"I think it is like coming back home," Summitt said. "It's the longest she's been anywhere in any program. She's such a part of our family. The success that we had when she was here was tremendous. At the same time I know she's at a new place, new home, new team and doing very good things."
No. 7-ranked Tennessee (13-3, 3-0) takes on Kentucky (13-6, 2-2) at 3 p.m. (Lady Vol Radio Network). It's probably the only time at the arena when the pre-game affection for the visiting coach will be as warm as it for the home coach.
"I want her to know how much we appreciate her," Summitt said. "I think she will feel that Sunday from our fans."
DeMoss is excited about seeing old friends, but her concern is keeping her team focused, especially her freshmen and sophomores who have never played in Knoxville. DeMoss is fully aware of how well Tennessee plays at home, and the Lady Vols currently have a 37-game SEC regular season winning streak. It's been nearly three years since UT lost a regular season conference game.
"Going into that environment, the first thing you have to do when you walk in that door is believe you can compete," DeMoss said. "It starts mentally. It doesn't matter how much physical preparation we do. Mentally, you have to be ready to play and be mentally tough. You have to expect a lot of noise. Most teams play better at home, and Tennessee is no exception. They're going to be excited, and it's going to be a big game. I know they've sold a lot of tickets. All I can do is tell them what to expect."
During her teleconference with the media this week, DeMoss kept steering the conversation back to her team when asked about returning to Tennessee and how she would handle her emotions and whether or not she would turn the wrong way out of the visitor's locker room.
"I still have a lot of friends down there," DeMoss said. "It's just some people I haven't seen in awhile, and they're excited about Kentucky coming down. But it's a hard thing because I have to keep the team focused."
It isn't like she's playing Summitt one-on-one, DeMoss joked, because "I can beat her."
"If she could get a shot off she probably would," Summitt said. "Not sure she could get a shot off. Although at LaTech (where DeMoss played) she did lead them in shot attempts. She held that record for a long time, most shot attempts, not most made shots. She says I can't score. She won't get a shot off."
When Summitt took her team to Kentucky last year, she watched as DeMoss entered a packed Memorial Coliseum.
"When Mickie walks out, the place just erupted," Summitt said. "That really touched me. I thought this is great. I'm so proud for Mickie. Once the game started, I never thought about that again. I strictly thought about the game and that was my focus. Here, I don't think that's going to change. We're competitors. Once they throw the ball up, I'm thinking about how I can help our team win another SEC game. It's not about Pat vs. Mickie or Mickie vs. Pat. It's all about trying to help this team."
For Summitt the way to help Tennessee is to get her team off to a faster start offensively.
For that reason she is starting freshman Alexis Hornbuckle at point guard with senior Loree Moore coming off the bench. Summitt made the decision after evaluating Hornbuckle's play in the last two games off the bench – wins at Vanderbilt and at Auburn. Summitt wasn't happy with the sluggish start on offense against the Commodores and disliked the spacing against the Tigers.
"She has been the most consistent player at that position, and I thought she played really big at Vandy and again at Auburn," Summitt said. "I like her penetration game. After looking at the tape, there hasn't been that much difference in the defensive intensity so we've got to reward performance. The emphasis placed on being a starter here is getting the team off to a good start.
"I'm going with a team that I hope will get us off to a better start offensively while not losing anything defensively. In this program we've never placed a lot of emphasis on being a starter. It's just how the starting five get us out of the gate. That's the most important thing. That's where this year I don't think we have been a team that has started as well as we'd like to."
Hornbuckle started six games in December and early January while Moore recovered from a tonsillectomy.
"The point position does have an impact," Summitt said. "It's going to be a great positive impact, or it can have a negative impact. Hornbuckle had to play a lot of minutes. I'm glad she had the experience that she's had because I thought she did the best job running our team with Sa'de not feeling well and Loree not playing well" against Auburn.
During the time Hornbuckle started, she leaned on Moore while she adjusted to the college game both on and off the court.
"It's what I expected and more," Hornbuckle said. "It's a lot more demanding than what I thought. I pretty much consider it a full-time job. You've just got to be ready to give it your all every time you're somewhere – your classroom, the court, everywhere.
"Loree, boy if she wasn't here I don't know. She's helped me through a lot. When I have tough times, she's the first person I go talk to because she's been here for four years. Her first two years were kind of like mine started out. She told me you've got to keep the communication with coach alive, and you've got to keep your head in there and not show frustration."
During practice Saturday when Tennessee was doing its scouting work for Kentucky, Moore continued counseling Hornbuckle and fellow freshman point guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood.
