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Tennessee (19-2, 5-1) takes on Mississippi (12-5, 2-5) at Tad Smith Coliseum at 8 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network) in one of the few games of the regular season that is not televised. Lady Vol fans that aren't in Oxford will be relying on radio broadcaster Mickey Dearstone to determine if Tennessee packed its defense and rebounding for the trip.
Those two facets of basketball were the focus of practice this week – Tennessee held a short practice Wednesday afternoon before leaving for Mississippi to go over its game plan – and the matchup against the Lady Rebels and its superstar Armintie Price will go a long way in determining if the team has finally gotten the message.
The two losses last week to Duke and Kentucky certainly got Tennessee's attention – and caused a tumble in the polls to No. 5 – but the Lady Vols reestablished themselves for the most part with Sunday's win over Alabama.
"Much better," assistant coach Dean Lockwood said of the team's effort in the 89-54 defeat of the Crimson Tide. "We did what we wanted to do. Honestly this was a game ideally where you want to hold somebody to 22 points a half or less. We were able to do that for one half (20 points). We didn't do it in the second (34 points), but it was much better.
"I think our intensity was better. The things that we want to do via the scouting report were better. We were pleased. We know there's still progress to be made."
The team has had some upbeat practices with a lot of communication among the players and a lot of instruction – some delivered at high decibel – from the coaching staff. Coach Pat Summitt had been softer than usual this season with her young team, but her typical fire has been on display more of late.
"She hasn't been as tough on us as she has been on previous teams, and she's starting to see that it's coming back to bite us," sophomore center Nicky Anosike said. "And I think that now she feels like she does have enough time in the season to correct that. She doesn't want to sell us short. We can be great, and she sees that in us."
"When we were winning I wouldn't say that she was less intense but as a team maybe we could have been more intense, and maybe coach is trying to bring that out of us again with her intensity," fellow sophomore Sybil Dosty said. "Pat is always intense every single day. She was more vocal (Monday) and trying to get us to be more intense as well."
Anosike is expected to start Thursday in the paint along with senior center Tye'sha Fluker. Freshman forward Candace Parker will play on the perimeter along with senior guard Shanna Zolman and sophomore point guard Alexis Hornbuckle.
Summitt used the lineup against Alabama – junior forward Sidney Spencer came off the bench – and said she's sticking with it for two reasons: the rebounding of Fluker and the need to have two true guards on the floor.
"I will probably stick with our look from our last game," Summitt said. "I took Spencer out of the lineup, put Zolman back in to give us two guards. … And then Tye'sha has been performing better on the boards. That is the key there. Our inside players and our defensive rebounding has been really weak, and I don't understand that. Hopefully, as we put more emphasis on it and just focus on trying to control the defensive glass, I think we will be a better basketball team if we can do that."
The downside of that lineup is it moves Parker out of the power forward spot, where she is more effective on the boards. She has demonstrated she can score from either the three (small forward) or four (power forward) spots, but Parker recorded only one rebound against Alabama.
"There has been a pattern there when she has been at the three," Summitt said. "That is my concern because she is such a great rebounder when she is at the four. Obviously, she scored for us at the three on Sunday against Alabama but at the same time, she didn't pursue the ball, didn't really play aggressive to the boards. It is a concern, but it certainly is something that is fixable.
"She just has to be focused and that has to be a priority in her game. Certainly, we have talked about it. I just have to make sure that if she is not going to the boards, that she is coming out and refocusing and making that a priority when she goes back in."
Parker had 15 points on 6-9 shooting in 24 minutes of play Sunday. For the season she is 120-214 for a 56.1 percent field goal percentage, the best of any starter, though Anosike is very close at 56 percent (51-91).
"She's shooting a high percentage – she got a lot of shots in and around the free throw line – but we just can't afford to not have her on the boards," Summitt said. "But she defended more out on the perimeter so it wasn't like she was stuck in the paint. We've just got to make that a priority. I want to play her at multiple positions. I played her at the point at times. She did some nice things out at the point."
The 6'4 Parker is now the third-string point guard behind Hornbuckle and Zolman. Freshman guard Lindsey Moss was getting practice reps at the point position, but she broke her nose for the second time this season last Sunday and will have surgery Friday. She will miss Thursday's game and this Sunday's match against Arkansas in Knoxville.
