After 34 games and an SEC Tournament title, Tennessee is just happy to be playing someone new. The Lady Vols and Spartans have met only once before – a 76-62 Tennessee win on March 23, 1977, in the old AIAW tournament when Holly Warlick was the Lady Vol point guard. No player on this year's roster was even born when that game was played.
"Yes I am actually," Tennessee senior point guard Loree Moore said of playing the Spartans. "I think Michigan State is a very well-coached team, and they're very disciplined in everything that they do. I think this is going to be very exciting to play a team that basically runs zone the whole game and has threats across the board from their guard play to their posts in the interior."
Michigan State is led by point guard Kristin Haynie of Mason, Mich. The 5'8 senior averages 10.8 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game and 5.4 assists per game. Haynie is expected to be joined in the starting lineup by 5'7 junior guard Lindsay Bowen, 13.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 2.9 apg (Dansville, Mich.); 5'9 sophomore guard Victoria Lucas-Perry, 7.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg (Flint, Mich.); 6'1 junior forward Liz Shimek, 15.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg (Empire, Mich.); and 6'4 senior center Kelli Roehrig, 13.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg (Papillion, Neb.).
The sixth woman off the bench is 5'10 sophomore guard Rene Hayes of Columbus, Ohio, who averages 8.0 ppg and 3.0 rpg.
"She's our sixth starter," MSU coach Joanna P. McCallie said. "We don't have five; we have six starters. And Rene has started games, come off the bench. But her value to this team right now has been that incredible energy off the bench. She's a tremendous player, gives us great defensive and offensive energy and just gives us a competitive, oh, just a competitive boost that is really good for our team."
Fluker is 6'5 and provides muscle in the paint and offense. Earlier this season, coach Pat Summitt said she was physically one of the best post players in the college game. Fluker had to deal this season with the death of her maternal grandmother in February – she left the team for 10 days to return home to Pasadena, Calif. – but has said she's adjusting to the sorrow and is comforted by being with her teammates.
She has referred to the other "bigs" as her sisters in the paint and has aided the development of freshman center Nicky Anosike. Fluker doesn't see Tennessee changing anything from what got them this far to the Final Four.
"I think every game we always try to run," Fluker said. "We try to wear and tear on our opponents. I think this game, yes, we are going to run. That's always our game plan. We're just going to do what we always do and try to wear on them by running."
It was a walk that led Anosike to Knoxville. The Staten Island, N.Y., player was being recruited by Tennessee, and when Summitt arrived in New York she went for a stroll with the prospect.
"My school (St. Peter's for Girls) was basically on the Hudson River," Anosike said. "We walked across the little walkway. Just walked, it was a beautiful day. That's really when I knew I was coming to Tennessee. I just felt relaxed and felt like what they were telling me was genuine and real."
"We were on Staten Island and went out and watched the ferry coming across and just talked about life," Summitt said.
Summitt had sold Anosike's mother, Ngozi Anosike, on Tennessee already, much as she did when she was recruiting Chamique Holdsclaw in Queens, N.Y., and endeared herself to Holdsclaw's grandmother, the late June Holdsclaw.
Ngozi Anosike is a diminutive woman, but she wields a large influence on her family. She is a single mother and has raised eight children while putting herself through school. She now works as a registered nurse.
"Her mom told me that she watched a lot of games on TV, and she liked the discipline," Summitt said. "She's a woman of small stature and yet she's extremely disciplined and very demanding and challenging of her family, of her children. And when we talked about academics and we have a no mess-up upfront rule (in fact UT's players got in at 5 a.m. this past Wednesday and were told to go to class that day or not go to Indy): You go to class. You don't go to class, you don't play. You're there at the university first and foremost to get a degree.
"I just remember Ngozi saying, ‘Now when Nicky gets to Tennessee … and Nicky looked at her, like, ‘Mom?' And she just kept on. She said, ‘No, this is the place you need to be.' And I think she had a great influence on Nicky, but fortunately when Nicky came to campus I thought she really liked the teammates that she would be joining and trusted the coaching staff. But I think her mom had a, obviously, a big influence on her final decision."
