Tonight is a big game. No. 1 LSU (21-1, 8-0) plays No. 5 Tennessee (18-3, 8-0) at 7 p.m. EST (espn2, Lady Vol Radio Network) as part of "Rivalry Week." The winner will be well-positioned to win the SEC regular season title and the No. 1 seeds in the SEC Tournament and possibly the NCAA Tournament.
Alexis Hornbuckle, a 5'11 freshman guard, has started 10 of UT's 21 games this season, including four SEC contests. In conference games she is averaging 7.1 points and 4.5 rebounds. She also has 27 assists, 13 steals and four blocks in those eight games.
Sylvia Fowles, a 6'5 freshman center, hasn't started a single LSU game but has put up some impressive numbers. In the Lady Tigers eight SEC games, she is averaging 13.1 points and 8.8 rebounds off the bench. She also has 20 blocks and 10 steals.
"They play great team defense, and I think Fowles is just making them a much better defensive team with her presence ," Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt said. "She can block shots. She can just clean the boards. I think her inside presence is just huge. Plus, they're a veteran team. With a veteran team they know each other. They have great instincts. They play very well together. In most cases they're going to make you beat them over the top. They're stingy; they don't give you a lot inside."
Both Hornbuckle and Fowles should come off the bench in this game.
Summitt will start her seniors Loree Moore, Brittany Jackson and Shyra Ely on the perimeter. Freshman Nicky Anosike and sophomore Sidney Spencer are expected to start inside. Junior center Tye'sha Fluker will return to the team this morning after missing two games because of the death of her grandmother in California. Summitt said she will talk to Fluker - who will take an overnight red-eye flight from California to Baton Rouge - at shoot-around to determine her readiness to play.
"I want to talk to her first and take a look at her at our shoot-around to see how she is doing and make a decision at that point," Summitt said.
LSU is expected to start: Temeka Johnson, 5'3 senior guard, 9.7 points per game, 7.0 assists per game, 2.9 rebounds per game (New Orleans); Scholanda Hoston, 5'10 junior guard, 9.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.5 steals per game (Miami); Seimone Augustus, 6'1 junior guard, 20.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg (Baton Rouge); Wendlyn Jones, 6'1 junior forward, 5.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg (Blytheville, Ark.); and Tillie Willis, 6'3 senior center, 3.0 ppg, 4.0 rbg (Mabelton, Ga.).
"As long as we don't get in foul trouble I think we can match up with them inside," Summitt said. "But if we get in foul trouble that might change my thinking."
Of primary concern is stopping or at least slowing down Johnson, who will be starting her 114th consecutive game. Johnson holds every assist record in LSU history - including 15 in a single game - and now is the SEC career leader with 820. A pass to Augustus for a layup in LSU's last game against Mississippi State gave her the record of 817. She passed Camille Ratledge of Florida (1986-90)
Johnson also can score. Entering the Tennessee game she has 1,266 points, which places her 14th in LSU's record books. And she can steal. She is ranked sixth at LSU with 206 career steals.
Guarding Johnson will likely take a collective effort from Moore, Hornbuckle and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, another freshman guard. Ely will draw the initial assignment on Augustus, who in eight SEC games is averaging 19.9 points and 4.5 rebounds. She is not a 3-point threat - she is 0-1 in conference games and 1-7 on the season - but she is connecting on 54.8 percent of her field goals in league play.
"I wouldn't hesitate to put Lex, Loree, Anosike, (or) Sid" on Augustus, Summitt said. "We can rotate people. (Anosike) has got the size. To do that we've got to be playing a little bit better inside, and hopefully someone else will help us out."
Ely's strategy against Augustus is to "just limit her touches, frustrate her if I can. I'd like to show her defense that she's not seen this year if I can do that. That's my goal."
Ely can completely shut down players on the perimeter and has done it twice this season - against Katasha Brown of UT-Chattanooga and Sara Potts of Kentucky. Both were proven scorers for their teams, but were stymied by Ely. But Augustus will be the biggest challenge for Ely this season because of her scoring ability within LSU's efficient motion offense.
"Their offense is kind of hard to guard - I think basically just guarding their personnel and knowing the concepts of their offense and what we need to know and what we need to do," Ely said. "I just think we can't let their role players beat us, but we also can't let their key players beat us by themselves. It will be a test."
"It's going to be a challenge," Hornbuckle said. "It's going to probably be one of the toughest besides Rutgers defensive-wise, because they're so quick, and they have so much athleticism, and they execute so well that you've got to be on your toes for 40 minutes. I'm looking forward to it, though. You can't shut down players like Temeka Johnson and Seimone; you've just got to contain them, and that's what we want to do."
Before leaving for Baton Rouge on Wednesday afternoon, Tennessee worked on defensive preparations for LSU, which has outstanding guard play in Hoston and Johnson.
"We're obviously not locked into playing one defense or one player on one player," Summitt said. "That's something that's been good to us, the depth that we have. We change defenses quite a bit now. I don't think you can guard them 40 minutes straight up. I haven't seen anybody do it and be successful. They have good depth. I haven't really compared the numbers, but both teams have good depth. We're playing more people more minutes, but I think they're solid."
