The last time the two teams met was Jan. 27 in Columbia, and Tennessee spotted South Carolina a 14-4 lead before taking a three-point lead at the half. The Lady Vols went on to win 68-53 in a game where coach Pat Summitt said her team was uninspired and played as if they were bored.
"It was pretty ugly," Summitt said.
Since that time, Tennessee has won four more games in the conference and lost one. The loss at LSU caused Summitt to shake up her lineup – she removed two seniors – and debut her eighth lineup of the season against Vanderbilt.
That same group will open up tonight against South Carolina. Loree Moore, Shanna Zolman and Alexis Hornbuckle will play on the perimeter, and Tye'sha Fluker and Nicky Anosike will play inside. Seniors Shyra Ely and Brittany Jackson will come off the bench.
South Carolina is expected to start Lauren Simms, Stacy Booker and Lea Fabbri or Angela Hunter on the perimeter with Iva Sliskovic and Ilona Burgrova inside. Fabbri missed the last three games because she returned home to Croatia, where her father was hospitalized. He has since been released, and Fabbri returned to the team Feb. 14. Angela Hunter has started during Fabbri's absence.
Ely, who played the entire game against Vandy at power forward instead of on the perimeter, will likely stay in the paint tonight on offense. However, she may draw defensive assignments on the perimeter. She had two excellent practices this week at the four position and brought oohs and ahhs with several power moves to the basket.
"It's natural. It felt really good out there," said Ely, who jammed a finger against Vandy and has taped two fingers together on her left (shooting) hand to protect them. "I'm trying to get the confidence because I haven't played the four that much (this season). There're times when I might be playing the four offensively and defending the three. I just have to adjust both ways, always be on my toes and know where to retreat on transition. It's definitely something I can do."
Summitt was happy with how the five starters opened play against Vandy, but she obviously still views Ely as a starter, even if she initially comes off the bench in this game.
"If she stays at the four, and she's in the lineup then we've got one of our bigs that won't be in the lineup," Summitt said. "I don't want to penalize them (at this point) for how they started the game."
Moore, the senior point guard, remains in the lineup, and had one of her best games against Vandy in terms of floor leadership and offensive production. In 29 minutes of play against the Commodores, Moore had eight points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block. She was 1-1 from behind the arc.
"Loree had a really good game," Summitt said. "I thought Loree was solid. … the most-efficient player by far."
Moore understands what went wrong against South Carolina the first time. The rematch offers not only a look at how the team is doing overall but also some insight into Moore's own odyssey this season.
"I don't think we respected them fully. That hurt us. We weren't the aggressors," Moore said. "We were playing on our heels from the beginning. We didn't have the fire that we need to have, the intensity that we need to have. Tomorrow's game is going to be like another test. We need to come in focused, going over the scouting report that Holly (Warlick) presented to us. Not having mental lapses and taking possessions off and making sure everything's perfect."
Moore knows the team will fall short of perfection, but she believes that in striving for it, Tennessee can't help but improve.
Moore is looking for personal improvement over the next four games. After a season in which she missed a month of games after having her tonsils out because she was sick all the time, lost her starting position for not getting the team off to the right start, and broke her nose but played the day after surgery, Moore is finally feeling better. She believes she is ready to lead the team through its final four games – two at home, two away – and into the post-season.
"Once you get to the SEC Tournament that's the time when you want to make sure everything's in order and you're just crisp on everything you do," Moore said. "We've got these four games to get us prepared for that. Perform the way you should be performing. That's something we really want to focus on; we really want to do that as a team as of now. We know we can. We see it all the time. The coaches are always positive with us. They're just trying to put it out there and make us see it and to buy into it. We're starting to give in a little bit. Once we fully commit and trust in each other as well as the coaching staff I think we'll be a whole different team and play at a whole other level."
Another senior will be coming off the bench in Jackson, who despite being known as a sharpshooter and long-range gunner, attempted only one shot against Vandy. She scored no points but did have three rebounds and three assists.
