"This last week we have had the opportunity to prepare and practice again for the first time in a while," senior guard Shanna Zolman said. "It seems like forever since we have practiced at home for more than a few days in a row. (Until the past week), we haven't had a full-out practice since the beginning of the season to prepare all of the little things that we need to do and brush up on a lot of the things we need to be sharp on. We have had very good preparation going into the game against Louisiana Tech."
The Lady Vols have put together several good practices since settling back onto campus, and it was probably none too soon for Pat Summitt.
After watching film on Louisiana Tech, Summitt was left with a piscatorial image and one that will be familiar to anyone who has eaten at a waterfront restaurant near the arena.
"They play hard. They're very athletic. They get up and down the floor," Summitt said. "I told our kids you ever go down to Calhoun's and feed the carp? Drop bread over and you see all those fish jumping out of the water. That's what they look like on the boards. They are relentless. They're the best rebounding team that we will have faced to this point other than Maryland. They hawk the ball. They're physical. They get after you. We have to be ready to take care of the ball. They go after it."
Summitt's teams are always known for their prowess on the boards so she didn't foresee this squad's difficulties getting rebounds.
"I think the big thing is that coming into the beginning of the season I never was concerned about rebounding. That has always been a trademark of our team," she said. "And our transition defense, we spent time on it (recently in practice). Those were probably our two greatest weaknesses when we started out. I do think that we are getting better. As we get better in those areas, I think we will be a much better basketball team."
Tennessee at least should be at full strength against Louisiana Tech. Freshman forward Alex Fuller, who has been bothered by a strained hip flexor since Nov. 21, practiced every day this week and is expected to be available for Thursday's game. She looked smooth at Monday's practice and made it through most of Tuesday's practice before she started favoring her right leg. Wednesday's session was shorter since it was the day before a game, and Fuller had no problems.
"Definitely I thought there were a lot of bright spots," Summitt said. "She's a player that can help this basketball team. Unless there's a setback, I definitely think we'll play her. She's really been a bright spot in practice I think. She's got a lot of court savvy; she's got a good feel for the game. I'm optimistic."
Summitt cited two plays in practice in particular in which Fuller got open inside – she's often the best sealer on the team – and was hounded by two male practice players. Fuller gave a quick head fake and then scored.
"Just like a couple of those possessions those guys getting ready to block her shot, she had great composure, little shot fakes," Summitt said.
If someone were to walk into a practice for the first time this season and be asked to pick out the two redshirt freshmen – Fuller and forward Candace Parker – it would not be readily apparent based on skills and as Summitt noted, court savvy.
"They're not your typical freshmen," Summitt said. "Neither one."
Once again Parker will start for No. 1-ranked Tennessee, 8-0, against Louisiana Tech, 5-2. Parker has started all eight games this season and is averaging 16.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Summitt will stick with the same other four starters she's used lately – Nicky Anosike inside (6.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg) with Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood (8.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg); Shanna Zolman (16.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg); and Alexis Hornbuckle (10.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg) on the perimeter. Zolman and Hornbuckle also have started every game so far this season. Senior center Tye'sha Fluker, who has looked particularly efficient in practice the past week, will come off on the bench.
The Lady Techsters are expected to counter with: Tamika Kursh, No. 45, 6'1 junior forward (8.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg); Ty Moore, No. 22, 6'2 junior forward (7.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg); Tasha Williams, No. 10, 5'7 senior guard (13.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg); Aarica Ray-Boyd, No. 14, 6'0 senior guard (12.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg); and Shan Moore, No. 21, 5'10 junior guard (8.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg). The Moores are not related.
"I really feel that we will have a test for our inside game, both offensively and defensively in terms of our board play," Summitt said. "I'm very anxious to see how we match up in those areas. For us right now, because we're trying to really challenge our front line, it's an opportunity to see where we are and if we can go against teams that are as physical and athletic and still do what we've been able to do in other games. I'm looking forward to evaluating it."
