UT-UConn renew rivalry for the ages Saturday

HARTFORD, Conn. – The Tennessee-Connecticut game remains the premier matchup in women's college basketball, whether it's the regular season or postseason. The fans, the media and the coaching staffs spend a lot of time debating, talking, writing and scheming.

But it's the players that ultimately matter and Saturday's game will give quite a few on both rosters their first dip into the biggest rivalry pool in the sport.

For Tennessee, only four players on the nine-player roster – seniors Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding and juniors Alexis Hornbuckle and Nicky Anosike – have played in Hartford. Two more players, sophomores Candace Parker and Alex Fuller, made their debut in the series in Knoxville last season. They did travel to Hartford two years ago but watched from the bench because both were in rehab from knee surgeries. That at least gave them a bird's eye view of what to expect.

"Since I went my freshman year I've kind of already got a feel for it, but for me it's no different than going into anybody else's house and playing," Fuller said. "You can't look at them any differently than you look at any other team."

For Connecticut, six players on the 12-player roster have some game experience in this series with three of them, Renee Montgomery, Kalana Greene and Brittany Hunter, making their debut at Tennessee last year. Juniors Mel Thomas, Charde Houston and Ketia Swanier will be participating in their second game in this series at home.

Since there is not a senior on UConn's roster, no current player has been on a team that has beaten Tennessee. The Lady Vols' juniors and sophomores, on the other hand, haven't lost to UConn. Obviously the newcomers on both teams haven't yet had a chance to be tested.

Those newcomers for both squads are expected to play pivotal roles and their performance could very well affect the outcome Saturday afternoon.

For UConn, key freshmen Kaili McLaren and Tina Charles will log their first minutes in this heated rivalry. Three other freshmen, Jacquie Fernandes, Meghan Gardler and Cassie Kerns, are reserves and will be getting their first up-close look at the intensity of the series.

For Tennessee, juniors Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste, who came to Tennessee via the junior college ranks, and freshman point guard Cait McMahan will see their first action in the rivalry. Fellow freshman Nicci Moats remains away from the team for personal reasons and is expected to return next week. Walk-on senior Elizabeth Curry was in Hartford two years ago as a team manager so she will be seeing this game for the first time as a player.

Bobbitt will be thrown into the fire first for Tennessee since she starts at point guard for the Lady Vols.

"It's kind of a new era for both teams," Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said Friday.

That new era tips off Saturday at 4 p.m. Eastern (CBS, Lady Vol Radio Network) at the Hartford Civic Center before a national television audience and what is expected to be a packed house. Capacity at the downtown center is 16,294. Tennessee (13-1, 1-0) is ranked No. 4; Connecticut (12-0, 2-0) is ranked No. 5.

The series needs no hype, but there is plenty leading up to the game with national press coverage. It doesn't matter that's in January, and both teams will be back at practice in the days after the game. The series has become a defining moment for the women's basketball season.

"If you look at the rivalry and the stage that we've been on since we started playing, it has been year-in and year-out the one game that has brought more viewers to sit and watch," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "It has generated a rivalry that is known throughout the country. It is a matchup between two powerhouse programs that have been consistent over the years. It is good for women's basketball. There is no question that it has meant a lot to the game in terms of exposure and that national platform."

Summitt's team arrived in Hartford on Thursday and practiced at a local college on Friday. Auriemma's team practiced at home in Storrs. The Civic Center wasn't available because of a minor league hockey game scheduled for Friday evening, but the Tennessee team does have the option of holding a shoot-around Saturday at the center.

The temperatures are expected to be in the 60s on game day and as the Lady Vol players left for dinner Friday evening from the downtown team hotel, they were dressed in warm-weather attire rather than the snow boots and parkas that Hartford usually requires at this time of year. In fact the front page of Friday's Hartford Courant was titled: "Where's Winter?" It's doubtful Tennessee's players and staff miss it. Hartford feels more like home this weekend.

Summitt is expected to stick with her starters: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (7.5 points per game, 1.3 rebounds per game, 3.7 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (9.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.4 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior guard, No. 1 (11.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg); Candace Parker 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (19.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (8.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg).