"I try to help them now so they won't struggle later," Moore said. "That's why I keep talking to Alexis and Sa'de so they can get through it now so they will be easier roles (to fulfill) the next three years when they're here."
The rest of Tennessee's starters are expected to remain the same: seniors Brittany Jackson and Shyra Ely on the perimeter, junior Tye'sha Fluker at center and freshmen Nicky Anosike at the high post position.
Kentucky is expected to start: freshman guard Samantha Mahoney (5'10, Detroit, Mich.); sophomore guard Angela Phillips (5'5, Oak Ridge, Tenn.); senior forward Sara Potts (6'0, Rochester Hills, Mich.); freshman forward Chante Bowman (5'10, Detroit, Mich.); and junior center Jennifer Humphrey (6'3, Memphis, Tenn.)
Potts leads the team with a 14.7 points per game average. The second-leader scoring, Sarah Elliott (11.3 ppg) is a 6'6 freshman center from McKee, Ky., who comes off the bench.
The 6'5 Fluker will once again go against a player who can match her in height – Elliott was named SEC Player of the Week last Monday for her play against Georgia and Ole Miss – but Fluker's game of late is without comparison, according to her coach.
Fluker tallied her first career double-double – 18 points, 11 rebounds – against Auburn and has averaged 13.8 points and eight rebounds in her past four games.
"She's the Shaq in women's basketball," Summitt said. "Who else is out there that has that body? And now (she) is playing with tremendous aggressiveness and confidence, got great shooting touch. The only difference (from Shaquille O'Neal of the Miami Heat) is she can make free throws."
Summitt credited the turnaround – Fluker struggled earlier this season – to the tutelage of assistant coach Dean Lockwood and Fluker's persistence.
"She's transferring her practices to games," Summitt said. "Dean worked with her on her up-and-under move, and (against Auburn) she had a great up-and-under move. She has more composure now. That's what happens when (you get) the repetitions in practice and you never know when, ‘Hey the lights come on. I got it.' I think for her now it's all starting to fit together. She's bringing her skills together and making good reads.
"He's done a very nice job with our post game. I'm encouraged by it and very appreciative of it. He's wringing wet when he comes back to the office every day. He puts that much into it. Take the post game where it was in the beginning of the year and now, there's a significant difference. Fluker is obviously a glaring standout."
Lockwood is obviously pleased with his prized pupil.
"I'm very proud of her," Lockwood said. "She's doing what she can do with her skill set and her body type. She's playing more of a power game. She's not hesitant or reluctant; she's really taking the ball at people, taking it at the rim, which has been a real strong emphasis of ours from day one for her. She's taking her time. She's not being overanxious. She doesn't predetermine her move before she catches it. She's been very receptive. She's spent a lot of time watching tape and doing some extra work."
"It's huge," Ely said of Fluker's play. "We need that. She's been in and out for us and now she's on a consistent run. I'm really proud of Tye, and I'm happy that she's playing well. She knows exactly what she can do. She's unstoppable in there."
The other player earning plaudits from Summitt was Jackson. The senior sharpshooter hit four three pointers in the 81-71 win over Auburn and finished with 20 points.
"I'm really pleased with Brittany. Brittany's been a lot more active defensively," Summitt said, but it's once again her offense that is raising eyebrows.
In the game against Auburn, Jackson ducked into the corner in front of Tennessee's bench, took a skip pass from Ely and in one catch-and-shoot fluid motion drained a three.
"I thought she would step on my toes, that one that Shyra skipped to her," Summitt said. "I was telling Shyra to throw it. I looked, and I thought Brittany was going to box me out when she let go of it."
The play of Jackson means fellow sharpshooter Shanna Zolman comes off the bench instead of starting.
"It's a matter of maturity, what you want compared to what's best for the team right now," Zolman said. "And Brittany is playing great. We're playing very well right now. We're on a roll. Don't mess up anything that's working. I just try to come in and play my game and get back on track like I have been and do what I can for this team right now. Whether that's starting or coming off the bench, it's doesn't matter as long as we're winning."
DE LOVE FOR DEMOSS: When Pat Summitt is asked to explain what Mickie DeMoss meant to Tennessee, she points to the national titles.
"She recruited players that put us in a position to win national championships," Summitt said.
Summitt explains by telling a story:
"When I went to my first AAU tournament, she said I want you to spend the next three days and find the one player that you think you have to have to win a championship. When the three days was over I said, ‘Tonya Edwards from Flint, Michigan.' She said, ‘Fine.' We'd never contacted Tonya, and we started working. Mickie did an incredible job of putting us in a position to sign her. That was it. Bringing in players from outside – we recruited nationally – and being able to sell people on Tennessee and coming here and competing for a championship. That was something we hadn't done. We'd been in the hunt, but we hadn't done it. And Tonya Edwards was MVP of the championship in '87 as a freshman."
