Summitt isn't asking for much.
"Just that they come out inspired to play both ends, that our bench brings more help and that we establish our inside game right away," she said.
That sounds like sound Tennessee basketball principles, but it has sometimes been a struggle for the Lady Vols this season. The team has had to overcome the transfer of one point guard and then the loss of another when Alexis Hornbuckle broke her wrist Feb. 12. The players have been at times uncharacteristically uninspired on defense – though that mindset shifted dramatically Thursday against Georgia when Tennessee stayed in its zone for all but the last possession.
In the second half of the Georgia game Summitt went with her biggest lineup of the season, and she said she plans to stick with it Sunday: Shanna Zolman (5'10) at the point with Sidney Spencer (6'3) and Candace Parker (6'4) on the perimeter and Nicky Anosike (6'4) and Tye'sha Fluker (6'5) inside.
The Crimson Tide is expected to start: Harriet Barnes, No. 50, 6'2 sophomore forward (8.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg) ranks eighth in the SEC in rebounding; Dee Merriweather, No. 52, 6'4 senior center (6.8 ppg, 8.4 rpg), second place in school history with 130 blocks; Navonda Moore, No. 34, 5'10 junior guard (11.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg), scored a season-high 26 points against Tennessee three days after dislocating her kneecap; Kate Mastin, No. 21, 5'9 junior guard (9.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg), missed the first UT game with a sprained ankle; and Leah Drury, No. 10, 5'8 senior guard (3.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg), averaging 36.5 minutes per game over the last six games.
Another key player is Lauren Hill, a 6'0 junior forward who has started in past games and who averages 10 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
Alabama is without senior center Krystle Johnson and junior guard Marverly Nettles, who were dropped from the team Feb. 6 by coach Stephany Smith.
A story in the Feb. 16 edition of The Birmingham News said Nettles, who was the team's second-leading scorer, "said Smith told her she was hard to coach, strayed from properly running Alabama's press-break offense, and ‘bailed' on her teammates in a Jan. 22 loss to South Carolina. Johnson, a co-captain, said Smith cited a disagreement between the two over Johnson's role early in the season, and two incidents at practices in which Smith accused Johnson of making comments to undermine the coaches."
The players were quoted in the story as saying other players had confrontations with the coach, but they were not dismissed. Nettles agreed she had trouble running the offense and was hesitant because mistakes meant running in practice. Johnson denied undermining the coaches. Smith declined to comment to the paper about the meeting.
Nettles, who was averaging 11.5 points per game, had eight points in the previous meeting with Tennessee this season Jan. 29, which UT won 89-54. Johnson had a rebound in 10 minutes of play.
Both teams are down to nine players on the roster, and Tennessee has some nagging injuries. Sophomore center Sybil Dosty has been bothered by knee swelling but did play nine minutes in the 58-55 win over Georgia. Parker turned her ankle against Georgia when she stepped on the foot of Spencer – she injured her ankle earlier this season when she stepped on Anosike.
"My ankle is alright," Parker said. "It's getting better, treating it (Friday). It was funny. As soon as I did it, Sid was like, ‘I'm sorry; I'm sorry!' "
Parker can laugh, because she wasn't seriously injured. But Parker's availability for this game, the last two of the regular season at home next week and the postseason are paramount to Tennessee's success. Besides being UT's most effective inside scorer, Parker is the backup point guard. It's an unconventional approach to the one spot, but at 6'4 she can see over every defender – Georgia backed off its press because she could just throw over the top of it – and she often makes one pass to the wing and then heads to the paint.
"She's going to have to run the offense some," Summitt said. "She can start at the one and go to three, four and five."
Parker laughed recently when she remembered Summitt telling the Boost-Her Club in the preseason that Parker can play all five positions, but if she was at the point Tennessee was in trouble. Summitt also laughed when reminded.
"We are without Alexis," she said, and Tennessee was in trouble.
Summitt can smile about it because Tennessee appeared to have an answer for the loss in the first game without Hornbuckle. The Lady Vols slowed down the pace, went with a big lineup, dominated the boards and flummoxed Georgia with its matchup zone defense.
