It's not the final game on the Thompson-Boling Arena court for the seniors, because the arena is a host site for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but it will be their last-ever SEC regular season game at home.
"Obviously we've had a lot of success in the league, three consecutive conference championships, only one loss this year, which may cost us the championship," coach Pat Summitt said of the senior class. "You look at three trips to the Final Four, two national championship games. They've all contributed significantly throughout their careers and in different ways. I think right now going into post-season they are three very important players in determining how successful we are. I think they'll have probably the biggest influence of any class."
Shyra Ely will be joined at center court by her aunt and uncle, Joan and Skip Johnson of Lawrenceville, Ga. Her little brother Shyron-Quonel is also having his senior night with the basketball team at Speedway High School back home in Indianapolis. The parents, Shy-Quon and Jean Ely, planned to split up and have one at each event, but Ely asked for them both to be with her brother so neither would miss his special night. Jean Ely is a twin, and she and Joan Johnson have long attended Lady Vol games together.
When asked how she would feel walking out to center court, Ely said, "I think I'll be excited. If I cry it won't be tears of sorrow, it will be tears of joy. It's an accomplishment to play here four years. I'll definitely miss the people and the whole college life, but at the same time I think I'm ready to move on."
When asked what she would like to tell the fans, Ely said, "I appreciate their support, how they follow us as a team. We have the best fans in the world. To have a fan base follow you wherever you go is awesome."
Brittany Jackson will be joined by her parents, Turner and Liz Jackson of Cleveland, Tenn. Her little sister, Lindsay, also will be there.
"I never thought the day would come so quick," Jackson said. "I remember being a freshman. Me, Shyra and Loree were just talking about it. It's us. It's an emotional time. It's sad."
Jackson wants the fans to know that "I don't think they realize how much they have an impact on us," she said. "The way they support us away. We go anywhere, and we have more fans than (some) places we go. They get us up, ready to play. We really do appreciate them. And when we lose, when we're down, they're always there."
Loree Moore will be joined by her mother, Paulette Marlowe of Lakewood, Calif., her older brother Brian Hunter, and her aunt, Yolanda Neal. Moore, who endured a season-ending knee injury last year, has persevered this season through a tonsillectomy and a broken nose.
"This year has gone the fastest because of everything that's been happening to me," Moore said. "It seems I can never just kind of grab it and take it all in. Now I'm starting to see. It's overwhelming, really it's breathtaking. I really enjoyed my four years here. It's been a great experience."
Moore hopes she will keep her emotions in check and not cry.
"I hope not but walking out and they present our year and what we've been doing ... I think it will hit me," Moore said. "I'll probably be a little emotional. Even now it's kind of teary-eyed. Excited that I had four good years, and it's all coming to an end. That's something I'm starting to realize."
Moore wanted to tell the fans: "Thank you a lot for their support, especially when I was going through my ACL and all the cards I got from them and the concern and the prayers. I just really appreciate that. The Boost-Hers, I just want to say thank you from all my heart. I appreciate everything they've done for me."
Summitt was asked for a few impressions of the seniors. Here's what she said.
On Ely: "Obviously a great athlete. She has been a player that we've counted on since her freshman year. She's really factored in. Her ability to run the court. As a person I'm going to miss seeing her get on the bus with her purse. She's very committed to fashion. I think her purse was purple (last road trip). She takes a lot of pride in her appearance and obviously a lot of pride in her game."
On Jackson: "Another purse woman. I'm proud of Brittany as a Tennessee player for representing this program with a lot of pride and in particular this year being the best teammate she's been all four years and being the hardest worker. She's stepped up and made so many big shots for us. It's special to have Tennessee players in the program. As a Tennessean to be able to coach at this university it's special to me, but it's also special to see one of our own in-state players do as well as Brittany's done. I think she knows I have a lot of confidence in her, and she's a very important player. Whether she's been starting or coming off the bench this year she's handled it better than any year. There's some toughness inside of her."
On Moore: "Loree has matured each and every season. It's not been a small step up, it's been a huge change. None more than this year. She's tough. She's a lot tougher than I would have thought early in her career what she's gone through with injuries and setbacks. I admire her toughness. I appreciate her commitment to leadership. It's not an easy job, but she's embraced it this year and really tried to help us. I really respect her for it. With her toughness, she can greatly impact the direction we take in March and April. She's not a purse person. Loree's her own person. While she's soft-spoken, I think she's got a great sense of humor. I think she's been a great teammate."
