Lady Vols point toward SEC Tournament

The Lady Vols will take off Wednesday and then travel to Arkansas on Thursday before opening SEC Tournament play on Friday afternoon. The team had two lengthy and intense days of practice Monday and Tuesday – defense was stressed – and both sessions seemed to be productive.

But the proof won't come at practice – this Tennessee team has always had good practice habits this season that haven't always transferred to game situations. It will come Friday at Alltel Arena in North Little Rock when the Lady Vols take on the winner of Thursday's Auburn-South Carolina game.

The team is coming off a bitter overtime loss on Sunday to Florida, which marked the first time ever that Pat Summitt's team had lost on senior day. The coach wasn't certain if that had happened.

"I'm sure I have; I've been here too long, but I can't recall," Summitt said.

She may not have known for sure about that dubious milestone loss – she relies on the total recall memory of media relations chief Debby Jennings for those stats, and Jennings knew immediately – but the defensive-minded coach was aware of one stat.

"This is the first time we've lost to an unranked team since we started playing here, isn't it?" Summitt said.

Yes, it was. An argument perhaps could have been made that a 19-win Florida team belonged in the Top 25 poll before the game and after the victory the 20-win Gators landed at No. 23. The same thing happened at Kentucky this season when Tennessee lost in Lexington. The unranked Wildcats were in the next week's poll.

"I'm the feel-good coach," Summitt said. "Beat me and feel good."

But those games were in the regular season. Monday's practice marked the start of the postseason and, true to form, Summitt's focus goes from intense to possessed.

Summitt doesn't need a reason in the postseason to be fired up, but the team gave her a few more reasons with the film of the Florida game and the lack of commitment to defense.

"I think it's up to them to take ownership with their defense," Summitt said. "This isn't about being quick. This team just hasn't committed. Defense has not been a priority for five people on the floor. We were glued to our players on help side. We could do a roll call and on every possession we would probably have at least three or four out of position. We didn't help; we didn't rotate. We really haven't consistently done it all year. We do it in practice. When the game starts, they're in control. I just really don't think this team has committed as a team all five on the floor to being a great or solid defensive team. I don't think it is a priority for this team.

"We score 93 points. In the past that was probably a blowout. We give up 95. There's not the pride in this group consistently. Now they've had it at times and when they've had it, they've been very, very good. They go to Stanford – defense was a priority for them. They knew that was the only way they could win. They thought they could come out here on the home court and win without it."

Monday's practice reflected Summitt's focus. So did Tuesday's practice. Summitt also took responsibility for why defense remains a concern this late in the season.

"That comes back to us as a coaching staff and directly to me as a head coach," Summitt said. "We've worked on it, but I really wonder if maybe we shouldn't have spent even more time on it. And from now until our last game this year we will be paying attention to the details of the defense."

The seniors expected as much from their coach, especially since the calendar flips Wednesday to March.

"They come out with more intensity than ever – she's always intense – but it's a different Pat during postseason, it's a different coaching staff," senior center Tye'sha Fluker said. "I think everybody who practiced felt it."

Senior Shanna Zolman returned to practice Tuesday evening after missing Monday's session because of a sore throat and fever. Jenny Moshak, assistant athletics director for sports medicine, also took the opportunity to treat Zolman's right wrist strain and sore IT band on her right knee.

Of greater interest perhaps was the level of participation by sophomore guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who broke her wrist Feb. 12. She went full speed in half-court defensive sets with her right arm tucked between a mesh practice jersey and cotton T-shirt to keep it contained while she sprinted around the court.

"Keep her involved, keep her in shape and pray for a miracle," Summitt said.

The typical healing time for her injury, a broken navicular scaphoid bone, is eight weeks, which would be the first week of April. But there is always a possibility – or miracle as Summitt said – that the bone could heal faster and allow her to return in the postseason. Hornbuckle will see Dr. Robert Ivy on Wednesday to get X-rays and switch from a fiberglass cast to a GORE-TEX one.

"We'll have a better idea tomorrow if she's starting to heal," Summitt said after practice Tuesday.

