"It's like I want to switch conferences," coach Pat Summitt joked Wednesday in her teleconference with media from the states of Tennessee, Arizona and California.
No. 4/5 Tennessee, 1-0, rolled over two exhibition opponents, Carson-Newman and the Houston Jaguars, by scores of 104-49 and 101-51, respectively. Then the Lady Vols officially opened the season last Sunday against Chattanooga and won 102-72. It was the first time they had struck 100 or more in a season opener since a 112-39 wipeout of Stetson on Nov. 26, 1989.
The players welcomed those three games as they tried out their newfound commitment to defense and integrated four new players onto the team, including junior college transfers Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste. Freshman forward Nicci Moats played in the three games, and freshman point guard Cait McMahan got her first action against Chattanooga since recovering from exploratory knee surgery in October. Now the team is ready to take its measure against a ranked foe.
"It's definitely exciting just to really be able to measure ourselves up … because we've won by considerable amounts in the past three games, so just to really get to measure ourselves up against a quality team," junior center Nicky Anosike said.
Senior forward Sidney Spencer got some film of the Bruins on Tuesday to watch on her own that evening. She said she was looking forward to a stiffer test.
"I am. I know they're athletic," Spencer said. "I think it will truly test how good we are, our help-side defense and our supporting man-to-man. I think it will be a good test for us."
At the post-game press conference after the Chattanooga game, Summitt said three things stood out so far – her players' intensity, effort and unselfishness.
"They are very unselfish," Summitt said. "You can see that offensively, but I'm seeing that defensively. Our support defense is better right now than it was a year ago in March, and that just tells me that they're really buying in to helping each other at both ends."
So why such a big difference already? Spencer's theory is that the Lady Vols can now bring full-court pressure with the addition of quicker players and that forces everyone to pay attention and stay in tune with each other.
"You have to be aggressive, and you have to know where everyone is because we're going for steals and taking a lot of chances," Spencer said. "Maybe that just keeps us on our toes in the half-court. I think maybe spreading out our defense full court has helped us stay us more alert."
Tennessee will need to stay alert for this game. UCLA, the defending Pac-10 Tournament champions, can score points. The Bruins defeated UC-Santa Barbara last Sunday, 87-62, and were led by junior forward Lindsey Pluimer, who scored 23 points and had 11 rebounds. UCLA, 1-0, broke open a close game by going on a run late in the first half and when UC-Santa Barbara threatened again early in the second half, the Bruins put together another spurt.
"I'm pretty familiar with a couple of the players," Anosike said. "I think my role is going to be to get out on the perimeter and get after it."
Anosike has help in that regard this season. Bobbitt and McMahan can handle the point duties so junior Alexis Hornbuckle is free to roam and create more havoc. Auguste, Bobbitt and McMahan have speed also, and sophomore Candace Parker has become a better defender. Sophomore Alex Fuller, senior Dominique Redding and Spencer can get in the passing lanes and help with traps. Moats is steadily catching up – she missed the preseason for knee rehab – and is learning the system. With her size, she can defend the back of the press.
"I think it's more of a priority," Anosike said of the team's approach to defense. "Last year it really wasn't. It was just, ‘We're going to out-score you and that's how we're going to win.' "
Summitt will use the same starting lineup: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 guard, No. 00 (12.0 points per game, 3.0 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 guard, No. 14 (19.0 ppg, 4.0 rebounds per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 forward, No. 1 (10 ppg, 1.0 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 forward, No. 3 (15.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 center, No. 55 (9.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg).
UCLA is expected to start: Lindsey Pluimer, 6'4 junior forward, No. 13 (23.0 ppg, 11 rpg), First Team Pac-10 All Academic, has started 60 consecutive games, nickname is Plum; Amanda Livingston, 6'1 senior forward, No. 31 (12.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg), hit 50 percent of her shots in the last 22 games, has talent for scrapbooking; Chinyere Ibekwe, 6'4 sophomore center, No. 23 (11.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg), had a career high of 15 points last season against Arizona; her brother, Onyekachi signed as a free agent this season for the San Francisco 49ers; Tierra Henderson, 5'10 sophomore guard, No. 2 (9.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg), played in every game as a freshman, likes to collect state quarters; and Noelle Quinn, 6'0 senior guard (13.0 ppg, 6.0 apg), nickname is Noey, one of only eight Bruins to average at least 18 points and eight boards a season. The others were Denise Curry, Natalie Williams, Ann Meyers, Maylana Martin (now an assistant coach), Rehema Stephens, Dora Dome and Necie Thompson.
