"We're very aware of the past four years, and it's the only team I have not beaten since I've been here," Zolman said. "It's definitely in the back of my mind."
Zolman was the reason Tennessee's streak against Stanford was extended last season when she hit a last-second three-pointer at the buzzer from a few feet inside mid-court to unknot a tie. She also contributed to the futility against Texas last season when she went 0-5 and finished the game without a single point.
It may only be December – barely – when these teams square off this year, but it's nearly a post-season atmosphere for the players and their fans. Both games will be televised and will likely be played before large crowds. Thursday's is at 7 p.m. on ESPN2, and Sunday's is at 3:30 p.m. on Fox Sports Net. The storied programs all have high-profile coaches who have been at their respective schools for years and have won national titles. The coaches, Pat Summitt of Tennessee, Jody Conradt of Texas and Tara VanDerveer of Stanford, know each other well and have a lot of respect for each other.
"I think what we're talking about here is obviously three programs that have been around and have been in the hunt for many, many years," Summitt said. "I think it's been a good series regardless of who's won the games, just because obviously I have a lot of respect for Jody and her program – speaks for itself – and same is true for Stanford. You're going to get great competition, you're going to have great atmosphere. I'd be surprised if Stanford isn't sold out, Texas had a huge crowd last year, hopefully we'll have a great crowd."
First up for Tennessee, 5-0 on the season and No. 1/2 in the polls, is Texas, 3-1 on the season and No. 16/18 in the rankings. The Lady Vols lead the overall series, 15-11, but the Longhorns have taken the last four. The first three in Texas' mini-win streak were competitive games – three-point, one-point and 10-point margins – but last Thanksgiving in Austin, the Lady Vols were laid to waste, 74-59. The Lady Vols bus broke down en route to the Frank Erwin Center. They arrived by cabs and vans about 45 minutes before tip-off, but Summitt said that wasn't to blame for the poor performance.
"It was bizarre, but I will tell you that was no excuse for the way we played," she said. "I just regret that I didn't send the bus driver in to coach and I try to get the bus fixed."
The night got worse for Tennessee. Their chartered plane that was to take them home to Knoxville never made it to Austin – it had engine trouble and made an emergency stop in Atlanta – so they waited in the locker room for a replacement bus and plane. That allowed Summitt to pass the time while watching the just-played game film in the visitor's locker room. Twice. Needless to say, it didn't improve her mood.
In hindsight, Summitt and Zolman agreed that Texas completely took Tennessee out of its game.
"I think they've beaten us in transition and just disrupted us," Summitt said. "I think their defense and their running game was a lot better than ours. I recall two years ago when they were here, and they just had their way with our guards. They just went by us like we were stuck in quicksand. I remember being very upset about it. I'm thinking, ‘Can we guard anyone?' I pretty much felt the same last year – transition, trying to play against their pressure defense. I thought Tiffany Jackson was terrific. And Nina Norman, and those are two of the main players on their team that make things happen. I thought last year we struggled so much offensively. That's probably my fault we got beat as badly as we did. We weren't ready to run some of the sets we had in. They just totally disrupted us."
Zolman's assessment is just as brutal.
"For some reason every game that we've played against them we've played horrendous," Zolman said. "It's them taking us out of a game and it's us not being disciplined enough to maintain who we are. We let their defensive pressure get us out of sync offensively; we don't get back in transition defensively. It's a snowball effect so to speak. Hopefully this year with the talent, the discipline, the speed and the skill that we have hopefully we'll be able to outwit them this year."
For now, Summitt is sticking with the three-guard lineup and putting Candace Parker at the high post. Parker will be joined in the starting lineup by center Nicky Anosike. Zolman, Alexis Hornbuckle and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood will open up on the perimeter.
Texas is expected to start: Tiffany Jackson, No. 33, 6'3 junior forward, 11.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg; Katrina Robinson, No. 44, 6'2 sophomore forward, 4.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg; Daria Mieloszynska, No. 51, 6'2, senior forward, 2.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg; Nina Norman, No. 22, 5'6 senior guard, 5.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg; and Erika Arriaran, No. 4, 5'10 freshman guard, 12.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg. The name of Robinson, a redshirt sophomore, will be familiar to Tennessee fans. She's the younger sister of former Lady Vol Ashley Robinson (2000-04) of Grand Prairie, Texas.
The lineup puts Tennessee's three best guards on the floor at the same time, but the Lady Vols have been losing the battle of the boards. If this group rebounds the ball against Texas, Summitt will be a lot happier.
