"You can call this region the national championship bracket," Tennessee junior forward Sidney Spencer said.
"Coach (Vivian) Stringer said it best when she was interviewed after our side of the bracket was announced," Tennessee senior center Tye'sha Fluker said. "She said, ‘Whoever comes out of this regional is going to be ready to win a national championship, because of how tough it is.' "
"I have never played with this much talent at a regional," Tennessee senior guard Shanna Zolman said.
"It's a real tough region in my opinion but right now the only opponent that really matters to us is Rutgers," said coach Pat Summitt, who has left the possibility of a second game in Cleveland to her assistants in terms of watching film. "They are explosive. We played them a year ago for a regional championship, a game that went to the wire."
The Tennessee-Rutgers game features two coaches that respect each other and two programs that know each other. The teams didn't play in the regular season this year, but they met in Philadelphia last March – Tennessee won 59-49 in a game that wasn't decided until the final minute when the Lady Vols converted 10 consecutive free throws – and they played earlier that season. Rutgers pasted the Lady Vols in that first game, 65-51, in a matchup that was much wider than the score indicated.
"It's like playing in conference," Rutgers senior forward Mariota Theodoris said. "You know the team's tendencies; you know the coach's tendencies. You don't have a lot of things thrown at you. It makes it easier for you to prepare. So familiarity does help a lot. We all try to simplify the game as much as possible because you don't have a lot of time to prepare."
Tennessee sophomore guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who is playing in her second postseason, agreed.
"Having been able to play Rutgers twice last year helps this game coming up," Hornbuckle said. "We know they're going to be physical; we know they're quick and athletic, and they get after the boards."
Hornbuckle broke her right wrist Feb. 12 but returned in time for the NCAA tourney. She suffered a concussion in the second round win over George Washington but declared herself fit for Sunday.
"I haven't fallen in the shower," Hornbuckle joked. "I don't have a concussion or anything like that. My wrist is feeling great. It's slowly but surely getting better."
Hornbuckle also has the benefit of having been through the battles of postseason once already. She had six rebounds in the last game against Rutgers to go with three steals and nine points, five of which came from the free throw line.
"I think it's more calming, it's more soothing to know what you have to do, what's expected, what the atmosphere is going to be like," Hornbuckle said. "Definitely excited about the Sweet 16. It's going to be a tough game to play. It's like being in a Final Four already. I'm just happy to be there for the second year in a row. This is what you work so hard for is to survive and advance. We've just got to go in there and go strong."
Hornbuckle will come off the bench in this game to provide the sixth woman sparkplug. How quickly she enters likely depends on how well Tennessee handles the full court pressure of the Scarlet Knights.
Tennessee is expected to start: Shanna Zolman, No. 5, 5'10 senior guard, 15.0 points per game, 2.8 rebounds per game, 3.1 assists per game; Sidney Spencer, No. 1, 6'3 junior forward, 9.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg; Candace Parker, No. 3, 6'4 redshirt freshman forward, 16.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 2.9 apg, 2.2 blocks per game; Nicky Anosike, No. 55, 6'4 sophomore forward/center, 7.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg; and Tye'sha Fluker, No. 50, 6'5 senior center, 9.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg.
Rutgers is expected to start: Cappie Pondexter, No. 25, 5'9 fifth-year senior guard, 21.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.6 steals per game; Matee Ajavon, No. 22, 5'8 sophomore guard, 12.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 4.5 apg, 2.7 spg; Essence Carson, No. 5, 6'0 sophomore guard, 8.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.5 apg; Michelle Campbell, No. 34, 6'2 senior forward, 8.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg; and Kia Vaughn, No. 15, 6'4 freshman center, 6.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg.
Both teams spent time during their press conferences discussing matchup issues. Rutgers must find someone to guard Parker. Tennessee must somehow handle Pondexter.
