Sometime next season Pat Summitt will win her 1000th college game. Seven of those wins came in NCAA title games. That's a lot of hardware. The University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers--yes, they call themselves that--are the 900-pound gorillas of women's college hoops. They do whatever they want.
Summitt is coming to Cameron Indoor Stadium tonight to show off the latest version of her juggernaut. There's no reason to believe that Summitt is slowing down at all.
Tennessee is 17-1 and ranked number two in the polls, trailing only Connecticut. Tennessee's blemish was an overtime loss at Stanford right before Christmas. They've responded with a seven-game winning streak, the closest a 79-63 win over Vanderbilt, a team that handed Duke one of its four defeats this season.
This is one of those programs with an intimidation factor, a built-in advantage that comes just from wearing a storied uniform. But Tennessee will be going up against the Duke Blue Devils, a team that will give them their due but nothing more. Because Duke has won three straight against Tennessee, two in Knoxville. In other words, no current Tennessee player has ever defeated Duke. Summitt says her players "are very much aware" of this. "I don't know that I need to jog their memory on this one."
Joanne McCallie didn't coach Duke in any of those wins, of course, but she also knows the Tennessee program up close. Coach P was an assistant at Auburn for five years and her Michigan State team stunned Tennessee 68-64 in the 2005 Final Four. McCallie says "I certainly feel respectful for what they do, but I feel very knowledgeable for what they do." Summitt says of McCallie "I think her teams are mentally tough and aggressive and competitive. They fight you for 40 minutes or more if necessary. There is a toughness to her teams and how they come at you."
So we're talking about two teams with some familiarity with each other. Tennessee is led by the gifted 6'4" junior Candace Parker, named one of the 100 Most Beautiful People by People Magazine. Parker, who is engaged to former Duke star Shelden Williams, may be a rock star but she has the game to back it up. She does all the things really good 6'4" players do. But she also does things that really good 5'4" players do. An extraordinary blend of athleticism, skill, and smarts, Parker is the prohibitive mid-season favorite to win every national player-of-the-year award. She comes into the game averaging 21 points, 8 rebounds, and more than 2 blocks, steals, and assists per game. And yes, she can dunk.
As good as Parker is, she's a long way from a one-woman show. Nicki Anoskie and Vicki Baugh, both 6'4", augment the interior. Baugh is a freshman who may be on the verge of stardom. Another highly-touted freshman, Angie Bjorklund is a future star on the perimeter. She's also a spectacular three-point shooter who cannot be left alone. Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt should start at guard, with several adequate reserves. Bobbitt is 5'2" and loves to run. Hornbuckle sat out Tennessee's last game with a medical condition but is expected to be back in the lineup against Duke.
How does Duke beat Tennessee? There are several keys. Parker is the kind of player that can't be totally shut down but Duke must control her. A lot of that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Chante Black. "We're going to make sure we focus on limiting her touches," Black says. "She's a great player, I'm sure she's going to try and get off her shots and we're going to do our best to limit that. I don't know what Candace is going to do; that's going to be up to her and the energy she exerts during the game."
One way to limit Parker's touches is to control the boards. The Vols are outrebounding opponents by four rebounds per game, solid but not overpowering. By contrast, Duke is averaging plus nine per game. McCallie wonders if the stats accurately reflect Tennessee's rebounding abilities. "We pressed the issue today (Saturday) in practice with a lot of rebounding drills. We've been talking about rebounding an awful lot this year. It's a sore spot with coaches, and I tell you, they are a terrific rebounding team. They are very, very physical, and they really hit you hard. They are an aggressive rebounding team. They are long and lanky in terms of their stature, but they are very, very aggressive to the ball. I would certainly want to see our team do a great job on the rebounding end. I think it's going to be very critical for this game. We're going to have to get it done on the boards."
Abby Waner adds that Duke cannot rely on its post players to control the glass. "All season we've needed more out of our perimeter players for rebounding. Especially with this game, with Candace and Nicky plus Alexis is an outstanding rebounding guard. They're a bigger, physical team and those types of games are generally won on the boards."
