Coach Pat Summitt, who is in her 32nd year at Tennessee, has stood at center court many times as her seniors are introduced for the last time to the home fans.
"I think every year it's Memory Lane," Summitt said. "You go down Memory Lane."
Last year Sidney Spencer had seen her sophomore year suddenly halted in late February when she injured her knee in practice the day before the final home game. She watched on crutches on the sideline as the starters were introduced. When Zolman pulled up her warm-up shirt to reveal Spencer's No. 1 jersey, there wasn't a dry eye on the bench. After an off-season of rehabilitation, Spencer has become a vital player in the Lady Vols lineup and will start alongside Fluker and Zolman today.
"Senior Day" always is bittersweet for the departing players – it's tough to leave but the sense of accomplishment is strong – but for Spencer she just expects tough emotions.
"Not sweet at all," Spencer said with a sigh. "This season has definitely flown by. I know you always say that every year but seriously last year during Senior Night that was really emotional for me because Shanna busted out my jersey. We've already talked about that I'm not looking forward to that day when it's Senior Night for her because I know it's coming down to the end, and that's going to be really tough. But that's part of growing up."
Spencer isn't sure if she'll cry, but she's comforted by the fact that she'll be off the court with her teammates this time as they await the introductions.
"I don't know. We'll see," Spencer said of any tears. "It was a real emotional time last year. This is going to be hard, but I'll be back behind the curtain over there with the team so maybe no one will see it if I do."
Spencer's roommate and fellow junior, Dominique Redding, is fairly certain that Spencer will get weepy, and she might join her.
"Me and Shanna we connected on my official visit and ever since then she's been my buddy," Redding said. "I'm going to try not to cry. We're going to have to, like, slap Sid and pick her up off the floor or something like that."
"We're sad to lose them," redshirt freshman forward Alex Fuller said. "They're two people that have helped us as a team keep our heads. Tye and Shanna stepped up big for us as far as leading and scoring. They keep us level."
The roles of Fluker and Zolman have become even more pronounced with the loss of sophomore point guard Alexis Hornbuckle on Feb. 12 because of a broken right wrist. Zolman moved to the point, and Fluker moved into the starting lineup. Since then the seniors have shouldered the load with more leadership – Zolman is running the offense, dishing assists and scoring, and Fluker dropped in a career high 22 points in a win over Auburn on Thursday.
"They have been so amazing, great leaders on and off the court, just great people to be with," Spencer said. "They've really done a great job with this team leading by example, on the court keeping us together and composed. We don't have Alexis so they really stepped up. Tye's been rebounding like a maniac; Shanna's really stepped up playing point as well as just bringing energy. That takes a lot of effort, and she's playing almost 40 minutes a game. They just in general have stepped it up."
Today's game is also the last one of the regular season. No. 5 Tennessee (25-3, 11-2) will take on Florida (19-7, 7-6) at 3 p.m. Eastern (CSS, Lady Vols Radio Network) in a final tune-up before the SEC Tournament tips off next week in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Lady Vols have locked up the No. 2 seed. The No. 1 seed will be LSU, and Georgia has earned the No. 3 seed. Mississippi State is last at No. 12, but the other eight seeds will all be sorted out in Sunday's league games.
The senior-laden Florida is expected to start: Brittany Davis, No. 32, 6'2 senior forward (11.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg), 91 career starts with 85 straight and four rebounds shy of 500 for career; Dalila Eshe, No. 34, 6'3 senior forward (14.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg), averaging 19 points and 8.3 rebounds in the last four games; Sha Brooks, No. 3, 5'7 freshman guard (12.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg), averaging 16.5 points and hitting nearly 40 percent from behind the arc over the last six games; Sarah Lowe, No. 11, 5'7 senior guard (6.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg), tallied 23 assists and 17 steals in the last six games and hit two free throws in final seconds of overtime to help Florida beat LSU, 79-78; and Danielle Santos, No. 21, 5'10 senior guard (8.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg), 32 points shy of 800 for her career.
The game will be a homecoming of sorts for four Gators who hail from the state of Tennessee: junior Kim Dye, a native of Fayetteville, Tenn., who was a teammate of Fuller's at Shelbyville Central High School, and three freshmen, Brooks (Jackson), Kim Critton (Memphis) and Jessica Jackson (Collierville).
Florida coach Carolyn Peck is from nearby Jefferson County – a contiguous county to Knox – and was an assistant coach at Tennessee for two years from 1993 to 1995. Peck is one of only two former Summitt staffers at UT – there are 59 in the high school, college and professional coaching ranks – to beat the mentor as a head coach. Peck did it when she was at Purdue in November 1998, and Mickie DeMoss did it this season at Kentucky.
