The big news this week was the return of stalwart Lisa Leslie to the national team. She had missed international play because of a paralyzing injury to her uncle in a car accident and then she gave birth to her daughter, Lauren, on June 25.
"I'm really excited to have Lisa Leslie back with us," Anne Donovan said. "I can't even tell you how much she has been missed by the national team program – obviously her talent and what she brings to the team both offensively and defensively, her presence, her leadership and her experience. It's just really great to have her back on the court with us."
Bird and Taurasi were both asked about the opportunity to play at Storrs against their alma mater and on their rival's home floor in Knoxville. Tennessee is represented on the national team by guards Kara Lawson and Loree Moore.
"I'm looking forward to it," Bird said. "D, myself, Kara Lawson and Loree Moore were joking that it will be the last time that a UConn player will be at Tennessee and Tennessee players will be at UConn. We're definitely going to try to represent for old time's sake."
Sunday's game will be the first time the Lady Vols will play in the renovated Thompson-Boling Arena, which now has luxury suites, a center scoreboard, black ceiling and black seats. The orange remains, but it's now part of the trim.
"I heard their arena is not orange anymore so I'm kind of disappointed about that," Bird said. "They're a great team. Obviously they have Candace Parker, they're trying to defend their national title and so the game will definitely be a grudge match, just like old times."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, who is aware of the animosity between the two programs and the inflammatory reactions to her decision to end the series, has asked Lady Vol fans to respect the USA uniforms and not to boo any player who steps on the floor at the arena.
"That's a very nice gesture. It just shows what kind of person Coach Summitt is," Taurasi said. "No matter how many times you've played against her whether you were in a Connecticut jersey or LSU, no matter what rivalry with Tennessee, you really respect what she's done as a coach and what she's done for women's basketball over the years. That just shows so much respect that she has for the USA national team, which she played for and has been on coaching staffs. That means a lot."
Taurasi joked that "I would actually like them to boo us a little bit. That would be kind of fun."
Taurasi also joked that the USA team would trade the red, white and blue look for UConn uniforms for the game in Knoxville.
"We petitioned USA basketball," Taurasi said. "That's something we're still waiting on to see what the final verdict is."
She added, on a serious note, "We're over it. We're going to play USA basketball. We're not worried about anything else. It was a great rivalry, it ended, it's over, it's in the past now."
Taurasi had plenty of good things to say about Candace Parker, the Lady Vol junior forward who has played with the senior national team and helped lead the United States to victory last month in Chile to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Parker will line up against her former USA teammates on Sunday.
"Anyone who has been on the court with Candace can say she is the best player in college hands down," Taurasi said. "I don't know if anyone comes close to her. That's how talented she is and how good she is already."
Taurasi, who won three national titles at UConn, was asked how a player remains motivated after winning a championship and facing the challenge of repeating.
"I've been around Candace for a long time," Taurasi said. "She's a very motivated and driven person that I don't see her getting bored anytime soon. I know she still has a lot to prove to herself. She's a winner; she's a competitor. Every time she steps on the court she shows that fire and passion."
Taurasi added that the head coach plays a significant role in making sure a talented player stays focused.
"I think that's where coaches come into play, especially in college where you spend so much time with them," Taurasi said. "I'm sure Sue can attest to this, too. He (Geno Auriemma) made practice a living hell every single day to make you a better player. For the most part in college you have about 22 cupcake games and those aren't going to prepare you. Every single day in practice he made sure to challenge you and to test you, and I'm sure Coach Summitt does the same thing."
Playing the USA national team to open up the season, even if it is an exhibition game, has been a source of motivation for the Lady Vols in practice this month. It is unlikely that the USA team will lose a game on its eight-team tour – the two previous tours in 1995 and 1999 produced a record of 31-1 – but that one loss came in 1999 to Tennessee, which Donovan noted after asking Leslie for the year it happened.
Donovan was asked if the USA team could lose on this tour or if that was an absurd notion.
"I'd like to say it's an absurd notion, but we all know that's not the case," Donovan said. "It's been done before. They've (the college teams) been preparing for four weeks. They've had more time to get things in and prepare for their season. … We're working hard to try to get the pieces to fit together and get everybody on the same page."
The national team is also happy to be stateside after spending the fall in Chile and in Russia.
"I'm really excited that we are getting ready to start a tour in the U.S.," Donovan said. "We've been spending so much time recently overseas that I think all of us are excited to be playing in the U.S. and have this domestic trip ahead of us. We're playing most of the top college teams so we know that we're going to be facing some good competition. I think it's a great opportunity for fans in the U.S. to get to see our stars playing here against some of the top young stars that are in college currently."
One of the top draws of the USA team is the return of the 35-year-old Leslie, a three-time Gold Medal winner at the Olympics in 1996, 2000 and 2004. Donovan welcomes her back as much for Leslie's defensive presence as her international experience.
"We've been trying to plug those holes but there's nothing like experience, presence and dominance, which Lisa brings back to the table for us," Donovan said.
The USA roster would have included forward Tamika Catchings, a former Lady Vol, but she ruptured an Achilles tendon in the WNBA playoffs and is undergoing rehab with the hopes of being able to play next summer in Beijing.
"We are all praying for Catch every day and hoping that she gets back to where she can participate and be healthy on the court again," Donovan said.
Catchings' absence weakened the team defensively and "her energy, her tenaciousness that just doesn't go away in the course of a game – we miss that," Donovan said. "I was so pleased in Chile with the remarkable improvement of this team defensively. You could see the vast difference from when we started that tournament (and) five games later.
"Now that we have Lisa back in the mix we can start to put more of the pieces together. I know Catch is a big part of that. We are all praying she is going to make it back and be a part of it, but I think these players have really taken it upon themselves to make the improvements at that end of the floor that we knew we had to make."
Leslie had to come back from pregnancy and childbirth, a process complicated by the fact that Lauren was breeched, and Leslie underwent a Caesarean section.
"That's a long story," Leslie said when asked how she got back in basketball shape. "But the short version would be I worked out a little bit my first trimester. My second trimester I was not able to work out at all. My third trimester I was cleared to start doing light workouts. Because she was breeched I had a C-section so I wasn't allowed to work out for another six weeks.
"After that six weeks I started slowly walking, running and then sprinting. Basically I've been listening to my body and taking it one step at a time. It's been quite difficult at times because your hips move, and you have to wait for them to kind of move back. At times I feel little weaknesses. … I love the challenge of trying to get back and get better."
Leslie, considered the veteran of the USA squad, is leaning on her teammates to help get her up to speed.
"It's been awesome for me this whole whirlwind of making the transition from having Lauren and now stepping back on the floor," Leslie said. "It's exciting to see how far USA basketball has come and as a veteran and one of the older players I'm really looking to Sue and Diana. They've given me so much more confidence and are really helping me along with the plays.
"It's definitely different. I feel different, but I'm really excited to put back on the red, white and blue and represent our country. For me it's taking baby steps and hopefully I'll get back to where I left off. The big picture is it's all about winning gold, and I'm really prepared to put the time in in order for us to get back to where we belong and that's standing on the podium in Beijing and getting us another gold medal placed around our neck."