Tennessee coach Pat Summitt (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
The winter version of March Madness resumes Saturday for the second-ranked Stanford Cardinal.
Next up: Perhaps the most decorated program in women's basketball — No. 3 Tennessee.
After surviving seventh-ranked Duke and DePaul this week, undefeated Stanford will play host to the Lady Vols in what could preview the Final Four.
Stanford then travels to Hartford, Conn., to face top-ranked Connecticut on Wednesday in the regular season's marquee matchup.
"I've never played a stretch of games like these games," Cardinal senior Rosalyn Gold-Onwude said Tuesday after a 71-55 victory over Duke.
The Cardinal (8-0) will risk its 34-game home winning streak on Saturday against a fast-improving team that struggled last season with seven freshmen. Tennessee was 22-11 last season and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, forcing coach Pat Summitt to redouble her efforts.
"They just thought they were going to put on the orange uniforms and win like many teams have here," Summitt said. "They really had a false impression of who they were as a team.
"When we came back, we went right to practice, and initially they thought it was punishment, but we wanted them to know it was an opportunity to get better because it is unacceptable in our program to do what we did."
The Vols got the message.
Behind the play of guards Shekinna Stricklen (16.0 points per game) and Angie Bjorklund (14.3), Tennessee (9-0) has returned to prominence.
The Vols also have seen solid post play from 6-foot-2 Glory Johnson and 6-6 sophomore Kelley Cain. Stanford's vaunted front line must improve after being outrebounded by Duke 44-39.
"That was an absolute 'F,' " coach Tara VanDerveer said. "We need to get on the glass with more vengeance. Otherwise that could be the breaker right there."
The much-improved Cain provides another challenge for Stanford center Jayne Appel, who has started slowly after returning from minor knee surgery in June. Appel, who led the team last season with 16.1 points per game, is averaging 13.5 this season.
Power forward Nneka Ogwumike (19.9 points) and 6-4 wing Kayla Pedersen (19.5) have led the Cardinal as Appel's numbers slipped.
"Jayne is really coming into her own," VanDerveer insisted. "I don't think Jayne's busted out, she's not had a breakout, get-after-it game."
Now would be a good time to emerge. After Cain, Appel will face Connecticut's 6-4 Tina Charles, who is considered one of the country's best post players.
Appel doesn't worry about the score sheet, though. She is much more concerned about winning. The senior has been reminding teammates that her class is the only one of the current group to have lost at Maples Pavilion.
Winning the 35th consecutive home game won't be easy against a team that owns a 21-5 edge in the national rivalry.
"We haven't held up our end of the bargain in terms of a rivalry," said VanDerveer, who has scheduled Tennessee every year since 1988.
"But I think we've had some good games."