Lady Vols open SEC Tournament play today

GREENVILLE, S.C. - Tennessee is in an unfamiliar role at the 2005 SEC Women's Basketball Tournament. For the first time in seven years, the Lady Vols aren't the regular season champions. <p>

That trophy will be presented to the LSU Tigers, which went undefeated in the conference, and will open play today at 1 p.m. against Alabama at the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C.

Tennessee will play in the second game at 3:15 p.m. against Auburn.

Four teams bowed out Thursday – Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina and Mississippi State – but eight teams still have dreams to win the conference tournament, now in its 26th year.

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt will likely stick with her senior-laden lineup of Loree Moore, Shanna Zolman and Brittany Jackson on the perimeter, and Shyra Ely and Nicky Anosike inside.

Summitt is looking for more defense out of her team and wants someone besides Ely and Moore to step up as defensive stoppers.

The Lady Vols have clicked offensively in the last five games – shooting better than 50 percent, looking first to get the ball inside, moving the ball and taking better shots. The presence of sharpshooters Zolman and Jackson on the wing forces the defense to stretch, thus opening up the inside.

As far as defense, Summitt is encouraged by the inside effort of Ely and Anosike.

"They bring a lot of energy," Summitt said. "With Loree on the ball and those two backing her up in the paint, that's a good defensive lineup."

However, Moore has struggled a bit with foul trouble lately.

"We'd be a lot better if Loree Moore could keep herself on the floor longer than three minutes, Summitt said. "That's unacceptable for a senior."

If Moore is in foul trouble and on the bench, freshman Alexis Hornbuckle sometimes has to slide to the point guard position, which weakens Tennessee on the boards because Hornbuckle is the best rebounder on the team from the wing.

"Who's going to be your defensive perimeter stoppers?" Summitt asked. "We have to have solid perimeter play. We have to play good one-on-one defense. The two people who can defend and do that are Loree and Shyra. Alexis would be the third."

Tennessee spent a lot of time this week at practice working on the nuances of its matchup zone. Summitt will still deploy her trademark man-to-man, but she knows her team must have a backup plan and be able to show a team a different look.

The Lady Vols do have an effective full-court press – something Auburn nearly fell victim to Thursday against Kentucky – led by the freshman Anosike. Summitt said she watched Anosike on tape recently and marveled at her effort.

"You want her on the floor just because of her energy, her willingness to run the floor," Summitt said. "She'll guard the basketball 94 feet. She's out on top of the floor running our press. She's running back and forth. I was tired watching her. She's sometimes like a one-player press. They turn it over before they get by her."

Anosike's weakness this season has been on the offensive end but against Alabama on Sunday, she scored 19 points.

"Her offensive composure was very telling about who she is," Summitt said. "Because she's been watching tape. We talked about her intelligence and how she needed to put that into reading defenses and scoring. I told her you're smart enough to figure out how to score three out of four possessions, are you not? And she nodded, ‘I am.' "

Summitt also was quick to praise assistant coach Dean Lockwood for his work with the post in his first year with the team.

"Dean has done a great job working with our post people," Summitt said. "Our post game is a lot better this year than it was last year. A lot better."

The post players will be challenged inside by Auburn's Marita Payne, who now is the SEC's all-time leader in blocks.

The good news for Tennessee is that Ely has moved back to power forward and will play primarily in the paint on offense, although she can still defend perimeter players.

Summitt also could opt for a big lineup of Ely, Anosike and Tye'sha Fluker to counter the size of Auburn's frontline.

One of Tennessee's biggest strengths – its depth – has been negated by injury. The Lady Vols have nine scholarship players now that Sidney Spencer and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood have been lost for the season. To win the tournament, UT will have to play very well for three straight days.

"Our style of play doesn't favor back to back to back games," Summitt said. "Because we press, we run, we get after it in the half court on defense. What was a strength of ours is no longer a strength of ours. I thought we had the best depth in the country. I thought that our depth could win us some SEC tournament games and some postseason games. We've had teams play with us for 34 minutes and all of a sudden you can just see us go to another level. We were playing 10, and they were playing seven."

But Tennessee does have three seniors in Ely, Jackson and Moore who have never won an SEC tournament title. It's something they are fully aware of.

"OK, we didn't do that; we're going to win the tournament," Jackson said of the seniors' attempt at positive thinking after not winning the regular season. "That's a goal we all have, especially the seniors. We've just got to take it one game at a time. It doesn't matter who you play. Everybody wants to beat us. One of my goals is to win an SEC tournament and then win a national championship. This is our last chance."

"I think it means a lot," Ely said. "We haven't won one. We won the last three regular seasons and lost the last three tournaments so maybe we'll turn the tables and win the tournament. I think it's really important to the senior class."

UT's chances increase with the play of Ely at power forward, but she said she welcomed her time on the perimeter.

"I feel comfortable at either position," Ely said. "I think it was a good move to put me back at the four. It's really two different games, the inside and out. I have a better understanding of how to get the post the ball and how to work for it. A lot of intangibles that you can't really put your finger on, but I just know it was good for me. I think it made me a smarter player, too."

As a freshman, Ely said she wasn't fully aware of how much the intensity ratchets up in the postseason.

"I think I was just riding along," Ely said. "I was just enjoying the ride my freshman year. But this year's freshmen have a chance to really help us and make a huge impact. If they don't know they will know. It's another season. There's another level you have to take it to."

"We're trying to send that message, but they just have to when they get there, they'll see it," Summitt said of the freshmen. "Do or die."

Hornbuckle thinks – and talks likes – she's ready.

"We do realize what we're getting into, and it's about to be crazy," Hornbuckle said. "I think we're ready physically and mentally. It's a matter of heart. You've got to play past injuries, past the tiredness, the fatigue setting in. You just have to want to win."

Hornbuckle was bothered by the fact this year's seniors had never beaten UConn. That changed this season. She's also knows about the lack of a tourney title.

"I want to help them get there," Hornbuckle said. "I want to win as a freshman and help our seniors go out on a good note from the SEC. I know it's going to mean a lot to them to try to pull this out."

She also is motivated by not wanting to have to deal with Summitt after a postseason loss, especially with so much practice time between the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

"You don't want to lose a tournament, period, especially early," Hornbuckle said. "We will literally all be on stretchers. You can't even think like that. You've just got to say, ‘We're going to play our hearts out. We're going to play as hard as we can for 40 minutes all three games if possible.' And just hope and pray we come out on top."

Summitt said she would like for her team to open up a lead Friday and not have to extend the defense or press for long periods of time. But she knows how the SEC Tournament usually plays itself out.

"This is one possession at a time, got to grind it out," Summitt said.

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