CINCINNATI — CINCINNATI -- It's entirely possible that Pat Summitt has, in Southern parlance, been playing possum with the rest of women's basketball, goading everyone else into a false sense of security.
In January, the Lady Vols, the reigning national champions, were stumbling about with a 10-6 mark, coming off a road loss to Old Dominion.
But two months later, Tennessee (29-10) completed a remarkable turnaround by claiming its second straight national title and fifth overall, a women's record, by beating the Lady Monarchs, 68-59.
Tennessee joins Southern California (1983, 1984) as the only teams to win back-to-back NCAA women's championships.
"Fifth in the SEC and No. 1 in the country. Doesn't that just sum up what this team has just accomplished?" said Summitt. "This year was a tremendous blessing in that we faced a lot of adversity, injuries and losses, but we never had attitude problems. This group will always be very, very special and I feel very, very fortunate to learn, to be challenged, to grow and to come through in a championship way with this team."
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Summitt, arguably the best coach in the women's game, has arguably the best college player in the game, 6-foot-3 sophomore Chamique Holdsclaw, who took over in the final stages of the game, once Old Dominion had erased a 12-point halftime deficit and taken a two-point lead.
Holdsclaw, the Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four, followed a 31-point performance in Friday's semifinal win over Notre Dame with a 24-point, seven-rebound encore last night before 16,714 at Riverfront Coliseum.
"We did something that has never been done in this program and only once in history," Holdsclaw said. "Right now, we kind of have our place in history."
After the Lady Vols squandered a 12-point halftime lead, and trailed 49-47, Holdsclaw, who has won six straight championships dating to high school, scored 10 points in a decisive 16-7 run that put the game away and assisted on two other scores.
"I'm glad she's on my team," point guard Kellie Jolly said. "Chamique is an easy player to pass to. She'll go get the passes I throw to her and turn them into something."
The Lady Vols, whose 10 losses are the most ever for a national champion, came out with an inspired defensive effort as Summitt took a big risk that paid off.
The Tennessee coach, a 23-year veteran, gambled that Old Dominion point guard Ticha Penicheiro, the nation's steals and assists leader, could be pressured from making entry passes from the center of the court, and rotated defenders on the 5-foot-11 Portuguese native, including freshmen Kyra Elzy, Niya Butts and even Holdsclaw for a time.
The loss spoiled a wonderful run by Old Dominion (34-2) that placed the Lady Monarchs, themselves three-time titlists, back among the sport's elite.
"I told them in the locker room that they should be proud of what they accomplished," ODU coach Wendy Larry said. "I challenged our junior class to take this experience and decide what they want to do with it."
The Lady Monarchs, who had won 33 straight before last night, nearly completed the comeback. Penicheiro and senior forward Clarisse Machanguana, two-thirds of the school's Portuguese connection, combined for 14 of 22 points in a run that gave Old Dominion a 44-43 lead after trailing 34-22 at halftime.
However, the third member of the connection, junior forward Mery Andrade, the team's best perimeter defender who had drawn Holdsclaw on defense, fouled out with 8: 01 to go.
The future looks bright for the Lady Vols, who lose only two seniors and bring in the nation's top three recruits next year.
"We have a lot of talent coming in, but we didn't win championships when I had the most talent for whatever reason," Summitt said. "If we don't win another championship, we still have a place in women's basketball history."
And maybe its greatest player.
TENNESSEE -- Johnson 4-4 0-0 8, Holdsclaw 11-20 2-3 24, Thompson 4-4 0-3 8, Elzy 1-3 0-1 2, Jolly 1-5 2-2 5, Butts 4-7 0-0 8, Milligan 0-0 0-0 0, Green 0-1 1-2 1, Laxton 0-0 0-0 0, Stephens 0-0 0-0 0, Conklin 4-5 2-2 12. Totals 29-49 7-13 68.
OLD DOMINION -- Andrade 2-7 0-0 4, Machanguana 7-13 2-2 16, Roberts 6-8 1-2 13, Himes 0-1 0-0 0, Penicheiro 4-13 2-2 10, Eller 2-4 0-0 5, Eblin 3-11 2-4 11, Small 0-0 0-0 0, Diaz 0-5 0-0 0, Bradley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-62 7-10 59.
Halftime--Tennessee 34, Old Dominion 22. 3-point goals--Tennessee 3-5, (Conklin 2-2, Jolly 1-3), Old Dominion 4-18, (Eblin 3-10, Eller 1-2, Penicheiro 0-1, Diaz 0-2, Andrade 0-3). Fouled out--Andrade, Machanguana. Rebounds--Tennessee 29 (Holdsclaw 7), Old Dominion 32 (Machanguana 10). Assists--Tennessee 18 (Jolly 11), Old Dominion 15 (Penicheiro 8). Total fouls--Tennessee 13, Old Dominion 16. A--16,714.
Pub Date: 3/31/97