Shanna Zolman swished a three-pointer last year as time expired to lead Tennessee to a 70-67 win. Tennessee won the game before that, 62-60, in the 2004 NCAA tourney after Nicole Powell, who's now in the WNBA, barely missed a three-pointer at the buzzer. Tennessee went to overtime at Stanford in 2003 and won 70-66. It took a steal by LaToya Davis in the waning seconds to get Tennessee to overtime. Tennessee smoked Stanford in Knoxville twice (1998 and 2002) and in the post-season (1997), but the other games in the nine-game winning streak have been closely played ones. The last times Stanford won in the series – which Tennessee leads overall 17-4 – were in 1995 and 1996, when Stanford torched Tennessee, both in Palo Alto, Calif., and Knoxville. The other Stanford wins in the series came in 1989 and 1991, and both were on the Cardinal's home floor.
On Sunday, Tennessee, 6-0 and No. 2/1 in the polls (AP and USA Today), and Stanford, 4-1, No. 12/11 in the same rankings, will line up at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time (Fox Sports Net, Lady Vols Radio Network) and go at it again. It's one of the marquee matchups in women's basketball – featuring two longstanding coaches in Summitt and Stanford's Tara VanDerveer – and will be a barometer for both programs.
Stanford, led by a sensational sophomore guard in Candice Wiggins, is a young team that must overcome the loss of five seniors. Tennessee, led by the senior Zolman and a sensational freshman in Candace Parker, is still relatively young and will be playing for the first time this season on the road instead of at home or in a neutral environment.
Tennessee's sophomore point guard extraordinaire, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, barely played in the Stanford game last year – she was battling tendonitis in her knee and eventually had to be shut down for the season – but she could be a difference-maker this year.
"They had the veteran team last year," Summitt said. "We're young, but we do have more veterans than they do this year."
Tennessee has two seniors – Zolman and California native Tye'sha Fluker – and two juniors – Sidney Spencer, a steady performer whose season was cut short last year by knee injury, and Dominique Redding, a role player for two years – who hit a key three-pointer at Stanford two years ago as a rookie to cut Stanford's lead to eight when the Lady Vols were trying to overcome a 14-point deficit – who's steadily earning minutes this year due to improved defensive effort.
Zolman was acutely aware of both of Tennessee's streaks – the losses to Texas and the wins over Stanford.
"It's just like Texas but flip-flopped," Zolman said. "It's going to be the first for us this year where it's a very hostile environment. I know I'm looking forward to it. It's another team where they're unbelievably well-coached with Tara and just being able to beat them with execution, beat them by getting out and running and playing to our strengths but yet taking away theirs."
Tennessee executed that game plan to perfection against Texas and ran away with a 102-61 win. Stanford demolished Pacific on Thursday, 109-58, in a game that made it clear the Cardinal was focused on that opponent and not looking ahead to Tennessee, which VanDerveer wanted to see.
The high-scoring games are indicative of what both teams like to do.
"We want to run, and they want to run," VanDerveer said, though she's not certain if a game in the 90s or 60s would be best for Stanford. "I'm not sure which would be better right now."
If history is any guide, the game could come down to one shot. It's just that the Cardinal has been on the short end of late.
"They have been great games," VanDerveer said. "Is it only a great game if you win it? I don't think so. Is it disappointing to lose? Definitely."
One Tennessee player who really wants to keep the Lady Vols win streak going is Wiley-Gatewood, a native of Pomona, Calif., who played for Lynwood High School. She had to secure a lot of tickets for family and friends.
"It's going to be so packed," Wiley-Gatewood said. "My family is probably going to take up most of the sideline. I got at least 30 tickets. I have never been to Stanford. I'm excited to see Stanford and see their campus. It's hard to play in their gym."
Maples Pavilion underwent a major $26 million renovation – though its signature springy floor is gone – with capacity increased to 7,233. The on-campus facility has new concession and restroom facilities with speaker systems and a four-sided, state-of-the-art scoreboard with video and replay capability that hangs above the center of the court. The Cardinal women are protecting a 23-game home winning streak at Maples and have won 57 of the last 60 games played there. No team won at Stanford last season.
It's an environment – with lower bowl seating close to the court – that could intimidate a visiting team. That's one thing Summitt doesn't worry about with her latest stash of players who seem to welcome a chance to flash some swagger.
"I think the personalities on this team I think they just thrive on an environment like that," Summitt said. "They like to look good; they like a lot of people in the gym. They want to look good."
Tennessee held a short practice Friday in Knoxville – in the Health, Physical Education and Recreation building because Stokely was being used for the NCAA volleyball tourney, and there was another event at the multipurpose arena – in a student gym with no shot clock, no seating and some guys shooting around on an adjoining court who stole occasional glimpses at the nearby Lady Vols. The team left Friday evening for Palo Alto, and Saturday was designated a rest day because Tennessee had no floor access at Maples due to the post-season volleyball tournament.
On Friday, Tennessee went over the scouting report and ran a few offensive and defensive sets. Freshman Alex Fuller, who has been hindered by a strained hip flexor, participated in practice and could be available Sunday.
Stanford is expected to start: Brooke Smith, No. 30, 6'3 junior forward, 17.4 points per game, 5.0 rebounds per game, 3.0 assists per game; Candice Wiggins, No. 11, 5'11 sophomore guard/forward, 18.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.2 apg; Kristen Newlin, No. 43, 6'5 junior center, 10.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg; Krista Rappahahn, No. 2, 5'9 senior guard, 9.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg; and Clare Bodensteiner, No. 4, 5'9 junior guard, 5.4 ppg, 1.2 rpg.
