Lady Vols close out 2012 with Rutgers

The Lady Vols are back in action Sunday with a rugged Rutgers team on tap next. Go inside with InsideTennessee to get ready for the game.

The reporters on the conference call were incredulous. Did C. Vivian Stringer just say that Jolette Law drove the school bus while she was still in high school? The answer was verified – with Stringer, who coached Law at Iowa, and later with Law, who was indeed the bus driver while still a teenager.

Law's alarm sounded at 4 a.m. so she could ready to get the elementary school students and then she doubled back for the middle and high schoolers.

Law and Stringer will be on opposite sidelines Sunday when No. 13/15 Tennessee (8-3) takes on Rutgers (8-3) at 1 p.m. Eastern (TV: SportSouth) at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Neither coach welcomes the square-off scenario – both cited family-strong emotional ties – and they both tried to cite other factors in the matchup. For Stringer the absence of Pat Summitt on the sideline – she sits in the front row opposite Tennessee' bench – is on her mind. For Law the presence of the two teams, not the coach relationship, is the emphasis. She wants the Lady Vols to be focused on the game.

"I just want them to go out and play hard and represent," Law said. "I don't want it to be about Jolette and Vivian."

But that connection between coaches will underscore Sunday's game. Law played at Iowa for Stringer – now North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell tipped off Stringer about the Florence, S.C. product – and served as her assistant at Rutgers for 12 years.

Law became the head coach at Illinois in 2007 and she could have faced Rutgers in a tournament in Puerto Rico, but both programs opted out of the matchup.

"She didn't want to play me, and I didn't want her to play her," Law said.

When Illinois let go of Law last spring, she considered a year-long sabbatical from coaching but then Tennessee and Holly Warlick called. Law needed advice from those she trusted.

"After talking to God, after talking to my mom, the next call was to Vivian Stringer telling her everything that I felt," Law said. "I was hurt. I didn't understand why it happened the way that it did. The first time you get cut or fired from something you're feeling like what do you do?

"She told me, ‘You're going on to a better place. Tennessee is a trademark. It's a brand. You need to be on that stage.' She said, ‘This is an opportunity of a lifetime. Pat has been a mentor for you. You deserve to be there. You get to recruit the best of the best. You don't have to beg kids anymore. You can coach on a stage where there are over 10,000 fans consistently.'

"She said there is no better place to go than the University of Tennessee."

Stringer verified that account during the conference call with Tennessee-based reporters.

"I thought that there was no choice," Stringer said. "That was just a no-brainer. I want to see Tennessee do well, and I thought Tennessee was the best place for her."

Stringer's other assistants, Tia Jackson, Tasha Pointer and Chelsea Newton, all have extensive ties to Law. Jackson was recruited by Iowa, and Law, who was a player at the time, served as her host on the visit. Law recruited and coached Pointer and Newton at Rutgers.

"I am really happy to see everyone," Law said. "Everyone on that staff I recruited."

Those assistants were initially taken aback when Law accepted the job at Tennessee.

"I can't even believe it. She needs to be with us," Stringer said of the reaction.

Stringer's response to her staff was direct.

"She deserves to be at Tennessee, and Tennessee deserves her," Stringer said. "She is excellent. I totally understand why Tennessee would go after her."

Stringer plucked Law out of the state of South Carolina and convinced her to relocate to the Midwest to Iowa for college after getting a call from Hatchell, who was then the head coach at Francis Marion, a small college in Law's hometown of Florence. Hatchell knew Law was too good for Francis Marion. Law led Iowa to four Big Ten titles and went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.

"She is a great competitor," Stringer said. "Her teammates flocked to her. She was a great leader."

When Stringer mentioned that Law was the school bus driver while still in high school, it sounded as if the story could have been embellished over the years. Perhaps she handled a run or two on occasion? But Law was indeed in charge of hauling children to and from school while still a student herself.

"You talk about responsibility," Stringer said. "How many kids would do that? Her mom and dad helped to raise her as well."

