her waking moments at the Final Four. When she had to carry something else, like her Kodak All-America award or any of the five player of the year awards she picked up last week, she handed her camera to a team manager so he could capture the moment for posterity. "I'm making my own documentary," she said, flashing her braces.
Surely she wishes she had had that camera with her during a trip to DePaul in January, when the Lady Vols visited Michael Jordan's Chicago office. As the players filed in, His Airness recognized Her Airness right away. "As soon as we came in, he said, 'What's up, 'Mique?' " recalls Holdsclaw. "I was in awe. Then he challenged me to a game of one-on-one, and I was just speechless!"