BIG ORANGE MADNESS

Several thousand fans got what they wanted Friday evening – an early peek at the men's and women's basketball teams and a Candace Parker dunk in Thompson-Boling Arena.

Three days before Halloween, the only thing particularly frightening – besides some of the costumes worn by the Lady Vol players – might be how good this team could be. And that's only scary to their opponents. Coach Pat Summitt seems to sense she's sitting on a team to rival that of her 1998 squad, but she knows it's early, and nothing has been settled on the court yet. But after a season that saw the Lady Vols lose four players to knee injuries – two before practice even started – just seeing 11 players in uniform and healthy was a pleasant sight for the nearly 4,000 fans who filled the lower sections along the sidelines at Thompson-Boling Arena.

The evening began with a Lady Vol volleyball record home crowd of 3,311 watching Tennessee beat Georgia in an SEC matchup, 30-25, 30-20, 30-26. The previous record was 1,571 in 2003 in a game against Florida. A volleyball court of removable plastic and rubberized sections was placed atop The Summitt court – thus the first official Lady Vol sport to be played at The Summitt was volleyball – and a fired-up crowd enjoyed the sweep of Georgia. It was also the largest home crowd for a Lady Vol sport other than basketball, surpassing the 3,042 who watched the soccer team play North Carolina in 2001. The volleyball team is back in action Sunday at Stokely Athletics Center for a 1:30 p.m. game against Florida that will be broadcast later at 6 p.m. by CSTV.

After the volleyball match ended, a crew of Vol and Lady Vol staffers removed the flooring in 10 minutes, and the crowd, which had swelled slightly for the basketball portion of Big Orange Madness, settled in to meet the players. Earlier the men's and women's players signed autographs on the concourse.

The Lady Vols wore costumes, some of which were easy to determine. Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood was resplendent in a red-and-black Michael Jackson outfit, complete with black shoes and a single white glove. She danced on the court – Candace Parker and Alexis Hornbuckle were the emcees – and spoke to the crowd in a spot-on Jackson imitation. Sidney Spencer and Shanna Zolman were Dumb and Dumber. Hornbuckle wore a Zolman high school jersey from Wawasee and high white socks, and Lindsey Moss was Larry the Cable Guy with a "Git R Done" sign on the back of her shirt. The other players were a bizarre combination of geriatrics and hip-hop – sometimes both – including a walker for Alex Fuller and an exaggerated derriere for Dominique Redding. Tye'sha Fluker's outfit defies description.

Once the players got changed into practice gear, the basketball events were under way. The coaches were introduced first. New men's coach Bruce Pearl got a hearty welcome. The introduction for Summitt was drowned out by the crowd the moment they saw her step on the court.

The applause for the Lady Vol players was noticeably louder than for the men – especially when Parker and the seniors Zolman and Fluker entered under the spotlight – but Pearl proved to be quite a showman and quickly got the crowd excited about his program. He noted he was the only undefeated SEC coach in Tennessee and then added he wanted to be the most-disliked coach in the SEC, just like Summitt – who also is one of the most-respected across the country – because she beats everybody.

Pearl said his players prepared well over the summer, and "they've really bought in." He said he expected improvement all season long, and he promised an up-tempo game with Tennessee getting a shot off before the opponent had time to set the defense.

Summitt said she was thankful for a healthy team.

"We just want to stay healthy, and get after it," she said.

Pearl paid homage to Summitt and said "one of the best things to happen to me" was having access to her as a coach, "and my basketball team will play on her floor." That set off rousing applause from the fans.

"Thank you for being awesome fans," Summitt told them. "You make all the difference in the world."

As part of the festivities, the teams took the floor – the men first, then the women – to run layup and shooting drills while Pearl and Summitt were interviewed courtside by Voice of the Vols Bob Kesling and Lady Vol radio announcer Mickey Dearstone.

Pearl said his team's strength is chemistry, and he likes the preseason attitude.

"We believe in what we're doing and believe in each other," he said.

Summitt praised her team for its summer commitment and its motivation since practice started. The best things fans might have heard from her is that the offense is ahead of the defense – Summitt's teams are known for defense – because after last season's shooting woes, finishing in the paint has become a major point of emphasis.

As far as another brutal schedule, Summitt, when asked what she was thinking, said, "Obviously I wasn't thinking." But she added that Tennessee fans "are the greatest in the game" and deserve to see top competition, not cakewalks.

Her closing remarks touched off another huge round of applause.

"I'm excited because we're healthy, and we can put together all the pieces to have a great basketball team," she said.

After that, the players scrimmaged each other in five on five. The crowd got to see the highly touted passing skills of Wiley-Gatewood, who might be the purest point guard to ever suit up for Summitt, two dunks by Parker, the outside range of Fluker, the dead-eye aim of Zolman, the rangy footwork of Fuller and a nice job of finishing by Spencer and Sybil Dosty.

Three players from the men's and women's teams participated in the three-point shooting contest, which was won by the men, 43-40. The contestants were Zolman, Redding and Wiley-Gatewood and C.J. Watson, Chris Lofton and Dane Bradshaw. Zolman hit 18-21 from long range – nobody kept score the first time – so she had to shoot twice, and this time the crowd shouted out her numbers. Redding hit 13, and Wiley-Gatewood made nine. Each player had one minute to shoot from three ball racks along the baseline and top of the key.

The next event – the slam dunk contest – was likely the most highly anticipated of the evening because of Parker's participation. She barely dunked on her first attempt, missed the second and then nailed the last one. She got perfect scores of 10 from the judges – Dearstone and three fans.

But the contest belonged to Parker's boyfriend, Stanley Asumnu, who made a one-handed dunk that ended with his arm hooked in the basket – a la Vince Carter of a few years ago – and then the highlight of the evening. Asumnu jumped completely over a trembling Smokey and slammed the ball home, landing well on the other side of the mascot after clearing him in a spread-eagle leap. That dunk got all 10s. For good measure, he added a windmill slam. That also got all 10s.

Pearl, who had earlier entertained the crowd by dressing up in an inflatable Sumo wrestler suit and taking on a student, went after Dearstone after he gave Asumnu's arm hook dunk a seven. He playfully grabbed the 7 sign and threw it down, then acted enraged as the crowd cheered.

Parker, whose dunk qualified her for the finals, wanted to try something perhaps as spectacular, but Summitt stepped in and said no. That might be one of her best coaching moves of the preseason as a healthy Parker is a key to the team's success.

Taking in the action from the sidelines were two recruits who were making unofficial visits to Tennessee – Maya Moore of Lawrenceville, Ga., and Angie Bjorklund of Spokane, Wash. Both juniors are highly regarded and two of the top recruits of the class of 2007.

The evening ended with an announcement to the crowd that everytime the song "Jump" was played – also known as the Rally Monkey song – the fans were to jump along. The men's and women's players gave a demonstration at center court and continued dancing together as the fans filed out.


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