Longhorns, after four in a row over Lady Vols, seek another
Several eyes of Texas will take their first close look at the Tennessee Lady Vols tonight.
Seven freshmen accompany the other UT for a women's basketball date at 7 at Thompson-Boling Arena. One Texas rookie, guard Erika Arriaran, starts. Five have played at once this season.
Recent history suggests that at least one or two of these new Longhorns will not be blinded by the brighter shade of orange.
"Young players just go play,'' Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said.
Several have played key roles in Texas' four-game winning streak in the series, the longest active run of domination by a Lady Vols' opponent.
The streak began here on Feb. 12, 2002, when then-freshman Kala Bowers scored a game-high 22 points and classmate Heather Schreiber scored several clutch baskets in a 69-66 Texas victory.
The following season in Austin, guard Nina Norman, playing in the eighth game of her Texas career, nailed a 3-pointer with one second left, the winning basket of the Longhorns' 63-62 victory.
Back here in 2003, the trend continued with forward Tiffany Jackson introducing herself to Tennessee with 13 points and 12 rebounds in a 70-60 Texas victory.
The freshman siege stopped last season but not the Longhorns' stampede. Jackson, who was a mere four games removed from her first season, fast-forwarded to All-American candidate with 19 points, nine rebounds and eight blocks in a 74-59 Thanksgiving rout of the Lady Vols.
Texas coach Jody Conradt said most first-year players start early preparing for these games. She said Arriaran, already the team's leading scorer at 12.8 points per game, was on every school's recruiting radar as an eighth grader.
Conradt also gives credit to No. 2 Tennessee (5-0) and its high profile for helping to inspire the Longhorns' heroics.
"I expect them to come out and play out of their minds,'' Lady Vols senior guard Shanna Zolman said of the Texas newcomers, "just like every team we play.''
The Lady Vols would be doing the No. 16 Longhorns (3-1) a favor by inspiring such a response. Ushering such a large group of freshmen through a first season is a big challenge, one requiring a shepherd-like touch.
"Have you ever had a litter of seven puppies and tried to keep them in the basket at the same time?'' Conradt asked. "They are eager and athletic and they're very talented, even though it's difficult to see at times.''
Complicating matters is the fact that three of the rookies -- Carla Cortijo, Aubry Cook and Mariana Mergerson -- suffered anterior cruciate knee ligament injuries during their senior years in high school. Mergerson hasn't been cleared to start the season. Another player, Earnesia Williams, suffered the injury as a ninth grader and has been bothered by knee swelling.
The extensive medical history of the class, rated No. 1 by the All-Star Girls Report recruiting service, recalls Tennessee's celebrated class of two years ago. Conradt said the circumstances have impacted her brood's development, although she noted distinct improvement last week at the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas.
In the meantime, she's directing her gaze, as well as her players' attention, toward the bright horizon.
"Some day this team will be good,'' Conradt said. "I don't know what day that will be. It could be the next day.''
Given Tennessee's recent struggles against Texas, it behooves the Lady Vols to scramble for some high ground on the youth front.
The Lady Vols do start a redshirt freshman (Candace Parker) and three sophomores (Alexis Hornbuckle, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood and Nicky Anosike).
They did lose their composure for stretches of last Saturday's 80-75 Paradise Jam championship victory over Maryland.
Summitt can imagine how this sounds to the casual observer or to anyone who watched the Lady Vols play like veterans down the stretch against the Terrapins.
"They're probably thinking I'm poor mouthing,'' she said. "That's OK."
What's not OK is Tennessee's rebounding struggles and lapses in transition defense. The deficiencies were glaring at times in the Virgin Islands and could be exploited by Texas, which likes a fast pace and spreads double-figure playing minutes among 12 players.
In this regard, Summitt is a concerned observer. She wants her players to feel the same way, regardless of their experience level.
"It doesn't change my expectations,'' Summitt said. "It probably causes me to be more cautious and have a sense of urgency for doing things a certain way."