"I'm really not surprised because I just felt like we were going to be two of the top programs in the country," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "I wanted to play Duke, and I think it's been really good for us."
"We've had some great games, especially lately," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said. "Early on, I wouldn't have called it a rivalry because they were so much better than we were, but now I think we have such great respect for one another as coaches and what we've done with our programs. I think the players on both teams really look forward to playing against one another. We recruit a lot of the same players so there's a great familiarity with the program, so I certainly hope this rivalry continues. I'm sure it will continue to grow."
Neither team has won on its home court – the Lady Vols of the SEC won in Durham, N.C., two years ago, and the Blue Devils of the ACC won last season in Knoxville – and the other five matchups were on neutral courts. The biggest stakes so far were in the Final Four in Atlanta in 2003, when Tennessee won 66-56. The average score in the seven games is 68 points for Tennessee and 65.2 points for Duke.
Monday's game between the two 18-0 teams is at 7:30 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network) at Cameron Indoor Stadium, which holds 9,314. Duke had such a high request for tickets that a few former Blue Devils players couldn't get a seat.
"We, unfortunately, have had to turn a couple away because we're so far over our ticket allowance," Goestenkors said. "Just about everybody's coming back for this game."
Duke is expected to start: Monique Currie, No. 25, 6'0 senior forward (15.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg); Mistie Williams, No. 1, 6'3 senior forward (11.1 ppg, 5.6 ppg); Alison Bales, No. 43, 6'7 junior center (9.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg); Wanisha Smith, No. 23, 5'11 sophomore guard (7.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg); and Lindsey Harding, No. 10, 5'8 junior guard (11.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg).
Tennessee is expected to start: Sidney Spencer, No. 1, 6'3 junior forward (9.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg); Candace Parker, No. 3, 6'4 freshman forward (14.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg); Nicky Anosike, No. 55, 6'4 sophomore center (7.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg); Shanna Zolman, No. 5, 5'10 senior guard (15.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.7 apg); and Alexis Hornbuckle, No. 14, 5'11 sophomore guard (10.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.8 apg).
Tennessee's two seniors, Zolman and center Tye'sha Fluker, played at Cameron in their sophomore year. The freshmen and sophomores on this year's roster haven't been exposed to the Cameron Crazies, one of the most-lively venues in all of college basketball.
"They don't know what they're getting into," Zolman said. "We've been in great environments before – nothing like Cameron – but we have, and they've risen to the challenge. They haven't shown to be timid by any means. The biggest thing that we're thinking about is communication, making sure that we can communicate knowing that it's going to be so loud. The big thing will be the student section and the waving arms in the background when you're shooting free throws, but it's all about concentration and communication."
Summitt specifically remembers Zolman and free throw shooting when Tennessee won 72-69 at Duke on Jan. 24, 2004.
"I'll never forget her shooting into all those waving arms, hands at the end and hitting eight straight free throws," Summitt said. "She handled that well."
In the same thought Summitt recalled the win as "bittersweet" because the Lady Vols lost point guard Loree Moore to a season-ending knee injury during the game.
"I think most of our team will be ready," Summitt said of this season's game, but the game two years ago "was kind of bittersweet with Loree getting an ACL injury there and then us winning."
Summitt said the setup of Cameron is unusual in that the fans are pretty much a part of the action.
"It's unique," Summitt said. "With the students standing the whole game and our benches right on the court, the fans can literally reach out and touch you. Our fans were part of the huddle. All they had to do was lean over and listen to everything."
Did any offer advice the last time?
"I'm sure they probably did; I didn't have my hearing aid on," Summitt joked.
"The way that it's set up, the fans are right along the sidelines," assistant coach Nikki Caldwell said. "We'll be in our huddles on the bench, and fans are right over your shoulders. In that regard they're right on top of you, which gives you that high school-like setting. When you were in high school you could go down the sidelines and slap some students' hands. It's a great atmosphere; it's going to be a great matchup."
One of Tennessee's players can't wait. Hornbuckle has never played before the Cameron Crazies, but the thought of it has her excited.
"I heard the Cameron Crazies. It's wild," Hornbuckle said. "I watched it on TV, never played there myself. I've only stepped foot in that gym twice – during the recruiting visit. I'm actually excited to play. The fans are so close. You're going to hear every little comment that they have to say. I love that.
