"We've got to have at least two," coach Pat Summitt said. "If we can have two – all four of them don't have to bring it every game – but we've got to have two people we can count on."
Redshirt freshman forward Alex Fuller auditioned for one spot against Alabama last Sunday and acquitted herself well. She played 21 minutes and pulled down four rebounds and had four assists. She also blocked two shots and had a steal. Fuller is most comfortable inside the paint, but she has moved to the perimeter out of necessity.
"She responded very well from the halftime talk," Summitt said. "I thought she did a great job of coming back and playing hard. She only had two shots, and they didn't fall, but the rest of her game she was giving effort defensively and going to the boards hard. I was pleased overall."
Fuller is hesitant to talk about her game – out of modesty and also probably not wanting to alter the course she's on with discourse – but she has kept her confidence intact despite changing positions from power to small forward and being on the receiving end of Summitt's stare, which can wither any player, and especially a young one.
"I always have to keep my confidence up," said Fuller, who's encouraged by her coach's confidence in her. "It lets me know she wants to depend on me to come in and make something happen."
Fuller's shots didn't fall against the Crimson Tide, but she is an effective shooter both close to the basket and from long range. She can stick a put-back and swish a three-pointer.
"I'm really not known as a three-point shooter, but I know I can step out and hit it," she said.
She also is around the basket and, like sophomore Sybil Dosty, seems to have a natural knack for rebounding the ball.
"It's both," Fuller said when asked if board play was the result of her mindset or ability. "Coach stresses it in practice and in games. I've just always known that I have to go rebound. It's something that's natural."
Junior forward Sidney Spencer called Fuller an "X" factor and a key piece of Tennessee's postseason puzzle as Summitt tries to squeeze maximum minutes out of her starters and get a boost from the bench.
"Alex is crucial," Spencer said. "She can help us so much. I think she could be almost like you could call her ‘X' factor because she's so strong, and she rebounds the ball so well, and she has really good hands. I think she's a smart player so she can definitely add a lot, and well-needed, lift coming in. I think she can be very crucial come postseason."
Three factors are in Fuller's favor: She had excellent coaching in high school in Shelbyville from Rick Insell (now the coach at Middle Tennessee State University); she has adjusted to moving outside; and, most importantly, she is healthy after enduring a strained hip flexor and then some swelling in her surgically repaired left knee. She missed the entire 2004-05 season while healing from ACL surgery.
"Everything's fine now," Fuller said.
She was talking about her physical condition, but she also could have been talking about the comfort level with her game.
"I have to be now because it's almost March," Fuller said. "I have to be comfortable out there because that's where I'm going to play. Basically bring a spark, helping the inside game rebounding, getting post feeds, not turning the ball over."
Her preparation at Shelbyville Central has helped her this season at Tennessee.
"He knew what he was talking about," Fuller said of Insell. "He basically was the main one who got me prepared for college basketball."
Fuller also had a rather unflappable personality. If something is bothering her she doesn't show it. She also nods and accepts instruction from Summitt no matter how gently or forcefully it is delivered at practice.
"She doesn't let anything phase her," Spencer said. "She's always composed. I really admire that about her, so I think she can do a lot for us."
The 6'3 Fuller will likely be one of the first players off the bench tonight when No. 5 Tennessee (24-3, 10-2) takes on Auburn (13-12, 4-8) at 7 p.m. Eastern (Fox Sports Net, Lady Vol Radio Network) at Thompson-Boling Arena. The game is also a food drive for Second Harvest Food Bank of East Tennessee. Fans get one free general admission ticket for a minimum donation of two non-perishable food items, and those already holding tickets are encouraged to participate as well. Donations should be taken to the Ticket Office beginning at 5 p.m. with doors to the arena opening at 6 p.m. Second Harvest distributes food to 350-plus agencies in an 18-county area.
Summitt is sticking with her big lineup of Zolman (5'10) at the point with Sidney Spencer (6'3) and Candace Parker (6'4) on the perimeter. Nicky Anosike (6'4) and Tye'sha Fluker (6'5) will patrol the paint.
Auburn is expected to start a big lineup of its own: Marita Payne, No. 10, 6'5 senior forward (8.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg), leads the SEC in blocks with 101 and averages 4.2 per game; DeWanna Bonner, No. 24, 6'4 freshman forward (13.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg), first freshman to lead the Tigers in scoring since Becky Jackson in 1980-81; KeKe Carrier, No. 33, 6'7 freshman center (8.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg); scored a career high 24 points in the first game against Florida; Chantelle Blakely, No. 2, 5'9 freshman guard (0.2 ppg, 0.9 apg), earned her first career start against Ole Miss on Feb. 12 and will be starting her fourth game; and Nitasha Brown, No. 3, 5'9 senior guard (11.5 ppg, 4.0 apg), tied a career high with 19 points against Vanderbilt.
