'The Meeks' battle again in WNBA

ATLANTA – When Chamique Holdsclaw walked onto the Philips Arena floor for pre-game warmups the first person to greet her was Tamika Catchings, who wrapped her former Tennessee teammate in a huge hug. Afterwards – the Dream won its season opener in double overtime – Holdsclaw conducted her post-game interview in a whirlpool, the result of the on-court battle against her fellow Meek.

It was the WNBA debut on Saturday for Chamique Holdsclaw after a two-year absence from the league, and she showed why she was the No. 1 draft pick in 1999 with 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals and a blocked shot in the 87-86 win against the Indiana Fever.

Atlanta, now 1-1 after Sunday's 77-71 loss at Washington, won just four games last season, but the Dream have seven new faces in their red, white and blue uniforms – Holdsclaw and fellow former Lady Vol Michelle Snow among them – and they hope to be contenders in just the second season for the franchise.

Holdsclaw, who was soaking in a cold whirlpool tub in the Dream locker room shortly after 10 p.m. Saturday, had a big smile on her face. A tired body and a looming early morning commercial flight to the nation's capital – the site of her start in the WNBA – couldn't dampen her enthusiasm. She noted it was one game, but an important win for the Dream.

"I am just proud of this team because we have a lot of new faces and sometimes people question the chemistry, but Coach just didn't get great players she got great people and we're pulling for each other," Holdsclaw said. "Everyone wants it. Even if we would've lost this game I think we had a desire, a look in our eyes that we wanted to go out there and compete. We showed a little swagger."

The fact her stellar debut performance, so to speak, came against the stiff defense of Tamika Catchings made it all the more satisfying for the legendary Lady Vol.

"I love playing against her and definitely coming back to the league you can measure yourself to see where you are and she's that player you can use as that measuring stick because Catch does not take a play off," Holdsclaw said.

"She plays so hard all over the court, and you just try to match her energy. It's going to be a battle and we're both out there making great plays, but I just respect her so much as a player because she is the hardest-working player in the league as far as playing both ends of the court."

The two former Tennessee superstars spent most of the game chasing each other around the court, as neither has a tendency to stay in one place on the floor.

Holdsclaw logged nearly 46 minutes, Catchings spent 42 minutes on the floor, and both players were exhausted afterwards. Catchings tallied 15 points, nine rebounds, five steals and four assists. The two also combined for 13 turnovers – seven for Holdsclaw and six for Catchings – in an indication of the defensive pressure they applied to each other.

The two "Meeks" – Mique for Holdsclaw and Mika for Catchings – won their way into Lady Vol lore with the third Meek, Semeka Randall, after a perfect 39-0 record and the 1998 national title. Randall is now the head coach at Ohio University with Catchings and Holdsclaw the leaders of their respective WNBA teams.

Catchings is the leader and mother hen of the Fever – she is the first to reach a downed teammate and help an opponent off the floor – and Holdsclaw, despite her break from the league, welcomed the leadership role that Coach Marynell Meadors asked her to take with a team mixed with WNBA regulars and newcomers, including rookies Angel McCoughtry of Louisville and Shalee Lehning of Kansas State.

The two veterans shared the pre-game hug, some words of praise during the game – they both stuck jumpers over the other's tight defense – and another hug when the contest ended after nearly three hours.

"It's a family; it's like a sisterhood," Holdsclaw said. "We want to see each other do well. She hit a shot and I'm like, ‘Nice shot,' and she tells me the same."

The two players got tangled once under the basket with Catchings ending up underneath Holdsclaw. They checked each other throughout the contest in what was a physical battle between the small forwards.

"After the game it's over," Holdsclaw said. "I just want to see her do well."

Catchings was delighted to see her former Tennessee teammate back in the WNBA. Holdsclaw retired in 2007 – she continued to play overseas – because of physical and emotional fatigue brought on by clinical depression and chronic knee pain.

"It feels good and I think the biggest reason is because obviously when she retired it was such a big shock because she's such a great player and at the top of her game, then having her retire and leave the game it was one of those things like, ‘Man, I'm so used to seeing her on the court,' " Catchings said. "For her to come back and feeling good about being back in America and playing back in the ‘W' it's great to see her."

Catchings was taking some warmups shots on the perimeter when she saw her fellow Meek emerge on the sideline, and it was a heartfelt hug that enveloped Holdsclaw. A smiling Holdsclaw spent a few minutes talking to her former teammate, and they smacked hands again right before the national anthem.

"Happy to see her happy," Catchings said. "Happy to see her back and finally somewhere where she wants to be. I am happy for her."

It's been a decade since the Meeks were on the floor together at Tennessee and, for once, the passage of time doesn't seem too quick. Both players are on the court nearly year-round – they were both in Poland on different teams and saw each other last winter – and have combined for 16 seasons in the WNBA with seven for Holdsclaw and nine for Catchings going into the summer of 2009.