"That's the type of player I am. I like to hear you tell me what I can't do so I can go out there and show you what we can do. It's not about me but our team. … The fans try to get in one player's head thinking it's going to affect the whole team. Our team seems to be handling that – the negativity – pretty well. It gets me pumped up. You say you can't do this. That just gives me more motivation to go and do something and get it done but get it done that much better."
Hornbuckle will need that attitude to survive against the Blue Devils, who have excellent guard play, size and a deep bench. She has taken over the point guard position and must run the team and stay out of foul trouble. She also fills up the stat sheet with points, assists, rebounds, deflections and steals.
"She just gets an awful lot done," Summitt said. "When you look at the stat sheet, it's evident that she does more than just run our offense. She's one of the best rebounding guards that I've ever had. And then there're her hustle plays and steals. She just likes to do dirty work. She'll do the laundry."
Caldwell knows Tennessee's point guard is young, but she points to what Hornbuckle has already accomplished and how she has handled collegiate basketball. The only advice to give Hornbuckle about playing in a hostile environment is to be herself.
"You just tell Alexis to do what she does best." Caldwell said. "Don't play any more or any less than what she's capable of doing. She's been solid for us. Alexis is the type of kid you ask her to do something, and she'll do it. She's had to change her mentality. She's always been a scoring guard; now she's got to be a guard that runs a team. I think she's done a great job of that."
In addition to her performance at quarterbacking the team, Hornbuckle also is asked to summon defensive strength.
"The one thing that Alexis also does a great job of for us is setting the tone for us defensively," Caldwell said. "She and Anosike they go neck in neck every game for deflections. Obviously Parker has picked her defense up. When they really want to extend with Alexis and Nicky and Candace we can do that and just having Zo and Sid be solid for us. Alexis, she's been put in a lot of different situations already. She's logged a lot of minutes. Although she's a sophomore she's been playing like she's been around the women's game for a while. We just want to make sure she understands this team believes in her, this coaching staff believes in her and no matter what happens she's still our point guard."
Defense was a focal point of two recent practice sessions because of some ugly lapses of late in the team system. Tennessee has shown a prolific ability to score but is having trouble stopping people sometimes. That makes Duke especially dangerous for this Tennessee team. The Blue Devils are shooting an eye-popping 53.1 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from behind the arc.
"They're impressive; They're balanced," Summitt said. "They shoot the ball well from the field and the line. We're going to have to be a better defensive team."
Summitt specifically noted the play of Harding as a difference-maker for Duke this year.
"Lindsey Harding has made them a better team I think," Summitt said. "It appears they're more productive off the bench than we are. They've got size, Alison Bales, 6'7, that's something we don't have."
Harding didn't play last season – she was suspended for an undisclosed violation of team policy – but the junior has made the most of her return.
"Lindsey just changes the game for us," Goestenkors said. "I watched our game last year with Tennessee and we're both a lot better this year, I can tell you. We were an entirely different team, and really, it's because of Lindsey Harding. She just pushes the ball so well and knows when to push and knows when to pull back and make us run our sets. Then on the defensive end, she's our stopper. We can put her on anybody on the perimeter and we can feel comfortable that if I say don't let her touch the ball, she's going to do that. She does exactly what I ask her to do, and she has the skills and the athleticism to do it. She has really changed the game for us on both ends of the court."
Tennessee also has a difference maker this year that didn't play last season in Parker, who took a redshirt year to recover from knee surgery. Despite having only played in 18 collegiate games in her career, the accolades are pouring in for Parker.
"She's just a great all-around player," Goestenkors said. "If you try to double-team her, she's an exceptional passer out of the double-team, so she's going find the open player and make her teammates better. She has such great vision because of her height at the low post and the high post that she can make great passes. I think she has tremendous patience on the offensive end of the floor. She's not in a rush. She sees what the defense has given her, and she takes it."
Goestenkors would be happy if Duke held Parker to her scoring average.
"She's averaging about 15 points a game. I can take that. I can handle that," Goestenkors said. "I don't want her to get 30, but that's not really her game. Her game is getting her 15 points and helping her team to be successful. We're not going to keep her from scoring, I have no illusions of grandeur, and that's fine. I just want to win the game. It's going to be about playing team basketball."
