No. 1 Tennessee (17-0, 3-0) tangles with No. 19 Vanderbilt (13-4, 2-1) at 8 p.m. Eastern (Fox Sports Net, Lady Vol Radio Network) in Nashville at Memorial Gym. Its capacity is 14,316, and there should be an abundant mix of Vandy black and gold and UT orange and white in attendance to see if Pat Summitt can tally No. 900. Summitt just wants the focus steered back toward her team.
"I don't want to take away from the path that this team is on and their goal of winning the SEC," Summitt said. "I don't want them to be distracted. I don't think they're a team that will be affected in a negative way by it. From what I've seen the bigger the challenge, the better the play."
Lady Vol seniors Tye'sha Fluker and Shanna Zolman might be getting used to these milestone games. They were freshmen when Summitt hit No. 800, and juniors when she got the NCAA all-time career record breaker of 880 last March in the postseason.
"They feel like, ‘Well, she's been around so long there's going to be something happening,' " Summitt said.
Fluker said the last milestone was more meaningful for the pair than the first one they witnessed.
"We really didn't know what was going on in the 800 game," Fluker said. "We were freshmen so we celebrated, and we're all happy. And then 880 and then 900, and no one is even that close to even catching Coach Summitt. We definitely talked about that the other day – how we came at a great time because we're going to have three great things in our career that happened while we were here. I don't think many players can say that."
Summitt would much rather talk about her team than standing on the threshold of 900 wins, such as the play of Fluker off the bench. Fluker, a 6'5 senior from Pasadena, Calif., was a starter – Summitt calls her the sixth starter now – but has responded well to her new role.
"I'm just really pleased with how she's been playing," said Summitt, who had Fluker working with four other starters for a lot of practice reps this week. "You want to reward players when they perform. You look at our (starting) five, she's been very efficient."
Fluker is averaging nearly 18 minutes per game and 7.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. The starter at center, Nicky Anosike, a 6'4 sophomore, has per game averages of 19.2 minutes, 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds. Anosike is a tenacious defender for 94 feet – she is third on the team in steals with 28; Fluker has eight – but Fluker takes better care of the basketball. She has 17 turnovers to Anosike's 32. They are nearly even in blocks – 12 for Anosike and 10 for Fluker.
Summitt counts on both of them to bring what the team needs at center, and has often credited Fluker with how she has handled coming off the bench.
"I chalk it up to being more mature and no matter if I'm coming off the bench or if I'm starting I just have to play well and do the things that I do well for my team to win," Fluker said. "My team is counting on me; I can't let them down. That's how I approach it every game so it doesn't matter to me who's starting or coming off the bench. I'm comfortable. Nobody controls that but the coaching staff. All I can do is come in and play and be the best I can when I'm on the floor."
Vanderbilt is expected to start: Carla Thomas, No. 50, 6'3 junior forward (11.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg); Liz Sherwood, No. 32, C, 6'4 sophomore center (14.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg); Dee Davis, No, 10, 5'7 junior guard (7.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 6.9 apg); Holly Rogers, No. 4, 5'9 freshman guard (3.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg); and Caroline Williams, No. 33, 5'10 junior guard (12.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg).
Sherwood, a transfer from Connecticut, has been a dominant player in the paint for the Commodores this season, and she definitely has the attention of Summitt.
"Big time," Summitt said. "She factors in without any doubt as a go-to for them."
Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said one advantage of having Sherwood anchoring the inside is that she draws multiple defenders "and that leaves someone else open."
Summitt has seen Vandy on film, and she knows her team will have its hands full, especially since defensive breakdowns have popped up as problems for Tennessee this season. The Lady Vols spent part of Monday's and Tuesday's practice sessions trying to get ready for the array of offensive sets they expect to see from Vanderbilt.
"It's more about guarding tendencies and sets. It's kind of like having a cheat sheet going into exams," Summitt said. "Just watching them on tape they don't hesitate to shoot threes. That's why they spread you out."
