On top of that, Texas is defending a 37-game home winning streak. Tennessee leads the overall series 15-10 – and dominated from 1990 to 2000 when it won every time after Texas ruled in the 1980s – but the Lady Longhorns has won the last three match-ups and return a terrific trio in Tiffany Jackson, Heather Schreiber and Jamie Carey.
Tennessee does, however, have plenty of incentive to play. The Lady Vols had a 24-game home winning streak of their own that was broken Dec. 28. 2003, by Texas, which won 70-60, in Knoxville. After the win this week over George Washington on Tuesday, junior Shanna Zolman mentioned she wanted a victory over Texas as badly as one against UConn. The sharpshooter hasn't yet notched a win over either team in her collegiate career.
And then there is the matter of the all-time wins record, though neither coach seems to put much stock in it, at least publicly. Tennessee coach Pat Summitt enters the game with 855 wins; Texas coach Jody Conradt has 848. The record for collegiate victories is held by Dean Smith, who retired from North Carolina with 879.
Summitt and Conradt are close friends off the court, and Summitt quickly dismissed any notion of a personal rivalry in her Wednesday morning press conference.
"I don't think it's about coaches and the number of wins," Summitt said. "For me it's about the team I'm coaching now and trying to help them as they go through the season and getting them ready for an opponent like Texas."
Part of getting her team ready meant getting them some rest. The Texas game comes on the heels of a Sunday game in Raleigh in the Jimmy V Classic and a home game Tuesday. Tennessee will leave Austin immediately after the Thanksgiving Day game so as to get home and begin preparations for Temple, which comes to Knoxville on Thursday. Four days later, Duke will be in town.
As far as agreeing to play Thursday, Summitt first thought "there was no way we needed to do it because we would need rest and preparation time," she said, "but at the same time I thought what a great window of opportunity for this game and these two programs."
Summitt took the rare approach of giving her team a day off from the court and the film room the day before a game. Wednesday was set aside for travel to Austin and a team and staff Thanksgiving meal Wednesday evening.
"It's not ideal, and I'd love to have been able to have a practice, but I just felt like we're going to need our legs," Summitt said. "I told them I don't want them watching any tapes … I want it to be clearly a day off."
While some Texas and Tennessee fans are loading up on turkey today – the tryptophan-loaded food is off the game-day menu for the team – the Lady Vols will spend an hour scouting and preparing for the Lady Longhorns with a walk-through and shoot-around on the court.
Tennessee will be looking for a way to stop – or at least contain – the potent offensive power of Texas, which has four senior starters and a sophomore starter in Jackson. In the loss against the Lady Bulldogs in Athens, Texas jumped out to a 28-13 lead and still led at the half, 32-27, before Georgia freshman Tasha Humphrey went on a tear. Humphrey, who has been compared to Charles Barkley by Summitt, earned SEC player of the week after that game. Jackson, a 6'3 sophomore forward who scored 27 points, and Schreiber, a 6'2 senior forward who had 22, led the Texas attack.
The forwards "are a tough twosome to defend on the front line, so it's definitely going to be a real challenge for our team," Summitt said. "We have to understand that we have to take care of the basketball and have to be able to play 94 feet. I can envision a track meet."
A track meet wouldn't deter Tennessee, which is capable of running and goes five deep on the bench. The starters for Tennessee are guards Loree Moore and Shanna Zolman, forwards Shyra Ely and Sidney Spencer and center Tye'sha Fluker. The substitutes off the bench are Brittany Jackson, Nicky Anosike, Alexis Hornbuckle, Dominique Redding and Sybil Dosty. In other words, there's not much of a drop-off. And when Moore and Hornbuckle are on the floor together, Tennessee immediately becomes not only quicker, but also tougher defensively. Add Anosike to that mix – whose face-up game is in its in infancy but whose defense is well developed – and the bench doesn't just provide a breather to the starters, it offers a boost.
"I really feel like this team can go nine deep – 10 deep if we rotate three post people, which I'll probably do a little more as we move forward and as we determine what Dosty is going to bring as opposed to Anosike," Summitt said. "I think there are going to be times when we'll need that type of rotation, and Texas may be one of them just depending on the tempo of the game."
Last season, it was Texas' ability to play end to end that hurt Tennessee, according to Summitt. She noted the Lady Longhorns' ability to do the same thing this year, plus having Jackson as "an anchor inside" in the half-court game.
