Lady Vols seek redemption against No. 1 Stanford
Tennessee believes it isn't far from the nation's top women's teams and that it will be just a matter of time before the Lady Vols close the gap.
''We're not there yet,'' Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. ''We're going to get there.''
The Lady Vols quickly get another chance to show how long it might take. Just four days after losing 76-53 at No. 3 Baylor, the 10th-ranked Lady Vols (7-2) return home Saturday to face No. 1 Stanford (10-0).
Tennessee seeks its first home victory over a top-ranked team since beating Louisiana Tech 77-72 on Jan. 22, 1996. Although Tennessee's record versus No. 1 teams is 6-6 on the road and 6-15 at neutral sites, the Lady Vols have won just two of their 12 all-time home games against top-ranked foes.
The Lady Vols must avoid the slow start that doomed them against Baylor.
Baylor raced to a 17-0 advantage Tuesday and led 41-16 at the intermission, the Lady Vols' largest halftime deficit in school history. Tennessee never had a chance against the defending national champions.
''That gave us a face-to-face confrontation with where we've got to get to and how we've got to close the gap,'' assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. ''There's a clear gap between our two teams. ... We went face to face with a real dragon. Now we see where we've got to go to slay it.''
Now comes an equally tough challenge.
Stanford defeated Baylor 71-69 on Nov. 16 at the Rainbow Wahine Classic and is coming off a 53-49 victory Wednesday at No. 21 South Carolina. After allowing Baylor's Brittney Griner and Brooklyn Pope to record double-doubles this week, Tennessee must face 6-foot-3 Stanford junior Chiney Ogwumike, who averages 21.9 points and 12.2 rebounds per game.
Tennessee's frontcourt could get a boost from the return of center Isabelle Harrison, who has 10 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Harrison missed the Baylor game with a sprained ankle, but Warlick said she was ''very, very optimistic'' the 6-3 sophomore would play against Stanford.
The Lady Vols would rather see the Baylor and Stanford games spread out on the schedule. They instead get back-to-back tests against a pair of Final Four contenders.
''I wouldn't prefer it this way, but we've just got to do what we've got to do,'' freshman forward Bashaara Graves said.
Tennessee's chances of winning depend on whether it can avoid the mistakes that sealed its fate against Baylor.
Although the Lady Vols headed into Baylor with a seven-game winning streak that included four victories over Top 25 opponents, none of those teams was ranked higher than 18th. Facing a top-10 team for the first time, the Lady Vols missed their first 11 shots and didn't score until the game was almost seven minutes old.
Tennessee's youth was apparent. Reserve guard Kamiko Williams, one of only two seniors on the roster, shot 7-of-13 and had 15 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and no turnovers. The rest of the team shot a combined 15-of-62 with one assist and 13 turnovers.
''We were trying to do a lot of one-on-one and shooting a lot of jump shots,'' Graves said. ''We weren't taking it to the hole and doing what we need to do.''
Although the Lady Vols shot just 29.3 percent against Baylor, Warlick has spent the last couple of days emphasizing defense and rebounding more than anything else.
''We let our offense affect our defense,'' Warlick said. ''As we shot the ball poorly, our defense was non-existent and we didn't rebound the basketball. This program is built on defense and rebounding. We did not do those things that have gotten us where we are right now.''
Tennessee is taking comfort in the fact that it played better late in the Baylor game and actually outscored the Lady Bears 37-35 in the second half. Stanford's close call against South Carolina also gives the Lady Vols reason for hope.
''It's just a chance for us to get a better taste in our mouth (after) Baylor,'' Warlick said. ''To compete and play at a level we need to play in front of our fans would be tremendous.''