Showdown Saturday arrives as UT-UConn tips off

A senior-laden lineup will start today's game against UConn, but it's the play of Tennessee's youthful bench that could have a big say in the outcome. <p> Coach Pat Summitt will open with a junior, a freshman and, more importantly, three seniors, whose experience and poise are important in a road game of this magnitude. <p> "I think our bench is better than theirs," senior forward Shyra Ely said. "I think it's going to be important for our bench play and for our freshmen to step up."

"I think the upperclassmen pretty much know what they're getting into," she added.

Waiting on the bench are three players who also have started this year in sophomore Sidney Spencer, junior Shanna Zolman and freshman Alexis Hornbuckle. Sophomore Dominique Redding has recently seen more playing time as she ratchets up her defense and in some games has been the first player off the bench. She started the second half in Tennessee's last game against Old Dominion.

A freshman center, Sybil Dosty, could be called on early. The backup point guard, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood is also a first-year player. Both have played well in the action they've seen.

Senior Loree Moore returns to action for the first time since Dec. 2 to run the point position. Shyra Ely and senior guard Brittany Jackson are the leading scorers for Tennessee at 13.7 points and 10 points respectively. Junior center Tye'sha Fluker is the most-experienced post player, something Tennessee needs in a game where UConn in recent years has outplayed Tennessee inside. Freshman Nicky Anosike will start at the high post because of her rebounding strength and defensive attitude.

The women's basketball powerhouses - they have 11 national titles between them - will play at 2 p.m. this afternoon at the Hartford Civic Center before a packed house and a national CBS-TV audience in the 20th meeting over 10 years. Tennessee is ranked 10th, UConn, 15th. It's not their usual lofty poll positions, but the players, and coaches, don't care.

"It doesn't matter if none of us are ranked," Zolman said. "It's going to be the biggest, most-hyped game of the year for women's college basketball just because of the history, because of the tradition, because of the intensity that will be brought to the game. We'll both be playing like No. 1 teams. It's like that every single time we play. It doesn't matter where it's at, doesn't matter what type of a season, doesn't matter how we're ranked."

Zolman, one of the team's best sharpshooters last season, has struggled so far this year to find her shot consistently. But after a steady week of practice, Zolman believes that's about to change.

"It's gone away from me for a little bit, but it's coming back," she said. "These last couple of practices I've been getting my confidence back, getting my rhythm back. I don't know what it was. But it's what it was. We're talking past tense now. It has been falling the last couple of days. I feel like I'm getting a lot more of my rhythm back."

Her offensive slide hasn't concerned her coach, who benched Zolman against Old Dominion on Jan. 2 because she was seeking better defense and rebounding.

"I'm not overly concerned about Zolman's shot. No one's been sagging off of her," Summitt said. "She's got a great shot. She hasn't knocked down the shots this year that she knocked down for us late last year. She'll get on track. That doesn't concern me. She's defending well one-on-one. She's got to become a more active defender and rebounder on the defensive end."

Zolman has been replaced in the starting lineup by Jackson - who also has been struggling to hit from long range - but has compensated by driving to the basket and either scoring or drawing fouls.

"You have to give her credit," Summitt said of Jackson. "When she hasn't made the 3s she's been able to create off the dribble, get to the free-throw line. I think that is because she's playing a more aggressive game offensively."

Anosike replaced Spencer, who has been hesitant to shoot this season and in some games wasn't able to hold her rebounding position under the basket. Spencer came off the bench against ODU, and her play pleased Summitt.

"I thought Spencer played well off the bench," Summitt said. "Sometimes when you are in a starting role and not playing well, I think players sometimes put more pressure on themselves there than when they're coming off the bench."

Along with the six freshmen - although only four will play because of knee injuries - two sophomores and one coach will be playing at UConn for the first time in their careers. Nobody on the roster has even beaten Connecticut. The last win came in Knoxville on Feb. 1, 2001. The 2004-05 freshman class has talked among themselves of starting a new era at Tennessee, one that means not losing to UConn. They have all watched the games on television over the years.

But they also know the reality of playing UConn can't be fully appreciated until it actually happens.

"You can watch something, you can see it over and over, but until you live in that moment, it's totally different," said Hornbuckle, a rebounding and slashing guard who can move back to the wing position now that Moore is back from having her tonsils removed Dec. 10.

The return of Moore means a lot since she brings experience to the point and a lockdown mentality on defense. The lack of defensive intensity was cited by Summitt as one of the reasons UT lost to Rutgers in a 65-51 wipeout.

