Despite the outpouring of orange support, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt knows the crowd will be full of gold and blue.
"I think it will be pretty hostile," Summitt said. "It sold out weeks ago so you've got to expect it to be more Notre Dame than Tennessee. I think it's going to be a great environment."
The New Year's Eve event at the 11,418-seat facility sold out nearly three weeks ago – 19 days before the event and the fastest sellout in the history of Notre Dame women's basketball. There were two previous sellouts in 2001 against Connecticut and then Georgetown on senior night.
For senior guard Shanna Zolman, the game will have a festive feel – not to mention one of the loudest ovations ever for a visiting player during the announcement of starters – but she knows she has to somehow put it out of her mind.
"It will be difficult. I'm not going to lie," Zolman said. "It's going to be something I'm going to have to really focus hard on trying not to be overcome by the emotions and the adrenaline that will be flowing at that time, because I know all my family, all my friends from high school (will be there), the people that have supported me throughout the course of my career at home. I've been in a very, very special situation, because there aren't very many people who have the following that I have, that I've been blessed with, to be able to have grown up in such a situation in high school where every game is a sold-out crowd. When you got there you had to come early because you weren't going to get a seat.
"And all of these people want to continue to come for my senior homecoming. There have been quite a few reporters that have been asking me about that from home, and all I can say to them is, ‘Thank you.' I'm so blessed to have the support that I have had. Like I said, not only from the high school perspective but now following me for the past four years in my college career even though I'm 500 miles away. The cool thing about it is they follow me because of basketball but also because of the person that I am. That means so much to me because they respect the character that I have and the morals that I stand for. That means more to me honestly than people coming to support me because I can put a ball through the hoop. That's what makes it more special for myself, just being able to play in front of so many familiar faces that have supported me over the years."
Zolman, the outside sharpshooter (17.0 ppg), will be joined in the starting lineup by freshman forward Candace Parker, who provides the inside firepower (15.6 ppg) for Tennessee and who should also have a large home following on hand from the Chicago area. Sophomore center Nicky Anosike (6.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg) will join Parker in the paint. Sophomore Alexis Hornbuckle (9.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.1 assists per game) will open up at point guard, and junior forward Sidney Spencer (6.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg) will make her second start of the season at small forward.
The move by Spencer to the perimeter allows Summitt to start Parker at the power forward spot, where she has been the most effective so far this season. Parker is averaging 9.1 rebounds per game. Zolman also chips in with 2.5 rpg and 2.6 apg.
Notre Dame is expected to start: Crystal Erwin, No. 34, 6'2, junior forward (5.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg); Melissa D'Amico, No. 33, 6'5 sophomore center (10.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.5 blocks per game); Megan Duffy, No. 13, 5'7 senior guard (15.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.7 apg); Lindsay Schrader, No. 24, 6'0 freshman guard (9.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.1 apg); and Breona Gray, No. 32, 5'9 junior guard, (6.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg).
The Fighting Irish have never beaten the Lady Vols in 16 tries. Tennessee has never lost on New Year's Eve – 2-0 in the team's history – and both wins came on the road. Notre Dame is off to a great start this season – its lone loss was to Purdue – and its defense is a big reason why. So far this season, opponents are averaging only 58.7 points per game.
There are some connections between the two teams. Tennessee strength and conditioning coach Heather Mason spent five years on the staff at Notre Dame from 1998 to 2003. Her two graduate assistants this year at Tennessee are twins Jessica and Kristen Kinder, who were standout volleyball players at Notre Dame from 2000 to 2003.
Schrader and Parker have known each other since grade school and were teammates on an AAU club coached by Parker's father, Larry Parker. They still keep up with each other regularly by e-mail and text messaging. Schrader, who is from Bartlett, Ill., was the last winner of Illinois Miss Basketball. Parker, a redshirt freshman from Naperville, Ill., took the state honors the previous three years.
Zolman, after setting the Indiana prep scoring record with 3,085 career points, was selected Indiana Miss Basketball following her senior season in high school. Summitt remembers the recruiting process.
"I know from going to watch her play, they had to save a few seats or I couldn't have gotten in the gym," Summitt said. "It's amazing the impact she's had on the community there, and just how it's really filtered throughout the state. She has been recognized so many times through her play here at Tennessee and on a lot of big stages in women's basketball. She's demonstrated the type of player she can be in that setting. She's had a great impact. There have been a lot of talented players come from the state of Indiana and certainly Shanna will go down as one of the best in history."
Zolman was coached by her father, Kem, and Summitt enjoys a good relationship with Zolman's parents.
