Lady Vols open with 131-40 exhibition win

At least one person thought she was looking at the team that could very well win a national title this season. And yes, that person's team had just gotten toasted on the court by Tennessee, 131-40, so perhaps her comments should be taken in that context. But Dr. Carolyn Savoy has more insight into the Lady Vols than at first meets the eye.

For starters, she's a graduate, having earned her Ph.D. in sports psychology from Tennessee. She's also a winner and has coached for 28 years at Dalhousie-Canada. Her teams have won 70 percent of their games, and last season she was coach of the year in her conference. She's also the author of "The Art of Coaching," the foreword to which was written by coach Pat Summitt. But, more importantly, she's familiar with the Lady Vols.

She traveled to Tennessee twice last season to watch them play. She also went to Philadelphia to watch the regional action in the NCAA tournament. When not watching in person, she watched on TV and on tape. On Saturday, she watched them practice. What she saw was a winner.

"Some of the things I really noticed in practice – we were afforded the opportunity to watch the team practice; it's not too often the enemy gets to watch the team practice – what I noticed it they're very communicative, they're very supportive of each other," Savoy said. "They talk on the court – this is my sports psychology background coming out now – very uplifting, very positive, very supportive. I think they'll go far. I think you'll see them in the Final Four, God willing and everybody being healthy. They'll position themselves so that they give themselves the opportunity to win the NCAA in my prediction."

It's too soon for such talk for Summitt, of course. After the game she couldn't help but be happy with the offense – the Lady Vols shot 69.7 percent for the game and scored 131 points, the second-highest total ever in an exhibition game for Tennessee – but she saw some defensive lapses. She also knows the opponent lacked size and the ability to defend in the post.

But after Tennessee struggled to score last season and missed too many open looks under the basket, Summitt did smile as she read the box score. Two redshirt freshmen forwards tallied double-doubles – Candace Parker with 20 points and 11 rebounds in 19 minutes of play; Alex Fuller with 18 points and 10 boards in 21 minutes – centers Tye'sha Fluker and Nicky Anosike had 14 and 16 points, respectively, and guard Shanna Zolman dropped in 28 points, which tied a career high, including 5-6 from an extended three-point range of 20 feet, 6 inches.

"When you shoot the ball like that, you can't come up here and say much about the offense, other than I'd like to have saved a little bit of that for later on in the year," Summitt said. "Shanna Zolman is playing obviously with great confidence, shooting the ball exceptionally well. And when you've got players that are shooting the ball well, it really filters throughout your team. Anosike's composure is much better – to look at her stats and see seven for seven and Fluker, six for seven. Granted, Dalhousie didn't bring the size and the presence, but I do think our post game is much improved. To see Fuller come off the bench and play the way she did, it's very encouraging for our frontline game."

The game marked the debut for one of the most-decorated athletes to ever sign with Tennessee in Parker. She was all smiles in the post-game press conference, even joking about the misfired alley-oop she tried with Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood late in the game, and was also quick to credit her teammates with getting her the ball.

"I was really excited to finally put on a Tennessee uniform and actually get to play," said Parker, whose season ended last year before it even started when she needed knee surgery in September. "It was an amazing feeling running out there."

If there's any question about Parker's game, it's her ability to consistently knock down the outside shot. She took a big step in settling it Sunday.

"I think she's shooting the ball well," Summitt said. "That's been the question mark. Could she knock down the outside shot and post up? I think she clearly can do that."

Parker said it helped her confidence to hit some short and mid-range jumpers – for the game she was 8-10 – but she also pointed out that the team was moving the ball, and that created open shots.

"I thought we moved the ball well and that helps us get in the flow of the game. Once you get in the flow of the game you can take shots like that," said Parker, who also credited assistant coach Nikki Caldwell for her shooting tutorials and "getting tips from Zolman. Amazing Zolman."

Zolman was 10-11 from the field. She said the team heard the criticism of its shooting last year, and it didn't sit well with the players. Her shots in practice have been falling, and for Zolman that just carried over to the game.

"It felt good. Practice has been going the same way – being able to get good looks, being able to knock it down," Zolman said. "But most importantly, my teammates know where to find me in different situations whether it's penetration, a kick or just transitions. I don't know how many people got assists tonight, but they were finding me. So I give them a lot credit for it, because it's a team game."

