Assistant coach Dean Lockwood, who provided the team's scouting report on Mississippi State, said it's always important to get the first win when facing a long road streak.
"You talk about winning the league. If those are what we have our sights set on – and right now that's like goal one – you've got to win this game," Lockwood said. "You can't lose to Mississippi State at Mississippi State. Nothing against them but right now while they're playing all these young kids and their depth is maybe not what it has been … there's no Tan White. Tan White was arguably the best player in the conference last year, and if not the best certainly in the top two or three. There's nobody right now that looks like that. We have to go down there and snag it. In terms of the four you're talking about (on the road) it's pretty important to get us going."
Summitt is expected to stick with her same lineup, which has been very productive of late: 5'11 sophomore guard Alexis Hornbuckle (10.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.4 apg); 5'10 senior guard Shanna Zolman (15.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.5 apg); 6'3 junior forward Sidney Spencer (8.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg); 6'4 freshman forward Candace Parker (14.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg); and 6'4 sophomore center Nicky Anosike (7.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg).
Mississippi State is expected to open with: Marneshia Richard, No. 25, 5'8 freshman guard (5.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg); Robin Porter, No. 24, 5'11 freshman guard/forward (10.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg); Lauren Roberts, No. 20, 6'0 freshman forward (5.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg); Heather Hollis, No. 11, 5'11 freshman guard (9.9 ppg, 2.0 rpg); and Mamie McKinney, No. 14, 6'0 senior forward (6.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg).
Roberts replaced Blessing Chekwa, a 5'10 senior guard/forward, in the starting lineup after Chekwa sustained a broken nose in practice last Tuesday. Chekwa didn't play in the Bulldogs' game against Vanderbilt on Thursday. That made a very young team – three freshmen were already in the starting lineup – even younger, but Chekwa is listed as probable to play Sunday. (She got the name Blessing because she was the first daughter in her family.)
Summitt will consider it a blessing if her team summons some more defensive intensity against Mississippi State than she's seen lately. In Tennessee's last two games against Connecticut and Georgia, the Lady Vols put up a lot of offense – 89 and 94 points respectively – but came up well short of Summitt's expectations on the defensive end.
However, Summitt also acknowledged that the team wasn't prepared for one wrinkle of Georgia's offense, and she accepted the blame for that.
"I think part of the problem falls back on me," said a very hoarse Summitt – she was very vocal during Thursday's game – after Friday's relatively short practice session. "We were talking during our first possession and after that possession of the matchup (zone), they kept overloading and sending cutters to the corner. In a man that wouldn't be a problem – you actually go with them – but we had forward-up action, and they would send a cutter to the corner, and we didn't have anybody covering that. The forward was having to cover it.
"They said, ‘Do you want us to follow cutters?' And we did. We'd never practiced that. We did it last year, but we never practiced it this year. I just think the clarity wasn't there, the repetition hadn't been there. I told them today that was the coach's fault, and it wouldn't happen again because we're going to practice it on a daily basis."
It also wasn't as if Tennessee didn't play any defense. There were some fierce stands, especially in the second half when Summitt slammed down a clipboard – it survived intact – during one timeout.
"Obviously very frustrated about our lack of commitment to defense and not matching up, not talking," Summitt said when asked what she told the team. "I think for as good as we've been offensively we've been lazy on defense, uninspired on possessions."
Parker said the series of events that led to the timeout were frustrating, because she felt Tennessee was about to put the game completely out of reach.
"Just play defense," Parker said of Summitt's instructions. "Play defense was really what she was saying. We went on runs. We had them by 13, a brink of a blowout. We were on the brink of a blowout, and then we just let them right back in it with some turnovers."
During the game there were times when some players occasionally looked indifferent on the defensive end – as if they wanted to play a little defense and then get the ball back and go have fun on offense.
"Practice will be different from now on out so maybe it will look different, rather than indifferent," Summitt said.
