No. 1 Tennessee (14-0, 1-0) and No. 7 Connecticut (12-1, 2-0) will tip off Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. in front of a CBS audience and what is expected to be a packed house of more than 24,000 at the arena. As of mid-afternoon Friday, less than 50 general admission tickets remained.
"You want me to go buy the other 50 and call it a sellout?" Summitt joked to reporters after practice. "That's great. I thought it would be just because of the history of the rivalry, and I think our fans really like this (year's Tennessee) team. Our (attendance) numbers have been up, and obviously there's always great atmosphere whether we play here or up there. It gets people stirred up."
The tickets were probably being sold as Summitt spoke. Later in the afternoon, Tennessee announced that the game was a sellout. The last time the Lady Vols sold out the arena was Jan. 5, 2002, against Connecticut when 24,611 people managed to squeeze inside a facility with a listed capacity of 24,535. The arena doors will open at 12:30 p.m. Saturday – a half-hour earlier than usual – and free parking is available on the UT Ag campus with a free shuttle to the arena.
Parker (14.3 points per game, 8.9 rebounds per game) will start the game at power forward for Tennessee. Summitt said she intended to stick with her lineup of late so the 6'4 sophomore center Nicky Anosike (7.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg) will join the 6'4 Parker in the paint. Sophomore Alexis Hornbuckle, a 5'11 guard (10.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.2 assists per game), will run the point with senior Shanna Zolman, a 5'10 guard (15.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.2 apg), and junior Sidney Spencer, a 6'3 forward (7.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg) on the wings.
Connecticut lists its expected starters as: Renee Montgomery, No. 20, 5'7 freshman guard (5.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg), has started 11 games for the Huskies at the point and has averaged six assists over the last four games; Nicole Wolff, No. 21, 6'0 junior guard (3.3 ppg, 1.5 rpg), scored in double digits in last two games against Albany and Army; Mel Thomas, No. 25, 5'9 sophomore guard (14.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg), has hit 34 three-pointers this season and tallied double digits in nine games; Barbara Turner, No. 33, 6'0 senior forward/guard (10.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg), averaging 13.4 points and 9.8 rebounds over last five games; and Ann Strother, 6'3 senior forward/guard (16.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg), has scored more than 20 points four times this season.
UConn has four players off the bench averaging double figures in minutes played per game in Ketia Swanier, a 5'7 sophomore guard (18 minutes); Kalana Greene, a 5'10 freshman guard (17.9 minutes); Willnett Crockett, a 6'2 senior forward/center (12.5 minutes); and Charde Houston, a 6'1 sophomore guard/forward (12.4 minutes).
Tennessee draws its bench strength from 6'5 senior center Tye'sha Fluker, who also has started games this season. Junior forward Dominique Redding will be called upon for her shooting ability and precision passes to the post. Sophomore center Sybil Dosty has earned minutes for rebounding, and redshirt freshman forward Alex Fuller has a steady presence around the basket. True freshman guard Lindsey Moss, a long-range threat, also has played meaningful minutes this season.
Tennessee has toyed with different approaches this season – slow starts, steady starts and blinkingly fast ones, such as the Lady Vols showed against Texas and Princeton. That's the start Hornbuckle is looking for Saturday.
"This will be my first sellout crowd in Thompson-Boling," Hornbuckle said. "I'm definitely excited. It's the reason I came here. A lot of orange filled up. I live for games that this. You get up for games like this. I just hope that we can come out not too overanxious that we basically beat ourselves early on. I think it's about time that we came out and basically do like we did against Texas and Princeton. Get out there and jump on them. That way we've got them on their heels instead of we're crawling back and trying to get out of a hole. I just hope we can put it all together on both ends."
As Hornbuckle spoke on the arena floor, she was wearing her playing shoes with the words "Lil Ugly" written on top of her right shoe and "SWG 15" written atop the left one.
The SWG refers to Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood and her uniform number, the sophomore point guard who left Tennessee on Dec. 19 and announced her intention to transfer. Hornbuckle and Wiley-Gatewood were campus roommates and good friends.
"That's Sa'de. That's what we call her," Hornbuckle said of the "Lil Ugly" moniker. "I wear them in the game. In memory of basically, represent my daughter. That's what I called her, my daughter. When someone leaves the program it's just like somebody being injured, just to have them a part of us on the floor."