The Lady Vols had 30 assists for the game – Alexis Hornbuckle led with eight, followed by Wiley-Gatewood with six and Zolman with four – and five other players had at least two.

"It was hard because being here last year and (hearing) how terrible a shooting team we were, how we didn't get above this percentage, how we're the worst-shooting team that Pat's ever put on the floor, this and that," Zolman said. "It was very, very degrading, very negative in our eyes because we kept on working on it. We get good shots; they just weren't falling. It's something this year – especially getting off on the right foot like this – granted the shot's not going to be falling like that every single game, we know that, but if you get your confidence up from the beginning, you're going to be able to feed off that later down the road."

It was the post players who bore most of the criticism for the missed shots last season. Summitt said before the season started that after the staff reviewed the games, it was apparent the players were getting good shots but not finishing them.

So assistant coach Dean Lockwood forced the post players to slow down this preseason, get in position, improve their footwork and then go up under control and with power.

"It goes to show how hard we've been working on actually finishing our shots," Fluker said of UT's shooting percentage Sunday. "Dean's done a good job of helping us slow down. We utilized everything we've been learning in practice and actually slowed down and took our time. If we have the easy move, we hit our shots. It's definitely a matter of composure. When we play fast, that's when we're missing our shots. When we slow down, and we check and we make our moves, that's when we're finishing."

The Tennessee players know the level of competition was significantly below what they will face across the country and in their own conference. For the Dalhousie Tigers, they knew Tennessee was head and shoulders above, literally, anybody they would play in Canada.

For the Tigers it was a chance to play in one of women's basketball most-celebrated arenas and in the first game on "The Summitt" floor.

"There's really nothing to compare," said forward Ryan McKay, who led Dalhousie with 13 points and seven rebounds. "This was an incredible opportunity – the fans, and players of that talent you don't see that anywhere else. It was a great experience."

Dalhousie's goals were to not quit – they didn't and scrapped for 40 minutes – and to protect the ball. That was a lot harder as they accumulated 32 turnovers. The Lady Vols tallied 24 steals, primarily from getting into the passing lanes as they backed off the full-court press fairly soon in the first half and only picked up the ball full court a few times in the second half.

"To come down here and play against the Lady Vols is only going to make us better players because there's probably no one player in Canada as good as any of the Lady Vols," Savoy said. "We feel we have a good chance to win our conference this year, and this is just going to make us much stronger, much tougher. I thought that we battled. The Lady Vols are tremendous. We had some goals we wanted to accomplish today. We wanted to try to take care of the ball, which we didn't do all that successfully. We went after the players; we attacked. They had several blocked shots (eight for Tennessee). I just told our players to keep doing that because there's nobody in Canada who's going to do that to you. You'll be making those shots. From that perspective I thought we stepped up our game and played much better as far as what we needed to get out of the game."

The Tigers will return to Nova Scotia to get ready for conference play in the Atlantic University Sport league. Savoy said they are grateful for the trip to Knoxville – both teams and coaching staffs posed at center court for a photo following the game – and as a graduate of UT, Savoy will be watching how the Lady Vols do this season.

"It's certainly a pleasure for me being a graduate of the University of Tennessee and having worked with the Lady Vols to be here with my team," Savoy said. "It's a tremendous opportunity, and I'm really appreciative of Pat for affording the opportunity to myself and to my players. Pat spoke to the girls yesterday (Saturday) and was very motivating for them. They are very appreciative. As you can see we had pictures taken with the team. It was just a wonderful experience for the girls to be here."

Tennessee enjoyed the experience, too, but Summitt saw plenty to work on and likely will find even more after she watches the tape. There were some defensive breakdowns, particularly on two backdoor cuts in which the ball pressure on the perimeter was lacking. In one case, Parker let the ball zip past her, leaving Zolman scrambling to unsuccessfully cover a wide-open Tiger.

"I think Pat will probably be upset with the fact that we beat them on two backdoor cuts," Savoy said. "They're getting out in the passing lanes, and they're trying to deflect the ball or steal it, and then they got beaten on the backdoor a few times. I'm sure the next practice will be defending backdoor cuts. There probably wasn't enough ball pressure (for Summitt). For us there was plenty of ball pressure."

