The Lady Vols lead the series 34-2 and have never lost in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or in Knoxville. The two losses came at neutral sites in 1981 and 1984. Tennessee has won 27 straight since then, and a defeat today – even with the final farewells and the loss of yet another UT player to a knee injury – would be a major upset.
But coaches, being coaches, still fret over every game.
"I don't like any of the dynamics of that," assistant coach Dean Lockwood said of it being Senior Day and Moody's retirement game at home. "I've seen so much of the last hurrah so to speak where people all of a sudden – it's been a blasé type of year – the next thing you know they have a cause. They have seniors who they're saying good-bye to … let's give them a sendoff.
"And then we've got coach Moody that's been very successful there. I don't like any of those dynamics. I'll be honest. I'd just as soon have this game be February 1 than right now. But it is what it is. That's the psychology of competition. We have to be aware of those dynamics – we can't dwell on them – but we've got to know Alabama is going to put some juice into this game."
Tennessee has been riding an emotional wave of its own this week. Sophomore forward Sidney Spencer suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice Wednesday when she tore the ACL in her right knee. On Thursday the seniors said good-bye before the home crowd. On Friday, Tennessee announced that freshman guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, who last played Feb. 13, would need season-ending knee surgery because of chronic pain in her patellar tendon that has been bothersome since preseason.
Senior guard Loree Moore, who had season-ending knee surgery last year after tearing her ACL, had two thoughts: She needed to support Spencer and lead the team through the latest setback.
"Because I've been through it I know, so I'm more so trying to help Sid get through this situation," Moore said. "Even though she seems like she's really positive about it, she has a good attitude, it's like she has to do that. You can't show that you're down, upset, ‘why me' and all that in front of everybody else. You've got to be strong. That's the role she's playing right now."
Moore also is making sure the team stays together and keeps believing in itself.
"I think we understand, and we know that we need to put a little bit more into what we're doing as far as our role playing and we need to step it up to take the place of the numbers that Sid was giving us in terms of points, rebounds and hustle plays," Moore said. "I think everybody has to take on a little bit of that. We know that we really have to come together now."
Junior guard Shanna Zolman, who is Spencer's best friend, found her own way to honor her teammate. Zolman swapped her No. 5 jersey for Spencer's No. 1 and will wear it the rest of the season.
Nobody except Debby Jennings, head of media relations, Mike Hammond, the public address announcer, and Summitt knew of the switch – the coach and Jennings had to make sure it was OK – until Zolman was introduced at the start of Thursday's game against Mississippi State. The seniors had already been lauded, and Spencer was on the bench in street clothes as the other starters were being announced.
"I was really focused because the seniors had just come out," Spencer said. "I was looking at all the seniors and talking to them. I heard him introduce the rest of the starters, and I heard him say Shanna Zolman. And then I heard ‘But wait.' I was like, ‘Why did he say that.' "
The "but wait" was after Hammond started to say Zolman's old number, and then said Spencer's No. 1.
"She just came out, and she held her shooting shirt up, and I saw my jersey and I just cried," Spencer said. "I just got so emotional; I was so in shock. It caught me off guard. That's my girl, someone who's my best friend. For her to do something like that …. . "
Lockwood said the poignancy of the gesture reminded him of the tragic incident at Loyola Marymount in California on March 4, 1990, when basketball player Hank Gathers collapsed on the court and died later that day. His teammate Bo Kimble – they had been high school teammates and friends in Philadelphia, too – shot free throws left-handed for the remainder of post-season play. Kimble was right-handed; Gathers was left-handed.
"It was just very touching," Lockwood said. "Honestly there was some moisture in a lot of eyes on our bench. I looked around, and there were of a few of us, if we had blinked three times in a row, we might have had some water coming down.
