Holdsclaw, Tennessee return to final 'Best player' scores 31, helps shake Notre Dame

March 29, 1997|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

CINCINNATI -- For two weeks, the Notre Dame women's basketball team -- dressing only nine players, including a student manager -- has pulled off more than a few miracles in knocking off higher-ranked and more talented teams on the way to the Final Four.

But in last night's national semifinal, the 15th-ranked Irish ran into defending champion Tennessee, which pulled out a few miracles of its own in an 80-66 win that sent the Lady Vols into tomorrow night's championship game against No. 2 Old Dominion.

Tennessee, 28-10 and 11th-ranked nationally, simply wore down Notre Dame behind the eye-grabbing play of sophomore Chamique Holdsclaw, who had a game-high 31 points.

Holdsclaw, a 6-foot-3 standout acclaimed this week by ESPN analyst Mimi Griffin as the best player in the history of the women's game, played up to the part in a brilliant performance.

"I felt relaxed out there. I didn't want to have a letdown on my end. I came out and gave what I had," said Holdsclaw, who added five rebounds, three assists, two blocks and four steals.

Said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw: "She's the best player in the nation. She can pass and shoot. She can do it all. There are certain times when a player just steps it up, and this was one of those."

Holdsclaw, who is as good from the outside and she is from the inside, took Tennesseecoach Pat Summitt's suggestion that she use her size and strength, as well as her ability to shoot from the perimeter.

"Coach Summitt reminded me to go inside. Sometimes, I faded outside and she reminded me to go inside -- and I went to the high post and it worked," said Holdsclaw, a two-time All-American.

Said Summitt: "No one can stop Chamique but Chamique. She just has tremendous intensity on the offensive end of the floor. Her defense is getting better and better. She's starting to like playing defense, and that only makes her better.

The Irish (31-8) gamely stayed with Tennessee for a lot longer than many expected, extending the game by running at least 20 seconds off the 30-second shot clock on offense and sagging back in a 2-3 zone, daring the Lady Vols to shoot from the outside.

The gamble paid off for a while, as Tennessee had trouble not only hitting from the perimeter but also finishing on their breaks.

"Notre Dame came out and played like they had been here before," Tennessee junior Tiffani Johnson said.

However, the Lady Vols, who will play for their fifth championship in 10 years and appear in their third straight title game, broke the game open, with an 8-0 run in a one-minute span with 6: 30 to go in the game. That boosted a six-point advantage into a 14-point lead. Freshman Kyra Elzy, who had 14 points total, scored six points during the run.

"Our experienced players knew what to expect, but Kyra Joe is not playing like a freshman," Tennessee senior Abby Conklin said.

The Irish battled gamely with the heavily favored Lady Vols throughout the first half, never trailing by more than six.

Senior forward Katryna Gaither, who along with fellow senior Beth Morgan has been brilliant in the tournament, kept Notre Dame in the game virtually single-handedly during the first half, scoring at the buzzer to trim the deficit to 29-28.

However, Tennessee's defense limited the rest of the Irish attack, outside Gaither and Morgan's combined 46 points, to just 20 points.

"In the first half, they controlled the tempo. We just went out and got some steals and were able to get things going," Conklin said.

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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