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Lady Vols back at the Summitt

You wonder if the folks in Tennessee can help but take coach Pat Summitt and her program for granted. It's kind of hard not to.

For them, Summitt's team winning games is ... sort of like how everyone else expects the electricity to be on, the mail to come, the garbage to get picked up. You don't really notice the regularity of those things that make your life pleasant.

Summitt has made the lives of Tennessee fans consistently happy for three decades now. Oh, sure, Tennessee hasn't won all 1,001 games she has coached. Just 837 of them.

The most recent of those, 72-69 Saturday at Duke ... well, you could call that one a little unexpected. After Duke rallied to beat Connecticut 68-67 earlier this month in Hartford, Conn., there was a thought that the Blue Devils had conquered some final, nagging doubt they had about themselves.

They came into the Tennessee game, in front of their second capacity crowd this season at Cameron Indoor Stadium, on a 15-game winning streak. They'd laid an egg last season against UConn in front of a full house at home ... surely they wouldn't let another spotlight opportunity get away.

Ahhh ... but how many teams over the years have been ready for a big moment, only to see it snatched away by Summitt's gang? Ask Vandy or Virginia or Auburn or Georgia -- to name a few of the most-oft wounded by orange arrows -- and they could tell many tales of Rocky Top woe.

Of course, what makes Tennessee so good is that Summitt never lingers on all those wins, the six NCAA titles ... it's always, "Who do we need to beat next?''

It has been almost six years now since Tennessee won it all. Connecticut took the mantle of "top program'' away with three of the last five national championships. Duke has ascended to the elite; Texas was there a long time ago and has gotten back.

The Big 12 is crazy-competitive. The Big Ten is strong, too, with three teams in Penn State, Purdue and Minnesota that could make Final Four runs. Women's hoops has more good teams now than ever.

And, yet, like the boat that doesn't sink even in the 50-foot waves, that keeps sailing back into the harbor no matter what, Tennessee is No. 1 again. Or will be as soon as everyone votes in the two polls.

When Summitt pulled in a killer recruiting class a few months ago, the talk was that Tennessee would really be back in full force next season. But the Orange Crush isn't waiting that long.

Going into Saturday's game, it seemed clear the teams' post games would be a critical factor, and that was the case. Tennessee got 15 points from Shyra Ely and eight from Ashley Robinson.

Duke's Iciss Tillis, who Thursday against Maryland took a brief respite from her other-worldly shooting horror story, had familiar trouble again Saturday. She was 3 of 16 from the field. She did go 9-for-11 from the line, and finished with 15 points. And she had 14 rebounds ... but the Blue Devils just can't overcome her missing 13 shots. Especially when post player Mistie Bass contributed only two points.

Alana Beard and Monique Currie, with 18 each, provided the punch of Duke's offense, but it wasn't enough.

Duke chose to retire Beard's jersey before this game because her parents were in attendance from their home in Louisiana and wouldn't be back until the final game of the regular season. Beard and coach Gail Goestenkors wanted that night to be for all the seniors, not just Beard.

So you could say it was a bittersweet night for Beard ... but we doubt she sees the sweet part now. This was a victory she and Duke really wanted, especially in front of their crowd.

Then again, last season Duke beat Tennessee in the regular season but the tables were turned in the Final Four. The Blue Devils should remember Diana Taurasi's words after her team lost to Duke a few weeks ago: They don't give out rings for regular-season wins.

Duke goes back to work trying to finish out another dominant ACC run. Tennessee still has a visit from UConn coming up on Feb. 5, plus the usual SEC battles.

A lot of things have happened now even before the end of January. UConn has lost twice. Texas Tech was No. 1 but lost its top player, Jia Perkins, and Saturday fell in double-overtime to Oklahoma State -- a team it beat by 63 points two weeks ago. Texas has beaten Tennessee and Duke, but has lost to Penn State and Baylor.

It's pretty hard to say now who's truly in the driver's seat for the NCAA title. But Tennessee definitively proved Saturday it's going to make a good grab at those keys.

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.