Lady Vols seek ticket tonight to Final Four

PHILADELPHIA – Both teams expect a defensive tussle, both teams agree they've changed since the last time they played, and both teams want the same thing – a ticket to the Final Four. <p> The two teams will tip off tonight at 9:07 p.m. (ESPN) at the Liacouras Center, and one of them – Tennessee or Rutgers – will become the last team to fill out the Final Four in Indianapolis. <p>

Baylor and LSU are already in. Michigan State and Stanford play before Tennessee tonight in Kansas City for the third spot. If Tennessee were to secure the fourth slot it would be the fourth Final Four for its three seniors, Shyra Ely, Brittany Jackson and Loree Moore. For Ely and junior Shanna Zolman it's also a trip home. Zolman is from Syracuse, Indiana, and Ely is from Indianapolis.

"You can't help but think about because it's a lot of motivation," Zolman said. "It's a desire in my heart and I know in Shyra's heart. I don't want to not think about that because that drives me a little bit more. One more game – a very tough, difficult game we're about to play against a very good, athletic team – but we're so excited."

The seniors have talked about it among themselves, too.

"Me and Shyra and Loree were talking about it," Jackson said Monday of the chance to go to the ball of the Big Dance every year in college. "It'd be crazy to go to the Final Four all four years. It's a big accomplishment. It's definitely where we want to go, and end our career that way."

"That is special," Moore said. "This means more, because it's my last go-round. This is it for me. I want to make sure that I'm doing anything possible. I just want to make sure we get there and make sure we get that opportunity to get to play in the championship game again."

"I think it's pretty awesome," Ely said. "I think it will be sweeter, especially being in Indianapolis. I think these seniors are going to make sure it happens. Our sense of urgency is at another level. At the same time our underclassmen know how important it is, and they want it for us just as bad as we want it."

That certainly applies in the case of freshman guard Alexis Hornbuckle. She had several goals this season that included helping the seniors get their first win over UConn, their first SEC Tournament title and their first national championship. She has assisted in the delivery of two so far.

"That means a lot to me," Hornbuckle said. "I love playing for myself but more so I enjoy playing for other people. I just want to get them to a Final Four, and I want to avenge that loss that we got against Rutgers earlier in this season."

Rutgers defeated Tennessee, 65-51, on Dec. 29 in a game that wasn't even that close. It was the first game after the Christmas break, and the Lady Vols played as if they were still on vacation.

Moore, who had undergone a tonsillectomy, didn't play in that game. The ones who did had a forgettable one, except for freshman center Nicky Anosike, who nearly had a double-double with 12 points and nine rebounds, and Ely, who had a decent game – 13 points and eight rebounds – but also committed five turnovers.

It was the first game of the season for Rutgers point guard Cappie Pondexter, but she was essentially a non-factor – one point, one assist, two fouls and two turnovers in 15 minutes of play.

Both Moore and Pondexter are excited about the rematch. The two are close friends and have competed against each other in college and on the same team during summer league play.

"I was hoping that we'd get the chance to play them, because I did miss the opportunity to be out there with my team," Moore said. I have a lot of confidence now. Playing the way I'm playing now has really motivated me."

Pondexter agrees that she and Moore could be the difference in this game.

"I think me and her will probably be the X factor," Pondexter said. "It comes down to who can execute the most and who can get the most defensive stops."

Ely was asked during the players' media conference which team gets the bigger "jolt" this game – Tennessee with Moore or Rutgers with Pondexter.

"I think definitely we have the biggest jolt," Ely said. "I think that with Loree's leadership and her ability to disrupt offense by her defense, I think that will create a lot of trouble for them. As far as Rutgers getting Cappie back I think they have a lot more leadership as well and another offensive weapon."

Rutgers is also concerned about stopping Tennessee's post game, especially Ely. The Scarlet Knights are quick, but they lack size. Guard Matee Ajavon is 5'8, and Pondexter is 5'9. The starting forwards, Essence Carson and Chelsea Newton, are 6'0 and 5'11, respectively. Center Michelle Campbell is 6'2. A key reserve, Rebecca Richman, is 6'4.

Tennessee counters with the 5'11 Hornbuckle, 5'9 Moore, 5'10 Zolman, 6'2 Ely and 6'4 Anosike. Key reserves are the 6'5 Tye'sha Fluker, 6'0 Jackson and 6'1 Dominique Redding. Sybil Dosty, who can spell Anosike or Fluker at center, is 6'3.

But it is Ely and her resurgent play of late since she returned to the power forward position that has Rutgers' attention. Carson said the frontline players would have to have "the game of our lives" to prevail a second time against Tennessee.

"I think I have my best success when I let my game come to me and let my defense generate my offense," Ely said. "A lot of teams think I don't like physical play, which is not true, because I'm pretty physical. They try to be physical with me; they double some times. I think we do a great job of seeing what the defense is giving us so we're able to find the open person. If two people are on me, somebody has to be open. I don't mind kicking the ball out to find that open person."

Fluker hopes the officials let the players be physical, much the way they did when Rutgers defeated Ohio State in the regional semifinal.

