Lady Vols open SEC play tonight against Arkansas

If someone had asked in the preseason which of the Lady Vols' heralded newcomers would be starting at midseason to open SEC play, who would you have said? <p> Candace Parker? Too easy. Alexis Hornbuckle? Almost. Nicky Anosike? Congratulations. <p> Anosike, a 6'4 freshman post player, will start tonight against Arkansas (7 p.m., CSS, Lady Vol Radio Network).

"If anyone would had told me I'd be sitting here in a starting position as a freshman, I would have never believed it," Nicky Anosike said Wednesday after practice to prepare for the Lady Razorbacks.

"A lot of that is the intangibles," assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "Her hustle, her energy, her competitiveness, her warrior spirit. Those things have got her to where she is right now."

Since the start of individual workouts in September when she wowed the coaches with her speed and strength to January when she earned their trust to start conference play, Anosike has had only one goal: Get better.

"I think that I'm playing better defense, and I think I've gotten a lot smarter as far as the way to play the college game," Anosike said. "I still need to work on finishing around the basket."

Anosike's free throw shooting has improved considerably over the course of the season. At one point, she was hitting about 25 percent, but now makes 50 to 70 percent a game.

"Repetition and coming in for extra reps and just teaching points from Pat (Summitt) and the other coaches," Anosike said by way of explanation.

The No. 8-ranked Lady Vols, 10-3, have won the last seven regular season SEC championships. The last time they lost a regular season conference game was Feb. 2, 2002, against Vanderbilt and have since been on a 34-game regular season streak. They have a 54-game conference streak at home in Thompson-Boling Arena and last lost to an SEC foe on Dec. 8, 1996, when Georgia won in overtime in Knoxville.

"Mind-boggling," said Lockwood, who is in his first year with the Lady Vols and his first as a women's coach. "How long can a situation like that persist? With the parity that's out there it's hard to fathom that that will perpetuate and how long. It's wonderful. It speaks for the system, it speaks for the great players who played here, and it speaks for this program. In order to keep that going your level of intensity and your level of execution have to be off the charts. It's a high bar."

Besides Anosike at power forward, Tennessee is expected to start Loree Moore, 5'9, at point guard; Brittany Jackson, 6'0 at the wing; Shyra Ely, 6'2 at small forward; and Tye'sha Fluker, 6'5, at center. Ely returned to practice Wednesday after missing some court time this week with an infection.

Arkansas, 10-4, is expected to counter with forwards Danielle Allen (6'0, sophomore, Harrison, AR.) and Sarah Pfeifer (6'0, sophomore, Ozark, AR.); and three guards in Kristin Peoples (5'7 sophomore, Westerville, Ohio), Sheree Thompson (5'10 junior, McComb, Miss.) and Rochelle Vaughn (5'9 junior, Plano, Texas). Junior center Ruby Vaden, 6'3, of Osceola, AR., is expected to come off the bench. Vaden, a preseason second team All-SEC honoree, only played four minutes against Ole Miss earlier this week because of foul trouble and has sputtered at times this season.

Arkansas started the season 9-1 with wins over Indiana, Oregon and Western Kentucky. They lost to then-No. 15 Purdue by only four points, 55-51. But on Jan. 2 against Cincinnati post player Kristin Moore injured her knee. She had season-ending knee surgery (torn ACL) on Tuesday.

Arkansas will try to take advantage of the thievery of its guards – Peoples, 38 steals; Vaughn, 37; and Thompson, 30 – to disrupt Tennessee. The Lady Vols will counter with its improved guard play of late and its considerable size advantage.

"It is an advantage only if you take advantage of it," coach Pat Summitt said. "One place where we have struggled for consistency is our inside play. That is a place where I think we need to make tremendous improvement. We are taking little steps in that direction."

Lockwood provided the pre-game scouting report for Arkansas, and at practice Wednesday the players took heed. Summitt was peeved after the UConn game that the team basically disregarded the defensive scouting report. The Huskies jumped in front of the Lady Vols, and Tennessee never led until less than three minutes remained in the game.

Lockwood said he approached the Arkansas game with the attitude that Tennessee "must fight and claw for dominance."

"Am I going to tell you that they're Connecticut or Duke? No. I'd be lying to you," he said. "But if I tell you they're a walk in the park, I'd be lying to you again. No way. Dribble drive, slashers. They'll press you. They like to get you playing a little faster than what you want to play.

"They've got perimeter players who can really get into the paint and who can make shots if you allow them to get their feet set and get comfortable. …. Danielle Allen and Sarah Pfeifer are skilled, and they're tough. They will battle you. They are a team that we have to play. We have to show up."

The Lady Vols are anticipating a full-court press after made baskets by Arkansas and possibly a trap after the first entry pass. The Lady Razorbacks also try to trap ball screens and handoffs, he said.

After practice ended Wednesday, Lockwood left with four post players – Anosike, Fluker, Sybil Dosty and redshirt freshman Alex Fuller – to watch film of Arkansas.

"He just teaches us lessons about the game and about being a competitor and fighting for every second," Anosike said of Lockwood. "Obviously he's been around the game for so long. The energy he brings to practice, day in and day out, he never takes a day off."

Lockwood says the same thing about Anosike in terms of her work ethic. So does fellow freshman Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood.

"Wow," Wiley-Gatewood said of Anosike's play this season. "She does all the dirty work. She's a hard worker, and I love playing with her. There wouldn't be another post I would trade to play with her because she works very hard. I don't know a post that works and runs the floor like she does. I'd never seen that in a post before where they run the floor with a guard."

THE FROSH: Before freshman Alexis Hornbuckle played UConn, she vowed that the freshmen class would start "a whole new era." She backed it up with a 68-67 victory that wouldn't have been possible without Hornbuckle, Anosike and Wiley-Gatewood.