Anosike smiles when parts of this story are relayed to her later in Tennessee's locker room.
"My mother loves her," Anosike said. "When she looks at Pat she sees a lot of herself. They're both two strong-willed women who have been through a lot and who have defeated a lot of adversity in their lives and are basically on top now. I just think my mother has a lot of admiration for her and what she has accomplished and where she came from."
Summitt had to look past Anosike's game. It was raw in high school – she had only played basketball for four years unlike most top recruits – but Summitt saw the potential.
"The afternoon I went to see her play I had to look at the potential of a Nicky Anosike," Summitt said. "I really admired her drive and intensity and competitiveness. And when I made a home visit and met her mother, it was a done deal. I just fell in love with the family and a strong mother of eight children, a single parent. I saw in her mom and in Nicky Anosike something that I thought was really, really special. ….
"There's something special inside of her, and I said last weekend she's just cut out of a different cloth. And when I put her in the starting lineup I went to each one of my staff members and I said, ‘Do not let me take her out of the lineup. I'm going to want to, because I'm going to see her turn it over, and I'm going to see her miss easy shots, but don't let me do it.' And sure enough when I even thought about it, they said, ‘You can't do that.' "
Anosike is still learning the game, but she has made tremendous strides this season. She was barely hitting free throws in November and December. Now she makes 80 percent or better. She is finishing better under the basket, especially to her left. Her defensive intensity is unparalleled. In the 59-49 regional final win over Rutgers, she picked up perimeter players at times despite her 6'4 height and more than made up for it with quickness.
Statistically speaking in this NCAA Tournament, she is tied for third in steals with Rutgers guard Matee Ajavon (3.0 per game), is in seventh place in blocks (2.0) and 11th in rebounds (8.0). Those numbers underscore the media's oversight in leaving her off the All-Region Team in Philadelphia, a slight she shrugs off but which proves too many members of the media vote without actually watching the games.
Now if Anosike could only look Summitt in the eye. She can be painfully shy and sometimes looks away when the glare of the media becomes too bright.
"I can't look at her," Anosike said. "I don't know why. Even on the home visit I couldn't look at her. I'd be talking to her and I'd be looking the other way. I have no idea what it is. I just can never look at her since I met her."
Anosike and Summitt were filming a commercial Friday to promote the Final Four, and Anosike still looked away.
"I said, ‘Nicky, why aren't you looking at me?' " Summitt asked. "And she says, ‘Coach, I can't look at you. I couldn't look at you in the visit; I didn't look at you on campus.' And I said, ‘Well that's OK. Just keep playing the way you're playing, you don't have to look at me. Maybe one of these days you will.
"But just getting to know Nicky, and convincing Nicky that we would take care of her and provide her with a great family environment at Tennessee – and that's no different from recruiting anyone else. … But the family model has been key for us when kids are willing to leave from New York or California and come to Knoxville, Tennessee; that's a big change for them. And we want them to know we'll be their family and their home away from home."
Anosike's mother, who now lives in New Jersey, did get to see her daughter play in Philadelphia. Watching Ngozi Anosike was almost as entertaining as watching Nicky Anosike. The mother marveled at her daughter's intensity on the court and laughed with joy.
Nicky Anosike laughed again when this story was relayed to her.
"I try not to watch her," Anosike said. "I try to block everyone out. She doesn't really know this side of me. She knows me as being real quiet. I guess she sees what I really am."
The family theme is predominant in Indianapolis. Shyra Ely and Shanna Zolman are playing in their home state. Ely has dozens of family and friends in the RCA Dome. Zolman's entire town, or nearly all of it, from Syracuse, Indiana, has made the trip to watch a local star on the big stage.
"We are so happy to bring them home," Jackson said. "We are so excited for this team and especially for them."
Jackson and Zolman are two of Tennessee's best shooters. That means getting used to a dome. The court has been placed across the 50-yard line of the home of the Indianapolis Colts from sideline to sideline. The baselines of the basketball court are the sidelines in the football configuration.
