Top-ranked Connecticut stepped onto the floor of Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena today for pregame warm-ups and the Huskies were immediately showered with boos. The crowd grew to 20,789 by game time and the Tennessee fans turned up the pressure and kept it that way for most of the game.
Sophomore guard Sue Bird felt none of the heat. In fact, she said, "it was a lot of fun."
Bird scored a career-high 25 points to help Connecticut survive serious foul trouble and the pressure-packed atmosphere for a 74-67 victory over second-ranked Tennessee.
Bird made 8 of 10 shots from the field and 7 of 8 free throws to help Connecticut (12-0) avenge a 92-81 loss to Tennessee last Jan. 10 in Storrs, Conn. Bird watched that game from the bench while recovering from knee surgery.
"I was dying to be out there," Bird said of last season's meeting. "It was hard to sit there and know you can't do anything about it . . . not that I'm saying we would have won if I played that game."
Bird's teammates, however, said they wouldn't have won today without her key shots or her poise bringing the ball upcourt against Tennessee's pressure defense. "She took over the game for us today," Connecticut junior Shea Ralph said.
Bird rescued Connecticut when it looked as though the Huskies might collapse in the second half under the weight of foul trouble and Tennessee's refusal to quit. The Lady Vols, who trailed 52-40 with 16 minutes 10 seconds to play, pulled within 55-50 with 9:21 left as two of the Huskies' top players--Ralph and center Paige Sauer--sat on the bench with four fouls.
The crowd was on its feet, but Bird silenced the din with a three-pointer from the top of the key with 7:26 to play to make it 58-50. After a Tennessee field goal, Bird broke the Lady Vols' press and got into the lane, where she faked Kara Lawson (West Springfield) into the air and ducked under for a basket to make it 60-52.
Following a Tennessee miss, Bird got free for a three-pointer at the top of the key and dropped it in with six minutes to play to give Connecticut a 63-52 lead.
"People are shocked when they see [her intensity]," said Huskies Coach Geno Auriemma, "because she doesn't look like she has it. She has it."
The Lady Vols (11-2) made one more run, pulling within 63-60 with 3:53 to play when the Huskies went 3:03 without a point. But with 2:57 to play, the game turned back to the Huskies on a bizarre play.
Tennessee center Michelle Snow missed a shot inside and was fouled. As she walked to the foul line, she slammed the ball down behind her and was called for a technical foul. She missed both free throws. Bird went to the other end and made 1 of 2 technical foul shots to give Connecticut a 64-60 lead. The Lady Vols came no closer.
"I didn't know they gave [a technical] out on offense," Snow said. "I think that possession cost us the game. I was trying to get as much enthusiasm as I could in the gym and trying to get the game going our way."
Tennessee might have had the game going its way with better free throw shooting. The Lady Vols, who entered the game connecting on 70 percent of their free throws, made just 19 of 33 (57.6 percent) today. Tennessee also didn't get much production from all-American forward Tamika Catchings, who made just 3 of 9 shots and finished with eight points, half of her average.
"I'm not mad at this team," said Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, whose team won its last five games by an average of 34 points. "I'm just really disappointed we didn't play the way today that we have been playing the last five games."