The Lady Vols beat the Tigers last week in Knoxville, 81-56, and senior center Tye'sha Fluker had a career-high 22 points. On Friday coach Pat Summitt will be looking for the same effort from Fluker and the rest of her team. Tennessee is coming off one its most-shocking losses, a 95-93 defeat to Florida, which beat the Lady Vols in overtime on their home floor on senior day.
Auburn coach Nell Fortner said the recent game was helpful because her team is now familiar with Tennessee, its plays and how to defend the Lady Vols.
"It's not like we're going to have to start from scratch. … That's a good thing actually," Fortner said.
Auburn, the tourney's No. 10 seed, will be looking to survive against the No. 2 seed. Tennessee will be looking to get some of its swagger back.
"We're going to the SEC with the mindset that we need to come off this loss and respond," said forward Candace Parker, who was selected this week as SEC Freshman of the Year and First Team All-SEC. "I think that we're going to battle through adversity because you learn a lot from it. It doesn't matter. The point is when we step on the floor, we're going to have a different attitude and a different swagger because that's what we need going into postseason."
Summitt said last year's team won the SEC tourney trophy for one simple reason: It was the players' idea. Now-departed Shyra Ely was particularly motivated because she had played so poorly against LSU in the regular season. She ended up being tournament MVP.
"When they lost the regular season, it was their idea," Summitt said. "They wanted to go and win the SEC Tournament. That was really important to them. I think the fact Shyra played so poorly at their place (LSU) – she had something to prove. She had one of the best games of her career all around."
Senior Shanna Zolman said she didn't quite have a read on this team, but it won't be readily apparent until the team takes the floor.
"I would like to say yes, but I can't say anything (for sure) until we get there, until we are there on the floor," Zolman said. "We can practice and prepare as hard as we want. We've been doing that all season – we've been practicing and preparing as hard as any team I've ever been a part of. It's just a matter of us being able to execute that in game time situations. So it's going to be the same thing seeing how we're going to perform once game time starts."
Tennessee won't have revenge as motivation unless it gets to the title game. The Lady Vols defeated their side of the bracket in the regular season. The other half of the bracket has LSU, Kentucky and Florida.
"I think it's definitely a part of it seeking revenge against some of the teams," Zolman said. "It's very close to never since we've lost to Kentucky and Florida, especially in the same season. Whether or not we get that opportunity … that's on our shoulders, though. That's our fault that we lost to them in the regular season. We shouldn't even be in a position to seek revenge, but if we do it would be great. If not we're going to work hard and continue to go out as if we are seeking revenge for some reason but just to play Tennessee basketball."
Parker indicated as much. The redshirt freshman just wants to play someone in the postseason, which will be her first in a Tennessee uniform.
"I want to face any opponent that steps on the court," Parker said. "I think that's the type of attitude you have to have come postseason. We're not scared of anybody, and we know nobody's scared of us. Every team's weaknesses have been exposed this season. No team is undefeated. So I think it'd be nice to have revenge and different things like that, however, we just have to step foot on the court with that type of attitude that we're going to play hard and wear out any opponent that steps on the court with us."
Auburn is expected to counter with its size with Marita Payne, a 6'5 forward; DeWanna Bonner, a 6'4 forward; KeKe Carrier, a 6'7 center; Nitasha Brown, a 5'9 guard; and Whitney Boddie, a 5'9 guard.
Boddie and Bonner, who are both freshmen, were in Thursday's post-game press conference with Fortner and were asked what they remembered about the matchup with Tennessee.
"They've got a lot of big post players," Bonner said. "But we've also got a lot of big post players. I remember we've got to get KeKe Carrier the ball more, at least stay in the game a lot because she's posting up real hard coming into SEC play."
"I think Fluker had a career night against us," Boddie said. "We can't let their post players go off like they did. You know, stop them early in transition, push them out, contain their other players, and I think we'll be all right."
When asked if Auburn felt confident that it could score on the teams left in the tourney, including Tennessee, Boddie said, "Most definitely. I mean, I feel like we can score on any team really because we're big inside. We have guards who can do a lot of things, too. So inside and out, we can score on them."