Parker came out of that game acknowledging that one of Summitt's biggest maxims was right: Defense and rebounding do win games.
Parker had 14 rebounds against Georgia, and Fluker added 10. Parker isn't hindered on the boards by playing at the point because she doesn't stay there once the offense starts.
"She's not having to rebound from that position," Summitt said. "She's not out there handling it, shooting threes, passing it. As soon as she gets rid of the ball she's very much involved around the paint. I expect our three frontline players who are playing the most minutes (Parker, Fluker and Anosike), they need to have 10 boards a night."
Summitt said the players picked that number, and they both need to tally 10 a piece.
Summitt also expects more point production out of Fluker and Anosike. Parker had 19 against Georgia and has been in double figures in 23 games this season.
"We're coming inside," Summitt said. "We want to play inside out, and that's going to open up things on the outside. Spencer, she's got to be getting six to eight boards a game. Look how big we are. The amazing thing to me in our Vanderbilt game: Spencer and Redding combined for one rebound. That's unacceptable. First of all, their size. Secondly, their classification. They're juniors in this program, and you don't understand rebounding and board play?"
Summitt did add that against Georgia "Sid really stepped up the second half." Spencer had eight points and four rebounds. Redding played better in spurts, but she struggled to take care of the ball and only had one board.
"That environment for whatever reason she didn't compete like everybody else," Summitt said. "She was on her heels from the beginning. I have wanted her to be competitive and aggressive, and we've seen little bitty spurts. I felt like we would learn a lot about our team. I liked pretty much what I saw with one exception. I mean somebody might come up and take the ball out of my hands but not without a fight. She had that happen twice. She was great on the bench – a great teammate; everybody loves her. But right now you just can't count on her in that kind of game. That's been the unknown about her all year."
However with such a short bench Summitt will need to play Redding – she can score – and hope to coax more effort out of her. But redshirt freshman forward Alex Fuller should get off the bench sooner.
"Right now Alex will play ahead of her because I know Alex will be intense, and I know she'll rebound," Summitt said. "Dom just does not compete on every possession, and no one can force you to do that. No one can give you an attitude when somebody wants to come up and rip the ball out of your hands. I promise you they'd have to pull me to the floor to get it. You think they're going to come up and take that ball out of Anosike's hands? Not without a fight. So that has to be the attitude of everyone. Dom's play (Thursday) night was very costly for us, particularly in the first half. I hate it because she has the offensive game to really help this team, but she doesn't have the defensive game. It's gotten better, but she doesn't have the boards.
"Rebounding is just a mindset. You've got to be competitive to rebound. Hornbuckle wants the ball. I don't care if she's on defense or offense, she wants the ball. Parker wants the ball. Anosike wants the ball. Fluker wants the ball. Zolman wants the ball. I believe Fuller wants the ball. (Lindsey) Moss wants the ball. As you go through our team I like the fact that we have that many people that want it, but to have a player like Dominique that could really help us … my goodness we're running out of games."
Dosty also wants the ball and has been one of Tennessee's most efficient scorers and rebounders in terms of minutes played. She had four points in nine minutes against Georgia and with Summitt deploying a big lineup Dosty can provide some steady play in the paint.
But Tennessee, which is trying not to be the worst rebounding team in UT history, knows this new-look – Zolman and the Bigs – must own the glass. It took the loss of Hornbuckle to really shake up the team.
"I think last week before any of this happened, before Lex went down, I was telling Shanna, we need something to kick us in the butt and get us going and get us playing the way we should be playing," Parker said. "I should have been getting 14 rebounds a game because I'm capable of doing that. I hate it for Lex to go down. I hate it for that to happen, because she is the type of player that pushes tempo. She means so much to our team. I just think that this definitely opened up our eyes and kicked us in the butt a little bit in terms of we all had to step up our games. I think everybody did. Shanna had five rebounds (against Georgia). Tye had 10 rebounds. We all stepped up our role because we knew if we didn't we were going to lose."
Hornbuckle averaged 5.5 rebounds a game, and besides missing her leadership at the point, Tennessee had to make up for her defense and board play.
