21-3 (10-1 SEC)
17-7 (7-3 SEC)
The SEC regular season race is all but sewn up. Even with a loss to LSU and a loss tonight, Kentucky still needs to drop one of their last four games to bring the Lady Vols into a tie for the crown. That's not likely, to put it mildly; Kentucky's other road games are in Tuscaloosa and Starkville (combined conference records of Alabama and Mississippi State: 4-18), and while their home tilts against Vanderbilt and South Carolina are tricky, they're surmountable. (Yeah, this paragraph hurt to type. Let's move on.)
A win for the Lady Vols tonight doesn't really do anything other than sew up the #2 seed come tournament time, which doesn't count for a ton. A loss puts Tennessee in a five-team tie at 8-4 heading into the home stretch including, a two-legged domination of Georgia, and Arkansas coming to Knoxville. (That isn't counting Vandy on the road against LSU and Kentucky, and South Carolina still has to face Georgia, Arkansas, and Kentucky.) In other words, even with a loss it's likely that Tennessee still ends up with the #2 seed.
Oddly, the fact there's so little riding on the game should be for the Lady Vols' benefit. It's a good opportunity for the Lady Vols to get out of their own head a bit. Matter of fact, Rocky Top Talk will make you a deal: play loose tonight and beat Kentucky and we won't start up Final Four talk afterward. Does that sound fair? Good.
So the last time these two teams faced off, the Lady Wildcats did a great job controlling large portions of the game - the first 32 minutes were controlled by A'Dia Mathies (and yeah, probably the rest of the team, but mostly Mathies with a little bit of Keyla Snowden), and while the Lady Vols did a good job of fighting back
before getting hosed on a charging call that wasn't consistent with the rest of the game at all, it wasn't quite enough. Still, it's evidence that there's not much separating these squads; even a little correction or change like playing the game in Knoxville should be enough to swing the balance.
At this point, we know the story with the Ladies and their own heads. The last couple of weeks haven't changed anything, so the less said about it, the better. It's there (and if you haven't read either of those pieces, go ahead and read 'em, if only for a massive spoiler alert in the first and Hooper stealing the title for about 15 future posts in the second), we know about it, we'd like for something to be done about it, there's no guarantee something will be done about it, great.
The offensive game is simple; Glory Johnson should control the interior again (unless our favorite post-hating referee shows up, in which case I may just Fulmerize the game thread entirely), Vicki Baugh should have a blast, and even Alicia Manning should make some hay. That should leave Shekinna Stricklen and Cierra Burdick space on the wing and inside the arc (and hopefully outside the arc, in Stricklen's case), and Taber Spani - who was sorely missed - should get a few looks at least. And yes, Meighan Simmons, I see that you had 20 points on 11 shots in Nashville; keep it up. Ariel Massengale's job is deceptively complex, though; not only does she need to distribute well, but she needs to limit the team turnovers as much as she can.
The defensive game is also straightforward: bleed clock and take advantage of Kentucky's multitude of turnovers. There isn't a great ball distributor on this Kentucky team, nor is there a great shooter (Mathies is more of a driver than a spot-up shooter; of her 34 points in the first meeting, 10 came at the line and one of her two threes was a shot that still blows my mind). Preventing the 'Cats from aggregating a bunch of shots and running up a reasonably-sized lead is paramount, since we've seen that path once already. On a related note, controlling the glass - as always - is a big deal, but I'm not too concerned about that tonight, struggles against Vanderbilt aside.
It's no secret what Kentucky's going to try to do; cause chaos, force quick shots on the defensive end and take quick shots on the offensive end, and use the fact they're taking so many shots to fuel a win. It's effective, obviously (see the first game for what happens when it goes well), so in turn the solution is simple: don't do that. Control the pace. Ariel did a good job in January in her first exposure to this defense, so expecting a similar performance is fair. On a related note, I'd expect to see Briana Bass get a bit more PT than she did in Lexington due to her ball control abilities.
More than anything, just relax. Play your game, Ladies. This isn't hard, even if it feels like it is.
Prediction: 73-68, Tennessee. BassWatch: 9 minutes, first half. Ball control.