No. 9 Tennessee (14-4) takes on No. 2 Notre Dame (19-1) on Monday at 7 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2) at the sold-out Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana. Capacity for the on-campus venue, formerly known as the Joyce Center, is 9,149.
The Lady Vols will take a brief break from conference play – they are also on the road this week at Alabama and Georgia – to test themselves against the Irish in what the coaching staff sees as a potentially beneficial situation.
"It depends on how we go up there and play," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "I think if we go up there and we accept this challenge, then it is a great test for us.
"Not that we're not being tested in the SEC. But we're playing in a very hostile environment. It's an opportunity for us to get back on the national stage. We're playing the number two team in the nation. And just to gain more experience to kick our game to the next level and test us at this point."
The Irish ended the Lady Vols' season last March with a 73-59 win in Dayton, Ohio, in the Elite Eight that sent Notre Dame to the Final Four and Tennessee back to Knoxville.
"I remember it being a heart-breaking game," senior forward Alicia Manning said. "We didn't play defense, and we didn't get stops when we needed it, we didn't get rebounds when we needed it, and that's how we lost the game."
DeMoss said the Irish are even better now than last season.
"They are just as good or maybe even a little better," DeMoss said. "They're older, they're a little bit more seasoned. They have an air of confidence about them.
"They really took advantage of the success they had last year. They appear to be a lot more confident. They just have a little swagger about them."
Although All-American guard Skylar Diggins gets the lion's share of the media attention, DeMoss said Notre Dame presents a team-wide challenge.
"If in one word I could describe Notre Dame it's tough," DeMoss said. "It's their toughness."
Manning welcomes the chance to face a non-conference foe in late January.
"I do. I just like playing other teams," Manning said. "There will be a lot of people watching the game and a lot of support for women's basketball."
The game is on ESPN2 and is part of the "Big Monday" promotion.
The weekend was used for practice sessions since the game falls on a Monday.
"LSU showed us things we needed to work on, especially our transition defense and obviously making our free throws, which are going to be crucial in games like this," Manning said. "Offensive rebounding, we let them have way too many rebounds. If we do that at Notre Dame, it's not going to look very good."
Glory Johnson knows this game doesn't make or break the 2011-12 season – both teams will reenter conference play this week – but she does have her eye on the Lady Vols won-loss record.
"You've got to be ready," said Johnson, who is playing with a brace after injuring her left shoulder against LSU last Thursday. "It's Notre Dame, it's huge for us to win, but at the same time every game is huge for us to win. We don't need any more losses."
"This is a huge game, and we've got a chip on our shoulder," Manning said. "We know it's going to be a hard-fought game, but we've had a lot of hard games, so we're ready to fight."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5'6 freshman guard, No. 5 (8.2 points per game, 2.6 rebounds per game, 5.3 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 10 (10.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 (15.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg); Alicia Manning, 6'1 senior guard/forward, No. 15 (4.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg); and Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (14.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg).
Senior post Vicki Baugh had started in Stricklen's one-game injury absence, with Manning having filled the slot while Taber Spani is sidelined. Since Stricklen wasn't cleared to play and didn't appear in Thursday's game off the bench, her streak of consecutive games started remains intact.
Manning has started eight games this season and appeared in all 18. She and Baugh have both said their approach doesn't change whether they start or come off the bench.
"It doesn't really matter," Manning said. "Whenever you do get in, do your part. Everyone has their role. When your role is needed, that's when you're in the game."
Spani was allowed to participate in some practice drills Sunday for the first time this month and remains day to day. She has missed the past eight games to rest a bone bruise.
Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw is expected to start: Skylar Diggins, 5'9 junior guard, No. 4 (16.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 5.9 apg), hails from South Bend, Ind., leads the team with 52 steals, has 1,391 career points, Big East Preseason Player of the Year; Brittany Mallory, 5'10 senior guard, No. 22 (5.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg), hails from Baltimore, Md., played in her 132nd career game, second all-time at Notre Dame, tied career high with six steals against Creighton this season, made career high seven free throws against Tennessee; Natalie Novosel, 5'11 senior guard, No. 21 (16.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg), hails from Lexington, Ky., has scored in double figures in 27 consecutive games dating to last March, has averaged 20.7 points this season against ranked teams, leads the team with 110 free throw attempts and has converted 82.7 percent, reached the 1,000-point career mark this season; Kayla McBride, 5'11 sophomore guard, No. 23 (11.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg), hails from Erie, Pa., tallied first career double-double against Connecticut with 10 points, 12 rebounds, 85.7 percent free throw shooter overall and 94.7 percent in conference games, tallied 12 points against Baylor and 17 against Kentucky; and Devereaux Peters, 6'2 senior forward, No. 14 (11.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg), hails from Chicago, Ill., also reached the 1,000-point career mark this season, has 168 career blocks, third all-time at Notre Dame, has connected on 64.9 percent of her shots in last three games and 57.5 percent for the season.