Summitt was pleased after Friday's practice. It was short so some time could be devoted to a film session and weights before the team left Saturday for Starkville.
"Overall I thought it was good," Summitt said. We didn't want to go long today; we wanted to be able to watch tape, and they were lifting."
It also may have been a blessing in disguise for the coach to have back-to-back games against UConn and Georgia. Tennessee didn't correct the defensive issues against Georgia – they may have been able to against a lesser opponent – so Summitt definitely had their attention.
"I think it exposed some weaknesses in our matchup defense, exposed some of the breakdowns in our man," Summitt said. "It was good for us. It's hard to watch, but it was good for us."
Parker said she was thankful for the chance to learn without having to take a loss.
"I'm the type person I like to take the positive away from everything," Parker said. "I like to learn from the win. We're 16-0, and we have still so many more things we can improve on. Definitely defense is one of them. We've kind of answered the call rebounding – we still can do better – but it's just an ongoing thing. I think Georgia opened up our eyes a little bit, and we're just going to buckle down and play defense."
Summitt needs stalwart defense from Parker, Spencer and junior forward Dominique Redding. Spencer and Parker must improve on the perimeter, and Redding needs to be able to relieve Hornbuckle by picking up a quick guard.
"I think Parker, Redding and Spencer when they get better one-on-one defensively then we have a lot more options with our defense, whether that's bring Candace out on the perimeter … I don't want to just put Sid inside because she can't defend on the perimeter; I want her to get ready to defend," Summitt said. "Dominique can help us relieve Lex at times. (Parker can) play away from the basket and be more aggressive. She gets so low on offense. If she does the same on defense she's going to cover a lot of ground. She gets really low on offense – low and wide – and she needs to take that same stance into her defensive game."
Mississippi State has very little size so Summitt hopes this will not only be a game in which she sees her team execute its defense, but also one in which she can get the bench better minutes. The starters have been logging a lot of minutes of late, especially Hornbuckle, and Summitt wants to see her reserves ratchet up their playing time. Senior center Tye'sha Fluker and Redding played significant minutes against Georgia, but freshmen Alex Fuller (four minutes) and Lindsey Moss (one minute) did not. Sophomore center Sybil Dosty, who was suspended for the Georgia game for missing curfew, is good to go Sunday, Summitt said.
Summitt is also looking forward to the road games, as she sees the stretch as yet another gauge for her team as it marches toward postseason.
"I think it will be great," Summitt said. "I keep saying we're a team that's just learning and progressing with each game. And playing these last two opponents told me far more than any other two games this year."
At least Tennessee is scoring and shooting well. Last season, the Lady Vols struggled offensively and often shot poorly. So far this season they can out-score opponents. Also, defensive issues are easier to address than offensive woes.
"They worked hard in the off-season. There's a reason we're shooting the ball the way we're shooting the ball," Summitt said. "You've got to give them credit for that. Defense is desire and hard work. You've got to have a commitment, and you can't just be halfway committed. We look like we're running downhill on offense, uphill on defense."
This is a relatively young team – and Summitt has noted they are living on the edge – so the question remains if the players are mature enough yet to grasp what could await down the road if the defense continues to lag so far behind the offense.
"I think they're tuned in," Summitt said. "Films don't lie; I think they saw enough on tape to get their attention. Maybe not everyone across the board right now (in terms of maturity), but I think it's just a matter of growing with each game and each opportunity to learn and watch tape. They all want to play, but they've got to learn how to play both ends of the floor."
Parker appears to understand, but she's also going through her first actual collegiate season after sitting out last year to recuperate from knee surgery. Still, she's seen enough – from the bench last year and on the floor now – to realize wearing Tennessee on her jersey makes her a marked woman.
