Baylor coach Kim Mulkey phoned Tennessee’s Pat Summitt recently to check on the Hall of Fame coach and to ask if it was still OK for her Lady Bears to try and beat the Lady Vols.
“My last comment to her was, ‘Am I supposed to come up there and try to beat you?’ And she laughed and said, ‘You better,’” Mulkey recalled. “And that’s what Pat expects from all of us. She knows that we’re all competitors, and she’s still Pat Summitt.”
Summitt has been diagnosed with early onset dementia but has said she wants the focus on basketball.
It will be Sunday when the top-ranked Lady Bears (5-0) visit Knoxville looking for a third consecutive victory against No. 6 Tennessee (2-1).
Few teams have managed three wins in a row against Tennessee during Summitt’s 37 seasons at the helm, and that significance isn’t lost on Mulkey.
“They’ve done a heck of a lot more in women’s basketball than we have at Baylor. And we’re trying to do what they’ve done over a long period of time, and we’re just getting started,” Mulkey said.
Baylor is aiming for the national championship that eluded it a season ago as a top-seeded team. A national title would mark the second for the program, a feat achieved by just five other teams, including the eight-time national champ Lady Vols.
The Lady Bears solidified their early grip on the top spot of the AP Top 25 with a win over then-No. 2 Notre Dame and are coming off a 109-59 rout of Yale on Tuesday night.
With the way returning starters Brittney Griner, Destiny Williams, Odyssey Sims and Jordan Madden are playing, the Lady Vols know nothing will come easy for them.
Griner “does not give you anything easy in the paint,” Tennessee assistant coach Mickie DeMoss said. “She can stand over on one block and block a shot on the other block. They’re just very talented. They’ve got some very talented guards. ...
“They don’t really have a weakness.”
The Lady Vols showed some weaknesses of their own in a 69-64 overtime loss at previously unranked Virginia on Nov. 20. They couldn’t get the ball inside to the post and struggled to hit shots.
Tennessee shot 40.7 percent against the Cavaliers and hit just 5 of 24 from 3-point range. The Lady Vols no longer have the kind of height inside to compete with the 6-foot-8 Griner.
“We’re going to have to stretch them a little bit,” Summitt said.
DeMoss added: “There are some games where you say you want to go inside and then outside. This is probably one game that you’re probably going to say you’ve got to hit some outside shots. (Griner) can stand over on one block and block a shot on the other block.”
Tennessee is just as hungry for a national title this season as Baylor. The Lady Vols’ current senior class hasn’t even made it to a Final Four, let alone a national championship game, and the players have said they’re even more determined to “cut down nets” since they learned of Summitt’s dementia diagnosis in August.
The Lady Vols are encouraging fans who attend Sunday’s game to wear “We Back Pat” T-shirts in honor of Summitt. Sales of the shirts have raised more than $150,000 for Alzheimer’s research programs, and the Tennessee athletic department will present checks to Alzheimer’s Tennessee and UT Medical Center before the game.
The Tennessee players know if they want to honor Summitt with her ninth championship, they need to first prove themselves against a tough schedule of opponents. They’ve already claimed over ninth-ranked Miami but have 10 more games against currently ranked opponents after facing Baylor.
“Coming to a program like Tennessee, we play one of the toughest schedules in the game. I’ve always wanted to play against the best, and to play the best you’ve got to beat the best, and that’s our goal,” Tennessee freshman point guard Ariel Massengale said.