Fortner left out a somewhat surprised laugh and said: "Don't you love freshmen? They have no fear."
But the buzz around the tournament is that Tennessee is vulnerable. They lost the last regular season game and are down to nine players. The bench play has been spotty all season, and the specter of playing consecutive games concerns Summitt, if Tennessee can manage to get past the Tigers. The team is also very young with two redshirt freshmen and one true freshman in Lindsey Moss. The seniors are experienced, but junior Dominique Redding has been a role player during her career, and fellow junior Sidney Spencer missed the postseason last year because of a knee injury.
"I've been saying that all year: I'm like, ‘Oh, we are so young,' Summitt said. "Obviously Lindsey is new to it (but) everyone else was here last year. They might have been on the bench, but they were still feeling the different intensity."
One of those spectators is thrilled to finally be on the floor.
"I'm really excited and look forward to postseason," Parker said. "In high school when postseason came about, state tournament and everything like that, it's a feeling, a little rush that you get. It's now or never; do or die. That's the same way I'm approaching it in college and in the SEC it's just that much more of a battle. In the NCAA with the parity that we have anybody is going to give you a fight on any given day, and that's March Madness.
"It was a great experience last year watching it and being kind of like a glorified spectator on the sidelines because I wasn't in the stands. I think I learned a lot about how important it is for every possession you play because that can be the difference between how much rest you get from beginning to end. The first two games are tough and then that third game is really tough. I think it's important to get your rest and just play hard."
Summitt will have to continue to ride her starters for long periods, but the bench will have to provide some solid minutes.
"We'll play as we've been playing," Summitt said. "Try to get Shanna at least three or four minutes a rest; she may not get 10. Get Candace three to five minutes. It may just be that we do it three minutes first half, three minutes second half. But that's critical. That makes a big difference."
Tennessee enters the postseason with the same concern it had in preseason – defensive commitment. The defensive breakdowns against Florida cost the seniors their special day. But it's dangerous to linger in the past in the postseason because it's lose and go home.
"I hope the team has moved on from the Florida game," Parker said. "We focused a little bit too much on our Duke loss and let it affect how we played against Kentucky. I hope that this loss fires us up and gets us going for postseason because we can't lose. I think we know what we are capable of now. I think we have put it behind us. We're out here practicing hard, and I think we know our days are numbered, and we want to win for the seniors. I think what we were most upset about in the Florida game is we lost the seniors' last game to ever be played at TBA."
To put together a mini-streak of wins in Little Rock, Tennessee will have to play better defense in its man and zone packages.
"Defensively I don't know if they are going to show up and be a great defensive team at all," Summitt said. "On some level I have a feel: The feel is that I just have to wait and see. My feeling is I don't know going into it. I have to wait and see. I think it's all about leadership. You have to have enough people on the team that want to win and know what it takes to win to provide that leadership. I think our seniors they have to do that. I think Anosike and Parker have to be more vocal. They have developed into two of our better defenders. Without Lex that's the four they've got to take a little more ownership."
Tennessee is without its best perimeter and point guard in Alexis Hornbuckle, who broke her wrist Feb. 12. The injury was thought to be season ending, but there remains an outside chance that she could be back toward the end of March midway through the NCAA tourney.
Summitt has seen stellar defensive play in some stretches of games and in practice against a top-notch male practice squad.
"They've looked good a lot of days in practice," Summitt said. "I don't think they were really ever totally committed collectively five people to our defense (against Florida). Defense and bench are two of the biggest concerns, particularly in this tournament. Now if we can survive this, (NCAA) postseason you don't have to play back-to-back games. This is the time you've got to have bench help."
Dosty is a rebounder and one of the most efficient players offensively. She barely played against Florida, but that was because of how well Parker (34 points) and Fluker (22 points) were playing, Summitt said.
"I think that's just a situation where I shortened our bench a little bit on the inside," Summitt said. "I wanted to play Candace more at the four – that's her best position – and obviously I had a lot of trust in going to Fluker and Parker and that right there cut into Sybil's time because the other post players were playing the minutes with Nicky. We went three deep instead of four."
Against Auburn last week Dosty had five boards, including four on offense, in 16 minutes.
