Preview: Will new Husky Evina Westbrook put on a show vs. former Lady Vols?


NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 23 Div I Women’s Championship - First Round - Tennessee v UCLA
Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Head coach Kellie Harper and the Tennessee Lady Volunteers fell to Geno Auriemma and the Connecticut Huskies in Hartford last season. In 2020-21, Rae Burrell, Rennia Davis and Jordan Horston of Tennessee hope for a different outcome against Paige Bueckers, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams.

Since losing to the West Virginia Mountaineers in overtime on Dec. 6, the No. 25 Tennessee Lady Volunteers (9-2, 3-1 SEC) have been on the rise, with a 67-66 loss to the now-No. 22 Georgia Bulldogs on Jan. 14 being the single blip.

The Lady Vols beat the No. 16 Indiana Hoosiers on Dec. 17 and the No. 15 Arkansas Razorbacks on Jan. 7. They also bounced back from the loss against Georgia and on Sunday defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide 82-56.

The vibe surrounding Tennessee this year is similar to the one it had last year while ranked in the 20s for 12 weeks and never climbing higher than No. 17 before falling out of the rankings for the final two weeks of the season: The Lady Vols are a good team, but not a great one.

The one difference this year: The Lady Vols have had better success against teams ranked ahead of them. And if they can defeat the No. 3 UConn Huskies (8-0, 7-0 Big East) on Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET, people’s perceptions of them could change drastically.

This big-time matchup between the Lady Vols and Huskies will air on ESPN, showcasing another installment in the series between the two best women’s basketball programs in NCAAW women’s basketball history.

Tennessee head coach Kellie Harper, in her second season at the helm, will seek to avenge the Lady Vols’ 60-45 loss to UConn last season.

Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma is much more accustomed to the rivalry than Harper, and on Tuesday, he passed former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt for second on the all-time NCAAW Division I wins list.

However, the Huskies enter this one somewhat untested.

Outside of the No. 18 DePaul Blue Demons, whom they defeated 75-52 on Dec. 29, the Huskies — because of COVID-19-related cancellations and postponements — haven’t faced stiff competition this season. Instead, their wins have come against the likes of the UMass Lowell River Hawks of the America East Conference and unranked Big East teams. UConn’s scheduled games against the No. 1 Louisville Cardinals and No. 9 Baylor Lady Bears, necessary proving battles for the championship-minded, both failed to come to fruition.

As a result, UConn has been cruising along, with No. 1 Hoop Gurlz recruit Paige Bueckers making a name for herself early on. Bueckers leads the team with 18.1 points, 5.5 assists and 2.9 steals per game. She is also second on the team with 5.6 rebounds per contest. Olivia Nelson-Ododa (16.5 points per game) and Christyn Williams (14.9) have helped Bueckers the most in the scoring column.

UConn’s fourth-leading scorer, Evina Westbrook, is a former Lady Vol who will be playing against Tennessee for the first time.

Tennessee is led in scoring by Rae Burrell’s 16.7 points per game and followed by Rennia Davis’ 14.2. But Davis leads the team with 8.3 rebounds per game, while Jordan Horston (9.5 points) leads the way in distributing four assists per contest.


Game Information

No. 3 UConn Huskies (8-0, 7-0 Big East) vs. No. 25 Tennessee Lady Volunteers (9-2, 3-1 SEC)

When: Thursday, Jan. 21, at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, TN

How to watch/listen: ESPN/Radio: 97-9 ESPN or TuneIn (UConn) or Tennessee’s athletics site

Key to the matchup: Rebounding. It’s the one area where Tennessee has a slight advantage statistically, but it also is probably a bigger advantage than what the stats show because Tennessee (15 rebounding margin) plays in the SEC and UConn (14.6 rebounding margin) plays in the Big East.

Tennessee will need to perform well on glass to make up for UConn’s dominance in other areas, while the Huskies will want to stamp out the Lady Vols’ one weakness.

Reason to watch: UConn head coach Geno Auriemma recently passed legendary Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt on the all-time wins list. Tune in to see how the Tennessee crowd and team acknowledge the feat and stay for what should be a great game of basketball.