"I definitely was trying to look inside more because that's what we've been focusing on so I've been trying to feed the post," Jackson said.
The three seniors met with Summitt this week to discuss their leadership roles and how they intended to take over the team. All three said they have heard the criticism from the coaches, the media and even from students on campus. Summitt is taking a secondary role and letting them step up to see what happens.
"We hear. We know what's going on," Jackson said. "We've got to come together, bring it together. Of course whenever you do get beat like that (against LSU) something's going to be wrong, so we've got to pull together, and it starts with the seniors."
"We talked about it," Ely said. "We all just have to step up. We're in the critical part of the season. We have to take it up another notch. That's something that we're committed to doing. Hopefully we'll see some big changes."
Ely has no problem with the spotlight that has been put on the seniors and the calls to be more effective leaders.
"It's OK. It kind of keeps us on our toes," she said. "We do need to get better, the seniors do, as far as our leadership. We're committed to changing stuff."
"It's not consistent," Moore said. "This year Pat feels like she has to get us going. We are seniors. We know what to expect from her and from different teams, because we played against everybody. You want to make a change. I don't want people to look at me as not being a leader. We did have a meeting. We talked about it. We want to step up to the challenge … and buying into it. It works when we do. … She wanted to challenge us to see if we want to step up. She's going to take a backseat and let us speak up and let us run things and let us get everybody together."
Summitt knows the burden of leadership falls unevenly on the guards.
"She took no responsibility to lead last year, which is probably true of most juniors," Summitt said of Ely. "Unless you're a point guard you just kind of sit back and wait until somebody says you've got to lead. Ashley (Robinson) and Tasha (Butts) as juniors were pretty good, but they were outstanding as seniors. You take frontline players, they usually are not the ones that have to lead in high school or in college. Those guards, bless their hearts, they have to lead all the time."
"It has been overwhelming for me," Moore said. "Me being a point guard there's more expected out of me than Shyra or Brittany. You kind of feel up against the wall. You believe you're doing everything she wants, but in reality you're not giving it your all. I feel like right now we have the best communication. The last couple of games I've been playing have been a change, really different as far as me being on the court."
Zolman, a junior, has seen the writing on the wall. As a guard, especially, she feels responsibility to be a leader this year. She also knows her time is coming, and she gets upset when the seniors are maligned.
"Definitely. That hurts me because that's my role, too," Zolman said. "Even though I don't get as much flak as they do from the media, from the students, from the coaches, from everybody else, they know that I know it hurts me as bad. Next year's going to be my time. It's just a learning experience for myself."
Despite the fluctuating lineups – Summitt has used eight this season – and players competing for positions and playing time, the battles are left on the practice court.
"Absolutely. You can't let what goes on on the floor interfere with what's off the floor and vice versa. We know we're a team. We know we'll all striving to get a banner up there; we're all striving to get a ring," Zolman said. "You're not going to be able to do that if you have controversy amongst the team."
Although Zolman and Jackson have rotated in and out of the starting lineup, their floor demeanor doesn't change. They encourage each other in practice and remain friends off the court.
"If you have somebody in your position that's what makes you better," Zolman said. "If you know that somebody's fighting for your position, that's going to make you fight even harder. Just because we're fighting, just because we're in that same position, does that come through my mind, ‘Do I need to keep performing or Brittany's going to be out there? Yeah.' But that's what helps me. But I love the girl to death. Lex and Loree. They love each other to death. They're in the same position and the same role, but they love each other to death. That's what helps our team. That's a part of the chemistry. You can't be fighting on the floor. You can't hate somebody for taking your spot. That's your fault. You've got to grin and bear it and move on."
The team has one goal: a spot in the Final Four in Indianapolis and a national title.
"It's something I think about," said Ely, a native of Indianapolis. "I play for it, but we need to deal with what's going on today. We have a tendency to look ahead; we forget about what lies in front of us. My whole thing is go game-by-game and get better as a team everyday. We have setbacks like any team, but I think we're a great team. As soon as we get on the same page, and get everything going we'll be fine."