"We have multiple handlers at the top of the floor, but really Lex and Shanna and Candace right now are the three I'm most comfortable with," Summitt said. "I think I could get that way with Lindsey. I was just getting ready to try that when she got her nose broken again."
The elevation of Parker on the depth chart would seem to signal that the experiment of using junior forward Dominique Redding at point is over.
"Absolutely," Summitt said. "She's not going to run the point. The only thing I'm worried about Dominique Redding doing right now is guarding people and rebounding. She had no desire to guard anybody against Alabama. What really bothers you as a coach, she got so fired up to play against Connecticut and Georgia. You don't pick and choose in this program. You can pick and choose but after awhile then I choose."
Redding did have a career-high five assists against Alabama – she is an excellent passer into the post – but she appeared disinterested on defense, and a junior in Summitt's system, especially one with Redding's athletic ability, is going to draw the coach's ire.
"My patience is very thin. I don't have much patience now," Summitt said. "She's going to have to earn it every day in practice. That was my one game to just say, ‘I'm going to reward everyone. Go play, and then I'll see how much play you earned.' "
Two players who really helped themselves Sunday were Dosty and freshman forward Alex Fuller.
"Fuller can help us, I think, more at the four offensively and defensively," Summitt said. "She can play the three, but her defense has got to get better. Alex and Sybil and Dom and Lindsey are the people I'm really trying to evaluate – the amount of playing time that they can earn and what they're going to do with it. I thought Lindsey started out great. I hate that she's had a setback. I thought Dom was the poorest performer on the team and totally uninspired to guard anyone. She set herself back. I thought Dosty was really, really aggressive and did a lot of good things. I think Sybil and Alex played some inspired basketball."
Fuller is healed from a nagging hip injury earlier this season, and her knee has been declared OK after she experienced some pain. The challenge for the redshirt freshman is to improve her perimeter defense, Summitt said, because there will be times when matchups mean Fuller has to move out of the paint. Fuller, like Dosty, played 24 minutes against Alabama as Summitt evaluated how deep her rotation can go the rest of the season.
"There's no reason why she can't be in the top eight," Summitt said of Fuller. "It was good to see her get 24 minutes, but it was also telling that she's got to make sure that she's a better defender. In her defense, she's never really had to guard on the perimeter. I'd love to (keep her off perimeter players) but there's going to be certain situations where I may want Parker to defend inside with Anosike and now she's going to have to defend the quick perimeter players. Just really drilling her on her stance and on one-on-one defense, spend a lot of time on it."
Defense is Summitt's buzzword, especially as the calendar flips to February. Tennessee lost a tough perimeter defender in December when Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood decided to transfer to Maryland. The loss not only cut Tennessee down one player, but it handcuffed Hornbuckle to some extent since she can't get in foul trouble and thus can't gamble on defense.
"Obviously when we went from 11 to 10, the glaring breakdown for us is we don't have the athletic guard defenders," Summitt said. "So that's why we've been trying to get Dom to move into that position, but you can't depend on her. Now we've got to go in a different direction."
Dosty has earned more minutes inside because of her instinctive nature to rebound, and she is trying to get her defense up to par in time for postseason.
"She's having to learn to defend," Summitt said. "Out of our matchup (zone) she really, really struggled. She's not ready to defend out of our matchup, but I want to get her ready. I don't want that to be a limit for her or for us to limit her game or limit her playing time."
Dosty welcomed the extra playing time Sunday as it helped showcase what she can do and boosted her confidence.
"It helps develop confidence in yourself knowing you can bounce back from a mistake," said Dosty, who has written No. 21 on the inside of her left shoe in honor of her father, Robbie Dosty, who played at Arizona. "A lot of times coming off the bench you make a mistake, and you might be coming right back out, which can hurt your confidence. In a game like that you make a mistake, OK, get yourself regrouped back together and learn from it."
Summitt has mused that she is probably harder on her bench players than her starters. Dosty doesn't doubt it.
"I think that she is from what I've seen so far," Dosty said with a smile. "I haven't been in a starting position yet so I'm not sure, but playing off the bench is definitely harder than starting. Starting in high school you just got done warming up, you're ready to go, you're into the game. On the bench you're not as warm but also in a way it's good because you can watch the way the refs are calling the game, where some players are playing. So I guess there's advantages and disadvantages to be a bench player. Pat's always been really hard on me so I haven't known anything different."
