Pat Summitt has been mystified as to the cause of the sluggish opening 20 minutes. Perhaps the loss of sophomore Alexis Hornbuckle for the season – she broke her right wrist in the first half against Vandy but played the rest of the game – will wake them up.
"I wish I had a crystal ball that would tell me," Summitt said. "I usually have a pretty good feel for teams, but this one has been really hard. We haven't had consistent leadership. I never know how we're going to start games. I know how we plan to start games. It's been a little more difficult, but I will say we've got other people who are trying to step up and help us."
One of those is senior Shanna Zolman, who will now take over at point guard with help from redshirt freshman forward Candace Parker and junior forward Dominique Redding. Does Zolman think the loss of Hornbuckle will jolt the team enough to stop the slow starts?
"I hope. It's always something you can hope for," Zolman said. "Whenever adversity strikes it's always interesting to see how a team will handle it."
Redding will make her second career start Thursday – she opened against Vandy because Hornbuckle was initially benched for getting a technical in the LSU game.
"It felt natural," Redding said of her first career start in college. "All my life I've started. It just felt like there was nothing new. Lex was averaging nine, 10 points and six rebounds. That's got to be part of my game now. Put in a couple more baskets and play solid defense."
Summitt can only hope it will be that easy, but Redding is certainly capable of helping Tennessee recover from the loss of Hornbuckle on the offensive end. However, Redding and fellow junior Sidney Spencer must ratchet up their defense – Spencer has improved considerably recently and had a key block against Vandy late in the game – and get to the boards.
"She has to bring to our basketball team a commitment to play both ends of the floor," Summitt said of Redding. "The one thing that she and Spencer have both neglected to put in their packages is a rebounding mindset at both ends. Those two are capable of getting on the boards for us and consistently coming up with some big numbers, but they are coming up with goose eggs or maybe one board.
"That's unacceptable for two juniors. Now if we were playing freshmen, I might say that I need to be patient, that they are not aware of what they need to do and how to anticipate covering the boards. These two should know. We expect that to be a point of emphasis for both Dom and Sidney."
It was a point of emphasis at practice Wednesday as the Lady Vols prepared for Georgia. The Bulldogs present an especially daunting challenge for a depleted Tennessee team – guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood left the team in December and transferred to Maryland – because of the speed of their guards and the overall play of All-American forward Tasha Humphrey.
"I don't think we'll know until we get in the fire," Summitt said of withstanding such a challenge. "When we are at Georgia, that will be a real test. I'll know a whole lot more about this team and who's willing to step up."
Summitt will start with Zolman, Redding and Spencer on the perimeter and Parker and sophomore center Nicky Anosike inside. Senior center Tye'sha Fluker, who would start in place of Redding when Summitt wants to go really big – every starter except the 5'10 Zolman is now more than 6 feet tall – will come off the bench.
"I don't think we're going into it saying we've got to go bigger (with the loss of yet another guard), but there're going to be times when Parker is going to have to play at the three, and we'll have to go with a bigger lineup that way," Summitt said.
For now Parker will remain in the paint, but she will have to spell Zolman at the point along with Redding. Summitt and her coaching staff have met for the past two days to plan strategy and look at various player combinations.
"One thing that we talked about we can run some two-guard offense so we've got two handlers up there," Summitt said. "Candace may have to run some point guard for us. There may be times (Redding) has to handle some for us. I think we have to do this by committee. I see people trying to press us more. We just have to handle. It's not like we don't have skilled people on our team. We just don't have an Alexis Hornbuckle that can break people down when they extend the defense off the dribble. We may have to do it other ways."
Georgia will likely press more Thursday to take advantage of Tennessee's lack of depth at the guard spot and the loss of its best ball handler in Hornbuckle. But Summitt doesn't necessarily expect teams that weren't already pressing to suddenly bring the heat.
"If you're a pressing team (such as Georgia), you're a pressing team," Summitt said. "If you're not, will you become a pressing team in February?"
Georgia is expected to start: Alexis Kendrick, No. 31, 5'7 senior guard (7.9 points per game, 3.7 rebounds per game) has started every game (123) for Georgia during her career; Sherill Baker, No. 11, 5'8 senior guard (17.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg) scored a career-high 25 points against Tennessee; Cori Chambers, No. 21, 5'9 junior guard (12.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg), has 973 career points; Megan Darrah, No. 24, 6'3 sophomore forward (11.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg), had five assists from the post position against Tennessee; and Tasha Humphrey, No. 34, 6'3 sophomore forward, (20.6 ppg, 9.2 rpg), the second-fastest player in Georgia history to reach the 1,000-point mark, which she did Jan. 29 against Florida in her 52nd game. (Janet Harris did it in 46 games).