It's because of Wiley-Gatewood's departure that Hornbuckle has taken the helm at point. On Saturday she will be matched against Montgomery, her best friend from back home in West Virginia, where they were AAU and high school teammates. It's been six years since they played against each other.
"I haven't had that matchup since I was in eighth grade and she was in seventh grade," Hornbuckle said. "We were undefeated that season. It was a close game. I don't remember too much about that game, but just remember it was a close game and a fun game to play in."
It was the Kanawah County junior high title game and was played Feb. 17, 2000. Montgomery had 23 points. Hornbuckle had 22 points and 15 rebounds in a 50-44 win.
"I've been playing with her ever since so now it's back to opposing team," Hornbuckle said. "I'm just excited because I know her game has probably matured being in college. I know she has adjusted; she's starting to get more playing time. I'm a little anxious to guard her, but at the same time I've got to treat her like any other player when she steps on the court."
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said the team's title hopes rest on the play of Montgomery, and he wants to see a freshman performance out of her to rival that put forth by Hornbuckle a year ago.
"She started off pretty good and then hit a wall a little bit," Auriemma said of his point guard during his Thursday teleconference. "She leveled off and is starting to pick back up again. I told her yesterday, I told her today, I'll tell her tomorrow and Saturday, if she plays like the best point guard in the country we have a chance to win the national championship. If she plays anything less of that we could lose by a lot in a lot of games. That is how important to us she is right now. It's not exactly fair when you are a freshman."
Auriemma added that Hornbuckle was "unbelievably gifted," and that he hoped "Renee can have the same (impact) as a freshman that Alexis had. … I think Alexis has a little more to work with right now than Renee."
"That's a big compliment, but at the same time that's a lot of pressure on her part," Hornbuckle said. "I think she'll be able to handle it. One thing I took into account as a freshman it's just a matter of playing your game and playing within whatever system you're in. If you learn that, it's basketball. Everything else is going to fall into place."
The two friends put aside the rivalry at Christmas break and just enjoyed each other's company and a holiday feast.
"She came by the house, and my whole family was over there and they were already joking with her, ‘Who's going to win?' when we were home for Christmas," Hornbuckle said. "We just laughed it off and said we're not worried about that. We're more worried about the food right now."
The Tennessee players were loose and laughing with the media Friday. Parker stood at center court and held court with reporters from this area and the Northeast after spending some time after practice working on extra shooting drills.
She was asked about her remarks in Sports Illustrated about former UConn star Diana Taurasi being her favorite player and if Tennessee fans had forgiven her.
"Diana is one of my favorite players. I can say that now because she's graduated," said Parker, adding that Taurasi is now in the WNBA with Phoenix "so we're cool" as far as the reaction from Lady Vol fans.
When asked how she felt physically going into the game, Parker said she had "gotten over the little aches and pains of the preseason, getting back and getting the rust off. We're settling into our roles. I think we're playing great team basketball. On any given night anybody can step up, and I like that about our team."
When asked how her ankle was feeling – she severely sprained it Dec. 28 in the Temple game – she said it was OK and credited Jenny Moshak, the team's assistant athletic director for sports medicine.
"It's still a little swollen, but Jenny's been great," Parker said. "At least I can play."
Summitt was walking by as Parker talked about how she hurt her ankle. Parker raised her voice a little to get the attention of Summitt, who wandered over to listen.
"I'm laying on the floor," Parker said. "Hey coach, ‘Remember this.' I was lying on the floor at Temple. She walks over and says, ‘Is it the knee?' Oh, OK.' "
At that point Parker imitated Summitt turning and walking nonchalantly off the floor as the reporters roared with laughter.
"She's all laid out," Summitt said. "I looked out there, and I didn't see her fall and I go (in a frantic voice) ‘What happened to Parker?' " When Summitt heard the word ankle, she said, "Oh, good."
Parker, in mock indignation and imitating Summitt, continues, "She comes out (and says) ‘Your knee? No? OK, good.' "
"Ankles we can deal with," Summitt said. "It's a lot faster."
The injury was to her left ankle. When it was noted that it was her left knee that kept her off the court for a full season, Parker said, "Maybe I should just start growing a new leg. Cut it off here (pointing to her hip) and grow a new one."
Inevitably the issue of dunking came up.
