Lady Vols run past Jaguars

If Tennessee settled any question in its exhibition games, it is that the point guard position is in solid hands. The Lady Vols also found another major contributor off the bench after sophomore Alex Fuller scored 20 points and pulled down 15 rebounds in the 101-51 win Sunday over the Houston Jaguars.

Louis Ray III, the coach of the Jaguars – a traveling team of former collegiate players – went a step further. He declared Tennessee to be the probable favorite for a national championship. It's far too early to call this team a title favorite, but the Lady Vols have addressed the issue – guard play – that could have kept them from being a title contender and did keep them out of the Final Four last season.

Point guard Shannon Bobbitt, a junior college transfer, had eight points, but more importantly she recorded five assists to just one turnover, which came on a carrying call that was questionable. She also had four steals. Junior Alexis Hornbuckle, a dynamic wing guard who played point when Bobbitt took a breather – Bobbitt went for 30 minutes; Hornbuckle played 22 – had three assists, zero turnovers and six steals. Hornbuckle also had nine points and seven boards.

"Tennessee, right now from what we've seen, is the best team in the country," Ray said. "We've played a lot of teams thus far. What will take them over the hump – I know they have a great player in Candace Parker – the point guard, Bobbitt, gee whiz. She's up there with (North Carolina's Ivory) Latta. Even though you haven't seen her play in a regular Division I game, I've seen her play more than just this one time. I think that'll be the difference in them winning a national championship, which right now I'd have to say Tennessee is probably the team to beat."

In the first exhibition game, a 104-49 win over Carson-Newman, Tennessee got 20 points off the bench from senior forward Dominique Redding. In Sunday's game, sophomore forward Alex Fuller came off the bench and tallied the double-double in 24 minutes of play. The leading scorer and rebounder also had three steals and an assist.

"I thought Alex Fuller came in and gave us a lot of good things," coach Pat Summitt said. "She's shooting the ball well, getting on the boards. For her to come into this game and with the minutes she played to have 15 boards? She and Candace and Alexis were the three who really got on the board for us."

Summitt was pleased with her starters – Bobbitt, Hornbuckle, Parker, Sidney Spencer and Nicky Anosike – but in the first half she was not happy with her substitutes. Junior college transfer Alberta Auguste missed her four shot attempts – and turned over the ball four times, mostly on bad passes – and Tennessee only shot 37.2 percent in the first 20 minutes. The Lady Vols still held a respectable but not dominating 45-27 lead.

"I think the first bright spot for us was our starting five getting us off to a good start, really in both halves," Summitt said. "We were not very good coming off the bench in the first half, a lot better in the second half. You've got players that have to learn to come off the bench, and that's what I told Alberta. We've got to be more efficient when we come in and we substitute. I thought we took a lot of quick shots, didn't shoot the ball as well as I think this team should shoot the basketball. But a lot of that had to do with quick shooting and just our shot selection overall. Much better in the second half."

"Bird" Auguste settled down in the second half – she hit three shots to finish 3-7 – and had five rebounds and two assists. Fuller, who shot 1-3 in the first half with two rebounds, also turned around her game and ended up 7-13 from the field. She scored the team's last eight points and pushed the final margin to 101 on a putback with six seconds left that elicited the loudest roar from the crowd, which wanted another century mark on the scoreboard.

Fuller's 13 rebounds in the second half were the result of a Summitt challenge at halftime. Tennessee held the lead on the glass, 27-15, in the first half, but that was mainly because of the efforts of Parker, who had seven, and Hornbuckle, who had five.

"As I said at halftime, ‘Is anyone going to step up and help Parker and Hornbuckle rebound?' " Summitt said. "It was a two-player commitment, and we really, really need our team to be committed to the boards. Obviously if you shoot 41 percent, you want to make sure you get a lot of second-chance points on the offensive glass, which we did."

Tennessee got 35 second-chance points compared to eight for the Jaguars and ultimately won the battle of the boards, 56-31. Eight of Fuller's 15 rebounds came on the offensive end.

Parker, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds, joined Fuller with a double-double. Two other players were in double figures – Spencer had 19 points and Redding added 10.

Nobody on the Jaguars team got into double figures. The leading scorer was former University of Houston center KeKe Harris, who had nine points on 4-5 shooting with one made free throw. As a team, the Jaguars shot 41.3 percent and had 35 turnovers. The Lady Vols recorded 21 steals, which gives them 44 thefts in two exhibition games.