Law has always cited the influence of her parents and then Stringer.

"She is like my second mom," Law said. "She taught me a lot about life. My mom and dad raised me to age 18. And from 18 to 22 she helped shape my life and helped pattern my life to being the woman I am today.

"She taught me about finding a way to get it done, don't take shortcuts and always keep pressing on and persevering. I owe her a lot. I told her I would be forever indebted to her because she taught me some things about me that I really didn't know."

Stringer's teams have achieved considerable success and Law was on hand for a lot of it, including two Final Fours and three Elite Eights.

"Rutgers is the house that I feel like we built," Law said. "Coach Stringer is a very special person to me. She has been a part of my life for the last 20 years, played for her, coached with her.

"Right now I am trying to keep it Tennessee-Rutgers. But it is really emotional. It is like you are going against your family. She is like my mom. But at the end of the day I am on this side, so we've got to do what we've got to do to get a win."

It might be hard before tipoff to keep Law's focus solely on the game. Among those in attendance Sunday will be former Iowa teammate Alicia Hall Allen, who is Law's close friend.

"She was my roommate for three years," Law said. "I try to block it out. I am trying not to think about it. There are a lot of people coming. A lot of my family members."

Stringer cited Law's qualifications from recruiting to game plans to counseling young women.

"She can bring out the best in everybody," Stringer said. "She would go to any length to prepare a scouting report."

For this game, she sought Dean Lockwood's help. Kyra Elzy, who just left Kentucky, will face the same decision. The Lady Vol players were already teasing Law about the matchup.

"They are going to give it to me," Law said. "They are like, ‘Coach, I know you've got that scout.' I am like, ‘No, I gave it up.' I didn't want it. It's too emotional. It's a tough game. It is always a brawl. It's the same thing for Kyra doing Kentucky."

Lockwood had handled the Rutgers scout for past games, so he was willing to keep it.

"He's been doing it for years prior to me coming here," Law said. "I will help. I will give insight. I will give the kids some things to be prepared for."

Stringer would expect nothing less – and she wasn't at all surprised to learn that Law had passed on the full scout.

"The first time I went to Iowa … I loved it so much. It is not a comfortable situation at all," Stringer said "She is going to do her job. I would expect nothing less from her.

"It's like a sisterhood. Our bloodlines are thick. But not to the point that she won't do anything to help Tennessee get a win."


Tennessee coach Holly Warlick is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5-6 sophomore guard, No. 5, hails from Bolingbrook, Ill. (8.6 points per game, 2.6 rebounds per game, 3.7 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5-9 junior guard, No. 10, hails from Cibolo, Texas (16.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.9 steals per game); Cierra Burdick, 6-2 sophomore forward, No. 11, hails from Charlotte, N.C. (8.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg); Bashaara Graves, 6-2 freshman forward, No. 12, hails from Clarksville, Tenn. (14.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg); and Isabelle Harrison, 6-3 sophomore forward, No. 20, hails from Nashville, Tenn. (9.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.3 blocks per game).

Warlick said after the Davidson game – when she removed three sophomores from the lineup and inserted two freshmen and a senior – that she didn't know if she would return to the regulars.

In all likelihood, Warlick will. Her message got delivered in Friday's 75-40 win over the Wildcats.

Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer is expected to start: Syessence Davis, 5-7 sophomore guard, No. 15 (2.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.2 apg), hails from Neptune, N.J., averaging 4.0 assists and 2.7 steals as a starter; Erica Wheeler, 5-7 senior guard, No. 3 (9.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg), hails from Miami, Fla., tallied 19 points against Boston College, averaging nearly three steals a game; Betnijah Laney, 6-0 sophomore guard/forward, No. 44 (7.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg), hail from Clayton, Del., tallied 15 points and three steals in win over Davidson; Chelsey Lee, 6-2 senior forward, No. 52 (8.2 ppg, 4.7 rpg), hails from Miami, Fla., grabbed 11 rebounds against Miami; and Monique Oliver, 6-2 senior forward/center, No. 34 (13.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg), hails from Las Vegas, Nev., has scored over 1,000 points in Rutgers career.

