January 10, 2010 12:06:00 AM
History will be made today at Humphrey Coliseum.
For the first time in her coaching career, Pat Summitt will bring a senior-less University of Tennessee women''s basketball team to Starkville.
Mississippi State hopes it will be able to make a different kind of history when it takes on No. 4 Tennessee (13-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) at 1 p.m. today (SEC Network).
The Lady Bulldogs (11-4, 2-0) are the only team in the SEC that hasn''t defeated the Lady Volunteers. Eight-time NCAA champion Tennessee leads the all-time series 30-0.
That streak, MSU''s three-game winning streak, and its 10-game home winning streak also will be on the line as the Lady Bulldogs try to go 3-0 in the SEC for the first time in school history.
"We''re playing a very good basketball team that I am sure has a lot of motivation this year," MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "We have to be the best team we can possibly be to find a way to win. We have to play hard, to play smart, to play together, and we have to take it at them from the moment we step on the floor."
Fanning-Otis said the Lady Bulldogs will need to play with that mind-set, especially when it comes to defense and rebounding.
MSU started only one player -- 6-foot-5 senior center Chanel Mokango -- who is 6-foot or taller in a 90-76 victory against No. 17 Vanderbilt on Thursday. The Lady Bulldogs recovered from a slow start that saw them allow Vanderbilt to score its first 20 points on layups or shots from the paint and held the Lady Commodores to 35.3 percent shooting in the second half.
MSU also outrebounded a smaller Vanderbilt team 43-31. It will face a much bigger team in Tennessee. Ten of the 13 players on the Lady Volunteers'' players are 6-foot or taller.
"Not only do they have great size, but two or three players who played prominent roles and a lot of minutes last year are coming off the bench," Fanning-Otis said. "Their top 10 are as big as (coach Summitt) has been."
Fanning-Otis said the key for MSU will be to play solid team defense and to box out whether the player in orange is 5-2, 5-10, or 6-6.
"We have to stop transition, contain penetration, and the biggest thing with Tennessee teams is we have to limit second shots," Fanning-Otis said. "They are a very physical, aggressive team."
Summitt will bring a team that is coming off a first: a first-round loss in the NCAA tournament. Ball State stunned Tennessee 71-55 on March 22, 2009, and forced Summitt to try something new. She didn''t waste any time, going back to work the next day and impressing on the players that losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament isn''t acceptable.
Summitt said it took the team, which finished 22-11, a moment to get over the fact that it thought the work was punishment for the loss. But she said things turned for the better once the players realized everything was designed to make them better.
That mind-set carried over to the offseason, when Summitt said the Lady Volunteers worked hard in conditioning to establish the foundation for a strong season.
"We are a much better team and more mature," Summitt said. "As a group, we did more with Heather Mason, our strength and conditioning coach, in the seven years she has been here. She is a tremendous asset and a difference-maker, but they have to be the ones to volunteer. She said that''s the best group she has had in terms of their dedication toward working out while they''re here in the summer."
Summitt said that experience changed the mentality of her players. The result is a team that has been outrebounded only once (in a 67-52 loss to No. 2 Stanford on Dec. 19, 2009) and one that posted a season-high 24 offensive rebounds Dec. 16 in an 86-56 victory against national runner-up Louisville.
Defense and rebounding are trademarks of Summitt''s teams. Earlier this week, she said the Lady Volunteers, who are coming off victories against Oklahoma (96-75 on Jan. 3) and South Carolina (79-62 on Thursday) have to be more consistent in both areas.
"I thought our Oklahoma game, while we started slow, I thought at the end of the half we got better," Summitt said. "We played lot better in the second half."
Summitt has been pleased with her team''s play on offense, as evidenced by the fact Tennessee has three players scoring in double figures. Junior guard Angie Bjorklund leads the team at 16.5 points per game, followed by sophomore guard/forward Shekinna Strickland (14 ppg.) and sophomore guard/forward Glory Johnson (12.7 ppg.).
"Mentally we are a lot tougher," Summitt said. "Our bodies are a lot more fit. We are just invested."
Tennessee is expected to start five players are 6-foot taller, including 6-6 redshirt sophomore center Kelley Cain and Johnson, who is 6-3.
The goal for those players will be to help the Lady Volunteers erase the memory of last season''s 2-5 SEC road record, the worst in program history. Stricklen scored a team-high 15 points in a 63-56 win at Starkville last season.
Summitt knows her squad will face a team led by senior guard Alexis Rack, who is second in the SEC in scoring at 20.4 ppg. MSU is 2-0 without senior guard/forward Tysheka Grimes, who is out with a foot injury.
"I think they have one of the best teams in the league," Summitt said. "Sharon has done a great job. She was here as a GA (graduate assistant) and we''re great friends. I understand I am going against a lot of former players who are coaches now. It''s interesting. I know they know how we want to play. At the same time we just have to go out and do what we do to the best of our abilities. I think it will be a very challenging game for our team."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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