"Without giving away any secrets I won't be guarding her. That's for sure," Summitt quipped when asked for the game plan. "I think we'll probably have to mix it up. I don't think we can just guard her straight up. We may have to go zone. I don't know exactly what we'll do, but between now and game time we'll have to come up with something that we feel will be our best opportunity to try to not stop Cappie but hopefully contain her in some way. That probably is the biggest concern going into this game."
Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said her team must somehow stay with Parker, who can line up in the post or roam the perimeter.
"She takes it to another level; she really is on another plane," Stringer said. "I have not seen us develop an athlete that has it all. I mean when you talk about 6'5, handles the ball as well as she does. One of the questions that one of my players had is, ‘Yes, OK, she handle the ball, she can crossover, she can do this, she can do that, but can she handle it under pressure, can she handle the ball?' And I think she can. Couple that with some real fine shooting, she's an unselfish player, which is real special. And aside from that she always represents the potential for a dunk, so you've got to know if she weren't dunking you do have to know how high she can get up on the rebounding side."
Theodoris, a 6'2 forward and key reserve for Rutgers, said the team has practiced mismatches all season.
"It's a good thing that we're a defensive-oriented team first," Theodoris said. "Coach puts us in all kinds of situational drills just so we can always have a lot of flexibility and it won't be such a daunting thing when we have matchups. Whoever is matched up on Candace initially if that person gets in foul trouble or something like that the next person is line (has to step up). Coach has great vision in that way. We do this situational type of drills every day in practice."
When Stringer was asked how her team could beat Tennessee, she cited several key areas that must be controlled.
"We are going to have to control the rebounds; they're the best offensive rebounding team in the country so we seriously have to block out," Stringer said. "We've got to make sure that we aren't taking a bunch of time against their press; we need to get into our offense with less than 10 seconds (because they) can do a lot of things that involve switching and changing up of defenses so we need to recognize that quicker, and we need to be sure that we stay in a flow.
"We've got to get out to that great shooter Zolman. And Spencer and yet control the extremely tall and very physical players to the inside. Last but not least I think the declaring stat is free throws. So we've got to stay out of foul trouble, as has been the case in years past."
If that sounds like a lot it is. Tennessee suffered two losses this season to unranked teams but then found its trademark defense and rebounding in the postseason, starting with the SEC tourney in Little Rock, Arkansas, which the Lady Vols won for a second consecutive year.
The Lady Vols also developed multiple offensive weapons with Fluker scoring in the paint and Spencer adding another long-range threat to Zolman's sharp-shooting.
"She's taken a lot of the pressure off of Shanna, I feel," Summitt said. "There was a time when everybody keyed on Shanna, and we had some games where Sidney stepped up and you picked up the stat sheet at the end of the game and said Spencer was a difference maker. I think now people have to respect our perimeter game more than ever offensively. That's made us a better offensive team from the perimeter and obviously our inside game is much better than a year ago. I feel a lot better coming into the tournament about our inside game. They've worked hard.
"Dean Lockwood has done a great job of bringing along the individual talent and the play of our posts. Sidney has taken a lot of pressure off of our offense and particularly off Shanna. I'm really pleased with how she's played."
Summitt has seemed noticeably calm coming into this tournament. Assistant coach Holly Warlick, on the other hand, has been noticeably fired up.
"I tell her, ‘Sit down; I'm jumping up' " joked Warlick, who said Summitt was very much the opposite of calm in the 66-53 win over George Washington in which the officials allowed the players to maul each other – Hornbuckle had her nose bloodied and suffered a concussion without a foul being called in either case – before tightening up the calls. "I thought she was pretty emotional and into it. We weren't going to get bullied by anyone."
Summitt seemed perplexed by the question about her Zen-like demeanor.
"I'm just trying to prepare them," Summitt said. "I thought I normally was this way this time of year."
Perhaps. But at any rate it appears to be a good thing for the coaches and their team.
"Is that bad to be calm?" Spencer asked with a smile. "I think she knows that she's prepared us. It's up to us to do what she's asked us to do on the court. Obviously she can't play so I think she's calm because she's prepared us."