"They are great people, Kem and Lynette," Summitt said. "Coach Zolman possesses tremendous composure and calmness. He is not quite that way in the middle of a game, but we all can relate to that. He did great teaching the game to his daughter, in particular working on her shot. It is about as picture perfect as it can be. I always joke with him that he should have the rebounding award for the state of Indiana all time because, after every practice, Shanna wanted to make 500 shots. He spent a lot of time with his daughter. It is awesome to see where she is right now. She is our most improved offensive player from last year, and that is hard to believe. Even for me as a coach, it is hard to believe how much better she is at coming off screens, creating her own shot and scoring in transition. Her range and consistency has really been impressive."
Summitt described Zolman's three-pointers as NBA range, but what is equally impressive is the ease with which she lofts them and with a quick release.
"She has elevated her game so much," Summitt said. "I am really proud to be able to take her back home, so to speak, for her fans, so they can see her play. I appreciate the fact that (Notre Dame coach) Muffet McGraw and I have been able to work out the series and continue it. I think it is good for both programs. I am just excited for Shanna to have this opportunity."
Zolman went home for the Christmas break so at least she's been back to Indiana recently. Homecoming games can sometimes overwhelm a player emotionally. Even now, she knows she can't just slip into Syracuse.
"When I go home I don't even like to go get groceries with my mom or go out to get something to eat because I don't want people to constantly be coming up and talking about basketball because when I go home it's to be around an atmosphere where it's a loving, caring family that's so supportive of me and kind of getting away from basketball," Zolman said.
"But in the same sense I'm just so blessed to have so many people that care about me. Growing up … I felt like I had 3,500 dads. Whenever I went out on a date I had spectators and eyewitnesses all over the county. They even had my daily life on the news. You had no privacy. It was difficult growing up in that, but now that I look back on it and am more aware and accustomed to other people's situations growing up I just realize how blessed that I really was and still am."
So on Saturday afternoon, Zolman will hear the cheers of her hometown and will smile both in recognition and in thanks. Then she'll remember where she is and why she is there.
"It all focuses on the team," Zolman said. "It doesn't matter where you go. It doesn't matter who you're playing. It doesn't matter how much media attention you're getting or how well you're playing. It's about the team. It's about winning as a team and improving as a team. This is a midseason game. This doesn't make or break your season. It doesn't depend on whether or not you go to the tournament."
If that sounds a little bit like a speech, that's because it is. Zolman will have a conversation with herself to keep calm.
"I'm going to constantly be telling myself just settle down and let the game come to you like you've done the entire season," Zolman said. "People are going to be looking to me as a leader. And if their leader is going ballistic because of all these emotions going a thousand miles an hour in her head, then what's my team going to look like? That, for the most part, is going to help me. I know I have all these people in the crowd coming to watch me play but more importantly I have my own job, my own decisions I have to make as a leader for this team to win. It's not about me. No matter if we're playing at Notre Dame in front of all these fans, it's not about me. It's about the team. That's what I am going to be focusing on."
Now that sounds like a game plan.
SCOUTING NOTRE DAME: Assistant coach Nikki Caldwell handled the scouting report on Notre Dame. Here is her assessment:
"I think defensively we're going to have to just really be committed to our philosophy whether it's on the ball, keeping the ball out of the middle of the floor, trying to disrupt their high post action," Caldwell said. "They are a very versatile team; they've got multiple scorers so we're going to have to play everybody straight up. We can't allow any easy looks. We're going to have to be physical. They can go with a lineup that is interchangeable. They can go big with 6'5 and 6'2. That's what they're starting with."
The freshman, Lindsay Schrader, a big guard, also got Caldwell's attention.
"And then you've got Schrader who's one of those kids that can play inside and out," Caldwell said. "So we're going to have to be able to defend, not just on the low block, our post players are going to have to be able to defend on the perimeter as well. I think defensively if we can mix it up a little bit, show some of our defensive schemes … we always want to set tempo with our defense. To finalize our defense, we want to make sure that we're controlling the boards. They've got some kids that can really get on the boards. Their guards rebound. Their point guard (Megan Duffy) is averaging right under four rebounds a game. Everybody is going to have to box out and go with pursuit."
When Tennessee has the ball, Caldwell wants the Lady Vols to remember what has gotten them to an 11-0 record so far this season and has led to success for the past three decades.
"You don't want to go into a game and go away from what's been good to you, and that's obviously establishing the inside game," Caldwell said. "That's been a trademark of ours for as long as we can remember, and we want to make sure that we're getting good looks and being patient.
"You've got to take care of the basketball as well. You don't want it to be a turnover, because turnovers lead to layups for them. You've got to knock down shots. You're on the road. You obviously want to take your defense and your board play, but you have to knock down shots. And that's something that we have been able to do on the road.
"Everybody just needs to play to their strengths. If you're a spot-up shooter, be that. If you can put it on the floor and pull up jumper, then be that."
Caldwell's last piece of advice to her players will be this: "Just play to your strengths and not let their defense or let their atmosphere take you out of what you came to do."