Associate head coach Holly Warlick prepared the scouting report on Louisiana Tech and walked the Lady Vols through it during Wednesday's practice.
"They're very athletic, probably one of the best teams that we've played against as far as rebounding offensively and defensively," Warlick said. "They're very aggressive defenders. They force a lot of turnovers. We're going to have to take care of the ball and keep them off the boards. (Offensively) I think they're super quick, and they're penetrators. We have a tendency to struggle guarding penetrators. And they get second and third shots. They don't do anything we haven't seen; it's just a matter of guarding one-on-one play."
Warlick said the Lady Techsters like to get their points off the offensive boards.
"They're perimeter shooters, but they score a lot of putbacks," she said. "They're unbelievable offensive rebounders. It's a great test. They rebound with a passion. It's hard to defend people like that. You've got to bring your passion as well."
The first test for Louisiana Tech was just getting to Knoxville because of heavy rains in the Houston area. The team was supposed to fly out of Monroe, La., on Wednesday morning to Houston and then take a connecting flight to Knoxville later that afternoon – they waited for hours in the airport – but the inclement weather cancelled the Houston flights and forced a six-hour bus ride to Alabama, and a check-in at a local hotel late Wednesday night. The team will leave Alabama early Thursday morning and drive to Knoxville. They will conduct a short practice before the game.
"Tennessee is a great team, and they're ranked number one for a reason," said Tech head coach Chris Long, a former assistant at the school who is in his first year at the helm for the Western Athletic Conference team. "Unfortunately, we had a difficult day that made a difficult task harder. Tennessee may be as talented this year as they've ever been, and Candace Parker is perhaps one of the best players ever.
"We didn't get as much preparation time as we would've liked to, but we still must play hard. These two teams have excellent tradition, and it's one of the greatest rivalries in women's basketball."
THE RIVALRY: Tennessee and Louisiana Tech have played each other 37 times since 1978. They are the only two teams in women's basketball history to make every NCAA Tournament since its inception in 1982, and the teams have the highest NCAA tourney win totals – Tennessee with 89 and Tech with 65. It was definitely a series worth continuing, but it was in danger of elimination.
Summitt was under a mandate to add more home games to her schedule so she was looking for commitments she could secure from other teams without a requirement that Tennessee also play there. Louisiana Tech was considered for the chopping block, but Leon Barmore, the longtime and now retired coach at Tech, called Summitt.
"The main reason is trying to get more home games," Summitt said of the discussion about ending or curtailing the home-and-home series. "Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion both are schools that have been on our schedule since I can remember. They are obviously two programs that I respect a lot. They've done a lot for the women's game. I respect the environment when we go there. They've got fans that have been there and are loyal just like our fans. Just because Leon is no longer there – I took a look at it – but when I said that we might have to move in a different direction or skip a year, then they suggested (the current arrangement)."
Under that arrangement, Tech will play two games in Knoxville for every one game in Ruston, La. Tennessee is scheduled to play there next season, and then Tech will play in Knoxville the next two years.
"I talked with Leon," Summitt said. "He called me and said, ‘I'd love to see the series stay although I'm not in it. The Lady Techster fans have great respect for you and your program. I just think it would be good for Louisiana Tech, hopefully good for you.' "
Summitt remembers that Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion were the powerhouses that helped her build her program. Tennessee leads the Tech series, 20-17, and has won eight of the last 10 matchups, but from 1978 to 1987 Tennessee prevailed only once in 12 tries.
"Obviously we've had a longstanding series and if you go back, I don't know that we beat them at all early," Summitt said. "We were playing them at the Final Four in Norfolk (in 1982). I remember they shot like 72 percent in the first half, and I told our kids they can't shoot that well in the second. Well they shot 76 in the second."
Tennessee lost that game in Virginia, 69-46.
"We were a turnover just waiting to happen," she remembered. "They were overplaying the passing lanes. You play the teams like that and you just learn from it. I've always said you've got to play the best to be the best. At that time, they were one of the best in the country. Them and Southern Cal."