"Anytime you see a gesture of a friendship and a gesture of a teammate supporting another teammate to that extent, it can't help but hit you. We all do this – all the time and our work – because we love it. It's a passion. Basketball is a passion. We love the game. We love the relationships that are derived from it. When you see something of that nature happen, you can't help but be moved. That's how it was for me personally. To see her come out and then to see Sid's reaction, it was very moving."
They also found a reason to laugh. Spencer is 6'3; Zolman is 5'10. The jersey is a little large on Zolman.
"It's big. It's a quilt," Spencer said.
"It's huge. It's an extra large, and I normally wear a large or a medium," said Zolman, who will wear the jersey for the remainder of the season. "You've got to do what you've got to do."
Summitt, who is very superstitious, said she was touched by the switch and had no qualms about letting Zolman make the change.
"My thought on that is there's a lot of games left," Summitt said. "If this was the last game of post-season I might say, ‘Wait a minute. Is this emotionally going to be more than you want to deal with?' I just think the fact they've got such a great friendship, and I think she's keeping Sid involved emotionally as well. With as many games as we have, this doesn't concern me. I wouldn't tell her no. When she told me I got teary-eyed. I just thought, ‘Wow.' "
Today's game is important to Summitt, not just because it's the last one of the regular season, but it's a chance to get more playing time for sophomore Dominique Redding, who will be asked to do more with the loss of Spencer.
"You have to look at coming off the bench, who has to take their game to a different level it's Redding," Summitt said. "She's certainly capable. I'm glad if it had to happen, at least we've got some time here. We've got a lot of practice before we get into post-season. And she's got games left – the conference game and then the (SEC) tournament."
Redding won't hesitate to shoot – which gets her both put into and pulled out of games. She is Spencer's roommate and shares her same offbeat personality so she's mentally well suited to step up her game.
As far as shooting confidence, Redding ranks very high.
"I'd say Zolman's No. 1," Summitt said. "But Dom, she's right there with Brittany (Jackson). I think those three probably. Tye (Fluker) inside is pretty confident. We'll definitely look for (offensive) opportunities for her. Right now I'm just trying to get her to focus on defense, feeding the post, rebounding. Dom's the kind of player she'll take the opportunity when it's there.
"The problem I had with her earlier was she went in, she got off the bench shooting the ball. I want her to get involved in the game, yet I've got a lot of confidence in her."
Summitt laughed and recalled a game against Stanford last year.
"When I put her in she was about to run over me; I was trying to coach," Summitt said. "I was looking down the bench, and she's like going to chest-bump me to tell me to put her in. She goes in and nails a three. I'm not forgetting that."
Summitt also remembers this year's game against TCU in which Redding went 2-3 from the field and scored four quick points.
"We were struggling, and the staff said, ‘Put Dom in. She'll make her shots.' And she did," Summitt said. "I think the biggest concern for Dominique is to sustain her physical and mental game. She'll have a couple of good possessions and all of a sudden she's lost on defense."
Zolman can appreciate Redding's struggles at times.
"She practices very well every single day," Zolman said. "It's just a matter of transferring everything over to a game, being able to start everything – this is my problem, too – being able to have your defense start your game off, have your defense get you warmed up, get your momentum going, whether it's a steal or a deflection, getting your hand on the ball, turn into your offense.
"I think that's really important for Dom. Right now with her spot being the three (small forward on the perimeter) or the four (power forward in the paint) for us – that's actually where Sid was – it's going to be very key for her to be able to step up for us. It's something our team's going to have to adjust to. I don't think it's anything we can't handle."
Earlier in the season, Lockwood said Redding could be an "X factor" for the team, because of her shooting ability and versatility.
"She just got amplified by one more volume notch," Lockwood said. "Her opportunity is greater than it's ever been probably on this team. And I think the things that she can do for this team now that Sid Spencer is out are amplified that much more.
"Dom gives you that multidimensional type of player. She can shoot a jump shot. She can still play in the paint a little bit. She's a nontraditional post when she is a post – she's not like a true Fluker-type post – but she can get some things done down there. Her opportunity is huge. I just think if she could give us consistent production out of those minutes she's going to get, oh my gosh, our team's going to be that much better off."
