published Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Miami-UT early top-10 battle

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Here's how Miami women's basketball coach Katie Meier plans to thank Pat Summitt: by beating Tennessee.

If that happens, maybe Summitt will regret that recommendation she made in 2001.

Meier was vying for her first head-coaching job at Charlotte a decade ago. Summitt, the legendary Tennessee coach, made a phone call on Meier's behalf. Not long afterward, Meier got hired, the first step on a path that now brings her to Knoxville for tonight's early-season showdown between the seventh-ranked Hurricanes (1-0) and the third-ranked Lady Vols (1-0).

"She's done that for 1,000 people," Meier said. "So it meant a lot just to schedule this game. And I know it's going to be emotional and inspirational."

For a whole bunch of reasons, that is.

Summitt announced before the season that she has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, news that rocked the close-knit women's basketball world, Meier included. The diagnosis has changed nothing for Summitt: She is still the Tennessee coach, is still driven to win and has a team this season that could very easily deliver her ninth national championship.

Meier has a team that enters the season as a realistic national-title hopeful for the first time.

And tonight might show how close the up-and-coming Hurricanes indeed are to the long-established Lady Volunteers, who have won nearly 92 percent of their home games under Summitt.

"We've got a big challenge ahead of us playing Miami on Tuesday night," Summitt said. "They looked very polished in their opening game. I can tell you, we are going to learn a lot about us in that game."

Tennessee beat Pepperdine 89-57 on Sunday, getting 17 points and 13 rebounds from Glory Johnson and shaking off a relatively slow start before pulling away.

"We're proud of our players for finishing, but we've got to get better," Tennessee associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "We've got to get a whole heck of a lot better before Tuesday."

Miami's opener went largely the same way -- slow start, fast finish. The Hurricanes tuned up for the Tennessee trip with an 83-37 win Friday over Texas-Pan American, though large stretches of the game left Meier less than thrilled.

"We can't compete with Tennessee playing like that, let alone beat them," Meier said.

With the level of competition going up big-time tonight, both teams figure the level of play will rise accordingly.

"It's going to be fun," Miami All-American Shenise Johnson said. "I really think it's probably one of the highlights of the year for women's basketball. We both like to run up and down. They like to press. We like to press. I think it's going to be a very intense, competitive, hard-fought chess match. You've got two great coaches, the AP coach of the year, and I think it's going to be a great game, honestly.

"We're going to play our hearts out."

Meier's ties with Summitt started rather indirectly. Summitt knew Judy Rose -- the athletic director at Charlotte -- from graduate school. When Rose was floating Meier's name as a candidate in 2001, Summitt offered her vote of approval.

Done deal. All four of Meier's seasons at Charlotte were winning ones, even though the school hadn't finished above .500 in the eight years before her arrival. And after three postseason trips, Meier was wooed away by Miami, which rocketed into the realm of the women's basketball elite in the past couple years.

Meier, The Associated Press' national coach of the year last season, knows her success has a lot to do with Summitt -- and not just because of that recommendation, either.

"I take what she's done very seriously, and I think there are some great young coaches that take it very seriously," Meier said. "My team knows. ... Just the marketing that came out of Tennessee because of her greatness, because of who she is, she's made it even, men and women. I know my team gets that."

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