ROLE PLAY AND SCOUTING REPORTS: Pat Summitt is using the last games of the regular season and the SEC Tournament to solidify her starting lineup and determine how deep the bench will go. Every game is an evaluation of combinations on the floor and individual play.
"Without question we're always evaluating every player's play but in particular what our starters do – we focus on getting off to a great start both halves, closing out the halves – so the players on the floor at that time are responsible coming off the bench and contributing as opposed to losing a lead in both halves," Summitt said. "When we went to the bench in the first half (against Vandy), it cost us. In the second half we're up 16 and the next thing I know we've got a real game on our hands."
Summitt said players would be sorting out their roles for themselves, both in practice and in games.
"I'm going to push them all to find out who's tough enough, who's going to give in to fatigue," Summitt said.
With Shyra Ely ensconced once again at the power forward spot, Summitt is seeking another solid player at small forward.
"We've got to get another player at that three, whether it's (Sidney) Spencer or (Dominique) Redding," Summitt said. "It's up to them."
One player who treats practice as a casting call is freshman center Sybil Dosty, who plays behind Nicky Anosike and Tye'sha Fluker and whose playing time has decreased as the season has passed.
"Off the bench we have to have strong post play. Nicky and Tye have been going and doing some really good things for us, but they can't do it all," Dosty said. "We have to have other people that can come in and score without a drop-off. When we come in, there can't be a drop-off, and that's basically what I'm trying to do right now – get to that point where I can play at the same level. Right now I haven't been getting as much playing time as Nicky and Tye so I'm trying to think of practices as sort of like my game. I have to go out there and perform like in a game and work as hard. That's what I've been doing now. I think I've been picking up a lot more defensively."
Dosty said the two-most difficult adjustments in college have been learning to play defense and game tempo.
A mistake in practice rarely gets by Summitt, but if it does, she'll see it later when she watches the practice tape.
"If she misses it at practice she's going to go back and watch it again on film," Dosty said. "Basically I have to sprint the floor, play good defense, and I'm trying to do all the things now that I wasn't doing in the beginning, and she's starting to see that."
When Dosty gets in the game against South Carolina she knows what her mindset will be.
"When I go in, I have to learn to focus on my defense," Dosty said. "I think in the beginning I was focusing on my offense, and I was producing offensively. It's a two-way game. You have to be able to play offense and defense. So defensively that has to be my mindset is to make stops on defense and secondly go on offense as well."
Summitt will be watching to see who plays according to the scouting report and who is committed to playing on both ends.
"Not taking possessions off and using their scouting report," Summitt said when asked what she wants against South Carolina.
As an example of not using the report, Summitt cited the Vandy game and the intended plan against three-point shooter Abi Ramsey.
"We were supposed to get into Ramsey on stagger screens," Summitt said. "We hit everybody but Ramsey on the way trying to find Ramsey. We ran over our own players and hit at least one of Vandy's screeners, but we never got into the stagger. So she got a lot of open looks.
"We can't win in March if we aren't really good using scouting reports. That's what allowed that team last year – that combined with leadership and committing to our system and our scouting reports – that gave them a chance to play for a national championship. This team is nowhere near that team in terms of using scouting reports. Granted we've got young players, but it wasn't just our young players. It was top to bottom."
Summitt said she must expose the team, especially the freshmen, to more game simulations in practice.
"We're going to have to practice it more in practice. I'm taking blame for this, too," she said.
The team had a solid practice Monday, especially Jackson, Summitt said.
"One of her better practices," Summitt said. "She started out the year working very hard in practice. And it's not just Brittany. The whole team has kind of let up in practice."
LSU REVISITED: The LSU game keeps coming up because it was not only a loss, it might be a watershed moment for the season. Summitt watched the first five minutes of that game and every game this season to confirm what she thought was true.
"We typically did not do a good job of getting the ball inside, and that's where we wanted to go first," Summitt said. "And then we forced some action and took quick shots."
The players painfully learned what happens when they don't communicate on defense and start playing as individuals.