Dosty has the right attitude to handle it, though. She even sees a silver lining in having to run post-practice sprints.
"I got a little bit winded at the very end of the game," Dosty said of her extended minutes against Alabama. "I was a little bit tired. Maybe that was the reason – she did notice it and she told me she thought I got tired at the very end – for making me run. She wants me to be in better shape so maybe that's a good thing, maybe she wants to give me some minutes."
Dosty also provided some comic relief when she banked in a free throw against Alabama. The players started laughing – as did Dosty – but she gathered herself and netted the next one.
"As soon as I let it go I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.' I knew what was going to happen," Dosty said. "I knew it was too strong. It went in. Hopefully it won't happen again, but if it does it happens. It was definitely an accident. I don't want anyone to think that's what I'm going to do from now on, but it was kind of funny."
The performance by Dosty and others off the bench was an encouraging sign if Tennessee wants to make a serious run at winning or sharing the SEC regular season title. The starters had been playing 35-plus minutes a game at a pace that would have left them spent for the postseason.
"They are definitely capable of doing that day in and day out," Anosike said of the reserves. "Coach has been harping on it. We just need our bench to show up with that every single day, because that can be the difference between us winning and losing a game, and it has been."
Anosike remains a starter because of the desire she brings on defense, although her offensive game, which was in its infancy last year, has seen some improvement. She still has a tendency to short-arm her shots sometimes and bring the ball down too low, where it can be batted away or tied up by smaller defenders. But she is a more effective scorer – she has a nifty scoop shot – and has significantly improved her free throw shooting.
"It's definitely a lot further along than it was last year, and there's definitely room for improvement, but I don't intend on ever giving up," Anosike said. "I just am going to keep getting better as the season goes on."
She is a tenacious on-the-ball defender, but Anosike is now having to learn to play off the ball and outside of the paint, something that is a challenge for anyone in Summitt's system and especially a post player.
"I think that I've only been playing two extremes – I've either played inside or on the ball. I've never really played on the wing," Anosike said. "I'm trying to get used to that and learn the system as far as that is concerned. I've been a part of the two extremes and never really in the middle. Now I'm trying to put both together and play on the wing."
Anosike and Hornbuckle can be a formidable pair on the perimeter and they are establishing a symbiotic relationship on defense.
"I know when I'm pressuring the ball and she's behind me I know she has my back," Anosike said. "We just know we have to get each other's back; we do have to hold a lot of weight for the team. We have a common trust for each other."
Ole Miss is led by the sensational Price, who will present a defensive challenge inside and outside. The 5'9 junior is averaging 17 points and 11.2 rebounds per game.
"Armintie is a great slasher and a creator off the dribble," Summitt said. "Even against a zone, she can get into gaps. I know that we need great one-on-one defense against her, but at the same time, I think we need great support. It's not a situation where we are going to ask someone to just go guard her and stop her. It's going to take a player and a half, maybe two players at a time to contain her in her dribble drives. And obviously, she is a great rebounder. You just have to keep her off the boards. She plays hard. She's tough-minded and obviously a very competitive player."
Tennessee returned to its traditional man-to-man defense against Alabama, and Summitt said the Lady Vols would turn to it Thursday, too.
"I think this team right now understands that if we are going to get this done and be a team that can make a strong run to finish out the SEC, we have to influence with our man-to-man defense, which can change up some (with a matchup zone)," Summitt said. "But right now the commitment of the coaching staff and the players is to really play our tough, aggressive man-to-man."
Tennessee has seen Price on film and during Wednesday's practice the players went through specific scheming and preparation.
"She's definitely an intense player," Anosike said. "I think we can do a pretty good job on her if we just match her intensity. I think we can be successful if we match that."
Dosty said the team also would like to keep Summitt happy this week. That means coming out and playing inspired defense.
"She's a great player, and it's going to be a challenge to guard her," Dosty said. "Whoever is on her is going to have to buckle down and play her as hard as they can. I'm sure she's going to rotate people on her and see who is the best stopper. Keep up the good defense that we had, intense defense."
