Conference rivalry heats up in Regional

Mark Pawlak

Tennessee and Vanderbilt will go at it for a third time this season.

The second-seeded Lady Vols (28-4) and the top-seeded Commodores (30-6) are no strangers to each other as they usually play for national, conference and state supremacy. The winner of this third encounter at 8:30 p.m. tonight in the Midwest Regional Final at Hilton Coliseum will earn a spot in the Final Four.

“We’re excited. It’s always a big game to play against [Tennessee],” Vanderbilt forward Jenni Benningfield said. “At this point in the season, every game is a big game. We just have to come out and execute, play with a lot of emotion and leave our heart on the floor.”

The Lady Vols and the Commodores split their first two meetings of year with each team winning on home court.

Vanderbilt claimed a 76-59 victory in their first meeting Feb. 2 in Nashville. The Commodores took the game over in the second half to break open a 29-29 halftime tie.

Chantelle Anderson scored 22 points and Jillian Danker added 19 to lead Vanderbilt. Tennessee was held to 39.1 percent (25-of-64) shooting from the field.

Two weeks later on Feb. 16 in Knoxville, the Lady Vols took control late in the first half and held off a late Commodore rally to win 75-68.

Kara Lawson led Tennessee with 26 points. The Lady Vols improved its shooting, hitting 27 of 52 (51.9 percent).

This game will be a contrast of styles.

Vanderbilt plays a patient style of offense and leads the nation in field goal shooting at 52.2 percent. Tennessee wants to get up-and-down the court and play a more fast-paced game.

“[Vanderbilt] is very much comfortable and drilled to be patient and have excellent spacing,” Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt said. “We want to score 80 points. They are a team that can score in the 50s and win. We feel we need to score more points. We play an up-and-down tempo.”

The Commodores will try to take advantage of every offensive possession.

“We’re going to play a 40-minute, every-possession game. I don’t think a lot of teams play every-possession games,” Vanderbilt head coach Jim Foster said. “A lot of teams just like to run up and down the floor. When they are extended defensively for a longer period of time than they are used to, then we start to break them down.”

The Commodores advanced to the Elite Eight by defeating fourth-seeded North Carolina 70-61 Saturday.

The Tar Heels (26-9) came into the game wanting to play physical in the paint with the first-team All-American Anderson. Their plan didn’t work as Anderson scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, while hitting 14 of 16 from the foul line.

“It was really tough inside. They decided to throw everyone at me to try to foul and disrupt me,” Anderson said. “Thankfully I was able to step up and hit some big free throws. I was just trying to keep active. I felt a little like Shaq out there [but] I hit my free throws.”

The Lady Vols erased a nine-point first half deficit to end the run of 11th-seeded Brigham Young 68-57 to advance to tonight’s regional final.

Tennessee turned to its superior depth and relied on the contributions of a group of freshmen to stop the Cougars’ (24-9) hope for an upset. Freshman Shyra Ely went on a 12-point run by herself and fellow freshman Loree Moore hit a three-point basket to complete a 15-point Lady Vols run to give them a 35-29 lead late in the first half.

For Tennessee, its bench outscored its starters 43-25 and freshmen Brittany Jackson, Michelle Munoz, Moore and Ely combined for 41 points.

The freshmen stepped up when Tennessee needed them the most.

“We [won] without some of our consistent go-to players all season long playing well,” Summitt said. “I think that speaks to this basketball team’s talent. Our freshmen stepped up.”

The Lady Vols are 37-6 in the series history against Vanderbilt, but the past will mean nothing with a trip to San Antonio on the line.

“Every year, it’s a new team, it’s a new chemistry. It’s different players coming in, so you can’t rely on the past,” Tennessee’s April McDivitt said. “Here we’re playing in the present. Two great teams are going to go at it and fight hard for 40 minutes.”