KNOXVILLE — Tennessee and Notre Dame.
If one were asked to name two of the most historic programs in women’s college basketball, those two Universities would be at the top of the list.
And, tonight, those two programs will take the court in South Bend, Ind. for an unusual matchup.
Both teams enter Monday’s contest in a “rebuilding year,” Tennessee with a new head coach and Notre Dame replacing all five starters from last season’s team that reached the NCAA National Championship game.
While Notre Dame is replacing key players, including Arike Ogunbowale, who averaged over 21 points per game last season, the Fighting Irish are still ranked No. 16 and Monday night’s contest is expected to have a raucous Notre Dame crowd.
“I hope our team comes out and plays with poise and confidence and great passion and intensity,” Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said on Sunday. “I’m excited to see where we are because we’re facing a tough team in a tough environment. It will challenge our players and hopefully we are ready to compete.”
UT is coming off a quick start to their season with Notre Dame their third game in eight days. Last Tuesday, the Lady Volunteers went on the road to Johnson City to begin their season and took down ETSU 72-68 in a tight affair.
While the competition did not compare to what they will see on Monday night, the environment and road trip against the Lady Bucs was a good warmup for the Fighting Irish.
“Just having that (a road game already) and knowing our expectations and having done it, I think is important,” Harper said. “Also, I thought at ETSU we played in a loud and raucous environment, and I think that could be beneficial for us going into this game.”
After the ETSU win, Tennessee played Central Arkansas two days later. While they struggled through the first half, UT held the Sugar Bears to 11 second half points in a 63-36 win.
Junior Rennia Davis and sophomore Zaay Green, two leaders on a young Lady Vols team, had trouble with Central Arkansas but they were picked up by some freshmen additions on the team. However, if the Lady Volunteers are looking to pull off the upset on Monday, they will need more from their veteran players.
“We talked to them about being more aggressive when they get the ball into the paint,” Harper said. “There were a few times when we passed up opportunities. I think that is a work in progress for us. We worked on it in practice, but we have to make that a habit.”
Notre Dame enters the game also at 2-0 with wins over Fordham and Loyola Maryland. The victory over Fordham was a close game with the Lady Irish winning 60-55. Notre Dame is led by Katlyn Gilbert, who scored 24 points in the win over Loyola Maryland.
The last time the Lady Vols traveled to South Bend, they blew one of the largest leads in program history. Tennessee led by as many as 23 points in the contest on Jan. 24 before Notre Dame finished the game on a 35-10 run to win 84-70.
Last year, Notre Dame was victorious over the Lady Vols in Thompson-Boling Arena, 77-62.
“Notre Dame is really good in transition,” Harper said. “They are good passes and good cutters. We have to be able to defend cuts and passers and the fast break game as well. Obviously, they are not deep but the players that they do have can make plays.”
After starting at ETSU, redshirt junior Jaiden McCoy missed the Central Arkansas game with a left-hand injury. Harper noted that she would be a game time decision for Monday’s contest.
UT and Notre Dame tip off at 7 p.m. tonight, with the game being broadcast on ESPN 2.
For the Lady Vols, this early test could benefit them as they still have to take on an SEC schedule as well match ups with Texas, Stanford and UConn.
“I want to play a tough schedule,” Harper said. “I want to play teams that will challenge us. The ultimate goal is to be the best at the end, and we have to be ready for SEC play. So we have to be playing teams that are big, strong, athletic and can execute.”