There are few atmospheres in women's basketball that can compare to UConn's Gampel Pavilion. Since 1995, UConn has ranked no worse than third nationally in annual home attendance. The large crowds, combined with outstanding teams, has created one of the most difficult venues in all of women's basketball.
Not only must teams overcome the challenge of defeating one of the game's best programs, but they also have to do it in front of a large partisan crowd. UConn has used that combination to compile a remarkable record of 241-7 at Gampel Pavilion since 1993-94.
If the challenge of facing a top-ranked program was not enough, the psychological aspect alone of playing at UConn can overwhelm some teams. But just don't expect Vanderbilt to be one of those teams that is intimidated by the name on the front of the jersey, or a large crowd.
Vanderbilt doesn't need to look outside the SEC or the state of Tennessee, for that matter, to replicate what they will experience at 6 p.m. CT Monday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Storrs, Conn. Each year, Vanderbilt makes the trek three hours east to Knoxville, Tenn., where the Commodores face a program with just as much, if not more, fanfare and history.
If there is a program that can be compared side-by-side with UConn in terms of fan support and national success, it is Tennessee. By playing Tennessee multiple times each year, including once on the road, the Commodores believe that experience has helped prepare them for what they can expect Tuesday.
"I didn't really (talk about the atmosphere with the team) because I think we get that with Tennessee," Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb said. "I think it is very similar. For us, it feels the same. We play against Tennessee, home and away, and everybody in the gym is orange. They've seen (UConn) on TV and they are going to be excited."
In addition to playing before 14,716 fans at Thompson-Boling Arena in February, the Commodores also played road games at Oklahoma and Texas A&M this season, who each ranked in the top 12 nationally in average attendance in 2012.
"Being that a lot of the teams in the SEC are top 25, we play teams like UConn all of the time with the crowd being huge, the atmosphere being crazy, and the environment intense," senior forward Tiffany Clarke said.
"I think the SEC has prepared us for what we are going to face. I don't think it will be anything we haven't faced before, being we played Tennessee, we played Texas A&M, Georgia, Kentucky, teams that bring that atmosphere. I don't think the atmosphere is going to be anything that is new to us."
Playing in a league that traditionally ranks among the best in women's basketball attendance is a benefit for the Commodores that many of UConn's opponents do not have. There are a limited number of programs in the country that draw large crowds, and it just so happens that a number of them reside in the SEC.
But no matter how prepared a team is for the atmosphere, they still must find a way to slow down a UConn team that has won 29 straight NCAA Tournament games at Gampel Pavilion and 40 of 41 NCAA Tournament games in the state of Connecticut since 1994.
Coach Balcomb came within a few seconds of ending UConn's streak in 1999 when she was at Xavier, and UConn Head Coach Geno Auriemma knows that her Vanderbilt team has the ability defeat the Huskies this year.
"You know that there are probably two Vanderbilt teams," Auriemma said. "There is one that beat Texas A&M and one that lost seven games in the SEC. You know, coming in here, that if they beat Texas A&M, they have the ability to beat you as well."
Vanderbilt can score points in bunches from inside the paint and outside the perimeter. While keeping pace with the Huskies on offense will be important against a team that leads the nation in scoring, the Commodores must also control the tempo and limit UConn's run.
"Basketball is a game of runs, so we just have to win our runs," junior point guard Jasmine Lister said. "With teams like UConn and Tennessee, big names, they will make runs and their crowd will get into it. We just have to limit their runs. We are well prepared."
There haven't been many teams that have found success against UConn in recent years, but one team that has is Notre Dame. The Irish have won seven out of their last eight meetings with the Huskies. The Commodores have watched film of Notre Dame's three wins over UConn this year and came away with a common theme.
"Notre Dame didn't really care who UConn was," Lister said. "They didn't care about any of the rivalry or the hype and just played their game. I think we can do that too. We don't have to worry about who they are and can focus on what we can do."