"It was tough," Parker said. "We all had to step up our roles. All our roles changed. We had to look at her stats and say, ‘Who was going to come up with them?' She's the second-leading rebounder on our team. She pushed tempo for us, played defense, steals, so I think we had to provide that extra boost, and we could compensate for her not being there."
Parker has demonstrated her ability to step up. Besides upping her boards, she deftly handled the job at the point.
"I feel comfortable handling the ball and being out on top of the floor to give Shanna some breaks," Parker said.
She got an endorsement from the player she replaced.
"I think she can handle it," Hornbuckle said. "She's a big body. She knows how to handle the ball. She knows how to make smart decisions. She's a playmaker. That's what you have to do when you're a guard. My struggle was know when to be a point guard and when to be a two guard. Know when to set them up and when to attack. I think she's handling that pretty well – when to get them in the offense and when to attack and get a bucket."
But there will be times when Parker will need to be planted in the paint as part of that attack. For that reason Summitt wants Fuller and Lindsey Moss to see the floor more.
"Those two right now are the two I would love to get more minutes because Shanna is going to need some relief," Summitt said. "Do I necessarily want Lindsey having to play against a team like Georgia at the one? No. But even to go in and be able to give us some minutes at the two. I think without question Alex – she's played a lot of three for us. She will rebound."
Tennessee found an answer on defense by unveiling a 3-2 matchup zone that befuddled Georgia the entire game. The Lady Vols only went to a man-to-man look for the last possession when Georgia needed a three to tie. They switched on every screen and a Georgia pass was deflected away and into the hands of a Tennessee player.
"We'll play some man, but with the size we have … what they do they support better out of the zone," Summitt said. "They're in better position and more committed to help."
Tennessee has several zone defenses to draw from with the 3-2, 2-3 and 1-1-3 and can also spring some variations with each look. Summitt knew the 3-2 could be very effective with the size of her frontline players and against Georgia she saw exactly how.
"You don't know how things are going to look. You can come in here and draw it up on the board and talk and watch things but until you put your team on the floor," Summitt said. "When we put it in we used a lot of different combinations. I didn't realize it would be that effective until I saw it. Keep in mind our size versus their size. It might not be as effective if we're playing against someone with bigger players. Georgia is extremely quick and athletic, but they don't have the size we have. They have better speed and quickness."
Anosike is one of UT's better one-on-one defenders – she can go out on the perimeter and pick up guards in a man-to-man – but she also thrived in the zone.
"She got her hands on a lot of balls," Summitt said. "She was really active."
Tennessee still has some problems to solve, specifically inside scoring. The lack of a true point guard means UT has no pure passers on the perimeter. One of the reasons Parker can fill in smoothly at the point is because she's also the team's best passer and can see the floor. Redding earning more playing time would help in this regard because she is now the team's best passer into the post.
"We're not getting the ball inside," Summitt said. "We opened up the (Georgia) game with three straight possessions to go inside, and we couldn't make the pass or we didn't make the pass. Dom wouldn't make the pass; Sid wouldn't make the pass. In all fairness to Zolman when I watched the tape the second time I'm like why aren't we getting the ball inside? They were looking to double on our posts so she saw help coming. We talked about that (in Friday's film session)
"We have to practice and work on post feeds, putting the ball over the top. Offensively when the game starts we need to establish post game. They did late, but they didn't in the opening minutes of the game. Zolman was getting a lot of pressure."
For now Tennessee will try to apply the lessons from the performance against Georgia to Sunday's game against Alabama.
"It's going to be a hard-fought game," Parker said. "I think everybody brings out their best, especially on their home floor against us. We just have to carry over from what we did against Georgia in the second half to Alabama for the whole game."
Zolman said the outcome of the Georgia game allowed her and the team to keep believing in themselves and in Summitt's system.
"That was such a huge confidence booster for not only for myself but for the team," Zolman said. "It reiterated what we were talking about, it reiterated what we were meaning and by what we were saying to one another: Even if we don't have a true point guard out here we're still Tennessee. We're still going to win Tennessee way. We're still going to play Tennessee basketball.
