There’s a couple ways of looking at Chattanooga’s fast-approaching home opener against No. 20 Tennessee.
On one hand, the Lady Vols are extremely young — three freshmen start — and they’ll be breaking in a new head coach for the first time in nearly four decades inside McKenzie Arena on Friday.
“It’s a big challenge, we know that,” UTC senior Kayla Christopher said. “They’re a great program, but they’re also very young, new head coach, coming to our place. We’re definitely thinking we can win the game.”
On the other, that new coach was an All-American point guard for coaching legend Pat Summitt in the late-1970s, and served as an assistant on Summitt’s staff for 27 years before being handed the keys to one of the top programs in the country.
And those young Lady Vols starters are, as usual, extremely talented.
“They’re as athletic as they’ve ever been,” Chattanooga head coach Wes Moore said. “They graduated some people, but their whole bench is McDonald’s All-Americans. Don’t feel too sorry for them.”
All three of Tennessee’s freshmen starters — forward Jasmine Jones, forward Bashaara Graves and guard Andraya Carter — were among the HoopGurlz Class of 2012 ESPNU 100 Rankings.
“There’s no reason to be scared,” Christopher said. “We’re older than them. That’s what I’ve told everyone. Yeah they play at Tennessee, but we’re older than them. They don’t even know what it’s like. This is their first game.”
To Moore, there’s only one way of looking at it.
“It’s a big opportunity, and that’s the way you have to look at it,” Moore said. “I hope our players are excited about the chance to play one of the top programs in the country, and hopefully we can play at a high level and be prepared to compete.”
In any case, the Lady Mocs are well aware of the game’s significance.
“It’s part of history when you think about it,” said Christopher. “I grew up watching the Lady Vols because I’m from around Knoxville (Oliver Springs, Tenn.). For me to play in the first game without (Pat Summitt), it’s really crazy.”
“To me, if you’re able to knock them off, that’s something you’ll never forget,” said Moore, who is 0-8 against Tennessee.
A win might also help Moore forget the painful memories of Chattanooga’s three-point loss to the Lady Vols in 2008.
UTC held a 63-60 advantage with 3:24 remaining, but a crucial 3-pointer by Alicia Manning — Tennessee’s only 3 in the game — swung the momentum in the Lady Vols’ favor, and they held on for a 66-63 win.
“I told the team (Monday) that I’ll probably never forget that,” Moore said. “That’s why every possession is so important and so critical. Every minute you’re on the court there needs to be a lot of urgency.”
The Lady Mocs’ last two games against Tennessee — both in Knoxville — haven’t been as closely contested. They suffered a 90-47 loss last season, and the Lady Vols rolled in a 104-43 rout two years ago.
“Hopefully the ones that have been here the last couple of years have a short memory and can focus on us,” Moore said. “I think that’s a big thing when you play the Lady Vols; you can’t get caught up with the name on the front of their jerseys. If you do you’re going to be in trouble even before the tip.”
Michael Murphy covers UTC athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelNooga.