No. 5-ranked Tennessee (14-3, 4-0) takes on South Carolina (6-13, 0-5) at The Colonial Center in Columbia at 7 p.m. (Lady Vol Radio Network).
Tennessee's seniors – Shyra Ely, Brittany Jackson and Loree Moore – haven't been on the losing end of a regular season SEC game since Feb. 2, 2002, against Vanderbilt and have completed two seasons since then without doing so.
"It's important," Pat Summitt said. "They're just trying to keep their focus."
They want to finish their career without a regular season blemish, but it would require a 10-game winning streak that includes Georgia coming to Knoxville on Monday and going to Baton Rouge on Feb. 10.
"That would be unbelievable," she said.
But Summitt has noticed something different since the start of SEC play.
"There is just a different feeling in the locker room," she said.
Summitt also feels good about being in the thick of the conference season with three healthy point guards in Moore, Alexis Hornbuckle and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood. That is in stark contrast to December when Moore had her tonsils removed and Wiley-Gatewood was hobbled by severe tendonitis in her left knee. Hornbuckle was thrust into starting at the point position.
"There was a time when Loree was out and before Sa'de was ready to go – again I go back to La. Tech. – I'm looking down the bench thinking ‘Oh my goodness. What are we going to do here?' Because that was the only true point guard that I had," Summitt said.
Hornbuckle has supplanted Moore at the starting position for now – Summitt likes her offensive tempo – and will open tonight's game against the Gamecocks. Hornbuckle will be joined in the lineup by Jackson and Ely on the perimeter and Tye'sha Fluker and Nicky Anosike inside.
South Carolina is expected to start: Lea Fabbri, 5'7 sophomore guard (4.4 points per game, New Zagreb, Croatia); Lauren Simms, 5'9 sophomore guard (13 ppg, Columbia, S.C.); Stacy Booker, 5'8 sophomore guard (7.6 ppg, Lawrenceville, Ga.); Iva Sliskovic, 6'5 sophomore forward (4.8 ppg, Zagreb, Croatia); and Ilona Burgrova, 6'6 freshman center (6.3 ppg, Hradec Kralove, Czech Republic).
There's not an upperclassman in the starting lineup, and two redshirt freshmen (Melanie Johnson, 6'2 forward, Barnwell, S.C.; and Lakesha Tolliver, 6'3 forward, Columbia, S.C.) and a redshirt sophomore (Angela Hunter, 5'9 guard, Columbia, S.C.) are key reserves. There's not a senior on the roster, and only one junior in reserve Olga Gritsaeva, a 6'4 forward from St. Petersburg, Russia.
"I saw them as a program that had recruited the talent to be competitive in this league, and I still do," Summitt said. "In watching them on tape, they have some very skilled players that can post you up and spread you out. … I expect it to be a very tough game. That is just the makeup of our league and the competitiveness no matter where you are, home and away. That team has some talent and concerns me."
Tennessee is taking a lot of fresh talent to South Carolina, especially with the play of its guards in Hornbuckle and Wiley-Gatewood.
"It's been easy to coach those two freshmen point guards because they listen," Summitt said. "Alexis has always had a good feel for the game. Maybe I don't feel that I've been that tough on her because of how receptive she's been to really embracing that position and talking through some action. She's done a good job."
The aspect of Wiley-Gatewood's game that stands out is the fact she's always looking up while dribbling down court and looking to pass the ball ahead.
"Isn't that great? Of all of our point guards she is the best at creating for others," Summitt said. "She creates and gets other people open."
"My dad trained me to do that," Wiley-Gatewood said. "That's all we did when we practiced together. It's something I'm used to. I hear him in my head, ‘Look up Sa'de. Look up.' "
Summitt refers to her three players at the point as "combo guards" because they can rotate between the one and two spots, shoot the ball, set up others and rebound.
"Three points guards – or what I call combo guards – really give us a lot of options in the full court and half-court," Summitt said. "I think we'll be a better transition team because of those three guards."
Moore brings steady senior leadership and defensive intensity. Wiley-Gatewood is a pure point guard. Hornbuckle is the most-athletic player on the team and brings rebounding skills not seen in a guard before at Tennessee.
"I think she knows what we expect, whether she's at the one or the two," Summitt said of Hornbuckle. "I just think she's had more time on the court, and she's been in big game situations so she's more comfortable. Loree's trying to get herself back, and Sa'de's trying to get more reps and have a better feel in practice.
"She's mentally focused and strong. I think she likes playing a big role. She's just that kind of competitor and player. She wanted to come here for years, and I think she knew how high the expectations would be, not only for her, but for this class and this program. That's exactly what she wants."
As far as Wiley-Gatewood, Summitt said, "I think she has a true point guard mentality, and she's coming down the floor constantly looking for open teammates. When she penetrates she makes everybody else better. There's a difference in her penetration game and say that of Hornbuckle. Hornbuckle creates more off the dribble and gets herself to the basket more. Gatewood can do that, but she's more about assists."
Summitt wants Wiley-Gatewood to look for her shot, which she hasn't done enough of yet.
"When it comes to us being in games and needing her to shoot the three, I have confidence in her," Summitt said. "She'll know; if not I'll remind her."
"I got in trouble for that," Wiley-Gatewood said about not taking open shots against Kentucky. "Thinking too much, that's what it is, thinking too much. I'm not trying to look for my shot; I'm looking to get my teammates the ball. My coach said I also should look to score."
Summitt wants Hornbuckle to take better care of the ball, which she has done to some extent.
"She has improved her intensity with the ball," Summitt said. "I refer to her game sometimes as she has a lot of casual plays, but they're getting fewer and fewer. We've placed more emphasis now that we have three guards that can push and handle on our transition game. We're trying to push hard, and we're pushing on pretty much every possession. Certainly Alexis is better at it, but so is Sa'de and so is Loree. Now that we have more depth we can do that."
Moore offers help to the freshmen during practice and games as they learn the offense and bear the burden of being a point guard in Summitt's system. The added benefit is that Summitt can keep the heat on the floor.
"Having the depth at that position I think they feel that it's necessary to keep the intensity up," she said. "They know if they take possessions off then somebody else will take their place."
Both of the young guards are still learning, but they already know one thing: Always listen to Summitt.
"I'm just trying to learn everything as fast as possible, trying to get better and trying to get more playing time, trying to help my teammates win this year," Wiley-Gatewood said. "I'm very coachable. I listen to whatever she says."
"I came into the collegiate game thinking I want to do whatever coach needs me to do," Hornbuckle said. "In order for me to do that I have to be open, and I have to be respectful and want to listen and want to change anything's that wrong. That's my mindset going into every practice and every game."
Both players also realize their best effort in high school won't pass in college.
"The tempo is a lot quicker," Hornbuckle said. "And even though I was challenged defensively – we traveled outside of our state (West Virginia) to play a lot tournaments – the speed difference is so huge some things I got away with high school definitely make you look horrible out here."
Wiley-Gatewood makes some pure passes – especially her entry feeds to the post – but she also has too many picked off in games and in practice.
"Coach told me to compete, and I need to not have lazy plays," Wiley-Gatewood said. "She says I'm too relaxed. I'm trying to compete more with my teammates to get them better and also for them to get me better. I think it's natural (her passing ability), but I think I need to get better also. I want it to be perfect. Lately my passes have been lazy; maybe it's because the college level is different from high school, and that's how I did it in high school. I just need to get better with my passes."
When Hornbuckle had to take the reins of the point position earlier this season, she studied her playbook, game film and her teammates' personality tests.
"You have to master the game, her system," Hornbuckle said. "You have to master your teammates, and how they handle things. As point guard everything falls back on you so you have to take responsibility, even get on your post if that means they're seniors or juniors. You have to know how to come at people. I know we study our personality tests. You can't yell at everybody.
