Lady Vol Tye'sha Fluker rewards coach's faith

Coach Pat Summitt didn't give up on Tye'sha Fluker when she struggled earlier this season, and the coach's patience has paid off. <p> Fluker, a 6'5 center from Pasadena, Calif., has given Tennessee the presence in the post that its coach so covets. Her offensive game and 6'4 freshman center Nicky Anosike's defensive attitude have given the Lady Vols a formidable frontline. <p> "Me and Nicky have a good chemistry together in the post," Fluker said. "Playing with Nicky is awesome."

Tye'sha Fluker also gives an assist to Heather Mason, the team's strength and conditioning coach who pushed Fluker in the preseason to get faster and in better shape. Nicky Anosike, who runs with the guards during practice sprints, is still leading the pack, but Fluker has closed the distance considerably since September.

"She deserves to get the ball and to be playing the way she's playing, because she's worked harder," Pat Summitt said. "I still would like for her to play 10 minutes all out. She played through (fatigue against Vanderbilt). I told her you're going to have to go."

Fluker played 29 minutes against Vanderbilt on Sunday and scored 14 points in the 79-65 win in Nashville. Prior to the Vandy game, Fluker had averaged about 17 minutes a game and wasn't playing in long stretches. She got little rest on Sunday.

"Without Heather I don't know if I can do it," Fluker said.

Fluker also tallied nine rebounds, including seven on the offensive end.

"As far as the Vanderbilt game, the biggest difference was she pursued the boards," Summitt said. "She went and got the ball early off the glass. I think she's working a lot harder for the ball, and she has a lot more composure offensively. And she has a lot more confidence."

Summitt has famously said she has little patience but lots of persistence. She needed both as Fluker made the transition from backup center behind Ashley Robinson to starting center. Fluker struggled in most of Tennessee's first 12 games to score consistently. She often was saddled with foul trouble. On top of that she was misfiring under the basket.

"I think back to the N.C. State game," Summitt said. "How many layups did she miss? She was right at the rim. I think I had to evaluate her shot selection, (and it) was great. I just told her, ‘I'm not giving up on you.' "

Summitt's belief in Fluker helped her believe in herself. She briefly lost her starting position – against Temple on Nov. 28 – but earned it back with her work ethic in practice and has started 14 of UT's 15 games. Summitt will use the same frontline of Fluker and Anosike to open Thursday's game at Auburn.

"By coach telling me that she wasn't giving up on me helped me not to lose my confidence and keep working hard and try to play hard and do what I can do," Fluker said. "Just knowing that she had the confidence in me, and the coaches and my team had confidence in me just helped me everyday."

Summitt's faith has paid off considerably. Over Tennessee's first 12 games, Fluker averaged 4.8 points and 5.5 rebounds. In the last three games against Connecticut, Arkansas and Vanderbilt, Fluker scored 11 points, 12 points and 14 points respectively. She had a season-high nine rebounds against Vanderbilt.

"I really believe she's got one of the best bodies of any post player in the game right now," Summitt said. "She's mobile. She's got good first-step quickness. She's a quick jumper. If you just talk about an ideal five player, the body that she has and now combine her head, she's understanding, she's positioning better. Last of all, she's competing harder and longer.

"I think, in general, it takes post players longer to really develop. She could have been pressing a little bit. I kept telling my staff I'm not giving up on her. If she wasn't getting shots or she wasn't getting in the paint and posting and sealing and working, if she played off balance, but she's using her body. She's using her body to seal. I think (assistant coach) Dean (Lockwood) has done a fabulous job with our post game. She's got a better feel for the game than she's ever had. I don't think she could comprehend and understand the game as a freshman and sophomore as she does now. Asks great questions so you know she's thinking the game."

That Fluker's best game of the season came against Vandy's strong post play in Ashley Earley and Carla Thomas wasn't lost on Summitt.

"A quality opponent, a very fine defensive team with post people that obviously can make plays on both ends," Summitt said of the Commodores.

The coach also applauded Fluker's mental toughness "just knowing how hard she has worked, and the strength and conditioning she had to work through mentally," Summitt said. "She had to push herself."

One incident near the end of the game perhaps best illustrates Fluker's toughness and mentality. Summitt couldn't see it – it was when Vandy had the ball, and UT's bench was on the opposite baseline, so her view was blocked – but her son, Tyler Summitt, noticed it when they were watching game film.