"If it's working we're going to keep doing it," Warlick said.
Sunday's game should be anything but calm. Both teams like to bring full court pressure, and both programs have made names for themselves with postseason defense.
"We've focused on our defense and just really taking care of the ball," Summitt said. "Rutgers is a team very capable of disrupting your offense."
Stringer said her team learned from its mistakes in the last game against Tennessee.
"I think we're a lot more calm," Stringer said. "We have a sense of what we can do and what we must do, and we realize we went away from our strengths and in our inexperience we did some fouling in some situations which were just uncalled for. And of course pressure makes a lot of things happen you don't anticipate. I think we're a little more mature, although some of you will note we're a team which has been up and down (this season), but I don't think that we have a problem getting up for Tennessee. If you can't get up for them you're not going to get up for anybody."
Both teams have a lot to play for. Pondexter delayed the WNBA for a year and came back for a fifth year at Rutgers specifically to win a national title. Fluker and Zolman have been to three Final Fours and have been turned away without a ring.
"It is much more of an emphasis knowing that this could be my last game in a Tennessee uniform," Zolman said. "That driving force is definitely a thought in my mind. … Even though I've been to three Final Fours, I still have not been able to get a ring. That is still within my mindset. I know it's my goal and a team goal."
If hard work equates to a ring, Zolman should be first in line to receive one.
"Shanna Zolman has just been outstanding in so many ways," Summitt said. "I think first of all, a great role model for our program, an example every day of how hard you have to work, how much you have to love the game and in the off-season what you have to do to elevate your game from one season to the next. We haven't had a better example in the last four years. She has been terrific.
"She is a winner on and off the court. She just does things the right way. Her example has certainly been an inspiration to a lot of the people in our program, and I'm sure the kids that watch her play every day understand how important basketball is to her and yet what a great person she is. She surprised me. I didn't realize what she had in her to be the best she can be. She's a great example of a self-made basketball player who can play on the big stage now."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant coach Nikki Caldwell handled the scouting report on Rutgers. Here is her assessment.
"I think offensively we're going to definitely have to take care of the basketball because Rutgers is one of the best defensive teams in the country – us being able to execute offensively, getting into our action quicker," Caldwell said. "I think that's going to be key for us. We obviously want to establish our inside attack with Tye and Nicky and Candace, and we've got some bigs in there that we can rotate and go to at anytime. We've got to combat their quickness so cutting and using screens is going to be critical, reading your defense because they are a team that can get out in the passing lanes."
On defense Tennessee hopes to create some confusion and mismatches.
"When they have the basketball we want to mix it up," Caldwell said. "We want to slow them up some, pressure them with our full court press, match up with them in our man-to-man defense and also play some zone against them as well. Limiting their transition basket is going to be key and then we want to make sure we don't allow them to get second and third opportunities. That's going to be key for us as well."
It's no secret that Cappie Pondexter is a primary concern for Tennessee.
"She presents a problem because she's such a great offensive player with her ability to shoot the three, to pull up, get to the hole," Caldwell said. "She's really polished her offensive attack. A player like that you want to limit her touches as much as you can. Now can you stop her? No. But you hope to influence her and contain her and so that's what we're going to try to do with regards to Cappie. Kind of how you guard a Seimone Augustus or Monique Currie, players who are very good one-on-one players."
However, Caldwell said that Tennessee shouldn't fixate on Pondexter's points and forget that she can get the ball to other scorers on the floor.
"Obviously we don't want to have so much interest where we let up and let her distribute the basketball and get the ball to other people," Caldwell said. "That's part of the containment, too, is taking away the passing lanes and things like that. So everybody else is going to have to do their part."
GUARD PLAY: Rutgers' strength is its guard play, much like Tennessee faced against Georgia. Tennessee has strengthened its guard play considerably with the return of Hornbuckle – she, Zolman and freshman Lindsey Moss are the only true guards on the roster; the rest are forwards and centers – but the Scarlet Knights do present a tremendous challenge, especially Naismith finalist Cappie Pondexter.
