The six veterans – seniors Dominique Redding and Sidney Spencer; juniors Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle; and sophomores Alex Fuller and Candace Parker – spent the summer improving their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses; running their own drills; playing pickup games; and enduring conditioning and weight-lifting sessions. The two seniors hosted "team nights" at their off-campus house to incorporate the newcomers – junior college transfers Alberta Auguste and Shannon Bobbitt and freshmen Cait McMahan and Nicci Moats – onto the team with bonding sessions over dinner and Scrabble boards. The hope was that their efforts over the summer would erase any lingering malaise left from the end of last season and would instill cohesiveness as the calendar flipped to fall.
Besides deciding to bring the team together off the court, Spencer and Redding also went to work on the floor.
"In May, we made a pact, and every day we had our routine," Spencer said this fall. "We come in and shoot. We continued that through June and July, and even now we're still doing that routine.
"We're sick of seeing year after year we haven't had a banner. We're sick of that. We're just trying to be better for the team. This summer we got to work out with the boys a lot. We had a buddy on the (UT men's) team. We fed off each other. They were teaching me different moves and ball handling. We were teaching them getting the shot off faster or vice versa. We had drills for each other. It was refreshing, something new. I think that was something that has really stepped up our game, because both Dom and I are getting our shots off faster, and it seems to be more accurate."
Last March, the Lady Vols limped into Cleveland with a somewhat healed point guard – Hornbuckle had broken her right wrist a few weeks before the post-season started – and very little guard depth. The situation had gotten so dire that Parker, a 6'5 forward, had played point guard against Georgia in the SEC Tournament – Hornbuckle was on the bench in a cast – and Parker's efforts then and against LSU in the next game, when she played in the paint and on the wing, led Tennessee to the conference title. The Lady Vols, despite being saddled with the No. 2 seed in a stacked region in the NCAA tourney, managed to make it to the regional final after beating guard-rich Rutgers. But they spotted North Carolina a 16-point lead in the first half and eventually succumbed, 75-63.
"I'm proud to be a part of this team," Hornbuckle said a few minutes after that game ended. "We pulled together. It's not the best feeling right now, but all in all I'm proud to say I was a part of this team right here this year."
As far as the next season, she said in March, "We look at what we did wrong, what we need to get better at and go to work. Everything that you say, ‘I wish I could have done this better,' that's what you go to work on. While you're perfecting or getting better at that, you perfect the things that you're good at and stay on top of the game. I think next year we're going to come in, we lost two, we're gaining a few more, and we just have to pull our freshmen up and say, ‘Look, we're not falling short next year.' We get that mindset early and try not to have an up-and-down season, try to have a consistent season, and I think we'll be OK."
Hornbuckle's approach was echoed by her teammates in the locker room in Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Anosike was ready to look to this season – she said she would seek a bigger role – and she also gave a shout-out to what the team had accomplished.
"We can't forget that we did win the SEC championship," she said. "We had a pretty good season, but it's always disappointing not to get to the Final Four. "I hope to have a bigger role next year – offensively, defensively. I've just got to step up."
Spencer took the time to mourn the loss of the seniors – Tye'sha Fluker and Shanna Zolman – but also noted that her senior season had arrived.
"You get a little bit of a break (in April), but then you have to go back and hit it hard," Spencer said.
Parker, who had just completed her first collegiate experience, told a contingent of reporters crowded around her in the locker room that the entire season had been a learning experience.
"I've learned you have to take accountability and you have to change things because if you wait for time, both in this game and in your career, if you wait forever, some things may never happen," Parker said. "Apparently we have to take this and learn from it. … It's got to be done on the court. Next year we're going to get it done."
Parker said waiting a year to play in college – she sat out as a true freshman to recover from knee surgery – taught her patience, but she was ready for results.
"I've waited," Parker said. "I've gained patience. I'm sick of being patient, but patience is a virtue. We've just got to work hard in the off-season. But you can work as hard in the off-season, but if you don't transition it onto the court. … "
As coach Pat Summitt spoke softly outside the locker room last March, she broke down the defeat to North Carolina – a lack of first-half defense, a crippled backcourt and a loss of composure in too many critical spots – but she was also willing to look ahead.
"When you say good-bye to your seniors you obviously as a coaching staff start thinking about the future," said Summitt, who added that she had already spoken in the locker room to each returning player.
It was noted that the 2007 Women's Final Four would be played at the same site that Summitt was speaking from that spring evening.
"Absolutely, I want to be back," she said.
Seven months after that game ended Tennessee's season and the players ended up earning the respect of Summitt for their off-season commitment, a new season is finally about to start. The team is ready to tip it off.
"I think they are," Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell said this week. "They've had a tough preseason, and they've all worked extremely hard. You want to now be able to go out and display what you've worked on, not only during preseason, but in the summer in a more competitive setting. Obviously when you flip those lights on, there's a switch in you as a competitor and as a Lady Vol that now you're ready to showcase what you have."
GAME PREVIEW: Summitt announced her starters Monday – Bobbitt and Hornbuckle will handle the backcourt and Spencer, Parker and Anosike will fill the frontcourt.
Carson-Newman is expected to start: Casha Foster, a 5'5 freshman guard; Angela Volentine, a 5'8 sophomore guard; Ashley Tipton, a 5'10 sophomore guard; Emily Mason, a 5'11 junior forward; and Tashea Ledbetter, a 6'1 junior forward.
The Lady Eagles are not ducking top competition in their exhibition matches. After taking on Tennessee, they will play North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Nov. 5.
"We hope (the schedule) will equip the team for the rigors of the South Atlantic Conference season and allow us to win with class and style," Head Coach Dean Walsh said.
Last season, Carson-Newman was 16-13 and finished second in the South Atlantic Conference, an NCAA Division II conference of eight church-affiliated colleges and universities.
Carson-Newman College is located in nearby Jefferson City, and the Lady Eagles have seven players on the roster from the state of Tennessee, including three from Knoxville – Abby Evans, a 5'7 freshman guard who played at Halls High School; Catelyn Dake, a 5'9 freshman forward from Farragut High School; and Tipton, who also played at Farragut. The other Tennessee players are Foster, who is from Crossville; Ashley Kyle, a 5'7 freshman guard from Jefferson City; Stefanie Holbrook, a 5'10 junior guard from Oak Ridge; and Brittany Rayner, a 5'11 center from Memphis.
The Lady Vols have a 14-2 record against the Lady Eagles in a series that was held from 1920 to 1975 in official games. The two losses were in 1920 and 1925. This will be the third exhibition contest between the two programs. Tennessee won the last two, 105-47, (2004) and 101-55 (2005).
Summitt said she intends to use this first exhibition game to experiment with different lineup combinations on the floor so the staff can determine who can play effectively together. She got a look at some of those combos during a scrimmage Sunday against the male practice players.
"That was the first time we had really put different combinations on the floor," Summitt said. "I think we learned a lot. Some was good, and some of it wasn't all that impressive, but I think that gives us a gauge of where we are and what we need to do. … Playing against practice guys was a great experience because they really pushed the tempo on us and they also can spread the floor, so that was challenging.
"But I thought that for the most part, we did some good things offensively. Our defense has got to get a lot better and our rebounding. We were very inconsistent on the boards. I like the quickness of our team. Shannon Bobbitt has really done an outstanding job of coming in and being vocal, being a leader, and just being a take-charge person. With Cait out right now (knee rehab), that is really important. Alexis is going to back up Shannon at the point position, obviously start in the two spot. That gives us two good point guards that understand how to push tempo and also can bring some pressure for us defensively."