"I think just consistency in our team overall and execution both offensively and defensively," Pat Summitt replied when asked what she was looking for in Sunday's 3 p.m. game (Lady Vol Radio Network and $4.95 video webcast on www.ladybacks.com). "We just need consistency."
The Lady Razorbacks are using a shorter and quicker lineup now, less by design and more by necessity. Post player Ruby Vaden is out with a knee injury and has had surgery on her ACL. Forward Kristin Moore was lost in early January with a season-ending ACL knee injury.
The Lady Vols are expected to start Loree Moore, Shanna Zolman and Alexis Hornbuckle on the perimeter and Nicky Anosike and Tye'sha Fluker inside. Freshman Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood won't play, Summitt said, because she needs to rest her left knee.
Arkansas is expected to open up with a three-guard lineup in Kristin Peoples, 5'7 sophomore; Sheree Thompson, 5'10 junior; and Adrienne Bush, 5'8 senior. The inside players should be Danielle Allen, 6'0 sophomore; and Sarah Pfeifer, 6'0 sophomore.
Besides Shyra Ely, a slashing senior power forward for Tennessee who has come off the bench for the past two games, a key substitute for the Lady Vols will be sophomore Sidney Spencer. With Ely returning to the four position, Spencer has moved into the three spot on the perimeter, where she played last year.
"It's definitely something that I'm used to; I played all last year," Spencer said. "Last year I didn't play the four very much so I've gotten to play two different positions in these past two years. I really think that whatever coach wants to do, if she wants Shyra at the four and me at the three, that's good. I'll go play the three. I don't mind it. I know the offenses from the three so I'm very comfortable with it."
After struggled offensively early and seeing her minutes shrink, Spencer has played well of late, especially against South Carolina. She was 4-5 from the field and hit her sole three-pointer to tally nine points in 17 minutes. She also had six rebounds.
"I thought her game last night was one of her better games offensively, little more aggressive. That's good news because we really need her playing well for us off the bench," Summitt said. "I think it (playing at the three) frees her up a little bit more on her outside game. The spacing is a little bit better. Obviously she has extended range. That allows her to get open looks as opposed to catch in traffic and decide what I'm going to do.
"We had talked about that a little bit. It seemed like a lot of times she would catch the ball and look around to see who was open. And the first person she should look for is herself, because she's a lot like Shanna in her efficiency."
When Spencer's shots weren't falling, she said then that she could still help the team by hitting her free throws and rebounding. In 11 SEC games, Spencer is 18-22 from the free throw line and has pulled down 40 rebounds - 20 on offense and 20 on defense.
"Shots go in and go out. It just depends," Spencer said. "I think I've been rushing a lot. Coach tells me that a lot. People tell me that when I watch film. I noticed I've been rushing a lot on the floor. I've just tried to continue reading my defense. I've been working before practice on getting in a rhythm and shooting off the move."
Spencer also figures the law of averages is on her side.
"I have nothing else to do but make it, because I've been missing quite a few shots," she said. "When you're not making shots you've got to get to the free throw line or you've got to get boards. You've got to get some easy buckets. You try to get easier buckets first off and then I had a wide-open three (against South Carolina) so I was going to shoot it because I had gotten a couple of easy looks first. I'm just trying to play within a rhythm and play within the offense."
There are only three more regular season games left in the season, and Spencer and Summitt have talked about what her goals should be. A key area of attention for Spencer will be on defense, since she'll have to guard quicker players on the perimeter at times.
"Me and coach have talked," Spencer said. "We've set some goals for myself defensively and offensively. I think that focusing on those things, the little things, will definitely help me help the team. Staying alert, aware, lots of different things that we talked about. I'm just going to try to focus on those things and it doesn't matter which spot I'm playing at, I'm just going to try my best."
Spencer has taken advantage of her opportunites in the latter part of the regular season. She moved into the starting lineup for two SEC games after Fluker had to return home to California because of the death of her maternal grandmother.
"I definitely think when you have a situation like that on your team everybody wants to give it a little bit more because they know that that person wishes they could be here, but they have a family emergency," Spencer said. "So I'm thinking we've got to play for her, play for this team. Tye was averaging a double-double at that point. Those points and those rebounds are having to come from somebody and just her presence on the floor. We all had to step up and give it a little bit more and get a couple more rebounds and get a couple more easy shots. Everybody had to step up, and I just think that whoever coach called upon stepped up. I think we did a great job of pulling together."
Tennessee has had to pull together several times this season as players have moved in and out of the lineup due to family situations, injury and illness. Moore missed a month to have her tonsils removed and then had her nose broken against Georgia on Jan. 31. But she hasn't missed a game for that, and has been playing with a plastic splint to protect her nose. Her teammates have taken notice of her determination.