"My Tyler asked me what was going on. He said, ‘Watch this possession,' " Summitt said. "It started with Tye and I think Earley. They must have had words because she was right up in Fluker's face."

Fluker said the incident occurred when she blocked Earley's shot near the end of the game but got called for a foul. Earley took exception to the Lady Vols' exuberance over the play, and Vandy guard Dee Davis stepped in to act as a peacemaker, Fluker said.

"We were excited about the block, and she (Earley) said, ‘It was a foul anyway.' And then Davis came over. It was very respectful. She was calming things down," Fluker said. "I just blocked her shot and just that presence like ‘don't come in here.' Shyra (Ely) had my back on the block, we just (gathered) as a team, and she didn't like it too much. She was just whining a little bit."

The play intrigued Summitt, who said she intended to ask Fluker what happened.

"We've been needing a bully," Summitt said. "Maybe we've got us one."

Fluker seems amenable to taking on a tough demeanor – she has been more demonstrative of late as her play has improved – but she has no intention of changing the formula that has helped her so far.

"Just working hard in practice and having the confidence and trust in my teammates and my coaching staff, go out every day and doing what I can do, taking the easy shots and not forcing anything," she said.

TALENT AND TITLES: Tennessee (12-3, 2-0) has six national champion banners hanging in Thompson-Boling Arena. Only once, Summitt said, did the banner get there with superior talent. The other five were earned through defense and rebounding, especially offensive boards, she said.

"That's what I told them," Summitt said. "That's how we've hung the banners. Not that we have the best team. Only one time in those six championships would people say Tennessee had the best team in the country. 1998. That was it."

Fluker's seven offensive boards against Vandy obviously pleased the coach.

"I've always told them. Follow your own shot. Put it back in. Shoot 50 percent for the game," said Summitt, who agreed that second-chance points can be demoralizing to an opponent.

Summitt wants to see more of the Fluker that rebounded the ball against Vandy. It's imperative if Summitt wants to hang a seventh banner this season.

"She's got to have the desire for the ball," Summitt said of Fluker. "She would stand a lot flatfooted. But in that game she really pursued. That's a tough person to block out if she wants the ball. It's just having the nose for the ball. If you've got a nose for the ball, you're thinking, you're anticipating, you're on your toes. You're constantly playing aggressive.

"You look at the last three basketball games, she's been a lot more aggressive. She steps up huge in the Connecticut game. I think that really helped her to come out of that game feeling like: ‘I'm going to compete now. ' "

After Kentucky beat Georgia last week, Summitt called Mickie DeMoss, who is the head coach at Kentucky after 18 years as one of Summitt's assistants. The conversation eventually turned to Tennessee's team.

"I said you know what Mickie? This is one of the most talented teams we've ever had. Potentially could be the most talented if (Candace) Parker's healthy," Summitt said. "Think about it. I just wish I had another point guard? Nope. I love our guard play. You've got shooters? Yeah, we've got shooters. You got size? Well, yeah, we've got a lot of size. We've got depth.

"We've got all the ingredients, but then we have to have the leadership, the ownership, and as I told them, a commitment to defense and rebounding and sharing the basketball. We shared the ball really well. Our ball movement I thought was probably the best it's been against Vandy."

Summitt knew before the season started that she had a young team – six scholarship freshmen, two walk-ons, two sophomores and a junior starting for the first time in Fluker – and she would need to spend a lot of time teaching.

Whether or not she wanted to, Summitt has had to exhibit more patience with this team as they developed their games and learned their roles. She also has had several players lose practice time and games to injury. Her outward appearance of patience is an illusion, she said.

"Don't strike a match. I'd probably blow up the arena. I've kept so much inside," Summitt said with a laugh. "You have to as a coach. You've got a lot to teach, and you don't want to break anybody's spirit in the process. You just want to keep demanding a different level. I always go back to my philosophy: You do not get what you expect from players and teams; you get what you demand. You have to hold them to a higher standard than they hold themselves to."

Will that demand mean a supply of national championship rings for this team? It's too soon to tell, and there's way too many games left in the season. But Summitt clearly has her sights set high.

"We're getting better," Summitt said. "I'm seeing it now. I never expect less. I always expect more."

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