Alexis Hornbuckle will be of those called on to try to guard her.
"She's such a great player," Hornbuckle said. "She can take you of the dribble. She can hit the pull-up. She can knock down the open three. She can shoot the three in your face. You have to be determined. If you're not determined to guard her, then she's going to have a field day out there."
Coach Pat Summitt said Pondexter is the driving force behind the team's attack.
"To me, she's the heartbeat of her team," Summitt said. "She's the one that's going to dictate the tempo, make the big shots, get others involved. Defensively, she's just tenacious, her quickness, her athleticism, her anticipation. She's a player I think, if you just look at this Rutgers team, that gets it done for them and inspires others to play at that level as well. That's a big challenge for us."
The availability of Hornbuckle allows Tennessee to put a seasoned point guard on the floor and allows Shanna Zolman to move to the wing.
"I think Shanna gets a lot more open looks when she's off the ball," Hornbuckle said. "She has to create a lot more being at the point position, directing a lot more. You're coming off a screen; you might shoot off transition. Your shot selection is a little bit different being at the point than being at the wing. She told me she appreciated being at the wing a lot more."
Hornbuckle missed seven games and five weeks while she healed from a broken right wrist, and her effectiveness on both ends of the floor has been surprising.
"In my mind I never really went away," Hornbuckle said. "But as far as offense I was surprised at what I could do. Because in practice it's controlled as far as practice guys: Don't foul her; don't do this. But in a game, they don't care. They're worried about winning. So I was definitely surprised in that aspect of the game. But on the defensive end it's all a mindset."
Summitt likes what she is seeing from Zolman.
"I think she's at a very good place right now with her game and the leadership," Summitt said. "In that George Washington game, just her composure. She's not rushing. She went through a period where I thought she put too much pressure on herself. People are keying on her, and she was rushing. Now she's letting the game come to her."
Candace Parker is thrilled to see them both on the floor.
"Lex brings a whole other dimension to our basketball team," Parker said. "She's our only true point guard, combo guard, and she just brings it. She's a leader on the offensive end and on the defensive end."
POST PLAY: Tennessee, with its roster full of forwards and centers, has the edge inside, though Kia Vaughn provides some height that Rutgers will welcome.
"Vaughn gives them size," said Summitt, whose thoughts are still never far from Pondexter. "I think Cappie's playing with tremendous confidence. That's the difference I see. I think everyone else feeds off her game, her confidence."
If Summitt was sleepless Saturday night thinking about Pondexter, then C. Vivian Stringer was likely up pondering how to handle Candace Parker.
"I think that one of the things Tennessee has been known for over the years has been really strong, powerful players to the inside – lots of them – and this is no different," Stringer said. "But this one is in that real special category and she's just extremely mature. We'll have matchup problems anyway as you'll imagine but we've got to turn what seems to be an disadvantage into an advantage."
Summitt expects to see Essence Carson pick up Parker, at least initially, on the perimeter.
"I would say she's definitely going to be penciled in as someone that would check Candace with her skills and her size and her abilities," Summitt said. "I think a lot of times you can go in with a game plan but it depends on how the game starts to play out as to who's really being the most effective and whether Candace is at the three or at the post. She may be at the point guard some for us. We will move her around. She's not a stationary player by any means. Certainly they have the speed, quickness and athleticism to match up with Tennessee."
For her part Parker hasn't yet considered the different looks she's liable to see.
"I have no idea what different looks they're going to throw at us," Parker said. "We've had a variety of different looks over the season and I think we're just going to attack this as a team."
THE DUNKS: Parker's double dunks against Army in the first round – she became the first woman to dunk twice in a game and the first to do so in the NCAA Tournament – are still a topic of conversation. The only one not really interested in talking about the dunks is the one who did them. She answered the questions but, as always, she tried to steer the topic back to the team.
"I don't go into games thinking about dunking," Parker said. "I did it for energy and excitement and to get our team going. I think that it did that. I'm not going to say that I'm not going to do it again, but I'm not going to say that I am."
