In the Tennessee locker room inside Alltel Arena after the 77-45 win over Auburn, the seniors, Shanna Zolman and Tye'sha Fluker, knew it would be hours before they knew who they would play next. But at the postseason conference tournament, they both said, it's more important how Tennessee plays than who the opponent ends up being.
"It's not necessarily Xs and Os as far as being able to scout a specific team in a specific way," Zolman said. "We know both teams very, very well. Knowing that, it's more things we need to do with our defense whether it's in our zone or our man. We know our principles; we know our system. It's a matter of executing that. All year long there're been many games where we haven't executed to a T.
"Either team that we play – it's going to be different looks – but we know how to play them, we know how to guard them, we know how to beat them, and that's what we have to our advantage. They're definitely going to have the revenge factor in their favor, but to us that doesn't mean anything because we're going to try and play the toughest we can play, the most intense that we can play and just keep on rolling."
"It's always been who's going to battle on the boards and who is going to play defense," Fluker said. "No matter what a team throws at us if we play our game, guard their sets and have good communication and boarding we can play with the best of them. Either team we play, bring it on, let's go."
To get to the semifinal against Georgia (21-7), the Lady Vols first had to take out Auburn (14-15), and although Tennessee has rarely lost in the second round, the team arrived in Little Rock after a nasty loss at home on senior day and with only nine available players. But Tennessee started fast in both halves and put away the Tigers early. The Lady Vols scored 40 first-half points and held Auburn to 19 in the second half.
Coach Pat Summitt said her team shared the ball, ran the offense and played, as she always wants but doesn't always get, from the inside out. The post players were pouring in points early, which opened up the outside for Zolman at the beginning of both halves.
"That's been something that we've been inconsistent in in starting sometimes, the first half in particular," Summitt said. "So it was good to see that we went inside right away. I think that has to be where we go, is get the ball inside, get paint points. You get inside, outside action. You really make the defense work. We were patient. Likewise, I thought we did a good job pushing tempo. That got us some paint points as well."
Tennessee got 40 points in the paint and was led by Fluker with 19. Redshirt freshman forward Candace Parker had another double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds. Sophomore forward Nicky Anosike finished with eight points and helped get the inside emphasis started. She hit a layup within the first 17 seconds of the game.
Zolman had 16 points and hit 4-6 from behind the arc. Junior forward Sidney Spencer had eight points and hit both of her three-point attempts. Tennessee got nine points from the bench, and although not a lot, the players gave Summitt something more valuable – minutes so she could rest the starters. Every reserve played double-digit minutes, and no starter went more than 32 minutes. Zolman only had to log 22, and Parker stopped at 27.
Backup center Sybil Dosty said the bench wanted to "prove to people" that it could be counted on.
"We've had some letdowns," Dosty said. "This is a long tournament. We have to have everybody playing. That's the most important thing that we can give our starters some rest, and when we come in not to let down but to bring us up."
"I told our bench this," Summitt said. "I think it's so important when you have your SEC tournament that you get quality play off the bench. I'm not asking them to give us a 10-point lift. I'm asking them to go in, and let's just be as efficient as we can be and let's keep things the way they are.
"If you can add to it, that's great. But don't go in and cost us points. Make sure that you bring that intensity, that type of play. I thought today was one of the best jobs that we've done."
When the bench is getting minutes, the starters become cheerleaders, and it's a role they seem to relish.
"That's our job as starters to get us off to a good start," Fluker said. "When we're able to do that, then we're able to cheer on the people who come off the bench. It's definitely a confidence boost to be able to start off like that and get the bench their quality minutes. I had fun over there cheering my teammates on."
The starting five went at Auburn and their shot blockers from the start. The Tigers came into the game with a conference-leading 206 blocks. They got one against Tennessee.
"That's what we talk about in our post breakdowns in practice – it's not go away from a shot blocker, it's go into a shot blocker," Fluker said. "I think we did a good job of that. I think we did a good job of misdirection, post moves, countermoves. Dean (Lockwood) does a good job with our post breakdowns."