UConn's probable starters are: Renee Montgomery, 5'7 sophomore guard, No. 20 (13.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg), team leader in steals with 31, played high school basketball with Alexis Hornbuckle in West Virginia, was Big East Freshman of the Year last season; Mel Thomas, 5'9 junior guard, No. 25 (11.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg), ranks first in Big East with 28 three-pointers, has 130 career treys, former Husky Nykesha Sales is 10th all-time for UConn with 134, was Big East Most Improved Player last season; Charde Houston, 6'1 junior forward, No. 24 (11.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg), leads the Big East in field goal percentage at 61.0 percent, scored in double figures in seven games this season; Kalana Greene, 5'10 sophomore forward, No. 32 (11.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg), played in 35 games as a freshman, can slash and create scoring opportunities for herself; and Tina Charles, 6'4 freshman center, No. 31 (10.5 ppg, 8.1 rpg), consensus national high school player of the year at Christ the King High School in Jamaica, N.Y. (same school attended by Chamique Holdsclaw and Sue Bird), had 13 points and 12 boards in the 63-44 win over West Virginia this week.

Key reserve Brittany Hunter, a 6'3 sophomore forward/center, was able to practice this week for the first time since injuring her knee Dec. 23. She is expected to be available for Saturday's game. Also expected to come off the bench is freshman Kaili McLaren, a 6'2 forward, who is averaging 15.0 minutes a game with 5.5 ppg and 4.4 rpg.

During Auriemma's Friday teleconference with the media he said the biggest challenge for the Huskies would be trying to guard Parker. There have been Internet and media speculation recently that Parker could consider going pro after this season – Parker has said her focus is this year and this team and she pays no heed to the rumors – so Auriemma jokingly encouraged the jump.

"Candace Parker is an impossible matchup," Auriemma said. "I'm hoping it happens tomorrow before four o'clock."

In last year's game Spencer was the difference with six boards and 21 points – she was 5-5 behind the arc for the game and 4-4 from the line in the final two minutes. Parker fouled out with 13 points and one board. Hornbuckle nearly had a triple double – 14 boards, 10 points and nine assists – in a game in which Auriemma said she single-handedly outplayed his backcourt.

This year, UConn's guards have another year of experience and are on their home floor. Also, Parker has a year of college basketball behind her and is completely recovered from the knee surgery that cost her a season two years ago. She emerged last season as Tennessee's go-to player and was named a Kodak/WBCA All-American. She also earned the SEC's freshman of the year award and was selected the SEC tourney's most valuable player.

"There just isn't anyone who I think is as long and athletic," Auriemma said. "She's able to get her shot pretty much whenever she wants. We're going to guard her the way they guarded Diana Taurasi. Probably not very well."

Auriemma said his strategy was to assign a defender to Parker that he could afford to have foul out of the game.

"We've got our work cut out for us," he said.

The object of this attention is taking it in stride. Parker is just a sophomore, and she has never played in the series on UConn's home floor, but she is well versed in the history.

"I'm really excited about the UConn game," Parker said. "You get up for all the games. I was up for the North Carolina. Against great competition, especially with the history we've had against them, it's huge for us. We know that it's going to be a hostile crowd, hostile environment. I remember watching UConn game back to when Rebecca Lobo was playing. It's great, it's exciting and I hope we bring our defense and rebounding because that's definitely the most important."

Bobbitt will be getting her first action ever in this series, and it amounts to a homecoming game almost for the New York native, who was born in the Bronx and played at Murry Bergtraum High School in Manhattan. Bobbitt's parents, Anthony and Linda Bobbitt, and her six siblings, Anthony Jr., 28, Tyrone, 26, Stevie, 25, Eugene, 23, Shareese 22, and Christopher, 12, will be at the game and will see her for the first time as a Lady Vol.

"They are all coming," Bobbitt said. "They're excited about the game. They're going to come to the game and record it at home."

Homecoming games can sometimes put too much pressure on a player to perform well, but Bobbitt said not to worry.

"I'm just myself," she said. "I don't change it when my parents come. I try to be myself because if you tend to change up your game and you don't play like yourself, you won't play well, and I know we really need to win this game."

Auriemma said for his team to prevail Saturday the guard play must be stellar – take care of the ball, hit shots, play defense and have poise.

"I would say our guards collectively just had a great, great game," Auriemma said when asked what had to happen for UConn to win.

Guard play is also key for Tennessee. Hornbuckle stepped into the point guard position last season. Now she can move to the wing and let Bobbitt run the offense. Hornbuckle will provide a calm voice, if needed, and will offer pregame advice to Bobbitt.

"Tune in to what we're doing," Hornbuckle said. "Don't worry about the crowd, don't worry about the student section, the fans, the bands and all that. You're going to hear some crazy stuff. If we start to get on a run they're going to try to make noise and throw us off. Work on Tennessee basketball. Concentrate on what we're doing. Get us in the play. If you're ever confused or anxious just come to us."