Center court essentially means sitting in the middle of the field. One end zone brings the fans close to the action. The other is comprised of temporary seating and pushes up against the benches. An overhead scoreboard is suspended by cables and sways back and forth. Despite the dome atmosphere, the environment is cozy. Sliding doors are used to keep the pressure contained – pushing open a stairwell door requires considerable strength – and the shooters reported feeling comfortable.
"I think as a team we shot pretty well today. This reminds me of San Antonio," Jackson said of the site of the Final Four when she was a freshman. "I like it. I like the floor. I feel comfortable on it. I think it's a great atmosphere. I shot the ball pretty well today so hopefully it'll carry over."
Zolman also was swishing threes from long range during Tennessee's open practice session.
"Yes, I do now," Zolman said when asked if she felt comfortable in the dome. "Coming in, the depth perception of everything is so vast and wide. That's what these shoot-arounds are for. Just being able to get acclimated to the rims and being able to adjust to the lighting as well."
There is a lot of room behind the goals. Freshman Alexis Hornbuckle said she was instructed to focus on the rims and not on the background.
"If you're not used to it, it's going to throw you off," Hornbuckle said. "You've got to have a narrow focus when you're shooting it. If you don't adjust to the rim, you might be shooting air balls. You might be shooting at the stands. Like coach told me today, ‘You have to have a narrow focus.' I was bricking and bricking. I was like, ‘All right, coach.'
"I've never been in an atmosphere this big. I haven't played in a dome. This is the biggest gym or atmosphere (the dome holds 28,937 for basketball, and the game is sold out) that I've ever played in. Definitely excited. I love to play in big games with big crowds so I'm definitely looking forward to it."
The players also have to not focus on the shot clock, except for obvious reasons. Remote-controlled, swiveling cameras have been placed atop the shot clock. In addition, ESPN will use a robotic overhead camera on the scoreboard, a camera from the scorer's table for up-close bench shots and specialty microphones placed under the court.
It's a lot of hype, and Tennessee's players are used to it. The seniors are making their fourth-straight appearance at the Final Four. Michigan State is making its first appearance ever, but the Spartans won't be intimidated at facing the Lady Vols.
"Not at all," Haynes said. "It's just another game. We have played great this season. We're great. Tennessee is great. So it's going to be a great game."
Michigan State also isn't worried about taking on the tradition of Tennessee.
"They have a tradition, they really do," Roehrig said. "But the thing is with us is that we step on the court, it's us versus them. Michigan State of now versus Tennessee of now."
McCallie isn't worried that her players will be awestruck at lining up against the Lady Vols.
"Well beating UConn by 16 in front of 15,000 people, beating Notre Dame at Notre Dame in front of 7,000 people in overtime, beating Ohio State in front of 14,000," McCallie said. "To me our schedule has prepared these kids. We're not even in Knoxville. … I just think that this team needs, deserves credit for the schedule they played, and how they did with the schedule they played. They beat Minnesota three times. That's an incredible thing, I think.
"Tennessee is a great team. But at the same time these other teams are really, really good too. So I just feel like they have been through a lot, and they're always respectful but really excited to play everybody and it's pretty much poetic justice that we would play Tennessee, given the schedule we have had this year. It's kind of, you know, why not bring on such a great program and so that's just – it seems fitting, really."
Likewise for Tennessee. The players and coaches are happy to see someone new.
"That's one reason why I wanted to play Michigan State," Ely said. "I always enjoy playing teams that we don't usually get to play. It's fun to play different schools and different conferences. With Al Brown and Semeka Randall being there it's also makes it special."
Brown used to be an assistant coach at Tennessee. Randall was a former player and won a national title as a freshman in 1998.
After retiring from the WNBA, Randall turned to coaching full-time. She got the job at Michigan State on a recommendation from Brown. Dressed in Spartan green and standing inside the Michigan State locker room, Randall said it would be "weird" to be on the opponent's bench against Tennessee, but "it's a great feeling" to be in the Final Four as a coach.