Auburn is fresh off a 73-58 win over Florida on Sunday and also beat Kentucky, 71-57, on Jan. 19 in Lexington, which is where Tennessee endured one of its three losses on the season. Auburn coach Nell Fortner said her team is looking forward to playing in Knoxville because of the fan turnout.
"Whether it is your home crowd or an away crowd, it is fun playing in front of a lot of people," Fortner said. "They will remember that Kentucky game (also a large crowd), and it will be something that they will use in a very positive way at Tennessee."
Tennessee is expecting defensive heat from Auburn in the form of full-court pressure. Florida, which comes to town Sunday for Tennessee's "Senior Night" is also likely to pick up full court. It will be the first time a team has tested Tennessee from end to end since the loss of point guard Alexis Hornbuckle after she broke her wrist Feb. 12.
"We spent a portion of practice (Monday and Wednesday) reviewing our press offensive looks," Summitt said. "I was pleased. We went against our practice guys. More than anything we needed some repetition. I'm not going to ask one player to break the pressure. We have to do it as a team. We have to space the floor well and be willing to play off the dribble as well as off the pass. We had some good preparation."
Tennessee also will likely answer pressure with pressure.
"I always believe you press a pressing team," she said. "Certainly there are not many games when we don't extend our defense. The next two games we're going to have teams come in and press us. We'll bring pressure ourselves. To what extent will all depend on how the game plays out and the time and score."
One player who could lend a hand on the depleted perimeter and who has the quickness to help defeat a press is Redding. Her play has been uneven at times both in practice and in games, and she has found herself in Summitt's crosshairs more often than not.
"It's taken a toll, but I've just got to find it somewhere inside me just to get everything back in order and start playing basketball again," Redding said. "You've got to take her message in the right way, stay positive with it, know that the team needs you and go out there and play for your team. I always have a smile on my face. Everyone knows. Everyone goes through it. Everyone has that time. We just pretty much have each other's back."
Summitt acknowledges that a heavy-handed approach can sometimes heap too much criticism on a player to the point of being counter-productive.
"You're always concerned about it, but I think the game on Sunday I think our bench got the message," Summitt said. "If you'll look at our team what we desperately need is a perimeter player to step up and give us short quality minutes and possessions. She was my first choice. Why? She's a perimeter player, she is a junior in this program, and she is the most mobile of all of our choices."
Summitt said she has made it clear to the bench, and Redding in particular, that she's asking for short spurts of effective play.
"Three or four minutes at a time whether there're two segments or three or four," she said. "It just depends on the game, depends on how she plays. She's capable of giving us four segments. Defense and rebounds and take care of the ball. If she knocks down a shot, that's gravy.
"Zolman played 37 minutes because Lindsey wasn't ready to get us in an offense. It's just a matter of will they step up and respond? You always worry that you're going to beat somebody down. I think they understand that. We talked about it at halftime. We talked about it (Monday) before we came out to practice. She (Dom) responded very well. I think sometimes players don't understand it's not that they have to be a great player off the bench, they have to be an efficient player off the bench. We've been trying to identify that. If (Zolman) has to play 37 minutes and we're in a championship game (in the SEC), her legs are dead. It's not that she's not in shape."
The message has made it through to Redding, who has the game to give Summitt what she wants.
"Be more accountable out there on the court, make smart decisions," Redding said. "Talk is cheap. When the game comes just go out there and give it all you've got and hopefully you'll get out of your rut and start playing again."
Redding has a visitor this week that could help her shake free of her rut. Her mother, Mary Adams, has made her annual trip to Knoxville from Clearwater, Fla., to see her youngest daughter. Mother and daughter are extremely close, and Redding tends to respond on the court when her mother is in town.
"She comes up here and keeps me company," Redding said. "This was planned before the season started. I worry about her sometimes. I like it when she comes up here, just relax and have mother-daughter time. I just like it when she's up here. We hang out and watch TV. She's like my buddy."
Summitt, who has an excellent relationship with Adams, welcomes the assistance.
"Whatever works," Summitt said. "She's solid. She never questions anything, always wanting to see Dom get better. She's not one of those parents that is seeing what everybody else does wrong and her daughter never makes a mistakes. She's not that way."
For her part Redding sees a chance to help her team.
