Summitt gets quick fix

First, there was Sade Wiley-Gatewood. Then, Alexis Hornbuckle. Gatewood quit the team in December. Hornbuckle suffered a six-week injury on Feb. 12. Suddenly, the Tennessee Lady Vols were without their starting point guard, without their best all-around guard and without the athleticism on the perimeter to match up with the elite teams in the nation.

It was a Lady Vols game at Georgia on Feb. 16 that convinced coach Pat Summitt she needed to make drastic change in her recruiting strategy. For the first time in more than 25 years, Summitt realized she would have to go junior college to fix a mounting problem.

She saw the quickness of the Georgia guards bedevil the Lady Vols backcourt. She saw the athleticism of the Georgia guards make it tough for UT to get into an offense. She saw her team fall behind by double digits, only to survive by moving 6-5 Candace Parker to point guard.

Moving Parker to the point was a one-game stop gap, not a long-term solution.

So Summit succumbed.

``Without a doubt, when Alexis went out it became very clear,'' Summitt said of the moment she decided to explore the junior college route.

Point guard is not Parker's ideal position. It wasn't Shanna Zolman's, either. Zolman is a shooter, not a ball-handler, not a driver, not a disher.

``We wanted to get her shots and it's a little more difficult to get her shots when she's trying to handle the basketball against one of the quickest teams in the country,'' Summitt said. ``And I said, `We've got to do something.'''

That something was signing a couple of quick, junior college guards: Alberta Auguste and Shannon Bobbitt.

Summitt believes the additions of Auguste and Bobbitt as well as Maryville High School signee Cait McMahan gives UT the athleticism to play with anybody.

``Auguste and Bobbitt have the talent, in terms of speed and quickness, as well as the experience, and just what they bring to us offensively and defensively,'' Summitt said. ``We weren't able to really press and we had trouble breaking down pressure. I think from that standpoint, those two can help us.

``Also, Cait McMahan can bring an awful lot to the backcourt area and that's where we need immediate help.''

For more than two decades, Summitt had ignored the junior college ranks. She had won six NCAA national championships in 12 years (1987 to 1998), including three in a row. Why mess with success?

But in recent years, opponents have hurt the Lady Vols with perimeter play. An injury here, a defection there put Tennessee at a huge disadvantage athletically at the guard spots.

So Summit, as she has done throughout her 32-year career, adjusted. She has won with slow post players. She has won with athletic, pressing teams. She has won with a combination of the two. But never with an infusion of junior college players.

``We've been able to bring in freshmen and have players for four years,'' Summitt said. ``Obviously, with our situation this year … we thought the junior college talent pool could help us with our immediate needs.''

Summit believes junior college talent is much better than it was 10-15 years ago.

``For me to go to the junior college national championships and really see it, it was good for me,'' Summitt said. ``I was really impressed with the talent pool.

``You have a lot of kids that don't qualify who can go the junior college route, get themselves academically eligible and also gain valuable playing time. So they come in as seasoned players, as opposed to stepping on the floor for the first time to play college basketball.''

But is there a danger of taking academic risks? Summitt has graduated every player who has completed her eligibility at UT. Will a juco threaten that record?

``For some of them, it (going to a junior college) may be a situation with a test score,'' Summitt said. ``Some kids just don't do well on the test. I think for the most part, looking at the situation we're in, we're recruiting student-athletes who we believe can be successful at the University of Tennessee. You just have to identify your needs and identify those prospects you think will be a good fit, and take a look at their background academically.

``There are some kids out there that may have chosen to go the junior college route that were qualifiers. I think you have to take it individual case by individual case.''

Inside Tennessee Top Stories