"If the opportunity presents itself," Parker said, then she'll dunk, but not if the score is close or if someone is close by.
She had an opportunity in the Old Dominion game in the first half but opted to take the layup. The lead at that point was under 10 points.
"I just laid it up," Parker said. "I heard footsteps. The way I look at it people know I can dunk. If the opportunity presents itself then yeah, but I'm not out to prove anything."
When a reporter brings up yet again Ryan Childress, the 6'9 UT men's player that she dunked on in a summer game, Parker looked pained and said, "I didn't want that" released to the media. When a reporter told her it was her boyfriend, men's player Stanley Asumnu that squealed, Parker jokingly said, "I'm going to knock him out."
There have been some knockouts in this series. Connecticut leads overall, 13-7, and had won six straight until the Lady Vols knocked off the Huskies in Hartford last season, 68-67. The last time Tennessee beat UConn in Knoxville was Feb. 1, 2001, in a 92-88 victory. The games between the two programs tend to be close, and they have split two overtime games with Tennessee taking one in March 1996 and UConn claiming the other in January 2003.
"It's amazing that women's basketball has come this far to have this much support and this much coverage of a regular season game," Parker said. "I don't know all the wins and the losses, but I know it's been a great series."
Summitt said the win last year took some of the pressure off of her team. Had Tennessee lost that game, the media would have been asking about a seven-game losing streak.
"It's always great to win when you're playing Connecticut," Summitt said. "I think it was a great win for our team. We had some self-doubt that went on. To be able to go in and win that game, probably more than anything it helped our confidence and our self-esteem at that point in time in the season. I have to be mindful that this is not a national championship game; this is not an SEC game. But it's the most popular women's basketball regular season game in the country by far."
Summitt doesn't worry about this team's level of confidence. Their personalities have tested out as hyper-competitive, and Hornbuckle brings some welcome swagger to the program.
"You can have self doubt if you don't have success over an extended period of time," Summitt said. "But last year's team and this team they have a different personality. And I mean that in a good way. I think they step on the floor they really believe they're going to win. They've been that way every game. We've had close ball games – the Stanford game and the Maryland game in particular. I was sitting there going, ‘What are we going to do?' I never thought we were going to lose; they were adamant we weren't going to lose."
For his part, Auriemma said the matchup with Tennessee has been a good indicator of how good his team actually was or could be.
"I think, more than anything, it is a great barometer for, not only what is happening with our team right now, but also what could happen or what might happen down the road," he said. "I would say for the last 10 years every time we've played Tennessee, whether it be once or twice, I have come out of that game feeling like I knew exactly what the possibilities were for the season. I think playing them gives me, personally, a feeling of what the future holds. It doesn't always work out that way, but in the 10 years it has."
Summitt said since the teams, which first played each other in 1995 and will be meeting for the 21st time Saturday, see each other often in the postseason, the preceding regular season games allow "an early look, and you learn a lot about yourselves."
Auriemma and UConn's seniors, Turner and Strother, mentioned Tennessee's ability to get on the boards as a concern.
"They rebound the ball really well and that's their strength," Turner said. "And their pressure. How we handle that is going to say a lot. We watched the film of last year's game and that was the turning point of the game, us handling their pressure. If we had done that, we would have won the game. I think we outplayed them for 39 minutes. They made a couple of plays at the end, and pressured and they won the game. Pressure and rebounding are the two key things to execute and be better at in order for us to win."
Summitt doesn't want to see her team start slow like it did against Old Dominion and South Carolina this week.
"I think we can get better in that area," she said. "It's usually about making shots. There're been times that we've started games and been jump shooting. We had the wrong people taking early shots. You've got to involve your best scorers early. If nothing else, you've got to get them touches."
The other variable for both teams will be the packed house in Knoxville, although both programs are used to playing before big crowds. Still the media pressed the issue of whether or not a frenzied home crowd can cause the home team to get too jacked up.
"It's a regular season game, but it's not a regular game," Parker said. "We're going to approach it with the same mentality. I think that if you get too excited and too hyped about it that can only have a negative effect. … It's an amazing feeling. The crowd gets you going. … I'm not really worried about it. I know that we're going to come out, and we can depend on each other. Let me get loose a little bit in the first half, and it'll be all right. I've played in front of big crowds before. Not like that but in high school."
