Lady Vols take on SEC foe Vandy this afternoon

Tennessee's freshmen will play their first game today at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym with its odd configuration of benches on the baselines, "funny" baskets and sub-floor level fans.

Senior Loree Moore had a talk with the freshmen about the layout of the gym from the basket – there's not a soft center support; instead it's attached to poles that extend out on either side to the floor – to the baseline benches. But the scorer's table is still on the sidelines so players have to hustle to center court to check in during substitutions.

"I've been telling them," Moore said. "It's weird. The basket's funny. You've got to run, like sprint, to get in from the end line. The floor's higher. It's different. It's an interesting atmosphere. Standing on the baseline, you can hear everything she says."

Coach Pat Summitt is confident they'll handle the hostile atmosphere. She's even found a reason for the newcomers to like it. When Tennessee is on the opposite end of the floor, the players won't be able to hear her.

"They'll love it," Summitt said. "They'll think I've gone home."

What really matters to Summitt is whether or not No. 8 Tennessee (11-3, 1-0) can put together two good halves against No. 17 Vanderbilt (13-2, 2-0) during today's game (3 p.m. EST, Lady Vols Radio Network, Fox Sports South). She's not concerned about the freshmen playing in a raucous environment – road games from Ruston to Hartford answered that for her – but she is concerned about defending the Commodores after her team's uneven play earlier this week against Arkansas.

"They've been in some loud arenas, what I guess you would describe as hostile environments," Summitt said. "I think in Nashville, it's not like we're going into that and I'm thinking, ‘Oh I don't know how they're going to respond.' They've been there, and I think that they'll handle that.

"For us it's a big game because it's a conference game. Right now they are playing like the second-best team we will face. Obviously I think LSU is playing extremely well, but watching Vanderbilt, I see their talent and how they're playing together."

This will be the 49th meeting between the in-state schools and bitter rivals. Tennessee leads the series, 42-6. (Vandy's game notes will list the record as 41-6 and the 48th meeting. The schools can't agree on how often they have played. UT has a 96-27 win on Jan. 18, 1976, in Nashville recorded as the first game and counts that in its total.) Vanderbilt's six wins have come in Nashville (four) and at the SEC Tournament (two). The average score of a Tennessee-Vandy game is 79.7 for the Lady Vols and 69.9 for the Commodores, though last season's game in Nashville saw the scoreboard light up to 94-88 in UT's favor.

Tennessee is expected to start three seniors on the perimeter – Moore and fellow seniors Brittany Jackson and Shyra Ely – freshman Nicky Anosike at power forward and junior Tye'sha Fluker at center.

Vanderbilt is expected to go with a three guard, two forward lineup in: Dee Davis (5'7 sophomore guard, Cincinnati); Abi Ramsey (5'10 senior guard, Monteagle, Tenn.); Katie Antony (5'10 sophomore guard, Anacoco, La.); Ashley Earley (5'10 senior forward, Memphis); and Carla Thomas (6'3 sophomore forward, Mechanicsburg, Pa.). Guard Cherish Stringfield (5'7 sophomore, Wakefield, Va.) had started the last three games in place of Antony, who suffered a concussion and injured elbow in practice, but Antony is expected to be back in the starting lineup against Tennessee.

"They are a really solid team," Summitt said. "Obviously Davis is doing a great job. Their inside game, really mobile, active. Post people can score, their two starters in particular, (they've got) three point shooters. They've got good balance."

Thomas scored a career-high 32 points and had nine rebounds in a 73-67 win over Auburn on Thursday and is averaging 15.5 points per game. Earley had 22 points and six rebounds with a per game average of 19.2. Both players have Summitt's attention.

"They play well together," Summitt said. "They're athletic, they can score, they can pass, they can defend. They both pose problems. That's a tough guard for us. We need our frontline people ready to defend."

Fluker's game has sputtered at times this season, but she answered the call in the second half against UConn and had a solid game in Thursday's 72-54 win over Arkansas with 12 points and six rebounds.

"I think Tye has really improved her game," Summitt said. "If we can just get her steady, if we could just count on her every night – score 10-12 points for us, 6-8 boards. But she's got to step up to do that."

Summitt said today's game will test the mettle of Fluker and the progress of Anosike.

"I thought they competed well against Connecticut," Summitt said. "That was encouraging. You look at Stanford, I thought Fluker stepped up big in that game. We've seen it, but we're going to have to bring it for 40."

She is concerned about her team after it stormed out to a 40-17 halftime lead against Arkansas and then got lackadaisical in the second half.

"Obviously after the game everybody got a good earful," Summitt said. "I'm expecting our seniors every night to bring leadership and not take possessions off or take halves off. It affects the whole team. We addressed that. Second half was just ugly, sloppy, careless, just terrible. It starts with the guard play. We finally get our posts settled down and then our guards come in. They had no respect for Arkansas' defense, no intensity in taking care of the basketball. First half was bad, second half was worse. It was a variety of people. The perimeter people forced a lot."

