UK Women's Basketball

Lady Vols to test UK women's progress Monday

Tennessee forward Glory Johnson stole the ball from Kentucky's Victoria Dunlap during last year's Southeastern Conference championship. Tennessee won 70-62.
Tennessee forward Glory Johnson stole the ball from Kentucky's Victoria Dunlap during last year's Southeastern Conference championship. Tennessee won 70-62. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Orange is the gold standard in the Southeastern Conference.

"When you hear about the SEC, you hear about Tennessee," senior forward Victoria Dunlap said. "They're a good team; they've always been."

So when No. 5 Tennessee comes to town on Monday night to face No. 16 Kentucky in an ESPN2 "Big Monday" showdown, it's about more than just a basketball game between the SEC's top teams.

It's about UK continuing to show it can compete with the best in the nation, Coach Matthew Mitchell said.

"I'm not sure it's that big of a game for Tennessee," he said. "Tennessee shows up and plays very consistently, and they've done it over and over for many years in this league.

"Tennessee's at the top right now, and we need to take some steps forward because we're trying to get to the top, too," Mitchell said. "It's definitely a big game for us."

It's not just Tennessee's past — eight national titles, 15 SEC championships —that sets the gold standard.

Tennessee is, without a doubt, the best team in the league this season, too.

The Lady Vols have won 12 straight and lead the conference in scoring (80.2 ppg), field-goal percentage (45.9), three-point percentage (36.2), rebounding margin (plus-12.8) and blocked shots (5.6 bpg).

They're winning games by an average of nearly 25 points a game behind their defense, which is first in the league in field-goal percentage and three-point percentage allowed.

But UK is no slack either. The Cats have won seven straight games and are among the best in many of those categories, too.

"Tennessee is the most talented team in our conference, without a doubt," Mitchell said. "We feel like we have some really tough, hard-working players who have talent, too."

Kentucky has Lady Vols Coach Pat Summitt's attention. The Cats took Tennessee to the wire last time out in the SEC championship game.

She knows what UK is capable of.

The Cats lead the league and are fourth in the nation in turnover margin (plus-eight) and lead the conference in steals per game at 11.8, which is 28th best in the nation.

"The one thing they do is, they really push hard in transition," she said last week. "They're going to get up on us. Ball security has got to be at a premium just because of how they play. Just watching their game against Vanderbilt, they were running on every opportunity. That is what really concerns me. We have to pick up early and slow down."

Seven Lady Vols are averaging 7.9 points a game or more with four of those players averaging 11.3 points or better, led by freshman guard Meighan Simmons' 14.8 points a game.

Not surprisingly, since Mitchell got his start as a graduate assistant under Summitt, he also cited rebounding and taking care of the ball as his keys to the game.

"If you see us competing well in those areas, we have a chance to win," Mitchell said.

Mitchell's players are hoping for a packed house of blue and not orange.

They're hoping they can feed off the energy of a big crowd at Memorial Coliseum.

"We have to match their intensity," guard Keyla Snowden said. "They come out and play hard every game, and we need to match that. ... Our energy is what gets us going. It feeds our defense, which leads to our offense."

Tickets still remain

As of late Friday afternoon, Kentucky still had 2,000 tickets available for the game against the Lady Vols.

UK officials said they are concerned that the 9 p.m. start time and the fact that the game is televised on ESPN2 will keep fans from venturing out to see the game at Memorial Coliseum.

UK senior Dunlap hopes that's not the case.

"Our fans are the best in the country, and they'll come out, and they'll be loud," she said. "We count on that."