Fluker said she and fellow senior Zolman have reminded the younger players to stay calm.
"Just keep your head," Fluker said. "We do all the preparing before the game. The coaches give us a scouting report. We scout them during practice and watch film on them. If we're that prepared there's no reason to be overanxious because that's when we don't play well. Just keep your head in the game, and just come out and play at a calm level so we can execute well."
Spencer noted that Tennessee went through the pressure cooker of making the Final Four last year so the team does have a lot of experience in hyped games.
"It's going to be fun," she said. "We went through that a lot last year at the Final Four. I think they'll be OK. We really only have one new freshman, which is Lindsey, but she'll be fine. Just talk to them about how not to get too overanxious because that takes a lot of energy in the beginning. They're fine; they're mature."
She agreed that a good start was key for Tennessee, because digging out of an early hole was not fun at all.
"It's tough. You have to get back to even and then go ahead," Spencer said. "Tye and Shanna have done a great job of talking to us. We have to stick to our fundamentals. If we're not hitting our shots in the beginning, well we've got to get to the boards. Things that we can control we have to bring. That's what we're going to try to do."
The games have had their share of big moments and breakout stars. In the years that UConn ruled the series, a large part of the credit was bestowed, deservedly so, on Taurasi. Auriemma had a famous line during her tenure: "We have Diana, and you don't."
When Summitt was asked if she was tempted to say, "We have Candace, and you don't," she just laughed.
"I'm not out to steal anybody's line," Summitt said. "I'll say this. The day she committed to us was, I felt like, a huge turn in our program."
The tall topic of conversation was telling reporters at that moment that "this is exactly why you come here."
"The two questions every year: Are you going to win a national championship and are you going to beat UConn?" Parker said. "One of those questions will be answered" Saturday.
Parker had to sit out last year's game in Connecticut – she was still trying to come back from preseason knee surgery and had practiced a little but never played in the game – but she will be center stage Saturday.
"It's going to be loud," Parker said. "It's just going to be amazing. The crowd is going to give you so much energy. Try not to get too hyped. I can't imagine it. I can't wait.
"I had to sit sideline and watch. It was good to see what the rivalry is and how much goes into it. (But) you're not going to know until you experience it. Until we're on the court and about to tip off I won't fully know what it's like to play in a UConn-Tennessee game."
She's about to find out.
SCOUTING UCONN: Associate head coach Holly Warlick and assistant coach Nikki Caldwell handled the scouting duties on UConn. Here, delivered via Caldwell, is their assessment.
"Offensively we want to always get our transition game going," Caldwell said. "We're pretty exciting and pretty explosive in the open court. That's our primary offense and establishing an inside attack. I think they're going to mix up their defenses, they're going to try and force some turnovers, get after us. They'll probably trap some, just random traps, so we're going to have to make sure that we're taking care of the basketball first and foremost. We've seen a lot of different looks against us defensively from your 3-2 (zone) to your matchup to your man defense, switching man defense, box and one. So I think offensively we've just got to be patient, run our sets and let the offense do what it's supposed to do.
"Defensively, we're a team that will press. We run multiple presses. We also will look to disrupt by changing up our defense as well. Our man-to-man defense is our bread and butter. We're going to start out and try to take them out of their offensive sets by applying great ball pressure, denying one pass away, getting in the passing lanes.
"I think what's going to be really important is for us to complete the defensive segment by owning the boards. They've got a couple of kids who really get to the offensive glass for them. We're going to have to limit their opportunities to get second and third shots. On the flip end of that our offensive board play has got to be there as well."
Caldwell said the offensive rebounding stood out on film, as did UConn's overall smart play.
"They can get in a rhythm," she said. "They're good at reading. They look at all options. They've got players who – you look at Ann Strother, she can play anywhere on the floor, she can play inside, outside, Barbara Turner as well – so they've got a lot of versatility to their offensive game. We're going to have to be able to defend. Our post players are going to have to be able to defend 15, 17 feet away from the basket. They do handoffs, ball screens, they'll backdoor you, they'll read. Very smart ball club. So we're just going to have to be to adjust in the course of the game. If our first offensive scheme that we come out with isn't working then obviously we want to make sure that we are able to adjust."
Summitt knows she will need her post players to extend their range out of the paint.