"We're the target of everybody," Parker said. "That's something it didn't take long for me to figure out. We've just got to be ready to play. Every game we play is like a tournament atmosphere, and I think it gives us an advantage to be honest with you. We could play a regular season schedule, not a tough schedule, but what good would that do? We would get the best effort from that team, but it wouldn't be the best thrown at us, and then you develop bad habits. So I think we're happy that everybody throws their best game at us.
"I'm happy where we are right now. Not content, but I'm happy because we can improve, and we know the things that we need to improve on to get better."
With the Lady Vols off to the second-best start in team history – they've matched the 1994-95 team – have they set their sights on going undefeated like the 1997-98 team did?
"No; we can't even go there right now," Parker said. "But when people start getting shaky, and the game starts getting close, our team, honestly, I've not thought of a game this year where I've ever looked up at the score and thought, ‘We might lose.' This team just has a swagger about it and that's what I like: ‘Look, we're going to get it done.' It may be ugly at times, it may not be pretty, but we're going to get it done."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report on Mississippi State. Here is his assessment.
"They're a little bit, harking back to Old Dominion, they're a little bit like Old Dominion. Quite frankly I don't know if they're as experienced or quite as athletic with depth as Old Dominion was, but they play a very similar style. They're a dribble drive team. Their tallest starter is 6 foot, and so what they really try to do is spread you out and dribble drive you and attack the paint. They'll transition. I don't know that it's like what we saw against Georgia, but they will quick shoot in transition and try to get layups. Our one-on-one defense, defending penetration – and then they also will set ball screens to kind of create some isolation for some of their perimeter players – we've got to do a good job there."
When Tennessee has the ball, Lockwood said the goal is simple: get it inside.
"I would want our team to be able to pummel it inside, just to punch it inside," he said. "Even if we don't score just to establish that we can go there and get the ball. I think if we can do that, that's going to open up all other aspects of our offense. I think our perimeters will get better looks and better shots and better driving opportunities if we can initially just get it into the paint, get it mid post, get it low post, get it high post. I think that's really important to us is we want to get the ball into the paint and get it into our post players, just to get touches that way."
The coaching staff also wants to be able to turn to the bench for help.
"I think we really want to challenge them with depth," Lockwood said. "They play nine players, but they're playing a lot of freshmen. With our 10 that we're playing right now – certainly nine that are getting into a real rotation – we want to just come at them, keep the tempo up, keep the action fast, make it a physical game. We don't want it to be a choppy game."
Lockwood saw on film what can happen when a team doesn't try to impose its will and instead allows the other team to dictate the flow.
"Last Sunday they beat Ole Miss at Ole Miss, and Ole Miss kind of let them run their stuff; it was a little choppy," Lockwood said. "At the end they realized, ‘Hey, wait a minute. We better get on the ball here,' and it was a little too late. We want to get the ball inside. We want to control the tempo. We want to go fast, and then there might be some times we play half court. We want that to be our call."
SHOOTING IN SIDVILLE: Junior forward Sidney Spencer, who entered the starting lineup in late December, has become a scorer for Tennessee – something Summitt always knew she could be – with 38 points in the past two games.
Spencer has considerable range – she is hitting 54.8 percent (23-42) of her three-pointers – and she is also creating some shots inside by slicing into the gaps in zone defenses. She is invaluable in late minutes in close games because of her free throw shooting and has only missed one all season (25-26) for 96.2 percent. Her best friend, Shanna Zolman, is hitting 96 percent (48-50).
The coaches and Spencer's teammates are thrilled with the latest threat in Tennessee's attack. After their teams lost to the Lady Vols, both Geno Auriemma of Connecticut and Andy Landers of Georgia mentioned the multiple weapons of Tennessee, specifically Spencer.
"It's like waking up one morning, going into your backyard and finding a pirate's treasure," Dean Lockwood said. "You're going to start a fire and burn some leaves, and you find a big bag of pirate's jewels. That just makes life easier for everybody. When you've got somebody who can make threes at her size, you open and stretch the defense so much more."
