Tennessee coach Pat Summitt was on her teleconference this week, answering the same question that she’s answered probably 500 times already this season. Well, maybe not that many, but … a lot. She’ll keep answering it, too. Because as the season goes on, the folks covering other teams will be writing about them facing Tennessee.
And so they’ll ask Summitt about how her players responded to going 22-11 last year and falling in the NCAA tournament’s first round. She’ll answer about how they worked hard over the summer to make up for what happened.
Even though she’s talked about this so much already, when someone asked Wednesday, Summitt didn’t just blah-blah-blah him … she gave him a fresh-sounding answer despite it not being a fresh topic. She brought up things like how the players did interesting workouts, such as “pushing grocery carts with 300-pound weights.”
I hadn’t heard this before, and I immediately thought how helpful it would have been to have a Tennessee player around a few nights previously in the frozen ice-and-snow filled parking lot at my local grocery store. Because at some point – not near my vehicle _ my cart got mired in that junk, and would not budge.
I’m sure if a Tennessee player had been present, she would have have been able to dislodge it and then force it all the way through the lot. But considering I did not spend the summer pushing 300-pound grocery carts, I had to move my vehicle over to the cart, instead of the other way around.
Later in the teleconference, I asked Summitt about the record she has against Mississippi State, the team Tennessee plays Sunday in Starkville, Miss. Tennessee doesn’t just lead the series. It completely owns the series, 30-0. The teams first played in 1986. The Bulldogs have lost some blowouts, but they also have nine losses by 10 points or less to Tennessee.
During All-American LaToya Thomas’ time in Starkville, 1999-2003, the Bulldogs repeatedly came close. Of the teams’ six meetings in that stretch, Mississippi State lost five of them by single digits. The most agonizing of those was the last one: a 76-75 Tennessee escape in the semifinals of the 2003 SEC tournament.
Last year, Tennessee’s “down” season, Mississippi State still couldn’t get rid of the goose egg vs. the Vols, losing in Starkville 63-56 and in Knoxville 82-68.
“It feels like, when I think about the past, it was very, very difficult to get out of (Starkville) with wins on a number of occasions,” Summitt said. “For whatever reason, we’ve had success in closing out the close games.”
Yeah, for “whatever reason.” Riiiiiiiight. The reason is that Tennessee is Tennessee. And even in a season like the past one, when Tennessee wasn’t quite Tennessee, it was still Tennessee enough against Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs have a senior-laden team this year, though, so once again there is a glimmer of hope for the program that this could finally be the year against the Orange Crush. By the same token, though, Tennessee has just one loss and is pretty close to being back to normal.
Mississippi State is the only SEC program to never have beaten Tennessee. Admittedly, Arkansas isn’t in much better shape; the Razorbacks are 1-20 against Tennessee. Alabama is 2-42, South Carolina is 2-41, Florida 3-38. Those records are awful, but they’re not zero.
The only other programs nationwide to have had series with Tennessee anywhere near as long as Mississippi State’s and still not have won are Notre Dame (0-20), Middle Tennessee State (0-18) and DePaul (0-18). Even Memphis (1-26) and UCLA (1-16) had their one game of glory against Tennessee. (For Memphis that was in 1979, for UCLA it was 1981.)
So as phenomenally great a program as Tennessee is, this perfect mark against Mississippi State is still rather weird. In the next post, I’ll offer up a list of other oddball occurrences, streaks or factoids in women’s hoops that have intrigued me over the years.
One thing is for sure about Sunday’s game, though: Summitt will prepare her players as if they are in the program that’s gone 0-30 against their opponent. And Mississippi State will try again, metaphorically, to push a heavy shopping cart through the ice and frozen snow. We’ll see how close they can get it to the vehicle.