In the meantime the nine healthy players used the past two days to go over their defenses and work on full court pressure. Since Tennessee won't know its opponent until after Thursday's game the focus was on its packages.

"Working more on us," Summitt said. "We've had two pretty intense practices."

After arriving in Little Rock on Thursday the team will do some shooting and walk-through work, but otherwise take it easy.

"We're going to go real light," Summitt said. "Two days of rest is what we need."

The team's response in practice was an encouraging sign for the coaching staff as there didn't appear to be any carryover effect from the 95-93 loss to Florida.

"I think that's where we gain our confidence back by working hard in practice, just bringing it every day just to get better and preparing for the tournament," Fluker said. "None of us are holding our head down. We're just getting ready.

"If we hang our heads we're not going to get any of the results that we want. We're definitely mad about it and nobody wanted to end the regular season like we did so we have to build from that and learn and come in here and work hard and prepare each day that we have to prepare to get ready for the tournament."

"I have definitely a good vibe," Zolman said. "Anytime that you come off of a loss it's very difficult the very next game trying to get the morale of the team up, trying to get the intensity level back up. It's not very difficult to be intense, though, when you've got the coaching staff that we have that is raising the level of intensity, that's raising the bar of our performance level and what to expect out of us as we prepare for the SEC Tournament."

SEC HONORS: Shanna Zolman, Alexis Hornbuckle and Candace Parker were named to the All-SEC teams announced Tuesday by the conference. Zolman and Parker earned spots on the first team while Hornbuckle was selected for the second team. Parker also was named to the SEC All-Freshman squad and took SEC Rookie of the Year honors.

Zolman, a 5'10 senior, was a second team selection in 2004 and 2005 and becomes the ninth Lady Vol in program history to earn All-SEC recognition three times in her career. Zolman leads the league in free-throw percentage this season (93.8) and is the only SEC player in its history to shoot better than 90 percent from the line for her career (91.4).

She ranks second in the conference in three-point field goals made this season (74 and is just six away from having the best single season in Tennessee history), sixth in minutes played (33.4 mpg) and seventh in scoring average (15.0 ppg).

In a separate honor Zolman was named an ESPN the Magazine First Team Academic All-American by the College Sports Information Directors of America.

"It's a great honor to win such a prestigious award," Zolman said. "We know that academics always come first as student-athletes, but it's an honor to be considered with the elite student-athletes of America. The University of Tennessee and the professors and staff here make it easy for me to succeed. The facilities we have in the Thornton Center allow me to excel in my academic field."

Zolman, a journalism and electronic media major with a 3.56 GPA, also was honored by the SEC accolades.

"In my opinion the SEC is the best conference in America," Zolman said. "Being able to be on its first team definitely means a lot to me. This is not an individual accolade. My teammates have helped me every step of the way and my coaching staff has been there all four years to help me improve not only as a person but as a player during my tenure at Tennessee."

Hornbuckle was a unanimous selection to the All-SEC freshman team in 2005. Despite suffering a broken wrist two weeks ago the sophomore still leads the team in assists (99) and steals (81) this season. The 5'11 guard ranks second on the team in rebounding (5.4 rpg) and ranks third in the league and 12th in the nation in steals (3.2 spg), fourth in assists (4.0 apg) and fifth in assist to turnover ratio (1.5) in the SEC.

"It is an honor to be associated with such an outstanding group of athletes," Hornbuckle said. "The SEC has so many talented players on all twelve teams, it's great to be grouped among them."

Parker becomes the fourth Lady Vol to earn SEC Freshman of the Year honors and the first since Tamika Catchings in 1998. She becomes the seventh SEC rookie to get top freshman honors and first team All-SEC accolades. She leads the Lady Vols in scoring (16.2 ppg), rebounding (8.4 rpg) and blocked shots (2.3 bpg) and also leads all conference first-year players in those categories. She is the only Lady Vol to start every game this season and has been named the Philips Player of the Game on eight occasions (Georgia, LSU, Kentucky, Duke, Mississippi State, Georgia, Stanford and Stetson), the SEC Freshman of the Week four times (Dec. 5 and 19 and Jan. 10 and 16) and the SEC Player of the Week on Jan. 16.