Even when Tennessee fell behind by double digits Hornbuckle didn't doubt herself or the team.

"It was never in doubt in my head," Hornbuckle said. "I don't think anyone doubted even when we were down. We still felt like this was our year, it's our time. And God was on our side because Lord knows Ann can shoot."

With Tennessee ahead by two, Hornbuckle fouled UConn's Ann Strother on a three-point shot with less than four seconds left. She made the first free throw to pull the Huskies within one but missed the next two. Tye'sha Fluker rebounded the final miss, and Tennessee prevailed.

Summitt said the freshmen came of age in that game.

"I think they are big game players," Summitt said during her media teleconference Wednesday. "I have the confidence that they will take the initiative to create and finish big plays. We need that because it is something that this team has missed. We need players that have the courage as well as the mental focus to complete plays."

"She told me I grew up," Hornbuckle said. "I looked at her and said I had to. We all had to. If not we'd have been on the losing end."

Wiley-Gatewood agreed.

"We did," she said. "The fans were awesome. That was so loud. If coach said something we couldn't hear anything. We actually had to take control ourselves. We grew up big time. We kept saying to ourselves we are not going to lose this game. Loree was the first one to get everybody motivated and had everybody playing hard. I was happy to play in a game with Loree. That was the first time we actually played together. I've been looking forward to playing with her since my 10th grade year in high school. She was a role model for me. When coach put us in together I was like, ‘Oh yes. Let's go Loree.' "

Hornbuckle also didn't hesitate to credit the play of a senior, Loree Moore, for the outcome.

"Her defensive intensity, we can feel the level go up from the start of the game," Hornbuckle said. "Before the ball even got thrown up she just gets you so hyped and so ready. Mentally and physically she's our toughest player."

Hornbuckle is coming off the bench since Moore returned for the UConn game from having her tonsils removed. She had started in place of Moore at the point, and also can play the wing and small forward positions.

"It doesn't really matter," Hornbuckle said of starting vs. coming off the bench. "Starting, of course, you have a lot on you because you've got to get the game started off on the right tempo. Coming off the bench you also have an advantage because you're seeing what they're doing, their tendencies."

Ditto, Wiley-Gatewood.

"It doesn't really matter," she said. "If I'm going to be the backup point guard then I have to be the backup point guard. If I'm the starting point, I'm going to come out there and work and keep playing. But it doesn't matter. Hopefully Pat plays us."

Wiley-Gatewood is still troubled by her left knee, which held her out for two months with a severe case of patellar tendonitis. The main problem now is that her knee stiffens up, but "it's OK," she said.

Wiley-Gatewood left practice Wednesday with a videotape to study of Arkansas' plays and her defensive play, which Wiley-Gatewood said needs work. She had missed two days of practice this week with an infection but returned to the court Wednesday.

When she first returned to practice last month, she saw a kinder-gentler Summitt who was allowing some adjustment time. The grace period is up.

"It's over," Wiley-Gatewood said with a smile. "I found that out."

The upperclassmen have counseled the freshmen on the demands of conference play and what they will be up against every game.

"We talked about it," Hornbuckle said. "We had a talk about the SEC since we've never been here, and we're kind of a young team. Our upperclassmen were like, ‘It's like a UConn environment every game. You have to bring it. Because if not we'll be going home with another loss.' "

Going undefeated in regular season SEC play – as Tennessee did last year – is a goal, Hornbuckle said, only "because I don't want to lose anymore games."

"Nobody wants to lose," she added. "If we lose, we'll hate it. We'll suffer for it in practice. We don't want to lose. We want to go undefeated and just keep it all the way through the tournament."

THE SHOOTER: Junior guard Shanna Zolman has struggled with her shooting this season and was left scoreless against UConn. You wouldn't know it from watching her in games, where her demeanor doesn't change, or at practice, where she has been hitting consistently all week.

"That's something that I've worked on my entire life, not let anyone know what's going on inside my head and not let anyone get the best of me and not let anyone say they've gotten the best of me," Zolman said of her approach on the court. "Whether or not I'm scoring there's other things in the basketball game that need to be done. That's something I need to focus on doing. If I'm not shooting I need to make sure I'm doing other things, just being real energized, being very aggressive. I need to do that to get outside of myself and help my team."

THE PRO: Former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings is enrolled in graduate school at Tennessee for the spring semester in sports studies. She joined the practice team Wednesday and played against the Lady Vols. It was a treat for the freshmen to play with Catchings, a legendary Lady Vol, All-Star for the WNBA's Indiana Fever and Gold Medal-winning Olympian.

"She's so explosive, so quick," Hornbuckle said. "She reads defenses so well. Like coach was saying maybe when we get paid we'll read defenses well, but we shouldn't wait until then. You watch her. She's there one minute, next second she's over there. Just watching how intense she is – she was on our walk-through (scout) team – so even her intensity there just shows us no matter what we're doing we need to be intense."

"She's awesome," Wiley-Gatewood said. "Everybody kept saying, ‘When Tamika comes, she's very fast. She's very good.' I can see it. I can tell. She was one of my favorites, too."

THE FUTURE: Candace Parker continued her rehab work and remains out of practice. On Wednesday she did make a few dunk attempts – she had permission to try but misfired several times before Pat Summitt put an end to her efforts – for a promotional poster photo.

"We are not rushing into anything, but hopefully in a couple of weeks she will be able to get back into some practices," Summitt said. "We will see how she responds then. We do not have a timetable."

Parker, who had surgery in September, was cleared to practice Dec. 26 but hasn't practiced since Jan. 3 because of swelling in her left knee.

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