A simple plan for an emotional game
DES MOINES, Iowa -- You don't have to dub in any violin music or add manufactured sentimentality. Monday's regional final matchup between No. 1 seed Baylor and No. 2 seed Tennessee has a lot of very genuine emotional elements.
"We talk about it off the court," Tennessee senior Alicia Manning said. "Win or lose, we're probably going to cry just because so much has gone into this. Basically, this is the biggest game of our whole careers."
This group of Tennessee seniors has not made it to the Final Four as a class, although redshirt senior post player Vicki Baugh did so in her freshman season of 2008. Baylor, meanwhile, is undefeated (37-0) and has been considered the national championship favorite for months now.
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt and counterpart Kim Mulkey of Baylor have faced off in this sport since Mulkey's playing career began at Louisiana Tech in 1980. They are friends, with both becoming mothers and enduring divorces in the public eye of coaching careers. Now Summitt is battling the effects of early-onset dementia, which she announced in August.
That's quite a backstory to one game, isn't it? And yet, it is just one game (ESPN/ESPN3, 7 p.m. ET): a contest to decide if Tennessee goes to its 19th NCAA Women's Final Four or Baylor goes to its third.
For the first time since 2006, Tennessee is playing in an NCAA tournament game where it is, seed-wise, the underdog. That year, the Lady Vols were the No. 2 seed behind No. 1 North Carolina and fell to the Tar Heels in the regional final in Cleveland. Tennessee subsequently was seeded No. 1 in 2007 and 2008, winning the title both years. In 2009, the Lady Vols were a No. 5 seed and tournament-wise were an underdog, yet the team that took them out that year was No. 12 Ball State in the first round.
"That was one of my lowest points in my career here, and I wasn't on the floor -- that's what hurt the most," said Baugh, who had suffered an ACL tear in the 2008 final and then was hurt again in February 2009, missing the rest of that season. "We were lacking a lot of leadership that year; we were a young team that wasn't committed to defense and rebounding, and we had to find out the hard way what that leads to.
"We've grown tremendously in understanding how we can stop a team and play defense. We know what we're getting into before we get into it."
Certainly, the Lady Vols know what they're facing in Baylor. The teams met in Knoxville, Tenn., in November 2009, the game that launched Baylor center Brittney Griner's college career. Tennessee won 74-65, but in the rematch in the NCAA Sweet 16 that season, Baylor turned the tables and prevailed 77-62. Last season, Baylor won the regular-season matchup against Tennessee in Waco, Texas, 65-54. Earlier this season in Knoxville, Baylor won 76-67 on Nov. 27. In that latter game, Tennessee outrebounded Baylor by 14 and hit eight 3-pointers to the Lady Bears' four, and still lost by nine points.
"It will come down to a battle in the paint, but we definitely can't sleep on Odyssey Sims and their guards," Tennessee senior forward Glory Johnson said. "If you focus on Brittney Griner alone, that's when their other players can change the game. We can't underestimate their guards at all."
Baylor has won the past three meetings, is the overall No. 1 seed and hasn't lost this season. Tennessee has eight losses. And yet
"I don't think we're underdogs because we can't think like that," Johnson said. "We have had some lapses in our team and we've struggled with some teams we shouldn't have. We've had losses we shouldn't have had. But we know we're a good team with great coaches."
Manning added, "I don't think we ever really feel like underdogs at Tennessee, just because of our tradition here and Pat Summitt's legacy. But, at the same time, it's kind of nice to have it where no one is predicting us to win this game."
Baylor, on the other hand, has worn the mantle of favorite as comfortably as a team like Connecticut did in 2009 and 2010, when the Huskies put together back-to-back undefeated seasons. That expectation to win is not easily developed; it requires not just very talented players, but also ones willing to sweat the small details of being champions. The Lady Bears have done that, and they also used last year's Elite Eight loss to Texas A&M as an everyday example in preparing for this season's run.
"Nobody cares about the undefeated record; we know it's all about these [tournament] games," Baylor junior Destiny Williams said. "When somebody's down, we know how to pull each other up. We communicate well with one another, and that wasn't there all the time last year. Everyone became really close over the summer."
Baylor made the 2010 Final Four as such a young group, falling to UConn 70-50 in the semifinals. This year, the Lady Bears have been front-runners from the start.
"The way we approach things as a staff has a lot to do with it," Mulkey said of her team's comfort level with high expectations. "But what choice do we have? Everybody talks about, 'You're the team to beat.' We can choose to fight you on it, or choose to embrace it. Because we are older now, we have to embrace it.
"It's easier to coach when you're not the favorite. As [Kentucky men's coach John] Calipari said the other day, 'Isn't it a shame that one team gets picked every year to be the one that's not supposed to lose and has all these expectations on them?' It's probably not fair, but it's the world we live in."
Now, you may have noticed after Saturday's victory, Mulkey seemed a bit grumpy over what she had perceived, from pregame comments, as an underestimation of the Baylor guards' ability to go against Georgia Tech's press. On Sunday, she seemed a bit grumpy about the idea that Baylor was so revered, it was "expected" to win the tournament.
That tone is part of her personality to approach competition that way. It's also how she instills an attitude in her players to have a little edge while still being as efficient and business-like as possible.
But Tennessee wants to approach this game with an all-business attitude, too. For the entire season, the Lady Vols have dealt with the speculation about whether Summitt will continue to coach beyond this season, but they don't want that in their heads Monday.
Just facing Baylor will be enough to deal with.