Tenn. tops UConn, lives up to billing Holdsclaw's 25 lead Vols to 84-69 win before 24,597

January 04, 1998|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- After Nebraska sliced apart the Tennessee football team in Friday night's Orange Bowl, this city needed a big hug, a bandage and for someone to tell them everything would be all right.

As if on cue, their top-ranked Lady Volunteers women's basketball team stepped up and provided said comfort yesterday, in the form of an 84-69 nationally televised win over rival No. 3 Connecticut.

The Lady Vols (15-0) did the nurturing thing to a crowd of 24,597 here at Thompson-Boling Arena -- the largest ever to see a women's college game -- with some stifling defense and a couple of withering runs, at the game's beginning and in the third quarter, to put the Huskies (12-1) away, handing Connecticut its worst loss in four years.

"Tennessee is everything they've been advertised to be. You just don't get a break in terms of how you're going to play them," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said.

Indeed, two-time defending champion Tennessee, which has been atop every poll this year, was almost as good as billed yesterday, starting with its do-it-all forward Chamique Holdsclaw, who had 25 points, four assists and five rebounds.

Holdsclaw, a 6-foot-2 junior from Astoria, N.Y., who is widely heralded as the best player in the women's college game, hit two big baskets late in the third quarter after Connecticut had cut a 14-point halftime deficit down to two, with 2: 30 remaining in the period.

But more importantly, Holdsclaw, who had a game-high six steals, played a dominant defensive game, helping to shut down Connecticut's Nykesha Sales, who had torched Stanford for 46 points two weeks ago.

Sales, who came in averaging 20 points a game, was held to just 12, with six coming in the final minute when the contest had been decided.

"Coach [Pat Summitt] told me when they ask her who's the best offensive player in the country, she says me," Holdsclaw said.

"But when they ask, who's the best defender, she has to say someone else. I'm a competitor and Coach put that on my shoulders and I wanted to live up to that."

Summitt said: "I really challenged Chamique on defense to stop [Sales]. Her defensive intensity stepped up. We wanted to do three things: limit her touches, give a lot of help and trap her. We were able to do that."

The Lady Vols forced 27 Connecticut turnovers, while committing 23, and controlled the backboards, out-rebounding the Huskies 17-2 in the first quarter alone on the way to an overall 41-28 advantage.

Yesterday's game was only the seventh in the series, but the annual contest -- always on national television -- has already become the highest profile matchup in the sport.

The Huskies had won all three previous regular-season meetings before yesterday and capped their unbeaten 1995 national championship run with a 70-64 win over the Lady Vols in the title game. In 1996, Connecticut ended the Lady Vols' NCAA-record 69-game home win streak with a 59-53 victory here.

However, with yesterday's win, Tennessee has won three of the past four, including ending Connecticut's season the past two years in the NCAA tournament, in the Final Four two years ago and in the Mideast Regional final last season.

"This matchup has brought about some great meetings," Summitt said. "Whenever Tennessee and Connecticut play, it seems as though it's significant. It's a matchup we hope to keep alive for years to come."

Auriemma said: "Sometimes, these games take on almost an eerie kind of appearance. It's like if you win this game, everything's right with the world and if you lose it, you don't think you'll ever win another game. So much has been attached to vTC these particular games, that it's hard for the players to feel like they lost just a game."

Pub Date: 1/04/98

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