Tennessee also has multiple offensive weapons to spread teams out with the emergence of Spencer as a consistent scorer. She has been in double figures for the past three games, a career first for the 6'3 junior from Hoover, Ala., and she is hitting 54.3 percent of the three-pointers.
"I'd say it's about time," Spencer said of being a scorer. "In high school you did that. I don't know what happens when you come to college. I'm just glad that I am getting a lot of open looks, and that I'm shooting the ball. Coach has been begging me for what, two-and-a-half years now? I know she's probably thinking it's about time, and I'm right there with her."
Spencer credited the presence of Parker for ensuring that she gets open looks. Parker, the 6'4 freshman phenom, has been unveiling even more of a game of late, an effect Summitt credits to composure.
"She has a lot of composure," Summitt said. "One thing I didn't realize is just how much better she makes everyone else on the floor. She does a tremendous job of reading and finding open players."
Parker doesn't just know her position; she also knows where her teammates are supposed to be on the floor. As she holds the ball preparing to pass she appears to see the play unfold before it happens.
"That's the poise," Summitt said. "She just takes her time, looks to assess the situation and then make her decision. You don't see her play rushed. A lot of times you see players that rush. And when you see Candace, you see composure. It really has had a calming effect on our team, especially on our offense."
Perhaps none more so than Spencer, who is getting open looks but also is creating her own shot by slicing into the paint and getting short jumpers. Spencer said it's just a matter of staying alert.
"I don't know if you've ever noticed but when Candace brings the ball up the floor and she goes length of the court, and she stops in the middle of the paint, four people collapse on her," Spencer said. "Everyone is trying to stop her. She's got amazing court awareness and court vision. How hard is it to fill a lane? I fill a lane. She has to do all the dribbling and spin and looking and making sure she keeps her foot planted and just kicks out to me. I think we're starting to play really well together. That's something that not a lot of freshmen have, much less a junior or senior, that court awareness."
Spencer knows her team needs her offense. Now, she wants her defense to catch up.
"I think my defense is horrible," Spencer said. "Honestly, I'm giving up a lot of points. She's (Summitt) been harping on that in practice, and I'm really trying to focus a lot more on that. Because you're going to get open shots, but you can't control if they go in or not, but you can definitely control defense. I think a lot of my defense is about position and sometimes I'm just out of position. I react late or make mistakes. Lesson learned."
Spencer is coming off of ACL surgery on her right knee – it's been nearly a year since the injury (February 2005) and operation (March 2005) – but she won't use that as an excuse.
"It does challenge it a little bit, puts a little strain on it," Spencer said. "But we're coming up on that year mark when I had surgery so it should be completely healed. Each day gets better; it gets stronger every day. It's definitely behind me."
What is in front of the team Thursday is another possible milestone for Summitt and a media spotlight that will burn even brighter than usual. Spencer said the team knew the number was inching closer, but they weren't aware until last week of how close it was.
"I said something about that after Mississippi State, and she said – you know how humble she is – ‘I'm not worried about that. I'm just worried about SEC conference and winning this game and getting prepared for Vanderbilt and Duke.' That's how she handled that," Spencer said. "We have talked amongst ourselves for a couple days now, and we figured it out. Half of us we don't even know our record."
Spencer was on crutches for No. 880. When Summitt hits No. 900, Spencer said she intends to celebrate.
"I'm excited. I'll get to jump up and down," Spencer said.
Nobody is expecting an easy time of getting No. 900 anytime soon. After the Vanderbilt game, Tennessee travels to Duke and to Kentucky. For now all Summitt sees is a big SEC test on the road.
"They are a team that has played us so tough so many times," Summitt said. "Melanie has done a great job at Vanderbilt."
Before the game this week during a media teleconference, Balcomb paid homage to Summitt's coaching accomplishments.
"I think it's amazing to be able to coach at this level and do what she's done," Balcomb said. "I can't imagine coaching in 900 games, much less having 900 wins. I have a lot of respect for what she's done."