"Oh my gosh, has it only been 10 years?" Catchings said. "It feels like it's been more than that. Wow. You realize you're getting older every year and the longer you play the more the younger generation comes in."

Relying on those youngsters is a lesson Holdsclaw has learned since her first stint in the league. Atlanta has two first-year players on the roster – forward McCoughtry, who had 15 points and seven boards in 24 minutes in her debut, and guard Lehning, who provided spot relief at the point for Nikki Teasley.

Teasley, with six years of league experience, missed last season to give birth to a baby girl. She logged 41 minutes with 10 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals in the first game of her comeback.

All 11 players on the Dream roster logged minutes in the opener led by Holdsclaw's 45:45, followed closely by Erika DeSouza's 43:50. Teasley also played longer than a regulation 40-minute game with a time of 41:18.

"I believe in all my teammates," Holdsclaw said. "I can easily say, ‘I'm going to go out there and carry us,' but during the game I was like, ‘Angel, I need you.' Because I'm an older player and as much as I can encourage the younger kids that's going to put years on my career. I've got to help get them ready so I can play a little bit longer.

"I think I understand that this time around and I just want to help in any way possible. That is how it's going to have to be. I learned from the league no one player can carry a team, and I don't want to do that. I want to spread it around."

Meadors had said in the preseason that she wanted to ease Holdsclaw into the lineup, but that game plan was revised when the 6'2 forward, who had off-season surgery to clean out loose cartilage in her right knee, felt loose on game day. Holdsclaw went down late in the game after tweaking her hamstring but stayed on the court. She gave the Dream the lead, 77-76, by draining two free throws in the first overtime and hit her trademark fall-away jumper on a feed from Teasley in the second overtime to give the Dream a two-point lead, 83-81, and ultimately the win.

"I am feeling good actually," Holdsclaw said after the game with cold water up to her shoulders. "It takes a lot of preparation before the game. I am here early getting in the cold tub, stretching a lot, riding the bike at halftime. My knee is coming along. I was feeling so good, and I am not used to feeling that good. During the week it's sometimes a struggle to get loose.

"I'm not in the shape that I've been in in the past, but I'm a lot smarter and I understand to pick and choose my spots. I am going to just keep improving."

Holdsclaw crossed one career milestone in the game – she surpassed 300 steals – and inched to within two points of 4,000 for her WNBA career. She got the two points Sunday against the Mystics - the team that drafted her first in 1999 - and finished with 12 for the game after logging 22 minutes. Back-to-back games are tough on rookie players, who aren't accustomed to traveling and then playing the same day, especially after being in a different city the previous day, and Atlanta played sluggishly after a fast start.

"It's tough for the vets. That's why I am in here right now," Holdsclaw said with a laugh about conducting her print and radio interviews in a whirlpool. "They're young. They'll be OK."

She noted that three Dream players were former Mystics – Holdsclaw, Teasley and Coco Miller, who was released after eight seasons and signed by Atlanta on May 15 – and it was a win they wanted. Atlanta jumped out to a 22-8 lead but didn't hold off Washington in the second quarter and played catch up the rest of the game. Miller had 17 points on 8-11 shooting, but no starter besides Holdsclaw with 12 points was in double digits. She said after the game that the team has to learn how to keep teams down.

"My preparation is to try and make this team a winning team and give anything that I can, and that's really my focus," Holdsclaw said when asked Saturday about her career milestones.

The Dream drew 8,709 fans to the home opener with orange-clad fans scattered throughout Philips Arena in support of Holdsclaw and Snow of Atlanta, and Catchings of Indiana. Snow joined the Dream after seven seasons with the now-defunct Houston program and was excited to reunite with her former college teammate – they overlapped for one season at Tennessee in 1998-99.

"Awesome," Snow said of her reaction to Holdsclaw being back in the league. "She's got experience and poise. She's a great player. We played with each other so it's an advantage."

The Houston Comets franchise folded after last season, and the players were dispersed to other teams. Snow got a big hug from Catchings before the game, and she also warmly greeted Fever players Tamecka Dixon and Erica White, who were members of the Comets a year ago.

"You know those players are going to come and play hard," Snow said. "You enjoy playing against each other because you battled together for so many years."

Snow is in the starting lineup for the Dream but played sparingly in the first two games with foul trouble – four whistles in just 9:30 of court time in the opener, including an offensive foul within two minutes of returning to the court in the second half after two whistles kept her on the bench for all but three minutes of the first half.

"Tough night and that's what happens, and you have to play through it," Snow said. "It's unfortunate, nobody wants to deal with that on the offensive end, which is something that I can control. I just have to regroup and find a way to make teams play defense without giving up that offensive foul."

Despite the slow start Snow – who is from relatively nearby Pensacola, Fla., and estimated she had "at least" 100 family members and friends in the Atlanta area – thinks the Dream was the best place to land.