STARTING LINEUPS: Pat Summitt said she was leaning toward starting the same five against Alabama that started in the 78-56 win over Mississippi State – Loree Moore, Shanna Zolman and Brittany Jackson on the perimeter and Shyra Ely and Nicky Anosike inside.
"But I truly like the way Tye has played and responded," Summitt said of junior center Tye'sha Fluker. "I'm probably going to go with the same lineup. I'll talk with my staff. Nicky gets us off to a really good start defensively and brings a lot of energy to our team."
Alabama is expected to start: Monique Bivins, 5'9 senior guard, 10.0 points per game, 3.7 rebounds per game (Alabaster, Ala.); Navonda Moore, 5'10 sophomore guard, 8.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg (Jackson, Miss.); Lateefah Joye, 5'11 freshman guard, 3.6 ppg, 3.1 rbg (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Natasha Gamble, 6'0 senior forward, 10.6 ppg, 4.3 rbg (Jackson, Ala.); and Dee Merriweather, 6'4 center/forward, 4.6 ppg, 7.0 rbg (Hanceville, Ala.)
Seniors Bivins, Gamble and Katie Sipe (Hillsboro, Tenn.) will be honored in pregame ceremonies.
Fluker had one of her best games since returning to the team after the death of her maternal grandmother Feb. 2 in Pasadena, Calif.
Against Mississippi State, Fluker had 13 points, seven rebounds and three attention-getting blocks.
"I thought she was aggressive at both ends of the floor," Summitt said. "She had a huge presence on defense, and she created great windows of opportunity on offense. She was burying people in the paint. She played physical and aggressive."
Summitt could also opt to start freshman guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who is an excellent rebounder, on the perimeter in place of Jackson.
Summitt's primary concern is that the team starts off well. And if someone's not scoring, Summitt wants that player running the floor, hitting the boards and playing defense.
Senior Loree Moore epitomized that attitude Thursday night. She couldn't get a shot to fall, but had six rebounds, three assists, one block and two steals.
"Loree has been a good rebounder for us," Summitt said. "Last year when she went out (with a knee injury) she was averaging over five boards a game for us. I just remember right off (then) how much we're going to miss her board play. And you usually don't think point guard-board play. We're sending her to the offensive glass as well. That's key."
Tennessee's rebounding stat has also been helped by the recent return of Ely to the power forward position. She had 12 rebounds against MSU and 11 in the previous game against Arkansas.
"Without question Shyra's doing a better job at the four rebounding," Summitt said. "Watching her at the three a lot of times she got caught not going to the glass, not going back. When she's in the paint instinctively she pursues the ball. That's a good thing."
Moore has struggled on offense all season – though she has hit some shots at key moments – but she doesn't concentrate on that.
"I try not to think out it too much, not worry about it too much and do the things I can control as far as my defense, bringing attitude, pushing tempo and creating a lot, setting screens for other people, trying to get our posts open," Moore said. "I want to make sure I set good screens and make sure I can get people open shots and make them better as well. That's my main focus."
Moore also joined the chorus in echoing that Dominique Redding's play is more important now than ever.
"I think it's going to be key to our success and what we're trying to do because Sid was a big part of us, and she did some greats things for us," Moore said. "It's sad to see that she has to sit out for the rest of the season. For Dom I'm been telling her it's time for you to step up and really showcase what you can do. She can do a lot of good things for us.
"I think she's the type of player who plays like Sid. She's not as much of a banger, more finesse, but she can create, she can get open looks, and she can get other people open. That's just key that she comes in focused, and she does raise her bar, and step it up a little more. And she normally has."
Last year's team limped into the post-season after losing personnel. Moore went out in January, and senior Courtney McDaniel left for medical reasons on the last day of the regular season. That team made it to the title game against UConn in the NCAA Tournament.