A key player off the bench for the Irish is Natalie Achonwa, a 6'3 sophomore forward from Guelph, Ontario, who averages 8.6 points and 4.6 rebounds a game. She has 18 blocks on the season, second to Peters' 19.
HOME STATE: Lady Vol senior guard Briana Bass is playing in her home state of Indiana but it's a weekday night game and her hometown of Indianapolis is about 150 miles away, so she won't have too much of a family presence at the game.
However, Tim and Gina Bass, the parents of the senior guard, plan to make the trip to the northern area of the state, weather permitting. There has been significant snowfall in the area, along with frigid temperatures.
Bass has earned the respect and admiration of her teammates for being willing to play a role for the team off the bench. She also is one of the hardest workers in practice despite getting limited game minutes.
"Bree is just a phenomenal person," Alicia Manning said. "She has really stepped up this year, and we've needed her in a lot of situations. I am just very proud of her for sticking with it."
Bass did stick with Tennessee and her senior class.
"My family and God and my teammates have really kept me focused," Bass said. "I wanted to stay and play hard for them. I really enjoy it. My family has taught me to never give up on my dreams, and my dream when I was younger was to play basketball."
Bass also has performed well in her minutes this season and was solid against LSU in relief of Ariel Massengale with nine minutes without a turnover in a game in which the ball was squirting loose.
"It means a lot because I am a senior trying to go out strong," Bass said.
Bass could have gotten distracted in the LSU game - there were huge cutouts of her face and that of Vicki Baugh and Pat Summitt in the student section right behind the basket.
"The only time I saw it was at the beginning of the game when we were shooting free throws," Bass said.
Bass loved the promotional gesture but wouldn't mind forcing a turnover at the end of the season and being able to have the big head image.
"I want to see if I can try and get it at the end of the year just to have for a keepsake," Bass said. "I think it was awesome."
The student section won't be so friendly Monday. The Lady Vols are on the road to face the team that sent them home last March.
"This is definitely a statement game," Bass said. "We've got to come in here focused and ready to play and all on the same page.
"We've got to stay together through adversity."
Bass would be the perfect teacher of how to do so.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Notre Dame game.
Offensively, what do the Irish like to do?
"Score," DeMoss deadpanned. "In every way imaginable."
She was also serious.
"They are putting up a lot of points," DeMoss said. "They like points off their defense, they lead the nation in steals, they like to push in transition, and their half-court execution is some of the best that I've seen from any team in the country as far as their pure execution.
"Vanderbilt is always a great team in our league that executes well, and they're a Vanderbilt with better players."
Considerable attention has to be paid to Skylar Diggins and Natalie Novosel.
"Everything is generated from their guard spot," DeMoss said. "We're going to have to do as good as we can do with containing Skylar Diggins. She is a State Farm All-American, and she's earned it.
"She's lefty but can go right. She has the midrange shot. She can get to the basket. She can kick. She is great at reading where the help is coming from and finding open players. She runs hard in transition. She is probably the best athlete on the team.
"And then Natalie Novosel, she is unrelenting when she plays on both ends of the floor. Offensively, she is just going to keep coming at you and coming at you. She throws her body all over the floor. Gets to the free throw line about seven, eight times a game, and she can shoot the three. So you can't just play her for one thing. You're going to have to be as tough as she is."
Defensively, the Irish will press but they also rely on their half-court man.
"They press," DeMoss said. "They don't press like a Kentucky presses. They'll run a 1-2-1-1 press, but their half-court man is just solid. It is real stingy. They are going to make you earn every point you get.
"They're smart. They play angles well, and they're very aggressive on the ball and one pass away, and they really flood the help-side.
"I bet they attempt at least five to six charges a game. Now, whether they get the call or not, they are attempting five to six charges a game. They are willing to sacrifice their bodies. They throw their bodies are all over the floor."
Keys for Tennessee: Ball security tops the list for the Lady Vols.
"First of all, we have to take care of the ball, because they generate points off of their steals," DeMoss said. "We've got to be able to defend them and not give them easy baskets by making a defensive mistake.
"If they catch you overplaying a screen, they are going to go back-door on you. If they catch you underplaying it, they're going to curl. They have a counter for every way you can guard them.
"We are going to have to play solid defense, with solid help and give them one shot. So we've got to control the boards as well."
D ON DIGGINS: Skylar Diggins torched the Lady Vols in the last matchup with 24 points on 9-17 shooting in the regional final in Dayton, Ohio.