The coaches and teams respect each other, but the enmity among the fans because of the in-state rivalry is fairly substantial at times. For that reason, Spencer is curious to see how fans respond if Summitt gets No. 900 on the road.
"I'm anxious to see how the fans are going to react," Spencer said. "Regardless that we're Tennessee, she is the best coach in America. I think anyone, no matter who they cheer for, should give her some acknowledgement."
Spencer said the team shouldn't play tight in this game in anticipation of getting Summitt into the coaching record books yet again. No NCAA coach, men or women, has ever won 900 games.
"I think we're doing just the opposite," Spencer said. "We want to get it, and we want to get it for her, so I think we're going to play harder."
Spencer and Fluker both know that Vanderbilt will be working equally hard to prevent such a milestone from being reached on its home floor. Besides that, it's an SEC game that hardly needs another reason to be bitterly contested.
"We have no choice but to prepare a dogfight for the simple fact that when we play down there they shoot 100 percent for the first 10 minutes," Fluker said with a wry grin. "We have to come out ready to play and just match their defensive intensity and their offensive intensity and how they're ready to play because I remember last year's game when they shot 12 for 12, and we were down 20. We have to come ready to play, and we're going to prepare as much as we can before the game and just play hard."
It wasn't quite that efficient for Vanderbilt. The Commodores did, however, hit their first nine shots and jumped out to a quick 24-10 lead, which grew to 31-16. Then Tennessee went on a run to close out the half, and the score was knotted at 37 apiece. The second half remained close until the final five minutes when Tennessee pulled away to win 79-65. The last time the teams played was in Greenville, S.C., in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. Tennessee barely prevailed, 76-73, in that game, which featured 11 made three-pointers for Vandy.
Fluker said the players won't think about No. 900 during the game but will wait to celebrate when it happens. She also knows the focus will quickly shift to the next game.
"We're not thinking about that," Fluker said. "We're preparing for these games because we know everyone is going to play us tough. I think the celebration after is really half the fun, and then the next day we're practicing again to prepare for the next game. I don't think it's any different. We prepare the same way we do for other games. We come out and get a good start. It's definitely one game at a time. We have our same routine, our same scouting, and we treat every opponent the same no matter who they are."
Fluker had one of her best games of the season last year in Nashville. She was a force inside the paint and ended up mixing it up with Vandy's post players in a game in which Summitt smilingly called her a bully and said Tennessee needed an enforcer and some attitude.
"When I'm able to think of games that I have played well I can look back and evaluate what I did," Fluker said. "I'm just going to crash the boards hard like I did that game before and like I try to do every other game and hopefully get good results."
No. 900 hangs in the balance.
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate head coach Holly Warlick handled the pregame scouting on Vanderbilt. Here is her assessment.
When the Commodores have the ball, Tennessee must be ready for fast breaks, Warlick said.
"Their transition break, and they run the floor well," Warlick said of Tennessee's first concerns. "They do a lot of high-low. They spot up for the three. They really look to score in their transition game. In the half-court, they run a lot of sets, but it's primarily to get shooters open off stagger screens, and they still do a high-low. They're very physical, very well coached. They stick to their game plan."
When Tennessee has the ball the players must move it and be ready to hit the offensive glass.
"For us ball movement is key. They run a very good matchup zone," Warlick said. "We've got to get second-chance points. We've just got to have a lot of ball movement and a lot of touches and make sure we rebound the basketball."
Tennessee may hold a hefty lead in the overall series, 45-6, but Warlick has been involved in a lot of Tennessee-Vanderbilt games – both as a former Lady Vol player and now as a coach – so she knows that number has nothing to do with the next game.
"They're competitive just like we are," Warlick said. "They don't want us to come in their house and win. It's going to be a typical Tennessee-Vandy game. It's no different whether it's a 900 win or the first win. It's a battle, and that's how it should be. It's in-state; two schools going at each other and two very good teams."