- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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Tennessee is not often the underdog, but when it comes to Connecticut, the Lady Vols haven't had much recent success.
Over the last five meetings, in fact, there has been none. UConn beat then-No. 1 Tennessee 81-67 in Knoxville on Feb. 5. The Lady Vols have scored just one victory over the Huskies since Diana Taurasi arrived in Storrs.
And that's why Tennessee coach Pat Summitt's facing one of her toughest, and certainly most urgent, tasks as a coach Tuesday when Connecticut and Tennessee clash in the NCAA title game (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) for the second straight year.
More than anything, Summitt must make the Lady Vols believe they can beat UConn. When the teams are introduced, Tennessee's players must be able to look the Huskies in the eye and know they have a shot at preventing UConn's bid for a threepeat.
Of course, Summitt has always been good at devising excellent game plans for the opponent. She has never struggled to break down the Xs and Os and can sell her strategies with conviction. She won't be a cheerleader and tell her players they can win. Rather, she'll be more specific, and give them two or three things to focus on that will lead to the win, such as rebounding, pushing tempo and hitting the outside shot.
Tennessee certainly has fortitude. The Lady Vols keep finding way to pull out wins in this NCAA Tournament, and if the game is close, they have proven they can find a way to win in crunch time.
But no matter how well Summitt prepares her team, it's still up to the players to perform come tipoff, and Tennessee's biggest problem is its inconsistency. Shyra Ely, the team's leading rebounder and scorer, missed her first eight shots in Sunday's semifinal win over LSU and finished just 1-for-11 for four points. Post Ashley Robinson attempted just three shots and tallied two points. Tennessee also missed all six of its first-half 3-point attempts and finished with 25 percent accuracy from downtown.
And though Tennessee is riding a great wave of momentum after winning its last three games on last-second shots, the Lady Vols are undoubtedly wondering if the magic can continue. Tennessee has beaten UConn once in the past four years -- a 92-88 win at home on Feb. 1, 2001 -- but seniors Tasha Butts, LaToya Davis and Ashley Robinson weren't major players in that victory. Butts and Davis combined for seven minutes but no points, while Robinson tallied five points in 19 minutes.
But Butts, Davis and Robinson were a part of that home rout just two months ago, and they certainly haven't forgotten losing to UConn in last year's national championship. That's an incredible mental hurdle to overcome.
To be successful against UConn, Tennessee's bigs need to score 20 points and grab 15 or 16 rebounds, and take advantage of their height advantage in the paint. They need to attack the rim and rebound with UConn, push tempo yet know when to look for the secondary break, get some ball reversal and look for Shanna Zolman and Butts to hit some outside shots.
Everything has to go right, and Tennessee must play its A-game.
Taurasi and Connecticut's backcourt players have a slight edge over their Tennessee counterparts, especially if Ann Strother plays as well as she did Sunday (4-for-7, nine points). Nobody can stop Taurasi; she's like having Michael Jordan on your team.
UConn's guards are better shooters -- their tremendous range can really stretch an opponent's defense -- and they can post up more effectively. Maria Conlon isn't flashy and rarely gets enough credit for how effectively she gets the ball to the right people, but she does what she needs to do, and even a few outside shots from her will keep the opposing defense honest.
Again, Tennessee's posts are suspect because of their inconsistency. And that could mean trouble because Jessica Moore, Ashley Battle and Barb Turner grabbed every big rebound Sunday. If there was a hustle rebound, they got it. Moore also is playing very well. Watch for her to go left off the dribble. She loves doing it, and no one has been able to stop it.
Neither team relies much on its bench, though UConn got a combined 17 points and eight rebounds from Battle and Willnett Crockett on Sunday. Sidney Spencer (seven points in the semis) has been Tennessee's top reserve.
More than anything, expect a very physical battle. There's a lot of pride on the line. These players know each other very well, and many of them have been teammates on various USA basketball youth teams.
And of course, there's the Pat vs. Geno factor. And no matter what she might say to the contrary, Summitt hates the fact that Auriemma seems to be "catching up" to her. Ultimately, Summitt is a competitor, and she's keenly aware that a win Tuesday would give Auriemma his fifth NCAA title -- just one short of Summitt.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
Pat Summitt must make Tennessee believe it can beat UConn, Nancy Lieberman writes.