The Lady Vols struggled to put pressure on the ball, and Diggins essentially went where she wanted when she wanted to against Tennessee.
The Lady Vols are likely to start the game with Ariel Massengale guarding Diggins. The freshman guard is one of the team's better on-ball defenders – the best is Glory Johnson, but she will be inside quite a bit – but the coaches know adjustments may be needed.
"Last year that was an issue that we had," Mickie DeMoss said. "We did not have a good matchup for Diggins. You've got to find one or two or three people that you feel is capable, that can give you some good minutes right there.
"But she is an exceptional player, and she has the ball in her hands a lot. It's not like you can deny her and keep the ball out of her hands. We've got to play solid defense on her, get a little bit of help on her when we can, but we can't over-commit because she does find open players, and they have players surrounding her that can knock shots down."
Diggins also has taken control of the offensive flow.
"It looks like Skylar Diggins has a little bit more freedom in their offense," DeMoss said. "If something is called and it's not there, then she has freedom to improvise in their offense, which makes them even tougher to guard. She's got the ability to break you down."
Massengale will be presented with a considerable challenge by drawing that assignment. The freshman has shown a willingness to respond when challenged, such as at halftime of the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game when her coaches and teammates demanded better defense.
"My teammates told me we need you to put pressure on the ball," Massengale said.
Pat Summitt also wasn't pleased with the effort level.
"No, she wasn't," Massengale said. "Her main thing every game is defense and boards. That's what is going to win us a championship. She let us know how she felt about it and in the second half we just tried to respond.
"I knew I wasn't playing to my full potential. I always like the challenge, and Coach challenged me. You want to accept the challenge and step up to it."
Massengale doesn't pay attention to the fact that she is a first-year player.
"I think it's just going out there and playing basketball," Massengale said. "The game is simple, and our coaches let us know that all the time.
"I don't think age really matters because all of the other girls in the country they lace them up just like I do. Age is one thing I don't look at, just going out there and playing hard and playing the game of basketball."
Her backcourt mate, Meighan Simmons, a second-year player doesn't consider age to be an issue either.
"When people say, you're a freshman, you're a sophomore, I don't even think about it," Simmons said. "I just think about the type of game that I play, the type of game that Ariel plays.
"We are wiser than people think we are."
ALL WE NEED IS LOVE … When Glory Johnson was presented a commemorative game ball before the Jan. 15 home game against Vanderbilt, Pat Summitt stood at center court with the senior and then told her she loved her before Johnson headed to the tunnel for player invitations.
"She did," Johnson said. "It means so much. It's not something that you hear too often (during a season). We remember it's a family, and she's been taking care of me since I got here as a freshman.
"She's always had my back, even when she's yelling at me. My mom yells at me, too, but she still tells me she loves me. She's just a mother figure."
Johnson has heard an earful from Summitt during her time on campus from slowing down on offense to using her left hand to working on her free throws.
Johnson has stayed in her head coach's good graces lately by playing so hard on both ends.
"Every game you have to play hard," Johnson said. "Even in practice you're going to get yelled at if you don't play hard. Play hard anytime you're on the floor. I think that's about as easy as it gets.
"It wasn't that easy as a freshman but now anytime you step on the floor play hard, and you will be OK."
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood has worked with Johnson and is seeing the coach-player efforts pay off in her senior year.
"It's coming to fruition," Lockwood said. "The cocoon, whatever analogy you want to use. She is just putting it all together. She is a great athlete, which she has always been, but her skill set is getting better and better. Her composure and poise has been outstanding. She is playing with more intelligence.
"And she can still get better. I still see some things where she can get better. Free throw shooting was good, but it has dipped a little. She definitely is starting to be the Glory that we envisioned."
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee leads the series with Notre Dame, 20-1. The Lady Vols are 8-0 in South Bend. The Irish got their first win in the series last March in the NCAA regional final. … Tennessee is 12-4 in games played on January 23. The last win on this date was against Auburn, 73-53, in 2011. The first win on January 23 came against Maryville, 41-19, in 1925. The four losses on this date were to South Carolina, 56-52, in 1980; Rutgers, 68-57, in 1982; Kentucky, 76-72, in overtime in 1985; and Duke, 75-53, in 2006. … Notre Dame leads the country in steals with 14.6 per game. Skylar Diggins and Brittany Mallory have combined for 100 takeaways. The Fighting Irish also lead the nation in scoring offense at 85.2 points per game, and field goal percentage at .490. They rank second in scoring margin at +35.2 ppg and turnover margin at +9.35, while placing third in assists at 19.7 per game. By comparison Tennessee averages 77.6 points while shooting 44.2 percent with a scoring margin of +18.3 ppg. The Lady Vols turnover margin is +1.1 with 15.6 assists per game.