Auburn was visibly frustrated as the game wore on, and Tennessee took the Tigers' post game out of its comfort zone. Senior center Marita Payne didn't score a point and only took one shot. Freshman center KeKe Carrier managed seven points on 3-5 shooting. Freshman forward DeWanna Bonner hit double figures with 10, a far cry from her career-high 25 the day before against South Carolina.
Freshman guard Sherell Hobbs had 11 points off the bench and was 4-8 from the field, but nearly everyone else on the floor struggled. Auburn shot 28.1 percent for the game (16-57) and 8.3 percent from behind the arc (1-12). The 32-point loss was the worst ever in the tournament for the Tigers, and their overall tourney record fell to 8-29.
"I thought Tennessee was outstanding today," Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. "They shot the ball extremely well and just absolutely just manhandled us. We didn't have an answer for it. It was a long day for us."
Fortner said Tennessee's size disrupted Auburn's offense, and she knew the Lady Vols were ready to get back on the court after the home loss to Florida.
"They're notorious for coming back after a loss and getting after you," Fortner said. "They're really big. They're very big right now. … When you're trying to create some opportunities for yourself it's hard to see open players 'cause they're very big to pass the ball around."
Tennessee wanted to set the tone early, Summitt said, so that her players would get in tune early.
"Well, the interesting thing is that we have, at times, opened up in our zone. Sometimes we're aggressive; sometimes we're not," Summitt said. "I told our staff I just want to open up in man. I want to open up so we are aggressive, we're on our toes, we're generating some energy, and hopefully some good things off of our man defense. We can always switch up.
"Obviously we went to the second half with our zone. But I felt like we were already in a good place as far as our intensity and just our commitment to the defensive end."
Now Tennessee heads to the semifinal, where the teams get tougher and the intensity must get higher.
"We've got one down, and now we just have to focus on the next game and be ready because either opponent obviously that we will face, we have already faced twice," Summitt said before the Georgia-Vandy game. "I think coming in and knowing that we have to beat a team that third time is going to be something that we can do, but obviously we have to match the intensity of our opponent, because they'll bring it. I mean, they obviously feel like I'm sure, both, that they let a couple of them slip away."
For Tennessee the one troubling number on the stat sheet against Auburn was 19 turnovers. The starters accounted for eight; the bench tallied 11. Georgia's guards are cat-quick and will be looking to steal the third game of the season.
Tennessee won at home, 94-85, in a track meet and then playing at Georgia for the first time without point guard Alexis Hornbuckle, 58-55, in a walk-it-up-the-court style. Summitt surprised Georgia coach Andy Landers by opening in a zone defense and staying in it for 39 minutes and 45 seconds. The Lady Bulldogs never adjusted, but they've had time to do so now.
Landers said he and his team welcomed a third game.
"Yeah, yeah. I mean, we've played them twice," he said. "But, you know, at their place, I don't think that we deserved to win the game. But I thought the game was winnable. At our place, I thought – I'm not saying we deserved to win it, but I thought we should have won it, and we didn't.
"You know, to me personally, yeah, it's a wonderful opportunity. When you've played a team twice like that and didn't get it done, to be able to have another shot at them, you know, is really neat. I mean, if they beat us again, then I guess you say, ‘They're better than we are.' That kind of proves it. I don't see where the damage is going to be done there. So we've got everything to win and nothing to lose as far as I'm concerned."
The player that can't play has turned into one of the bench's biggest cheerleaders. Hornbuckle broke her right wrist Feb. 12 and is now in a smaller GORE-TEX blue cast. She has never switched to street clothes and continues to dress in uniform for the games.
"I was proud of them watching today; they started both halves well," Hornbuckle said. "They were knocking down shots, they were patient. We've got to start every game that way."
Hornbuckle said she took a lesson from former Lady Vol Loree Moore in how to behave on the bench when Moore missed several weeks last season to have her tonsils removed. Still, not playing in the postseason is difficult for a player who always has a ball in her hands.
"It's harder, but at the same time I have confidence in my team," Hornbuckle said. "The way they played makes me feel that I'm out there being a part of it because of all the energy I have. My energy doesn't stop just because I'm not playing. You see me on the court going crazy. It doesn't die, I mean it's hard because you want to play. I have confidence in my team that they'll get the job done, and I'll be over there smiling.
