Tennessee's Summitt knows when to bend Master plan finds a place for freshman Holdsclaw

March 28, 1996|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For the past 22 years, Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt has been as much a constant as the Great Smoky Mountains that rise around the Knoxville campus.

Over that span, Summitt has maintained a pretty solid outlook to the game and her program, which seems to have worked. After all, you don't win 594 games, three national championships and make nine trips to the NCAA Final Four by adopting a flavor-of-the-month approach to things.

"Eventually, you either buy into the system or you get out of the system, because the system stays the same," said Summitt the other day before the Lady Vols' 52-46 win over Virginia that earned them their latest berth in the national semifinals, to be played here at the Charlotte Coliseum tomorrow night.

But the system can always be tweaked, and Summitt's willingness to make some adjustments is probably the biggest key to this year's Final Four appearance, and to the game with defending-champion Connecticut (ESPN, approximately 9: 30 p.m.)

The biggest change in the Tennessee formula is the team's reliance on a freshman, forward Chamique Holdsclaw, as their go-to player.

Heretofore, in the Lady Vols' hierarchy, seniors were the pistons that fired the engine, and, to an extent, the two seniors -- guards Michelle Marciniak and Latina Davis -- are the emotional foundation of this 30-4 team -- the eighth team to win 30 for Summitt in the last 18 years and the third straight to do so.

But, by Summitt's reckoning, the Tennessee program has never had a freshman quite like Holdsclaw, a 6-foot-2 swing player from Astoria, N.Y., who led her Christ the King High School team to four state championships and one mythical national title while being named by three different organizations as national Player of the Year.

With a team-leading average of 16.3 points per game, Holdsclaw has wrested the title of most prolific Tennessee freshman scorer away from Bridgette Gordon, a two-time Kodak All-American.

"I didn't go into the season thinking Chamique was going to be the player she's developed into. I couldn't have known and I don't think the team could have known that. She's a real special talent. She wants the basketball," said Summitt.

She continued: "Bridgette Gordon, as great a player as she was, didn't want the ball with the game on the line until her junior year. I mean, Chamique wants it, whether she's shooting the ball well or not that day. It doesn't matter. She believes that the next time she touches it, she'll score."

The chorus of women's basketball experts who agree with Summitt is growing. Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore, who watched Holdsclaw light up the then unbeaten Lady Techsters for 23 points and 13 rebounds in Tennessee's 77-72 win, called her "possibly the best freshman ever to play the game."

Virginia coach Debbie Ryan, who tried to recruit Holdsclaw, said, "She's much better at the perimeter than I thought she was going to be. Her outside game is just tremendous."

And Kansas coach Marian Washington, who coached Lynette Woodard, one of only three players -- Ann Meyers and Cheryl Miller are the others -- to be named a Kodak All-American four times, says Holdsclaw will be the fourth when the squad is announced today.

For her part, the soft-spoken Holdsclaw has deflected the attention and praised Marciniak and Davis for their help in her development.

"I've had Latina and Michelle, who have supported me and provided great leadership," said Holdsclaw. "That's helped my performance and given me confidence to know that when I make a mistake or do something good, they'll either tell me what I did wrong or tell me what I did right, and I appreciate that."

And unlike a lot of teams -- men's or women's -- on which a flashy freshman might ruffle the feathers of players who have put in time outside the spotlight early on, waiting for fame to come later, the two seniors have lavished praise on their teammate.

Marciniak, the team's point guard, called a meeting two weeks ago to let Holdsclaw know there was no resentment for her fame, which included a designation by ESPN as college player of the week, and a prominent spot in a recent HBO feature on the Tennessee program.

"Specifically, the point I wanted to get across was to let Chamique know how very proud we are of her for how much she's helped our team, but also to let her know that all the recognition she's got is not her fault," said Marciniak.

Holdsclaw, who also leads the Lady Vols in rebounding, suffered a second-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament of her right knee in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game against Alabama, and although Tennessee held off the Crimson, Tide 64-60, the freshman's absence for the last 30 minutes caused some concern.

"That was a real growing experience for a lot of individuals on our team, and it developed a level of confidence when we managed to hang on and win without her," said Summitt.

You get the feeling that Summitt and the Lady Vols will be doing a lot of winning with her over the next three seasons.

Pub Date: 3/28/96

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