UT opens SEC play tonight at South Carolina

The calendar says SEC play starts tonight for Tennessee, but for the players it doesn't change matters too much. The mindset stays the same – thanks to a slate of tough games already – but the anticipation does get piqued as conference play gets under way.

Shanna Zolman, the Lady Vols senior guard, is embarking on her final regular season trip through SEC competition. As a veteran, she knows it's her responsibility to make sure the youngsters are ready.

"I don't think it necessarily changes the intensity level just because we need to be intense and bring our A game every single game we're playing whether it's conference or non-conference, but going into the conference part of the season is exciting just because it's familiar territory and whether you're going there or they're coming here you know what the team's tendencies are and you just know who they are," Zolman said. "It's also fun because there're rivalries and there's familiarity between the teams."

No. 1 Tennessee, 13-0, takes on South Carolina, 9-3, at the Colonial Center in Columbia at 7 p.m. (CSS, Lady Vol Radio Network) Wednesday. It will be the 38th meeting between the teams with Tennessee leading the series, 35-2.

Coach Pat Summitt is expected to stick with her lineup of late to keep Candace Parker inside at power forward. Alexis Hornbuckle (10.5 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game, 3.1 assists per game) will play at the point with Zolman (16.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.5 apg) on the wing. Junior Sidney Spencer (7.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg), a starter for the past three games, will open up at small forward. Parker (14.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg) and Nicky Anosike (7.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg) will be in the paint.

South Carolina's starters are expected to be: Iva Sliskovic, No. 14, 6'5 junior forward (8.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg); Ilona Burgrova, No. 15, 6'6 sophomore center (5.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg); Lea Fabbri, No. 5, 5'7 junior guard (4.7 ppg, 1.3 rpg); Shannel Harris, 6'0 junior guard (3.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg); and Lauren Simms, No. 30, 5'9 junior guard (7.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg).

The last time Tennessee went to South Carolina, the Lady Vols spotted the Gamecocks a 14-4 lead before taking a three-point lead at the half. The Lady Vols went on to win 68-53 in a game that left Summitt fuming afterwards. When South Carolina came to Knoxville later that season, Tennessee won 74-44, and Zolman entered the 1,000-point club. At the first stoppage in play, Summitt came on the court to hug Zolman, who was initially bewildered, as she didn't know she had topped 1,000 for her career. A 15-footer in the second half gave her 1,001 points. Summitt took the game ball, and Zolman got a standing ovation.

No such milestone is looming tonight, but the game is an important one for Tennessee – it opens up conference play and sets the tone for the next part of the season – and also serves as the sandwich game between the two non-conference ones this week. The Lady Vols took care of Old Dominion on Monday, 83-67. Connecticut comes to town on Saturday.

Summitt doesn't expect her team to be anticipating the Huskies and neglecting the Gamecocks.

"The good news is that we're opening up the SEC schedule," Summitt said. "SEC play has always been circled on our calendar, and this opening road game is a good challenge for us. From that standpoint, you would hope that we could focus on one game at a time, but in particular take into account that this is a big test for us on the road and it's that first SEC game that we want to win."

After Monday's win over the Lady Monarchs, Summitt was asked in the post-game press conference if the team was ready to start SEC play.

"I think we're getting better," Summitt said. "I was really disappointed in our defense (against Old Dominion) at times. We had a lot of lapses, broke down one on one. But I thought late in the game the group that closed it out understood what needed to be done."

Tennessee's lead had shrunk to six at the 7:12 mark of the second half and then grew to 16 with 3:37 to go in the game. During that stretch, Summitt had Hornbuckle, Anosike, Zolman, Spencer and Sybil Dosty in the game. Alex Fuller and Lindsey Moss also played during that time period.

That's a good sign for Tennessee as it tries to establish bench depth to go along with its starters. The Lady Vols also corrected some problems that cropped up at Notre Dame when Zolman was taken out of the offense by the Fighting Irish's defense.

"Offensively I wasn't at all pleased with our play at Notre Dame," Summitt said. "I think Shanna will be better now that she's got that game behind her, and hopefully we can get her offense back in better rhythm. We played against a quick, athletic team that tried to take things away from us and had some success doing it. Overall I think we're ready. About as ready as we can be."

The Lady Vols are young and thin with 10 players, only four of whom are upperclassmen. But that's enough for Summitt at this point in the season.

"I think this team has enough veterans to kind of tell all the younger players – the freshmen in particular – what needs to happen and (about) life on the road in the SEC," Summitt said.

One of those young players, Hornbuckle, got battle-tested last season in the SEC. When asked by the media Monday if she was looking forward to SEC play, she responded with a huge smile that she held for a few seconds.

"Honestly you are," Hornbuckle said. "Our conference is so tough. We come in here with the mindset each game you've got to bring the intensity and the energy, but in the SEC it goes up another level. Pretty much we play every game like it's our SEC championship. We've got LSU and Georgia (in the conference). Georgia is so quick. LSU is playing so well together. If we don't come with our mindset we'll get beat."