Zolman and Fluker aren't Tennessee natives, but they have earned a spot in the hearts of Lady Vol fans and the coaching staff. Zolman is from Syracuse, Indiana; Fluker is from Pasadena, California.
"They come here young and immature and unaware of what to expect," Summitt said. "They leave home so they have to go through that adjustment as well. It's a huge transition from high school to college and leaving their families. You've got to respect the fact that they left Indiana and California to come and play in this program and to be at the University of Tennessee as a student-athlete."
Fluker has scored 783 points and tallied 495 rebounds during her career. With 84 career blocked shots she ranks 12th in the UT record book. She was named to the 2006 ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District IV Third Team and was selected for the SEC All-Academic Team in 2004 and 2005. Fluker, a retail and consumer science major who has already completed a minor in business, is a nominee for the SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year Award in 2006.
Zolman is a finalist for the 2006 Wade Trophy and has scored 1,564 career points. She shot 95.7 percent from the stripe during her sophomore season, a mark that still stands as the NCAA Division I single-season free throw percentage record. Against Alabama this season Zolman scored a career-high 28 points and hit seven three-pointers to establish a new Lady Vol single-game record. With nine more treys she will become the UT single-season record holder. She earned NCAA All-Final Four Team honors in 2004, and NCAA All-Regional honors in Philadelphia in 2005. For the second straight year the journalism and electronic media major was named to ESPN The Magazine Academic All-District IV First Team.
Summitt has watched her seniors evolve from young women to mature adults both on and off the court.
"It's a process, and there's no way you can fast-forward it," Summitt said. "They have to grow just like a kid learning how to walk. They fall down, they skin their knees, they get their feelings hurt, and they've got to get back up and go again. They probably never had anyone stay on them, anyone that's going to set the bar as high as our coaches will set the bar. They probably think it's never good enough, but when we see the development, you see them buy into it, you see the results and then obviously over time they're sold on it.
"Very few players have gone through the program and left here not sold on what they learned. And even those who left here a little skeptical, they're the ones that write you or call you and say, ‘If I had only known then what I know now how much better could I have been coach?' "
Consider Zolman and Fluker two players who have already bought into the system. Fluker is playing some of her best basketball, and Zolman has smoothly stepped into the point guard role to lead the team.
Zolman and Redding heaped praise on Fluker after she scored 22 points against Auburn in her penultimate home game.
"I'm so proud of her the way she scored in the paint," Redding said. "I've always said she could do that from day one."
"It's just been amazing to see how much Tye has improved over the course of the year," Zolman said. "She's always been in my opinion the most-dominant center in the NCAA because of her size, her body and her strength that she imposes upon people. Day in and day out she can just annihilate people in the paint because of how strong that she is. I think this year especially she's shown that. She's definitely stepped up her moves. She can juke you with her speed and her finesse but she also can be power and strong and go to the hole. She's definitely an inside force for us that we've needed."
Summitt sees that inside force now, but what she saw four years ago was a young player who wasn't physically ready for SEC play.
"I think first of all with Tye when she came in she certainly was everything but in good shape," Summitt said. "I thought it's going to take us two years to get this lady in shape. The background didn't lend for her to be really prepared in terms of it's a little more laidback the environment she was in.
"Now she's got to come in and dial up her intensity. But each and every season she's gotten better. I just think this year she's elevated her game tremendously and that's a credit to what she did in the off-season and how she's learned to really work hard and narrow her focus on what are good offensive possessions for her. She's been dominant in the low post. The fact that she had a career high on Thursday I just think she's getting better and better. She's handled coming off the bench; she's handled being a starter. I respect how she has really put the team first in that situation."
Summitt remembers going to Wawasee High School to watch Zolman. It was the same night she surpassed the Indiana state scoring record (2,869 points) and later went on to finish her prep career with 3,085 points.
"When I walked in the gym that night it was packed," Summitt said. "There were only two open seats – one for myself and my friend, Mary Margaret Carter, who was not an athlete in college. We sat near the scorer's table, and we're crunched in there. Shanna comes out, and the place is going crazy, and she hits her first eight shots.
"My non-athletic friend turned to me and said, ‘Now, does she ever miss?' She was being dead serious. And I started laughing and I said, ‘Occasionally. Not often.' "
Summitt said Zolman is one of the best pure shooters to ever play at Tennessee.
"Absolutely," she said. "I think that shooters that stand out in my mind (are) the long-range shots. Obviously Cindy Brogdon. We didn't have the three-point line then, but she definitely had range like Shanna has. And then I think Kara Lawson. When she left here I thought she was really becoming a great outside shooter. I look at her now in the pros, and that's why she plays the minutes she plays. But Shanna and Cindy are the first two that stand out in my mind here."