It's Parker's ability to play team ball that has made Tennessee so successful so far. Summitt wants a continuation plus some additional work.
"I'm looking for her to keep doing what's she doing and dial her defense and her board work up," Summitt said. "She's drawing so much defensive attention that she's getting players better looks since they've been in the program. It's almost like they're so open they can't believe it. Literally she's going to have two or three players. As I watch Candace I just think she's getting better with each game."
Her presence also means there's an extra coach on the floor, Summitt said, and part of that acuity came from sitting out for a year.
"I think she has a better feel for the game, just an awareness," Summitt said. "She watched the game, and she knows the game. She can see things on the floor and tell you right away. She's so alert to what's happening whether she's on offense or defense. Therefore I think that has allowed her to not only be successful but to really help everybody else. It's just her freshman year but sometimes she'll tell me things that she sees on the floor like a coach would see."
Parker could have been in blue for Duke – she was heavily recruited by Goestenkors – and she has a supporter on Duke's bench when the Blue Devils aren't the opponent.
"I actually thought she was going to come to Duke," Goestenkors said. "We were that close. It was tough when she decided to go to Tennessee, and I told her I'd always be a fan of hers. And she's such a quality, not just a player, but such a quality person. I think the year off really helped Candace physically because she's so much stronger than she was. She was very wiry. She's still thin, but you can just see that her body type has changed and she's really gained a lot of strength. And then, I think just maturity, probably both on and off the court. She was young heading to college, so I think that year really helped her in all respects."
With Parker now planted in the paint – she has flourished in the power forward spot – Summitt has been dividing up the other post minutes among Anosike, Fluker and Sybil Dosty. Freshman forward Alex Fuller, who also can play power forward, has been called on to move to the wings along with Spencer and Dominique Redding.
Dosty has been an efficient player in limited minutes – she immediately got an offensive rebound and scored against – but she only played four minutes in that game.
"I told her I just got mad when I looked down there and saw Fluker and Dosty standing up like the Statue of Liberty," Summitt said of the Vandy game. "I got upset with them, and I shortened my bench because Candace and Nicky were playing pretty well."
Initially Dosty was confused. Then she talked to Summitt, and they scheduled a film session.
"I went in and got a rebound right away and scored," Dosty said. "I also played pretty good defense. But at halftime coach told me I had missed two opportunities to post up where she thought I was resting on offense. … She's going to show me on tape. Other than this game I've had some pretty good minutes. I've been taking full advantage of them. When I go in … my minutes might not be as much as I want them to be but while I'm in there I'll do all that I can.
"Before practice (Friday) she came and talked to me and told me she was mad about me not posting hard enough. She wants me to learn from that but she did tell me she wants me to be ready, and she needs me to play at Duke. I'm not going to sulk about it. I'm going to get ready for Duke. After she told me what I did I understood right away."
To combat the size of Duke, Tennessee will need every big post body.
"We all know it's a very big game," Dosty said. "A lot is riding on it for us. We're all really excited to go down there and play in that atmosphere. We know it's going to be crazy. We have to be focused on what we need to get done. They're big, and we're going to need all of our post players. Like Pat said she's going to need me at Duke. I'm going to go down there play good defense, rebound and work hard at both ends of the floor."
Summitt was encouraged by Dosty's reaction, and noted "she's matured tremendously."
"With Sybil she's really elevated her intensity and her work ethic," Summitt said. "Sometimes, and I tell them, it's not so much what you didn't do it's what somebody else was doing."
That's what happened to Fuller in the Vandy game. She also played limited minutes, but it was because of the production of two teammates in a game that Tennessee was trailing in by 14 in the first half.
"Dom and Sid were shooting so well," Summitt said. "They were scoring for us."
Summitt would prefer not to have to go to her bench extremely early in the game but has to on occasion when either Hornbuckle or Anosike pick up early fouls. She said it's crucial that neither does so Monday.
"I think you go in the game just being aware the first three minutes, not taking yourself out of position, playing smart, get into the flow," Summitt said. "It's not a time you take risks; you take those later in the game. I thought when we've said that they responded fairly well. Lex and Nicky both have to be more disciplined. They're the two that are foul prone."
Losing Hornbuckle at point guard, in particular, hurts Tennessee, because it creates a domino effect as players change positions.