"We got our butts chewed out for that," Moore said. "I shouldn't have allowed that to happen. I should have gotten everybody together and took on the role of being a strong leader and making sure that didn't happen. As far as that particular game that was a learning experience for me as well and what I need to do. I can't let that happen when we go to Vandy because the same results won't … you know … . They're a better team. They will be able to execute a lot better than Arkansas. That's something I'm learning, and I have to make sure I use practice to help myself prepare for that situation."

For the seniors they are starting to mark "last" on their career sheets. This will be their last trip to Nashville and its odd gym.

Both Moore and senior Brittany Jackson said they hadn't really thought about it until asked. Jackson said "it crosses your mind, but we really don't think about it right now."

"I've been focused on getting better and making sure our team gets better and just fixing the little things we're struggling with right now," Moore said.

"It's getting kind of sad," Moore added now that she was thinking about it. "Each day it's like it's chipping away. I thought about how it's getting closer to the (regular) season being over and March coming up and that's like it with college basketball. Right now I'm just trying to enjoy it and enjoy my teammates."

Moore enjoyed the performance of teammate Shanna Zolman on Thursday. Zolman had sunk into a shooting funk but busted out to score 16 points, including 3-4 from behind the arc. Zolman, a junior guard, should be happy to see Vanderbilt's uniforms. She has averaged 11.5 points per game against the Commodores during her career and shot three pointers at a 41.6 percent clip.

"I was really happy for her," Moore said. "That's something she's been working for in practice, trying to get back and get on the pace she was in the beginning of the season. I was very proud of how she came out and broke out of her slump. She's ready to play. She's ready to take on another role."

"She knew all day that it was going to be her day," teammate Sidney Spencer said. "She just knew. I know she's been kind of going through a little bit of the same thing I've been going through, and I was proud to see her come out and play the way she did."

Spencer, a sophomore forward, has dropped out of the starting lineup and has seen her playing minutes shrink for not being aggressive enough on the floor in terms of scoring and rebounding. What hasn't changed is her attitude.

"You can control attitude," Spencer said. "Sometimes you can't control what's going to happen out there on the court no matter how much you want to. I don't know what is in store for me in my life or if I'll even have tomorrow so I just try to be happy for my teammates, because they're still succeeding so there's no reason why I shouldn't be happy for them. I just think attitude is controllable, and nothing can change it."

As far as Spencer's game, Summitt saw encouraging signs against Arkansas. Spencer played 18 minutes and was 0-5 from the field, but Summitt liked her aggressive nature, even if the shots didn't fall.

"I was pleased with her offensive aggressiveness," Summitt said. "I just didn't think she rebounded the ball with the mindset that ‘I'm going to be all over the boards.' I want her aggressive. She's too good of an offensive weapon not to be putting up more shots and making more shots."

"I hope it's coming together," Spencer said. "I feel like I could be doing a lot more than I am. I just need to work on the little things, and the larger things will come together. I feel like last year this same thing kind of went on about this time in the season. So maybe it's a growing experience, to learn. I'm learning through each day how I can try to overcome certain difficulties. It will come."

The comfortable lead against Arkansas allowed Summitt to try various combinations on the floor and get more court time for players she wanted to see perform. Sophomore Dominique Redding played 17 minutes and had a career-high 10 points. Summitt made it clear what Redding has to do to log more minutes.

"From an offensive standpoint she did a lot better," Summitt said. "If we could get her to rebound the basketball, we would have a lot of Dominique on the floor."

Freshman center Sybil Dosty, who had been one of Tennessee's most-efficient scorers until being bothered by a sore foot, only got to play eight minutes before fouling out against Arkansas. (The foot is still sore enough that when the team runs sprints at practice, she rides a stationary bike instead to avoid unnecessary pounding.)

"I hate it because I wanted to get her 15 to 20 minutes," Summitt said. "That's as long as she could stay on the floor because of the fouls. She couldn't seem to get into a good rhythm."

Two of her fouls were questionable. On one she took a hard shot to the upper body and appeared to have drawn a charge. On another she tripped over a fallen player in the lane while trying to get a rebound, banged her head and got whistled. (She's OK. The blow to the head was a concern because Dosty sustained a concussion in practice earlier this season.)

One freshman who could have played a lot was guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, but she served a one-game suspension for violating team policy. It was the second time Summitt had to take disciplinary action. Wiley-Gatewood didn't dress out for a game in December after taking a trip home to California without notifying Summitt.

"Well, in this case it is what it is, just move on," Summitt said. "Whether it's Sa'de or anybody else, anytime something like this happens it's not a positive. But we're trying to get everyone to understand for the good of our basketball team everyone has to do the right thing and do it the right way. Hopefully we'll all get it right now."

The one freshman Summitt never has to worry about is Anosike, whose work ethic and attitude have earned her a starting spot.