"I think, overall, our team's a little bit quicker," Summitt said. "We may not have as much size as the people that we'll play against – that wasn't the case today – but I think our players are mobile. We really worked a lot on our defense and extending our defense. Alexis and Shannon, I think, have had a lot to do with the tempo we're able to set defensively early. Bird comes in and can do the same thing. Candace is playing better defense for us now. Obviously Nicky, we count on her to really get out. And I think Sid's getting better defensively.

"We've placed a lot of emphasis on our defense. The one thing that sticks out in my mind is when a team like this shoots 41 percent they need to make some things happen in a positive way with defense."

The Jaguars threw off Tennessee a bit by playing a lot of two-three zone defense. Ray said his team unveiled it for the Lady Vols.

"They were standing around; they weren't moving as much," Ray said. "They didn't know who to throw the ball to. That's why we had them confused. And of course coach Summitt, being the coach she is, did make the necessary adjustments in the second half. Every team we played we played straight-up man so I'm pretty sure they expected us to come out in a man, and we just threw them a curve by basically playing zone. We really saved our zone for this game."

Summitt said the stretches in which Tennessee had to grind out some offensive possessions were a result of the zone.

"That was good for us," she said. "First of all, I think it was good for us to see the zone defense. And secondly to learn from what we did in the first half and do a better job in the second half with just moving the basketball better and have better ball improvement and player movement. We got very impatient and then we go to the bench, and they got shot happy so it was a one-pass, two-pass offense. That's where you can go in and talk about it at halftime. I'd rather be in those situations while you're playing an exhibition game than obviously when it's for keeps. I think we learned from the first half to the second half."

The adjustments meant somebody was open and oftentimes that was either Spencer on the perimeter or Parker, who made some deft moves in the paint after getting bodied up by the physical Jaguars.

"We got better ball movement and ball reversal," Parker said. "I think it opened things up a lot in the second half once we got used to it, once I got used to it."

Spencer said, "I think we adjusted well throughout the game. I know our posts were getting beat up inside. They were physical. Every time you caught the ball, they would collapse. I think we did a great job of composure. I think the fact our posts are drawing a lot of attention has left me open."

Spencer drained her shots – she was 3-4 from behind the arc – and Summitt credited the amount of work that the senior put in over the summer. She also talked to Spencer about taking over the role of the now-graduated Shanna Zolman, who took her shooting prowess to the WNBA.

"Fortunately, she's even got better size so she can shoot over people, and she's got as good a range," Summitt said. "You have to credit Sidney's commitment in the off-season. She got in the gym, and she shot the basketball probably more than she ever has. She worked on her drop-step moves, she's got a quicker release, range is great. Obviously that can stretch the defense. I think she is going to draw a lot of attention. Hopefully if that happens then we can take advantage of the spacing and get the ball inside."

Fuller also had a busy summer. She attended summer school but during the time she was home in Charlotte, North Carolina, she worked out on her own, played against male college players and ran.

"In the off-season I basically just stayed in the weight room a lot, played pickup with older men, men who were in college and junior colleges in North Carolina, where I live, just to be able to stay physical with them and be able to hold my own with those men," Fuller said. "And I ran miles every day."

The distance running caused Fuller to drop some 20 pounds and the result is a mobile player who can score in the paint and roam the perimeter.

"I said she's the most-improved player on our basketball team," Summitt said. "When she came in the first half, that wasn't the Alex I've been watching every day in practice. I think when she went back in I think she wanted to make sure she was a lot more efficient and got the job done, and she did. I think you've got to guard her. You've got to guard her on the block. She's got a lot of different weapons she can use – her face-up game, she definitely can shoot the three, she's got a good mid-range game. I like the fact that she has a lot of composure on the blocks. She had a couple of really nice moves inside.

"It's apparent Alex is much faster in transition. She runs the floor well. Defensively she's really worked out, particularly in closeout situations where she has to close out and defend the dribble-drive. She's just a better player all around. I think she's in the best shape that she's ever been in, for one. And then I think she has worked on her offensive skills to the point that she's just become more efficient."

Parker summed up Fuller's impact with one word.

"Huge," Parker said. "Alex's intensity and her ability inside and outside and also hit the glass, opens up things for a lot of people. I think she did a really good job coming in and giving us a spark and keeping us at a high level. It's huge."

The Jaguars, who have played Texas Tech, UTEP, Texas and Rutgers (all losses), were able to throw some size at Tennessee with the 6'5 Harris, 6'2 Tamea Scales (Texas A&M), 6'1 Jessica Lonon (ETSU), 6'0 LaToya Mills (Stephen F. Austin) and 6'0 Umeka Webb (N.C. State). But they had trouble handling the ball and didn't shoot well, and the Lady Vols raced out quickly to a double-digit lead.