"If they don't I'll be very unhappy, and if they don't play better transition defense and get the ball inside to the bigs …. ," Summitt said, her voice trailing off but her message crystal clear.
These are two vastly different teams than took the court a year ago. Texas lost six letterwinners, including forwards Heather Schreiber and Annissa Hastings and guards Jamie Carey and Kala Bowers. They brought in the nation's top recruiting class – seven freshmen – led by Arriaran, the Parade and WBCA/State Farm Player of the Year. Jackson, an All-American and national player of the year candidate, and Norman have logged a lot of minutes (50 career starts for Jackson; 71 career starts for Norman), but take away their starts, and the rest of the Longhorns have a total of 17 career starts.
Tennessee lost the scoring presence of Shyra Ely, the defensive intensity of Loree Moore and the outside shooting of Brittany Jackson. The Lady Vols have added sophomore point guard Wiley-Gatewood, who was rehabbing her ailing knee last year; redshirt freshmen Parker and Alex Fuller, who were out for the season following knee surgeries; and freshman Lindsey Moss.
Zolman has embraced the role of senior leader, and she knows it falls on her shoulders to set the example of not only how to play but to also keep the youngsters focused and on task. She broke down her advice for the four players who didn't face Texas last year.
To Wiley-Gatewood: "Constantly reminding her to get on the boards. Getting myself open because I know she's going to find me and just helping her out from a leadership standpoint and relaying to her what we're running. Be an extension of the coach on the floor with her."
To Parker: "Making sure that she's always going to the boards because there's nobody that can board with her. Offensively just making sure she's not getting frustrated, getting her touches."
To Fuller: "Just keeping feeding her the ball because she's probably one of our best sealers inside, one of our best finishers and our best passers as well."
To Moss: "She constantly needs to not force the issue and let things come to her. Try to help her out in that way and get her good looks."
Zolman also has some advice for herself about not being overanxious and trying to strike a balance between playing to beat a team – especially one she readily concedes she's tired of losing to in Texas – and not getting so worked up emotionally that she takes herself out of her own game.
"That's the hard part because in the back of your mind that's what you're wanting," said Zolman, alluding to the psychological effect of having lost to a team repeatedly and how that can make a player want to do even more to win, sometimes to the team's detriment. "You're always wanting to beat them, you're always wanting to play better than them, to just annihilate them in every aspect of the game, but yet you have to maintain your composure and not let your emotions get overwhelmed and not let that overwhelm you. Because it can play with your mind and then you'll start playing uncharacteristically, you'll start playing with yourself and not your teammates and again it's a snowball effect. So it's very crucial that myself as a leader can help the team. Basically playing with energy, yet with composure. Being able to play hard at both ends yet having the composure to know what's a good shot and a bad shot. Being able to get stops on defense. (The mindset of) any other game but just playing your game and not letting them dictate to you what you're going to do."
Summitt is aware of the anxiety that can befall a team in the midst of a losing streak to another team. For Zolman, this could be her last shot at Texas. Despite both team's post-season success, their shared history is all in the regular season. The Lady Vols and Longhorns have never met in the AIAW or NCAA tournaments.
"I think they may feel that now," Summitt said. "I just think Texas has been better than us. For whatever reason when they've played us, they've been better than us. And we have to be better than them to win, and we have to play better. I think their style of play, we weren't ready to handle."
The games typically fall early in the season when Tennessee is still tinkering with its lineup, or as the case last year, trying to install a new offense.
"Here we are looking at another early game against Texas," Summitt said. "I must just be a slow teacher because it takes us a while to get all cranked up."
Summitt's easygoing manner on the eve of the game reflects her coaching philosophy at this time of the year. She'll take a loss if it means her team learned something and had its weaknesses exposed. That was certainly the case in the Paradise Jam – Maryland and Michigan State out-rebounded Tennessee, and Maryland exploited Tennessee's inability to get back on defense – but the Lady Vols got to learn those lessons in victory and swept three games on the Virgin Islands.
"I'm hopeful that we learned we need to play together," Summitt said. "I thought we quick-shot the ball at the beginning of all three games. I think our guards were shot happy, and we failed to get the ball inside to our post people. I think we took notice as a team and a coaching staff of how we want to play and how we want to play from the inside-out more."
Zolman would much rather get her lessons from a win (Maryland) than a loss (last year against Texas).