"That would be great," Fluker said. "It would be great not to go in the game and pick up six fouls between our three post players, our three bigs, in the first 10 minutes of the game. That'd be great to be able to bang."

But first Tennessee must stop Rutgers on the perimeter. In the semifinal win over Texas Tech, Moore and Hornbuckle harassed point guard Erin Grant into an uncharacteristic six turnovers. A few times Anosike shadowed her on the perimeter, creating a considerable mismatch in size. Anosike could drift outside again against Rutgers.

"She gets after it," Moore said. "She's going to work hard, and she's going to play hard all the time, no matter who she's on. I think changing defense like that and switching up will catch them off guard a little bit. Throw different things at them and make them think a lot."

It was Rutgers' ability to break down the defense one-on-one that doomed Tennessee in December.

"They really challenged our defense by going one on one," Ely said. "At the same time I feel like we're a different team. We're more committed to our system and our defense so I think we'll do a better job defending them."

Coach Pat Summitt is hoping having Moore for this game will make a difference.

"I think Loree Moore's presence will be vital to our execution and give us a chance to be successful against one of the most athletic teams, if not the most athletic team we've faced all year," Summitt said. "We see athletic teams in our conference. I just think Rutgers, their commitment to defense, they're just relentless.

"They get after you on the ball. They get after you in the passing lanes. I'm a defensive-minded coach, and I admire and respect the level of intensity they bring every possession."

Jackson said Tennessee learned a lot after losing to Rutgers on the road.

"We're not the same team," Jackson said. "We definitely improved offensively and defensively. We learned a lot from it but definitely put it in the past."

Zolman adopted the same attitude – let that game go and get ready for this one.

"You try to forget about it because it wasn't us by any means," Zolman said. "It wasn't me. Tennessee did not show up that night. We weren't ready for the kind of team they were. They took us out of everything we were doing. They took it to us. They were the aggressors. I can go on down the line as to what they were, and what we weren't. We have to be able to defend one on one. We have to be able to handle their defensive pressure. If we can do that it's going to be OK for us, because we're very disciplined. We have the experience. We're playing so well together right now."

Zolman said Tennessee also benefits from its schedule and playing – and even losing – to teams like Rutgers during the regular season.

"That's why coach schedules the toughest schedule each and every year, because of how much it helps us right now," Zolman said. "We may go through the season with several losses here and there, but I'd rather have losses early on to help us learn for what we have going on for us right now."

Neither Zolman nor Jackson shot well in the previous game. Zolman has broken out of her shooting slump, but Jackson is mired in another way so far in the NCAA tourney.

"I just have to let the game come to me," Jackson said. "I'm trying sometimes too hard and rushing shots. I think if we play the way we've been playing team basketball I think everything will work out."

Fluker knows the post players have to stop Rutgers this time. In the previous game, Rutgers got 36 points in the paint compared to Tennessee's 20.

"Match their physical play, not let them get in a rhythm," Fluker said. "They got a lot of easy, open shots. We've got to limit touches and keep them off the boards. Be physical and win the battle in the paint."

Both teams sounded confident Monday and ready to get it settled.

"We have two confident teams," Pondexter said. I'm looking forward to a great match-up. It's going to be a great defensive battle."

Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer put it in more esoteric terms.

"I think that we play from our hearts and our minds," Stringer said. "We don't just play to play; we care about what we're doing."

During the press conference a writer tried to inflame Anosike's emotions by asking if Tennessee was seeking revenge because of its earlier loss, much the way Rutgers did against Ohio State in the previous game. She smiled, but didn't bite.

"I'm just going to say we're going to go out and play a lot harder than we did obviously last game," Anosike said. "Hopefully we'll come out with a win this time."

UCONN REACTION: Both teams playing tonight have more than a passing interest in what happens to UConn. The Huskies are rivals of both schools, and players responded to questions Monday about UConn falling in its regional semifinal to Stanford.

Since UConn won the last three national titles it means a new champion will be crowned in Indianapolis. A newcomer to the Final Four has already made it in Baylor so it appears the long-discussed parity issue has come to fruition.

"We watched the game last night," Shanna Zolman said. "Stanford is a very, very good team, and they're playing very well together, too. It's good to have somebody else new in there, but we don't want to be the team (that's out). It's good in that aspect for UConn to be out."

"It's about time," Brittany Jackson said. "Nobody's ever won four in a row. All kinds of teams are coming up. It's not just one or two teams that are dominating. It's up for grabs."

Rutgers' Cappie Pondexter and C. Vivian Stringer were disappointed a Big East team fell.

"It doesn't make me feel good because people want to believe the Big East is not the beast," Stringer said.

"At this moment you're always rooting for your Big East teams to stay in, and we're the last to survive," Pondexter said. "We want to kind of hold the rope on that end. But it's good that they'll be a new NCAA champion. It's good for the women's game."

ALEXIS ON ALEXIS: It seemed nobody outside of Nicky Anosike had a good game against Rutgers this season, and without a box score handy I mentioned to Alexis Hornbuckle that I couldn't remember how she played in that game.

