Commentary

Stanford falls to Tennessee -- again

Originally Published: December 19, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

The Stanford-Tennessee series has been an exercise in masochism for Cardinal women's basketball fans. There's just no other way to put it.

The years go by, the players change … but the result mostly stays the same: Tennessee finds a way to come out on top, and Stanford people spend the rest of the day/night cursing their existence.

[+] EnlargeMeighan Simmons
AP Photo/Wade PayneFreshman Meighan Simmons had a team-high 23 points for Tennessee, which shot 7-for-14 on 3-pointers.

Such was the case again Sunday. Pat Summitt's sixth-ranked crew rebuffed the No. 2 Cardinal in Knoxville, Tenn., preventing coach Tara VanDerveer's 800th career victory with an 82-72 overtime win.

The series is now 22-6 in Tennessee's favor, and Stanford's only victory against Tennessee in Knoxville remains that of December 1996, when Kate Starbird and Jamila Wideman were leading the Cardinal.

That Stanford triumph was one of the few exceptions in this series, as was last year's 67-52 Cardinal win in Maples Pavilion, when VanDerveer's squad was the more aggressive team and outworked Tennessee on the boards.

Also of recent vintage in Stanford's favor was a 73-69 overtime win in 2007, a game in which the Cardinal gave Tennessee a taste of its own medicine with more physical play.

But before that one, Stanford had lost 11 straight in the series, some in excruciating fashion.

The series dates back to December 1988. It so happens that every time Stanford has defeated Tennessee in the regular season, the Cardinal have gone on to the Final Four. Stanford won two of those, with NCAA titles in 1990 and 1992.

Hmm … maybe this is part of the karmic hex Tennessee seems to have on the Cardinal: Stanford's first national championship actually came in Thompson-Boling Arena, in 1990. Stanford didn't have to beat Tennessee there, though, as Virginia had done that in the regional final.

Hosting that Final Four without playing in it was a supreme misery for Tennessee, which has been taking it out on Stanford ever since.

This vexing history with Tennessee is its own chapter in VanDerveer's great career, which will sooner or later produce her 800th win. It's not exactly going out on a limb to predict "sooner": Wednesday at San Francisco, coached by Stanford playing legend Jennifer Azzi.

It won't be a home game, but it'll be a lot like one. And after the Cardinal's road-trip frustration at DePaul (91-71 loss Thursday) and at Tennessee, we send our condolences to the San Francisco players.

Tennessee was coming off its own frustration, though, having lost 65-54 at Baylor on Tuesday. That was a game in which Tennessee was ragged offensively, and even seemed a bit intimidated by Baylor's post players, led by Brittney Griner.

Combine that with all the attention UConn is getting for 88 wins in a row, and you can imagine there has been some serious indigestion lately in Rocky Top. For the Orange faithful, a loss to those eggheads from Stanford would have been the last straw as far as Christmas being officially ruined. (Despite sacrificial victim East Tennessee State coming to Knoxville on Wednesday.)

But with Sunday's victory in pocket, despite the game's ups and down, Tennessee and its fans will enter the holiday break with more bounce in their steps. Rutgers, which stunk up Madison Square Garden with 15 percent shooting in the first half of a loss to Texas A&M on Sunday, visits Knoxville on Dec. 30.

Then Tennessee begins its SEC slate at LSU on Jan. 2 and will try to repeat last year's feat of winning the league regular-season and tournament titles. Indeed, this victory over Stanford does change for the better the complexion of things at Tennessee.

Summitt saw her team lose an eight-point halftime lead Sunday and trail by six with 6 minutes left in regulation against the Cardinal. But some big plays by freshman guard Meighan Simmons -- none bigger than her 3-pointer with 50 seconds left in regulation to tie the score -- were key for Tennessee's victory.

Once again, Tennessee's interior game was not strong offensively: Glory Johnson, Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain combined for 12 points. But the perimeter players -- led by Simmons' 23 points -- came through. Angie Bjorklund scored 16, Shekinna Stricklen 15 and Taber Spani 10.

A guard also led Stanford, as Jeanette Pohlen had 24 points before fouling out early in the overtime period. With fellow senior Kayla Pedersen not 100 percent after returning from a head injury -- she missed the DePaul game -- Stanford needed Pohlen on the floor every second. Which she was until fouling out.

Pedersen still managed 10 points, but made just three of 16 shots. Nneka Ogwumike had 20 points and 10 rebounds, but it was more a learning experience for her little sister Chiney, who had seven and two.

Stanford was called for 25 fouls to Tennessee's 16, and had 17 turnovers to Tennessee's 12. Both those stats contributed to it being an unpleasant plane ride home for the Cardinal.

The last thing VanDerveer is thinking about now is trying to stop UConn, although that Dec. 30 matchup at Maples has been circled on everyone's calendar for months.

Unless Florida State or Pacific has something almost earth-shatteringly shocking up its sleeve, the Huskies will come to Stanford with the streak at 90. After what's expected to be a punishment of San Francisco, the Cardinal have a big test against Xavier at Maples on Dec. 28 before UConn truly enters VanDerveer's radar.

If nothing else, Stanford helped redeem Sunday's women's hoops action after the blowout wins by UConn and Texas A&M at the Maggie Dixon Classic in New York. The Cardinal did make their game with Tennessee very exciting.

But they've done that plenty of times. It's the victories against Tennessee that have been elusive.

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.

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