Ho-hum season could use jolt from old powers

Originally Published: December 1, 2006
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

STORRS, Conn. -- Just in case you've been dozing since October or so, don't worry, you haven't missed much good stuff in women's hoops. There haven't been any "epic" games, or even very many close ones.

Renee Montgomery
David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE In last year's nine-point loss to Tennessee, UConn guard Renee Montgomery failed to take a shot in 23 minutes.

Defending national champion Maryland has played a Dullsville schedule that does take a turn for the better, obviously, starting Saturday against Michigan State on CBS and then with the Terps' big ACC matchups.

Recent news out of the WNBA is downbeat but not a surprise, as the Charlotte Sting folded. A prospective ownership group in Charlotte tried to raise the funds to keep the Sting there, but couldn't get it done.

The WNBA wanted to move the franchise to Kansas City, but again, a deal couldn't be worked out that quickly. There is not a great deal of forward momentum on this whole issue in KC right now.

I don't think the sky is falling for the WNBA or anything like that. Every sports league has had franchises that didn't work. However, it's a sobering thought to consider that the state from which half the Women's Final Four came last year isn't able to keep a pro women's team.

So … we really do need a pick-me-up, which means it's the perfect time for UConn (12-0) and Tennessee (13-1) to be meeting. That's Saturday at 4 p.m. ET (CBS) at the sold-out Hartford Civic Center.

"If you look at the rivalry and the stage that we've been on since we started playing, it has been year-in and year-out the one game that has brought more viewers to sit and watch," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said Friday. "It has generated a rivalry that is known throughout the country. It is a matchup between two powerhouse programs that have been consistent over the years."

Neither program was at the Final Four last season -- the first time that had happened since 1999. There are new and somewhat unpredictable story lines for both teams in 2007.

As UConn coach Geno Auriemma put it, "I think we're in very similar situations -- there's a transition to be made now. You're transitioning from this group to that group, and it's not easy to stay at that level that long. Nor should it be. This isn't like your payroll is whatever and you just go out and get the guys you need.

"It's still recruiting. It's still freshmen and sophomores a lot of times. It's hard -- and it should be."

No, this is not No. 1 vs. No. 2 -- but it's not that far off: No. 4 vs. No. 5. In terms of "high-level superstar" players, there is only one proven, that being Tennessee's Candace Parker.

That's not a slight to the rest of the Orange Crush or to the Huskies, in particular Charde Houston, whom we know has superstar potential.

But that's actually part of why there's a little different kind of excitement for this UConn-Tennessee showdown. There's more "unknown" than has typically been the case. Who will step forward in this game?

And Auriemma thinks this matchup is more about the two programs in their current incarnation than it is about any of the various past "subplots."

"It started out with Connecticut vs. Tennessee," he said. "Then it became 'Pat and Geno.' And I think it's going back to Connecticut-Tennessee. The focus is back on the success of the teams.

"If Charde Houston was a first-team All-American last year, and everybody thought it was a battle between her and Candace Parker, then all the focus would be on those two. It's always got to be something, and this year -- for good reason, I think -- it's our team against their team. I kind of like it that way."

The Huskies have no seniors. Now that Ann Strother, Barbara Turner, Willnett Crockett and Nicole Wolff are gone, there's no current UConn player with a national championship ring -- nor a victory over Tennessee.

It will be the first experience with the Blue-Orange circus for freshmen such as UConn's Kaili McLaren and Tina Charles, as well as for Tennessee's freshman, Cait McMahan, and juco transfers Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste.

Beyond that, even several of the players who have played in this rivalry before are in bigger roles now. UConn guard Mel Thomas took only two shots in 27 minutes in last year's game at Tennessee. Fellow guard Renee Montgomery didn't take any shot in 23 minutes.

Reporters somewhat gently brought up that topic to Montgomery. She let everybody know, though, that it was all right not to sugarcoat it.

"I was terrible -- it's OK," Montgomery said, smiling ruefully. "I felt bad for letting my teammates down and embarrassed how I played. I felt like I was the direct cause of losing the game, because we lost by two points and I had a lot of turnovers and I didn't shoot the ball. You can't have a point guard who plays bad in a big game like that."

Actually, UConn lost by nine and Montgomery only had two turnovers. But regardless of the specifics, it was a hard lesson learned. She responded, scoring in double figures 12 times after that loss last season, including 15 in the Elite Eight loss to Duke. She has scored in double figures 10 of 12 games this season.

As one of the Huskies who has been through this ultimate rivalry game before, she's ready for what's coming. Even so, she acknowledges it's still a feeling that will always be near the top of any that she will experience in college basketball.

"When you first step out on the court, it's like 'Wow, I'm really playing in this game,' " Montgomery said. "Because it's a big deal."

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.

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