Spencer's approach to her offensive outpouring has been one of humbleness. When asked at the post-game press conference against Georgia about her scoring, she thanked her teammates for drawing double teams.
"I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help this team and just whatever it takes to win," said Spencer when asked if she was a scorer now.
Zolman had heard enough and answered the reporter's question for Spencer.
"She is," Zolman said. "You're right." Spencer laughed and then just said a little sheepishly, "Yeah."
Spencer might not talk about her game, but Candace Parker will. Her eyes lit up when asked what Spencer's shooting prowess was doing for Tennessee's overall game.
"Sid is great," Parker said. "She spreads the defense, and she's always there in the right spot for you to kick out to the sweet spot, and she just nails it. Sometimes I don't even – coach will get mad at this – think about going in to rebound because it's money. You know what I mean? I kind of give a halfway step to the basket. If she gets an open look, and she follows through this certain way I know it's buckets every time."
That is exactly what rebounding guard Alexis Hornbuckle said earlier this season about Zolman's stroke.
"I'm confident it will fall, but you know me I'll always keep crashing the boards," Hornbuckle said. "When Shanna shoots, if she shoots on the left side, nine times out of 10 it's going to come right. She's one of those shooters it's going to go to the spot it should go. (But) if she throws it up I'm pretty much running back with my hands up. I run in just for the effort and run back with my hands up (signaling a three-pointer)."
Zolman's shot is sometimes so automatic that her teammates shout "layup" in practice when she nails another three.
"To her that's what it is," Hornbuckle said. "Shooting half-court for her is like a three."
With Spencer now joining Zolman in the long-range shooting consistency, opponents can't just focus on shutting down Zolman.
"Now when people want to box-and-one Shanna Zolman? The answer to that is fine. We've got Sid Spencer," Lockwood said. "When you talk about Geno and Andy making those comments, you know as a coach you can only stop so much. You really can. And when a team is so multifaceted that they can hurt you with one shooter and then another shooter and now they've got a post game that can score and on top of that you have one or two kids who can dribble drive, there is only so much you can take. You've got to pick your poison. Say OK, what am I going to try to be hurt by the least?"
Spencer brings one more dimension. With her size she can help Parker and Hornbuckle on the boards. She had six against UConn and three against Georgia.
"We're big," Parker noted. "We can rebound, too."
ON POINT: When a team loses its starting point guard midseason – Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood decided in late December to transfer and reportedly will go to Maryland – an offensive drop-off could be expected. But it hasn't happened, and after the Georgia game, Summitt said it was because of two players.
"I think Lex has really taken ownership, pushing tempo and running our team and getting Candace involved, getting Zolman involved, getting Sid involved," Summitt said. "The other reason I think is because Spencer is in the lineup. I really think Sid has had a great impact on our offensive execution since she got in the lineup. It's been a big difference. She just has great size on the perimeter, just been able to get in the gaps against the zone and shoot the three. I think those two players have really stepped it up and obviously Parker stepped up."
Parker also praised the play of Hornbuckle and noted that she did it last year as a freshman when injury and illness took out Wiley-Gatewood, ultimately for the season, and Loree Moore, for a few weeks, respectively.
"She's done a great job," Parker said. "She did a great job answering last season, and she's doing a great job answering this season to the team's need. I think she's doing a great job running the team, and I have confidence in her both on offense and on defense that she's going to set the pace both ways because she's at the top of our offense and the top of our defense. She's doing a great job communicating. I'm proud of her."
COURTSIDE WITH CANDACE: Freshman forward Candace Parker unveiled a lot more of her game Thursday. She scored a career high 26 points – previous high was 21 against Stanford – on 10-15 shots. She also had 10 rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers. Her shots came from layups, short and mid-range jumpers, bank shots and baseline fadeaways. One of her assists came when she rotated in the air to receive a long pass from Hornbuckle, briefly secured it with her right hand and delivered a little flip pass to Nicky Anosike for the layup.
