- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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WACO, Texas -- Tennessee junior guard Meighan Simmons knows plenty about Baylor. After all, the Lady Vols met the national champions twice last year: at the start and the end of the season. Plus, Baylor returns its top six players from the 40-0 squad.
Still, Simmons says she doesn't want to take too many preconceived notions into Tuesday's matchup with No. 3 Baylor at the Ferrell Center (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).
"Everybody gets better every year," Simmons said of evaluating how the Lady Bears might be different. "The past two times we've played them, I've learned a lot.
"With the underclassmen we have, they've learned a lot the past few games and they are figuring out what it's like to play in really intense, tough games. They're about to learn more. Knowing [Baylor], I might be a little bit more comfortable facing them -- but you can't ever get too comfortable against them, no matter how much you know about them."
Simmons spoke after Tennessee's practice Monday afternoon in Temple, Texas. The Lady Vols stopped there on the drive from Austin -- where they beat Texas 94-75 Sunday -- to Waco. After losing their opener in a stunner at Chattanooga on Nov. 9, Tennessee has won seven in a row, and has moved back into the Associated Press top 10.
But the Lady Vols have a lot to navigate next to keep that winning streak going: Baylor here on Tuesday and Stanford back in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday. Sophomore center Isabelle Harrison was injured against the Longhorns and didn't practice Monday. Tennessee is low on bodies, so it's going to be a case of all healthy hands on deck.
Yet there's quite an upbeat feeling around Tennessee, because after the Chattanooga wake-up call, the Lady Vols have come together very quickly. Simmons says there's a sense of camaraderie that has already grown somewhat surprisingly strong so early this season.
"We all really stick together," Simmons said. "We are playing true team basketball."
Tennessee coach Holly Warlick says the staff -- which now includes Jolette Law and former Lady Vols player Kyra Elzy -- is enjoying that same kind of unison, too. So much so that the Chattanooga loss already seems pretty much like a distant hiccup. It actually appears to have done the Lady Vols a lot of good and no real harm.
Tennessee is averaging 87 points, and Warlick said, "It's probably, overall, one of the best offensive teams we've had in awhile."
She knows that can come to a halt, though, against the defensive roadblock of Baylor.
The Lady Bears practiced Monday morning, then had a team Christmas party. After her formal comments to the media on the upcoming game, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey jokingly mentioned that she was eager to see which of her players got the best presents for their teammates.
But, actually, she expected everybody would do pretty well, because that's just the kind of team this bunch is: tight-knit and interested in spending time together on and off the court.
When the Lady Bears went to Hawaii in November -- where they suffered their only loss thus far, to Stanford -- they wanted to go sightseeing, including a visit to the Pearl Harbor memorial. And when Baylor went to Notre Dame earlier this month, the Lady Bears got a campus tour from the unofficial "mayor" of South Bend, Digger Phelps.
So it sounds like both Baylor and Tennessee are feeling pretty good from a chemistry standpoint. Clearly, though, the Lady Bears are favored in this matchup, whereas the younger Tennessee post players will try to deal with center Brittney Griner.
Griner actually isn't 100 percent, dealing with a lingering shin injury. But overall, the Lady Bears are pretty satisfied with where they are at this point in the season. After Tennessee, Baylor doesn't play again until Dec. 29.
"It's our last game before the kids head home for the holidays, so we've got to make sure they're focused," Mulkey said. "I watched some of [Tennessee's] game against Texas, and thought they played with a lot of energy and excitement.
"It's a totally different type of offense than what you used to see with Pat [Summitt]. But Holly has her own identity and knows her personnel. The one thing that will always be a trademark with Tennessee teams, though, is offensive rebounding. They fly to the glass, and through the years -- having played them as a player, coaching against that at Louisiana Tech and at Baylor -- they always crash the boards. That's one thing that's like the Tennessee teams of old."
16dBonnie D. Ford