"She's been able to do a lot of other things that Pat has asked with pressure, with rebounding, getting people the ball where it needs to be and just leading the team from the point guard position," Zolman said. "Knowing that she can't get in foul trouble – because if she does it puts us in a rough position, puts me at the point and then has to move other people out of position – she's done a very, very good job with that and that's what we need from her game in and game out. Because all the rest of us need to play our game and at the level we need to play game in and game out."
This matchup will require both teams to play at a high level to preserve lofty spots in the polls and get an early gauge on postseason readiness.
"It's good for us to know where we really stand," Harding said. "It will help us evaluate ourselves for April and March."
This will be Tennessee's third of four straight games away from home – the Lady Vols play at Kentucky this Thursday before finally playing Sunday in Knoxville against Alabama – and another stiff road test for a young team of only 10 players.
"I think anytime that you are going into an environment like we will at Cameron, you get a taste of postseason atmosphere and expectations," Summitt said. "That is always good. I thought being at Stanford and Notre Dame were great environments for us and being at Duke will be great for us. The game versus UConn had a Final Four feel to it. … To put ourselves in that position and play a team as strong as Duke right now, we are only going to benefit. Win or lose, it is going to be a valuable learning experience and have some carryover value as well."
For one of Tennessee's seniors it's a second game at Cameron and a contest to be anticipated.
"What you thrive on is going into a situation like that where everybody is against you, No. 1 vs. No. 2, a loud sellout environment," Zolman said. "That's what basketball is all about. That's what so much fun about it, whether you're home or away. It gets your juices flowing a little bit more, and you get that enthusiasm and adrenaline flowing. It's just a lot of fun. I can't wait."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant coach Nikki Caldwell handled the scouting report on Duke. Here is her assessment of Duke.
"Offensively Duke runs a lot of their action out of the one-four high set so we're going to want to make sure we know the post entries and the guard entries out of that," Caldwell said. "The main thing that we're wanting to make sure we do defensively is have exceptional ball pressure, deny one pass away and don't give up the high-low action. They're one of the best in our business in executing, getting the ball in the middle of the floor and looking into the high-low. We want to make sure we take that away and establishing great help when we can.
"Their alignments really don't allow for us to rotate our defense in a help action because they're overloaded, and they'll have everybody at the free throw line extended and above, which then gives them a great four out-one in isolation. The ball pressure again should help in eliminating the easy lob pass or high-low if they are looking for it."
When Tennessee has the ball, the Lady Vols want to get it inside.
"We're going to stick to what we do best, and that's establishing our inside game," Caldwell said. "They run primarily a man-to-man defense. They have played some zone. They're not a pressing team, but not to say that they won't do that. Offensively we're going to make sure that we have great ball movement, that we cut and screen hard and pound the glass, give ourselves second and third opportunities to own the boards. You own the boards, you own the tempo of the game."
As far as key personnel Caldwell cited guard Lindsey Harding and fifth-year senior forward Monique Currie, who has her bachelor's degree – she's now completing a master's – and could have left for the WNBA, as two of the forces that drive Duke.
"They've got a lot of great weapons offensively with Monique Currie leading the way who's an exceptional player, defender and rebounder," Caldwell said. "She just has a go-at-you type attitude, which I think they can feed off of that. With Harding at the point I think she's done an exceptional job of being a scoring point guard for them and giving them options. She's one of those point guards that you've got to defend the three ball, and you've also got to defend the dribble drive because she can get to the basket. With that type of look you've got the shooters to accompany the penetration and the kick-out. So they've got a very balanced team and very balanced scoring, as well as we do. I think it's just going to be a battle to the defensive and board side of the game."
KEEP IT GOING: During Pat Summitt's weekly teleconference she was asked if she planned to extend the contract with Duke.
"Yes. We normally have done that with two-year contracts," Summitt said. "Gail is a friend in the profession. We have an understanding that we have a two-year contract and then we can start another one. I can't imagine them not wanting to play us or us not wanting to play them."
It was apparent from their media teleconferences that the two coaches respect each other and are good friends. Goestenkors was asked about Summitt collecting her 900th career win last week.
"It is astounding to me," Goestenkors said. " I just can't even, honestly, picture myself coaching in 900 games, much less 900 wins. It's just remarkable and especially against the level of competition she plays year in and year out. I just think it's phenomenal and I just have so much respect for her. It's unbelievable."