"Most of our post players can defend on the perimeter," Summitt said. "Nicky can definitely defend out there. Candace can defend out there. Alex can defend out there. It may be a little bit of a stretch for Tye. Certainly Sybil I wouldn't want to stretch her out."
The players all talked about the anticipation of playing before a sold-out crowd. The coaches also welcome the support.
"You just like to see the women's game with the amount of the media attention that it gets and the amount of fan support that we get on a day in and day out basis, it's great," Caldwell said. "We're leading the country in attendance (12,489 average at home) and to have a potential sellout of over 24,000 that's pretty impressive. If we had an 11- to 12,000-seat arena we'd sell out every game because of our average attendance.
"But to see this place sold out I think it's going to be great. Our fans that come on a regular basis we love the fact that they continue to support us, and those new fans that we're going to have. We just like the rivalry that's between the two programs. Again, anything that puts women's basketball out there on the map we're more than happy to be a part of."
SIDVILLE: Sidney Spencer could arguably be the quirkiest player in college basketball. Last year she had to be convinced to shoot more often. Usually a coach is trying to stop a player from taking bad shots.
This season, she had to be convinced to start. Sort of.
"I don't know about that," Spencer said of being a reluctant starter. "I'd gotten into that groove of being the first one off the bench or the second one. At that time we had a different team so I was just getting into the role of that, and then everything changed. You just have to adjust to the change. I just had to adjust to making sure the team starts off the game good, because sometimes if you don't it trickles down to everyone coming off the bench. You don't want that to happen so I just had to adjust to it. It wasn't that I didn't want to start, because that's not the case at all."
Spencer cited Fluker as the perfect example of how to adapt to starting or coming off the bench.
"I think Tye is a classic example of it doesn't matter if she's starting or coming off the bench, she's going to produce," Spencer said. "Sometimes players their minds can be, ‘Why am I not starting?' and start doubting themselves. But she has done a fabulous job. There's no difference. I think there's more pressure. You have to come in and start the team off well. Coming off the bench you come in, you just try to keep the energy the same level or higher. (But) I don't think it's really different."
At any rate Summitt is pleased. Spencer will be starting her fifth game of the season Saturday.
"She's aggressive," Summitt said. "I think Sid's starting to come into her own. It didn't take long. It took two games."
It took several games last season to convince Spencer to shoot more, and even then it wasn't enough for Summitt. Spencer was coming into her own again when she tore up her knee in practice in February 2005 and missed the remainder of the season. She had reconstructive knee surgery last March. When practice started in October, Summitt started right in with the reminders to shoot more, and Spencer has responded so far this season.
Spencer also has been making two big adjustments this year: Moving from the four spot in the paint to the three spot on the perimeter, and testing her knee in real games.
"I like it now," Spencer said of playing small forward on the perimeter. "Throughout the game sometimes I'll be guarding a post, sometimes I'll be guarding a wing just depending on who's in the game. I think with Candace playing the four that's a great spot for her. I like the three because I can shoot the three. I like playing outside. You can see the whole court.
"All through high school I played with my back to the basket because I played inside. It's been different, but now that I feel like I have a set position it's something I can go with and work on and be more consistent at, because I'm going to play the three."
Besides having confidence in her game, Spencer has faith in her knee. It wasn't that way when the season started.
"It's doing good, almost a year," Spencer said of the injury to the ACL in her right knee. "I feel like it has gotten a lot better, a lot stronger, more stable. It's really a good confidence booster when you know your knee is going to be stable. In the beginning I was thinking about it, especially when I planted. It was very unsteady and a bit nerve wracking, but now it's a lot better."
THE PAT SUMMITT SHOW: Summitt's show tips off this Saturday, and for the first time the half-hour show can be seen statewide on over-the-air stations in all major Tennessee markets. The show airs for nine consecutive weeks with Summitt and the Vol Network's Bob Kesling. Viewer can see weekly game highlights, player and team features and scouting reports for upcoming games.
In Knoxville the show is aired locally on WBIR-TV, Channel 10, at 1:30 p.m. (This Saturday, Jan. 7, has a special air time of 12:30 p.m.) The Summitt show also is now close-captioned for the hearing impaired.
There will be regional coverage provided by Fox Sports Net South and Comcast/Charter Sports Net (CSS) in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Check local listings for dates and times.