Georgia native Lindsey Moss, UT's lone true freshman on this team, is a shooting guard who could also see more minutes now – she has an accurate three-point shot – but she must quickly accelerate her game to help Tennessee at the point position.
"That's up to Lindsey," Summitt said. "Lindsey's got to get a lot tougher. She's been entirely too soft, and that surprised me. I thought she'd be tougher. Maybe being the only true freshman has been part of it. That may have held her back a little bit. She's going to have to understand that people are going to try to pick her pocket every time. It's a big jump for her when everybody else has been here. It's new to her."
Zolman will welcome the help if it comes.
"I hope so. I'm not going to say yes or no on that, because that's something that she has to make up her mind that she can come in and help us," Zolman said. "I know that she has the willingness and wanting to be able to come out and help us. If she does that's just another added plus to us. If not, that's why it's a team game.
"It's not just going to be me stepping into the point guard position, it's going to be us five stepping into the point guard position. If they press, we're going to break the press as a team. If they don't, I'm going to do my best to bring it up and just get us in our offense."
Zolman has been criticized by Summitt some this season for spotty leadership. But now this team is in her hands.
"I like our chances with her stepping in there, and she may be a better leader at this spot," Summitt said. "It's harder to lead at the shooting guard."
Tennessee was getting leadership from Hornbuckle – she won't travel to Georgia since the surgery to put a screw in her wrist to help heal her navicular scaphoid bone was Wednesday afternoon – but what the team will also miss is her defensive intensity and attitude.
"Candace and Nicky and Alexis were in the mix so now Candace is going to have to provide more leadership," Summitt said. "She's got to play harder, both ends of the floor. It's what everybody's got to do – got to play harder."
The coaching staff also has its work cut off for them. They have to take role players and position them to become key contributors right now. They do have precedent on their side. Two years ago point guard Loree Moore was lost for the season in late January, and senior guard Tasha Butts moved to the point from the wing. Senior LaToya Davis moved from the bench to a starting role and helped lead Tennessee to the national title game in New Orleans.
Now Redding finds herself in a similar position. The 6'1 forward has played in all 25 games this season and averages 4.1 points and 1.3 rebounds in 11.7 minutes on the floor. Tennessee will need a lot more out of her game now.
In Redding's first start against Vanderbilt, she drew a defensive assignment on sharpshooter Caroline Williams, who had lit up Tennessee earlier in the season. She got loose early for one three-pointer and then didn't hit another one.
"I thought I played good defense," Redding said. "She only scored on that three I gave her in the first opening seconds. I've just got to build on that and just add rebounds to that and take smart shots on offense."
Redding is also at a loss to explain Tennessee's poor starts – it was a little more promising against Vandy as UT got a 9-5 lead but then the Commodores scored at will inside and went up by 14 points.
"I thought we did a pretty good job and then I don't know what happened," Redding said. "We can't (figure it out) either. We ask all the time, ‘What is our problem?' And there's no answer."
Tennessee knows it is likely doomed if Georgia jumps out early at home, so one emphasis this week was taking care of the ball and playing better defense.
"I'm still shaking my head trying to figure out slow starts, the number of possessions players took off," Summitt said of the first half of the Vanderbilt game. "It's a big question mark: How hard will we compete on every possession? Because we've got players who don't play hard sometimes, and that's so frustrating. Do they have it? Absolutely. I thought they closed out that game in great fashion, with great intensity, offensive aggressiveness, defensive aggressiveness, communication, huddles. That was one of our best halves of basketball, if not the best."
The players want to put an end to it, too, but will they?
"I hope so," Redding said. "That's why we practice every day."
Redding took her turns with the first team at practice Wednesday, and Summitt got different players some repetitions at point guard. They also worked on facing Georgia's press and quickness on the perimeter.
"Every single time you go up against Georgia you always have to realize the quickness of their guards," Zolman said. "Sometimes you underestimate because they're so much quicker than the average team. We play against a lot of quick people, not only in the SEC but in college basketball in general, but then there's Georgia.
"Georgia is a different level. As a point guard you can't be playing with the ball out there. You need to get it, attack and go. You can't be playing and dancing around with it, because they're going to pick your pocket and go. It's going to be very important, first of all, for teammates to get open, but that I get my head up and be able to get rid of it."
One of the players Zolman will be looking to get the ball to is Parker. In the first game against the Bulldogs, Parker scored 26 points, and Georgia struggled to guard her inside.
"She can post up, go face up, put the ball on the floor allows her to play any of the five positions," Summitt said. "I think she's getting better and more comfortable with each game. She understands that she has to take on even a bigger load with Alexis out. You can play her at the point. A lot of teams look to go zone on us, but she can shoot over the top. We can take her in a set and post her up. She's starting to really read well. Some teams double-team her, but she's terrific at getting the ball outside. Her inside action has been very good. She's shown a lot of composure there. If they want to go one-on-one, she's got a very strong offensive package in the paint."