Besides Price the Lady Rebels are expected to start: Ashley Awkward, No. 3, 5'6 junior guard (8.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg), nickname is A-squared, joined Price on All-Tournament team at Hurricane Holiday Classic; Carla Bartee, No. 10, 6'1 sophomore forward (7.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg), comes off the bench sometimes, scored team-high 20 points against Florida and hit four three-pointers; Tasi Worsham, No. 22, 5'9 sophomore guard (4.5 ppg, 1.6 rpg), made fifth career start against Vanderbilt on Sunday, had career high 14 points against Kentucky; and Danetra Forrest, No. 40, 6'1 sophomore forward (6.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg), had career highs against Florida with 19 points and 14 rebounds.
Oddly enough the Lady Rebels have not won a SEC game at home this season. Their two conference wins came on the road against Auburn and Mississippi State. Price had 22 points and 20 rebounds against Mississippi State, but was in foul trouble in Ole Miss' game against Vanderbilt – she still played 31 minutes as opposed to her usual full 40 – and finished with only 12 points.
Price, a preseason Wooden and Naismith awards candidate and First Team All-SEC player from Myrtle High School in Blue Mountain, Miss., has earned a lot of praise this season from opposing coaches. Consider the following:
"Armintie played a great game against us, just like we knew she would," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said after Ole Miss beat her team, 67-57, on Dec. 14. "She scored 22, got five steals and was everywhere on the boards. That's the amazing thing. We knew she was going to do this, and we still couldn't do anything to stop her."
"I think Armintie is one of the most explosive players in the SEC," said Georgia coach Andy Landers. "She's multitalented and affects the game in so many ways. She can kill you rebounding. She can kill you running the floor. She can kill you driving. And she's such a solid defender that she can change the game on that end of the floor as well. There aren't many players who possess the abilities to literally beat you doing so many different things."
"Armintie Price is one of the best players, not only in the SEC, but in the country," said Auburn coach Nell Fortner. "She is one of those players that is worth the price of admission. She can hurt you in so many ways, which is evident by the fact that she is at the top of the SEC in points and rebounding as a guard."
Price is fourth in the SEC in scoring behind Seimone Augustus, LSU, 20.8; Tasha Humphrey, Georgia, 20.7; and Sherill Baker, Georgia, 17.7. She is second in the league in rebounding (she finished first as a sophomore) behind Sylvia Fowles, LSU, 11.4; and second in steals with 3.7 behind Baker, who averages 5.0 per game. (Hornbuckle is third with 3.1.)
Price will be a considerable challenge on both ends of the floor, and Tennessee will get a stern test for its defensive commitment. Anosike said the two losses allowed the Lady Vols to seek some answers from within.
"We try to go back and find out why we lost; we lost because our defense wasn't stepping up," Anosike said. "We've just been putting a whole lot more emphasis on it. Coach has been trying to let us know what this program was built on, and you're not going to be on the court representing this program if you don't play defense. I think everyone, in their minds, playing defense is so much more important to them. I think we have improved the past two games. There's only room for more improvement. We can always get better. We need to get better if we want to reach the goals that we set."
So do those goals include a championship run, both in the SEC and in the country?
"Of course," Anosike said. "We're starting to find out what our roles are and know that (we need to) bring that every game. I think if everybody puts together their best and what they bring to the team I don't think anyone can stop us."
Anosike wasn't boasting but merely speaking in a matter-of-fact tone. The Lady Vols still believe in themselves, and the two losses left a searing impression.
"You're always one game away from a Kentucky," Lockwood said. "I think our team realizes that now. Our margin of error is small. We're capable of that; we're also capable of what we did against Georgia or UConn. We have to control that part of it ourselves. We can't leave it to fate or how we feel that day. I hope our team has grasped that."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant coach Dean Lockwood put together the scouting report for the Ole Miss game. Here is his assessment and naturally it begins with Armintie Price.
"If there's a harder-playing player in the league I want to see her," Lockwood said. "I love her game because she plays so incredibly hard. She's relentless on every play. She's averaging 17 points a game, 11 rebounds per game, playing 33-plus minutes, just shy of 34 minutes. She does so much for that team. If she doesn't rebound, if she doesn't drive and get fouled, if she doesn't make some shots, if she doesn't offensive rebound, they don't win. It's as plain and simple as that. A lot of their success does revolve after her."
