Two stoke Lady Vols' high-heat game Randall, Catchings take pride, pleasure in leading Tennessee's pressure

March 21, 1998|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The funny thing, the really funny thing about Semeka Randall and Tamika Catchings is how harmless they look when they're sitting on the dais after another Tennessee win.

Ear-to-ear grins and giggles abound as the pair calmly discuss the latest step on the march to women's basketball immortality like a biology exam or yesterday's meat loaf at the training table.

And the even funnier thing is that Catchings and Randall -- who along with teammate Chamique Holdsclaw share the nickname "Meek" for the common syllable in their first names -- could actually get away with the ruse if not for the total absence of remorse over the way they have systematically destroyed the opposition -- by an NCAA-leading average of 31.2 points per game.

"It's been our tempo and it's been like that from day one. We need to keep it that way," said Randall. "We've played teams that have rattled because of the pressure and that gives us more reason to attack them and keep the pressure on."

The vehicle of destruction that has driven the Lady Vols to a school-record 35 wins heading into today's Mideast Regional semifinal against Rutgers is the press, and Catchings and Randall are its two most vital cogs.

Whether it's a 1-2-1-1 or 2-2-1 zone trap, you can count on the Lady Vols to get in the faces of their opponents with an unrelenting pressure, the likes of which the women's game has never seen before, and for Randall, a 5-foot-10 off-guard, and Catchings, a 6-1 small forward to be at the head of it.

"I mean, it's like just about everytime you turn around, there's a steal, and even if you make it to halfcourt, we're still there with that pressure," said Catchings, the youngest daughter of former Philadelphia and Milwaukee NBA veteran Harvey Catchings.

Their coach, Pat Summitt, remembers the day last fall when she first saw the press, during a Tennessee practice. Summitt had assumed that the Lady Vols would be more of a conventional, halfcourt defensive team.

That is, until she saw them in action.

"Once I put this group on the floor and we start working on our press, we had probably two minutes of full-court pressure," said Summitt. "I remember just smiling and thinking, 'We're going to be a pressing team.'

"And that's really because of these two young ladies. That's their mentality. There's not a passive bone in their bodies when they step on the floor. They were aggressive, like, 'We're going to do this.' And I saw it really filter through our basketball team."

Of the two, Randall, a Cleveland native, is clearly the most outgoing. Summitt has called her the "emotional leader" of the Lady Vols, which is a pretty mean feat, considering that Holdsclaw is widely considered the best player in the women's college game.

It's a role Randall accepts with relish.

"It's an important part of our basketball club," said Randall, the team's leading scorer (15.3) and rebounder (4.7). "Coach has stressed that to me, that I need to be able to dictate the tempo and lead this team.

"She said, 'You've been given this God-given talent. Can you handle it?' My first reaction was, 'Yes, I can handle it.' "

Randall hasn't always been the soul of diplomacy. After Tennessee's 84-69 win over then-No. 2 Connecticut in January, Randall, who had 23 points and 10 rebounds, told a sellout throng of nearly 25,000 that she thought the Huskies had been "scared."

Though she was referring to the crowd's effect, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma reacted angrily to the remark.

"I'm outgoing. I'm not afraid to do something to get our team going," said Randall.

Catchings, who is second on the Tennessee team in scoring (18.2) and rebounding (8.3), is a bit more circumspect off the court, but just as aggressive on it. She was named to the Associated Press' second-team All America list last week and Catchings has already set the all-time Tennessee scoring record for freshmen, surpassing Holdsclaw's two-year-old mark.

Her older sister, Tauja, is a star sophomore forward on the Illinois team, which is seeded third in the Mideast region. The Lady Vols made up a 22-point second half deficit to the Fighting Illini in

December to win, 78-68, with Tamika scoring 20 points and pulling down 13 rebounds.

Tamika said the two of them talk frequently and send each other T-shirts and apparel from their schools. Tauja is supposedly looking forward to getting another crack at Tennessee in Monday's regional final, if they both win.

"We hope we play against each other. She really wants the opportunity to get back at us for her coach and for herself," said Catchings, who then smiled and said, "I don't think that's going to happen."

Pub Date: 3/21/98

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