"Like I keep telling everybody I'm 26, and I'm on this stage right now," Randall said. "All coaches want to be in this situation. It's a very blessed situation. I'm happy to be a part of this team, because the kids here are unbelievable. They're great kids, and I'm happy to see them get to this level and experience the things I've experienced as a player."
Randall also has had her eyes opened at the differences in players vs. coach at the Final Four.
"As a player, they tell you your schedule, go practice, do a couple of media interviews and go sit back down," Randall said. "As a coach go watch this tape, do this scouting report. There're a lot of things that play into it. Now you have respect for coaches. I called Pat and said, ‘I respect all coaches now and what you have to go through.' I'm happy to be here."
Randall was a preternaturally talented guard who also tested Summitt's patience with her stubbornness. It's a situation she laughs about now.
"You can interview all these kids," Randall said with a smile, motioning toward the players in the locker room. "I've told them all my dirt. They know, and I've learned. We have no problems. This is a super team. I've grown up. I kind of can relate to them when things go wrong. I can help them, motivate them in different ways. I really enjoy it."
Brown coached Randall as a player and now works alongside her as a colleague.
"She's quite a bit more laidback as a coach than she was as a player," Brown said. "She is just every bit as energetic and enthusiastic and hard-working as a coach as she was a player. She's just not in your face. She wants to learn. She's going to be a very, very good coach. Almost every player, male or female, has that ongoing relationship with their head coach. She now begins to see the things that Pat talked to her about. It's like having kids."
It makes for an interesting scouting report at least. Brown is intimately familiar with Summitt's team having been on the inside for years.
"They're a great offensive rebounding team," Brown said. "They're going to get multiple shots on trips down the floor, and that's a problem. You have to shut that down. I think probably the single-biggest concern is the fact that they can get multiple shots on a trip down the floor. They're aggressive enough and physical enough to get to the free throw line. We've got to offset that physical defense with good offense. We have to be able to try to keep them from getting two or three shots on each trip down the floor. If we do that, we'll be OK."
Warlick prepared the scouting report on Michigan State. She downplayed the impact of Brown having once served as an assistant coach.
"It's a player's game," Warlick said. "That's what it's all about. We just hope our players take our game plan and go with it."
Here is Warlick's assessment:
"They run a match-up zone, something that we've been familiar with (because of Vanderbilt and Auburn). We're going to run our man-to-man offenses and try not to quick-shoot it, try to take it inside and get our perimeter some good looks, too. Their offenses, they don't run anything we haven't seen. I think they're a very good team, and once their offense breaks down they go one-on-one.
"We're not underestimating them by any means. They play so well together. They're doing something right – as we are to get here – and we've just got to play like we played Rutgers. That's how we're treating them. They play so well together, and they're a great rebounding team. We've got out work cut out for us."
Senior Brittany Jackson has the game plan down pat.
"We've got to reverse the ball, just get good open shots," Jackson said. "I think that's going to be a big key – shot selection on offense. Defensively – rebounding, boxing out and keeping my man in front of me."
COACHING CAROUSEL: There may be four teams still playing, but there are several vacancies in head coaching positions. Holly Warlick's name has come up in several head coaching hunts, including those of Clemson and Indiana. She spoke Friday with Indiana – Clemson is believed to be keying on Harry Peretta of Villanova – and remains interested but is still focused on Tennessee and its title hopes.
"I'm looking," Warlick said. "It's kind of drug on because of me, because that's not my primary focus. It's got to be a great situation. I think Indiana can be a fabulous job because of the recruiting. It's flattering. There're not too many places I would go. There's one place I know I want to coach, and it's not going to happen for awhile."
That would mean Tennessee, and it would mean Pat Summitt would have to retire.
"Don't want her to," Warlick said.
When Warlick walked onto the floor during Tennessee's open practice Saturday, she was greeted with "Stay Holly" and "Pay her more."