There are other things to keep an eye on. Tennessee is an attacking, up-tempo squad. They go to the foul line a lot and make over 73% of their attempts. Duke has shown a tendency to send opponents to the line all too often; Duke has attempted 29 fewer foul shots than the opposition, a shocking statistic for a ranked team. The Devils haven't done all that well when they have gone to the line, making a dispiriting 63.1% from the line. Duke needs to keep the free attempts and conversions at a manageable level.
Tennessee's concerns about Duke? One is Black, who is playing at an All-ACC level after missing last season with a knee injury. Black had a scare against Maryland when she tweaked the same knee but she's fine and raring to go against Parker.
Black certainly has Summitt's attention. "I recruited her out of high school and really, really liked her game. I thought she had a chance to be a great player. She has been able to unveil that and demonstrate that game-in and game-out. She has really refined her skills. You have to defend her. She is taking the most shots and is their go-to player. Because of her speed, quickness and athleticism combined with her skills she is a tough player to guard. She is playing her best basketball and brings a toughness and intensity."
Then there's Abby Waner. If you remember anything about last season's 74-70 Duke win at Tennessee, you probably remember Waner knocking in threes from just inside the parking lot. Waner made six of nine on the way to a 24-point, 5-rebound, 3-assist masterpiece. She hasn't shot at that level this season but did make a couple of three-pointers against Georgia Tech last week.
Despite her shooting slump, Waner continues to develop her all-around game. "I guess it's just about getting into a flow. There are multiple other parts to basketball that you can focus on. As long as we get the win and if I'm still shooting eight percent, I'm ok with that. I was pretty much labeled a shooter my first two years. With this team I can't just be a shooter. There are other things that I need to focus on, particularly on the defensive and rebounding end."
That defense includes a school-record 10 steals against Utah Valley last month. Disrupting Tennessee's defense is several orders of magnitude more difficult that disrupting Utah Valley's but Tennessee will turn over the ball if you make them and Duke needs to make them.
Black, Waner, Wanisha Smith, Joy Cheek, Jasmine Thomas, the Duke bench and a national TV audience on ESPN-2 will be joined by the sixth man, the first sell-out crowd of McCallie's tenure at Duke. Waner says "It is just a great time of year; it's an excellent atmosphere. I say this about all big games but it's great for women's basketball. To be a part of something like this, three years in a row now is something really special and I'm really glad to play in this kind of environment."
The Crazies certainly have Summitt's attention. "Cameron Indoor Stadium is a tough place for us to play," she says. "The students are so involved and you feel like everyone is right on top of you. That is a big advantage from a home-court perspective. It is exciting to go into a place like that and have the opportunity to play in that type of environment. It is great preparation for your team and forces you to be focused. We've been there and not had that type of focus and it cost us in many, many ways."
Summitt wasn't happy with the way Hornbuckle was treated two years ago, when her problems with Wal-Mart were referenced early and often. I suspect she may not be any happier with the Crazies this year but we'll see.
Duke is coming in to the game on a roll, having won 10 of its last 11 contests. Brittany Mitch returned to the lineup last week after a leg injury and Karima Christmas is back practicing after an infection, so Duke is about as healthy as they've been all season. Smith says "We're expecting fast-paced transition, a lot of threes, a lot of shots by Candace Parker. It's going to be a hard-fought game, two of the top teams in the nation are going head to head. It's going to be a great game." She adds that "determination and fight" led to earlier wins against the Vols and Duke will need a full measure of both to come out on top tonight.
Tennessee is Duke's last non-ACC game before the post-season. McCallie and her team are trying to keep the big game in context. "We're trying to get better," she says. "Every game is very, very important to us. We're excited; they're a very good team. But, I like our schedule that way. We've played a lot of very good teams so far, and that's the only way to get better is to play strong opponents."
Make no mistake, this Tennessee team is good enough to give Summitt her eighth title. Tonight's game will be an invaluable measuring stick of where Duke is and what in can do down the stretch.