In 2001, the Lady Vols lost Tamika Catchings to a knee injury in February. That team rallied for a while but then faded down the stretch and lost to Xavier in the Sweet 16. Summitt said that team stopped playing "Tennessee basketball" and stopped playing together.
When the game against Mississippi State and its star Tan White was tight Thursday, Summitt gathered her players and delivered a message about teamwork.
"That's what I told our team in the huddle. We have to play together," Summitt said. "We don't have a Tan White. We don't have a Tamika Catchings on our team. We have to play together. This is a puzzle that has to really fit together. No one piece is bigger than the other. Everybody has to do the little things to make it work."
SIDNEY SPEAKS: Sidney Spencer can't play on the court, but she is still a piece of this Lady Vol puzzle. The season-ending injury would crush anyone, but Spencer is keeping up her spirits, and in turn, boosting those of her teammates.
"I'm very good. I'm doing great. I'm ahead of schedule," said Spencer on Friday, two days after the injury. She has already started rehab with Jenny Moshak in preparation for surgery later.
"I can't do a thing about it so I might as well take it and make something great out of it so I am. I'm not sad about it," she said. "I'm going to just try to be the best rehabber I can be and the best coach on the bench, do what I can to help the team."
Spencer was hurt during a defensive drill for post players in the paint. She was changing directions when her knee hyperextended and she fell to the court.
"I was backpedaling and I planted to go in another direction, and I kept going backwards. I fell down," Spencer said.
Spencer is taking her same determination on the court to the rehab room.
"I love it when Jenny tells me ‘I don't think you're going to be able to do that,' because then I make myself do it no matter how much it hurts," Spencer said. "I'm just going to try to excel everyday and do what I can to get back. I'm just a really motivated player, motivated with this. I want to defy the odds and be the best rehabber I can be."
Spencer has plenty of company. Three freshmen, Candace Parker, Alex Fuller and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, are rehabbing knee injuries. Parker and Fuller had preseason surgery and will take redshirt years. Wiley-Gatewood is facing surgery March 21.
Spencer also has plenty of support from her teammates, including best friend Shanna Zolman and roommate Dom Redding.
"Just be there for her, constantly harp on her to keep going, not feeling sorry for yourself, not asking why," Zolman said. "As much as we don't understand, it's all for a reason. God has his reasons for everything. She understands that, and I understand that. It's just a matter of getting busy everyday and trying to get that leg stretched, trying to be able bend your leg, trying to get ready for surgery. And then after surgery's done be able to get right back at it."
Zolman said Spencer contributes to the team just by being present. Her quirky personality, sense of humor and ebullient personality help keep the team loose.
"The biggest thing is being Sid, just having her be herself," Zolman said. "Because physically, yes, she's out for us as a team. But mentally, spiritually she's not changed at all."
Zolman, who was Spencer's workout partner last summer, knows her friend is struggling with what happened but won't show it for the good of the team.
"I'm sure it's extremely difficult for her. I know it is," Zolman said. "She's down right now, even though she doesn't want to be and doesn't want to act like it, she is. It could be a life-altering injury, but because of the training staff we have it's not going to be. She's going to work back out and be back next year better than ever. That would be devastating to anybody. It would be devastating to myself. It'd take me awhile to get over it, too.
"That's my job – support her, be there for her at her every beck and call, whatever I can do to help her. Between Dom and myself she'll definitely be very well taken care of."
Zolman honored Spencer with the jersey switch.
"I think that's really cool," Loree Moore said. "I even got a little misty when I saw her do that."
Teammates have also written tributes to Spencer on their shoes.
