Texas and Tennessee face big questions as rivalry resumes

Evina Westbrook and Tennessee have had to rally in a handful of games to keep their undefeated record intact. Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire

The matchup has been renewed every season since 1982. And at different times, one or both teams have entered the game as powerhouses. This year, both come in ranked in the top 15 in the country, but are still trying to figure out the true personality of their teams minus senior departures from last season and guards they expected to have this season.

No. 9 Tennessee travels to No. 12 Texas on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The Lady Vols are 7-0 after a difficult 65-55 victory over now 1-7 Stetson on Wednesday in which they had to rally from 20 points down. Texas is 7-1, with its loss to No. 6 Mississippi State.

"It was a tale of two halves, and our defense the first two quarters was non-existent," Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said of the Stetson game. "But our team is resilient. When you go into the second half and get 13 stops in a row, you understand the importance of defense and rebounding."

They'll need both at Texas, a place where Tennessee really can't afford another lethargic start. For Tennessee, this will be the first of two long-term, nonconference rivalry games in a row: After a finals week break in competition, the Lady Vols will host No. 11 Stanford on Dec. 18. That series dates to 1988, and includes three meetings in the NCAA tournament, including the 2008 national championship game.

Strangely, Tennessee and Texas have never met in the postseason. They first played on Dec. 8, 1978, on a neutral court at Missouri, which was hosting an event called the Midwestern Classic. The Lady Vols were No. 1 and the Longhorns No. 10 then, being coached by legends Pat Summitt and Jody Conradt, respectively, and Tennessee won 84-60.

Then their home-and-home yearly series started Dec. 9, 1982, in Austin, Texas, and has continued every season since. Tennessee leads the series 24-15, including an 82-75 victory last season. Texas won the three meetings before that.

The history is important because the programs have been so key in the long-term development of women's basketball and women's college athletics in general. But this season represents new chapters for both the Lady Vols and Longhorns.

Tennessee lost Jaime Nared and Mercedes Russell from last season; both are now in the WNBA, with Russell winning a league title with Seattle this summer. Her Storm team won the WNBA Finals over Washington, which featured rookie Ariel Atkins of Texas. The Longhorns also lost another standout guard, former Big 12 Player of the Year Brooke McCarty, to graduation.

The Lady Vols, who went 25-8 and lost in the NCAA tournament's second round to Oregon State last season, were expecting to have back all the freshmen who contributed a year ago. But 5-foot-7 guard Anastasia Hayes was dismissed from the program in August for a violation of team rules after averaging 9.3 points and 3.5 assists in 2017-18. She was named SEC sixth woman of the year last season.

However, two sophomores are leading the way: Evina Westbrook (15.7 points per game) and Rennia Davis (15.3). Another sophomore, Kasiyahna Kushkituah, has started five games and is averaging 10.6 PPG and 6.2 rebounds per game, but she has missed the past two games with injury and is considered day-to-day.

Tennessee is undefeated, but the Lady Vols have been walking a tightrope the past few games. They had to go to overtime to beat UAB on Nov. 24 in the Bahamas. Sunday, Tennessee was down 43-40 at halftime at Oklahoma State, but the Lady Vols won 76-63 after a strong defensive third quarter.

Then Wednesday, Tennessee got into that big hole at home against Stetson of the Atlantic Sun conference. Westbrook and Davis rallied the Lady Vols, combining for 44 points.

"Probably the third and fourth quarters, we pushed the ball more," Warlick said. "But you've got to get off to a good start. Texas is good, very athletic. We always have a pretty tough game with them. We're two similar teams: athletic, run the ball, rely on defense and rebounding. I thought Oklahoma State helped us prepare for Texas."

The Longhorns lost current senior guard Lashann Higgs to a season-ending knee injury suffered in their victory over Quinnipiac in the Gulf Coast Showcase in Florida, a tournament they went on to win. Higgs was averaging a team-leading 13.8 points when she was hurt, a big blow considering her backcourt experience was particularly valuable with the loss of Atkins and McCarty.

Senior post player Jatarie White (12.0 PPG, 5.1 RPG) and junior guard Sug Sutton (10.1 PPG, 6.3 APG) lead Texas, which advanced to the Sweet 16 last season. Texas coach Karen Aston said she hoped that the Longhorns learned something from their 67-49 loss to Mississippi State on Dec. 2. They've had a week to prepare for Tennessee.

"I think the thing that jumped out to me pretty quickly is just how much more physical Mississippi State was than our team," Aston said. "I think that has to do with several things. I don't think we're the most physical team that I've coached. But it also has to do with some youth and inexperience.

"They were physical and beating us to spots. We'll see a very similar type team that will try to get us off our path and make us uncomfortable in Tennessee."