"I think (Thursday) night was one of the first wins that I can probably remember this season – with the exception of a couple – where after the game you just felt great. You had no worries. You had no doubts in your mind thinking back, ‘Oh if we only did this we could have beat them by more' or ‘If we would have done this, we could have done this better.' You just took the win for what it was. You're happy to get away with it. We won it in Tennessee style. We killed them on the boards. Our defense was crucial for us. That's the way that we win."
The players were aided by the calmness of their coach. Summitt encouraged the players pre-game and remained upbeat on the bench even when they fell well behind in both halves.
"When the coaches get excited, we get excited," Zolman said. "When they get negative, we get negative. When they're calm, we're calm. Your team looks to leaders and how they stand up. Leaders look to coaches and how they are. She did a very good job with that."
Summitt's demeanor was welcomed by a senior leader. It was also needed by a freshman, who knew she had to shoulder more of the load for her suddenly depleted team.
"I think it carried over because it showed that our coaches had confidence in us," Parker said. "I think their calm demeanor and everything that they told us it wasn't like they were panicked, and this is what we had to do. We just settled down and played."
Parker and Zolman showed no panic during the key closing seconds of the game. Parker wrapped up a missed shot by Georgia with Tennessee clinging to a one-point lead and smothered the ball. She looked for Zolman along the baseline but didn't want to pass into a lane of defenders. So she yelled for Zolman, who scooted over and snatched away the ball. Parker wanted Zolman to get fouled so that she would go to the line.
"I told her to come get it," Parker said. "She's the best free throw shooter on our team, and I had just missed a free throw. I wanted to get it to her."
"I was looking at Candace because I knew that she had it," Zolman said. "I was looking for the pass, but she didn't want to pass it to me because of the defenders that were around. I just ran over there and grabbed it from her. She didn't have to let loose of the ball. I just wanted to make sure that I had it in my hands at the end."
Zolman hit two free throws to put Tennessee up by three, and Georgia never got off a final shot.
Summitt said her calm demeanor in such a game was easy to explain.
"This may sound far-fetched, but it's the first time I haven't had to coach effort all season," she said. "At some point (in every other game) I had to coach effort. They understand now that they are all accountable. My biggest frustration with this team in past games is that they just take so many possessions off. At times just play uninspired. Does that bother me? Yes. But now they realize if it's going to happen this team has to do it. It was great to see that. It was very defining for this team. I just think they grew up a lot. They grew closer together. They understood what they had to do. That's what I mean by growing up. They finally said, ‘OK, we've got to step up and do these things.' "
ON TAP: All other 10 SEC teams are in action Sunday in the following matchups: Georgia at Vanderbilt; Arkansas at LSU; Florida at Auburn; Kentucky at Mississippi State; and Ole Miss at South Carolina.
ODDS AND ENDS: Top recruit Maya Moore of the class of 2007 was in the stands for the Tennessee-Georgia game. As far as next season, Tennessee is still looking to sign two juco guards this spring to make up for the transfer of Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood and immediately bring some depth to the guard position. … Alabama had lost seven straight games before beating Mississippi State, 61-59, on Thursday. It was Bama's first road win in the SEC since Jan. 26, 2003, at Ole Miss. … Tennessee leads the series against Alabama, 36-2, and has never lost at home or at Alabama. The two losses came at neutral sites in 1981 and 1984. Since then UT has won 29 straight. … With a win today Tennessee would have double-digit league wins for the 13th time since SEC play expanded in 1991-92. UT failed to hit double digits in 1996 and 1997. … When Alabama came to Knoxville coach Stephany Smith presented coach Pat Summitt with a bouquet of flowers since Tennessee was celebrating Summitt's 900th career win that had come on the road against Vanderbilt. … When Tennessee played at Alabama last season on Feb. 27, 2005, Nicky Anosike scored a career high 19 points. … Candace Parker is the only Lady Vol to start every game this season. … Sidney Spencer should have her own Lady Vol cheering section in the stands Sunday. She is from nearby Hoover, Alabama.