One of LSU's best three-point shooters, Quianna Chaney, comes off the bench. The 5'11 freshman guard from Baton Rouge has hit 13-27 shots from long range in eight SEC games. Among starters, Hoston is a long-distance shooting threat and has nailed 14-28 in conference play. Johnson has only shot eight, but made four of them.
Tennessee's best three-point shooters in conference play are Jackson (22-49) and Shanna Zolman (21-42).
"We are better at stretching the defense with a player like Shanna, as well as Brittany Jackson," Summitt said. "The two of them have really been a great complement to our half-court offense and our ability to extend the defense."
After Ole Miss played LSU and Tennessee back to back, Lady Rebels coach Carol Ross said the game between the top two teams in the SEC likely would be won on the boards.
"Most games are," Summitt said. "I think if you want to have an advantage, you can gain your advantage on the boards. I don't think we're going to win on first shots, and I don't think they're going to win on first shots. Second-chance points are going to be huge."
Statistically speaking the teams are separated by one rebound. In the eight conference games, Tennessee has 335 rebounds - 123 offensive and 212 defensive - for a 41.9 average. LSU has 343 rebounds - 128 offensive and 215 defensive - for a 42.9 average.
Fluker's availability for the game could be huge for Tennessee - she is second on the team in rebounding in SEC games with 47, despite missing two games - but Summitt is pleased with how Spencer and Dominique Redding have performed of late.
"Because Tye hasn't been with us you look at two players that have gotten some quality minutes and have really put to good use their time is Sidney and Dom," Summitt said. "They've had more minutes than they would have had otherwise."
One of Redding's jobs when she's on the floor will be to help keep Fowles off the boards. At least she won't have to introduce herself. Redding played at Clearwater High School in Florida when Fowles was at Edison High School in Miami.
"We played my senior year, which would have been her junior year," Redding said. "You've got to box her out. She just jumps and leaps. Plus she's 6'5, so that helps her a lot. We've just got to turn and box out. It doesn't matter if we get the board or not; she can't get it."
Redding, who is an excellent shooter, played 17 minutes against Florida and 22 minutes against Ole Miss, because Summitt was pleased with her defensive effort.
"All she's asking me to do is play defense and boards, and I get more minutes so that's what I've been trying to focus on," Redding said. "Offensively just focus on making my shots basically. I was really just trying to rebound and play good defense. I'm taking the challenge on, bringing the same amount of energy."
Redding can also shoot if necessary - she is making 41.4 percent of her shots from the field this season and is 20-23 from the line for 87 percent - but she's not focused on that for now.
"That's not my job," Redding said. "When I do shoot the ball and make it, people think oh wow, she shoots. They play off of me. I'm going to start making them respect me. (But) I'm just going to go in and keep doing what I'm doing ... mainly my defense and boards."
RIVALRY WEEK: The last time LSU and Tennessee played was in the semifinal game at the 2004 Final Four. UT won 52-50 after LaToya Davis hit a layup on a steal and a feed from Shyra Ely with less than two seconds left.
Tennessee leads the series 32-7 with four of those losses coming in Baton Rouge. The game last April 4, 2004, in New Orleans spiced up the rivalry, and the Pete Maravich Assembly Center (capacity 14,164) is expected to be packed tonight.
"I think it's taken on a different focus for us," Summitt said. "I think anytime you lose to someone the stakes are high. The SEC conference championship, you might say, is at stake. It takes on a different meaning. That's what creates a rivalry between schools is when you are competitive. They win. You win. You're playing in a Final Four, you're trying to win a championship. That's when it seems like the importance is going up and increases as it has to. For me it wasn't until (Sunday) night. ... it took on a different meaning. When that (Ole Miss) game was over I've got to start watching LSU games, because I really haven't watched any, and I haven't seen them much on TV. I have a pretty narrow focus. By the time I got to the office (Monday) I had watched quite a bit of tape, and it's all about preparing for this game."
"It's going to be a dogfight," Redding said. "We've just got to go in and play and bring our defense and boards. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing, don't change anything, just go out and play hard for my team and play defense and rebounding and give energy."
"I'm just looking to really being a monster on the boards," Nicky Anosike said. "Defensive rebounding, just start there, and I know the offense will come."
Anosike is expecting an up-tempo game, and she welcomes it.
"I think that's our strength, so I think if we can get the rebounds and push the ball, then I think we'll be effective in the open court," she said.
FREE SHOTS: If the game comes down to the free throw line, Tennessee has to feel fairly confident. In the last two games, the Lady Vols are 56-65 from the line.
"Based on that stat you feel good, but every game is a new game," Summitt said.
In eight SEC games, Tennessee is 152-195 (77.9 percent). LSU is 89-143 (62.2 percent). Over those games UT's opponents got to the line 164 times; LSU's, 110.