"Nobody has the same name on their shoe for me," Spencer said with a smile. "Everybody has their nickname for me. There're like six or seven nicknames for me. SidVicious. Sidville. Shyra says my name, Sthid. Dominique has Chocolate Siddy. Shanna has D-squared, Dynamic Duo."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant coach Dean Lockwood provided the scouting report for the Alabama game. Here's his assessment:
"They're another team that is a very athletic team. They dribble drive very well, dribble penetration is good. They've probably got four players or more who can do things off the dribble drive and create offense. So we have to, no. 1, guard dribble drive. They are a very good offensive rebounding team. They're very athletic; they're very active. They don't sit still when a shot goes up. They're not going to be dead targets for you to block out; they're going to move and crash the boards. So we have to do that.
"What we have to do mainly is not let them have paint points, whether it be on the drive or the post-up. We've got to control the paint defensively. If they're getting a lot of paint shots, paint points and putback opportunities or if we're fouling … we can't foul incessantly; we have to play good solid defense. We have to guard dribble drive stuff without fouling.
"Offensively we want to still run. Even with the injuries, we still feel we can push tempo on people, and we can run. We want to get the ball inside and generate some inside attack. And for us, you flip the coin. Conversely we want to control the paint at this end, we want to go down there and get some paint points. We don't want to just settle on the road for taking jump shots. We want to get the ball in the paint, get some scores via drives, post-ups, offensive rebounds."
SEC ON TAP: There are five other SEC games today. All times are Eastern: Arkansas at Kentucky, 2 p.m.; Vanderbilt at Georgia, 2 p.m. (ESPN2); Florida at LSU, 3 p.m. (Fox Sports); South Carolina at Ole Miss, 3 p.m.; and Auburn at Mississippi State, 3 p.m.
SUMMITT'S SEEDING: If LSU wins out, it will be the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament and will play Friday at 1 p.m. Tennessee, as the No. 2 seed, would play at 3:15 p.m. The possible opponents will be flushed out today after the SEC regular season ends.
As far as seeding in the NCAA Tournament, which begins March 19-22, Summitt believes Tennessee needs a stellar showing in the conference tournament to secure a No. 1 seed.
"I think it all depends on the SEC tournament," said Summitt, who would like a tournament championship to seal a top seed. "If we don't we need to be in the championship game. It all depends on how that game plays out."
UT's seniors have said all season they don't want to end their careers without a conference tournament title.
"It's overdue," Summitt said.
Before the season began, Summitt jokingly said she wasn't going to pack more than two outfits for the SEC Tournament, because she didn't seem to need a third one for the last day of play.
"I'm packing plenty," Summitt said this week.
ODDS AND ENDS: Besides being Senior Day at Alabama, it's also "Alumni Weekend" when Alabama welcomes back former Crimson Tide basketball players. .... Alabama coach Rick Moody has won 310 games in his career with 97 coming in SEC play. He coached the team to eight appearances in the NCAA Tournament with five trips to the Sweet 16 and one Final Four berth in 1994. ... Moody was an assistant coach on the last Bama team to beat the Lady Vols in 1984. .... The closest call for Tennessee in Tuscaloosa came when UT won 63-60 in 1997. Current Crimson Tide assistant coach Brittney Ezell was the starting point guard that season. .... Bama senior Monique Bivins has never missed a game in her college career, playing in 113 straight. .... Lady Vol Sidney Spencer and Bama junior Krystle Johnson were teammates at Hoover High School in Alabama. ..... Alabama has not allowed an opponent to shoot over 50 percent this season. .... All four of Bama's SEC wins this year have come at home. The Crimson Tide hasn't won an SEC road game since beating Ole Miss on Jan. 26, 2003. .... Two Lady Vols are averaging double figures in points against Bama - Shanna Zolman, 10.0, and Shyra Ely, 12.0. Ely also averages 7.0 rebounds. .... Ely's recent scoring output has boosted her season average from 13.9 to to 14.2 points per game. If that figure doesn't stay up above 14.0, it would mark the lowest average for Tennessee's top scorer in program history. .... Tennessee is now averaging 71.5 points per game. If the Lady Vols can keep that up, they will avoid becoming only the third team in Summitt's coaching career to average less than 70 points a game.