But it was when she was creating her own shots that she looked indefensible.
It's one of Lockwood's jobs to break down film and devise ways to defend opponents. So what would he try to do against Parker?
"There's not a lot you can do with that," Lockwood said. "What you would hope to do if I were defending against that? Where she's getting it and shooting it. Make her set up and receive it three or four feet farther out."
But he acknowledged even that approach would likely bring limited success.
"Even if you can get her to go a couple of feet farther out she is really, really developing it and she shoots it with both hands," Lockwood said. "That makes her a hard guard. She's a tough, tough matchup down there. You can coach a game – it looks real good when we're on the grease board, and we can X and O – but honestly players makes plays. You get a Candace Parker who's doing that, there's not a whole lot you can do on a grease board to deter that. You hope that you can dictate a little bit more her position and where she catches it and where she's going to actually attempt the shot from. But other than that good luck."
Parker said she's still developing the shots.
"Before I got hurt in high school, that's what I lived off in high school was my turnaround and step-back jump shot," Parker said. "I haven't really done the step-back this year. Coach has really stressed that if I elevate on my shot, there's not many people that can contest it consistently. And then when they double people are open in the sweet spot and the buddy (post) cut."
Parker is also consistent from the free throw line and is hitting 80 percent (64-80).
She has a routine at the line with her toe – it almost looks like a batter stepping into the batter's box – and her words.
"I toe the line because the nail (in the court) is the center of the basket," Parker said. "I always put my right toe on the nail, a way to line my toe up. I spin the ball. I don't dribble. I don't like to have motion before my shot. I say FLAPS – fingertips, legs, air, pronate through and smooth."
Parker is wearing a protective orthotic on her left ankle after she rolled it twice this season – initially against Temple and then again in the UConn game.
"It's good, still not elevating like I want to, but it's good," she said. "I'm not exploding as well, but it'll get better. I have a cast kind of on it when I play. They built the orthotic up."
Before she reinjured the ankle in the Connecticut game, she had an open chance at a dunk under the basket. It appeared she got up in the air and was indecisive about what to do. She ended up missing the layup.
"I should always decide what I'm going to do before I take off, but I just didn't know whether I wanted to dunk or not," said Parker, completely oblivious to the athleticism it takes to be able to have that thought process at the rim. "I decided the best thing was to lay it up, and at that point it was too late. I probably should have gone ahead and dunked it."
SEC ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are in action Sunday. Here are the matchups with tip times (Eastern): Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech (12:30 p.m.); and Georgia vs. Miami (3 p.m.) in the Russell Athletic Shootout in Duluth, Ga.; Arkansas at Alabama (3 p.m.); Ole Miss at Auburn (3 p.m.); and Vanderbilt at South Carolina (3 p.m.).
GAME NOTES: Tennessee leads the 20-year series with Mississippi State, 24-0. The average score when the teams meet is 83.2 to 71.4. The closest the Bulldogs came to beating Tennessee was in 2003, but they fell 76-75 when Kara Lawson nailed a buzzer beater. … Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning was a graduate assistant under Pat Summitt during the 1975-76 season. Fanning is one of more than three dozen former players, graduate assistants or assistant coaches who went on to collegiate head coaching jobs after their time at Tennessee. … Thursday's win over Georgia gave Tennessee an overall record of 353-142 (.703 winning percentage) when facing a ranked team since the inception of the polls in 1976. … Mississippi State is the only SEC team to have never beaten Tennessee. Two other SEC teams, Arkansas and Florida, have managed only one win apiece, and those both came in Tennessee's 10-loss national championship season of 1996-97. No SEC school has a winning record against Tennessee. … Fanning is just one win away from No. 500 for her career. She coached at Chattanooga and at Kentucky before taking the job at Mississippi State. … Bulldog Mamie McKinney is tied for sixth place on the school's all-time blocks list with 59. Three more will put her in a three-way tie for fourth place.