Zolman, who scored 17 points in the first game against Georgia, and Parker have been establishing some rapport in practice – it was developing before Hornbuckle got hurt, but it is crucial now.
"It's something we've really been working on," Zolman said. "We play ourselves in the two-man game … you've got myself on the outside, you've got her on the inside. Who are you going to double down on? Who are you going to switch out on? Candace and I, we talk a lot on the floor, pick each other up. It's time to start playing. I look for her a lot, and I know she looks for me a lot as well. That's something we're going to have to look to do even more so."
Summitt will point out that Tennessee can't engage in a "pity party" because Hornbuckle is out.
"It's a huge loss for us," Summitt said. "At the same time, as a coaching staff and as a team, there is no time for us to have a pity party or hang our heads. As a staff we're looking at this team and calculating what we need to do."
Summitt also knows that she won't get any sympathy from her colleagues on the sidelines.
"There'd be a lot of coaches thrilled to have the talent remaining," Summitt said. "I'm excited to have the players that we have. We've just got to figure out how to deal without having a player that's obviously been at that point position pretty much all year."
Zolman can look back to 2004 and remember how Butts responded to the loss of Moore.
"When Loree went down I just remember our team collectively coming together. It was shaky at first," said Zolman, citing an ankle sprain that Butts suffered in the game against Kentucky. "It's something that as a team I think that's the most important to understand: Yes I'm going to be in the point guard position, but as a team we do it. We have to have such strong leadership and so much stronger than what myself has been showing and than what others have been showing recently.
"We don't have a true point. If we did or didn't – some people would even (erroneously) contemplate that when Lex was in there – but she did what she needed to do to help us in that situation. Do I have her speed and her handles and quickness? No I don't. But I can use my positioning, my intelligence, the things that I need to do, my change of speed and direction, to be able to handle the ball and the pressure and be able to get into an offensive flow.
"But the most important thing is going to be defense. As it always was from the beginning from the time the season started to right now, defense is going to be our primary focus. Whether that's going to be switching up more in our man, showing more of our matchup zone, whatever that is we have to be able to out-smart people. We have to be able to maintain a Tennessee system to be able to out-smart people."
The matchup zone was very effective against Vanderbilt in the second half, but Summitt wants to be able to show different looks to keep opponents off balance.
"I think it all depends on who you're playing," Summitt said. "Obviously against Vanderbilt it was good to us, but we've been playing man-to-man and sometimes a good changeup, if it comes at the right time, can be very effective, which it was. If we'd done it in the first half, would it have meant as much to us and would we have gotten as many stops? Maybe not. I think a lot of it was the time we went to it. They went and didn't score and didn't score, and it seems more effective than ever."
Tennessee will likely try to show Georgia some different defensive schemes, too. The Bulldogs present a stiff challenge because of their guards, especially Baker, the NCAA leader in steals this season who is also the career steals leader for Georgia with 389 after she broke the record of 342 held by Teresa Edwards (1982-86). She has 112 steals so far this season and is just five shy of breaking the single-season school record held by Kedra Holland-Corn (1993-97), who had 116. Baker also holds the SEC career record for steals after she surpassed Tan White (372), who played at Mississippi State.
"It's almost like playing five on six, she's that quick," Summitt said. "She has great anticipation: I think players that have quickness are always effective if you utilize it. When I think about her quickness, I cannot do so without thinking about her anticipation. She is a step ahead; she anticipates the second and third pass. I know against us she just took the ball out of our hands; she stepped up in the passing lanes. She's a great helper from the ball side and weak side. It's not like if she's away from you she's not dangerous. She is one of the best defenders in the country. We have to be alert to where she is, take care of the basketball, shorten our passes and just really run our screens and try to be effective and protective of the ball."
In the first game both teams lit up the scoreboard.
"I thought at Tennessee, Tennessee was bad on defense, which is something you don't hear people say very often about Tennessee," Georgia coach Andy Landers said. "The only problem was that we were worse on defense. Tennessee did the things that Tennessee needed to do to win, and we didn't affect those things very well. On Thursday night, we've got to affect those things to win."
The Bulldogs haven't had much trouble scoring this season, but the 94 points Tennessee stuck on the scoreboard helped contribute to their woeful rankings nationally in defensive categories. Among the 324 Division I teams, Georgia ranks 152nd in scoring defense and 227th in field-goal percentage defense. (Tennessee ranks 63rd and 182nd in the respective categories.)
But since the UT game, Georgia has stiffened as opponents have scored just 58.8 points per game compared to 66.3 beforehand and have hit 40.9 percent of their field goals (42.0 before) and 21.7 percent from three-point range (31.6 before). In that same span Georgia has forced an average of 22 turnovers per game.