Hornbuckle cited the steadying influence of Shyra Ely and Loree Moore when she played in Hartford as a freshman in a game that Tennessee won, 68-67, to stop a six-game losing streak to UConn. Tennessee also won last year's game in Knoxville, 89-80.

"I think that was a big part of my freshman year," Hornbuckle said. "Loree and Shyra, they did a great job when I was on the floor and just saying, ‘It's basketball. Just calm down and play basketball. Don't even worry about anything else.' "

As far as nerves for the veterans, Hornbuckle said the team is placed in so many challenging environments that this one weaves seamlessly into the others.

"You get used to it because coach does a great job of scheduling postseason atmosphere and places," Hornbuckle said. "I think that works to our advantage – going there, going to North Carolina. So it's just like being in the postseason atmosphere, and I think that will help out Shannon and Bird and Cait, as well as anyone else who hasn't played up there."

Even one of the newcomers cited the schedule as a reason to not get too uptight about this game.

"I know I'm just going to be myself and play 100 percent and give it all I've got so that way if things don't go well I can look in the mirror at myself and say I gave it my all," Bobbitt said. "North Carolina also was a tough game for me and I went in there just enjoying it, and I felt like we didn't get over that hump any chance we had so we're going to definitely prep ourselves better than we did at North Carolina and do things that we didn't do at North Carolina."

Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said the team had an excellent practice Friday and was focused on the task at hand.

"Our kids were very focused today, more so than they have been in the past couple of games, which is a good thing because I think they're excited," Warlick said Friday evening. "We tend to play to the level of our competition – (up for big games such as UConn, less intensity for lesser opponents) and that's not good, but they're pretty focused. I think they're going to be fine."

That also is likely a result of the schedule. A lot of Tennessee's games are against ranked or respectable opponents. An opponent that is not as challenging can distract the team, which – because of all the newcomers, some 40 percent of the roster – hasn't quite grasped how other teams get up to play Tennessee.

"I think this is a team that has been challenged with our schedule from time to time," Summitt said Friday during her teleconference. "In particular we've benefited from going on the road. We have been to Arizona State, Texas, Old Dominion, and North Carolina. Certainly this trip to Connecticut will be a big test for our basketball team. It will be a postseason environment. It is always good to test our team early and see where they are."

Tennessee has been able to summon intensity. The elevated play of Parker of late is only part of the reason.

"I don't think it's just Candace," Summitt said. "Candace obviously has a strong impact. I think Alexis and Candace and Shannon – look at that Old Dominion game. The three of them just said, ‘No. We're not going to lose. It's not going to happen.' The development of Alex. And Nicky. She's very strong-willed and competitive. When I think of this team those people come to mind as providing attitude and the edge."

Parker set the tone offensively and defensively against Notre Dame (five blocks) and Alabama (five steals). Summitt had been asking her to not take off possessions, and Parker listened. In Parker's defense she has nursed some nagging injuries this season to her ankle and back. But Summitt kept saying she couldn't wait to see Parker at full throttle.

"I've been waiting to see Candace bring it on both ends of the floor," Summitt said. "I felt like after the (Notre Dame) game and watching and re-watching the tape she is clearly one of the hardest workers. That's great news for all of us because she inspires other people. When she plays defensively like she's playing and gets on the boards, it's not like people are standing around and watching her play. I think she inspires other people to play at that level.

"I think Alexis has that same impact on the perimeter. When she comes to the top of the press and picking up the ball, everybody else picks up their defense. Having players that have that energy and that level of commitment is very important to the personality of our team. She plays hard. She makes a lot of things happen."

Parker and Hornbuckle are also connecting on the court offensively as evidenced by the assorted alley-oops that Hornbuckle has lofted to Parker, who scores the bucket with one catch-and-shoot motion. Hornbuckle said she will see the opportunity, but won't always take a chance if she can ill afford a turnover.

"It depends on how many turnovers I have," Hornbuckle said. "I feel like I have too many turnovers (33) on the year already, but a lot of times I see it but if I already have one or two turnovers I won't throw it. In the second half I feel like start over new and see what the defense is going to give us. A lot of times I see the opening, I see the lob … but I'm not going to take a chance. Second half against Notre Dame we needed something to kind of get us going. She called for it, and I just threw it up.

"I want her to dunk it. I can shoot an alley-oop. I'm just playing (but) I want her to really try to throw one down, though. That's going to come with confidence and obviously we don't want her to get taken out. It is a pretty play. Two points is two points. Make it look better, get on SportsCenter, it's still two points."