"Texas is one of the best with transition in the country, and I think they rely heavily on their defense and board play to create easy opportunities in transition," Summitt said. "I know from our last three outings with them that's where I felt they had the advantage was from baseline-to-baseline and just getting up and down the floor and getting quick looks."
Besides Jackson, Schreiber and Carey, a short (5'6) but battle-tested senior guard, Texas starts seniors Annissa Hastings, a 6'3 center, and Kala Bowers, a 6'2 guard. Tennessee counters with two players – Fluker, a junior, and Spencer, a sophomore – who made their first career starts against UT-Chattanooga this year. Her frontcourt's ability to run with Texas worries Summitt. She is also fretting about the Lady Vols' perimeter defense.
"Tye Fluker is in a starting role and is going to have to get up and down the floor," Summitt said. "That to me will be one of our biggest concerns going into this game … our transition defense. … The biggest challenge is going to be tempo. Based on the game against Texas last year, it was obvious that they broke our perimeter defense down time and time again. Their dribble penetration really took us out of the game, because we didn't do a very good job against that. I think we have to be a team that can contain the dribble and a team that knows, if we break down, we have to have early help."
In terms of tempo and defense Tennessee will counter with two freshmen - Hornbuckle, a guard and electrifying player in the open court and Anosike, a center who can run with the guards.
"You have to speak to Alexis' size at the guard spot (5'11) and her skill in being a very confident handler of the ball," Summitt said of her precocious newcomer. "She has a great change of speed and has both a lot of savvy and a great change-up that allows her to be a tough player to defend in transition. She gets her head up and sees people, and she has an ability to break down the defense both in the full- and half-court game. Alexis has been a joy to coach because she works really hard every day."
That's high praise coming from the notoriously demanding Summitt, and it extends to Anosike.
"She just outworks people," Summitt said. "She's outworked a lot of her teammates already as a freshman. Every day she just comes in and brings intensity – she's passionate about the game. … She loves to play on the defensive end."
Although the newcomers will be relied on if Tennessee is to beat Texas, the crux of playing in the Frank Erwin Center, with a capacity of 16,755 before a national television audience on an evening when diehard and casual fans are expected to tune in, will turn on the play of the veterans.
One of those veterans is Zolman, whose offense has never been in question – she has a shooting stroke from the field and from the free-throw line that is textbook pure. However, it is her offensive versatility and defensive performance that has her coach excited.
"She's done a great job in transition not settling for a pull-up, but creating and getting to the basket and getting the ball to her teammates," Summitt said. "Defensively I'm really pleased with her one-on-one defense. Obviously she's not the quickest player on the team, but her commitment to play good position has allowed her to be very effective."
So what does this all mean in terms of the outcome of tonight's game? Who knows. One of the longest-running series in women's basketball has been the regular-season match-ups between the two UTs – the Orange of Tennessee and the Burnt Orange of Texas. Despite the storied history between the programs, they have not met when an AIAW or NCAA title was on the line. The closest they came was at the Final Four in Atlanta in 2003, but UConn beat Texas in the semifinal and went on to beat Tennessee. Oddly enough, the games tend to be either boring blowouts or very close (under six points), and only one game has gone into overtime, which was won by Tennessee in 1996.
The coaches bring a total of 1,703 wins to the floor against 437 combined losses over 67 combined seasons and two Hall of Fame inductions for both – the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Summitt (1998) and Conradt (1986) have both won national titles after going undefeated.
"Texas is certainly a program that has withstood the test of time. … They've always been known as an aggressive, passionate defensive team," Summitt said. "We were on the receiving end of pressure and had some ugly games when we started playing them. They taught us some lessons on how to play this game. … As a coach I admire the consistency Jody has been able to maintain."
She could have been talking about Tennessee. And therein lies the appeal.
SEC ACTIVITY: Tennessee isn't the only SEC women's team to tip it up on Thanksgiving. Kentucky will play at home against Oregon State, and Arkansas hosts Purdue. Going into the holiday, there were seven undefeated teams in the conference – Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
HOOPS FOR HUNGER: Texas is using the Lady Vol-Lady Longhorns game to stock a local food bank over the holiday season. The "Hoops for Hunger" promotion offers free general admission to the first 1,100 fans that bring a can of food and $3 off a general admission ticket for anyone else that brings food. Ticket-holders also were asked to bring canned food or non-perishable items. The Austin Capital Area Food bank will be the beneficiary. The food bank serves 21 counties in Central Texas and has seen a surge in requests for help, especially among the working poor, according to its executive director. The game is expected to draw a sellout crowd to the Frank Erwin Center.