Dosty knows she has to have that kind of effort in the postseason to improve her team's chances of surviving and advancing.
"We only have nine players so everybody has to (come to) play," Dosty said. "Our starters have to get us off to a good start (and) the bench players have to come in and really get it done for us. Lindsey is also really important because Lex is out. Dom, as well, is stepping up and also Alex hit a lot of good shots."
In the last game against the Tigers, Fuller and Redding had eight points each. It was a game in which Summitt felt better about her bench afterwards.
"It's important for us to be working like a well-oiled machine when it comes to postseason because there's no room for error," Redding said. "Everyone has to bring their ‘A' game and play defense and board. That's what we're going to need to win. Nine good players. Take it one game at a time. That's our motto."
There also will be games in which Parker will need to take over offensively. Her 34 points against Florida set a career high, and the Gators basically couldn't stop her inside. Summitt also wants Parker and Anosike to take over defensively.
"I think there's going to be situations, yes (as far as scoring)," Summitt said. "I think it all depends on the game and circumstances. Nicky Anosike can obviously defend on the perimeter and so can Candace Parker. It's all how games play out and what we need."
Parker sees a team that can play defense when it has to. That's maddening to the team's coach and frustrating to the players, but Parker has faith the team will pick up the intensity in March.
"I think defensively we've showed great defense at times; it's just about putting it together," Parker said. "Unfortunately we're a team that does it when we have to, and postseason is all about doing it, and you have to. So I think this is a team that is going to play defense for 40 minutes.
"We say we're going to take every possession like (it's the last), but I don't think this year we have. Come postseason I really have a feeling that everyone is going to play; I really have that feeling that people are really going to step up. Like I said this team's personality is we do it when we have to. Postseason you have to, to stay alive, and I really believe that this team has a lot of fight, and we're going to step up. We'd better understand. Our two seniors this is it for them. Their last (home) game was on Sunday on this floor, and we don't want their last game to be a loss. I still remember last year our loss to Michigan State and the taste of that, going into summer workouts with that taste still in your mouth. It's not fun to have to play your last game, and it's six months until you start the season again. I'd rather end on the win. We'll be prepared, we're going to work hard and leave it all out there."
Summitt would surely like to believe that, but for now she has to take a wait-and-see attitude. Summitt isn't looking to avenge any SEC losses. She just wants to win.
"All we're looking for is to survive and advance," Summitt said. "It's not about that. Probably for the team it gives them a little bit more of an edge. For me you just want to win that next game."
Fluker knows the outcome is in the players' hands once the ball is tipped.
"Like coach always says in practice they're in control and in the games we're in control," Fluker said. "If we decide that we want to play defense and it's a priority then we have a good chance just like any other team of winning the SEC Tournament. It's definitely up to us."
"That's part of our goals, not only the SEC Tournament but a national championship," Zolman said. "Nothing's going to change that, no matter what happens as a team, no matter what kind of adversity we're facing. That's definitely something that's still on our minds. We have the experience now even more so not only being in the tournament but winning it, coming close to winning it. We've been in every situation, and I think that's going to help carry us over into this season. I know that a lot of teams are still gunning for us … but we're ready for it."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee recently played Auburn in the SEC Tournament in 2005 (64-54 win); and 2003 (66-51 win). The two teams have played 11 times in SEC tournaments with Tennessee winning eight contests. … Former Lady Vol Kara Lawson will be honored at halftime of Tennessee's game Friday as part of the SEC Greats Program. The SEC will recognize Carolyn Jones of Auburn at the same time. … Tennessee leads the series with Auburn, 29-8. The first time the two teams played was in the SEC tourney in 1980 when Tennessee won. The last time Auburn beat Tennessee was in 1997 in the SEC tourney. … The Lady Vols made it to the title game the last time the tournament was played in Little Rock but lost to LSU. Lawson averaged 21.7 points per game in that tourney. … Tennessee's overall record in the SEC Tournament is 51-15 since play began in 1980. The Lady Vols have only lost four times in the second round (1981, Alabama; 1984, Alabama; 1986, Ole Miss; and 1993, Georgia). They have made it to the title game 16 times and have an 11-5 record.