DeMoss helped to recruit nearly everyone on Tennessee's team, including some of the freshmen, who she tracked while they were underclassmen in high school. She also coached Tennessee's juniors and seniors.
"She's a friend, someone I looked up to," senior Shyra Ely said. "Really, really happy for her what she's doing for Kentucky. It was hard to see her leave, but at the same time you can only be happy for her because you want someone that close to do well. Life is about change, and I guess it was time for her to make a change. I totally support everything she does."
Senior Loree Moore called DeMoss recently because "I hadn't talked to her in awhile," she said. "I just wanted to check up on her. That was like my best buddy when she was here. Her coming in is exciting. I'm looking forward to seeing her."
Moore was hurt last year after tearing the ACL in her left knee and was unable to play when Tennessee went to Lexington.
"All of us on the bench were watching her coach," Moore said. "We wanted to see how she was doing. It's going to be fun playing against her."
"It will be different because obviously it is her quote, unquote homecoming. I know she's very excited, and I know her team is very excited to play for her," junior Shanna Zolman said. It's going to bring them a lot more motivation. We have to be ready to go from the get-go."
Zolman said she felt "nothing but love" for DeMoss. "She spent 18 years of her life here help building this program and making it what it is."
MINI CAMP SUMMITT: The team arrived back in Knoxville about 3 a.m. Friday after playing Auburn so Summitt decided to excuse most of the players from practice. She did take the court with the two sophomores, Dominique Redding and Sidney Spencer, and three of the freshmen, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, Sybil Dosty and Nicky Anosike.
Redding didn't travel to Auburn because Summitt wanted her to focus more on academics, Dosty didn't log any playing time, and Wiley-Gatewood's minutes were limited to four because of illness. Summitt wanted to work one-on-one with Spencer with special attention to her "defensive closeouts," which weren't meeting with the coach's approval. Anosike played 20 minutes against Auburn, but Summitt summoned her anyway because "a player like that you can't do too much skill work (and) she's got a lot more gasoline in her tank than some others."
Summitt spent most of the hour in hands-on demonstration with the players. She also had some intense closeup conversations with several of them.
"I had fun," Summitt said. "I think I sweated more than they did. We have some people who need to understand intensity. Maybe they saw it."
As far as the rest the game against a willful Auburn team that Tennessee couldn't pull away from for good until the final minutes, Summitt said: "Auburn did a good job of taking us one-on-one, but as the game went on I thought we adjusted pretty well. They have good one-on-one players. They shot the ball extremely well. We had some bad possessions (on defense), but the good was far better and far outweighed the bad. I thought we had a pretty solid defensive game. We had a couple of breakdowns in transition, but we generated some points off turnovers. The one-on-one and lack of rotation were probably the weakest part of our defense."
SCOUTING REPORT: After watching film of Kentucky, Summitt has picked up on DeMoss' style of play.
"I think her defense, you definitely can see her commitment to teaching man-to-man," Summitt said. "From an offensive standpoint, I think she's doing a fine job of spacing and ball movement and getting players the kind of shots that will benefit the team. … It's clear to me that strategically she has done a great job with her personnel within the offensive schemes that they're running to complement each player that she wants to be a go-to player."
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood prepared the team's scouting report on Kentucky. Here is his assessment:
"Kentucky is a basketball team (that has) several players who can hurt you, but they have two players that have consistently been scoring in double figures and have been putting up productive numbers.
"Sara Potts is as good a three-point shooter as I've seen all year. She can flat out shoot the ball. She has not just three-point range, she has deep three-point range. She doesn't need a lot of time or space to get her shot off. She's a lethal weapon. She's deadly from anywhere on the court if you're not really on her. That's a real concern for us. We've got to limit her touches. We've got to make it tough for her.
"Sarah Elliott, their 6'6 freshmen inside, is the second-leading scorer. She's been very, very productive offensively and as a rebounder. She can get to the foul line.
"They also have some athletic wings that can dribble drive and penetrate, kind of an inside-outside kid in Keiko Tate that comes in and gets minutes. She's kind of multifaceted.
"Kentucky likes to play in a rhythm and a tempo. They'll run selectively, but a lot of times they like to run their sets. We've got to take them out of their comfort level. We can't allow them to do what they do in terms of running their offense. We have to be very disruptive. We have to bring pressure. We have to not let Potts get very comfortable in a shooting rhythm. The other thing we want to do is we want to create our type of tempo. If Kentucky had its druthers, they would run selectively but then they'll also be slow and deliberate. We have to dictate the tempo of the game and make it a more of an up-tempo game.