"Mine said I'm nonchalant, relaxed, sociable. It's pretty much me, except for one part that said I'm not competitive. That is definitely not me. I can be drinking Gatorade and try to beat you. I do have a laidback personality, which gets me in trouble sometimes with coach."
But that same personality also allows her to take the slings and arrows that come with the point position without crippling her confidence.
"It does, because I might have folded earlier," Hornbuckle said. "I might not be as successful as I am right now. I think I wouldn't still be able to grow if I wasn't able to be open and just kind of laugh stuff off. But I always think about everything that's said."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant coach Holly Warlick prepared the scouting report on South Carolina and walked the team through it at Wednesday's practice.
Here's what Warlick can share: "They're a transition team that likes to isolate their weak-side post. They like to go high-low a lot. I think they prefer to score off the transition. That's their best offense. Right now they're very good at it. They've got four kids on their team that can step outside and post up so they make it a very difficult guard – 6 feet and above kids that can step away from the basket, that's a hard guard for us."
Guards Lauren Simms and Lea Fabbri will get a lot of attention on defense, as will reserve forward Melanie Johnson when she's in the game.
"The Simms kid is just an outstanding athlete, can shoot the jumper, can penetrate, plays hard all the time," Warlick said. "She's very, very good. Their point guard is a three-point shooter. They just have a variety. The redshirt freshman Johnson she's putting up some good numbers. She can catch and shoot and drive. They're good rebounders."
Johnson also has 42 blocks this season. Fellow reserve Lakesha Tolliver has 36 blocks, which set a freshman record. It was previously held by Philicia Allen, who had 32 in 1980-81. The single-season school record is held by Teresa Geter with 58 in 2000-01. Geter, a native of the state, played for Tennessee before transferring to South Carolina.
South Carolina's record this season seems to reflect a problem finishing games, which is not too surprising given their youth at every position.
"I don't think their record is indicative of their talent. I think they're a better team than their record indicates," Warlick said. "I don't know, like I keep telling Pat, why this team hasn't won. They're good at every spot, and they've got a decent bench. They're just not finishing. They're playing well; they're just not putting teams away. They're not finishing what they start."
THE BIGS: South Carolina's size in the post game will once again give Tennessee a chance to counter with its "bigs" – Tye'sha Fluker, Nicky Anosike and Sybil Dosty.
Fluker, whose play of late in the paint has jump-started Tennessee's offense, said her mindset would not change.
"Basically just letting the game come to me, not trying to force any shots, take the open shots that are there," Fluker said. "I'm trying to offensive rebound and put the putbacks in."
Fluker enjoys playing with another big on the floor.
Nicky's my girl," Fluker said. "We're partners down there. We're the three bigs, Nicky and Sybil and I. We just have a good chemistry. It's fun to play with another big and have size out there, because most teams don't play with two big players at a time. We play off of each other, and we have a good two-player chemistry out there."
Anosike has moved into the starting lineup as a freshman, along with Hornbuckle. Summitt said she made a deliberate decision to be more patient with this freshman class.
"I think the only one I've gotten impatient with in the whole group is probably Sybil," Summitt said. "That stems from she's never had the intensity in practice. That stems from high school. She was injured the last couple of years. These other kids were out playing AAU and going to Nike camp and adidas camp."
Fluker has talked to Dosty, who played significant minutes against Kentucky, about hanging in there and keeping her head up.
"Basically I know exactly what she's going through," Fluker said. "I did it for two years. Little things if she messes up I can tell her, ‘I've been there. This is what you should do.' I try to be encouraging. Be the teammate, not the coach."
Against South Carolina, if all four freshmen get quality minutes, Summitt will look for improvement over Kentucky. She saw too many lapses against the Wildcats.
"Within the game they have to play possession basketball and try to improve their game, work on their game within the game and work on our game, what we want," Summitt said. "We would call some things (against Kentucky), and they would just play. They wouldn't actually run plays and stay focused and work on execution. They were out there just playing, and I wanted them to play the game a certain way. It's a great opportunity when she gets the quality minutes that Sybil got or that Nicky's been able to get and even Sa'de now, to get them to understand we're not just going to go out here and play. We want to play a certain way."