"Loree has been amazing," Spencer said. "She's done an awesome job leading, great positive attitude, puts the team before herself, sacrifices everything before herself. I think that's really been a key. Even leadership by example, especially on defense. When she steps up and starts the defense for us it's trickling down through all of us. She's been an amazing leader this year. I can't even imagine what it was like playing without her, because last year we didn't have her (when Moore went out for the season in January with a knee injury), and it was crazy. But in due time people do step up, but Loree has done an awesome job."
While Moore sets the tone on defense, Spencer sets the tone on attitude. She has always been a vocal cheerleader at practice and on the bench. Sometimes she stands up on the sideline during games; other times she sits on the floor to catch the action.
"Sid has always been that way," Summitt said. "Last year Sid, if you recall, if she wasn't in the game she was standing up watching and cheering. I think that's just because she's a great teammate and just a very dedicated team player. I think she likes to see other people do well as much as anybody on our team. But I like to see her do well. She really hasn't lost it even when she struggled a little bit offensively this year. I thought she maintained a commitment to the team as a cheerleader and was very vocal on the bench. I haven't seen any of that really dwindle. I think she still has it."
"That's who I am," Spencer said. "Attitude is the only thing you can really control when it comes to basketball. You can control rebounding, you can control how hard you play, your heart, and you can control attitude. You can't control if the shots are going in or not. I just try to stay positive. I think the more positive you are, the less you think about yourself and the more you think about the team. If you're in a shell, you're not playing within the team."
The one person who can rival Spencer's enthusiasm is assistant coach Dean Lockwood. His shouts of encouragement are constant in practice and during games he can often be heard telling the post players to "seal" (present a target for the ball inside) and "board" (get a rebound).
"He's great," Spencer said. "He's always going to get excited and just wants us to play with all our heart and play with everything. He gives it 110 percent as a coach when teaching, everything. Dean has really stepped up. Since he is the post, or the 'bigs, coach as we call him, he works with us and no matter what we're doing, it doesn't matter if it's the day before a game or if it's four days before a game he'll go 110 percent. We're working hard and we're just trying to get better and we're just trying to get a frontline game that's strong and consistent, and I think because of him we've been able to do that this year."
Lockwood is just as excited when it comes to Spencer, especially after the South Carolina game.
"You know what she did? She shot without any fear of consequence. She took great shots for her, and she didn't hesitate," Lockwood said. "I think in the past she's really been hesitant. She's been almost reluctant. It's almost like someone is forcing her to shoot. She came out there knowing we want you to shoot, we need to shoot, so shoot. And she did it. She looked so comfortable. That was nice for us. We hope that continues."
SCOUTING REPORT: Dean Lockwood scouted both Arkansas games this season. Here's his assessment going into Sunday's game:
"Let's look at how they're a different team. They lost Kristin Moore just prior to that first game and then they've lost Ruby Vaden since then, arguably their best post player. Bottom line they've been playing without her. They're a little quicker, they're playing more athletic. Not that they were ever a slow team by any stretch, but the up-tempo quality of their play has increased a little bit. Their sense of urgency on defense, they're playing in the passing lanes a little bit more, they're doubling in some areas.
"What they're trying to do is take advantage of their smaller, quicker team and the athleticism that they're putting out there. So what we have to do is obviously we have to really respond to that being ready to guard dribble penetration, dribble drives. We have to do a good job controlling middle of the floor – that's very important with us – and we have to take advantage of some of our size opportunities where we can do some things in the paint. Those are probably the most immediate areas coming to mind of how the game might be a little different than last time."
Vanderbilt, which has excellent post play in Carla Thomas and Ashley Earley, certainly took advantage of Arkansas' smaller lineup in a 78-43 victory on Feb. 17. Vandy won the battle of the boards, 41-20, and shot 64.6 percent from the field. Thomas had 23 points and Earley, 15, and 40 of the Commodores' 78 points came in the paint. To make matters worse, Arkansas was 0-18 from three-point range. It was the first time in 12 years that the Lady 'Backs hadn't made a three-pointer in SEC play.
Prior to that game Arkansas had won back-to-back games in the same week (Alabama and Georgia Tech) for the first time since December. Lady 'Back Sarah Pfeifer tied a career high with 21 points against Alabama and then broke it with 24 against Georgia Tech.
PERIMETER PLAY: With Shyra Ely returning to the post, the small forward position is being filled by different players, including sophomores Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding and freshman Alexis Hornbuckle.
The first-year guard has now learned three positions this season after having to fill in for Loree Moore at point guard. But her game - rebounding and creating shots for herself and teammates with penetration - is well-suited for perimeter play. But her tendency to sometimes turn over the ball, play too "casually," as Pat Summitt would say, was maddening to her coach.