Hornbuckle said this year's Tennessee team wants to out-score opponents and defend them. Last season, the storyline all season was the Lady Vols' defensive deficiencies. After Tennessee lost on "Senior Night" to Florida in late February, Summitt said the game tape was painful to watch. The Lady Vols are lacking in size this season – perhaps another explanation for some early rebounding issues – but that's it, according to Hornbuckle.
"We don't have the height that most Tennessee teams are used to having, but we have the quickness, we have the heart, we have the desire to want to stop teams and to out-score teams," Hornbuckle said. "It's actually fun to be out there playing. I haven't said that in a while. It might be like, ‘Oh, this game was fun, and then it's, man did y'all watch that game last night (on film)?' It's fun overall. The defense generates the offense instead of vice versa like it's been the past couple of years."
Hornbuckle and Anosike stepped into major roles – and the starting lineup – when they were freshmen. For that reason they have taken it upon themselves to help Spencer and Redding with the team leadership. Summitt has noticed that this team, so far, has been adept at holding individuals accountable.
"We definitely need to lead because we are pretty much like seniors just because we had such a bigger role our freshmen years," Anosike said. "That kind of moves us up a year."
There has been another factor aiding team accountability this season and that has been the diminutive Bobbitt. The staff cites her willingness to be coached, and the words have resonated throughout the team.
"Coach was talking to me earlier and said Shannon was one of the most coachable players she's coached in a long time," Hornbuckle said. "People want to follow that, people want to be that. You take constructive criticism but at the same time you're bouncing back with a positive attitude, like, ‘OK, what can I do now? What can I get better at? Or coach, what do you need me to do?' I think our team is starting to feed off that, and everybody is starting to become like that. She came in basically as a newcomer, and she's already filling the role of a senior more or less.
"Every player has their frustrating moments when you're just like, ‘Yeah, OK, I know.' But that rarely, rarely happens with Shannon. She's always like, ‘You're right coach. OK, do I need to do this?' And if she doesn't understand she's quick to ask questions. I know my freshman year if I didn't understand, I was like I just want to sit back and watch until I can get what's going on. I respect her. Hats off to her for stepping up and being able to do that, because it's hard, especially in a program like Tennessee. You're expected at a certain level to already know certain things, and you're learning new things, but yet you want to learn more. And if you don't get it, you want to get it and then you want to learn more on top of that.
"She's handled it well, and I think wanting to consume the knowledge day in and day out helps you. Because if you're the type of person that's hardheaded and thickheaded, and you think you know it all, it's not going to work here. You're going to be fighting Pat every day, and you're not going to win."
Hornbuckle delivered that last line with a hearty laugh. A big smile breaks across the face of Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick, a former point guard at Tennessee, when she is asked about Bobbitt.
"She's very coachable. You want kids like that. You want them, if you say something, to take what you say and do it on the floor. She's been very coachable, and that's probably what has separated her right now. She's willing to learn; she doesn't have a comeback for everything," Warlick said with a laugh. "I think she knows she had a lot to learn, and she was willing to learn. Nothing was too small for her to know. I wish we had her for four years. She's a great kid."
Anosike, who was born in Brooklyn, is happy to be back with Bobbitt, who was born in the Bronx. They first shared a basketball court 11 years ago in New York.
"I played against her since fourth grade," Anosike said. "She was on Mt. Carmel, and I was on Sacred Heart, and we played each other in the downstate championship. She doesn't remember this, but I remember it, and we beat them. Then, we played each other in an All-Star game – it was public schools of New York versus the Catholic schools of New York. She was on the public schools; I was on the Catholic schools, and it was at Hunter College in Brooklyn I believe. I remember she got the award at the end of the game as the best playmaker, and I got MVP. Now I think back, and I'm like who would've thought we would ever be on the same college team?"
When Anosike heard that Tennessee was interested in Bobbitt she put in a good word with the coach.
"I told Pat that would be great, because we need her," Anosike said. "She's the engine. She's continuously going, and that's what we need."
The engine and the rest of the Tennessee train get its first test tonight at 7 p.m. (CSS, Lady Vol Radio Network).
