- Melanie Jackson, Women's Basketball and Women's Soccer
- 0 Shares
Late last month during one of her weekly teleconferences, someone asked Tennessee coach Pat Summitt if she had any advice for Diana Taurasi's "recent struggles."
You couldn't see Summitt's face, but you had a feeling a smile slowly crept across her lips.
"She is going to be just fine," Summitt began. "If you don't believe me, watch the Tennessee-Connecticut game. We tend to bring out the best from her."
Over the past three years, no one has played better against the Lady Vols than UConn's Taurasi, who averages 23.0 points against Tennessee. In that six-game span, the Huskies are 5-1, including four straight victories by an average of 10.8 points. UConn's last loss to Tennessee occurred on Feb. 1, 2001, at Thompson Boling Arena, site of Thursday's meeting between the top-ranked Lady Vols (18-1) and third-ranked UConn (14-2).
Taurasi has scored at least 12 points in every meeting and shoots 52 percent from the field against the Lady Vols.
So what is it about the Orange Nation that gets Taurasi at the top of her game?
"I think Diana just likes playing in big games," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "The more at stake, the better she seems to play. That's been the case her whole career here.
"Tennessee is obviously a big game and we played them, in Diana's career, at moments when a lot was at stake. I don't think it is anything else but that."
UConn boasts a 3-2 mark against Tennessee in Knoxville, and with an 11-6 edge in the all-time series, is one of only three programs to have a winning record against the Lady Vols since Summitt took over the team.
In addition to taking down UConn's arch-rival, Taurasi could topple one of the Huskies' career records on Thursday. She's two 3-pointers shy of becoming UConn's career leader.
Taurasi is also 98 points shy of becoming just the fifth player in Husky history to reach the 2,000-point plateau, and 277 points shy of breaking Nykesha Sales' career scoring record.
Taurasi also stands in third place on UConn's career assists list (28 shy of tying second-place Sue Bird at 585) and in sixth place on UConn's career blocks chart (13 behind Asjha Jones' fifth-place total of 151).
Auriemma's comments from a recent postgame press conference are making waves again.
Auriemma, who chastised (and later apologized to) a campus reporter on national television last March, launched his verbal barbs in another direction last weekend: toward the Huskies' referees.
"The only thing worse than the way we played and the way I coached was the officiating," Auriemma said in Sunday's Hartford Courant.
And bad officiating, in Auriemma's opinion, means too many elbows, moving screens and hard knocks on one very important player in the Huskies' lineup.
"Diana Taurasi is the best player in the country. She gets mugged more in a game than any player I've ever been around in the 19 years I've been here, to the point where it's flagrant most of the time," said Auriemma, who sat out Taurasi after she suffered a blow to the back with eight minutes to play in the first half. "The officiating has been horrible all year long."
Auriemma expects the trend to continue Thursday. One of the refs who officiated Saturday's 82-49 victory over St. John's - which prompted Auriemma's comments -- also will be calling Thursday's contest, along with Sally Bell, who hasn't exactly gotten along with Auriemma on the sidelines in the past.
"I already know who Thursday's (referees) are, and I know exactly what's going to happen. You can write that one in," he said.
"No one wants to write it and say it, but there's a double standard in women's basketball. There's one standard for some of the other high-level teams, and one for Connecticut. I'm not making that up and it's not sour grapes ... and if you don't believe me, just tune in your TVs on Thursday night and check it out."
Tennessee, which is riding an 11-game winning streak, has played 19 games this season. Three of them went into overtime.
While the Lady Vols are 3-0 in the extra period, they haven't faced this many OT games since 1996-97 ... when, despite 10 losses, Tennessee went on to win its second consecutive NCAA title. That season, the Lady Vols were 3-1 in OT games.
Tennessee and UConn have split the two overtime games they've played.
Tennessee is 8-1 against ranked opponents this season (loss to Texas). UConn is 2-1 against ranked foes.
UConn is 3-3 all-time vs. No. 1-ranked opponents, including two straight victories against the nation's top-ranked team.
Summitt, who has more wins than any women's coach, boasts a 839-164 (.83649) career record. Auriemma is 517-101 (.83656).
UConn and Tennessee top the attendance figures so far this season. The Huskies rank first, drawing an average of 14,066 fans, followed by No. 2 Tennessee at 12,323.
Melanie Jackson coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail the Dish at Melanie.J.Jackson.-ND@espn3.com.
18dBonnie D. Ford