But Lockwood cautioned the Lady Vols to still be cognizant of the other Lady Rebels.
"That said they've still got some athletic players around her that are very capable," Lockwood said. "They haven't shot the ball well as a team this year, but they're averaging over 20 offensive rebounds a game. So they're very formidable. You give this team second and third shots they'll be in it late down to the end, and they'll have a chance to beat you. The dribble penetration game is good with this team. They've got kids who can get in the gap, dribble drive, get fouled."
But the focus will remain on Price.
"Armintie, I love her," Lockwood said. "For a 5'9 player to do what she does – like I said if there's a harder-playing kid in America I want to see her because she plays all out all the time."
In other words Tennessee defenders can't lose her on the court, as they have been prone to do at times. If they do, make sure she's 20 feet from the basket.
"She's one of seven from the arc. If anything lose her at the arc," Lockwood said. "But inside the arc you've got to guard her. She cannot have the paint. She cannot (be allowed to) offensive rebound. Dribble drives, paint scores, and offensive rebounds, you've got to stop her."
When Tennessee has the ball the plan is to stick with what works.
"We're not going to change a lot. We want to establish inside touches and an inside presence in the game hopefully," Lockwood said. "We want to move the ball, we want to get them moving, and we want to be very, very physical with our play."
TICKET SALES: Advanced ticket sales for two Tennessee home games next week are sizzling, especially the LSU game on Feb. 9.
The game will be televised on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. and is part of the "Rivalry Week" promotion. As of Wednesday, 19,307 tickets had been sold. The Feb. 12 game against Vandy also will be shown on ESPN2 (5:30 p.m.) and is part of "February Frenzy." Ticket sales so far number 15,415.
Tennessee also has been a draw on the road. In nine games on the road (not neutral sites such as the Paradise Jam), the host team set new or season-high attendance record. Duke and Notre Dame were sell-outs, and Vandy doubled the price of a single ticket from $10.50 to $20.50. Kentucky drew the most fans ever (13,689) to see a women's game at Rupp Arena.
Tennessee is leading the nation in home attendance with an average of 14,170. The Lady Vols also tallied the top single-game attendance mark this season with 24,653 for the Connecticut game. The next closest in both categories are Texas Tech (11,979 per home game) and Duke at Maryland (single game, 16,097).
JUCO LOOKS: With the transfer of Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, Tennessee is thin at the guard spot next season because Shanna Zolman will graduate this spring, and only one high school guard, Cait McMahan, was signed last November.
Wiley-Gatewood would have had two seasons remaining as Tennessee's point guard, so the logical step for Pat Summitt and her staff was to take a look at junior college players who would be cleared to play next fall and have two years of Division I eligibility.
"We're looking right now at four kids, so we're not opposed to signing one or two," Summitt said. "Within the next two weeks we will have seen everyone."
The four are guards or combo guard/forward players. By NCAA rules Summitt can't identify the players or discuss them unless they sign at Tennessee.
The last juco player at Tennessee was forward Zandra Montgomery, a transfer from Cleveland State who played in 65 games from 1977 to 1979 and averaged 10 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.
"Obviously we've had success in recruiting in four-year players but because of our transfer situation (a junior college player is needed)," Summitt said. "I'm not opposed at all."
The staff will evaluate the four players and then decide whom and how many to sign.
ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are tipping off Thursday in the following games: Vanderbilt at Alabama; LSU at Arkansas; Auburn at Florida; and Kentucky at Georgia. Mississippi State and South Carolina are not in action tonight.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Ole Miss 28-7. The last win for the Lady Rebels came in 1996 in Oxford. The last time Tennessee went to the Oxford was in 2004, when the Lady Vols trailed by 12 in the first half but went on to win 85-69. … Pashen Thompson (1993-97) from Philadelphia, Miss., and dubbed the Philly Pflash, has been Tennessee's only player from the Magnolia State. … Tennessee's Alexis Hornbuckle has recorded a steal in 27 consecutive games dating to her freshman season. She has at least one steal in 48 of 55 career games. … Lady Vol Sidney Spencer is swishing 96.7 percent of her free throw attempts so far this season. Teammate Shanna Zolman holds the UT and NCAA single-season mark of 95.7, but Spencer could claim the record at this rate.