"We didn't play together," Shanna Zolman said. "It appeared to be very selfish. Offensively we did not reverse the ball. We played a lot of one-on-one. Communication has been a big key for us this week in practice and realizing how much we don't communicate on defense. That causes the mishaps."
Loree Moore was encouraged by game film, because she sees the keys to winning the next time if they meet in the post-season, either in the SEC or NCAA tournaments.
"We figured out why we lost to LSU," Moore said. "If we stopped them from transition and kept them off the boards, we would have been 10 points better even if we had a bad shooting night. We're starting to really realize that right about now."
MORE ON MOORE: Loree Moore has battled through a lot – reconstructive knee surgery a year ago and a tonsillectomy in December after suffering from chronic sinus infections. Then she broke her nose against Georgia but had surgery and didn't miss the next game against Florida. She also has asthma and is still learning how to manage that during practices and games.
"I'm trying to get back in shape and get my breathing right," Moore said when asked how she was feeling post-tonsillectomy. "Even my doctor said I don't how you made it through the season. I don't how I did it either, but I made it. I was always sick, I was always tired. I just had no energy, low energy, no appetite."
Moore said she feels about 80 percent health-wise, but is encouraged by her steady progress.
"It frustrates me, because I just want to feel 100 percent," Moore said. "I think time is on my side."
Her time off for the tonsil surgery had one side benefit. Because she couldn't play she attended practice in more of a coaching role. She would walk onto the floor to instruct the players, chart plays on the bench and take on more of a teacher role in film sessions. It got the team more used to hearing her voice in a leadership capacity.
"It's time to get a lot better as far as my performance on the court and my consistency as far as leadership and what the coaches are expecting of me," Moore said. "I feel really comfortable with part of it. I'm just kind of letting my game fall in place right now, working on things that I can control like being a defensive stopper and making sure that I'm setting the tone defensively and get us going up and down the court."
Moore studied her teammates' personality tests to determine what tactics motivated them – as for Moore, she said she needs to be yelled at because even her coaches in elementary school were screamers – and how they responded to criticism. She also solicited advice from last year's undisputed team leaders, Tasha Butts (a graduate assistant on this team) and Ashley Robinson.
"It's stepping outside my box, because I'm not really a talker," Moore said. "I was going back to Tasha and what she did. I went to Ashley. I did a lot of research. Tasha said I have to be vocal all the time – every drill, every segment of practice."
Moore's personality test showed her to be well-suited as far as being a point guard.
"I'm outgoing actually. I do like to take on tasks as far as getting everybody in order," Moore said. "Giving, caring about my teammates. I talk to everybody. I'm not the type that likes to yell at people unless I really have to, more so talking them through it and reemphasizing what coach is saying. She has one straight tone, and a lot of people just pay attention to that – I know I used to – and not the message of what she's saying. I kind of make sure whatever she's saying I'm listening to that and go up to them and say, ‘This is what you need to do.' "
Moore didn't hesitate to challenge Alexis Hornbuckle, who was trying to guard Seimone Augustus in the game against LSU.
"Seimone was just going off," said Moore, who asked Hornbuckle during the game, "Are you going to stop her? And she responded to me. Certain people you can say that to. I can get all over her, and she responds to that. Other people you can't do that in that environment because they shut down. Me, I need to get yelled at. That gets me going. When coach does it, it makes me mad. Not at her but like that's my fault, and I want to make sure it doesn't happen again. I always had coaches that yell, high school, even elementary coaches. This is something I'm used to hearing."
Despite the injuries and setbacks, Moore has kept her sense of humor. She laughed as she described checking her nose every time she takes a shot to the face since she broke her nose. In her first game after the surgery on the first possession against Florida, she was hit in the nose as she went for a rebound. She also took a blow in the Vandy game.
"I stopped and checked my nose to see if it was all together," Moore said. "I try not to think about it too much, because when I do I always get hit. I'm going down the court like, ‘Is everything OK, in place?' "
The difference in Moore is noticeable to one of her teammates.
