For UT's seniors it a chance to get what has eluded them so far – an SEC tourney title.
"I'd like to see them get a ring," UT coach Pat Summitt said. "Since we didn't get that (the regular season title), maybe this just means a little more to them now."
"I'm excited we get to play LSU, get another chance at them," senior Brittany Jackson said. "I want an SEC championship. I haven't got one yet. That's a main goal we've had this season so I'm just excited we get a chance to play (tonight). One more, and we're there. I want another shot at LSU. We didn't give them too good of a game down there. We're playing good right now, and I feel good about it."
"I go with what Brittany said," senior Shyra Ely said. "We're just really excited to be in the championship game."
It was the loss to LSU – in which Ely didn't have a rebound, and Jackson took some quick and ill-advised shots by Summitt's estimation – that rankled the coach because of the play of her seniors. The exception was Loree Moore, who brought adequate defensive intensity in that game.
When asked what Tennessee, 25-4, must do this time around, Ely said, "Defensively, knowing our scouting report and buying into our system. I think that's the most important."
"Shyra has to show up," Summitt interjected.
"That, too. Yeah," Ely said with a smile.
In the previous game LSU's Seimone Augustus had 25 points, and point guard Temeka Johnson had nine points and nine assists. Three-point shooter Scholanda Hoston had 16 points and was left unguarded at times. Sylvia Fowles, the 6'5 freshman, only had seven points but pulled down 17 rebounds and blocked five shots.
"It's just going to take a solid team effort," Summitt said of Tennessee's shot at beating LSU the second time around. "They do have good balance. We obviously have good balance, but they clearly have Seimone Augustus as their go-to. She makes big, big plays for them. Temeka Johnson makes big, big plays. You have to look at those two and Fowles inside. She's one of the best shot blockers in the game, and I thought she was a big reason why we struggled, not only to score, but to rebound against them at their place. We just have to come with a different intensity and awareness. All you've got to do at this point is just lay it all on the line."
After LSU, 29-1, beat Georgia on Saturday to reach the title game and before Tennessee beat Vanderbilt, LSU coach Pokey Chatman said either opponent would be a challenge.
"It's March. It's that time of year," Chatman said. "It's a tough situation either way. It's exciting, and we're fortunate that we're going to have that headache."
Summitt was also happy to have to spend Saturday evening – what little was left of it after Tennessee drew the late-night game – and Sunday scheming how to beat LSU.
"I'm looking forward to this one," Summitt said. "LSU is a team that had their way with us at their place. I hope we can do some things differently that will give us a chance to be more competitive. If we put ourselves in that situation then we've got a chance to win. I think our team learned a lot from the first game. I think our inside game is a little bit better than it was at that time, and I hope our defense is a whole lot better."
Summitt said she will start the same five who have opened up both games of the tournament – Loree Moore, Shanna Zolman and Alexis Hornbuckle on the perimeter and Shyra Ely and Nicky Anosike on the inside. The two freshmen – Hornbuckle and Anosike – took opposite paths to the title game. Anosike had a great game Friday and sub-par performance Saturday; Hornbuckle was tentative Friday and tenacious Saturday.
"If I had the answer to that, they'd all play great every night," Summitt said when asked why the freshman flip-flopped their performances. "I didn't think Nicky had one of her better games. She wasn't as alert as she usually is."
Anosike was plagued with foul trouble, which disrupted her usually aggressive game.
"I didn't feel I was able to play defense the way I wanted to play because we weren't allowed to be physical," Anosike said.
"She was hurrying some things. Tye was hurrying some things," said assistant coach Dean Lockwood, referring to fellow center Tye'sha Fluker. "What we've got to do is take our time, be a little bit more composed."
Composure will be key tonight against LSU and its imposing frontline. Tennessee's post players know what they have to do.
"Box her out," Fluker said of Fowles. "We've got to box her out. Shooting-wise I'm going into her, not just trying to shoot over her because obviously she's taken shots out of the air. She's a great shot blocker. Post up hard, try to get her in foul trouble and guard her by committee."
Freshman post player Sybil Dosty saw her first minutes of post-season action Saturday when Anosike was in foul trouble. She scored two points and grabbed a rebound in six minutes of play. She also provided some quality defense.
"It's a lot of fun," Dosty said of postseason. "I was just trying to focus on defense."
Anosike understands the urgency of postseason. She also knows what Tennessee has to do tonight.
"I just think we have to play to our strengths, do the things that we can do well," Anosike said. "You have to bring it every night, because you risk going home. As far as regular season it will be a loss under your belt. You get to go on and keep playing. In postseason, if you lose you're just going home. You have more on the line so you want to fight more."
But while the post players will be battling for control of the paint, the perimeter players will be trying to disrupt Johnson.
"To me she's the real key. She's the floor leader," Summitt said. "She's really good in the open court, but when you need a possession to be effective she makes it work. She and Seimone connect so well again. I think she's really the heartbeat of this team. The way she goes they go. She's always pushing them and always challenging them."
Moore watched the Georgia-LSU game and was stunned that the Lady Bulldogs didn't pressure Johnson.
"With Georgia they didn't stop her in the transition game. They let her go," Moore said. "If you let her go she's going to create things like that. Ball pressure and making her change directions and not just letting her do what she has to do. They weren't really guarding her in the backcourt. They were just letting her go."
To win, Moore said, Tennessee must "stop Temeka and limit Seimone's touches. The perimeter players are good, but the post players are key for them. If we can box them out and keep the post players off the boards, I think we can stop them."
Lockwood said the Lady Vols had better be ready to fight.
"It was obvious it was a very physical game the first time around, and we have to prepare ourselves for a physical game," Lockwood said. "We have to play a game of defensive physicality without fouling, without doing dumb things. We've got to keep them from getting second shots. They have two great forms of offense before they even think about running anything in half court with their transition game and their offensive rebounding. Their frontline, in terms of the way they attack the boards, is just incredible."
NCAA SEEDING: Regardless of the outcome of tonight's game, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt thinks the Lady Vols have earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"I think we should be a No. 1 seed," she said. "We played pretty much everyone. I think our basketball team has proven themselves night in and night out. That was my thinking going in. All we want to do is come out and be ready to be competitive in the game tomorrow night and play LSU a much-better basketball game than we played in Baton Rouge. I've learned this: It's out of your control. You can control how you schedule; you can control how you play."
But after that, Summitt said, Tennessee has to wait to see "how everyone else thinks you have played this year and what they think of your schedule."