"I like the fact we're getting to the free throw line," Summitt said. "We're being aggressive. I think our transition game has helped us get to the line, what we're doing off of our board plays and our steals. That has put a lot of pressure on our opponents and also gives us a chance to go to the line more. We've got more possessions."
The Lady Vols routinely break from drills and shoot free throws during practice several times while they're still tired.
"In practice we get in at least 50 to 60 free throws individually," Redding said. "We take that seriously. We'll go up and down and then we'll break and shoot free throws, so we're shooting when we're tired, and I think that really helps."
There has been no greater improvement at the line than that of Anosike, who at one point was making about 27 percent for the season. She was 15-17 over the last two SEC games and has hit 28-34 (82.4 percent) in all conference games.
"I put in extra reps at practice," Anosike said. "Coach helped me out. She changed my form. That's been a big impact, just her changing my form and then really getting used to it and becoming comfortable by increasing my amount of reps. I think that's been the real difference."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant coach Nikki Caldwell prepared the scouting report on LSU. Here's her assessment:
"Let's start defensively. We're going to have to limit their transition opportunities. I think they're a very, very good running team. They've got a point guard that pushes tempo. Augustus gets out quick. They've got shooters that spot up with Hoston, and their post players run to the rim. Obviously our transition defense is going to be a key for us.
"They're a great rebounding team. They probably average about 16 offensive boards a game. We're going to have to keep them off the glass. They also convert on those offensive boards. Offensive putbacks is a strength of theirs, and we're going to have to go in and really think about limiting them to one shot, and that's it.
"Offensively for us we're going to try to execute in our transition running game. We also need to execute in the half-court setting. They're a very aggressive defensive team, so we're going to have to take care of the basketball, make sure that we're using pass fakes, not telegraphing our passes and then also shot fakes inside.
"Getting to the free throw line, I think that's going to be a huge area that we're going to look at at halftime, because that's a game within a game. See how many free throw opportunities are we getting. Are we getting to the free throw line or not for this game? We would like to get there 25, 28 times for the game and that to us is us being more aggressive offensively and using our attack off the dribble but also using our spot-up game."
WE WERE ONLY FRESHMEN: With seven newcomers - six scholarship freshmen and a walk-on - Summitt went into this season with two thoughts - persistence and patience.
"Persistent enough to make sure they knew what was accepted and the level and intensity of our workouts and patient enough not to get frustrated with them and in turn have them be frustrated with themselves," Summitt said. "They've been a good group. I don't look at them as freshmen anymore. I just look at them as players. I think that they've really improved. They've helped us quite a bit. I try never to predetermine whether players are going to be starters or come off the bench. I let them decide that. They've been better than a lot of freshmen. They haven't been intimidated. They've handled criticism; they've handled praise.
"They're pretty tough across the board. You don't come here if you don't want to work hard and play the toughest schedule in the country. Like I told them. You come here to play games like this."
ODDS AND ENDS: LSU's Scholanda Hoston (nee Dorrell), besides being a full-time student and basketball player, is also a mother. She married Frederick Hoston in 2002 after her freshman season and took off the next year after becoming pregnant. Aishida was born in January 2003, and Hoston returned for the 2003-04 season. ... Summitt has 870 career wins. She is six away from being even with Adolph Rupp and nine away from catching Dean Smith. 880 wins, which could come in the post-season, would give her the all-time victory total in NCAA basketball history. ... Tennessee's game Sunday against Vanderbilt will be televised by espn2 at 3 p.m. .... Street & Smith's "Greatest College Basketball Programs of All Time" has the Lady Vols as No. 1 in women's hoops followed by Louisiana Tech, UConn, Old Dominion, Stanford, Texas, Montana, Virginia, Stephen F. Austin and Texas Tech. ... UT and LSU have played 39 times, and 21 of the those games were decided by 10 points or less. ... UT, when ranked No. 5, has never beaten a No. 1. It is 0-4 in those match-ups and is 13-25 all-time when playing the top-ranked team. The last time Tennessee played the No. 1 team in the nation was Jan. 24, 2004, against Duke in Durham, N.C. UT won that game, 72-69. ... UT will put its remarkable streak of 42 consecutive regular season SEC wins on the line tonight. ... Tennessee athletic director Joan Cronan is an LSU grad and a native of Opelousas. ... LSU's Seimone Augustus has scored in double figures in the past 48 straight games. ... With four more rebounds Augustus will become the ninth player in LSU history to score at least 1,500 points and tally 500 rebounds. Entering the UT game, she has 1,627 points and 496 boards. ... Augustus now holds the State Farm Tipoff Classic scoring record with 33 points after LSU's win this season over Baylor. Former Lady Vol Gwen Jackson was one of three players who previously held the record with 29. .... Only Baylor (70), Minnesota (67) and Vanderbilt (68) have scored more than 58 points against LSU this season. Six of the Lady Tiger opponents shot less than 30 percent, including SEC teams Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Alabama. ... After averaging 68.7 points through its first 20 games, Tennessee scored 64 points in the second half against Ole Miss to finish with 99 for the game.