"I see that," she said. "I've got to go back and play the type of basketball I know I'm capable of playing. Get in the gym extra, take some extra shots, work on my weaknesses before we get in the SEC Tournament and the Big Dance."
Several of the players, including Redding, have spent extra time before practice working on jump shots and free throw shooting. They echo the words of their coach in that they are happy to be home this week.
"You like the home games because you get to sleep in your own bed," Redding said. "The travel wears on you so whenever you can be at home, it's good."
Spencer, who is Redding's roommate, agreed with that sentiment.
"It's nice to be able to sleep in your own bed," she said. "Last week we had two back-to-back travel games, and that was kind of tough. Being here with home fans, home crowd, getting ready for the SEC Tournament, I think that's good for us."
One of those road games was sort of a home game for Spencer, a native of Hoover, Alabama, since it was played in Tuscaloosa. It was the first time that Spencer got to play at Alabama in a Tennessee uniform. In her freshman year Alabama came to Knoxville, and last year Spencer tore the ACL in her right knee just days before the game at Alabama.
"It was fun," Spencer said of Sunday's 82-65 victory in Tuscaloosa in which she scored 11 points and had four rebounds, four assists and a steal. "This is the first time I've gotten to go actually play on the court because last year I was hurt, and we didn't go my freshman year. I know almost all of the girls on the Alabama team, and I've been to camp there so it's kind of unique to play there so close to home. I had a lot of people come out and support me and that was fun. I think overall we did a good job, definitely I think we learned from it, and we're getting better and better."
Spencer is looking forward to the two games this week so the team can assess how it will handle a pressing team.
"Right now we're focusing on Auburn," she said. "I think both teams are going to challenge us in areas we haven't been challenged since Lex has been down. I think it's going to be a good experience and hopefully come out on top with big wins and just learn from them and get better and show what we have improved on."
"Coach said they are really athletic," Redding said. "Florida and Auburn are pretty much the same team. We've got to go out there and prepare for whatever they are going to throw at us."
Zolman and Parker, who backs up the senior at the point, so far have handled everything thrown at them. Zolman had to move from shooting guard to running the team, and Parker had to expand her role beyond rebounder and interior scorer to perimeter scorer and defender. She also bears responsibility for getting the team in its offense when Zolman is either on the bench for a breather or shifted to the wing.
Zolman has the endorsement of her fellow senior.
"I'm extremely happy that she's decided to step up and say, ‘Y'all can have confidence in me. I'll run the point for you, along with Candace Parker.' Obviously I'm not going to run the point," Fluker said with a delightful laugh. "I think she's done a fabulous job. I think it's given her some more confidence, and she's able to just relax and then her shot is falling. She's had two big games back-to-back as far as scoring goes. Not only myself but I'm pretty sure my whole team is happy that she decided to take on the role and step up and be the point guard. I'm happy we've had a couple of people step up and do the job."
Parker has had to assume a leader's role despite the fact she's a redshirt freshman.
"She's really stepped up," Summitt said. "She knew she had to. We have things we can run for her when she's at the point, and she doesn't mind that role. It's not like we're asking her to handle the ball at the top of the floor for 30 seconds. Just get us in an offense. She, of all of our players right now, has the best feel and the most composure aside from Shanna. People have to figure out how they're going to guard that. Are they going to guard her with a guard? Are they going bring a post player up there? They really have to have three bigs (on the floor) most of the time."
Auburn will be one of the few teams who can put that size on the floor. Tennessee will counter with its size and its commitment to playing from the inside out – let the bigs get touches and either score or kick out. In the last two games, the post players have not only scored, they have popped up on the stat sheet in the distribution of assists in an unselfish display of basketball.
"The thing that we've emphasized as a coaching staff from the beginning of the year to now is that we want to play from inside out," Summitt said. "We had a lot of games where I felt like our perimeter players got impatient. They didn't get the ball inside and got shot happy. They have awareness of how much more effective we are as a team in getting open shots when we play inside-out basketball.
"Our post players are unselfish. There is a common denominator between all the players who were great high school players when they come to college. They all touch the ball in high school, and they are accustomed to that when they come to play in college. When they don't get the ball all the time in college, they get overanxious and shoot it when they have it in their hands. We take ill-advised shots when that happens. We're now at a better place of understanding how we want to play on the offensive end."
It's a philosophy that Summitt has been preaching for 32 years and to this team specifically since preseason. It appears to have finally sunk in.
An ancient Eastern proverb could be apropos here: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Or perhaps contemporary Western philosophy works just as well.
