For the record, there were a few weeks this fall when Tennessee's four newcomers acted like the nobodies that freshmen are supposed to be. For instance, when the two-time defending women's national champion Lady Volunteers were introduced at halftime of the Tennessee-Mississippi football game on Oct. 4, the four rookies, each a top recruit, were made to stand on the sideline, out of the limelight. When the Lady Vols visited the White House on Oct. 27, the freshmen stayed home. And when the 1997 NCAA championship banner was raised and the rings were doled out at Thompson-Boling Arena before a game against No. 2 Louisiana Tech on Nov. 21, the rookies huddled in the shadows and watched from a distance, uncertain smiles crossing their lips. "It was a good feeling, seeing our teammates get their rings," says forward Tamika Catchings, who shares a dorm suite with fellow freshmen Kristen (Ace) Clement, Teresa Geter and Semeka Randall. "But I think we felt a little jealous. We want rings, too."
The NCAA's jewelers should consider themselves forewarned. After ending 10th-ranked Stanford's 49-game home winning streak with a convincing 88-70 victory at San Jose Arena last Saturday and then prevailing 74-51 at Portland on Sunday, Tennessee was 6-0 and looked ready to deliver the first three-peat in women's college basketball. The freshmen? They still stood apart—but only from other first-year players. "They don't play like freshmen," said Stanford assistant Amy Tucker after watching Catchings and Randall combine for 37 points and 19 rebounds against the Cardinal. "Right now our freshmen are playing like freshmen, but the Tennessee freshmen are dominating."
Clement, a point guard who last year surpassed Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia-area high school scoring record, has seen little action because of a stress fracture in her right foot. But Catchings, Geter and Randall have made themselves right at home at center stage, alongside the Lady Vols' two-time All-America, Chamique Holdsclaw. The three freshmen have contributed 40.4% of Tennessee's scoring and 37.2% of its rebounding.
Holdsclaw, a junior forward who shouldered a heavy burden for the Lady Vols last season, is thrilled to have the company. "I'm so much more relaxed," she says. "I know I have to play hard, but it's not like last year, when we'd be down by 10 points and my teammates would look at me for five straight possessions. Teams can guard me tight, but Tamika and Semeka can slip in there and score now."
With three reliable perimeter scorers, this Tennessee team doesn't much resemble last year's erratic and often exasperating edition, which lost 10 games before running through the NCAA tournament and winning the championship game against Old Dominion. In fact, without a wide-body enforcer such as 6'4" Tiffani Johnson, who was kicked off the Lady Vols this summer for breaking unspecified rules, this group doesn't look much like any of Tennessee's five previous championship teams. But that's a quickly diminishing concern for coach Pat Summitt, who watched the willowy and begoggled Geter, who stands 6'3", hold her own at home against Louisiana Tech's preseason All-America center, Alisa Burras. Geter had 11 points, six rebounds, five blocks and three steals in 17 minutes against the Lady Techsters as Tennessee won 75-61. Even after Geter got rattled on the road against Stanford, contributing just four points and four rebounds, Summitt was serene. "I thought Teresa looked like a freshman today," she said. "But that's good. She'll look better tomorrow."
It's hard for Summitt not to be optimistic about this team. To begin with, she admires the way her veteran players have responded to winning the title. "They've handled success better than most," she says. "They all worked really hard over the summer."
So far there has been no sign of the inconsistency that plagued the 1996-97 Lady Vols. (Summitt isn't particularly proud of last year's 29-10 record; the ring commemorating that championship is the only one of the five in her jewelry box that isn't engraved with Tennessee's record.) The squad's dedication has allowed Summitt to do what she enjoys most: teach. If she's not careful, she might find herself sitting back and rooting, because along with being talented and motivated, these Lady Vols are fun to watch. "I've worked 24 years to see a team this exciting," she says.
Most of Tennessee's new electricity can be traced to the Three Amikas—Chamique, Semeka and Tamika—who share, besides a middle syllable that gives them all the nickname Meek, the poise and athleticism that typify the new breed of woman player. But as good as Catchings and Randall are, Holdsclaw, who has a chance to become the first four-time All-America since Southern Cal's Cheryl Miller, is still the standard of excellence. Her combination of quickness, skill and grace makes her a singular star, "maybe the best ever to play this game," says Louisiana Tech coach Leon Barmore. And she's still improving. Though she was the only nonprofessional player on a U.S. team that toured Canada, Europe and South America last summer, Holdsclaw was the leading scorer and rebounder and came into her own as a defender.
Her fellow Meek, Randall, is a great lover of music. She recently passed on an opportunity to see an NBA preseason game in Knoxville to attend the opera. She gave up playing the trumpet long ago, however, to concentrate on basketball. "I can tell you every mistake I've made on the court since sixth grade," says Randall, a 5'10" guard from Cleveland who was the Parade co-Player of the Year last season. Which is not to say she's all grim purpose on the court. On the contrary, her exuberance is riveting. Vibrating with anguish over every foul and with joy after every score, she is "like a stick of dynamite for the fans," says Summitt.
While Randall's desire to be at Tennessee was never in doubt—she called Summitt collect nearly every other day last summer just to check in, leaving the Lady Vols with a phone bill that still makes Summitt wince—Catchings, daughter of former NBA center Harvey Catchings, was harder to read. Though she says she has known since eighth grade that she would "kill to play for Pat," she was also tugged by a desire to be reunited with her older sister, Tauja, with whom she won a state championship at Stevenson High in Lincolnshire, Ill., in 1995. When Harvey and his wife, Wanda, were divorced, Tauja stayed with her dad in Chicago while Tamika moved with her mom to Duncanville, Texas, where she picked up every national player of the year award not claimed by Randall last season.