"I'm honored to be selected for this award among such top level athletes in the SEC," Parker said. "My teammates and coaches push me every day in practice to improve my game and get better. This is even more special because my favorite former Lady Vol is Tamika Catchings."

All three players also are Kodak All-America candidates.

Coach Pat Summitt has no doubt that Parker also deserves to be the national player of the year.

"She's pretty phenomenal," Summitt said. "She's just getting better and better with each practice and each day. The last two practices, I think, have been two of her best practices. I think she's understanding what you have to do to get your conditioning to a certain level and your game to a certain level. We're relying on her so much to do so many things for us – in-bound the ball, bring the ball up, run the offense, be our go-to.

"She's got a lot of different dimensions to her game. There is no doubt in my mind she is the best player in the country. Some people want to argue that. I don't think there is an argument when you look at total package. I don't think there's another player that can play the guard spot, the forward spot, the center spot and handle the way she does."

Parker also has the appropriate mental approach to the game and when asked about her season so far she gave a thoughtful reply.

"There're definitely a few things I would change," Parker said. "Our team's personality was a little bit laidback at times, and I think it's going to be that much harder in postseason to play and how we look at the game. But I think in some aspects we've learned a lot in how we need to come to play. I'm happy with the season I've had as an individual, but I know there are things that I need to improve on and things that I learned throughout the season.

"I feel in my play I've tried to be consistent. I think I'm happy with my consistency in terms of rebounding and in terms of being able to put the ball in the hoop. In the beginning of the season I felt like I was rebounding very well, towards the middle I started not rebounding as well as I should have, and I think now I'm getting it back where it needs to be. Just trying to be a consistent inside presence and bring energy to the team."

Zolman said this season was typical of every other in her career at Tennessee – highs and lows and trying to get better.

"There's definitely been ups and down as there are every single season," Zolman said. "I'd like to say I've seen a lot of improvements in my game not only in the beginning from when I came but even from last season, but I still have a lot to work on. As a player you can never say that you've arrived. I've definitely not arrived. I think I need to escalate my play, even more so right now, because of the amount that my team needs leadership and the amount that my teams needs guidance in every single situation, especially on the defensive end on the floor. Just change the attitude that we need to have defensively and the amount of quality possessions that we need to have."

The players will take the honors and the attitude to Arkansas, where the 2006 SEC Tournament kicks off on Thursday. The complete list of SEC awards announced Tuesday were:

Coach of the Year: Mickie DeMoss, Kentucky; Player of the Year: Seimone Augustus, LSU; Freshman of the Year: Candace Parker, Tennessee; Defensive Player of the Year: Sherill Baker, Georgia; 6th Woman of the Year: Liz Sherwood, Vanderbilt; Scholar-Athlete of the Year: Sarah Lowe, Florida.

All-Freshman Team: DeWanna Bonner, Auburn; KeKe Carrier, Auburn; Sha Brooks, Florida; Marshae Dotson, Florida; Carly Ormerod, Kentucky; Robin Porter, Mississippi State; Demetress Adams, South Carolina; Candace Parker, Tennessee

First Team All-SEC: * denotes unanimous selection

Seimone Augustus, LSU*; Sylvia Fowles, LSU*; Tasha Humphrey, Georgia*; Sherill Baker, Georgia*; Candace Parker, Tennessee; Armintie Price, Mississippi; Dalila Eshe, Florida; Shanna Zolman, Tennessee; Dee Davis, Vanderbilt.

Second Team All-SEC: Samantha Mahoney, Kentucky; Cori Chambers, Georgia; Scholanda Hoston, LSU; Sha Brooks, Florida; Caroline Williams, Vanderbilt; Navonda Moore, Alabama; Melanie Johnson, South Carolina; Marita Payne, Auburn; Alexis Hornbuckle, Tennessee.


Inside Tennessee Top Stories