By CURT RALLO
South Bend Tribune
12:02 PM EST, January 28, 2013
Having passed its toughest road test of the season to date -- a 73-72 victory against then-No. 1 Connecticut on the Huskies on-campus arena -- the Notre Dame womens basketball team faces another extreme challenge -- playing on perennial national power Tennessees home court.
And the game will be seen in front of a primetime audience as No. 2 Notre Dame (18-1) faces No. 9 Tennessee (16-3) at 7 p.m. Monday night on ESPN2.
Tennessee owns a 20-2 lead in the series against the Irish, but the Volunteers are stinging after losing the last two to ND.
Notre Dame beat Tennessee, 73-59, in the Dayton Regional final to advance to the 2011 Final Four. That victory ended a 25-game Tennessee winning streak.
Last season, the Irish inflicted the worst defeat the Volunteers ever suffered under coach Pat Summitt, a crushing 72-44 loss at Notre Dame.
In the first win, in the NCAA Tournament, we were the underdog and played a game where we were loose, said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. We had a lot of fun. We came out and attacked. We were aggressive offensively and played really well defensively.
Last year, we just had a phenomenal game. I think they were not in the same place as they were the year before. They were a little more unsure than they had been in the past. We were able to beat them at our place. But now, we have two completely different teams. We cant draw from anything that happened in the past.
Tennessee started off this season with a stunning 80-71 loss to Tennessee-Chattanooga, but since then, the Volunteers have been rapidly improving. Their other losses were to No. 1 Baylor (76-53), and Stanford (73-60), which was ranked No. 1 at the time.
The Volunteers are the only team in the Southeastern Conference without a league loss (7-0).
I wondered what kind of year it would be for them, coming into the season with a new coach and a new team, McGraw said. For them, you lose one or two games, its considered a shaky start, but theyve really righted the ship, and (first-year head coach Holly Warlick) has done a wonderful job.
Tennessee will be charged with emotion for the game. Not only will the Volunteers be remembering their last two meetings with the Irish, but 21,678 passionate fans will be on hand at Thompson-Boling Arena to honor Summitt.
Its a tough place to play, McGraw said. Thats going to be a big night for them, because theyre unveiling a big banner for Pat. Theres going to be a ceremony before the game. The crowd will be excited. The players will feel like they have something to prove. That makes it even a bigger game. Were excited that we get to be there for Pats night. Its a great moment in womens basketball history.
According to McGraw, the Irish and Volunteers have very different teams from last season.
We have the mindset that this is a great opportunity for us, she said. Were playing a top-10 team on the road. Theyre probably thinking the same thing. Its a great opportunity for them to get better.
Returning from last seasons matchup, though, are two of the top guards in the nation, Notre Dames Skylar Diggins and Tennessees Meighan Simmons.
Simmons leads Tennessee with 17.6 points a game and has 41 assists and 31 steals to her credit.
Diggins averages 15.5 points and has 107 assists and 57 steals.
Simmons is really playing well, McGraw said. Shes a huge factor in their success. Shes scoring a ton of points and shooting really well from the 3-point line. Shes playing phenomenally. The matchup between Simmons and Skylar is going to be really exciting.
Simmons is so fast and so hard to guard. Its a matchup between two really good players.
Diggins is looking forward to playing against Simmons.
Simmons is super, super fast, said Diggins, who scored 27 points against Tennessee last season. She can score in a variety of ways, shes a very emotional player and she can score in bunches. Its going to be a team job to know where she is, because she has a quick release on her shot and we have to find her in transition as well.
We just have to play our game and rebound. She definitely makes their team go, so we have to make sure we do our job on her; and it starts with me.
Rutgers has played both Notre Dame and Tennessee this season. The Scarlet Knights lost to the Irish, 71-46, and fell to Tennessee, 66-47. Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer sees a close battle between the top-10 teams.
It will be like a chess game, Stringer said. I say that because Notre Dame executes better, but I do think that the kind of pressure that Tennessee can apply, because they will trap you and eyes start to get big.
If (the Irish are) just calm, then I think they can prevail, because they hit enough of those shots, and Skylar doing what she does so well, as well as the rest of these people, it will make a difference. But they will feel pressure, not like the Connecticut game. Tennessee pressure is different, because its trapping, its switching, its doing all those other kind of things. Im sure Muffet will have them well-prepared. Theres something about a Notre Dame team that seems to be very calm and they are deliberate in what they do.
Staff writer Curt Rallo
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