Summitt says her players remember the price we paid
Kentucky's players screamed and piled on top of one another, celebrating their upset win over top-ranked Tennessee.
Their coach didn't have time to feel joy before a sinking feeling took over.
"I immediately started thinking when the buzzer went off at Rupp Arena that we're going to have to go back down to Knoxville next year," UK Coach Mickie DeMoss said.
That fact wasn't lost on the Lady Vols coach, either.
"She reminded me quite frequently over the summer," DeMoss said of UT Coach Pat Summitt, her friend and boss for 18 years at Tennessee.
DeMoss is confident the Tennessee players haven't forgotten the loss to UK, either.
"They will remember it quite vividly, I'm sure," DeMoss said. "They don't lose many games. They remember the losses."
They especially remember the Kentucky loss, their first to an unranked opponent in four years. The UK loss coupled with a loss to Florida probably cost the Lady Vols a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, which is something they didn't take lightly, Summitt said.
"Our players, they understood the price we paid for not being a more efficient team, for not playing hard all the time," Summitt said. "This group, they'd never not been to a Final Four, then when they didn't have a chance to go, it was a significant wake-up call, a real jolt for the team."
Summitt called this third-ranked Tennessee team "a different team, a better team," and it's evident.
Behind star Candace Parker, who leads the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, the Vols (22-2, 9-0 Southeastern Conference) have won five in a row and remain unbeaten in the SEC.
Their only losses this season have been to No. 2 North Carolina and top-ranked Duke.
But Kentucky's players, coming off a much-needed road win at Mississippi on Thursday, said they aren't scared of going into Thompson-Boling Arena tonight for a nationally televised rematch with the Lady Vols.
"It does a lot for our confidence to know that they have pretty much the same team back from last year and we do, too, and that we were able to play with them," said Samantha Mahoney, who leads UK in scoring in conference play.
While Mahoney and her teammates vividly remember the defining win over UT last year, they also recall their last trip to Knoxville, when they scored the first two points of the game and Tennessee went on to score the next 22.
They'd like to stop something similar from happening tonight even though they know the Vols are extra motivated.
"I know they're going to come out and try to jump out on us early because we beat them last year," Mahoney said. "We just have to focus on us."
DeMoss's concerns about going back down to Knoxville aren't unfounded. When asked whether Summitt is a vengeful person, the UK coach smiled and nodded.
"She doesn't like to lose and is one of the most competitive people I've met," DeMoss said.
But Summitt said she was proud, in an odd way, of what UK was able to accomplish last season, even though it was at her team's expense.
"As strange as it may seem, I was really as pleased for Mickie as disappointed as I was for our team," Summitt said. "It was a special moment in time. ... If you have to lose to anyone, why not lose to someone you have tremendous respect for that had a major impact on the Tennessee program?"
There will be no UK element of surprise this season, though. Tennessee's players and staff have had this game marked on their calendars for a long time.
"This team remembers last year's loss to Kentucky and how costly it was," Summitt said. "Come Sunday, I hope this basketball team will come ready and take care of business."
The business of payback.
Tonight's game will be a part of alumni weekend with more than 50 former players and 100 family members in town to honor the 20th anniversary of Tennessee's first NCAA championship team, for which DeMoss was an assistant coach.
• UK has never won a game at Thompson-Boling, and its last win at Knoxville was in 1985.