The Rutgers players and coach and North Carolina's Ivory Latta didn't mind talking about them. They were impressed in what was some refreshing commentary after the jocularity from a few George Washington players that they wouldn't be dunked on.
"I'm glad that she did it and I'm glad she did it when she did it because I think you can talk about dunking in practices and the like, but it is like any barrier, the mile barrier, or anything else in life as human beings as a whole tend to follow what has been done before," Stringer said. "It is the exceptional that breaks the barrier and then others follow.
"She is everything, she's smart, she's attractive, she's highly skilled, so it allows every female that has great skills and opens the door and let's her know ‘why don't you work on this' and it is embraced. It's not that the rest of the game has to have that but that's going to be seen many times. No team wants to be dunked on but I think it's great. I was very excited for Candace personally for her but more excited for women's basketball."
Rutgers' forward Mariota Theodoris, who noted her game is ground-based – "I'm not dunking. I've never done it in my life. Maybe in the pool or something." – applauded what Parker did.
"To do in the NCAA Tournament where it matters the most, you have to get credit where credit is due," Theodoris said. "There's no point in having any hard feelings about it because it's great for the women's game. It has great exposure. I can't tell you how many people called me or even just mentioned it to me over the past week. So I'm happy for her. As far as our game is concerned we can't focus on her dunking. We're trying to win the game. If she dunks all day, that's great but in the end if we win that's what matters."
Ivory Latta, a generously listed 5'6 point guard for North Carolina who jokingly told reporters that she, too, could dunk – was particularly impressed by Parker's second slam along the baseline.
"Candace Parker is a great player, and she is doing a lot for her team right now," Latta said. "You have to figure a baseline dunk, to see her go baseline, that was cool. She's a long girl, too, so she can get up. I think she's going to change the game in the future. I definitely believe that."
Cappie Pondexter of Rutgers noted the athletic ability that the feat requires.
"I think it's great – just the ability to do it is great," Pondexter said. "It's good for her, it's good for the fans, it's good for women's basketball, and I think she does inspire young women to do it. I know for a fact that there are young women out here who can but have never displayed it in a game. She just gives them the confidence to do it."
Nikki Caldwell, an assistant at Tennessee and former Lady Vol, was happy to see people seeing the "big picture."
"You've got to see the big picture," she said. "There's so much respect between Rutgers and Tennessee. I think Rutgers is one of the classiest programs there is out there – Vivian Stringer and what she's done not only for Rutgers and Iowa but for the women's game and young women, and how she's influenced their lives. So there's a mutual respect there.
"Candace dunking wasn't anything more than a high percentage basket. It's the highest-percentage basket that you could possibly get besides maybe shooting a two-foot layup. Let's put it all in perspective: It was a dunk; she did it. Candace is not a kid who's out there trying to make a statement. The dunk presented itself; she took it. That's what it was. I think Rutgers, and Cappie in particular, see the big picture in this. Yes, it's gotten a lot of coverage, which brings coverage to the women's game.
"A lot of young women, young girls are saying, ‘Wow, look at Candace. She dunked.' Hopefully a lot of other kids at the other institutions may do it. Essence Carson can dunk. And Tudy (Reed) can, too. If you look at the big picture, it's about promoting the women's game. And that's exactly what the dunk did. It promoted the women's game in a positive manner."
Parker has endured season-long questions about when – from fans and the media and even her own teammates – so Summitt was glad it happened, if nothing than to take some of the anticipation off of Parker.
"I'm glad for her to get it over with," Summitt said. "That's probably a question she had to live with on a daily basis so it's good to get it over with. I had no idea it was coming. I think it's good for the women's game. A lot of people say, ‘Well, now it's going to hurt the women's game like the men's game.' In men's basketball there are tons of guys who can dunk, and the theory there is that they quit working on their skills.