Parker let out a long chuckle when told of Hornbuckle's aspirations for her to dunk in that situation, but she is comfortable with the play as is.

"Honestly we played together for a year last year, and we're going on a year and a half," Parker said. "I guess we just connect."

Bobbitt sometimes seems in awe of what Parker can do in the open floor. Against Notre Dame, Parker went the length of the court, cut into the lane, went up for a shot, switched hands and laid in the ball while drawing the foul.

Bobbitt walked over to Parker and stared at her.

"I just looked at her," Bobbitt said. "That was just a statement telling her: Good job, way to take it. They can't guard you.' "

Summitt lets the players show some flash – Parker has now dunked five times in her relatively short Tennessee career – but she is also seeing some fundamental changes in Parker's game.

"I think she's understanding what she has to do," Summitt said. "She obviously knows what she's capable of doing and just not taking possessions off. That's important for our entire team. We talk about that a lot. With us pressing like we are and running, it's glaring when someone does. It doesn't matter who it is."

Parker views the change as merely a matter of time. She and her teammates are simply getting on the same page.

"Since North Carolina we've had a bunch of games under our belt," Parker said. "We recognize that defense and rebounding are really important. We're a lot better half-court offensive team. I just feel like we've had more practices; we've played together longer."

Bobbitt and McMahan are first-year point guards on a team that is otherwise veteran-laden in the starting lineup. That combination is tailor made for requiring some time.

"Every day at practice I'm getting comfortable, every game I'm getting comfortable, knowing player personnel, knowing what they like to do, what they don't like, putting them in the best position where they can just score easily, learning every day with them," Bobbitt said.

"I learned a lot from when I first came. Pat told me how to read defense, take what the defense gives you, be comfortable, how important defense really is at this level and just playing aggressive. Having heart basically is everything. You have to commit to everything and be dedicated. I'm definitely maturing in that way and that aspect, and I'm enjoying it. I'm learning every day."

Bobbitt readily agreed that was much easier said than done.

"Definitely," she said. "You can't just say you're going to go out there and do it and then don't do it. You've got to be about it and don't say much about it. That's why when we get ready for games I'm kind of quiet, humble. I don't get all excited and screaming because that's not me. I just play my best."

Bobbitt and Auguste also are appreciative of the way they are treated at Tennessee. Both players have mentioned the abundance of shoes and gear, the first-class hotels and the chartered flights. Bobbitt said that while playing at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas the team traveled by minivans, including to a game in Florida.

"Everything," Bobbitt said of what she liked about being at Tennessee. "I enjoy everything. I enjoy every moment of it. They treat you first-class. They treat you real good."

But she added with a smile, "You've just got to win."

Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said the development of Bobbitt, especially for this game, is "absolutely huge."

"Because we're going to see pressure and you're going to have an environment like you just described (North Carolina x 10) and your point guard is pivotal," Lockwood said. "The point guard is the tone setter and is the barometer for your team. If the point guard's rattled and shaky, you're going to have two or three players on the floor who will be rattled and shaky. I think that is such a big job for Shannon going into that. It's going to be certainly a great testing ground for her, but it's going to be a great responsibility for her as a point guard just to steady us, to get us into what we want to get into and not be rattled by the pressure and the environment."

Bobbitt will have two proven performers on the floor with her in Hornbuckle and Parker. Combine that with Spencer's shooting performance the last time the teams met and Anosike's overall intensity and Tennessee at least won't have to worry about not being sufficiently excited for this game. Hornbuckle knows there will be a bounce in her step.

"I think it does," Hornbuckle said. "The past two years statistically that's been my best two games I feel all-around. It's just the UConn-UT rivalry that you grew up knowing about and wanted to be a part of. You kind of want to make a statement in that game."

Hornbuckle, who broke her right wrist last February, is still developing a consistent jump shot, but she has already added some confidence and that's a crucial step for a shooter.

"I feel more confident," Hornbuckle said. "I'm kind of taking the jump shot more than I am driving. I'm like, ‘Man, did I forget how to take it to the hole?' I don't think I've been to the free throw line in a couple of games. But you've got to take what the defense gives you. I worked so hard in the off-season getting my wrist back, getting my shooting back and I'm going to take what they give me.

"It's usually still the same scouting report every now and then minus the ODU game. That was the first time I had seen someone deny me all the way, and I was, ‘Maybe they forgot.' And it went on the whole game so I said maybe it's not a mistake. I'm happy that I put in work, and it's starting to pay off."