TITLE HOPES: Tennessee is at its fourth straight Final Four but hasn't won a title since 1998. The players are keenly aware of the gap.
"We have such high expectations for ourselves, and it's just never enough," Shyra Ely said. "If you don't win a championship it's like you had a losing season in Knoxville, which I think is good in some ways because our standards are so high, and we want nothing but the best. It drives us to be better every day and not think we're as good as it gets. I think it motivates us."
Al Brown remembers those days and can put them in perspective.
"The problem with a Connecticut or a Tennessee is you create such a monster," Brown said. "Anything short of winning a national championship is somewhat disappointing. And that shouldn't be that way. It's the journey. You've got to enjoy the journey."
He looks at Tennessee's roster and sees the same themes.
"Very similar. There's good talent. They're very solid defensively. They attack you offensively," Brown said. "I think there isn't much different; there's just a lot of other people constantly after Tennessee trying to dethrone them and while Pat has maintained her excellence and her team is certainly excellent there're a lot of other people that are inspired by that and saying, ‘Hey, we're going to knock you off, or we're going to beat you.'
"I think that inspiration she provided Connecticut years ago when she first scheduled Geno (Auriemma) elevated that program. I think that's the same for Michigan State or anybody else. You want to play Tennessee, and you want to beat Tennessee so you can elevate your program to that elite status. She's kind of carrying the whole thing for everybody.
"We're just trying to win a game so we can get to play Tuesday. We're just trying to win one game and have a chance to play the last game of the year. That's all there is to it."
At least Tennessee's players are enjoying the experience.
"I've been having a whole lot of fun," Nicky Anosike said. "This is so much more fun than the rest of the season. I'm just enjoying it, trying to live in the moment. The intensity and winning, just the fact that we're all together and doing it as a team."
"It's flown by really quickly," said fellow freshman Alexis Hornbuckle. "It seems like just as soon as March started it ended. It's been fun all at the same time. I feel like this is what we worked so hard for. It's exciting, and it's hard. If every game was like this day in and day out we'd probably pretty much be tongues hanging out, ready to fall over."
HANGING LOOSE: Tennessee's players are certainly not uptight. They cracked up coach Pat Summitt when they spontaneously started dancing at the end of their practice session to "Rocky Top" and then did the V-O-L-S cheer with the cheerleaders. Their antics delighted a crowd of several hundred who were in the RCA Dome to watch the open session.
"We just got out of control. We can cheer and dance," Brittany Jackson said. "We were just acting crazy. A lot of Tennessee fans. I'm excited."
"It was a way to relax and have fun out there and enjoy this Final Four experience because every one is different," Tye'sha Fluker said. "Just make good memories."
"I love that song," Loree Moore said of the routine in which the cheerleaders spell out V-O-L-S. The players spelled the letters with their bodies and acted as if they had pom-poms to shake. "That's our favorite cheer ever. When it comes on we get excited, and we've got to do it."
This doesn't mean they aren't focused. The 45 minutes prior to the cheerleading simulation were spent getting used to the RCA Dome.
"Get your feet wet again, get used to the environment, the lighting, the depth perception," Moore said. "Like coach told me today, ‘You've got to focus in on your target. You've got to focus in on everything that you're doing.' That's key for everybody."
