- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Pat Summitt said it best.
"If we can't match [Connecticut's] physical intensity on the boards," Tennessee's coach said of Saturday's upcoming showdown between the Lady Vols and Huskies, "it will be a long afternoon for us."
Matching UConn on the glass, however, is something no one has been able to do this season. Through 12 games, the undefeated No. 5 Huskies rank first in the nation with 48.6 rebounds per game and also boast a plus-18.5 rebounding margin. Granted, UConn's average margin of victory so far this season is 32 points, but the Huskies have something special going on inside to be able to notch six games with at least 50 rebounds.
With five players averaging in double figures in scoring, balance has been a big plus for UConn this season. But coach Geno Auriemma's depth in the post is an even bigger key to the team's success -- and perhaps the biggest X factor facing the fourth-ranked Lady Vols as they prepare for the next chapter in the best rivalry in women's basketball (one that ranks up there with Ali-Frazier, Bird-Magic and Navratilova-Evert).
For years, Tennessee has been known as one of the best defensive and rebounding teams in the country, but the Lady Vols could have trouble matching up with the Huskies' very talented four-post rotation. It really comes down to the "beat them at their own game" mentality. While UConn tops the national leaderboard in rebounds, the Lady Vols' average of 36.7 rebounds per game fails to rank on the latest list (released Dec. 31) of the nation's top 50 rebounding teams.
Currently, 5-foot-10 sophomore Kalana Greene leads UConn with 8.8 rebounds per game, followed by 6-4 freshman Tina Charles (8.1 rpg), 6-1 junior Charde Houston (6.6 rpg) and 6-2 freshman Kaili McLaren (4.4 rpg). They combine for nearly 28 boards per outing, or about 57 percent of UConn's rebounding.
Still, the most impressive thing about the foursome is how different they are. Whereas Houston can take the ball off the dribble, Charles can post you up. Whereas Greene can hit a nice little face-up shot, McLaren likes to be physical inside. They'll present Tennessee with a lot of multifaceted looks and give UConn a huge advantage.
Summitt admits her team's rebounding is a concern.
"We've been very inconsistent in that aspect of the game," she said. "Rebounding is all about heart and desire to play defense and having a nose for the ball and that kind of mentality. I think a lot of people sit around and watch Candace Parker go to the boards. Nicky Anosike and Alex Fuller have to be as committed to rebounding as Parker is. Alexis Hornbuckle, to me, should be one of the best rebounding guards in the country."
Two other X factors to consider:
• Tennessee has the superstar. How will UConn defend Parker (19.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg)? Expect the Huskies to show her a lot of looks and rotate a lot of people at her. They might open the game with a big defending Parker, alternating between Houston and Charles.
• While the game likely will be decided by what happens inside, good point-guard play is crucial. Most likely, the guards on the perimeter will cancel each other out because both sides present a lot of speed, quickness, solid shooting and good defenders.
But UConn junior Mel Thomas is the guard to watch. She is today's Shea Ralph -- Thomas doesn't want a lot of attention; she's just gritty, plays hard and knocks down tough shots.
A lot of people have the propensity to underestimate her, but that's a mistake. A year ago, Auriemma didn't hesitate to put Thomas on the opponent's best perimeter player. Thomas is a heck of a defender, not necessarily because of foot speed but because of her smarts and toughness. That will be a factor against Tennessee.
No matter who wins, Saturday's contest should be great theater for two Final Four-caliber teams that have elevated women's basketball on a national level more than any other programs. Summitt has 925 victories, more wins than any coach in men's or women's basketball, and Auriemma just became the fastest coach to reach the 600-win mark (bettering Summitt's previous record).
This might be the most fun Connecticut team I've seen since the Diana Taurasi era. And if the Huskies can continue to dominate the glass, they're the favorite Saturday. Tennessee has done it before, but it is very hard to head into Hartford (the game will be played in front of a sold-out crowd at the Hartford Civic Center) and win on the Huskies' home turf.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
14dBonnie D. Ford