Women's Hoops: Vanderbilt - Connecticut Preview

In a premier early season matchup, the #3 Vanderbilt Commodores will take on the #1 Connecticut Huskies in the championship game of the Women's NIT Sunday afternoon in Gampel Arena in Storrs, Connecticut.

Vandy and Connecticut last met in the Elite 8 in the NCAA tournament in 1996, when the Huskies advanced to the Final Four by knocking off the Commodores 67-57.

Since then, the stories of the two teams have been very different. Connecticut has maintained its position as one of the elite teams in the country, finishing in the Sweet 16 once, in the Elite 8 twice, in the Final Four twice, and as national champions once.

Vanderbilt hasn't been so fortunate. In 1997, the Commodores failed to earn the right to host a subregional for the first time in Jim Foster's tenure as coach, but still made it to the Sweet 16. The following year, Vandy suffered their worst single game loss in history, losing 106-45 to Tennessee in the SEC tournament. Adding insult to injury, the Commodores were stunned in the first round of the NCAA tournament by UC Santa Barbara. Bad turned to worse, and in 1998-99, Vandy had a losing season for the first time since 1982-83 and missed post-season play altogether.

Katie Janky, who now does color commentary for the Vanderbilt games, was a senior during that losing season. "It was a nightmare for many reasons," she says now. "It's your senior year. You always dream about always doing your best your senior year. You play for Coach Foster and you want to do well, not only for your teammates, but also for him. So having a losing season, the first one he'd had in 18 years, the first losing season at Vanderbilt in a long time . . . The list went on. We just stopped reading it after a while because, because you already feel bad enough. You realize you're a direct reflection on the coach.

"So you go from being in Elite 8 your freshman year, being able to try on Final Four rings and all this other stuff to not even going to post-season play, being able to go home on spring break, not even making the NIT, " Janky says. "That's quite a wide breadth of experience there. It was a huge letdown, a huge frustration. But I also know, I really hope, some foundation was laid."

Part of that foundation was helping two freshmen -- Zuzi Klimesova and Jillian Danker -- to adjust to life and basketball at the college level. "We helped recruit Jillian and Zuzi," Janky said. "Jillian stayed with us the year before her freshman year and she played with us. She ran with us. She got to see what we were like during the summer before her freshman year, and I've always been real close with Zuzi."

After that losing season, Vanderbilt began the long climb back. 6'6 center Chantelle Anderson and 5'6 point guard Ashley McElhiney arrived in the fall of 1999. By the middle of the SEC, McElhiney had claimed the starting point guard position and led Vanderbilt back to an NCAA tournament appearance. On national television, in the first game, the Commodores defeated the Kansas Jayhawks in double-overtime in the longest-ever NCAA tournament game. In the second round, the young Commodores took legendary women's basketball power Louisiana Tech to the wire on their home court before losing 66-65 on a pair of free throws

Following that tournament appearance, Vanderbilt started the 2000-2001 ranked at #20, their first Top 25 ranking since falling out of the rankings in December of 1998. By the end of the season, capped by a return to the NCAA Elite 8, the young team had once again put Vandy among the elite in women's college basketball.

"I enjoyed watching them play because they worked so hard from front to back," says Janky. "The whole team worked hard. I think I enjoyed that most of all. . . They did all the small things it takes to win. That was the most exciting. It was just an honor to be involved with the program. It still is. It's just exciting to watch - it's fun to watch them."

Sunday afternoon's game against #1 UConn gives the Commodores a chance to see how far they've come in three years -- and how much further they need to go.

"It's just very exciting to get the chance to play against them," says Zuzi Klimesova, now a senior. "We have made such progress since my freshman year. Playing such a big team in my senior year, it's just going to be another test for our program -- how far do we need to go to become a program at such a level."

Chantelle Anderson agrees. "I think it's a good test for us -- a good measuring stick," she said after Vandy's win Thursday night. "We're going to play a very good basketball team. It'll be good to see where we are -- see things we need to work on, things we're good at. It'll be good for us."

Gametime is 4 p.m. CT. The game will be televised on the Oxygen Network and on Comcast Sports Southeast. Vanderbilt's Flagship Station for Women's Basketball WNSR-560 AM will carry the game on the radio, and the Internet broadcast can be reached through the Vanderbilt website.



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