"Loree brings a lot of experience and a lot of leadership from that experience on the floor, a true point guard for four years for us," Zolman said. "She speaks volume for us in how and what she brings to us and going into a huge game with a lot of hype it's going to take an experienced point guard like herself to help us. Granted Alexis and Sa'de both did a lot for us, but they're young. Knowing that Loree is back not only helps me from a leadership standpoint, a point guard standpoint, but also her defensive intensity sets a notch up for all of us. And knowing that she's fully healthy now we'll get the 100 percent Loree back, and that's going to be crucial for us."

Ely described having Moore back as "comforting."

"I've played with her for three years," Ely said. "We play at a different level when she's out there. She really makes us better defensively and knows she's our point guard so she has us in her palm. I think it makes a huge difference having her back, and I'm really happy to have her back. Alexis and Sa'de have done a great job, but Loree provides intangibles that they can't like leading and little things."

But Ely also knows the freshmen will be needed Saturday.

"I don't want the hype of the game to get in the way of the freshmen," she said. "I don't want it to cause them to hold back or get too overanxious. I just want them to go out there and play."

Zolman and assistant coach Holly Warlick said the first-year players are helped by the fact they don't really comprehend what they're facing.

"It's probably good that they don't, and I don't think they do. I didn't when I was a freshman," Zolman said. "You don't know what to expect unless you actually are there experiencing it. Especially in Hartford, it's a great atmosphere; it's just so loud in there. It takes so much concentration, so much communication among ourselves to be able to communicate because you can't hear a thing. It's so much fun to me. I just love to play when everything is against you."

"I think it's something new everyday," Warlick said of the newcomers. "They've played in front of big crowds, and that's why we have the schedule we have. You just hope they show up."

They will have to show up if Tennessee expects to notch its seventh win in the series. Dosty, who is one of the most-efficient offensive players on the team, has worked all week on her defense and rebounding in an effort to earn more minutes.

"It's going to be really physical in the post," Dosty said. "It will probably be the most physical game for the post players that we've been in. We have to match that intensity. I want to get a lot rebounds, focus on the hustle plays. I can score, but we have to have rebounds, set good screens, get everybody else involved as well."

Dosty, who suffered a concussion earlier this season and is playing on a sore left foot, has missed some practice time, but the pieces of the puzzle that make her a complete college player are beginning to snap together. Most importantly, she said she is thinking less and playing more.

"It took a while for me to adjust and get used to everything," Dosty said. "Now I'm just feeling real comfortable and confident. I think confidence is probably the biggest thing. First of all learning everything, and you're thinking about what you're doing and if it's right or if it's wrong, am I going to get in trouble. But now you just have to play and not think about all that."

As Dosty worked to pull it all together, she drew the attention of Summitt, who doesn't hesitate to forcefully remind a player she needs to work harder.

"It's expected," Dosty said of Summitt yelling. "I knew it was going to happen. In the beginning she was on me pretty bad. In the beginning it was hard, but I've gotten used to it. That's just the way she is, and she just wants me to get better."

The grace period for Wiley-Gatewood has ended. The freshman point guard wasn't cleared to practice until early December because of an injured knee, and in the early going Summitt was patient. But she also has received some special attention in recent practices and to her credit responded. The additional practice time and repetitions have helped her, and she is Moore's primary backup at the point.

"She needs this right now," Summitt said of Wiley-Gatewood's extended practice time this past week. "I thought she looked the best in practice that she's looked - how she was leading the team, her transition up and down, her decision-making. I thought her defensive intensity was the best it's been. Getting physically in better shape, mentally better prepared to know what we want to do, more vocal. In particular for a point guard it's even more critical (to get reps at practice) because they have so much information that they need to not only understand but to deliver on the floor."

The Tennessee coaches are anticipating the players not being able to hear them on the floor in Hartford so assistant coach Nikki Caldwell has made up laminated cards to flash the defensive set or offensive play. For assistant coach Dean Lockwood it will be his first experience in the madness of a UT-UConn game.

"It's a baptism for a lot of us," Lockwood said. "This is one of the things that you do this for. All of our games are tough, every game is important, but being very honest with you this type of game due to the history of both these programs – the enormous history here and the recent success of UConn – it just doesn't get a lot better. I've been in Army-Navy games. I grew up in Michigan so I saw Michigan-Ohio State football games. I came down here I remember Tennessee-Alabama. I don't think it takes a second place to any of those that I just mentioned. This is one of the premier rivalries going.

"It's very exciting. It's an honor. You're in this profession – this is my 23rd year of coaching – and you don't take these things for granted anymore. The longer we're all in this we realize how special certain moments and opportunities are. To go play UConn and be part of this, it's very, very special. It's an honor to be a part of a program like this; it's an honor to engage in a rivalry with such a worthy opponent."