For their part Fluker and Zolman are trying to forget it's their last home game and will instead focus on Florida and their postseason future.
"I'm going to try and not focus on the fact that it's going to be the last game, just come out and have a good game for my team and try to produce and be consistent for my team," Fluker said. "I think if I keep my mind set on being consistent then I won't feel any extra pressure. But it's going to be an exciting time and a sad time at the same time being my last home game. It's going to be fun to play in front of my mom and my little sister."
"It's going to be different because it doesn't seem like I'm a senior," said Zolman, whose father was rebounding her shots for her before Saturday's practice. "It does in some instances, but it's gone by so fast. You look back and you're like, ‘Where did all the time go?' It's going to be memorable. I remember in high school your senior year, and this is multiplied by 100. It's going to be different. This is really truly your last time playing on this floor. I don't think I've stopped and thought about that yet."
Spencer has thought about it, and she knows it's the first step to saying good-bye for now to someone who will be a lifetime friend.
"You really can't explain it in words," Spencer said. "It's truly amazing, and I've truly been blessed in my life to find someone that's so much like me and has the same beliefs that I do and the same faith I do. That's just been, I guess, all of God's plan, but I love that girl so much, not only because she's an amazing basketball player but because of the person she is and the lifestyle that she leads."
The seniors were asked for their most memorable moment, their parting words to Summitt and the staff, their advice to newcomers and whether or not they would be back to visit in the years to come. Here are their answers.
Fluker: Memorable moment: "I would say last year when we played in the NCAA second round, the 880 game (when Summitt set the all-time NCAA wins record). I was able to play good and get player of the game. It's going to be a classic game. Something I can show my kids."
Parting words: "Thanks, and they did a good job preparing me for life."
Advice to new players: "Just make sure you do a good job of hard work and make it a habit from the beginning."
Return trips: "I'll come back to visit. I made some good friendships and have some good relations here. I'll definitely come back to visit."
Zolman: Memorable moment: "Aside from all the Final Fours – that's definitely memorable being able to go back to Indianapolis – but I think the half-court winning shot (last season) against Stanford is pretty high up there."
Parting words: "I'll just say thank you for a great four years. It's been a roller coaster at times – a lot of hard times, a lot of fun times – but it's also like everybody says that comes out of college: It's the best four years of my life thus far. I really thank them for making me a better player and a better person."
Advice to new players: "I'd tell them not to let Pat get the best of you. To constantly be in communication with her and to play hard and to work hard and to maximize your work ethic every single day. Because hard work is going to get you a long way in this program and in life, too."
Return trips: "Oh yeah, definitely."
One of the youngsters on this year's team, sophomore center Sybil Dosty, will watch Senior Day and know it's still two years away for her.
"I remember when I came on my visit, and Tye and Shanna were sophomores," Dosty said. "It's really weird to see them leaving. It's sad, but I'm also really excited for them to hopefully send them away on a good note."
She agreed the years seem to fly by, but only to a point.
"It does, but I guess it depends on which day you ask me," said Dosty with a wry grin.
If Summitt has been in her ear for nearly all of practice, "then it's a long way away," Dosty said.
Dosty and the rest of the bench players – Redding, Fuller and guard Lindsey Moss – had one of their better performances Thursday against Auburn and even got Summitt's hard-earned praise.
"Oh Sybil can be a great spark for us as long as she can be efficient off the bench," Summitt said. "She is as quick to go rebound as anyone on the floor. She instinctively has a nose for the ball, and she's going to the glass. That could give us a big lift off the bench."
Redding had struggled of late, but Summitt applauded her play Thursday – eight points and a steal in 16 minutes.
"Absolutely," Summitt said. "I just asked her to go in for three minutes (at a time) and bring everything's she got and not to feel like she's got to pace herself but just to go in and just give everything's she got for short minutes. I think that's helped her. She's been a lot more productive."
Redding graded herself much more harshly because she only had one rebound.
"That was still like a D game, maybe C-minus," she said. "I'm looking for something else. I've got to keep improving with each game. It's almost postseason so we're trying to win. That's why I gave it a D because I only got one rebound."
But Redding, who had been down recently, was smiling again. Her mother, Mary Adams, made her annual trip to Knoxville this week from Clearwater, Florida, and has helped settled down her daughter.
"I had a great week of practice – well not great, but I was improving a little bit each day," said Redding, who has written "Lex 14" on her shoe in honor of her injured teammate. "Just trying to do what my mom told me to do and what coach is asking of me. (Mom) basically said, ‘Just play.' I'm not giving it all I can, and she can see it. She said I looked defeated, and that's not me. So I need to come out there and just play. She gives it to me straight, and that's my mom."
Dosty also is acknowledging Hornbuckle: She has "Buck 14" on her left shoe and "Lex 14" on the right one.
