Tennessee has fallen well short on the national stage this season with losses to Baylor on the road and Stanford at home, and the Fighting Irish give the Lady Vols a shot at some redemption not just this season but to eradicate the sticky memory of a lopsided loss a year ago in South Bend, the lowest-scoring game and second-worst margin of defeat for the modern Lady Vols program.
Even Notre Dame's game notes for this matchup noted how "easily the Fighting Irish did it, routing the Lady Vols 72-44 at Purcell Pavilion on Jan. 23, 2012," a statement that was brutally true for Tennessee.
The coaches were so disgusted after the loss that they papered the Lady Vols locker room with the score, a reminder that slipped off the walls only when the tape loosened.
"We got embarrassed," Coach Holly Warlick said. "We quit playing, and we got embarrassed. We got beat by an outstanding basketball team, and we didn't do anything about it. We didn't fight. We just gave up.
"That's not the sign of a Tennessee team, not since I've been here."
The roster has turned over since that game in South Bend with five seniors departed – three were drafted by the WNBA, two in the first round – and just one senior in the starting lineup in Taber Spani, who has put lower back issues on the back burner, and one junior in Meighan Simmons, who has made the transition this season from scorer to basketball player.
The other three spots are staffed by sophomore Ariel Massengale, who gained a lot of experience last season; sophomore Isabelle Harrison, who logged nine minutes in the Notre Dame game season and didn't attempt a shot; and freshman Bashaara Graves.
Warlick is aware that she has a young team, one that has exceeded expectations – though not hers – and what she wants to see tonight is a team that competes from tip to final buzzer.
"Absolutely," Warlick said. "The second half with Baylor I thought we competed. And for Stanford for some reason we didn't compete at all. That is how I feel.
"It's unacceptable to go on national TV on their floor and get beat by 28. For us last year was unacceptable. But it happened. I think we learned from it.
"This team is different. I think they understand the importance of competing and where we need to go and what we need to do on the floor. I think they understand if we give half effort, we're going to get killed."
The fact Warlick readily rattled off the margin of defeat a year ago revealed how much the memory of that game rankled the staff. The game was close at halftime, 28-18, and then the Fighting Irish erupted and the Lady Vols shrank.
"If you're going down, you go down swinging, and we got pushed and we just fell straight down flat on our face and didn't care," Warlick said.
Tennessee has the opportunity tonight to change that. It is a big challenge. Notre Dame is a confident team – it defeated Connecticut on the Huskies' home floor this season – and the Irish won't be intimidated by the trappings. Point guard Skylar Diggins, who torched Tennessee for 27 points a year ago, thrives on big stages.
The Lady Vols are still learning how to become a stout defensive team, a process that honestly nobody should have expected this season with a bunch of youngsters on the court and its best on-ball defender a freshman in Andraya Carter, who is out for the season because of shoulder surgery in mid-December. But they can score, and they should be inspired when a banner honoring Pat Summitt is raised to the rafters.
"So now we have a chance," Warlick said. "Another team out of the top three is coming to our place, and we've got to compete."
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5, hails from Bolingbrook, Ill. (8.6 points per game, 2.8 rebounds per game, 4.3 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (17.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Taber Spani, 6-1 senior forward, No. 13, hails from Lee's Summit, Mo. (9.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg); Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (14.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg); and Isabelle Harrison, 6-3 sophomore forward, No. 20, hails from Nashville, Tenn. (10.2 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.2 blocks per game).
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw is expected to start: Skylar Diggins, 5-9 senior guard, No. 4 (15.5 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 5.6 apg), hails from South Bend, Ind., has gone over 2,000 points for her career; Kayla McBride, 5-11 junior guard, No. 21 (14.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.2 apg), hails from Erie, Pa., has tallied 18.3 ppg against Top 25 competition; Jewell Loyd, 5-10 freshman guard, No. 32 (12.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg), hails from Lincolnwood, Ill., three-time Big East rookie of the week; Ariel Braker, 6-1 junior forward, No. 44 (5.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.5 bpg), hails from Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., has blocked two or more shots in 10 games this season; and Natalie Anchowa, 6-3 junior forward, No. 11 (13.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.6 apg), hails from Guelph, Ontario, leads Big East with 11 double-doubles, including five versus Top 25 teams.
TO WHOM MUCH IS GIVEN … : It is apropos that Candace Parker is in town for this game. The former Lady Vol All-American has a tattoo on her wrist that says: "To whom much is given, much is expected."
Parker was held to a high standard at Tennessee under Pat Summitt because her talents were in abundance and she was expected to never cheat the game. She didn't. Parker lived in the gym during her years at Tennessee, led the team to two national titles and won every significant award.
