When it comes to bitter memories, first things first for Tennessee.
The No. 9 Lady Vols (15-3, 5-0 SEC) are in Nashville tonight to face SEC/instate women's basketball rival Vanderbilt (13-5, 3-2) at Memorial Gymnasium (TV: SportSouth, 9 p.m.). They've returned to the scene of last season's 93-79 loss to the Commodores, who parlayed 24 layups into a thrashing that left UT humbled and embarrassed.
Senior Taber Spani recalled the bus ride home as "awful." But this year's team is almost evenly divided between those who were slumped in a seat on the same bus and those who weren't. Spani suggested that the history might be better used as instruction instead of motivation.
"A lot of the people who were a big key to that game and to that season aren't here anymore," Spani said. "Yes, we'll learn from it and talk about what went wrong, things we need to address, whatever. But it's not something we'll focus on."
Presumably, the same will hold true for Monday's visit from No. 2 Notre Dame. The Irish converted 14 second-half layups into a 72-44 mauling of UT on Jan. 23 last season, in South Bend, Ind. They began the layup drill that ended with Tennessee's Memorial misadventures 17 days later.
Spani doesn't remember any bus rides associated with the Notre Dame loss. The result did follow the team home, however, taking up residence in the
team locker room, thanks to the handiwork of the team managers and others.
"Probably a million pieces of paper with the score on it taped everywhere," she said. "It stayed up for awhile."
When considering those experiences, Spani prioritizes in terms of UT's schedule. Vanderbilt is up next. The opponent is a factor as well. The Commodores aren't just any foe, especially on the road.
"That's always a circled game for us," she said.
Spani was echoing the sentiment of head coach Holly Warlick.
"Holly is not going to let us forget that rivalry, what that means to this program," Spani said. "I mean she hates Vanderbilt — in a nice way. And I think it's mutual. You don't hate the people. You just hate the rivalry."
Speaking for herself during Tuesday's media availability, Warlick said that she will reference last season's loss. Some of the circumstances surrounding the outcome remain relevant today.
"Our defense has to get so much better," Warlick said. "To me, we're not even close yet."
In the midst of an eight-game winning streak, the coaches have tried to raise the players' level of concern about their play. After last Thursday's lackluster 75-66 victory at Auburn, the staff addressed the team on Friday. Assistant coach Dean Lockwood entitled their talk "the responsibility of greatness."
"Knowing if you want to be a great team, you can't play in spurts," he said. "You can't have some times when it's OK to play hard and sometimes, even when you have big leads or whatever, to not play hard, to not defend. It's an all-the-time thing."
Tuesday's practice revisited those talking points in relentless fashion. Although the Lady Vols won't have to defend Vanderbilt center Stephanie Holzer — who's out for the season with a knee injury — Tiffany Clarke, Christina Foggie and Jasmine Lister await them tonight. On the last visit, they combined for 64 points, not to mention a lot of bitter memories.