"They're more cognizant of it," assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "I call it an awareness. Phil Jackson, I love this quote, being aware is so much more important than being intelligent. Our team I think we have a much higher awareness level now of how we have to play. It's one thing to believe you're going to win. It's another thing to know how you're going to win. I think that's something now that our team is much more tuned in to – how we have to play with this team."
SCOUTING REPORT: Lockwood, who specializes in coaching the bigs, handled this week's scouting report. Here is his assessment.
When the Lady Vols are on defense they must get used to having an opponent able to look them in the eyes.
"Defensively we have to contend with their frontline," Lockwood said. "KeKe Carrier, their big freshman, she's improving with every game. She's just getting better and better. You have a 6'7 kid in women's basketball? She's formidable. With her body the way it is we're not talking a 6'7 beanpole, we're talking a 6'7 kid with some body to her. That's something in women's basketball you just don't see everyday. It's like (Liz) Sherwood from Vanderbilt. So we have to deal with that. We can't let her set up where she wants to set up. We can't make it easy for them to get the ball to her. We have to deal with the frontline.
"You've got Payne, who's also good with the high-low stuff and is a tremendous shot blocker. You also have Bonner, who as a freshman is playing terrific for them. So 6'4, 6'5 and 6'7 along the frontline. We have to contend with that. For once we play a team that's bigger than we are or as big. Then also you can't forget about Brown who can really dribble drive, shoot it from the perimeter and probably their best all-around scorer. And Bonner plays on the perimeter as well. She's kind of multifaceted. She can dribble drive, and she's really good at getting fouled. Point being we really have to do a good job with inside play and dribble-drive defense. That's big."
When the Lady Vols have the ball, they must stick with Summitt's system, he said.
"On the other end of the floor this is a game where we want to just run our stuff," Lockwood said. "We've got to get the ball in the paint; we've got to get touches in the paint. Whether it's post feeds or kick-outs we've got to make their defense converge. That's very, very big for us on that end of the floor. We want to generate offense through inside play. Now whether it comes solely through inside play or inside out or drive and kick is really not the issue. The issue is the ball has got to get in the paint for us."
Summitt doesn't want to see her players back off of Payne despite her shot-blocking prowess and the size of Auburn, which has already set a school record with 192 blocks this season. The previous high was 188 last season.
"We have never played away from anyone," she said. "We have to get the ball inside and go right at Payne. It is a situation that we've been in, and our team understands they need to have composure inside and not rush and just turn and face up. Our post game is the biggest progress our team has made from last year to this year if you just look at where we are better. I feel so much better about our inside game. We can go four or five deep there."
Summitt also isn't worried about finding enough shots for all the bigs on the floor.
"I like the big lineup," she said. "When Spencer is in the game, there is a significant presence on the floor in terms of their size and ability to influence how the offense plays. I think we have a sense of what we want to do from an offensive perspective when the big three are involved (in Parker, Fluker and Anosike). That is the reason I went back to a big lineup. We all know Parker is the most comfortable and can be very productive at the four. With what we are running now, I still think she can get great touches and quality looks with her at the three."
INJURY UPDATE: Point guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who broke her right wrist in the game against Vanderbilt 10 days ago, was at practice Wednesday with a smaller cast on her right arm. She did some full-court dribbling drills left-handed, some legwork on defense, shot free throws (and hit most of them) left-handed, made some lefty passes and continued in her role as ‘player-coach.'
Her spryness just a week after surgery to place a screw in her broken navicular scaphoid bone was a tad surprising, but her court work is being closely monitored by Jenny Moshak, assistant athletics director for sports medicine.
"The concern with that bone is it gets a very poor blood supply and without a good blood supply it has a poor healing rate," Moshak said Wednesday. "She fractured it all the way through so it was in her best interest to surgically put a screw to put the two ends of the bone together. That will increase her chances of healing properly. So she surgically had that done last Wednesday so this was a week post-op. She got the stitches removed, and that short cast put on. That's a fiberglass cast. A week from now she'll go back and get a GORE-TEX cast so that she can actually get it wet. We're going to periodically take X-rays and see how it looks. A broken bone takes typically six- to eight weeks" to finish healing.
Despite the complete break, which Hornbuckle suffered in the first half of the Vandy game, she played the entire second half and had 10 points – including two crucial free throws to unknot a 67-67 tie with 2:50 left – and four assists and three rebounds.
"Lex is one of those players and people she's very gregarious and outgoing, and she laughs and smiles, but don't let that fool you," Lockwood said. "Because underneath there is a real layer of toughness. She physically and mentally is a very tough individual. Nothing she does, in terms of her recovery, honestly I can't say I'm surprised (she was dribbling and shooting a week after surgery). I don't underestimate her toughness. My impression of her has always been that that's a real tough individual."