Summitt would face Louisiana Tech again during the Final Four, this time in 1987 in Austin, Texas, in the championship game. Tennessee claimed its first national title with a 67-44 victory. In 24 Final Fours, only four haven't featured either Tennessee or Louisiana Tech (1985, 1992, 1993 and 2001) and they shared the stage six times (1982, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1998). Tennessee's last national title – Summitt has six total – came against Tech in 1998 with a 93-75 win in Kansas City.
The Old Dominion series will remain unchanged – ODU comes to Knoxville on Jan. 2, 2006, and Tennessee will play in Norfolk next season. Tennessee also has added a border rivalry next year with North Carolina. Tennessee will play in Chapel Hill, N.C., during the 2006-07 season, and UNC will come to Tennessee during the 2007-08 season.
POST AT THE POINT: Summitt plucked a team-building drill out of her coaching bag at practice this week with the intent of improving post play. The bigs can't score in the paint if they don't get open, and the guards have to be able to find the post players inside with pinpoint passes.
So on Tuesday, Summitt flipped positions and pulled the post players to the perimeter and planted the guards in the paint. They went against the usual male practice players.
"I've done that throughout my career – hadn't done it in the last couple of years – but it's an awareness drill," Summitt said. "It allows guards to be aware of how physical it can be inside and posts to be aware of how difficult it is to read the defense and get the ball inside and go against perimeter pressure. Secondly, it teaches them five positions. Not that I want them to play all positions, but I think if you know what everybody else is doing on offense then you have the complete knowledge that you need in what we're running and what we're looking for."
It certainly made for some entertaining matchups – Shanna Zolman and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood posting up players who were several inches taller – and the team seemed to have a lot of fun with the drill. Center Sybil Dosty actually turned in a decent performance at point guard, and Candace Parker zipped a no-look pass inside to Dominique Redding.
"She had nice moves," Summitt said of Zolman in the paint, but "it's hardly fair with Candace on the perimeter" because she can actually play the guard positions with relative ease.
The team enjoyed the drill based on the laughter, high fives and smiles between sets.
"We'll do it some more," Summitt said.
FINAL FOUR BOUND: Summitt briefly slipped out of practice Tuesday to speak to the Lady Vol volleyball players before they departed campus for San Antonio and the Final Four.
Summitt said she told the team "how proud we all are – this community, this university, the athletics programs and all the student athletes on the other respective teams. They've made history. They looked like they're anxious to get going again."
Tennessee will play Washington in the first semifinal at the Alamodome on Thursday at 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPNU, rebroadcast at 11 p.m. on ESPN2). Nebraska and Santa Clara meet in the second semifinal. The winners will play at 6 p.m. (ESPN2) on Saturday. Since the basketball team plays Thursday, Summitt can't be in Texas, but she told the volleyball players she wanted to be there Saturday if they made it to the title game, and she was counting on Joan Cronan, the women's athletics director, for a travel assist.
"I told them I'd do my best to be there," Summitt said. "Ms. Cronan told me she'd get me there."
Summitt watched the team on several occasions this season and came away impressed.
"They don't flinch no matter what happens," she said. "I think they've got really good chemistry."
Head coach Rob Patrick indicated as much Wednesday when he addressed the media and was asked about Kelsey Fautsch, a junior outside hitter who transferred from Nebraska and played her first season this year for the Lady Vols.
"She is just one of fifteen players to be honest with you," he said. "She adds one-fifteenth of our team. That is really the biggest thing I can say about this team. There isn't one player on this team that means more than anyone else. … This team is a team. They play together as a team, and if you take one of these players out of the mix, we would not even be close to the same team that we are."
Senior setter Julie Knytych, who has been a stalwart for Tennessee over her four-year career, was asked what was the key to the Lady Vols development this season.
"Hard work, and heart, and really be willing to give up as much time as we have and put as much hard work as we have into something that we love so much, at it takes a lot of commitment," Knytych said. "Just hard work and always giving a little bit more."