"We're in a situation this year, as we are every year, where we try and learn more from wins than losses, because you don't want to lose too often," she said. "We learned a lot from that entire stretch of three games. It really displayed a lot of our weaknesses and showed up where we need to improve – rebounding and transition defense. (Last year's Texas game) did expose a lot of things that we needed to improve on. There's no question in my mind we're going to continue to keep learning throughout the course of each game, but as far as exposing a lot in one game, hopefully that was the Maryland game."
Tennessee's true test comes tonight against the Longhorns, a team that likes to run and wants to keep its win streak humming against the Lady Vols. Both of Tennessee's practice sessions this week on Tuesday and Wednesday were dedicated to defense, rebounding and specific game preparation.
"They're not concerned about anything but beating us," Zolman said. "I know they're going to come in here and play as hard as they possibly can. It's important for us to do the little things we've been working on as far as getting back in transition and getting on the boards. They are very well conditioned. Obviously Coach Conradt is a very, very good coach, and they are always a well-coached team. It's not going to be a matter of who's going to wear out first; it's more of the Xs and the Os against them. It's more of who wants it more, more of who can execute."
SIXTH WOMAN: Dominique Redding has worked her way from limited role player to sixth woman. Against Maryland, Redding was the first one off the bench. Summitt has always loved her offensive game, but has hounded the junior forward for two years for her lack of defense and rebounding. Redding, so far, has part of it fixed.
"I am pleased with Dom's play in terms of what she's been able to bring offensively," Summitt said. "I just am really concerned that she doesn't rebound the ball better. Her defense has gotten better. It's going to keep her off the floor if she doesn't start rebounding. It's the bottom line. That's why I've been on her."
The fact that Summitt is on her is a good sign. Redding, who is often the recipient of Summitt's precise attention in practice, has responded to Summitt's demands and has earned more playing time because of it.
"Yesterday in practice I was really getting down on myself," Redding said Wednesday. "And she said, ‘You look like a whipped puppy. You beat yourself up over things.' And I do. I'm really hard on myself; I'm my worst critic. She was like, ‘You don't need to do that. I'm on you enough.' "
Lately Redding's offensive game has sputtered, but she is not concerned. She knows that part of her game is solid and her defense will help keep her on the floor.
"I stepped up my defense," Redding said. "She's been barking on me to get more rebounds, and that's what I have to do, but right now I would say my defense is really improving. I'm not taking quick shots in the offense. I'm getting some good looks. It's my job to knock them down now."
Nearly everyone on the team is in Summitt's crosshairs right now for lack of rebounding, and Redding will be scrutinized even further because she's playing at the three, or small forward, spot. With Candace Parker inside, Alexis Hornbuckle, one of the team's best rebounders, starts at the three. Summitt does not want a drop-off on the boards when she goes to the bench at that position.
"I think the one thing that continues to concern me about Dom is her lack of commitment to rebounding," Summitt said. "Her defense has gotten better. I though Sid outplayed her on the boards (against Maryland), just being more aggressive. Between the two of them we've got to get some stability at that three spot as long as we're playing Candace inside. Once we change out our three-guard lineup, then we need someone who can extend the defense. They both can. Sometimes I feel like we need to combine both their skills. Sid is a really good shooter; Dom's a good shooter. Sid is a better rebounder; Dom's a better defender. So let's just hope they can expand their package individually."
In Redding's case, she's happy to be on Summitt's list and to hear her coach's voice, even if a lot of the words are critical and demanding.
"She always says you never arrive," Redding said. "There's always something I've got to work on. I've just got to go get the ball. I'm in there; I've just got to go grab it. It's attitude."
AILING ALEX: Alex Fuller is gamely trying to play and practice with a sore hip after she suffered a strained hip flexor in last week's game against UTC. Her status remains days to day, and her availability for the Texas game remains in question.
Fuller practiced Wednesday – practice was shorter and didn't involve full court work since it was the day before a game – but Summitt will wait to hear from Jenny Moshak, the head of sports medicine for the Lady Vols, before playing her tonight. Fuller had rehab treatment on the hip Wednesday and will have more today.
"It's really bothering her," Summitt said. "I was watching her today. I want her healthy, because she started out playing so well, and she is an efficient player. She can play the three as well. She says she doesn't really feel it when she's on the court playing, but I can see it. She's not as mobile, and she's not as quick up and down. We're getting ready to play a team that loves to run. I want her healthy. I'd rather sit her a couple of games and get her healthy. I want her healthy by SECs because I really like her game. I like what she brings to this team."