Besides the three seniors the following also will be recognized tonight: Guastalli with her parents Donna and Dennis Guastalli, and managers Bernitha Johnson (father-James Johnson, brother-Chris Johnson), Andrea Piercy (parents-Cindy and Doug Piercy), Tommy Francis (parents-Ginger and Rick Francis), Tara Brooks (parents-Kathy and Dan Brooks) and Adam Waller (parents-Debbie and Mike Waller).
After the tears are shed at center court Tennessee has to play a game. Mississippi State is 0-23 against Tennessee and remains the only team in the SEC to never beat the Lady Vols. But six of the last eight games have been decided by less than 10 points, and Tennessee has squeaked out several wins.
The Lady Bulldogs, coached by Sharon Fanning, are expected to start: Doceide Warren, 5'6 junior guard, 6.6 points per game, 3.5 rebounds per game (Dallas, Texas); Tiania Burns, 5'8 senior guard, 10.8 ppg, 4.6 rbg (Nashville, Tenn.); Tan White, 5'7 senior guard, 22.8 ppg (leads SEC), 7.7 rbg (Tupelo, Miss.); Mamie McKinney, 6'0 junior forward, 7.0 ppg, 5.5 rbg (Tallahassee, Fla.); and Rebecca Kates, 6'0 senior forward, 7.5 ppg, 3.5 rbg (Cashion, Okla.).
It is White who has everyone's attention.
"She's just a player that can get a shot anytime she wants a shot," Summitt said. "With our team we have to rely on other people to get us shots. We have to rely on a good screen, good ball movement, penetration-kick, and most teams in the country are like that. But when you have a Tan White, she not only can get a shot anytime she wants it, she can get a teammate a shot anytime she wants to get a teammate a shot. Because she's going to draw the defense. She's a great athlete. I think Sharon's done a great job of getting her the basketball. I think she's more mature and playing harder. She's a senior. She's not only physically better but mentally stronger."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant coach Nikki Caldwell provided the scouting report for this game. Here's her assessment.
"I think first you've got to look at their personnel," Caldwell said. "They've got Tan White, an exceptional offensive and defensive player. She obviously is a concern for us. We've got to limit her touches. Because she's such an explosive defensive player we've got to take care of the basketball. They're a team that likes to get up and down. Transition defense is going to be crucial.
"We want to make sure that we limit their three-point looks, because they shoot about 20 a game so we want to make sure that we cover all their three-point shooters, and when we close out, close out long. Force them to penetrate.
"I think all in all we've got to match their intensity. They're a very scrappy team. They took Vanderbilt into double overtime, played LSU fairly well, better in the second half. We're going to have to answer their runs. They're explosive in the open court. They get on the boards. I think for us, key, transition defense and defending Tan White by committee."
LEARNING TO LEAD: All season Pat Summitt has said leadership has to come from her seniors. It sounds like she's starting to get what she wants.
"I want this group to go out winning, because they've been winners from the beginning," Summitt said. "Our leadership, while it was questionable at times, I think it's gotten better. I'm counting on all three of them to finish out with great leadership and commitment, just like they've been committed for four years."
Summitt noted Moore had to serve in a leadership capacity her whole career as a point guard, but the roles were new for Ely and Jackson.
"I think sometimes it's difficult for people who haven't had the responsibility for three years, it's more difficult to step into that role and realize what goes with it," Summitt said. "It's hard to be a leader. If it wasn't hard everybody would try to leader. It's a process. Typically it falls on the shoulders of point guards and seniors."
After the loss to LSU, Summitt pulled two seniors from the starting lineup in Jackson and Ely and talked to all three seniors about leading better. They do have a pattern to follow after watching what Tasha Butts and Ashley Robinson did with the team last year.
"They saw what happened last year when we had leadership," Summitt said. "It's easy to lead when everything's going great. Now you run into a little adversity, and that's when you find out what kind of leaders you have. That's the beauty of last year's team. When things were rocky they really stepped up. And it wasn't all smooth sailing last year. When we lost to Georgia (in the SEC Tournament), they took total ownership and held everyone accountable."