As coach Carolyn Peck said after Georgia's 92-55 win over Florida: "You can't score if you're chasing Georgia back on the other end."
Georgia and Tennessee are ranked fourth and seventh in the nation, respectively, in scoring offense with averages of 82 points a game for the Bulldogs and 78.8 for the Lady Vols. The teams can score, so tonight's game will come down to who can stop somebody. And for Tennessee its best defensive stopper is back in Knoxville recovering from surgery.
"It does seem like a lot has happened since then," Zolman said of the time between the Jan. 12 game and now. "But you've got to take one day at a time, and you've got to keep looking forward. I've learned a lot from the past situations. You've got to learn a lot when a point guard goes out. You've got to look to do what you can do for your team. It's a completely different scenario; it's a completely different team. But just because it's different doesn't mean it's not good."
The Tennessee staff spent this week looking at the nine pieces and trying to figure out some new combinations. The good news Wednesday was that sophomore center Sybil Dosty, who missed practice Monday because of knee swelling, was able to practice Wednesday.
"We look at the big picture, offensive and defensive schemes, and we really have to look at personnel and numbers," Summitt said during her media teleconference Wednesday morning. "I spoke to the lack of rebounding by Spencer and Redding. Fluker could do so much more on the boards. For minutes played, Sybil Dosty is doing an awesome job; I hope she can be healthy and help us on Thursday. Anosike and Parker can both get more boards. Our guards can rebound more on the defensive end. There are a lot of nights our guards don't rebound and that tells me that they are not committed to finishing the defense.
"There are a lot of ways we can be more efficient. It seems to be more glaring when you lose one of your starters and key players. The overall scheme there becomes more of an awareness now of what we have to do. We've been talking about this as coaches, but I believe this team will understand it; they understand that Alexis is a huge loss for our basketball team. They can look around but can't look very far or very deep."
The only advantage of having the first game without Hornbuckle be an away one is that Summitt will have their attention.
"The one good thing about road games is that you have a lot more time to meet with players individually and visit with your team," she said. "You don't have as many distractions."
Zolman is sticking with the short approach to success.
"Take it one at a time," she said. "Take it one at a time because it's such a difficult league to play in, such a long season to play. You've got to improve every single moment, every single practice, every single game, because a lot of teams think they really have an opportunity to beat us.
"Not only these three losses have given other teams confidence but now with the loss of our point guard, they're saying, ‘It's not even going to be a problem. We can take Tennessee.' It's important for us to step up from the get-go against Georgia and say, ‘We may be short-handed, but we're still not going to die.' "
SCOUTING REPORT: Summitt handled the scouting report in her media teleconference. Here were her remarks:
"On the inside, with Humphrey, that is a tough match up for anyone in the league. As I see it, it's hard to defend her once she gets the ball. We need to do as solid of a job as we can to bring the defensive pressure. She's shooting over 55 percent, and she can step out and shoot the three, so we have to be aware of playing her in the face-up game. She's also shooting very well from the line.
"We need to not turn the ball over and give Baker lay-ups. She is shooting the ball very well from inside the arc. I have to believe a lot of those points come off her tenacity on defense. We are clearly aware of it, but you can be aware of something and still struggle to handle it if you're not cautious.
"Chambers is having a good year and doing a lot for the Georgia team. We have to defend her; we have to defend all of their players. We have to also be aware of their high-low game. They do a great job of that triple post – Megan and Humphrey's spacing and how they play well together is going to be a challenge for our post game. The biggest challenge will come from defending the quickness that this team possesses overall."
ON TAP: Six other SEC teams are playing tonight in the following matchups: South Carolina at Auburn; LSU at Florida; and Ole Miss at Kentucky. Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are off.
Tennessee never enjoyed a bye week in the SEC this season because it scheduled Connecticut on a Saturday and Duke on a Monday to accommodate national TV broadcasts. This Sunday, the Lady Vols will play at Alabama.
"We have back-to-back road games; that's always a challenge," Summitt said. "I know this Alabama team has had some injuries and struggles, but it seems the best therapy for most of these teams is for Tennessee to come play you. We seem to bring out the best in everyone, and I would expect that to be the case when we go to Alabama."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series against Georgia, 34-14, but the series is much tighter when played in Athens, where UT holds a slim 8-7 lead. … Tennessee has never lost on Feb. 16 and has posted a 15-0 record on this date in its history. … Georgia's last win at home came in 2000 with a 78-51 win. The Bulldogs last win in the series came in overtime in 2004 at the SEC tourney, 68-66. The average score in the last nine games – seven won by UT, two by Georgia – is 72.7 for the Lady Vols and 68.1 for the Bulldogs. … Tennessee will reach another milestone tonight by playing its 500th ranked opponent all-time. Overall, UT is 355-144 against ranked teams for a winning percentage of 71.2. This season the Lady Vols are 10-2 against ranked teams.