- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Virginia was leading Tennessee by 17 points early in the second half of the 1996 East Regional final in Charlottesville, Va.
Cavs forward Wendy Palmer took a 3-pointer, it rattled out and freshman Chamique Holdsclaw tore down the court ...
And at that moment, a couple of us on press row looked at each other and said, "Uh, here it comes.''
The Tennessee run. It wasn't like, "Hmmm, wonder if Tennessee can make this one close?'' It was, "Just watch -- Tennessee's going to do it again.''
And the Orange Crush did. Tennessee gave Virginia the boa constrictor treatment, slowing but steadily tightening around the Cavs, catching up with them and then overtaking them. Tennessee won 52-46 and went on to take the NCAA title by beating Connecticut and Georgia in the Final Four in Charlotte.
Watching Holdsclaw that season, it was obvious that she was on her way to being one of college basketball's all-time greats, especially in regard to the NCAA Tournament. She won three NCAA titles while at Tennessee, where she scored 3,025 points.
(Sure, she also shot a surreal 2 of 18 from the floor in her last game, the 1999 East Regional final loss to Duke. But that only shows that nobody can have everything.)
Who are some of the other outstanding performers in the history of the tournament?
One was Holdsclaw's teammate, point guard Kellie Jolly. When you share your career with superstars such as Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings, you get used to being overlooked. But it never bothered Jolly in the slightest.
And I think she's actually more appreciated now than perhaps during her career because the true play-making point guard seems to be a rarer commodity these days.
Jolly holds the NCAA title-game record for assists with 11 -- although there's a weird annotation in the record books. Louisiana Tech's Kim Mulkey also had 11 assists, vs. Southern Cal in the 1983 championship game, but that was before assists were an "official'' statistic.
Which apparently means they know it happened but since nobody was officially verifying it that day, it can't be a record.
At any rate, Mulkey -- now Baylor's coach -- also is a tournament great. She was a leader on three Final Four teams. And probably a fair amount of people -- myself included -- associate her with their first NCAA Tournament memory, as she was so dynamic a presence for Louisiana Tech in the first NCAA title game, which was in 1982 and televised by CBS.
Southern California's Cheryl Miller, of course, led her team to NCAA titles in 1983 and '84, plus a title-game appearance in 1986 against champion Texas.
Tennessee's Bridgette Gordon had double-doubles in both the 1987 and 1989 title-game victories.
Sheryl Swoopes, although she played just two seasons in Division I, was so good in Texas Tech's 1993 title run that she deserves mention. She had, I believe, the greatest tournament-long individual performance that season, capped by 47 points in the title game against Ohio State.
Connecticut has has so many amazing players, but I think few would argue that the top two in terms of NCAA greatness are Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. Without Bird -- who missed most of her freshman season with a torn ACL -- UConn lost in the 1999 Sweet 16.
With her the next three seasons, the Huskies won two titles and made the Final Four semis.
Finally, though, we'll give a nod to the NCAA Tournament all-heartbreak team. That is, players who performed very well and whose teams did, too ... but never won the whole thing.
That group: Auburn's Linda Godby (1988, '89, '90 Final Fours), Virginia's Dawn Staley (1990, '91, '92 Final Fours), Stanford's Kate Starbird (1995, '96 and '97 Final Fours), Georgia's Teresa Edwards (1983 and '85 Final Fours, 1984 and '86 Sweet 16) and Georgia's La'Keshia Frett (1995 and '96 Final Fours, 1997 Elite Eight).
Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
18dBonnie D. Ford