GAME NOTES: The Women's Final Four is a sellout for the 14th straight year. The sellout of 28,937 at the RCA Dome is second behind the 29,619 in attendance at the Alamodome in San Antonio in 2002. … Tennessee is making its 16th appearance at the Final Four with its six titles coming in 1987, 1989, 1991, 1996, 1997 and 1998. Every Lady Vol player since 1976 has competed in at least one Final Four in either NCAA or AIAW tournaments. … Coach Pat Summitt has the highest winning percentage in NCAA tournament history at 89-17 (.840) and is first – men or women – in games won, coached (106) and appearances (24). … Only one Big 10 team has ever ended Tennessee's season – Iowa in 1993 in the Mideast Regional final. … Tennessee is riding a 12-game winning streak; Baylor, 18; Michigan State, 16; and LSU, four. … Both of Tennessee's Indiana players were Miss Basketball winners – Shyra Ely in 2001 and Shanna Zolman in 2002. … The 32 wins are a school record for Michigan State. The previous record was 23 games in 1976-77. … This is the first year the Spartans have made it past the second round of the tournament, and they are 12-1 this year against ranked opponents. The loss was to Ohio State on Jan. 6. … MSU hopes to match Notre Dame (2001) and Texas Tech (1993) in winning a national title on its first shot as a No. 1 seed. … Eight Spartans hail from the state of Michigan out of 12 on the roster. …. MSU is the sixth school in NCAA history to send its men's and women's teams to the Final Four. The others were Georgia (1983), Duke (1999), Oklahoma (2002), Texas (2003) and UConn (2004). Connecticut swept the titles last season, but the North Carolina men ousted the Spartans on Saturday night so that can't happen this year.
FIRST SEMIFINAL GAME: The Baylor Bears and LSU Lady Tigers will tangle in the first game Sunday. An LSU and a Tennessee win would set up an All-SEC final, but the other teams aren't conceding of course.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson spent much of the preseason reminding her team of its early exit to Tennessee in the Sweet 16 when a foul call with 0.2 second left allowed UT to seal the game from the free throw line after the Bears blew an eight-point lead. Baylor would like nothing more than a rematch but a formidable LSU squad stands in the way.
LSU won already this season – 71-70 on Nov. 14 after surviving a Baylor comeback in the second half.
"This is what we have taken from the previous matchup – nothing and everything," LSU coach Pokey Chatman said. "And my point in that is that Baylor was an extremely talented team in November and with the leadership of Kim and her go-to players, obviously it starts with their post tandem, there's so much more to the method of their madness. … For us it's going to take a tremendous defensive effort if we are to be victorious."
LSU is led by Temeka Johnson and Seimone Augustus. Baylor is led by Steffanie Blackmon, Sophia Young and Chelsea Whitaker.
Baylor's coach is a Louisiana native – she grew up in Tangipahoa Parish – who starred at Louisiana Tech and recruited Chatman – a star point guard for LSU – when she was an assistant at Louisiana Tech.
"The only thing about playing LSU that bothers me is they're going to get to go home and eat crawfish, and I'm not," Mulkey-Robertson said.
The fact that Mulkey-Robinson ended up at Baylor after starring at and coaching as an assistant under Leon Barmore at La.Tech was a surprise, and she addressed it as her press conference in response to a reporter's question.
"I spent 19 wonderful years of my life there," she said. "Thirty-eight years of my life were spent in one state. No matter where my career takes me I'll always be a Louisiana girl. But I am very, very loyal; I am loyal to a fault. And I felt that after 19 years of being at Louisiana Tech, and Leon stepped aside so I could inherit that program and I will never forget that, I felt that I was worthy of a five-year contract.
"It's the standard in the business. I had turned down three head coaching jobs with significantly more pay to stay at my alma mater. They started out with a three-year contract, they felt they were doing me a favor by offering me a five year, I was hurt, and I left. That's the story. Nothing more. And thank God for unanswered prayers."
Baylor is happy to have her, especially after Mulkey-Robertson has the Bears in their first-ever Final Four.
"This is amazing," Baylor guard Chameka Scott said. "This is what you work so hard for all season, and not even this season but since I got here. It's something you look forward to."
LSU's players made it to the Final Four last year in New Orleans, but never made it to the title game after losing to Tennessee in the semifinal.
"We were so excited last year so to come back this year is great," forward Wendlyn Jones said. "After we lost we got back right away and started working out and working hard to get back. We knew we were capable of doing it."
"I think we're more focused on what we have to do," said Augustus, who was selected Saturday as the recipient of the State Farm Wade Trophy, a honor bestowed on the national player of the year. "We felt that we have some unfinished business here, some things that we need to get done here. So it's more putting everything into perspective and understanding that we enjoy being here, we are glad to be here, but we have a lot of things that we have to do in a short period of time."