"I had the team over for a dinner, and she said she wanted to talk to me afterwards," Summitt said. "She told me after we all finished."
When asked if she was blindsided by the decision, Pat Summitt said "not totally."
"She just hasn't been as in to the practice routine," Summitt said. "She wasn't feeling well. (But) I really was surprised. It wasn't like it was a total surprise, but she's done so well juggling a lot of balls. She had been learning. I thought she was just going to get more and more comfortable running the offense and knowing all the offenses. I hate it because I felt like this was a good environment, a healthy environment. Our academic people were great and Heather. I look at her strength and getting her rehabbed with Jenny. I thought Sa'de had grown by leaps and bounds. … Her development in all aspects with the basketball and academics was just tremendous."
Heather Mason, the team's strength and conditioning coach, and Jenny Moshak, the head of sports medicine, were instrumental in getting Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood back on the court after her knee surgery last season.
Some players also learned of the news last night when Wiley-Gatewood told them, including senior guard Shanna Zolman, fellow sophomores Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle, who was Wiley-Gatewood's roommate, and some others.
The entire team was told Monday during a meeting before practice. Wiley-Gatewood wasn't at practice Monday - she had missed the last two sessions also because of a respiratory illness - and Summitt said her decision to leave the team was effective immediately. Summitt said she didn't know exactly when Wiley-Gatewood would leave Knoxville – her parents Jerry and Denise Gatewood now live in Knoxville and her two younger brothers played football at Fulton High School this past fall – or to which school she will transfer.
When asked if the decision to leave Tennessee was fully that of Wiley-Gatewood's, Summitt said, "I don't know. You'd have to ask her about that."
Wiley-Gatewood couldn't be reached for comment Monday. In her official release through the Lady Vols basketball media relations, Wiley-Gatewood said, "I want to thank everyone at Tennessee - my coaches and teammates, the athletic and academic departments, the fans and the boosters - I really appreciate all of their support. The Lady Vol fans were great to me. I also want to thank Pat for helping me improve as a player and to grow as a person. I love my teammates and I appreciate their support while I was going this."
Summitt said the news was tough on the rest of the team.
"They're close," Summitt said. "A lot of them were emotional. It's hard when you have a team that's this close to lose a family member. We lost a family member, someone obviously we'd waited on a long time, turned down a lot of other point guards."
Wiley-Gatewood, a 5'9 guard from Pomona, Calif., committed to Tennessee before she started the ninth grade in high school. Her commitment didn't waver for four years, and she took it upon herself to talk to the other members of the Super Six recruiting class to encourage them to come play for the Lady Vols.
Wiley-Gatewood overcame a lot of problems off the court last year – her injured knee and surgery, the illness of her mother who was then living in California and a brief suspension for making a trip home to the West Coast without telling Summitt, during which she missed a final exam. When this season started, Wiley-Gatewood said she saw it as a fresh start and was excited to finally be healthy and playing with fellow national high school player of the year Candace Parker.
Wiley-Gatewood's reason for leaving Tennessee was her belief that her game was not suited to Tennessee's style of play.
"The reason that she said to me was that she didn't feel like she could play her game," Summitt said.
Wiley-Gatewood's style is to push tempo and create in the open court. So what led her to believe she couldn't assimilate into the system at Tennessee?
"Again I think you'd have to ask her, but I think our team plays with quite a bit of freedom," Summitt said. "She's really good off the dribble, instinctive, sees a lot of openings. But at Tennessee we play the Tennessee way. It's about what best for our team, and it's our game. When you really stop and think about it if in fact that is the reason, then it's probably best for everybody. I'm hoping that she'll be happier, and it won't be an issue. It's all about our team. … And if it's that important to her to find an environment where she can play her game, then it's probably the best for everybody. I have a lot of respect for her style of play and how it fits in with our style of play. She's an up-tempo guard; we're up-tempo offense and defense. Personally I thought she was a great fit in our system."
The decision means Hornbuckle becomes the starting point guard with Zolman, the team's sharpshooter, serving as backup. Freshman guard Lindsey Moss also can learn the point position. But Hornbuckle also plays very well at the wing, so Summitt said she wouldn't hesitate to use Parker at point sometimes.
"I wouldn't be opposed to playing Parker there," Summitt said. "She can play out there."
It has been said that Parker, a perimeter and post player, can play all five positions on the floor. But it couldn't have been foreseen that Parker would be a point guard, not when Wiley-Gatewood was on the team.
"She may have to, hopefully not," Summitt said. "But we'll look at it."
Summitt said she doesn't want to lose the overall versatility of Hornbuckle because "she's so good off the dribble and in the open floor."
There is also the possibility that Summitt could reopen the recruiting process and sign a point guard in the spring.
"My staff is out recruiting today (at an already scheduled event) so I haven't really talked to them about it," Summitt said. "They were at the house for awhile. We're just trying to deal with this with our team right now. It's tough. Very tough. I care a lot about her. She is a great, great kid, and I just wanted to help her grow as a person and as a player. Hopefully with the time she had here when she looks back on it she'll have some good memories."
The midseason timing isn't ideal by any means – most transfer decisions come at the end of the season – but Summitt said the team still has time to adjust before starting the next two-thirds of the 2005-06 season. It's also not the first time such has happened – the loss of a player during the season that is not due to injury. Courtney McDaniel retired on senior night in 2004 in one of the most stunning cases. Two players, Tammy Larkey (1981-83) and Gina Bozeman (1981), left at Christmas break. Larkey, a 6'5 post player from Gray, Tennessee, had played 42 career games. Bozeman, a 5'6 guard, had played eight. McDaniel, a 6'1 forward from Bristol, Tennessee, had played in 101 career games over four years when she made the decision to leave the team following a series of nagging injuries and illnesses.
"The timing of it came as a surprise," Summitt said of Wiley-Gatewood.
The current team doesn't have much time to make on-court adjustments. Tennessee, 9-0, will play Princeton on Tuesday at Thompson-Boling Arena.