UConn's six-game winning streak weighs heavily – coach Geno Auriemma has said he hopes Tennessee thinks the Huskies have "their number" - but Tennessee knows it's been its own worst enemy at times.

"We need to make shots and finish shot. I just do not feel that we have competed and been able to make shots," Summitt said. "They are a great defensive team, and they have no weaknesses. Their post defense is great, and our frontline players have struggled to put points on the board."

In the championship game last season, UConn also got its post players open for easy inside shots. Stopping that is paramount for Tennessee, Lockwood said.

"A lot of defense comes down to a pride factor," Lockwood said. "What we've challenged our post with is that we're not going to give up good position early. We're going to compete and fight for those post positions so they won't set up where they want to set up, try to make them take tougher, difficult shots. The third thing we have to do is finish the possession. We have to contest the shot very aggressively without fouling and then we have to block out."

When Warlick put together the scouting report early in the week, she said the keys were stopping the forwards, Ann Strother and Barbara Turner. But on Thursday it was announced that Turner is out for the game with a foot injury and has been replaced in the starting lineup by Willnett Crockett. It shouldn't change UT's game plan, though.

"We're just trying to polish up our offense," Warlick said. "We're not preparing any different than how we prepared for every other team. We're just trying to get better. We're trying to get better in practice; we're trying to defend better. We're not doing anything special or going to throw out any gimmicks.

"I think Ann Strother is a great competitor. She's a difficult player to guard, because she can shoot the three and penetrate. We're going to have our work cut out for us."

Helping to stop Strother will fall to Anosike, whose interior defense – her offensive game is improving but still in its infancy – has earned her more minutes.

Lockwood said his instructions are: "Do what you do best. Keep your game very, very simple. And I think for Nicky that is so important. Nicky's energy level alone, what she gives us, she just brings so much just sheer pure energy to the table in terms of running the floor, competing for rebounds, setting screens, and if there's a charge to be taken, a loose ball to be gotten. Right now we're trying to take all the pressure off of other areas. Anything she gives us is a plus if she can just bring Nicky's level of energy and defend and rebound that's wonderful."

Despite both teams having three losses – Tennessee is 9-3; UConn is 8-3 – no luster has been lost from this game, according to those involved.

"The intensity level is always going to be there," Auriemma said.

"I think it is what it is – it is Tennessee and Connecticut," Summitt said. "It has been the one game in the regular season that people wanted to see. I know the UConn fans will be there. The media will be there. CBS will be there, and there will be a lot of people watching throughout the country."

Summitt noted that some people would tune in to see why the two teams have been struggling and to see if their national rankings are deserved - perhaps too high or even too low.

"It's always the same," Zolman said. "UConn is always the game that everybody gets so hyped up for, because it is the biggest rivalry. No matter what we're ranked, we're going to be playing our hearts out. It's so much fun to play in the post-season type atmosphere."

Tennessee has an additional motivation to play well. The players want to turn around their practice shirts. After the Rutgers game, Summitt ordered the team to wear them inside-out until they earn the right to display Tennessee on their chests, game jerseys being the exception.

"I hope after the UConn game, Lord willing we'll win, hopefully they'll be turned back around," Zolman said.

Zolman is not buying into any theories that Tennessee is psychologically disadvantaged in this game because of UConn's win streak against the Lady Vols.

"I don't think so," she said. "And to tell you the truth, we didn't have a mental block last year or the year before that. Going in you're always thinking win. There's definitely not a mental block in my mind, and I'm probably speaking for everyone else as well."

She also doesn't think the Huskies' recent struggle to find some consistency on offense will have any bearing on today's game. Tennessee has also struggled to score this season.

"From a regular outsider's perspective, looking at their struggles so far, and the teams that they've been close to and lost to, they are going down so to speak the same path that we are," Zolman said. "But when we play them you can't look at how they played against South Florida or how they played against North Carolina, you've got to look at how they're going to play against us. It's not a matter of anything but playing our game and trying to take them out of theirs."

Ely echoed that sentiment.

"We need to play as a team, buy into our system, do the things that we worked on all week in practice that we did to prepare for them and just leave it all out there," Ely said.

Even the freshmen understand what's at stake.

"We've been watching the rivalry since we've been young," Dosty said. "We know what's in it. We know how big a game this is, especially to the seniors and to Pat and the coaching staff. We want to win just as bad as the rest of the team."

After three days of practice at home Hornbuckle was anxious to get to Hartford.

"I don't know if it's really nerves, it's more of excitement," Hornbuckle said Wednesday, the day before the team flew to Connecticut. "I want Saturday to be here already."

It's here.

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