"I definitely think it's a perfect fit – up and down-type team, rebounding, defensive-minded, they like to get out and run and make teams play them on the offensive end and then we buckle down on the defensive end," Snow said. "I think it's a great fit. Unfortunately we lost a great franchise in the Houston Comets. You kind of feel like you're betraying your friends in Houston because they're like the Rocky Top fans, they're very loyal fans. But coming here we have a very athletic, poised, experienced team."

Holdsclaw noticed the orange in the stands – Tennessee leads the WNBA with 13 former players in the league – and saluted the support.

"The orange people, as they say, are everywhere," Holdsclaw said. "My teammates were joking before the game. They said, ‘You know the paparazzi are here, those Tennessee folks.'

"But we appreciate their support and no matter where you go – you can be in New York – Tennessee colors are everywhere. There is not a day that I don't go out in the city, no matter where I am, and somebody says, ‘You played at Tennessee. I'm the biggest Tennessee fan ever.' There is a following, and people respect us as a program."

The respect for the Meeks extends to present-day Tennessee with current members of the team mentioning their names in interviews when asked what former Lady Vols they admired.

"I think the biggest thing is the story – what it represented, the three Meeks, the legacy that we had while we were there," Catchings said. "It's a respect thing. Pat (Summitt) continues to talk about us, continues to talk about work ethic and all that. When she talks about us to that group she tells them, ‘I didn't have to encourage them. I didn't have to motivate them. They were self-motivated. They wanted to be there.' Together we made the three Meeks and each one of us brought a different thing to the team."

Catchings, like the other former Tennessee players, kept up with her alma mater and sympathized as the team piled up 11 losses this past season, ending with an unprecedented first round loss in the NCAA tourney. Despite being in Poland she maintained regular contact with the staff.

"I heard about what was going on. I got the scoop from the coaches and (media relations chief) Debby Jennings," Catchings said with a smile. "They were young. Hopefully with a year under their wings coming out next year, with the new freshmen coming in, hopefully they can step up their game. They can step it up big time."

When the Ball State loss was mentioned Catchings just shook her head.

"I heard about it," she said. "Everybody was so disappointed and, yes, it is a disappointing thing, but you also have to realize they when you're rebuilding you can't automatically stay at the top. It takes rebuilding. It takes time. It takes developing the players and the attitudes have to be right. It's like a puzzle being put together. Unfortunately for them they did something that a Tennessee team has never done but on the other hand teams do lose."

The Fever has started the season 0-2 amid media reports that the team's owner could fold the franchise or sell it after this season, but the first loss was by one point in double overtime and the second was less than 24 hours later to a Minnesota team that looks like an offensive juggernaut after scoring 198 points in its first two games.

The Fever made the playoffs last season – Indiana fell in the conference semifinals, 2-1, to eventual champions Detroit – and Catchings likes the depth of this year's squad, with the addition of league stalwart Yolanda Griffith and rookie guard Briann January from Arizona State.

"The two things that we've lacked are depth at the point guard position and even down low," Catchings said. "We've struggled here and there in games. One of the things I'm excited about with this team is that I feel like we finally have all the pieces together. We have Briann coming in as our point guard. Tully (Bevilaqua) is not taking a backseat, but she's willing to help Briann get to the level that she needs to be at. Erica White has done a great job for us as well whether she plays the one or two, Tully, too, at the one or the two. Being able to have those interchangeable parts really helps. Down low definitely with the addition of Yo, man, it makes a big difference."

Indiana will next get the chance to get in the win column by hosting Seattle on Tuesday, June 9, in a game that will be broadcast on ESPN2 at 7 p.m.

The Dream will be on the road for the next two games – at Chicago on June 12 and at Connecticut on June 14 – but will get a rematch with the Mystics in Atlanta on June 19, the next home game. That kicks off a four-game home stretch against Washington, New York, Chicago and Detroit.

Getting the win in the home opener was important to the Dream team.

"Yes, it was," Snow said. "We kicked and clawed our way to this win and I think it does show we're going to do whatever it takes to win, and we're going to do this together as a team and as a coaching staff."

Snow was well-received by the Dream fans – as was Catchings by the Tennessee fans in attendance – but the loudest roar was when Holdsclaw emerged from the smoke during pre-game introductions in what was likely a nod to her popularity, Tennessee roots and the personal battle she won against depression to return to the league. She spoke to the crowd right before tipoff and thanked them for coming.

"It was great to be back out there," Holdsclaw said. "After all I've been through I never thought (it would happen again). I thought, ‘Wow, I'm back.' It felt good. And to do it in Atlanta it's great because last year even though the team didn't do well the fans really supported it.

"We wanted to get them that win so we can get some more fans to come to games. We got the win. We got the Atlanta fans excited right now."

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