Women's No. 1 vs. No. 2 with a twist

This time, Tennessee is the underdog when it takes on Connecticut

January 08, 2000|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- If ever a team were unfamiliar with the concept of underdog, you'd have to figure it would be the Tennessee women's basketball team.

The Lady Vols are the standard-bearers of their sport of the college game, with six national championship banners hanging from the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena.

But, heading into today's nationally televised showdown with No. 1 Connecticut here (Channel 13, 4 p.m.), the second-ranked Lady Vols are playing Avis to the Huskies' Hertz, and they don't seem to mind.

"It feels good. We've always been the top dog, and now we're the underdog. It's a different feeling, but it helps keep us motivated," said Tennessee forward Tamika Catchings. "But we are two great teams coming in here and playing against each other, and I'm sure we'll both come in and play our best."

It will likely take the Lady Vols (11-1) playing at their best to beat the Huskies (11-0), who have looked extraordinary.

Connecticut is shooting 53 percent from the field and an impressive 45 percent from three-point range. Four players are scoring in double figures, led by junior guard Shea Ralph, who is averaging 17.1 points in her first full healthy season.

In racing out to their fifth 10-0 start in the past six seasons, the Huskies are laying waste to ranked opponents, beating them by an average of 29 points.

In the most recent meeting with a ranked team, Connecticut shredded then-No. 3 Louisiana Tech, 90-63, on Sunday in Storrs, Conn. The Lady Techsters are the only team to beat Tennessee this season and were thought to be able to challenge the Huskies with their backcourt quickness.

But eight Connecticut three-pointers, including three from preseason All-American Svetlana Abrosimova, negated whatever speed advantage the Lady Techsters might have had.

"We're going to have our hands full, that's for sure," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt yesterday. "But I think we're ready for the challenge."

Even without two-time national Player of the Year Chamique Holdsclaw, who earned WNBA Rookie of the Year honors with the Washington Mystics, the Lady Vols aren't without some weapons.

Catchings, a 6-foot-1 junior and the consensus choice as preseason national Player of the Year, is having a fine season, leading the team in scoring (16.2) and rebounding (7.9), with support from fellow junior Semeka Randall, a guard and the team's best man-to-man defender.

Freshman Kara Lawson, one of the nation's most heralded recruits, has moved into the starting lineup and quickly become the third-leading scorer at 14.4 points per game. Lawson leads the team in three-point shooting, hitting 42 percent.

The Lady Vols have won the past three meetings with the Huskies, all by double digits, to even the series at four. And with another regular-season game scheduled at Connecticut in three weeks, today's game may serve as prologue to an NCAA tournament skirmish for significantly larger stakes.

"At the end of 40 or 45 or 50 minutes [today], we'll see what we've learned and take that to use up there next month," Summitt said. "And if, six weeks down the road, we see them again, we'll have more information to use. It should be interesting."

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