CROWD CONTROL: The freshmen seem to finally understand that wearing Tennessee on their jerseys means the other team will more than likely summon its best performance.
"I think Vanderbilt and Auburn – those road games – I think that right there sent a message," Summitt said.
Ironically it was the small crowd at Auburn that Summitt was more concerned about, because the freshmen were getting used to playing in front of a lot of people.
"I was a little concerned at Auburn because they'd been playing in front of thousands of people; the atmosphere was not the same as it had been in other arenas. I thought I don't know how we're going to respond," Summitt said. "I told them before we went out there, ‘You know what? You've got to generate your own energy. You won't have any fans here to speak of.' "
Summitt was pleased with how they responded.
Prior to that it was two large crowds on the road that she thought rattled the freshmen, but helped prepare them for UConn.
"For our freshmen at Texas and Rutgers I thought the crowd affected them in a bad way. I thought they weren't ready for that," Summitt said. "But the upperclassmen I don't think it bothered them. I think wanting to play well probably caused more anxiety than anything."
SENIOR LEADER: Forward Shyra Ely was picked Wednesday as the Lady Vol Athlete of the Week by the media relations staff.
In SEC games against Auburn and Kentucky, Ely had per game averages of 16.5 points, six rebounds, two assists and two steals. She also hit 55 percent of her shots from the field. Ely is UT's leading scorer at 13.3 points per game and rebounder with 6.8 per game. She also ranks second this season in steals with 29.
On the all-time lists, she is 19th in scoring with 1,396 points and 12th in rebounding with 810 boards.
ALL-TIME COUNTDOWN: When asked if there was a timetable for forward Candace Parker to play this season or shut her down, Summitt said she hadn't thought about a deadline. Parker is recovering from September knee surgery but hopes to return to practice and play soon.
When informed there were only 10 games left in the regular season – and the writer knew because of tracking the countdown to Dean Smith's all-time win record of 879 – Summitt asked, "And where am I there?"
She was told that with 866 wins she needs 14 to eclipse Smith's record of 879. She was further informed that if she won all remaining games in the regular season and the SEC Tournament title, she could secure the record-breaker in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"That's the last thing I want to be dealing with during the tournament," Summitt said, anticipating the distraction to her team.
Smith, the now-retired coach of North Carolina, broke Adolph Rupp's record of 876 wins in the NCAA tournament and also fretted about the milestone deflecting attention from his team.
When it was suggested she could lose several games this season and postpone it, she laughed.
"Then we go into next year and the way we start off, then we wouldn't have to worry about it for awhile," she said.
ODDS AND ENDS: Former Lady Vol Michelle Marciniak is an assistant coach with South Carolina. Marciniak played from 1993-96 and was the MVP of the 1996 Final Four when UT won its fourth national title. … The Lady Vols lead the South Carolina series 33-2 and have won 29 consecutive times, a streak that stretches back to 1979-80, when now assistant coach Holly Warlick was Tennessee's point guard. … Carolyn Peck, now the head coach at Florida, remains alone among Pat Summitt's former players or assistants who have tallied a victory over her. Peck won in November 1998 while coaching at Purdue. The list of those who have tried include Sylvia Hatchell, Sharon Fanning, Jane Albright, Lea Henry, Nancy Darsch, Trish Roberts and Mickie DeMoss. … Tennessee's seniors have a career mark of 107-17 for a winning percentage of .857. They have played 65 ranked teams in 124 career games and have notched a 49-16 record in those match-ups. They haven't lost to an unranked team since March 2, 2002, when they fell to LSU in the SEC Tournament. LSU had been in and out of the top 25 in the two preceding months. It's the only loss to an unranked team in their careers. … Tennessee will put its 56-game SEC home game-winning streak on the line Monday when Georgia comes to Knoxville. Georgia was the last SEC team to beat Tennessee at home on Dec. 8, 1996, a 94-93 overtime thriller.