After her team was soundly defeated, 86-58, in the Mideast Regional semifinals last Saturday, Penn State coach Rene Portland offered this thought on the upcoming UT-Villanova matchup: " (Villanova coach) Harry (Perretta) plays chess, while all the rest of us play Super Nintendo."
I'll carry that metaphor a little further. If teams across the nation are playing Super Nintendo, is Tennessee playing X-Box?
Having watched the Lady Vols through three prior NCAA tournaments, I see no reason not to liken them to that analogy. The Tennessee team that has taken the court in the opening four rounds of this postseason is playing like the strongest action figure with the highest-intensity type of basketball.
In short, the Lady Vols are playing the best basketball they've played in years - the best consecutive stretch of games since the 1998 undefeated National Champs played. In fact, the 2003 version of Tennessee basketball doesn't pale in comparison.
Through four rounds, this year's team is defeating opponents by an average of 33.5 points per game. Tennessee rolled through first round opponent Alabama State 95-43, cruised against Virginia 81-51 in the second round, stopped Kelly Mazzante and Penn State in the Sweet 16 and then blasted into the Final Four with a 73-49 win over No. 2-seeded Villanova on Monday.
There are a number of reasons for the turnaround Tennessee has experienced since the SEC tournament loss to LSU. For one thing, the Lady Vols have emerged as a balanced act - four players average double figures in tournament play, with three others coming off the bench and offering substantial contributions.
The explosion of Shyra Ely in the postseason has affected Tennessee on several levels. Not only do her numbers fill the stat sheet, but her emergence has forced opponents to sag slightly off senior forward Gwen Jackson. Ely served as a sparkplug off the bench throughout the regular season - now she and the rest of the starting lineup are injecting energy into the team from the get-go.
As if the Lady Vols didn't have enough motivation, the Final Four might as well be called the "Lady Vol Revenge Tour." Three of the four teams that defeated UT this season are in the Final Four, while the fourth team, LSU, lost in the Elite 8 to Texas.
Duke, which thumped Tennessee 76-55 in November, is first up. The Blue Devils and Lady Vols square off in Sunday evening's semifinal action.
Mark this down - Tennessee is not the same team it was in November. The postseason Tennessee is the UT of old, the six-national-championships-Tennessee.
Duke, meanwhile, has squeaked through its first four games, winning by an average of only nine points and never getting above 66 points on the scoreboard.
A victory over Duke in the semifinals would pit Tennessee against either UConn, which beat Tennessee 63-62 in overtime in January, or against Texas, which defeated UT by the same 63-62 score three weeks later. Both Lady Vol losses took place on the opponent's court.
The most interesting angle could turn out to be a UT-UT championship game. Imagine the Georgia Dome covered in orange, times two. Not to mention the possibility of two head coaches who are members of the 800-win club meeting in the final.
Regardless of which angle is taken, the key will be whether Tennessee continues playing top-level basketball or selects the lower level on the video game.
If Tennessee stays in "X-Box" mode, they'll add yet another national championship banner to the rafters.
Lady Vols playing X-Box; rest play Super Nintendo
Published: Thu Apr 03, 2003 | Modified: Sat Aug 06, 2005 05:00 p.m.