TOO LEGIT: Twitter can be an easy way to move information quickly. And when Jolette Law saw a series of retweets of an MC Hammer video that showed her making the "Too Legit to Quit" hand gestures, she went to Twitter and traced the point or origin, which happened to be this writer.

"Yes, as soon as you tweeted it out, everybody was likes, likes, likes, retweet, retweet, retweet," Law said with mock outrage. "I was like, ‘Where did this come from?' And it was you. It was a long time ago."

The video, which features Law in her Globetrotter days, can be viewed by CLICKING HERE.

Go to the 4:42 mark for Law's appearance. Be sure to tell her you saw it.

FILM STUDY: C. Vivian Stringer knows the Lady Vols very well. Rutgers has played Tennessee every season for the past 10 years, so she is familiar with the style of play both by seeing it in person and watching game tape.

Stringer sees something in this latest batch of players that had been missing somewhat in the past few seasons – a commitment to stout defense, a trademark of Pat Summitt's philosophy.

"They represent the Tennessee style," Stringer said. "The way they play is more typical of what I am used to seeing of Tennessee on the floor."

CLOSE-OUT: Sunday's game nearly completes the non-conference portion of the regular season schedule – Notre Dame plays in Knoxville on Jan. 28 – and Rutgers is an excellent lead-in to SEC play.

Tennessee-Rutgers games tend to be low scoring with pitched battles in the paint and on the glass. The Scarlet Knights' physical style of play would fit well in the SEC.

"I'm excited," Lady Vols sophomore center Isabelle Harrison said. "I love physical games like that. It just gets you ready for SEC play and tournament play.

"Games like that we really need to take advantage of and remember what we need to do. Because when it comes time to buckle down that can really come into play with those games."

BEAST MODE: Freshman Bashaara Graves is the team's second-leading scorer at 14.3 points per game and the leading rebounder at 8.3 boards per game.

The 6-2 post from Clarksville, Tenn., has scored in double figures in 10 of 11 games – the exception was Baylor – and she has tallied five double-doubles. Needless to say, Graves doesn't play like a freshman.

"She doesn't," Jolette Law said. "I stay on her more than anybody."

Graves is in Law's group of players to monitor in the classroom, and those meetings have turned into much more than academics. They have frequent one-on-one chats in Law's office.

"I see a different side of her," Law said. "She has shared a lot with me about her personal life. I said, ‘Well, I am going to challenge you.' Just holding her accountable and she responds.

"She is a perfectionist. She wants to be great in all aspects of life."

That ability to connect with a young player was another asset that Law brought to Tennessee.

"Always trying to help, helping you to see the greater picture," said C. Vivian Stringer, who added Law would run suicides with the Rutgers players. "She'll challenge them and find out what makes each of them tick."

There will be four generations of Graves in the arena Sunday – Bashaara Graves, her mother Keinya Graves, her grandmother Ellemetria Graves and her great-grandmother Carlene Graves. The family will make the trip to Knoxville from Middle Tennessee and are among a group of about 20 from the area that will be cheering for Bashaara and the Lady Vols.

"That will be special," Law said. "She is a special kid."


Tennessee leads the series with Rutgers, 18-3. The Lady Vols are 6-0 at home against the Scarlet Knights. Seven of the Lady Vols' overall wins have come in postseason, including 2007 when Tennessee won a national title. … Tennessee is one win away from the program's 1,200th all-time win with an overall record of 1,199-268, a winning percentage of 81.7 percent. Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer has 893 career wins and is just seven shy of 900. With the retirement of Pat Summitt, who had 1,098 career wins, Stringer is now first in wins among active coaches. … Rutgers has won its last five games. During those contests, no opponent reached 50 points. Long Island got 32, Louisiana Tech reached 46, Southern managed 49, Miami tallied 34, and Stony Brook put up 44.

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