But the Lady Vols never let Holdsclaw forget she was a rookie. On the first road trip, to Hawaii for the Kona Classic, her teammates found a yellow broomstick on the van that took them to the Knoxville airport. "It's the freshman pole," guard Laurie Milligan told Holdsclaw, "and you have to carry it for the whole trip." The other players nodded, and Holdsclaw, who claims she isn't a gullible person, carried the stick through the airport and onto the plane. "I thought it was tradition, and I didn't want to break it," she says. Somewhere over the Pacific, a coach finally tipped her off. but the Lady Vols enjoyed the joke so much that an instant tradition was born and all three of this year's freshmen will take turns carrying the pole. Oh, and sure enough, Holdsclaw carried Tennessee to the Kona title and earned MVP honors.
Holdsclaw realized how much the Lady Vols were relying on her the afternoon after Connecticut had won 59-53 at Tennessee, ending at 69 games an NCAA-record home unbeaten streak that dated back to 1991. She had led the Lady Vols with 15 points but did not score in the final nine minutes. "The second hall of that game was probably the only time I saw her really hold back all season," Tennessee assistant Mickie DeMoss says. "It was like she was waiting for someone else to do it."
Braving a January snowstorm that had paralyzed Knoxville, the Lady Vols gathered in their locker room, where they were met by an unsmiling Summitt. She instructed them to write down the things they could have done better against Connecticut. Holdsclaw came up with quite a list: I shouldn't have just sat back, I should have stepped my game up. I played like a freshman. I played like I didn't want the hall, like I was scared.
After practice Summitt and Holdsclaw went to watch film of the game and have a talk. Summitt told Holdsclaw in no uncertain terms that she was expected to make her share of big plays and not rely on seniors Marciniak and Latina Davis to take over and that she wasn't to worry about what might be proper for a freshman. "After that I didn't really care what anybody else thought, I knew it was what the coach wanted me to do," Holdsclaw says.
She averaged 18.6 points a game through the rest of the regular season, but in the final of the SEC tournament she was presented with a new challenge. Nine minutes into the game against Alabama, Holdsclaw collided with an opponent and crumpled to the court with a partially torn ligament in her right knee. Tennessee won the game 64-60, but suddenly there was a question about whether Holdsclaw would play in the NCAA tournament. She didn't handle the uncertainty well. "I just shut everybody out," she says. "I felt pretty down, going to practice and not being able to participate, so I wouldn't talk to anyone."
Marciniak noticed Holdsclaw was struggling and gathered the Lady Vols in the locker room before practice one afternoon. "I wanted to let her know in front of the team that there wasn't going to be any jealousy and that we were all proud of her," says Marciniak. "If we lost at the end of the season, it wasn't going to be because she didn't perform. I think she needed to hear that."
Holdsclaw was able to play in Tennessee's first-round game, 12 days after her injury. And it turned out that her absence from practice helped. "Her injury was the key to the championship," Summitt says. "When she went down, all the others realized they had to do more. It made us a better team."
Holdsclaw, too, realizes she needs to do more. Defense is the hole in her game. "Not that I didn't expect her to play defense last year, but I started to wonder, How much more can you ask of her?" Summitt says. "I really felt she was doing all she could do."
Which raises the question. How much can she do? Are four All-America awards too lofty a goal? Four national titles? When asked what she's shooting for, Holdsclaw only has to think for a second. "I want to be able to say I helped the women's game become more competitive and exciting," she says. "I want to bring a flair to the game. I want people to say, 'That Holdsclaw kid, she really could play.' "