Parker views this game as a gauge for where the team is midway through the regular season. The North Carolina game exposed some early season issues, mainly defense and board play. This game will address how much that has been corrected.

"Every game is a gauge of how our team is responding to what we need to improve on," Parker said. "I think we learn a lot. Obviously we want to learn from winning, but I think we learned a lot from our loss to North Carolina as well. I don't think that (the outcome of the UT-UConn game) will be a telltale sign of where we will end up in the season, but I think it will be a measuring stick of what we need to improve on. That's what UConn-Tennessee does. They put it in an NCAA environment, (but) it's midseason so both teams are going to practice the next day. It's not like the winner goes home (for the season). But as a competitor you definitely want to win."

SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Connecticut game. Here is her assessment.

When UConn has the ball: "They want to score quickly on fast transition. I think that's key for us to make sure we don't give them transition baskets, easy baskets, because we want to try to get them into the half-court game. They run a lot of stuff we run. They're going to run stagger screens to get the shooters open. They're going to penetrate; they're going to go inside against us. I sound like a broken record, but we can't give them second-chance points. If we limit them to one shot then we feel like we're in business. They rely heavily on transition baskets and putbacks on the offensive end.

"We've just got to clean it up on the defensive end. We've worked all week on it. We've stressed it. Hopefully it's going to sink in."

When Tennessee has the ball: "They run a lot more zone (defense) than they have in the past and their zone is very, very active. It's very good. They're very physical on the defensive end. I think key for us is taking care of the ball, not taking quick shots, making them have to play defense, ball movement, player movement. We've really worked on that this week. They're quick, they're good on the ball, they're very physical inside. We've just got to make sure we move people and make them work."

Post defense and rebounding are the buzzwords for Tennessee this season. After the win over Alabama this week, Summitt said the board play was better, but Tennessee still has a lot of room for improvement. Post defense has been sporadic at times.

"It's not that we haven't played post defense," Summitt said after the Alabama game with a nod to the upcoming game with UConn. "I don't think we've been as physical as some Tennessee teams in the past. But I think this team understands what they've got to do, and I think they'll bring it, and I think they'll be ready to play physical and know it's going to be aggressive and know it's going to be a tough battle. That's why we schedule the way we schedule."

Tennessee's schedule is often cited by the players – they prefer it – and the coaches, who mention it to explain why the Lady Vols, even the newcomers, shouldn't be overwhelmed in a road game of this magnitude.

"I think our schedule has allowed them to play in this environment," Warlick said. "Had we not played the schedule we played and then come into this environment then I'd be a little concerned. I just think we've prepared for it. That's one of the reasons we play the schedule we play is preparation. It puts Bobbitt and Cait and our younger kids in a situation that they've already been in."

ON TAP: One other SEC team is in action Saturday with Kentucky at Ohio State in a game that also will be aired on CBS (noon). On Sunday, eight SEC teams square off: Auburn at Alabama; Mississippi State at Arkansas; Georgia at LSU; and Vanderbilt at Ole Miss. On Monday, South Carolina plays at Stanford.

ODDS AND ENDS: Connecticut leads the series with Tennessee, 13-8. … Tennessee is 7-1 in games played on Jan. 6. The sole loss was to UConn, 59-53, in 1996. The last two wins over Connecticut were on Jan. 7, 2006, and Jan. 8, 2005. … Perhaps the Lady Vols rebounding numbers – a subterranean by UT standards +4.4 margin – could be explained in part by their shots this season. One-fourth of Tennessee's makes and attempts have come from three-point range: 86-206 three-pointers and 394-814 for all shots. Treys tend to have long caroms; however Pat Summitt is primarily concerned about the defensive board play at this point in this season. … In the 21 previous meetings of the two titans of women's basketball both teams have been ranked in the top 10 for every matchup except 2005, when UConn was No. 15 AP and No. 14 in the coaches' poll. … The Lady Vols have fared better on the road in Storrs on UConn's home court at Gampel Pavilion with a record of 2-1. The Lady Vols are 1-3 in Hartford. … The most points Tennessee has scored in the series is 92 in 1999 and 2001; the fewest points was 52 in 2000. … This series has been watched by some 389,548 fans at various home and neutral sites since 1995. The Lady Vols Media Relations office calculated the economic impact in ticket sales at about $1.75 million based on average regular season ticket prices and the cost of the Final Four ducats. Last season, paid attendance for the game in Knoxville was 24,653, the largest ever in Thompson-Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee campus.

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