Sunday, November 27, 2016

Tennessee-Virginia Tech, Round Two

Vanessa Panousis

Welcome back, Lady Vols.

Perennial national power Tennessee,  which opened the 2016-17 season at JMU, will return to the Commonwealth for the second time this month Sunday when the 17th-ranked Lady Vols (3-1) visit Virginia Tech (5-0) at 2 p.m. in Cassell Coliseum.

The eight-time NCAA champion Lady Vols used to make bi-annual visits to Virginia as part of a home-and-home series with Old Dominion that dated back to 1978. But ODU ended that series in 2012 (an idea we weren't crazy about) and hasn't faced one of its most storied rivals ever since.

By contrast, several Hokies are quite familiar with the modern-day Lady Vols. Last season, Tech tattooed Tennessee 57-43 in Knoxville, snapping the home team's 44-game winning streak against unranked non-conference foes.

We're sure the Lady Vols remember - Tennessee coach Holly Warlick made sure of that.

"We're going to bring it up," Warlick said several days ago during her weekly press conference. "We're going to show it. They need to know. They need to feel how they felt after the game, because that style of play and what we did is not acceptable. We're going to understand what we don't need to do. That film will be a great example to us."

In last season's meeting, Tennessee made just 1 of 19 3-pointers as the Lady Vols became increasingly frustrated by Virginia Tech's zone defense and began settling for ill-advised shots.

On Nov. 11, JMU went zone and made similar shots available to Tennessee. The Lady Vols responded by splashing 10 3s during an 81-69 victory. Two days later, they hit 10 more triples in a 30-point home rout of Navy.

But last Sunday, they went just 2 of 19 from deep in a disappointing 70-56 setback at Penn State. We're pretty sure Virginia Tech has reviewed that tape (in addition to talking Xs and Os with his former wingman, JMU head coach Sean O'Regan). So one of the major setups for today is, will Tennessee work to get the shots it wants? Or will the Lady Vols settle for the shots Virginia Tech is cool with them taking?

Last year, Vanessa Panousis went 5 of 8 from 3-point range and led all scorers with 21 points for the Hokies, who trailed Tennessee by a point after three quarters before outscoring the Lady Vols 21-6 over the final 10 minutes.

On Nov. 11, Tennessee led JMU by just two points through three quarters in this year's season opener before pulling away. After the game, Warlick said last year's team probably wouldn't have held on. If pressed, we suspect she would have offered the Tech debacle as Exhibit A to support her claim.

One of Tech's biggest challenges, and not just figuratively, will be dealing with Lady Vols 6-6 center Mercedes Russell, who went for 14 points and 15 rebounds against the Hokies and has been terrific so far in 2016-17.

Tennessee, meanwhile, must come up with an answer for Hokies point guard Chanette Hicks, who has had a sensational run at both ends of the floor in helping the Hokies remain undefeated.

Finally, we're sure Virginia Tech fans will notice the charismatic, classy way the Lady Vols players and coaches (as well as their traveling army of orange-clad fans) conduct themselves throughout their stay in Blacksburg. It's one of the many Tennessee traditions started by the late Pat Summitt that has continued to flourish under Warlick.

Make no mistake - this is still a special program.

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