"You know why you don't remember it? Because I might as well have not even played," Hornbuckle said. "It was bad. I don't even remember a time in high school when I played that bad. And I had bad games in high school. I kind of backed down and when you allow yourself to back down, you can't get into your own game."

Hornbuckle admitted she allowed herself to be affected by the speed of freshman guard Matee Ajavon.

"I was telling myself, ‘Matee's quicker than I am so I'm backing off.' That gave her the most confidence," Hornbuckle said. "You've got to respect a player, but at the same time you've got to get your respect. I didn't go out there to earn my respect so my game was totally off. My defense wasn't there. My offense? Three for 12 from the field.

"I was like, ‘Coach I might as well be on the bench beside Loree.' "

Hornbuckle told the story with both laughter and seriousness. She plays best when she takes the same approach – have fun and buckle down.

"I think now we're a whole new team," Hornbuckle said. "I know I personally have a different attitude. I have a different type of confidence. Coach is always telling me you've got to get that attitude, that swagger back you had in high school. I think I'm slowly starting to get that back just because I know my teammates have confidence in me, my coach has confidence in me, so that allows me to build confidence within myself.

"I'm looking forward to this game actually. I know I won't be able to sleep tonight so I'm sleeping all day."

SWEET LULLABY: Freshman center Nicky Anosike came to Knoxville from Staten Island, N.Y., and said during an interview last October that one of the adjustments of living in Knoxville was listening to all the bugs at night. The crickets were especially loud.

In Philadelphia the sounds are of the city – honking horns and sirens, especially those of fire trucks, all night long.

"I'm sleeping like a baby," Anosike said.

ELY'S ESSENCE: When asked to describe Shyra Ely in 10 words or less to another sportswriter, I offered: "Finesse body with a power game."

Ely said she more or less agreed with that but added she also had a finesse game and a soft touch at times. She agreed her power game could take some opponents by surprise.

"Don't sleep on me," she said with a smile.

GAME AWARDS: Three items are awarded to players after each game: a ring for keeping the team together, a hat for attitude and oversized sunglasses for focus. After the win over Texas Tech, Loree Moore got the ring, Shyra Ely got the glasses and for the third straight game Nicky Anosike got the hat.

STAT WATCH: Since Tennessee fielded a women's basketball team in 1902-03, the program has tallied 974 wins. A victory tonight would be no. 975 all-time and no. 30 for the season. Pat Summitt has won 30 or more games in a season on 14 occasions. Tennessee is 5-0 against Rutgers all-time at neutral sites and leads the series 10-3. By getting win no. 881, Summitt did what Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp couldn't after their record wins: take the next game in the NCAA Tournament. Rupp retired with 876, Smith with 879.

QUOTE BOX

"I don't think we focus on other teams. We focus on us and getting better." -UT's Shyra Ely when asked about UConn and if Tennessee was anxious about a possible matchup. That was Sunday afternoon. On Sunday evening, UConn lost to Stanford in its regional semifinal.

"They've gotten a lot better in the off-season. I think players sometimes think, ‘Well let's go to practice. Coach makes me get better.' You start in May, and you work until October. You change the way you play the game. I think we are better because of the workouts of some of our players. I think we're stronger and in better shape." –Coach Pat Summitt on one of the keys to Tennessee's continued postseason success. She also specifically credited the work of Heather Mason, the Lady Vols head strength and conditioning coach.

"When we can put pressure on them from the get-go and hopefully demoralize them in the second half with that kind of pressure … that's what is going to kill teams." –UT's Shanna Zolman on the importance of getting off to a fast start, such as Tennessee did against Texas Tech.

"A lot of people get that from us. A lot of people want to beat us. That makes their whole season." -UT's Loree Moore on the fact Rutgers gained confidence after beating Tennessee and went on to beat Texas and LSU in their next two games.

"It's really prepared us knowing we can compete on a high level." -Rutgers' Cappie Pondexter on the effect of the three wins on the team.

"We thought we were headed to New York." –Summitt talking about coaching in her early days when Tennessee only played area teams but then got a road trip to Rock Hill, S.C.

"I was absolutely overwhelmed and scared to death, but I said yes. I'm glad I said yes." –Summitt talking about when she took the head coaching job in 1974. She was initially offered an assistant position and was thrilled because she would have little pressure and access to workout facilities as she trained for the Olympics. But then-coach Margaret Hutson decided to take a sabbatical and offered Summitt the top spot.

"I was with her when we had the boycott in 1980 (Moscow Olympics). She handled it so well. But my heart was broken for her because she finally had a chance to coach at that level and then she was denied that opportunity. And then for her team to make it to the Final Four in New Orleans, that to me … . Life's not always fair, and it doesn't seem like it's been always fair to Sue Gunter, who has given so much to this great game. I just hope and pray her health will hold up." –Summitt talking about retired LSU coach Sue Gunter, who stepped down during the season last year because of severe respiratory illness. Gunter was head coach of the U.S. women's team in 1980. The boycott also denied Lady Vol assistant coach Holly Warlick a chance to be in the Olympics as a player.


Inside Tennessee Top Stories