Holdsclaw takes spot with elite Standout: Tennessee's leading Lady Vol tries to tune out the adulation that goes with being compared to the greatest women's basketball players.

Ncaa Tournament

March 26, 1998|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The great philosopher Yogi Berra once noted that a New York restaurant had become so popular that "nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." Tennessee forward Chamique Holdsclaw might find herself wishing for that soon enough.

Holdsclaw is making a name for herself even beyond the cozy confines of women's basketball. Her resplendent play in leading the two-time defending champion Lady Vols on an unbeaten course heading into this weekend's Final Four in Kansas City, Mo., is drawing comparisons to some of the greatest to play the women's game.

And the fact that Holdsclaw wears the number 23 as well as the notion that she seems able, like that fellow in Chicago, to take over a game at her own whim, make some wonder if she is the women's answer to Michael Jordan.

That's all well and good, except that Holdsclaw, whose nickname "Meek" reflects the last syllable of her name as well as her offcourt demeanor, is a little uncomfortable with the adulation.

All of a sudden, Holdsclaw is all over the place, from magazines to documentaries. For goodness sake, comedienne Sandra Bernhard is wearing her jersey in those ESPN promos.

And Knoxville, where fans have been known to be blase about anything that isn't Tennessee football, has become "Chamique Nation". Holdsclaw signed autographs for 2 1/2 hours after a game one night and was criticized for not signing more.

Holdsclaw needed a police escort to get out of Thompson-Boling Arena to her car after the Lady Vols beat Connecticut in January. And then there was the male fan who asked her to sign his back.

"It's kind of like being in a rock group," said Holdsclaw earlier this week. "Everyone's kind of stalking me. I can honestly say what the last few years have been like for [Tennessee quarterback] Peyton Manning.

"Whenever I go to the mall, there's a line for me to sign autographs. Ace [guard Kristin Clement] and I go to the mall and she just kind of leaves me to go shopping and I go to the Gap and watch the line come. It's just weird."

It's Holdsclaw's play that has generated this attention. A 6-foot-2 junior from Astoria, N.Y., she has the height and strength to play in the low post, but Holdsclaw can also handle the ball and shoot like a guard. She has led the Lady Vols in scoring and rebounding her first three years, and is poised, barring injury, to join Cheryl Miller, Ann Meyers and Lynnette Woodard as the only players named to the Kodak All-America team four straight years.

"If there was one player over the last 10 years that I could honestly say, 'Now that kid reminds me of me,' it's Holdsclaw," said Miller. "She's the whole package. She's got handles, she can shoot, she can pass and she's a great defender. Plus, she has a little bit of a flair to her, and you know me. I love flair. I think she's sensational."

Said Illinois coach Theresa Grentz: "You look at the great ones -- Ann Meyers, Carol Blazejowski, Cheryl Miller, Lynnette Woodard and Chamique's really in that group. She and Miller, they have style."

If anything, Holdsclaw has made herself better this season. Last year she excelled at scoring in the half-court set. This year coach Pat Summitt challenged her to expand her game.

"I think she's the best. I've said that all along this year," said Summitt. "Before this year, no. I don't think she was committed to running the floor, her defense was average and her running was below average. She's improved, according to that."

The other spur to Holdsclaw's game has come from her two talented freshmen teammates, Tamika Catchings and Semeka Randall, who have helped make Tennessee's full-court press the most devastating weapon in women's basketball.

The Lady Vols, who enter tomorrow's national semifinal game with Arkansas with a 37-0 record, used the full fury of that pressure Monday night, erasing a 12-point deficit in the final 7: 30 to beat North Carolina, 76-70, with Holdsclaw and Catchings at the head of the press.

Catchings, the daughter of former NBA player Harvey Catchings, is a 6-1 forward who has already broken Holdsclaw's freshman scoring mark at Tennessee. She and Randall, a 5-11 guard, combine with Holdsclaw to give Tennessee its "Three Meeks."

Holdsclaw, who scored 15 of Tennessee's last 27 points in the win over North Carolina, said her fellow "Meeks" have driven her to get better.

"This year, I made the commitment to improve my all-around game, whether it was passing or rebounding or my defensive intensity," said Holdsclaw. "I'm kicking it to other players and they can score."

Said Summitt: "I think she recognizes that if she wants some touches in the open court, she has to sprint because she has some competition going up and down the floor. Secondly, we are a pressing team now and we were more of a half-court team in her first two seasons. I think the commitment from Semeka and Tamika in particular has really filtered through the rest of our team. Chamique's much better defensively because of that."

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