"I don't think that's going to happen with Candace Parker. She can still play all five positions. I think she is strong enough as an individual and as a competitor and confident enough in her game that's she's not going to let this be a pressure issue. If it happens again, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't. She is about winning and doing everything she can to help this team be successful."
FAN FRIENDLY: The coaches may have taken exception to the stacked region in Cleveland, but the four teams will certainly give the media and fans an up-close look at some top talent.
"Tennessee is considered one of the best defensive teams in the country, North Carolina is considered the best offensive team in the country; we're considered a pretty good defensive team in the country," Stringer said. "You've got Latta, you've got Parker … you guys are in the right spot."
Still Stringer, who revealed that three of the coaches in Cleveland – she, Summitt and North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell – will take their concerns to the WBCA, doesn't appreciate the stacked region and, in particular, being paired with Tennessee early again as has happened to her a number of times.
"I have to laugh," Stringer said. "I could guess that's what was going to happen. It's disappointing. I don't know what anybody was looking at when they decided to do this; I thought we were trying to spread the talent so the four best teams could arrive at that one spot, Boston."
The odd team out in this matter has been Purdue, which has received little attention because of the Selection Committee issues and the presence of three of the most-successful programs this season.
The Boilermakers also aren't at full strength. Their point guard, Cherelle George, and an assistant coach, Katrina Merriweather, have been suspended as of March 1 while the NCAA investigates the possibility of academic-related violations of school and NCAA rules.
North Carolina is one of the quickest, if not the quickest, teams in the country, and put on a display of that speed at its open practice.
"It is key that we have to take care of the basketball on our end and find a way to play smart defensively, keep everybody in front of us and contest every shot," Purdue coach Kristy Curry said. "Anytime you play an opponent that is as athletic, quick and versatile as they are, you have to make sure to only give them one look at the basket and you have to rebound. We have to put bodies on them because we're certainly not going to win a jumping contest."
Purdue has had a tendency to start slow sometimes. That could be fatal against North Carolina.
"I couldn't go to the grocery store or anywhere without somebody telling me, ‘Why do you all start so slow?' " Curry said. "I keep telling people it's the final score that matters."
North Carolina guard Ivory Latta said her team can't let Purdue get comfortable in the half-court game. She also noted that if the Boilermakers miss, the Tar Heels were off to the races.
"We're getting it out and going," she said. "They've got to catch us."
ODDS AND ENDS:
BIGGEST YAWNS: Definitely by the bigs. At the open practices the most sleepy yawns come from the post players. Maybe because they're so tall, it takes them longer to wake up.
Tennessee's big post, 6'5 Tye'sha Fluker, is happy to be in Cleveland with some players her own size. In the sub-regional she got called for some contact fouls that knocked her defender off balance. Against other bigs they don't budge, and those fouls aren't called.
"Anytime I get the opportunity to play against somebody your size inside it's fun because you can get away with more aggressive play," Fluker said.
BEST T-SHIRT: That worn by Tar Heel coach Sylvia Hatchell. The Carolina blue shirt says: "Rockin' & Rollin' and Reboundin' in Cleveland, Ohio." The apostrophes were done with musical notes in honor of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame being here. The shirt got some props from the press conference moderator, who thanked Hatchell for promoting the city.
BEST ENTERTAINERS: A combo of Sidney Spencer and Candace Parker. All eyes were on Parker at the open practice to see if she would dunk.
"Hey Candace," Fluker hollered several times before Parker heard her. "Can you dunk it?"
She didn't but she headed to the basket a couple of times and peeled off.
"Aawwwwwwwww," the crowd groaned in unison.
Spencer turned to the crowd and told them they would just have to come back Sunday. Dominique Redding tried to get Fluker to dunk, but she said she would wait until warmups on Sunday.
BEST AMBASSADOR: Pat Summitt. She walked up to a section of fans to chat during the practice. After it ended she signed dozens of autographs until Purdue took the floor and then she had to leave by NCAA rules. The players also signed with her, especially Shanna Zolman, who stayed as long as Summitt and signed just as many balls, T-shirts, hats and photos.