KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — For the first time in nearly a quarter century, Stanford and Tennessee are facing off with neither of these traditional women’s basketball powers ranked in the top five.
The seventh-ranked Cardinal (6-3) and 11th-ranked Lady Volunteers (8-2) have legitimate Final Four aspirations, but both teams are still sorting things out as they head into Saturday’s game at Thompson-Boling Arena.
This marks the 32nd matchup between these two programs, but the only other time they’ve met with both teams outside the top five came when No. 7 Tennessee beat No. 8 Stanford 84-77 on Dec. 30, 1990. They faced each other again later that season in the Final Four, with Tennessee going on to win the 1991 national title.
“If Tennessee and Stanford were 0-10, it would still be a huge game for, I think, both of us,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “I know it would be for us. It’s going to be a battle. I think it’s going to be a typical Tennessee-Stanford game.”
The rankings of these teams reflect the increased parity in women’s basketball. According to STATS LLC, the last time Stanford, Tennessee and two-time defending national champion Connecticut had at least seven combined losses before Christmas was the 1998-99 season. Those three teams will have at least seven combined losses after Saturday’s game.
In fact, this latest edition of the Tennessee-Stanford series could effectively serve as a consolation game for the Chattanooga Christmas Classic taking place about a two-hour drive southwest of Thompson-Boling Arena. Chattanooga, which had never defeated a top-10 team before this season, upset Tennessee 67-63 last month and surprised Stanford 54-46 on Wednesday.
“We’re counting on our players to have some pride and come out and compete at a high level on Saturday,” Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said after the Chattanooga game. “I know our coaches are going to really look at our lineups. … We’re going to have to really re-evaluate who’s out there and what we’re doing.”
— Tennessee guard Ariel Massengale
This game could come down to which team gets better outside shooting.
Stanford started the week leading the nation in 3-point percentage (.434), but it has gone just 8 of 36 from beyond the arc over its past two games. Tennessee, which is seeking its fifth consecutive victory, has made just 30.5 percent of its 3-point shots to rank 11th out of 14 Southeastern Conference teams.
Tennessee has lost its past three meetings with Stanford because of its inability to slow down the Ogwumike sisters, who are both now in the WNBA. Nneka Ogwumike scored 42 points in a 97-80 victory against the Lady Vols in 2011. Chiney Ogwumike had 21 points and 19 rebounds in a 73-60 win at Tennessee in 2012, and she followed that up with 32 points and 20 boards in a 76-70 triumph last season.
The Lady Vols don’t have to deal with the Ogwumike sisters anymore, but Stanford’s current players also have done some damage in this series. Lili Thompson scored 14 points and helped Stanford shoot 7 of 11 from 3-point range in last year’s game.
Tennessee’s roster doesn’t include a single player who has ever beaten Stanford in this annual December matchup.
“We talk about going home happy for Christmas,” Tennessee guard Ariel Massengale said. “It’s been three years where we haven’t had the chance to do that.”
Warlick said junior forward Jasmine Jones and sophomore guard Andraya Carter should be available Saturday. Jones didn’t play Tuesday in a 54-51 victory against Wichita State after hitting her head in a 55-45 triumph at Rutgers two days earlier. Carter was helped off the court late in the Wichita State game.