When Ole Miss and Tennessee meet Tuesday at 6 p.m. (CT) for the right to advance to the Final Four, it will be one of the game's great traditions vs. the game's best.
Ole Miss has the label here of being the winningest women's college basketball program never to make the Final Four. The Rebels have made the tourney field 17 times, even been on the Final Four's doorstep in the Elite Eight five times, since the NCAA sanctioned the event in 1982. That was 26 tournaments ago.
The Lady Volunteers have made the Sweet Sixteen all 26 times. They've made the Elite Eight 22 times. Been to 16 Final Fours, 11 title games, and won it all six times.
For Tennessee women's basketball, the old worn-out cliche' of "been there, done that" is still appropriate.
But it's been a while since UT won it all. A three-year run of national titles ended in 1998. It's a drought that weighs on the minds of the Lady Vols.
"We definitely think about it," said UT senior forward Sidney Spencer. "We have the right people in the right positions to get it done this time. But it's up to us. We have to play hard, rebound the basketball, play with effort, and do all the little things that win championships."
UT sophomore Candace Parker, the SEC Player of the Year, says time is running out for some of the Lady Vols.
"We're playing for our seniors," Parker said. "We want to win a national championship for them. There is no next year for them."
It's the same feeling for the three Ole Miss seniors - Ashley Awkward, Armintie Price, and Jada Mincy. They've talked about "Cleveland" all season. Now they are one win from taking Ole Miss further than it's ever been in women's basketball - the Final Four, played this year in Cleveland, Ohio.
"We came in and knew we were going to have to work from the bottom up," Mincy said. "That's the way it's been the whole time."
Now they've made it to the top, or at least the best it's been at Ole Miss in 15 years, which was the program's last Elite Eight appearance.
Price said she's happy to have the chance to do what's been their goal all year, the goal of every team every season.
"We want to get to Cleveland, and we have always wanted to put Ole Miss back on the map," she said as the 24-10 Rebels prepare for the national stage again Tuesday night. "Now everybody can see who we are and what we've been doing down there in Mississippi. They see we can be about business too and we can be up there with the big shots. It's about taking care of business and trying to make a statement."
A win tomorrow night will make the biggest one of them all.
Pat Head Summitt, the winningest coach in college basketball history - men or women - said the step Ole Miss has made since their first meeting on Feb. 15, an 81-69 UT win in Knoxville, is noteworthy.
"The biggest change is that they really push the tempo," said Summitt, her team now 31-3 on the season. "Coach (Carol) Ross has always done a great job defensively and getting her teams to play with passion. Now they really push it. They're hard to guard and they are a lot like our practice players, and I mean that as a compliment. They don't run a whole lot of sets. They like to shoot it and they are aggressive. You have to be very committed to your defense when you play them."
Summitt says watching the Rebels on TV and seeing them in person is night and day.
"On TV, they don't look like they are that much faster and quicker and more aggressive," she said. "But when you see them play in person, as we did against Oklahoma, it is glaring."
Her players say that Ole Miss is a much different team now than a month ago, and they, too, wanted to see the latest on the Rebels.
"As soon as our game was over (Sunday afternoon), they wanted to quickly go out and watch Ole Miss play Oklahoma," Summitt said. "I think seeing them in person at this time was very telling for our players."
"I think Ole Miss may be playing the best basketball in the tournament," Spencer said. "Armintie Price got into foul trouble in the game in Knoxville, and she is playing incredible now. Their defense has stepped up, and they are scoring a lot of points off the turnovers they create. We have to bring our defense and control the boards and not make turnovers."
Summitt said the team that does that the best is the team that plays the longest.
"Teams that last are the ones who play great defense, have great board play, and take care of the basketball," she said. "This time of year, those are the teams that win. What Ole Miss has been able to do lately is very, very impressive."
Summitt said she expects a battle for 40 minutes - or more.
"It will be a game of great intensity," she said. "It will be a typical SEC game. There's no question about that."
Carol Ross said she continues to be amazed by her team.
"The little Runnin' Rebels live another day," the fourth-year UM head coach said as her opening statement in Tuesday afternoon's press conference. "It's great to be able to coach these women another game. It is a privilege to sit on the bench and watch them play with the intensity and enthusiasm they show for the game of basketball and also how they play for each other.
"I'm just excited to get to be a part of that one more time - and hopefully longer," she said.
Ross called the matchup two teams from "the mighty SEC" and said it is great that the country gets a chance to see her team play again, especially Price and the seniors.
"Everybody gets to see them play, and if you are a basketball fan, that is a great gift," she said of Armintie Price, Ashley Awkward, and Jada Mincy. "They play with great intensity. You can tell they love being teammates. I have talked to our team about the great balance they bring. They keep things loose. Sometimes my intensity can be overpowering, and they even balance me out. When things are chaos around us sometimes, they keep things in perspective. They keep the game in its proper place."
As for Price, Ross said the nation continues to learn about her, and that is special.
"The SEC has been aware of her since she was a young player," she said. "It is great to know she will have the national spotlight again. For that to continue, our team knows we must keep winning. She has made her mark in the history of our great game."
UM-UT matchup big for both teams, SEC
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