She will be here for the Summitt banner raising – and Parker's No. 3, which has not been issued to any player since she graduated in 2008, deserves to be raised at some point, too – and, over time, she came to understand why Summitt pushed her and held her to a different standard of play than some teammates. It was because she was truly gifted, and Summitt wanted to soak every bit of it out of Parker.
Junior Meighan Simmons wanted to come to Tennessee, in part, because it was the alma mater of Parker. It was Parker who saw her play and alerted Summitt about a hotshot guard who could fill up the basket.
That was about all Simmons could be when she got to campus, and she did it well, leading the team in scoring as a freshman. But she didn't get on the boards, her defense was barely passable and Summitt said publicly that she sometimes took ill-advised shots.
But Summitt saw the talent – and the potential – and she knew Simmons, like Parker, should never cheat the game.
Unfortunately for Simmons' development, she was thrust into the point guard spot as a freshman – it was modified but she is a scorer and needs to be off the ball – and Summitt was diagnosed with early onset dementia before Simmons' sophomore season. The coaching was done by committee, and Simmons, who has a strong game and a strong personality, needed Summitt's guidance.
Holly Warlick took over the reins and Simmons has been a primary beneficiary. Simmons could get mired on the bench at times last season for long stretches after she made a mistake on offense or defense, but Warlick has what could be called a "sit, learn, return" policy in that a player is counseled on the bench, gets a few minutes to calm down and then reenters relatively quickly.
Simmons is now a better defender – she leads the team with 31 steals – and, just recently, she has added board play to her expanding basketball repertoire.
"I don't know in high school if she ever crossed the center line on the defensive end," Warlick said. "I am proud of Meighan. It's been a lot of work for her on the defensive end because she is such an offensive-minded basketball player, and that is why we signed her here.
"But she constantly works every game. She watches a lot of film, and she tries to make it a priority. She knows she needs work on that end. I thought the Vanderbilt game was one of her better defensive games since she's been here, and she has the capability of doing that."
If Warlick pulls Simmons from a game now, it is typically for two reasons: She needs a brief rest – Simmons leads the team at 31.4 minutes per game average – or she strayed a tad too far from the offensive game plan. The difference is Warlick gets Simmons right back on the court after she settles down. Warlick relies on Simmons and trusts her. She is the only player to start every game this season.
"This year is a year of maturity for me. I am turning into one of the players that I have always dreamed of being," Simmons said. "Being an all-around player and getting rebounds and getting steals and doing things like that.
"Those are all little things that are a big part of the game. That is something that you have to do to do well at the next level."
Simmons posted a photo Sunday on social media of her standing with Parker, who practiced with the team. Simmons has learned, as Parker did at Tennessee, that she has exceptional talent, and Warlick will hold her to a very high standard of play. Simmons embraces it.
"It's an amazing feeling," Simmons said. "I love that quote. I've told my dad, ‘A lot of things are given to me in a way that I never imagined.' But there are expectations for me not only from myself but from the coaches, my teammates, my parents, my family.
"The expectation is really about God's expectation, and I feel like I am living up to that. I am using my gift to the best of my ability."
Simmons is aware of Parker's tattoo and how the words have guided her career.
"It inspires me," Simmons said. "Ever since I heard that and I've seen it on her it's inspired me to work 10 times harder and make sure I am living up to the expectations of myself."
ROTATION AWARENESS: Holly Warlick has made a conscious effort to steal some minutes of rest for the starters in the first half – that was on full display Thursday against Vanderbilt when only Meighan Simmons went the distance and Warlick moved players in and out for brief breaks – because she knows the tempo needs to stay as accelerated as possible.
"Absolutely," Warlick said. "And it's time and possession and what we need, but we're going to get kids in early. We want to run the basketball, and I think that gives us an edge. We can't go away from that.
"We've got to find a way or a time to sneak in some rest and make sure we continue to attack."
The rotation should increase to eight later this week. Sophomore forward Cierra Burdick will be evaluated Monday – she said on social media that the cast was coming off – and she could be cleared to play, though Warlick said not on Monday. Burdick last practiced with the team on Dec. 30.
Tennessee leads the series with Notre Dame, 20-2. The Lady Vols are 8-0 in Knoxville, however the Irish have won the last two games, an Elite Eight matchup in 2011, and the 2012 game in South Bend. … Both teams enter Monday with winning streaks. Tennessee has won nine in a row, and Notre Dame has won 13. Both teams lost to Baylor this season, and both teams have wins over Rutgers.
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