THE CAVALRY WILL ADVANCE AT WARLICK'S COMMAND - Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports
It's the last big non-conference showdown of the regular season for the Lady Vols (how's that for qualifiers?) as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish come to Knoxville tonight along with the big lights.
Notre Dame (#2 AP / #3 coaches) is 2-20 against the Tennessee Lady Vols (#9 / #9) in the history of both programs. The problem? Those pesky 2 are the last two games the two teams have played; a 79-53 loss in 2011 in the Elite Eight and a 72-44 loss in South Bend in 2012 (most notable for Notre Dame making the noble decision to keep their bench fresh for later games in the season and no I'm not still bitter about this why do you ask?). Of the regulars, only Meighan Simmons, Taber Spani, and Kamiko Williams remember the 2011 game, and Ariel Massengale and Isabelle Harrison remember the beatdown in South Bend (and it was a beatdown). If there's bad blood, there isn't much of it between most of the current crop of Lady Vol players and the Irish, but you can be pretty sure that the coaching staff remembers.
Then again, the Irish still qualify as pretty good. They're 18-1 with good reason and should be welcomed for beating UConn 73-72; they've also had their own problems with BRITTNEY GRINER who dealt them their only loss. Beyond that, they're a comfortable 5-1 against ranked teams (Tennessee, by comparison, is 6-2). Their best schedule comparisons to Tennessee are probably Purdue (27-point win at home), Ohio State (6-point win on the road), and UCLA (12-point win on the road). This won't be easy.
For the most part, the leaders of the team are names we're familiar with: Skylar Diggins (15.5 ppg on 11.9 shots, 3.3 reb, 5.6 A / 3.5 TO), Kayla McBride (14.2 ppg on 12.4 shots, 4.2 reb, 2.2 A / 1.9 TO) and Natalie Achnova (13.8 ppg on 9.8 shots, 9.3 reb, 2.6 A / 2.4 TO) are the biggest contributors, and it's a pretty stable rotation that goes 7 to 9 deep depending on the game - I'm guessing they do the usual "empty the bench during big wins" thing, but no regular player's seen less than 13 games worth of action.
So yes, the Fighting Irish are deep and they're balanced. Normally I like to look for some shooting keys (who's the bad shooter who thinks she's awesome?), but that player doesn't exist. When everyone is efficient from the field, then it comes down to defense and rebounding. Excessive amounts of three-point shooting? Nope. Inability to get to the free throw line? Hardly; heck, they make more FTs per game than Tennessee (roughly 17 to 13), so this is the awkward situation where Notre Dame does everything I want Tennessee to do, except better in most cases.
This is going to make the bullet points look really awkward.
- Pick your poison. Look, I'd love to tell you that the Lady Vols can shut down Diggins and McBride and Achnova. I'd also love a pony. Realistically, at least one of them will get their numbers, possibly two. Achnova seems the likeliest candidate for shutdown since the Lady Vol interior defense is still strong. This is the kind of game that Andraya Carter would be useful in; Notre Dame's guard depth is stronger than their interior depth, and the additional hands (and, if nothing else, fouls) would be useful.
- Second chances. I don't entertain the notion that Tennessee can heavily outrebound the Fighting Irish; I do think they can limit Notre Dame on the offensive glass. In general, their game relies upon a lot of inside-the-perimeter shots, which means positioning should be more known than a team that shoots a lot of threes. As a result, keeping the Irish off the offensive glass and limiting putback opportunities (or, even worse, the offensive board and-one combo) should at least help to limit the damage.
- Um, no pressure Graves. Bashaara Graves is having a, well, pretty good freshman season (I really need to write about it later, but there's a chance this is the third-best freshman season by a UT forward period). This will be a tough battle for her - I'd guess she'd draw Achnova when Tennessee has the ball - and she'll have the most complex task by far. Hopefully Harrison can cover her defensively, because if there was ever a game where we need to see a 20-12 from Graves, this is it. And yes, she's capable of that, but I don't know if she's capable of that tonight.
- Get a little lucky. This is going to be a big, eventful night; Pat Summit's stare jersey (...yeah, work with me here) is getting raised to the rafters, there's an orange-out (yeah, I know), the game's on ESPN, and TBA still has one heck of a home-court advantage before we even mention the bad blood and the history. Notre Dame is a better team than Tennessee, but at home with an emotional scorer suiting up in orange? Anything can happen - and yes, that includes stupid and insane things like Simmons going absolutely off (remember the first half against UNC?), at which point all bets are off.