"My fallen teammate," Dosty said. "She is a soldier."
She has heard that Hornbuckle, who had to watch the Georgia game back home in Knoxville on Feb. 16 because she was recovering from wrist surgery, was laughing at televised shots of her exuberance on the bench. Dosty laughed and said that's part of her personality.
"I think so," Dosty said. "Also I think sitting on the bench can be difficult to stay into the game sometimes – at the same time be sitting there but when you're ready to go in to have the same energy. It's helping to keep my energy up while I'm on the bench, but when I go into the game I'm still into the game, and I know what's going on. Also, it's fun. It's a good time for everybody."
The bench was ready to explode when it became apparent that Parker intended to dunk on a breakaway steal against Auburn. But she took off a tad too early and bounced the ball off the back iron.
"We would have gone crazy," Dosty said. "They probably would have had to call a technical because we probably would have been on the court or something. It was still exciting even though she missed it. It was the prettiest miss. It was so fun. I was screaming, ‘Dunk it!' It was really cool to see her (try to) do it."
Dosty got some significant playing time in that game – she had five rebounds in 16 minutes – but missed her three shots. Still, Summitt applauded the effort on the boards and lauded her play off the bench.
"I think it's a really big role, especially giving Nicky and Tye, our starters, a break in the post and being able to go in and get boards and not only keep it at the same level but if I can, help us," Dosty said. "I wished I would have finished my shots a little better but other than that I can bring defensive intensity and also a lot of energy on the boards."
Since Hornbuckle went down, the entire team has tried to bring more intensity. Summitt said nobody could wait and expect someone else to step up. The nine players left had to do it. The first game without Hornbuckle was in Athens, and Tennessee responded with a 58-55 win after a lot of pundits had written them off.
"I think the Georgia game was really a big win for us because since then we've kind of been getting the attitude back that we had I think at the beginning of the season with going into every game having a winner's attitude and not even thinking about a loss," Dosty said.
Summitt sees a team that is not so much hitting its stride as bringing a season's worth of effort to fruition.
"I think we've been a team that has improved in a gradual way," Summitt said. "I don't think we went from being good to great. I think we're still working on getting a little bit sharper. I think (Thursday) night just watching our tape I thought our offensive execution was really sharp. We moved the ball well, we had good spacing, players were aggressive inside, they were aggressive on the outside knocking down shots. Obviously when you shoot the ball well, and everybody is involved it's great to see that kind of rhythm offensively.
"And then defensively I thought second half we did a lot of good things. We're becoming a little bit more versatile in our defense, changing up the looks. That should help us either keep teams off balance or give us a chance just to present change that in some way might benefit us."
Those are the fundamentals on the court. But the players also now have the intangibles of confidence and believing in themselves.
"A few weeks ago people – I don't think we were thinking that but it was hard to come in every day, I can't lie, with all the negativity we were hearing from everyone," Dosty said. "But like I said the Georgia win was a really big win for us; it was a big confidence builder. And since then we've had a whole different attitude about our team and just pulling together and knowing that no matter what anybody else outside of our program is saying about us we have to have confidence within ourselves. Especially after Lex went down people were saying there's no way we could do anything, but we know what we have in us, and those things (other people say) don't really matter."
ON TAP: Every SEC team is in action Sunday as the league closes out regular season play and sets the seeds for the tournament. The matchups are: Arkansas at Ole Miss; Mississippi State at LSU; South Carolina at Vanderbilt; Alabama at Kentucky; and Auburn at Georgia.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series against Florida, 34-1. The sole loss came in Gainesville in 1997. … On this date Tennessee is 8-5 with a 3-4 record at home. … Tennessee's seniors Tye'sha Fluker and Shanna Zolman have an overall career record of 119-17 with an eye-popping 52-3 mark in SEC play. So far, they have been to three Final Fours, have two SEC regular season titles and one SEC Tournament trophy. Zolman has averaged 18.5 ppg in four games against the Gators. … The Lady Vols have one of the tallest teams in the country with an average height of over 6'1. The opening lineup measures 6'4, 6'4 and 6'3 at the forward spots, 6'5 at center and 5'10 at guard for an average of 6'2, the tallest starting five in Lady Vol history. … Florida counters with a very tall coaching staff in Carolyn Peck, 6'4; her brother, Michael Peck, 6'7; Jose Mori, 6'3; and Shell Dailey, 6'2. The players' average is close to 6 feet. … The 2005-06 Tennessee team is averaging 38.7 boards per game and remains behind the 39.7 average of the 1977-78 team for the dubious distinction of worst rebounding team in Lady Vol history. But this year's squad has made incremental progress in what is shaping up to be a battle to the proverbial end.