In exhibition games Tennessee is essentially testing itself with offensive schemes and a renewed emphasis on defense, plus trying to integrate new players into the system. Freshman point guard Cait McMahan missed the game because she has been rehabbing her right knee after suffering a bone bruise and undergoing arthroscopic surgery to debride the knee, but Jenny Moshak, assistant athletics director for sports medicine, intends to ease McMahan back into practice this week. Summitt allows Moshak to have complete authority over when a player returns to the court.

"Well I'm not Jenny Moshak but based on what I've seen from Cait, I think there's certainly a good chance that we can see her on the floor next Sunday," Summitt said. "That's our goal, but we certainly don't have to fast-forward this. There's a lot of basketball to be played. She was sprinting in practice yesterday on the sideline. She's worked really hard. She said today that she's feels great, she's having no pain, no swelling. It's up to Jenny at that point."

Despite having a roster of just 10 scholarship players with four newcomers, including freshman forward Nicci Moats, Tennessee has fast-forwarded the learning process and isn't letting youth or inexperience hinder its progress.

"I think we are being able to put things together and see better results early," Summitt said. "I didn't know if we would with Shannon and Alberta coming in and with Cait being out. I didn't know how quickly those two would adjust. But clearly they've had college experience, their willingness to learn and then obviously they have the speed and the quickness.

"Shannon has done a great job of just setting the tempo for us at both ends of the floor. She's been a difference-maker in that regard, and I think she's had an awful lot to do with our intensity on the defensive end, creating a lot of havoc and just really getting after people. It's fun watching her bring the pressure defensively and people respond. It's like she picks the ball up, and when she's so intense they just seem to follow her lead."

Bobbitt's biggest fan at the post-game press conference, though, was Ray. He had seen the 5'2 guard play in Texas at Trinity Valley Community College, and he dropped her name into every answer after first pointing out that she belonged in the same category as Latta, the pint-sized point guard for North Carolina that overwhelmed teams last year with her speed and three-point shooting.

The difference in UT and the other teams the Jaguars have played?

"Tennessee is always big, they're strong," he said. "Much bigger than I thought. Rutgers, they weren't as big position per position. Point guard wise, I go back to the difference. Bobbitt controls the floor better than any point guard we've seen. I know Texas has a lot of size but right now due to the experience of Parker and the point guard play of Bobbitt – and I know you have these other players – that's the difference in comparing Texas and Tennessee and Rutgers.

The effect of Spencer's shooting?

"I think what's going to happen – with Bobbitt at point guard – she will free Spencer up quite a bit and I think this probably will be Spencer's best year due to a point guard who can penetrate, take you off the dribble and definitely find the open shooter," Ray said. "That's why I think Spencer will definitely have a great season."

One writer got with the program and asked Ray, who was smiling, if he liked Bobbitt.

"Oh, hands down," he said. "I know she probably could have done a little bit more if she really wanted to, so y'all haven't seen nothing yet. We scrimmaged her junior college two years in a row. She was hitting outside shots like they were layups so I know she can shoot it. What makes her an even greater threat is the fact that she can take you off the dribble and then she'll pass it and her intelligence as far as finding the open person. That's what makes her even better."

Bobbitt's defense?

"She's definitely an aggressive ball hawk on defense," Ray said. "The way we were running our offense was basically to keep the ball out of (UT's) hands so we really didn't give her a chance to, per se, show her defensive strength. She's definitely the type of player who can pressure the ball all up and down the floor. Her defensive strength will be to get a lot of steals."

The Jaguars will continue their road saga – they still have to play exhibition matches against Texas A&M (Monday); Baylor (Tuesday); UConn (Wednesday); Sam Houston (Thursday) and Houston (Friday), though the roster can fluctuate with so many games in succession – while No. 5/6 Tennessee will get ready for the first game this season that counts next Sunday against Chattanooga.

"Well, we won't take off until Thursday," Summitt said when asked how her focus changes this week. "We've got some work to do. We've got to work at putting in our matchup defense, just have a good changeup, because right now all we've really worked on is our man. We want to expand a little bit, in particular on our zone offenses, make sure we're sharp there, because I think a lot of people will zone us."

The team welcomed the two exhibition games to sort out preseason issues on both ends of the floor, but the season opener is special for the players because, as Summitt said, it's now for keeps.

"I think just having these two past games has helped us to figure out what or where we need to work on the most," Spencer said. "But now the season opens up and every game does mean something so I think it does increase our sense of urgency."

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