Hornbuckle took a big step in the right direction against South Carolina. She had zero turnovers.
"I hate turning the ball over," Hornbuckle said. "As a point guard I want to take care of the ball, I want every pass to connect. I want every play to end like a great play. But of course you're going to make mistakes, you're going to have turnovers. I can't dwell on it, just got to keep playing. I'm the type person that's trying to make it up the next play."
Hornbuckle's play against South Carolina was encouraging to Summitt.
"I thought she was much more efficient with the basketball, made better reads," Summitt said. "She really opened up her penetration game and opened up her teammates as a result. She penetrated well, but she read well out of it. She's getting her teammates more involved off the dribble. I thought for awhile that she was creating but not really seeing, and we didn't have as good spacing. That's where we can get better is our spacing on offense. We're getting the ball inside and standing. Our quick ball movement is certainly benefiting our shot selection."
Hornbuckle agreed with her coach's assessment and said her evolution as a player is guided by how much she has learned from season's beginning to now.
"I think I'm become a smarter basketball player," Hornbuckle said. "I've worked on my defense, reading my defense and just being able to know what passes I can make. At first you're kind of hesitant about what you can do and what the college game will allow you to do. I think I've got smarter overall."
Besides reading the defense to determine what she can do with the ball, Hornbuckle has had to learn how to play defense for a college coach that puts a premium on stopping teams.
"If you don't know how to play defense, you get exposed in the college game," Hornbuckle said. "In high school you get away with a lot of shortcuts. You can't get away with that in college. I'm trying to get rid of the shortcuts and become better, but in that process you're going to make a lot of mistakes. It's starting to come. I'm starting to realize that I'm starting to get better, so that's a plus."
Hornbuckle will use the last three games to gauge how good her game has become and to get herself ready for postseason play.
"I just want to become a smarter basketball player as a whole, limit my turnovers to either zero or one a game, crash the boards as hard as possible, up my rebounds and just try to push the ball and stop the ball in transition," Hornbuckle said. "I know sometimes we'll be running back, and I didn't think to stop the ball. So I want to work on my defensive transition, knocking down my open shots and limiting turnovers."
FRIDAY NIGHT FLIGHTS: The Feb. 19 edition of The Roanoke (Va.) Times reported Pat Summitt was in the stands Friday evening watching Nicci Moats, a 6'2 center/power forward for Lord Botetourt High School. Moats, a high school junior from Daleville, Va., led her team with 19 points, 13 rebounds and five assists to a win over William Byrd High School. The Feb. 12 edition of The Savannah (Ga.) Morning News reported Summitt was in the stands the night before watching Christy Marshall, a 6'0 forward for Beach High School. Marshall had 20 points and 14 rebounds in her team's win.
SEC ON TAP: There are five other SEC contests Sunday. All times are Eastern: Alabama at South Carolina, 2 p.m.; LSU at Auburn, 3 p.m.; Vanderbilt at Florida, 3 p.m.; Mississippi State at Kentucky, 3 p.m. (Fox Sports Network); and Georgia at Ole Miss, 3 p.m.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series 15-1 against Arkansas. The one loss was at Bud Walton Arena on Dec. 29, 1996. .... Tennessee has never lost on Feb. 20, compiling a 7-0 record on this date. .... Lady Vol Shanna Zolman should be happy to see Arkansas' uniforms. Entering the first contest, Zolman was averaging 8.3 points a game. She scored 16 against the Lady 'Backs and now has an 11.9 ppg average and 16 ppg in SEC games. Zolman gets it done in the classroom, too. She was selected Feb. 17 to the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District IV First Team by the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA). The Syracuse, Ind., native was named to the third team last season. Zolman, a broadcast major, has a 3.59 cumulative grade point average and is pursuing a degree in broadcasting. Zolman is the only SEC player on the first or second teams. .... Tennessee senior Shyra Ely averages 13.2 points and 8.3 rebounds against Arkansas. Sophomore Sidney Spencer averages 8.3 points and 3.5 rebounds against the Lady 'Backs. .... Tennessee was Arkansas' Eastern Division partner for two years with a home-and-away series. Vanderbilt replaces Tennessee next year for the Lady 'Backs. ... Arkansas is ranked second in the nation in steals with 14.4 a game. North Carolina leads the nation at 14.5. Tennessee is averaging 10 steals a game. .... The Lady Vols are 19-0 in games in which they have scored at least 60 points. They are 1-4 when scoring less than that. The exception was the 54-52 win over Temple. .... When Arkansas leads at halftime, the team is 10-0, and 5-0 when scoring over 80 points. Tennessee has given up 80 or more points only 11 times since 1999. Connecticut was responsible for five of them. The rest were Florida (two) and one each for DePaul, Vanderbilt, LSU and Xavier. Tennessee was 6-5 in those games.