During Friday's practice Anosike misplayed a defensive assignment. When Summitt called for a new group to sub in, Anosike politely asked her coach: "Can I do it one more time?"

"She goes about basketball the same way she goes about her academics," Summitt said. She's very serious about it. If she doesn't understand something, she'll do extra homework, or she wants to do extra possessions on the floor. Her family is that way. That's just how they are. They are hard-working people, very focused, driven to succeed at the highest-level. It's incredible. Ngozi, her mother, is the one that's behind this. They go after it. Nicky has got just a great attitude, great work ethic and the desire to be good. When she said that I wasn't surprised. I might have been surprised if others had asked but not Nicky."

It's sometimes easy to ask ‘what if' with this team. What if everybody was healthy? Freshman forward Candace Parker hasn't played because of preseason knee surgery. Wiley-Gatewood missed the first one-third of the season with knee problems. Moore missed a month after needing a tonsillectomy. Dosty had the concussion (and missed nearly a week of practice) and then was sidelined nearly a week with the sore foot. Redshirt freshman Alex Fuller will miss the entire season after reconstructive knee surgery.

"I definitely think we can be a whole lot better," Summitt said. "We have to continue to make individual improvement, but do a better job of playing together. The majority of our issues have been health (ones) and to have that many kids on your roster and worrying about having too many players to not (having) enough."

There was one beneficial side effect. Freshman Alexis Hornbuckle had to step in and learn the point guard position when Moore was sidelined. Hornbuckle earned co-SEC Player of the Week honors for her performance against UConn (14 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals in 27 minutes).

"I think Alexis came of age really well when I sat out with my tonsils because she had to play a new role," Moore said. "She got really comfortable with the (position) and the leadership part of it. She held her own, and she grew a lot. With Sa'de, just stepping in and stepping up – she hadn't played that many games or had a lot of minutes – she handled it very well. She still has some things to learn and get better with it, but for the most part, she's understanding now."

Moore is confident the freshmen will be fine in Nashville.

"I think they can handle the experience," Moore said. "It will be good for them. It's just like Connecticut - same type of atmosphere, the loudness, the intensity, the excitement of the game. You've got to make sure that you're focused, know what the scouting report is, know what we need to do and just make sure we're executing."

For Moore's part, she wants a win, but she's also knows how rigorous the road is in the SEC. Last year Tennessee went undefeated in regular season conference play, but Moore said running the table again doesn't enter her mind.

"I know we have our goals: win the SEC and hopefully win the tournament," said Moore, who did note the seniors have never won an SEC Tournament. "(But) this is a good conference, and LSU and Vanderbilt are at the top of their games. We've got to stay focused on one at a time instead of worrying about winning the whole SEC."

Right now she's only seeking win no. 2 in the conference. The veterans and newcomers will have their hands full trying to get it in Nashville. For the freshmen, it's a first look, for the seniors, it's a last one.

CENTER JUMPS: Tennessee hasn't won a lot of opening tips so far this season, despite having 6'5 center Tye'sha Fluker jumping center. Arkansas got the tip Thursday night and immediately converted a three-pointer.

"We should have won that tap," Summitt said Friday after practice. "We talked about it in our staff meeting. Tye is obviously a good jumper, but she's gone against a lot of people that are as tall or taller and quick jumpers."

Summitt is also concerned that Tennessee doesn't pick up the opposing players quickly enough after not controlling the opening tap.

"That's the area where we can get better with our coverages," she said. "If we're not going to get the tap, what we did (against Arkansas), we didn't even match up on the ball. That's a possession right there. We've been a little spoiled with (Michelle) Snow and (Ashley) Robinson. I do think there are times we should win it, and if we don't win it we should prevent an early basket."

PARKER UPDATE: During Summitt's post-game radio show after the Arkansas game she said the plan with freshman forward Candace Parker remains the same: try to ease her into practice when the knee is no longer swelling and hopefully play her in February.

"It's a goal," said Jenny Moshak, associate athletics director for sports medicine. "The swelling's not completely out, but it's a whole lot better than it used to be. She said that after we lifted (Friday) she felt her knee was strong again, not unstable. The reason it was feeling unstable before the swelling – there's a safety mechanism in the knee that when you get swelling in the knee, it shuts the quads down so when you take a step it wants to give out on you. She said the knee feels like it's stable again so that's a good sign. She still has a little bit of swelling, but it's getting there. She had a really good weightlifting (session)."

As far as Parker practicing, "she has to be totally free from swelling for awhile through rehab, and we're not there yet," Moshak said.

Both of Tennessee freshmen guards are enduring tendonitis in their knees. Wiley-Gatewood has battled a severe case in her left knee and has to stop and ice the knee during practice sometimes. Alexis Hornbuckle has a less-severe case in her right knee that has troubled her on and off this season. She sat out for the last half of Friday's workout to ice the knee but still stood on the court and watched the scouting session on Vanderbilt.

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