Commentary

Is now the time for Auburn vs. Vols?

Originally Published: January 23, 2009
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

The Southeastern Conference, we all know, has been a traditionally strong women's hoops league. Year after year, even in the supposed "down" seasons, it shows come NCAA tournament time. Not to mention the long-term proof that is provided by the success of SEC players in the WNBA.

[+] EnlargeDeWanna Bonner
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIDeWanna Bonner, one of the most interesting players in the country to watch, is averaging 8.6 rebounds and 20.2 points on 51 percent shooting from the field.

And yet … Tennessee has all these nutty streaks and obscene series records against the other SEC teams.

It's part of why Tennessee is an eight-time national champion. And why coach Pat Summitt is closing in on 1,000 wins -- she's at 998. While familiarity might breed contempt among Tennessee's league foes, it sure hasn't bred much success.

Mississippi State pushed Tennessee on Jan. 15 in Starkville … and still lost 63-56 to make the series record 0-29. Arkansas gave Summitt's crew a run for its money in Fayetteville on Thursday … and still fell 76-67, making the series mark 1-20.

Alabama is 2-40, with both victories coming during President Reagan's first term in the White House. Florida and South Carolina are also "Little Deuce Coupes" to Tennessee's tractor-trailer. The Gators are 2-37, and the Gamecocks (who challenged Tennessee on Sunday but lost 68-56; do you sense a trend?) are 2-40.

The most successful SEC foes against the Orange Crush are Georgia (14-39) and LSU (11-37), but … we must also point out that when those programs have met Tennessee in the Final Four, you-know-who won.

Then … there's Vanderbilt, which endures a special kind of vexation among Tennessee's victims in that the Commodores have to share the same state. But at least this season, Vandy has broken the spell.

The Dores improved their series record to 7-52 against the "Plague from Knoxville" with a 74-58 victory on Jan. 11. And after that win, Vandy coach Melanie Balcomb acknowledged that in preparation, she finally decided to try something different: not to treat Tennessee as "just another game." To talk with her players about how big a deal it was, to surround everyone with orange, to get super-hyped in practice, to simulate how loud the crowd would be for this matchup.

It worked … which brings us to another approach to try to beat Tennessee. How about being experienced, confident and just plain ready?

That might be the case for Auburn on Sunday (ESPN360.com, 2 p.m. ET). Mind you, coach Nell Fortner and the Tigers are going into the game with the usual ocean liner full of respect for the juggernaut. But by the same token, Auburn -- OK, let's go ahead and say this -- should win this game.

The Tigers are one of two undefeated teams left, along with No. 1 Connecticut. Auburn is 19-0, ranked No. 5 and has four senior starters, including one of the most interesting players in the country to watch, 6-foot-4 senior DeWanna Bonner.

Thursday in an 84-66 victory over Alabama, Bonner had 24 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds. One play in particular was a "wow" moment -- when she took a pass in transition, did a spin move in the lane and hit a left-handed layup while drawing contact for a 3-point play. It was a yell-out-loud moment if you were watching in person or on TV.

"It's not that those moves or passes that she does, you haven't seen before from a player," Fortner said. "It's because of her unique build that makes it so different. You just don't expect someone with her build to be capable of doing some of those things.

"But DeWanna Bonner came up playing basketball as a guard, so her ballhandling skills are very, very good. It allows her to do a lot more on the floor than most kids that are 6-4 like her."

The other player who really stood out for Auburn on Thursday was guard Whitney Boddie, who had 12 points and 12 assists. She has a smooth certainty to her play that spreads confidence to her teammates.

And confidence is exactly what a team needs to break through the Orange Wall. It has been built quite large against Auburn, too. The Tigers trail the series 8-32, and have lost 24 of their past 25 (including 16 in a row) against Tennessee. And, you guessed it, Tennessee beat Auburn when they met in the Final Four (1989 NCAA championship game).

Auburn's last victory in the series came in 1997, during the SEC tournament when the Tigers made their surprising run to win that title (and, ahem, the same year Tennessee then won its fifth NCAA title. Talk about one-upping).

Fortner has lost her six previous meetings with Tennessee at Auburn by an average of 20 points.

"They are big, long; they can cover a lot of space," Fortner said. "They have very good shooters. They have a tremendous amount of talent, but just younger than what Pat Summitt has had in the past. But they are still very, very good."

So is Auburn, though. It's expected the game could be a sell-out at Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum. However, that doesn't automatically work in the favor of the home-team Tigers. Tennessee is very used to huge crowds, home and road. Auburn is not.

Still … it's as good a time as any in recent history for Auburn to add to the victory ledger in the battle with the SEC's giant.

"I really think that you have to have a team that has some confidence about themselves and some experience in playing Tennessee, and right now that is what we have," Fortner said. "You don't have that every year with your team, but this year this particular team has it. Because I have three players on the floor that have started since they were freshmen, and now they're seniors. So they have a lot of history with Tennessee.

"They haven't beaten them, but they have stepped on the floor with Tennessee with a lot of experience, history, and they understand what is going on here."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com/.

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