"I'm cheerleading on the bench. I learned that from Loree last year when she went out. She made a point to be a bench leader. That's pretty much my job – cheerleading, motivating and being a bench leader, and I take that very seriously."
As far as her wrist, the bone has to heal for her to have any shot at playing in the postseason. A six- to eight-week healing time would allow her to either play in the latter part of March or not until next season.
"It's feeling a lot better as far as pain, motion in my fingers," Hornbuckle said. "In the first week it was hard to grab anything. If you touched my hand it hurt. That's definitely good. All the swelling is out of my hand and wrist. Now it's just a process of the bone healing itself so it's a lot of prayers and patience right now."
The good news for Hornbuckle is that the bone is healing; the bad news is that the calendar is not in her favor.
"Pretty much in a nutshell it's how fast I can heal," Hornbuckle said. "It's looking real well as far as last X-ray so it's just a process, a lot of prayers."
Zolman has taken over at the point, and she had a solid game against Auburn with six assists and only two turnovers. Parker also can play the point and has elevated her game even more since the postseason officially started for her. Parker missed an entire year because of left knee surgery so Friday was her first postseason play as a Lady Vol.
"I was really excited to get here," Parker said. "To finally be able to play is amazing. I talked to my dad yesterday. He was, you know, telling me that last year you couldn't play … I was anxious (Thursday) and everything like that, and I should let that carry over to today now that I can. Just hustle and play hard because every game is not promised, and I've learned that from my career."
That's why an incident in the first half likely caused Parker, her coach and the extended Tennessee community to hold its breath. She sprained her right knee and came up lame after dribbling out of the corner. She called for a substitution and headed to the end of the bench to see Jenny Moshak, the assistant athletics director for sports medicine. Summitt briefly listened in but then returned to her sideline position. Parker left for the locker room with Moshak but returned a few minutes later and was cleared to return.
"I'm OK," Parker said. "I strained my good knee, my right knee. But it's OK. Jenny checked it out. She gave me the green light to go back in."
By "good knee," Parker meant the one that wasn't operated on last season. But Summitt had to lean over and asked for clarification from Parker, who smiled and said, "Yeah, they're both good." Nobody could blame Summitt for being apprehensive.
"I think the one good thing that we have is a great trainer right there with us that obviously has been in this profession and is regarded as one of the best at what she does," Summitt said. "That eliminates any confusion about can she go back in or not? I knew she was good to play, but any time a player is experiencing anything that's unusual pain-wise – whether it's the knee, the ankle, the hand, whatever; I've been through pretty much everything – you always as a coach … it always concerns you until you have the answer."
Zolman was looking for an answer of her own now that the team is in Little Rock. Summitt has said the team won the SEC tourney last year because it became the players' idea to just go out and claim it. When Zolman was asked in Knoxville earlier this week if she saw a similar mindset, she said she needed to see the team on the floor in Arkansas. She got her answer.
"Definitely. I think we came here with the same attitude as last year," Zolman said. "Went out on the floor today, starting the way we did, that tells a lot. It's not necessarily something that we came out and we were just kind of lackadaisical with the ball, not very intense defensively. I think that we came out in the same way that we came out last year.
"I'm not saying the outcome is going to be the same. I'm not going to make any guarantees about that."
Zolman was smiling as she spoke, and the remark drew laughter. After Tennessee lost at home to LSU this season, Zolman was asked if the loss would linger and affect how the Lady Vols played the next game. Without even looking at who that opponent was, Zolman declared that Tennessee would not lose. Her intent was not to guarantee a win but to convey that the team's attitude wouldn't spiral down as it did last time. But the remark drew some controversy.
As far as Saturday's game, Zolman said, "I know that our minds, our intensity and our hearts are in the right place, and that's where they need to be."
TENNESSEE TOURNEY ODDS AND ENDS
WOW MOMENT: The reaction of the crowd when Tennessee's players took the floor three minutes before tip-off. The roar drowned out Auburn's band, which had been welcoming the Tigers to the floor. The roar resumed when coach Pat Summitt came out of the tunnel.
BEST SPIRIT: Lady Vols Alexis Hornbuckle, Sybil Dosty and Dominique Redding doing the body spelling version of V-O-L-S right before starting lineups were announced.
