How Lady Vols handle ASU defense could determine matchup

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Tennessee might be in a so-called "underdog" role for Sunday's NCAA tournament second-round game against Arizona State.

But one season in which the Lady Vols have played at a level that's below their usual status doesn't completely erase the fact that this matchup pits one program that has won eight NCAA titles against one that's hoping to make a breakthrough to the Women's Final Four.

"I don't think ASU is going to look at us like a 7 seed," Lady Vols coach Holly Warlick said. "I think they are going to look at us like Tennessee."

There's a fine line there, and that's what coach Charli Turner Thorne will navigate in preparing her second-seeded Sun Devils for Sunday's game (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET). Arizona State (26-6) had the better season, and has its seed and the home-court advantage at Wells Fargo Arena for a good reason. The Sun Devils earned it, tying Oregon State for the Pac-12 regular-season championship.

But in their best moments, the 20-13 Lady Vols -- despite finishing tied for seventh in the SEC -- have shown they haven't forgotten how to be Tennessee.

So Turner Thorne said the Sun Devils would prepare for the best that Tennessee could be. Yet Arizona State will not be intimidated by what Tennessee has done in the past.

"It's March, so they're going to bring it," Turner Thorne said. "It should be just a really fun game, because we're going to bring it, too."

It could make for one of the most interesting second-round games, in fact. The programs have met three previous times, with Tennessee winning all three (2000, 2006, 2011). This is their first meeting in the NCAA tournament.

This season, they have had five common opponents: Kentucky, South Carolina, Syracuse, Stanford and Oregon State. It's hard to say how much that comes into play, though, since some of those games were at the beginning of the season.

The Lady Vols survived a tough first-round game here against Green Bay on Friday, 59-53, thanks to freshman guard Te'a Cooper's poised performance (15 points) and Tennessee's ability to make big shots in the closing minutes.

The Sun Devils, by contrast, controlled their game throughout against New Mexico State, shooting 61.3 percent from the field in the first half and 52.6 percent for the game. They forced 21 turnovers and were their usual high-pressure defensive selves.

But one of the more intriguing questions about the Arizona State-Tennessee matchup is this: Will the Sun Devils stick strictly to the in-your-face, man-to-man defense they have long been known for? Or will they borrow just a little from Green Bay, and at least mix in some of the sagging defense that can make it difficult for the Lady Vols to get the ball into the paint?

Arizona State senior guard Katie Hempen, who had a big night Friday going 6 of 6 from 3-point range and finishing with 20 points, said she didn't think there was much chance the Sun Devils would alter their usual game plan.

"Green Bay stepped down and was like, 'Hey, shoot it,' " Hempen said of the Phoenix's philosophy to almost bait the Lady Vols into taking perimeter shots that, for the most part, weren't falling. "But ASU women's basketball is pressure. We try our hardest not to give one free bounce, one free touch. And I think our mission is to wear Tennessee down."

"ASU women's basketball is pressure. We try our hardest not to give one free bounce, one free touch. And I think our mission is to wear Tennessee down." Katie Hempen, on the Sun Devils' defensive style

Arizona State junior forward Sophie Brunner, though, said she saw some things in common between the Phoenix and the Sun Devils, even if their styles of play differ.

"We're similar in the sense of we have to work really hard, and we're fundamentally sound," Brunner said. "We have to do the little things to make sure we do well on defense. Watching their game [Friday], I saw how much Tennessee wants to attack you inside, so I think we have to try to take away their strengths and know who we can help off of. And be aware that they're long and athletic.

"We have really high standards on defense here. And when we're playing well together, are focused and in tune, we're pretty good. And that's going to be a major key in this game."

For her part, Turner Thorne suggested her Sun Devils might make some adjustments to what they normally do on defense. But no one should expect a radically different Arizona State team in that regard. Pressure usually does work for the Sun Devils, and they've proven that throughout this season.

Tennessee has faced that before, of course, and -- like with everything else in regard to this season's squad -- sometimes did well with it, and sometimes didn't.

"I think our guards are good at handling pressure," Tennessee's Diamond DeShields said. "If ASU decided to do what they usually do, it could work to our benefit if we can get the ball into our posts. Which is something that we've been struggling to do this whole year. And hopefully, our guards can find some gaps to get in and penetrate, and hopefully get a few easy layups."

The Sun Devils are looking to make it to the Sweet 16 for the second season in a row. Last year, they did it as a No. 3 seed and advanced to the Greensboro regional, where they nearly knocked off Florida State before falling 66-65.

In total, Arizona State's season has ended in the Sweet 16 four times, and in the Elite Eight twice: 2007 and 2009. Tennessee has been to the Final Four 18 times, but not since winning its last national championship in 2008.

This season, Tennessee has been through its share of self-doubt. Yet there have been games -- including two in the SEC tournament -- where the Lady Vols played with the intensity and vitality that is the program's hallmark.

In some ways for Arizona State, this will be a little like facing Stanford. The Cardinal have been the dominant team over the long haul in the Pac-12, just as Tennessee has been in the SEC. Yet Stanford finished tied for third in the league this season, and the Sun Devils beat them in both meetings.

Tennessee wins the "tradition" category against most opponents, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything when it comes to what we'll see Sunday. Or maybe it will. That has been the paradox of Tennessee this season, but it's not something the Sun Devils should be worrying about.

"There's no reason to think about the past," Arizona State senior guard Arnecia Hawkins said. "Focusing on who their team is now, and who we are now, and what we need to do to match up well is what's most important."