"I think I need to work on denial," Parker said. "I think we have great ball pressure, and I need to help our guards out by denying on the wing a little bit better."

Said Summitt, "We've got to go to work a little bit harder on the defensive end. I thought some players gave up too much middle penetration. We let the ball get reversed. (There are) things that we can work on. I am pleased to see that we were aggressive on the defensive end, (but) too many fouls. We've got to quit the hand checking. That's a new point of emphasis. When you start out playing, and there's a new rule, you'd better believe it's going to be enforced. It was well-enforced today."

So Summitt is pleased with the offense and looking for improvement on the defense and fewer fouls. (Tennessee had 24 for the game; Sidney Spencer fouled out, and Anosike finished with four.) Zolman is ready to avenge the verbal beating the team took last year because of its offensive struggles. The post players are finishing their shots and two redshirt freshmen led the team in scoring. A sports psychologist who also happens to know the Lady Vols pretty well thinks they have tremendous championship potential. Yes, it was just an exhibition game against a considerably overmatched squad. But there were a lot of smiles, and one of the biggest came from the opposing coach.

"They're not a selfish team," Savoy said. When I watched them practice the other day, it was the same thing. It's about the team. In my book, "The Art of Coaching," Pat wrote the foreword. In that I talk about so many things. I said to her, ‘Your team epitomizes so many things in the book in terms of communication and playing together and not being selfish.' It's the mood of the team that I really noticed this year. They're great players, and they've had lots of great players and lots of talented teams, but they have the chemistry is what I observed."

The unselfishness is by design, but the players have also bought into it. Sunday's game will only underscore why the system works.

"Ball movement is crucial for our offense," Zolman said. "We have so much talent and we have so many weapons that if the ball gets stuck in anybody's hands, they're easier to guard. If you keep the ball moving, if you keep reversing the ball, getting the posts looks inside, giving them the opportunity to seal and also opening that up for the guards on the outside, it's key that we have that great ball (movement). We have so many weapons on the outside and inside; we can punish you from either area."

ALLEY WHOOPS: Parker and Wiley-Gatewood tried a couple of alley oop passes that were not converted. It's not the play Summitt wants to see, at least not the way it was executed.

"I told them at halftime we don't need to be making the long passes and going for a touchdown, particularly when there's traffic," Summitt said. "Sa'de has got great court vision, and in the second half when she threw that pass to Nicky, I was holding my breath. I think we have to be mindful of how we want to play, and we don't want to do anything that's going to put our teammates in traffic and costly situations."

Anosike caught the ball in the lane and came down hard after a Dalhousie player slipped under her trying to take a charge. The Parker play didn't work either after the lob pass sailed well high to the glass.

"We're going to work on it," Parker said. "We were just trying to have a little fun out there at the end of the game. I told her she thought I was Vince Carter, trying to throw it up to the top of the backboard. We're working on it. Coach told us no open court lobs. It's just something fun."

They have connected in practice – long pass by Wiley-Gatewood that Parker lays into the basket in one smooth move – so it's probably just a matter of time. But, according to Summitt, the conditions will have to be such that nobody can get hurt.

ODDS AND ENDS: Sophomore Center Sybil Dosty dressed out but didn't play Sunday for violation of a team rule, and her status for Thursday's exhibition game against Carson-Newman is not determined yet. "I always say violation of team policy," Summitt said when asked why Dosty didn't play. "She understands class attendance is important. I think that just slipped her mind one day. (As far as Thursday), that's yet to be determined. I have to talk to her and reevaluate. That would be the last game she'd miss. I was disappointed because, first of all, she knows our policy. But secondly she really could have gotten some great playing time. And she's been busting it in practice and looking really strong. She needs reps like everybody else so hopefully she'll be able to play Thursday." …. Official attendance for the game was 10,436. … Tennessee is now 39-10 in exhibition games. The record for points scored in an exhibition game is 144 against Dynamo Kiev in 2000. … Summitt and Savoy combined for 60 years in coaching experience, 31 for Summitt and 29 for Savoy. … A record 20 Lady Vol regular season games will be televised with the addition of the Jan. 26 Kentucky game on Fox. … Sunday's game marked the first time that Tennessee has played on Nov. 6. They've played on every other day in November except for the first, ninth and 12th.

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