Moore said she learned from Butts and Robinson and has tried to apply those lessons this season.
"That's key for me, and what I'm trying do as far as the point guard for this team, the general on the floor, making sure I have that dominant leadership where I can have everybody on the same page at all times," Moore said, who added she was advised by last year's seniors to always be vocal, help players in practice and serve as a sounding board between Summitt and the team. "We all knew what we had to do. We all knew our roles. I don't think we're quite there. We're out there reaching for it and trying to grab on to it, but we're not right there where we should be as far as the progress of the team."
But Moore does see signs that the team is jelling at the right time.
"I'm pleased with where we are ," she said. "There's always room for improvement, and trying to strive for perfection as far as your team and what you want but as far as where we're going and where we're heading, we're improving a lot. … I think it's all starting to come together."
When asked to grade the senior class, she offered an enlightened response.
"Because of our ups and down throughout the whole season, we weren't really consistent maybe B minus," Moore said. "We've still got post-season so there's always that room for improving your grade."
Although the seniors will determine how far Tennessee gets in the post-season, the young players also will have a big say.
Sophomore Dominique Redding is one of the best shooters on the team - she had eight points in 13 minutes of play against Arkansas and is an 82.8 percent free throw shooter on the season. Summitt has asked her to ratchet up her defense.
"She told me I need to become a defensive magnet. She told me I was a ball magnet. So I think I'll work on my defense these last few games, work on stopping some people in post-season," Redding said.
Freshman Alexis Hornbuckle has started 13 of 25 games this season and was playing very well until having a six-turnover afternoon against Arkansas last Sunday. Summitt chalked it up to a bad game and told Hornbuckle not to dwell on it.
"I let it go," Hornbuckle said. "She said that on the bench. She said, ‘You've been playing well. Tonight you're just off so you've just got to make it up on defense and boards.' We had turnover after turnover. You had no time to get into a flow. I've just got to bounce back … and redeem myself. "
Hornbuckle did pull down six rebounds - all defensive, where Summitt really wants the guard to hit the glass - during the game.
But with 48 fouls called against the two teams and 50 total turnovers - 28 for UT, 22 for Arkansas, the whistle blew throughout the game.
Tennessee has experienced both extremes this season with officiating - foul-fests and barely a blown whistle. Hornbuckle knows which one she prefers.
"You either have refs that left you play, or they try to control the game," she said. "You can't get into any rhythm offense or defense. It's easier when you just let us play, let us keep going up and down."
SEC ON TAP: There are five other SEC games this evening, all beginning at 7 p.m.: LSU at Arkansas (Fox Regional Network); Ole Miss at Auburn; Georgia at Florida (Sunshine Network); Kentucky at South Carolina; and Alabama at Vanderbilt.
ODDS AND ENDS: With three more steals, MSU's Tan White will be the all-time SEC career leader. She has 357 while Jocelyn Penn of South Carolina (1998-03) holds the conference record with 359. White also has scored in double digits for 36 consecutive games. .... MSU coach Sharon Fanning is eight wins shy of 500 for her career. She also coached at Chattanooga and Kentucky. Fanning was a graduate assistant under Pat Summitt in 1975-76. ..... Lady Bulldog Doceide Warren needs 14 points to tally 500 for her career. ..... MSU hasn't beaten a top 10 team since knocking off Florida (No. 9) on Feb. 18, 2001. ....MSU leads the SEC with 6.72 made three-pointers a game. UT's makes 4.92 a game. .... Tennessee has made nearly as many free throws as Mississippi State has even attempted on the season. 403-572 for UT; 273-409 for MSU. ... Lady Vol Shanna Zolman averages 11.5 ppg against MSU. Shyra Ely average 10.2 ppg and 8.8 rpg when facing MSU. ... Tennessee will witness "Senior Night" on Sunday when Alabama honors its seniors and says good-bye to coach Rick Moody, who announced this week he is retiring after 16 years. ... Tennessee's senior class has played 132 games and 68 were against ranked teams. They are 51-17 in those contests and 114-18 for their career. ... UT remains ranked No. 1 in Strength of Schedule (SS) and Rating Percentage Index (RPI). Lady Vol opponents have won 72 percent of their games this season, and every team has a winning record except South Carolina (7-19).