By Beth Rucker, The Associated Press
KNOXVILLE-- Tennessee point guard Ariel Massengale hasn't had much to do with the Lady Volunteers' Southeastern Conference 36-game winning streak. The freshman still feels plenty of pressure to keep the run going, though.
"You have to keep the tradition alive because it's just something that so many people have come before you have laid the groundwork for that you want to hold up your end of the bargain," Massengale said.
The sixth-ranked Lady Vols (12-3, 3-0) have won 36 straight SEC games, including an undefeated run through last year's conference play. Tonight, they'll travel to ninth-ranked Kentucky (14-2, 3-0) to face the team that perhaps has the best shot of ending that streak once and for all.
"I think it will be a good measuring stick for us, because I think Kentucky is probably the second-best team in the conference, or they were picked second -- who knows who the best team is at this point," said Tennessee assistant coach Mickie DeMoss, who coached at Kentucky for four seasons. "I think that they're going to bring it at us."
Tennessee's last conference loss was a 53-50 decision at Georgia on Jan. 21, 2010. Since then, the Lady Vols have beaten Kentucky four times, twice in the SEC tournament championship game.
But the Wildcats are better than ever, boasting SEC bests in points per game (82.4), 3-pointers per game (7.0), scoring margin (plus-25.7), turnover margin (plus-12.9) and steals per game (14.6). They're coming off a 48-point win on Sunday against Mississippi State, their largest victory margin ever in an SEC game.
"I think we're playing pretty good basketball, but I still think we have a lot of room for improvement," junior guard A'dia Mathies said. "From our post to our guards, there are a lot of things. Straight-line drives, posting up hard, getting boards -- it's all things we've worked on in practice. But I think we're playing really good right now."
The strong play is a byproduct of their "40 minutes of dread" approach to the season. Kentucky's goal is to make opponents uncomfortable by pressing through an entire game, causing turnovers and keeping offenses off balance.
Though Tennessee is one of the few teams on the schedule that can keep up with the Wildcats' speed, it hasn't always handled pressure well. In their 69-38 win at Arkansas on Sunday, the Lady Vols committed 20 turnovers, the third time this season they've given the ball away 20 times or more, and their plus-0.7 turnover margin is the third worst in the SEC.
"They're very aggressive, they like to press for 40 minutes, they're quick, they're athletic," DeMoss said. "So it will be a true test of our ball-handling skills and our ability to handle pressure for 40 minutes."
Kentucky will face its own challenge in trying to stop Tennessee senior forward Glory Johnson, who has won back-to-back SEC player of the week honors. Johnson has been unstoppable in the Lady Vols' first three conference games, averaging 17 points and 13.3 rebounds.
Wildcats coach Matthew Mitchell is facing his own challenge of keeping the atmosphere of the game as normal as possible while facing mentor Pat Summitt, who announced in August she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer's type. Mitchell was a graduate assistant at Tennessee under Summitt from 1999-2000, and has beaten the Hall of Fame coach once, a 66-56 victory in 2009.
"When someone close to you is suffering from that disease it is different. I don't think you're human if it doesn't affect you," Mitchell said. I don't know how this is going to go. I really don't. I really appreciate the fact that Coach has done what she's done as far as coming out and facing it down and being real honest, and then saying that she wants it to be about the players on the floor. We're going to try to honor that. We're going to get prepared and try to beat them."