Tennessee will need its intensity on the boards. The Lady Vols have a plus differential of 10.4. The Lady Gamecocks have a plus differential of 13.8.

"I definitely think they match up with us," Summitt said. "For us right now, the one encouraging factor is within our post defense. That's where we really challenge our frontline to step up their defense, and clearly they'll be challenged in this game."

Associate head coach Holly Warlick did the scouting report for South Carolina. She told the head coach that "there's a marked improvement there," Summitt said. "They run a lot of offensive sets. She made mention of their passing and ball movement being a lot sharper, a lot better and obviously a bigger challenge for us."

The Gamecocks also played on Monday and tamed in-state rival Clemson, 77-46.

"South Carolina's off to a great start. They had a big win at Clemson last night," Summitt said Tuesday during her weekly teleconference with the media. "We started watching tape this morning, so we're still doing our scouting, and I have a lot of work to do to get more familiar with them."

"Clearly, they move the basketball well offensively, have a good rhythm and certainly we're going to have to bring our defense. Anytime you're on the road and a team's at home and they're in their comfort zone, obviously our defensive play will be key."

Zolman welcomed the start of the SEC rivalries, but she also got a gleam in her eye when she thought about the non-conference games left in the regular season.

"It's going to be exciting, but it's awful fun to be able to have a little break with Connecticut and Duke in between there as well," Zolman said.

"We're playing Connecticut on Saturday; it's a full week for us," Summitt said. "That's always a game that most everybody in women's basketball circles on their calendar, and we know it will be a big chance for us. We just have to get better at South Carolina and come home and get ready to play Connecticut."

A SHOOTER IS BORN: Sophomore guard Alexis Hornbuckle is averaging double figures in points with 10.5 per game, the third-highest on the team behind senior Shanna Zolman and redshirt freshman Candace Parker. Hornbuckle set a career high with 19 points against Maryland in November. Last year she attempted only 27 three-pointers in 35 games and made nine of them. Through 13 games this season, she has already attempted 22 and has made eight.

When she was asked after the ODU game if she was looking to take more shots to add production – she scored 14 points and hit two of four from behind the arc – she answered in such a way that sounded part player and part Zen master.

"I don't think you have to take more shots to be more productive," Hornbuckle said. "I was just kind of looking for my shot more whereas in the first half of the season I was just trying to create. I concentrated on my defense a lot. And now that my defense is kind of rolling with me now I'm just trying to get my offense to the same energy level so that kind of balances that."

Hornbuckle had an impressive stat line against Old Dominion. Along with the points, she had six boards, three steals, three assists and only two fouls. She did have seven turnovers.

"I think a few times in transition she forced things," Summitt said. "She had the long pass trying to feed the post. Most of her turnovers I think certainly she had good intentions for what was to happen at the end. Again, they (ODU) really flooded the paint with their defense and we did force a few times, and she tried to split some defenders. She handled the ball obviously an awful lot."

At least one of her turnovers was the result of hustle. In a scramble for a rebound and subsequent loose ball under the basket, she snared the basketball but got her legs taken out from under her. She fell over an Old Dominion player and landed out of bounds. There was no foul call, and she got charged with a turnover. On another play, Hornbuckle lost her footing in the lane and slipped down. That accounted for another turnover.

The part of her stat line that could cause concern is the 37 minutes played. With the decision by point guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood to leave Tennessee, the responsibility of running the team has fallen almost completely on Hornbuckle. Shanna Zolman and Lindsey Moss also can play point, but they are far better suited to the two spot. Forward Dominique Redding is the next logical choice to get some repetitions at the helm.

"Alexis has been playing some of the best basketball of her career," Summitt said.

To ensure that Hornbuckle keeps doing that it would be best, as Summitt said, "to find a way to get her some rest in games."

SHOOTING OVERALL: As a team Tennessee is shooting a lot better than last season when points were often hard to come by, and field goal percentages were in the 30s and low 40s. Last year's squad was the worst shooting team in Summitt's history at Tennessee.

The Lady Vols so far this season are hitting 46.6 percent of their shots from the field and 76.3 percent from the free throw line. The free throw shooting had dipped of late so Summitt instituted some rules at practice: Shoot 80 percent or run sprints and take extra shooting later. The team responded by hitting 85.7 percent from the line against Old Dominion University and 52 percent for the game, including 43.8 percent behind the arc.

Zolman is hitting 94.1 percent from the line and 46.8 percent from the field. Spencer's numbers are equally impressive – 94.4 percent from the line and 46.4 percent from the field. Freshman Lindsey Moss is at 47.6 percent from the field but has struggled at the line (3-8). That, however, should change, as she was a good free throw shooter in high school.

