But from fan interest, it doesn’t get any bigger than the Bucs taking on the No. 14-ranked Lady Vols on Sunday afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena.
While coaches often like to say it’s just another game, ETSU coach Brittney Ezell admits it’s special when her teams play against the tradition-rich Tennessee program. Coming off an 87-77 win over Cincinnati to open the season, it’s another opportunity to go up against some of the best players in the country.
“Mercedes Russell, Jaime Nared, Meme Jackson are players returning for them from last year,” Ezell said. “Their freshman class is highly touted and they’re ranked No. 14 in the country. Playing in Thompson-Boling is an experience that our kids will always appreciate and remember. There are quite a few people from this area interested in that game.”
Last season, the Bucs hosted Tennessee in Freedom Hall in front of the largest crowd (6,072) ever to see an ETSU game. The Lady Vols won handily 83-58 behind a 28-point, 10-rebound effort by Diamond DeShields, but it was still a night to celebrate for the ETSU program.
Certainly in the modern era, only UConn can match the Lady Vols’ appeal, and former Tennessee coach, the late Pat Summitt, is the most revered figure ever in the women’s game.
Tennessee has won 18 straight games against ETSU and hold a 20-2-1 advantage in the overall series. But, the Bucs aren’t intimidated.
Two years ago in Knoxville, ETSU led in the second quarter in what was a breakout game for Sadasia Tipps. Also, some of the best games for senior point guard Tianna Tarter have come against SEC opponents. She scored a then career-high 35 points against Vanderbilt last December.
“To me, I don’t look at it as a big team. I just look at it as another team,” said Tarter, who had a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds against Cincinnati. “Every team doesn’t get a chance to play someone like that. Everyone gets hyped up and it’s fun, a good challenge for us.”
Her teammate, junior forward Malloree Schurr, agrees there’s something special about playing inside such a historic venue, although at the end of the day it still comes down to hustling, boxing out, playing defense and executing the game plan.
“I’m definitely excited about going to Tennessee,” Schurr said. “But, I like playing all the games the same.”
It doesn’t mean the pre-game interest is the same.
Tarter was texting her coach back on Tuesday asking for a password to watch the Lady Vols’ 121-76 exhibition win over Carson-Newman online.
In that game, it was evident why the Lady Vols had the nation’s No. 1 recruit class. Freshman forward Rennia Davis led the way with 27 points and 13 rebounds, while freshman guard Anastasia Hayes came off the bench to score 19 points on 9-of-10 shooting.
“They are very talented young women, and they came here highly touted freshmen,” Tennessee coach Holly Warlick said. “Some may think they have a lot of pressure, but they don’t see it as pressure. They are great competitors, and once they settled in, they did some good things. Mercedes and Jaime have brought them along really well.”
ETSU has some new wrinkles as well.
While Tarter, Schurr and Raven Dean are all returners from last season, the balance of the starting five for the opening game against Cincinnati was junior Britney Snowden, who played junior college ball in Florida, and freshman Erica Hayes-Overton. Another major boost was transfer Shy Copney, who returned home to Johnson City and hit five 3-pointers in a 17-point effort.
The Bucs responded with a balanced attack with 19 points from Dean and 16 from Hayes-Overton.
They will be matched up with what may be one of Tennessee’s most talented teams of the past decade.
For Ezell, there are benefits of playing Cincinnati, Tennessee and other tough non-conference opponents that go beyond wins and losses.
“There are things we can pick on and tweak and work with,” Ezell said. “We know we’re not going to make the NCAA tournament in the non-conference. We know that we’re a one-bid league and we understand that. Everything we do in the non-conference has to be geared towards winning the SoCon. The opponents we present to our kids in the non-conference are going to show different styles, a lot of different ways to play and a lot of different athletes. That will prepare us the best way we know how.”