BEST INTROS: Led by Redding during the announcement of the starters. Redding usually chest-bumps the starter as each one is announced, but there are variations. Shanna Zolman and Nicky Anosike go in sideways. Tye'sha Fluker takes a semicircle windup and comes in straight up. Sidney Spencer does a gentle bump and barely leaves her feet. Candace Parker and Redding ran right at each other, faked like they were going up and then just stopped and stared at each other with a ‘you can't touch this' look while backing away.
BEST BLOCK: By Candace Parker. It was freshman on freshman when DeWanna Bonner went at Parker in the second half. Parker blocked the shot in the low block and grabbed the ball out of the air. She was whistled for the foul, but replays showed it was clean, and the crowd responded with a crescendo of boos. Parker looked apoplectic as she palmed the ball, still held aloft in her hand, and even Summitt couldn't stifle her laughter.
MORE BEST BLOCKS: Sybil Dosty and Alex Fuller. Dosty blocked Auburn's Whitney Boddie on consecutive shots by basically smothering the ball, but Chantelle Blakely got the third carom and was fouled by Dosty. A few minutes later Fuller stuffed Sherell Hobbs in similar fashion and plucked the ball out of the air.
BEST GUESS: Alex Fuller. Summitt was a little peeved by what she saw on the floor – Redding got the ball stuck in her hand on the wing and instead of passing into the post or passing out, she tried a three-pointer over the 6'5 Bonner – and with the play happening a few feet in front of her, Summitt wheeled to the bench and told Fuller to go in. Fuller ran to the scorer's table and onto the floor asking, ‘Who?' back toward the bench. But Summitt had walked to the other end of the bench and had her back turned so Fuller guessed Redding. She guessed right.
BEST POST MOVE: Tye'sha Fluker. The starters thought they were done for the day, but when Dosty fouled out there were still nearly four minutes left in the game. The staff turned to the bench and asked who wanted to go in of the four possible replacements, and Fluker flew out of her seat.
Fluker wanted three more rebounds to get to 10 so "when Sybil fouled out I thought, ‘Oh, I can get my rebounds!' " Fluker said. "I only ended up getting one more (to finish with eight). That was just for fun in that (the sprint to the table). We were having fun the whole game. It was exciting to watch everybody go out there and play hard and to cheer for all the good plays that happened. Even when we messed up we still had each other's backs, pick our heads up and keep it going."
BEST LEADER: Shanna Zolman. Freshman guard Lindsey Moss had several bad offensive possessions in a row, and when timeout was called, Zolman walked halfway up the floor to greet her as she came to the sideline and spent the first part of timeout talking to her one-on-one.
"She made mistakes of handling the ball and just being there on the floor and knowing what she's going through, just trying to help her out as how to handle that and how to change her speed up and telling her different things," Zolman said. "I know it means more coming from a player than it does a coach. I tried to calm her down and try to talk to her a little bit before coach got out to her."
MOST FUN: Alexis Hornbuckle responding to a group of fans trying to send her in the game. Parker pretended to pull off Hornbuckle's warmup shirt, and Hornbuckle raised her right arm and faked a dash to the scorer's table.
OTHER WOW MOMENTS: For a period in the first half any time Tennessee's Candace Parker touched the ball. With the score at 36-15, she had 15 points – as many as Auburn total. She had 17 points before Auburn's DeWanna Bonner, also a member of the SEC All-Freshman Team, had a single one. She passed a ball behind her head in the lane – she has practiced that one – but it was waved off because of a three-second violation. The pass, when it works, is not defendable.
She went over teammate Tye'sha Fluker's back for a rebound. Fluker saw it coming and leaned forward to give Parker some space. Parker's first postseason basket of her career came from the paint – no surprise there – but the next two points came from a jumper on the wing that seemed to take Auburn by surprise. She was fouled and made the free throw to complete the ‘and one.' Later, Parker passed in the lane to Sybil Dosty, who missed the layup. Parker deflected the ball with her left hand, grabbed it with her right hand and rolled the ball in, all before returning to the floor.
This all came despite the fact she tweaked her right knee and had to be taken to the locker room for examination. She returned to the bench a few minutes later and took a seat. Summitt asked if she was ready, and Parker nodded. Was she ever.