"She's really grown up this past season," junior Shanna Zolman said. "I can tell, not only how she handles us as a team and being a leader for our team and taking responsibility for that but how she handles coach. That's been her biggest challenge in the past year, knowing how to handle her and how to handle coach's criticism. Being a point guard you have a lot of that. This year she's matured 100 percent, and she's done what she needs to do for the team - whether it's being injured, whether it's coming off the bench, whether it's starting for us – she's always there.
"Being in the backcourt for this team, knowing we have the experience together, and we can just read off each other. When she's out on the floor, I feel like I'm in two places at once. I know that she sees me when I'm open, and I know what cut she's going to make when she's on the floor. We play so well together. Her leadership really helps myself out, too as far as being another leader. It's not just one person being a leader."
Zolman was with Moore last Sunday when she was baptized at Faith Promise Church in Knoxville.
"She recently accepted Christ as her savior," Zolman said. "Knowing that and seeing the changes in her life because of that, seeing the happiness and the peace that she has about her, has brought her and myself so much closer. I can tell you that firsthand. And knowing that she is so much happier, more at peace it helps with a lot of the freshmen. She's more patient with them at certain times. She's more of the grownup mother figure on the team. She's amazing. I love her to death. It was amazing. It was the most unbelievable experience of my life. I'll never forget it. Some of the team came, and some of the coaches came. She just looked so radiant. It brought tears to your eyes seeing her."
SEC ON TAP: There are four other SEC games this evening. All times are Eastern: Kentucky at LSU (8 p.m., COX); Ole Miss at Mississippi State (8 p.m.); Arkansas at Vanderbilt (8 p.m.); and Auburn at Alabama (9 p.m. CSS).
ODDS AND ENDS: Former Lady Vol Michelle Marciniak is an assistant coach at South Carolina, but she likely will not be in Knoxville tonight. She is in Macungie, Penn., with her father, who is experiencing complications following surgery. It was not yet known when Marciniak would return to the team. … South Carolina and Tennessee have both lost to LSU, Tennessee by a score of 68-58 and South Carolina by a score of 66-36. UT was leading LSU at the half, and USC hung in there for almost a half. The Gamecocks were ahead 17-16 with 5:31 remaining, but LSU went on a 34-2 run, and South Carolina went nearly 11 minutes without scoring. … South Carolina has used 12 different starting lineups. With the exception of team-manager-turned-shooting-guard Ebony Jones, every player on the active roster has started at least three games this year. Lauren Simms is the only player to start every game. … South Carolina averages 58.9 points per game, last in the SEC. … Tennessee leads the series with South Carolina, 34-2. Only one of those wins and one of the losses occurred when Summitt was not the coach. According to the Lady Vols media staff: "The Summitt era has only found UT on the losing end to the Gamecocks once – Jan. 23, 1980 in Columbia, 56-52. It happened when the Carolina Pep Band positioned itself behind the UT bench and played its amplified drums, electric guitars, etc. for all 40 minutes of the game. UT huddles, held practically at the free throw line, did little good. Shortly thereafter, a ban on bands playing during the game and disallowing electronic amplification was instituted by the AIAW." … Tennessee is averaging 70.5 points per game. Only two Summitt-coached teams have failed to average at least 70 points per game – the 1983-84 (69.2) and 1984-85 (69.8) teams. …. By the numbers: Tennessee will be seeking its 20th win tonight, which would give Summitt 29 consecutive years of at least 20 wins a season. The 83-84 team took the longest to get to 20 wins, waiting until March 17, 1984, in the NCAA Tournament. Summitt said of the 83-84 team: "I remember that crew. I was ready to retire." Summitt initially guessed that it was the 10-loss 96-97 team that took the longest to reach 20 wins, but that team made it Feb. 15, 1997. "They were better than I thought," Summitt said. … Tennessee will be looking to win its 60th consecutive SEC regular season game at home. This year's seniors have only lost two regular season SEC games in their careers – one as freshmen to Vandy and one to LSU as seniors. Both games were on the road.