"With this team we should shoot the ball well from the line," Summitt said. "The way we've been shooting the basketball there's no reason we should not shoot well from the line. Obviously Lex stepped up (against ODU) and shot the ball well (from three). Lindsey Moss comes in and did a good job. She did exactly what she should do and that's catch and shoot. And we found her in the corner so that was good."

"Our free throws have definitely been a point of emphasis these last couple of weeks," Zolman said. "We haven't had the best percentage as a team for the past couple of games, but we've been focusing a tremendous amount from an individual standpoint and collective as a team. If you don't get up to a certain percentage, you've got to run for it or just get in the gym and shoot more. That's definitely paying off. Free throw shooting is a mindset. I think we were very focused on that (against ODU).

"From the three-point line that can be streaky. It's one of those games where as a team we were shooting pretty well, and they were falling."

An even better sign is that the three Lady Vols with the highest shooting percentage are all post players: Nicky Anosike (60.8 percent); Sybil Dosty (59.3 percent); and Alex Fuller (57.9 percent).

"When you break everything down, this game is still about putting the ball in the basket," assistant coach Dean Lockwood said before the season even started. "Having said that, we really believe defense and rebounding are what separates championship-type teams. But in order to be at that point, you've got to make shots; you've got to put the ball in the basket."

ODDS AND ENDS: A familiar face will be on the Gamecocks bench in assistant coach Michelle Marciniak, who played for the Lady Vols from 1993 to 1996 and won a national title in her senior year. … This is the fourth-best start in Tennessee's history at 13-0. The 1997-98 team went undefeated at 39-0. The 1993-94 team started 14-0 before losing at Rutgers, and the 1994-95 team was 16-0 before falling at UConn. … South Carolina started out 2-3 and then won seven straight to get to 9-3. In those seven games the Gamecocks have scored an average of 83.4 points per game while holding opponents to 44.6 points per game and a 27.6 percent field goal percentage. South Carolina out-rebounded its foes by a margin of 15.9 and also averaged 20.7 assists per game in that stretch. The primary guards, Lea Fabbri and Lauren Simms, combined for 48 assists to 25 turnovers. The Gamecocks averaged 8.1 blocked shots per game, and the bench scored an average of 46.1 per game. No opponent has shot 40 percent from the field. Minnesota, which lost to South Carolina, came the closest at 39.6 percent. … South Carolina freshman forward Demetress Adams was picked as both the SEC Player of the Week and the SEC Freshman of the Week after she posted double-doubles over Savannah State and Bethune-Cookman the week of Dec. 19. She was the first Gamecock since Jocelyn Penn in 2003 to be recognized as SEC Player of the Week. Adams hurt her hand against Western Carolina last week but played against Clemson and is expected to play Wednesday. … With eight players over 6 feet tall, South Carolina is the 15-tallest team in the nation. … Tennessee's Pat Summitt has only lost once to South Carolina in her career. It happened Jan. 23, 1980, when South Carolina's pep band set up behind the Lady Vols bench and played amplified drums and guitars for the entire game. Summitt held timeouts almost at the free throw line, but the team still couldn't hear her. Tennessee lost 56-52, and after that the AIAW banned bands from playing during the game and with amplified instruments. Holly Warlick, now the associate head coach, was the point guard on that team. The other South Carolina win in the series was in 1973. Summitt began coaching in 1974. … Tennessee is 21-5 on SEC opening day dating to the 1979-80 season. Only three teams have beaten them in conference openers: Georgia (1984, 1996); Auburn (1988, 1989); and Vanderbilt (1990). Tennessee has won 61 consecutive SEC games at home and opens conference play at Thompson-Boling Arena against Georgia on Jan. 12. … Summitt has 895 career victories and is now five wins away from the milestone of 900. If Tennessee runs the table over the next four games (South Carolina, UConn, Georgia and Mississippi State), the chance at No. 900 would come at Vanderbilt on Jan. 19.

SOFTBALL SMARTS: Ten members of the Lady Vols softball squad made the honor roll (GPA of 3.00 or above) and nine of those were on the Dean's List (GPA of 3.5 or above) in the fall semester. Three players had perfect GPAs of 4.0.

The stellar scholars are: Lindsay Schutzler, junior, 4.0 (psychology); Alicia Brown, freshman, 4.0 (College of Arts & Sciences); Lillian Hammond, freshman, 4.0 (College of Arts & Sciences); Megan Rhodes, sophomore, 3.90 (College of Arts & Sciences); Liane Horiuchi, freshman, 3.88 (Arts & Sciences); India Chiles, junior, 3.80 (psychology); Caitlin Ryan, sophomore, 3.70 (Arts & Sciences); Allison Fulmer, freshman, 3.65 (Arts & Sciences); Sarah Fekete, senior, 3.50 (psychology); and Shannon Doepking, sophomore, 3.46 (Arts & Sciences).

The Lady Vols went to the College World Series last season and finished third in the nation. Tennessee returns 13 letterwinners and eight starters in 2006. This season begins Feb. 11 at the Coastal Carolina Tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C., against Illinois State.

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