Wiggins, the first Pac-10 player to ever win player of the year as a freshman – she was conference player and freshman of the year – definitely has Summitt's attention. She's also well known to the Lady Vols, especially Parker, who played with her on the USA Junior National Team in the summer of 2004 – they were known as Ace (Candace) and Ice (Candice) – and Wiley-Gatewood and Hornbuckle since their paths crossed in high school and AAU ball.
"I watched her in high school (La Jolla Country Day in Southern California), and I just loved her game," Summitt said. "I think she's great in the open court. She gets to the basket, pulls up and shoots. She's a great all-around talent. With a player like that, she makes everyone else better. She can play multiple positions on the offensive end and make big plays. She also has a great presence on the defensive end and can disrupt your offense. I really like her game. When you look at Stanford's team, immediately that is the player that I think has made them a lot better."
Parker, perhaps one of the most widely covered freshmen in terms of preseason media coverage, has the benefit of being sheltered by a team that went to the Final Four season and knows how to play without her. She is a difference maker on the court, but Parker isn't saddled with having to make a difference everytime she steps on the floor. The fans may expect that, but her teammates and her coaches don't.
"It allows Candace to be able to fit in and not to feel that she has to do a lot more than everyone else and let the game come to her as opposed to feeling that she has to make every play or be involved in every play," Summitt said. "I'm sure Candice Wiggins probably feels a little bit more responsibility for execution at both ends. She plays a big role for them on defense and offensively she's handling a lot, they're taking her in and posting her up. She's playing all over the floor. They're moving her a lot. I watched one game on them, and I typically don't do that (Summitt was speaking the day before the Texas game), but we've got such a quick turnaround I just felt like I had to. Coming out of high school, she played that kind of role for her team. I felt like then she was versatile enough to play a lot of positions in college."
Wiggins has split time primarily at the one and two spots, but is clearly more comfortable at the wing position, rather than point guard, according to her coach. VanDerveer said she feels like "the mom that took the winter coat off the kid" and sent her into the cold. Wiggins was insulated last year by a veteran squad – including guards Kelley Suminski, who ran the point, and Susan Borchardt, a lockdown defender.
"There goes all that experience out the door," VanDerveer said. "Sometimes this is going to be painful."
VanDerveer compares her team to a "cake in the oven" with good ingredients that she's still mixing together. Tennessee is hardly the team a coach wants to face under such circumstances.
"We no doubt will have our hands full," said VanDerveer, who joked while talking to reporters. "Why are we playing Tennessee?"
The Stanford-Tennessee matchup is a non-conference series that goes back to 1988 and although the Lady Vols are well ahead in the win column, it has provided some exciting basketball.
"I think we've had great games and close games," Summitt said. "I like taking our team to the West Coast. We try to schedule in a lot of different areas in the country and enjoy playing some of the best teams in the top conferences. Stanford has been that in the Pac 10. I have great respect for Tara VanDerveer, her staff and their program."
Zolman can't think of another series that has been played so closely, especially with the games meaning so much that came in the post-season.
"Not that I can think of offhand," Zolman said. "There's not another team or rivalry that we've played the way we have against them and have the outcomes that we've had against them as well. We're not looking for anything other than another hard-fought game after that. They're always ready to play us. They're a very, very well-coached team. They're disciplined."
It would behoove both teams to pay attention to their scouting reports as both are stocked with shooters. Stanford has nailed 10 three-pointers in a game twice this season – against Fresno State on Nov. 23 and at Pacific this week. In those two games, Rappahahn was 9-10 from behind the arc. At the beginning of the week, Rappahahn ranked second in the Pac-10 with 53.8 percent accuracy from long range, and Wiggins ranked fifth at 42.1 percent.
Zolman and Wiley-Gatewood have a range well beyond most college players. A few of Wiley-Gatewood's shots have been in the 20- to 25-foot range, and she said Summitt has told her to shoot or sit.
"She told me I was going to sit the bench if I didn't look for my shot. I can shoot the ball from out here," said Wiley-Gatewood, who was talking near mid-court. "I just need to know when."
That range makes her even more effective as a point guard. If a defender has to pick up Wiley-Gatewood well away from the basket, the floor opens up even more for her.
"They're going to come up," Wiley-Gatewood said. "The penetration is open, the lane's open, and the post players are open. Everything is open when you can hit a shot from way out there. Just like Shanna. Go around, penetrate and kick out."
Wiley-Gatewood is a soft-spoken and unassuming person during interviews – she seems genuinely happy to hear that her teammates enjoy playing with someone with her court vision – but she morphs into something different between the white lines, much like her teammates. They are a confident bunch, who as Summitt noted, like a big stage. The Lady Vols may have the best player in the country in Parker, but she's unselfish with the ball. The underclassmen are key players, but the team looks to Zolman and Fluker to set the example. They have egos – it's imperative to play at this level – but nobody is putting individual glory before team success. And the appearance of cohesive chemistry is not just something an outsider observes in practice and in games. It's how the team operates behind the scenes. When Wiley-Gatewood was asked about playing a homecoming game of sorts at Stanford, she quickly pointed out that Fluker was a California native, too.
Last year, Wiley-Gatewood was fighting chronic pain in her knee, living 3,000 miles from home (her parents now live in Knoxville), worrying about her mother's health (she has been treated for breast cancer and is doing fine) and adjusting to college on and off the court. For Wiley-Gatewood, this season is so much different from last year.
"Oh my God, it's so much fun," she said. "Everybody gets along. That's the good thing – everybody's got good chemistry. Everybody hangs out with each other. Last year we didn't have all that. There were several groups and now everybody hangs together. We're always together, like sisters for real. We're having fun on the court. Nobody's arguing. Nobody cares who shoots. Everything is right; everything is right this year, and it's so much fun."