STANFORD, Calif. -- No one who has watched this rivalry over most of the past three decades would have mistaken this game for the heavyweight battles of years past. Neither program is in that vaunted place at this moment in time.
But for the first time since most of the current Tennessee players were in elementary school, the Lady Vols walked out of Maples Pavilion with a win.
Seventh-ranked Tennessee was outrebounded for the first time all season but hit enough timely shots and stepped in enough passing lanes to nail down an 83-71 victory over No. 18 Stanford on Thursday to close the nonconference portion of the schedule for both teams.
For Tennessee, it has been a fruitful exercise. The Lady Vols are 12-0 for the first time since the 2005-06 season, when they started 18-0. That season ended with a loss in the Elite Eight, which was shocking at the time because of Tennessee's dominance in the game. An Elite Eight finish this season would point to a resurgent Lady Vols program ready to reassume its place among the national elite.
But Tennessee wants even more.
"This is a great win for this team," said Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick, who had never won at Stanford as a head coach. "This was a huge game on the road. People said we hadn't been tested on the road, but in Cancun we beat Marquette in overtime and Oklahoma State. ... This was big."
Warlick and senior Jaime Nared -- who finished with 28 points and seven steals, including a huge pick with 2:03 to go and the Cardinal having closed the margin to seven points -- used the same word to describe this Tennessee team: resilient.
"But at the end of the day, it's still December, and you don't win anything in December," said Nared, who's averaging a team-best 17.9 points per game. "For us to be 12-0 heading into the SEC, it's a great start. But there is so much basketball to go. And we are not relaxing. We are getting better."
Freshman guard Evina Westbrook, who, like Nared, is an Oregon native, made the most of her West Coast appearance with 17 points. Mercedes Russell added 11 points and 10 rebounds. Tennessee forced 15 turnovers and scored 19 points off of those mistakes.
But the Lady Vols, who came into the game averaging 51.2 rebounds, were outrebounded 48-35 -- and 19-5 on the offensive glass.
Still, Tennessee held its poise as the young Cardinal cut the lead from 17 in the third quarter to six with 3:12 left in the game.
"Every time they made a run," Nared said, "we answered it."
Stanford -- which opens the Pac-12 schedule at home against No. 11 UCLA on Dec. 29 -- wrapped up a tough nonconference schedule with an uncharacteristic 6-6 record and two straight home losses.
The Cardinal were looking for a big rebound coming off their worst-looking loss in recent memory, a 71-64 upset at the hands of talented but unranked Western Illinois on Monday. Though Stanford has played arguably the toughest nonconference schedule in the country, with five games against top-10 teams, it's possible it could get knocked out of The Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time since the end of the 2001 season.
Yet things are actually looking up.
Senior guard Brittany McPhee was back on the court for the first time since Nov. 12, when she left the second game of the season, against top-ranked UConn, with a foot injury.
And McPhee wasted no time shaking off the rust, scoring 17 points in the first half Thursday and finishing with 27 in 28 minutes.
"I was just really excited to get back out there," McPhee said. "I was focused on the team and getting out there and playing as hard as I could."
But the Cardinal need more than McPhee, particularly on the offensive end, where she was the only player to score in double figures. Stanford was 2-of-15 from beyond the arc and 11-of-22 from the free throw line.
"We don't really have a starting lineup right now, and we are still trying to find that. We need more consistent play. We are riding a roller coaster with some people right now," Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer said. "It's just a matter of doing the work."
"We need our tough schedule to pay off for us. But it only pays off it we build on it. ... We are looking up at people right now. We need people to look up at where we need to be and embrace that challenge."Coach Tara VanDerveer, whose Cardinal are 0-5 against top-10 teams this season
Tennessee is taking momentum into the start of the SEC schedule, though Warlick doesn't think being undefeated in the nonconference guarantees anything.
"We are going to aim to go undefeated, but that's pretty hard in the SEC. This group, after every game, all they've ever talked about is the next game, and then the next game after that," Warlick said. "This is the first team that's really done that. They take every team seriously, and that's the sign of a great basketball team."
Stanford can find solace in having McPhee back on the floor, a young nucleus with a lot of playing time against top teams and the eventual return of No. 3 scorer DiJonai Carrington, who has missed the past two games after taking an elbow to the head at practice. While heading into the Pac-12 schedule at .500 and failing to secure a win over a ranked team in the preseason isn't very Stanford-like, VanDerveer has faith in the value of hard lessons learned.
"We can schedule it so that we are 12-0 or 10-2. But this team went to the Final Four last year, and that's the level that we have to get to," VanDerveer said. "Tennessee wasn't in the Final Four last year, Baylor wasn't, Ohio State wasn't, but those are the teams you have to play to get there. We need our tough schedule to pay off for us.
"But it only pays off it we build on it. Don't get frustrated. Get mad and go to work. We are looking up at people right now. We need people to look up at where we need to be and embrace that challenge."