Vols, Devils stage one big talent show

Updated: January 23, 2006, 4:24 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Maybe Cornelius Vanderbilt managed to accidentally break an entire hall of mirrors before his death in 1877. And thus, the women's basketball program at the university he founded in 1873 was doomed to the bad luck of losing a million games against Tennessee. Actually, it's only 46 … it just seems like a million if you wear the black and gold.

Mistie Williams
AP Photo/Wade Payne Shyra Ely is gone, but Duke still has Mistie Williams -- and homecourt advantage at Cameron.

If you tuned into the Tennessee-Vandy matchup Thursday night and saw the Commodores get out to a double-digit lead, you might have wondered whether the upset would mean the bloom might be slightly off the rose for Monday's Tennessee-Duke showdown on ESPN2 (7:30 p.m. ET).

Yeah, sure. You wondered that if you just started watching women's basketball this month. Otherwise, you knew Tennessee could be down 57 points at halftime to Vandy, but somehow, some way …

Of course Tennessee rallied and coach Pat Summitt won her 900th game. And although it might seem to the long-suffering Vandy fans that she has won at least 900 alone at their Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville, in reality, Summitt's crew has victimized everybody nationwide.

Vandy just has the misfortune of having played the powerful Orange Crush more than anybody else -- 52 times by Tennessee's records. Vandy, however, doesn't count the 96-27 loss in 1976 because the Commodores didn't officially have a varsity program until 1977-78.

Anyway, Summitt keeps hitting these crazy milestones. "It is astounding to me, especially with the level of competition she plays. It's phenomenal," Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said of 900 wins.

Reporters asked Summitt whether any victories in particular stand out. In a teleconference Friday, Summitt said that, yes, there were some wins that are particularly memorable for her.

"They're all meaningful … [but] the regional-championship wins stand out in my mind, because that's one of the hardest games to play," Summitt said. "Because that means the Final Four."

And, in particular, Summitt mentioned the 1998 regional final victory in Nashville ("Oh, stop it!!!" the Vandy fans groan) when her undefeated, anointed-as-greatest-team-ever-by-many squad was down against North Carolina but came back to save the 39-0 season.

And if asked about her most memorable losses -- or, more accurately, most haunting -- Summitt would talk about regional finals as well. To Virginia in 1991 and to Duke in 1999.

The latter was Chamique Holdsclaw's last college game, the end of the fourpeat quest -- and Tennessee hasn't won an NCAA title since. It was also Duke's official introduction to the big time.

All of that history does play a part in what's about to happen Monday, when Cameron Indoor Stadium will be packed, tremendously loud and a showcase for the women's game. No. 1 vs. No. 2, both 18-0, both greatly skilled teams with future WNBA and almost certainly Olympic stars.

Whenever any program has risen up to be a national contender, Tennessee has put that team on its schedule. As much as the 1,000-plus victories Summitt will surely end up with, spreading the joyous contagion for women's hoops nationwide is the coach's legacy.

"It's been something that's been a process -- years of taking our team on the road and our willingness to play anywhere, anyone, anytime," Summitt said. "That has allowed us to increase our fan base across the country. For example, when we were at Temple, I was amazed at how many people were there in orange. As we go on the road and have more and more fans show up, we're very proud of it and very appreciative of our support around the country."

And, of course, by being so good for so long, Tennessee also is a drawing card as the "villain," too. Something Connecticut, of course, also has excelled at. And that's fun -- and necessary to have -- in women's college hoops. Beating Tennessee will always be a big, big deal to anyone who does it.

Summitt and Goestenkors have about as good a relationship as two highly competitive people who want the same thing could have. They speak in friendly and admiring terms about each other. Goestenkors knows how hard and long Summitt has worked to stay on top. Summitt appreciates what a worthy rival Goestenkors has turned Duke into.

Sure, they both went after Candace Parker like prospectors trying to stake claim to the mother lode. Summitt won. Goestenkors was as devastated as you could be over a recruiting loss. And there will be plenty of those battles in the future.

While most observers approach this game thinking these are the two current titans of this season going head-to-head, neither coach was willing to say that Friday. They pointed to the likes of North Carolina, Connecticut, LSU and others as very dangerous teams, too.

They also said they haven't had a chance to worry too much about each other, because they've been so busy worrying about their previous opponents. But women's hoops fans have had this game circled on the calendar for months.

It's great talent vs. great talent. Parker has lived up to the hype. Alexis Hornbuckle has, Summitt said, taken a lot of responsibility for maintaining the relentless, aggressive, all-out-all-the-time, smart play that has been Tennessee's hallmark. Shanna Zolman can, at any time, pop the 3-pointer. Nicky Anosike and Sidney Spencer are big-impact players as well.

On the Duke side, Monique Currie -- whom Goestenkors thought would leave for the WNBA after last season -- returned as a fifth-year senior and has so much big-game experience. And she's working on her master's degree.

The Duke post game -- led by Mistie Williams, Chante Black and Alison Bales -- can be very formidable. The engine for the Blue Devils, though, is point guard Lindsey Harding. Suspended for undisclosed reasons last season, Harding has returned to make Duke the high-octane offensive team that it is. And defensively, she does exactly what Goestenkors needs, too.

Because there are so many good players on both sides, there could be one not mentioned here who ends up being the key factor.

But whatever happens, we know this much: At tipoff, on national television, one of the coolest hoops venues in America will be pandemonium. Another memorable game for Summitt -- and everybody else who loves sports at its best.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

ALSO SEE