Tennessee honored its past in women's basketball Monday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. Notre Dame celebrated its present.
The Lady Vols raised a banner in honor of former coach Pat Summitt in pregame ceremonies as some of their greatest players looked on at courtside. Unfortunately for them, they couldn't script the game.
All-Americans Michelle Marciniak, Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker joined the rest of the crowd in a pregame standing ovation for Summitt, who led the program to eight national championships. But their contributions were limited to cheering.
"I wanted to put them in," UT coach Holly Warlick said with a smile.
Without them, there was no matching up with Notre Dame's present-day All-American, point guard Skylar Diggins. Once past the pregame festivities, she seized center stage, scoring a career-high 33 points as No. 2 Notre Dame pushed its record to 19-1 with a 77-67 victory and won its third consecutive game in a series once dominated by the ninth-ranked Lady Vols (16-4).
Tennessee won the first 20 games in the series —thanks, in part, to those famous alums at courtside. Notre Dame, which has played in the last two national championship games, is now building a tradition of its own with victories like this one and players like Diggins.
"(Tennessee is) the program for years people measured themselves by," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "There probably aren't many teams in the country who have won three in a row against them. I'm really proud of that."
Video highlights of Notre Dame vs Tennessee, Jan. 28, 2013
Another current stat serves as a testament to Notre Dame's newfound elite status. It's the only program to beat established powers Tennessee and Connecticut in the same season three years in succession.
UT looked so helpless in a 28-point loss to Notre Dame last season, its most recent defeat constituted progress.
Another blowout was brewing early in the second half when the Irish stretched its halftime lead from four to 19 points. Just when Tennessee appeared to be falling by the wayside, it forged a surprising comeback that revived the crowd and cut Notre Dame's lead to five points with 3:54 to play.
But it couldn't get any closer and couldn't make up for all the mishaps that left it so far behind midway through the second half.
"This is one of the most competitive teams I've been on," said Tennessee senior Taber Spani. "The heart of this team and the competitiveness got us back in the game."
Warlick applauded both virtues. However, she didn't ignore the shortcomings, which included four missed layups in the first half and way too many lapses on defense against a well disciplined Notre Dame offense.
The same weaknesses were exposed in a 73-60 loss to sixth-ranked Stanford last month.
"It's just not consistent," Warlick said of a vulnerable defense. "At times, I thought we played really well. Then, we give somebody a back-door cut about six times.
"We can't use the excuse that we're young. It's just being disciplined and sticking to the game plan. We've got to get a little tougher and maintain some consistency on the defensive end."
Such failings will be easier to overcome in the SEC, where the Lady Vols remain atop the standings with a 7-0 record. If they face a team as good as Notre Dame again, it will be in the NCAA tournament.
In the meantime, Warlick will be preaching "consistency."
"I love that we didn't give up," she said. "But we've got to get to the point where we play like that all the time.
"We're gonna get there."