"It's a test. It's our second game. It's early," Hornbuckle said. "But at the same time it's exciting. We're like, ‘OK, are we ready for this? Yeah, we've practiced for this, but are we ready?' "
Facing a Top 25 team so early is somewhat unusual as teams usually ease into the season, but Hornbuckle said the opponent isn't really the issue.
"I don't know if it changes anything because preparation is the big key," she said. "You've got to prepare before you go into any type of battle. I think that the coaches are doing a great job of doing that and reiterating that every day. You've got to earn respect. No respect is given. No we didn't rank No. 1 in preseason poll but to me that's a good thing. You've got to fight to get on top instead of fighting to stay on top."
Hornbuckle outlined three ways for the team to look at the matchup.
"Man, this could get a loss and everybody's hopes go down, or we could get a loss and build from it, or we could just win and still keep building, which would be the most important thing to me," she said. "I'd love to do the third option. Option C, please."
And with that, she smiled, laced up her shoes and headed to the practice floor.
"We've had three games that were not as challenging," Summitt said. "I'm ready for a challenge. Let's bring it on. See if we're ready. If we're not they'll listen more."
Preparation, of course, is what matters. And as the team is learning, so is listening.
SCOUTING REPORT: Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for UCLA. Here is her assessment.
When UCLA has the ball: "In transition they look to run when they have a long rebound or steal. I think transition is big for them. Probably one of our biggest concerns is different people bring up the ball so it's not like a set point guard is going to bring up the ball. All the perimeter people bring the ball up. They multitask – one time Noelle Quinn will be on the point and the next time down she'll be at the block posting up. That may be confusing to us because we haven't gone against teams that have multiple point guards.
"They're really committed to the high-low. They want to throw high-low. They want to get the ball inside so we're concerned about that. We've got to keep the ball out of the middle of the floor. When they get in trouble or when they set ball screens, then they set handoffs. They play together. They're fairly young at positions because they lost people, but I think they play pretty good together at this point. They rebounded very well against Santa Barbara. Most of them shot the ball well. I just think we've got to be concerned with high-low and second chance points for them."
When UT has the ball: "They play man to man, they force you to the baseline, and they like to trap, and they show a whole lot of help. They deny the ball really well. I think they're going to do a combination of both. (She expects to see man to man and a two-three matchup zone.) We're going to go inside-out. We're going to try to get the ball inside. We're going to try to get second-chance points. We're just going to do what we do – try to play great defense and score easy baskets off our transition or off their turnovers and take care of the ball."
After the offensive explosion in the first three games, Summitt, in response to a question, cautioned that that wouldn't be the norm.
"I think it's much too early for this team to be thinking that's the way it's going to be, because our schedule becomes increasingly more challenging," Summitt said this week after practice. "There will be teams it will be very difficult for us to get them to turn it over as much as we were able to get our last three opponents to turn it over. There're too many efficient teams offensively in women's basketball and on our schedule. I think realistically we have to understand that. That's not to say that we're not going to expect to score off of our defense and expect to score a lot off our defense."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series 14-1. The lone loss was in Knoxville on Jan. 3, 1981. The last meeting was Nov. 28, 1999, in Los Angeles. … Tennessee's overall record against the Pac-10 is 49-12 with three teams, Southern Cal, Stanford and UCLA, claiming wins. … This home-and-home series with UCLA was put in place to serve as a home game for the now-departed Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood (Maryland), but the SoCal area is such a hotbed for girls' basketball that it made sense to leave it in place since the Lady Vols will make a return trip there. … Nearly 20,000 fans came to the arena on Dec. 21, 1998, the last time UCLA was in town, and were treated to a 100-77 win in which Chamique Holdsclaw went over 2,500 career points and 1,100 career rebounds. … Tennessee student-athletes who earn a 3.0 GPA or better in the classroom have a "VS" (Vol Scholar) torch patch on their uniform. All six returning Lady Vol basketball player have the patch on the right side of their jersey. The four newcomers will be eligible after the fall semester. … The team is sporting spiffy new warmup outfits with orange hoodies with a blue interior. They arrived too late to be tailored before Sunday's game – and the pants were dragging the floor for most players – but they will be altered. … The Lady Vols are 4-0 when playing on Nov. 16. With the win over Chattanooga on Nov. 12, they are now 1-0 on that date. There are only two dates remaining in November – the 6th and 9th – that Tennessee hasn't played on. … UCLA out-rebounded UC-Santa Barbara, 57-35, with 30 boards on the offensive end. Tennessee was out-rebounded by Chattanooga, 37-27.