Friday, December 07, 2007

Lady Vols need instincts of old

When you have a basketball program with as many national championships as the Tennessee Lady Vols', comparisons are irresistible.

Let them beat a few nationally ranked teams and blow out a few others, and I immediately wonder how they would stack up against the best of UT's national champions, the 39-0 team of 1997-98.

This team makes the comparison easier than most. It has four starters returning from a national championship team, and it's off to an impressive start.

The Lady Vols improved their record to 7-0 with an 83-51 victory over 24th-ranked Old Dominion on Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. That gives them four victories over nationally ranked teams, and five victories by 18 or more points.

So what do you think, Coach? Can they go undefeated?

UT longtime assistant coach Holly Warlick doesn't dodge the question.

"I think this team is good enough to go undefeated," she said. "They have to control the boards and get a little more consistent on the defensive end.

"They've got a shot."

This team has a couple of obvious advantages over UT's unbeaten team. First, it has more good shooters; second, it has more quality depth.

But as soon as you start comparing any team to the 1997-98 Lady Vols, you invariably end up marveling at how good that team was 10 years ago.

In Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings, it had two of the best players ever to play the women's game. Semeka Randall was an All-SEC selection, and point guard Kellie Jolly was the quintessential coach on the floor.

As talented as that team was, its attitude was even better. And that's where this team would come up short in comparison. So would any other UT team.

"That team had a killer instinct," Warlick said. "They went out every night, not just to win. … They wanted to put people away early and keep pouring it on.

"They wanted to punish people. It wasn't a hatred thing. That was just in their nature."

The attitude was reflected in the scores. Only three teams, including Alabama twice, came within single digits of the 1997-98 team.

The Lady Vols won six NCAA tournament games by an average of 21.3 points in 1998. And they had a Mike Tyson-like record for quick knockouts.

This team occasionally has flashed dominance but has shown little proclivity for first-round knockouts.

"I think this team is good enough to go undefeated," Warlick repeated. "But we can't do what we did the other night and hope that somebody misses some free throws (as in Sunday's 83-79 victory over North Carolina)."

Against an Old Dominion team playing without its leading scorer, UT sputtered to a 37-24 first-half lead. The 1997-98 team might have been up by 30 at halftime against such an opponent, mainly because of transition baskets fostered by relentless defensive pressure.

"This team isn't as consistently aggressive on the defensive end," Warlick said. "But when their backs are against the wall, they can hunker down and play some defense."

That was evident during the last NCAA tournament when the Lady Vols raised their play to a championship level. The 1997-98 team didn't need an NCAA tournament for motivation.

"The 1997-98 team played that way all the time," Warlick said. "That's the difference in the two teams."

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