"The No. 1 thing defensively we have to pressure the ball for 40 minutes. We can't let Potts get comfortable (Lockwood also cited the shooting of Angela Phillips and Samantha Mahoney.) Those kids can't get comfortable."
WAITING GAME: Freshman center Sybil Dosty didn't play against Vandy and Auburn, but she still factors in Tennessee's plans this season, and Summitt wants her playing more before the post-season begins.
Dosty's position coach said she's still absorbing the college game – specifically the daily expectations – and what it takes physically to compete. She also has Tye'sha Fluker and Nicky Anosike in front of her.
"There's still some learning in terms of what she has to do on a consistent basis and physicality," Lockwood said. "You have Tye playing very good basketball, and Nicky is kind of establishing herself as the physical rebounder defender-type kid.
"What Sybil is doing right now is kind of paying dues. And Tye can relate to this. She spent two years in the trenches, learning and playing behind people."
Dosty was bothered earlier this season by a nagging injury in her left foot, but she said it's nearly healed. She also has been bothered by her left knee – which was surgically repaired in high school (torn ACL), along with the right one – and will start wearing a brace for precaution.
"I haven't been getting as many minutes as I wanted to, but I have to keep a positive attitude, or else it's not going to change," Dosty said. "I'm just trying to get better every day, try to improve my game. Tye has been playing really well at the post for us right now. She's been having all the answers that we need. I have to stay ready. You never know when I might have to step in and take on that role."
"Practice is so important," Lockwood said. "She has to continue to be the practice player we need her to be in order to have that translate into more game minutes. As she learns what's expected and what's needed to play every day at this level, her time in the trenches is going to be valuable. There's going to be a time when that kid really helps us. We just need to keep her positive and keep encouraging her so she doesn't get down. It's hard as a freshman when you're not playing. We have to keep her up so that she knows any moment in time when somebody rolls an ankle, somebody gets in early foul trouble, she's in and she's got to be ready to answer the bell."
Dosty said she has talked to Fluker about the frustrations of not playing and adjusting to college basketball.
"Definitely, and not just Tye," Dosty said. "A lot players on the team have dealt with it as well. It's a hard role to be in, but you have to stay as positive as possible. I mean just look at Tye. She probably was feeling a lot of the same emotions as me, and right now she's one of our top players. You just have to be prepared when it's going to be your time to step up."
Summitt is keeping her eye on Dosty.
"Just bring it every day in practice and really be a worker and a competitor every day," Summitt said. "She's had some good practices. And in these last couple of days, let's face it I've shortened the bench because of how everybody plays against us.
"I'm coaching to help us hopefully close out and win a game. The one thing I don't want to worry about is getting people minutes. I want to get the people in that I feel like have earned the minutes and are ready to play for us. I do want, however, to get Sybil some minutes and some quality minutes between now and post-season. She's certainly not a player that I want to say, ‘We'll wait until next year.' "
ODDS AND ENDS: Freshman forward Candace Parker still has some swelling in her knee and didn't practice this weekend, but the "swelling is better," Summitt said. "As soon as Jenny (Moshak) gives her the green light (Parker can practice). Hopefully Monday she can do a little bit of work." … Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood has been bothered by a sinus infection and head cold and had trouble breathing during the Auburn game and again at practice Friday. She was not as winded Saturday, but is still not well. … Loree Moore was bothered by a stiff left knee against Auburn but was moving better Saturday. Most of the team had the day off from practice Friday so she was helped by a day of rest. "I came back in that UConn game (her first back from tonsil surgery) and started and playing the minutes that I did kind of backfired on me as of now. It's going to take a little while, but it shouldn't take long," Moore said. The knee is the same one she had surgically repaired a year ago. …. Summitt changed the team's warmup routine before the Auburn game after being annoyed with their pre-game casualness. "Much better intensity. They came in, and they were sweating," Summitt said. The seniors think all is OK now. "I think it was a lot better. I hope it was," Moore said. "We all broke a sweat." Shyra Ely said the pace of the drills have picked up. "We just had to do more drills that got us going," Ely said. "A lot of the drills are kind of laidback, which caused us to look laidback. We changed warmups so that we're moving a lot more and getting a lot of reps." … Ely said the seniors are aware of their career SEC record – no losses in the regular season since February 2002, and two consecutive seasons (2002-03 and 2003-04) without a regular season conference loss so they have thought about doing it a third time in 2004-05. "Definitely," Ely said. We have goals to get to an ultimate goal. With the SEC being so tough it's going to be a task. The thing for us to do is go in it one game at a time." The seniors also are aware of the fact they haven't won an SEC Tournament in their careers, and all three have listed that as a goal.