Moshak, who best knows the toughness level of the players, agreed.
"Yes, and adrenaline is a wonder drug," she said. "There's been documentation of people playing with torn ACLs in football games and things like that. She calls herself a soldier, and I agree with that. I agree with that analysis of herself. She is a very tough person. I think sometimes to a fault she doesn't listen to her body enough. We struggled with that a little bit last year with her (knee) tendonitis, but we've gotten on the same page with that and treat it when necessary, and she's had some really good success with her tendonitis this year. I think the plan that we have her on is a solid plan. Look on the bright side of all this: It's just going to give her body a bit of a rest, which is not a bad thing as well if you have to find a bright side."
Hornbuckle will return to Dr. Robert Ivy, who performed the surgery, to monitor her healing progress.
"We're going to periodically look at it, and Dr. Ivy's going to take X-rays, and we'll go from there," Moshak said. "Psychologically it's good for her (to be on the floor), it's good for the team, and it's not bad to work on your left hand. You need to feel like an athlete, and the good news is she's got her legs where she's still able to do stuff. She's actually going to go and lift and do some more conditioning now. There's nothing wrong with maintaining your athleticism as much as possible and again this will improve her left hand and her ball-handling skills and her layups and things like that."
It seems like a ludicrous question, but it must be asked: Could Hornbuckle possibly come back this season at some point in mid- to late-March?
"I don't think anybody is counting on that and for all intents and purposes, no," Moshak said. "The healing time is the healing time. We're doing everything we possibly can, and we're monitoring it throughout the process, and we'll go from there. But to keep her involved with the team is an important part of the whole holistic healing process."
The sophomore guard also can serve her team in her capacity as "Coach Hornbuckle."
"Keep encouraging, talk to players," Summitt said. "She has their ear. Whatever she sees, share it with them, encourage them. They can see things and talk to players. Sometimes when it comes from your peers it means more. For whatever reason they connect."
The players are also trying to do something else that's important going into the preseason and that's hitting their stride.
"I think we're peaking at the right time," Redding said. "We're trying to play for Lex and go out there and try to win for her."
The good news is that the rest of the team is relatively healthy. Parker rolled her left ankle again in the Alabama game, but is doing better. Several players have nagging hand injuries, including Parker (right ring finger) and Fluker (left thumb).
"She doesn't seem to be hurting at all," Moshak said of Parker's ankle. "We're still dealing with a bit of swelling with it, but I've got her in a special tape job and then an ankle brace. We're still treating it.
"Fingers are a vulnerable part of the body in the sport of basketball when you're throwing people and balls at them. Once they're hurt it's kind of a Murphy's Law. They always seem to get hit over and over again. Other than that we're hanging in there."
ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams will play tonight in the following matchups: LSU at Alabama; Georgia at Arkansas; Kentucky at Vanderbilt; and Mississippi State at South Carolina. Ole Miss and Florida are off.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series against Auburn, 28-8. The last loss was in 1997 during the SEC Tournament. Since then the Lady Vols have won 12 in a row. … Former Lady Vol Carla McGhee (1986-90) will handle the radio broadcast of the game for Auburn with Andy Burcham. McGhee won two national titles at Tennessee in 1987 and 1989. She is a member of the Tigers' coaching staff but has been on a medical leave of absence after needing surgery that would sideline her from coaching for a while. Mark Simons, the husband of Duke coach Gail Goestenkors, joined Auburn's staff Jan. 1 to fill in for McGhee. There's one more Tennessee connection. Goestenkors played basketball at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. Simons had served as the school's baseball coach and assistant for the men's basketball team. UT's Dean Lockwood was the head coach of men's basketball at Saginaw Valley State. This is Simons' first foray into coaching women as it also was for Lockwood last season. … The Lady Vols should top 200,000 in total attendance during the two-game home stand this week to close out the regular season. A total of 181,419 fans have filled the arena so far. … Tennessee is 5-0 when playing on Feb. 23, but this will be the first game at home on this date. The wins have come on the road or at neutral sites. … UT's Candace Parker survived the cut to the Top 30 of the country's best players in consideration for the 2006 Naismith Trophy, one of the sport's most prestigious awards. Parker leads the Lady Vols in scoring (15.7 ppg), rebounding (8.0 rpg) and blocked shots (2.3 bpg). Parker also is on the Wooden Award midseason list and has been named a finalist for the V Foundation Comeback Player of the Year. … The Tigers and Lady Vols have played each other close in the last five meetings in games that have been low scoring. Tennessee averaged 67.6 points per game and Auburn, 58.6.