KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Pat Summitt was having dinner on Sunday when she noticed a text message from Georgia coach Andy Landers.
“He said, ‘If you don’t win tomorrow ... I’m going to be P.O.’d,”’ Summitt said Wednesday of her fellow Hall of Fame member. “So he’s coming in here mad.”
Landers and the Lady Bulldogs(15-7, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) will be the special guests of the Lady Vols (16-5, 5-2) Thursday night when Summitt takes her second shot at her 1,000th win. Summitt lost in her first attempt Monday night when 12th-ranked Tennessee lost 80-70 to No. 2 Oklahoma.
The setback set the stage for Summitt to achieve the milestone at home and there is hardly a more fitting foe for game than Georgia; the teams have been longtime traditional SEC East Division rivals.
“It is what it is. It is what it always is,” said Landers, who has led the Lady Bulldogs to 25 NCAA tournament appearances, just two fewer than Summitt’s Lady Vols. “There haven’t been very many times when Tennessee and Georgia have played that there hasn’t been something significant on the line. That’s certainly the case this time.”
Summitt laughed as she shared the text message with Tennessee women’s athletic director Joan Cronan and the rest of her dinner companions, but she and Landers haven’t always been so cordial.
With 14 wins over Tennessee, no one has more victories against Summitt than Landers — a native of Summitt’s current hometown of Maryville and graduate of Tennessee Tech.
The Lady Vols used to scrimmage against a Landers-coached Roane State Community College squad, and Summitt and Landers have long gone head-to-head recruiting regional players.
“With so many years behind us and so many games that we’ve played I guess we had to learn to keep things in perspective,” she said.
Summitt acknowledges that reaching the milestone is important because of the history of talented players and staff members it represents, but she’s also worried it’s becoming a distraction for her team, one of the youngest one she’s ever coached.
The Lady Vols have struggled against every major opponent they’ve played this season.
Against Oklahoma, Tennessee blew a 15-point lead thanks to poor ball control and struggles on defense. The team has committed more than 23 turnovers in each of the past three games.
“I don’t want anyone to think I’m not appreciative of this number, but right now I just want this young basketball team to learn how to play the way we want to play and to commit to it for 40 or 40-plus minutes,” Summitt said.
And just like many of the 54 all-time games played between Tennessee and Georgia, this one could play a significant role in the SEC race. The teams are tied in second place with two conference losses each and are only a game out of first.
Georgia is playing its best basketball of the season with recent wins over No. 6 Auburn and No. 20 Vanderbilt — teams Tennessee couldn’t beat.
Milestone or not, Summitt expects another Georgia-Tennessee battle.
“For me, it’s always a game in which I know we’ve got to be ready to play because they are a lot like their coach in terms of their focus, competitive drive and how hard they play,” Summitt said of Georgia. “I think he demands an awful lot and there are a lot of similarities between us in that regard.”