Over the 10-game streak Tennessee has won in close games, blowouts and in overtime.
Last year on Stanford's court, Tennessee prevailed, 74-67, on Dec. 4, 2005, before a sellout crowd and snapped the Cardinal's 23-game home winning streak. In the Dec. 14, 2003, game played at Stanford, the Lady Vols needed overtime to take the game, 70-66. Later that season in the NCAA Tournament against Stanford, Tennessee eked out a win, 62-60, on March 30, 2004, at a neutral site in Norman, Oklahoma, to advance to the Final Four in New Orleans.
Tennessee leads the overall series, 18-4. Stanford's last win came when the Cardinal was the top-ranked team in the nation and pummeled the Lady Vols in Knoxville, 82-65, on Dec. 15, 1996. It is likely an understatement to say that at this point in time the Cardinal is tired of losing to Tennessee.
"Last time they were here we hit a half-court shot to win," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "The luck has been on our side a couple of games against them. I'd be tired of it, too."
With that in mind Head Coach Pat Summitt drilled her team this week on defensive principles in full- and half-court scenarios. Twice this week after practice the players carried on with conditioning drills meant to improve footwork and reinforce defensive concepts. Summitt would rather leave nothing to chance in the 23rd meeting with Stanford.
"We've been fortunate," Summitt said. "We've made some of our breaks, but we've also had some things fall our way. It's certainly great to win the close games, but with what has happened in this Stanford-Tennessee series, if we let it stay close, we have to know that eventually it will catch up with us."
Warlick, who is in her 22nd season as a member of Summitt's staff, handled the scouting report on Stanford as she has done for years. As it turned out Warlick also scouted the other Pac-10 teams on Tennessee's schedule this month, Arizona State (83-74) and UCLA (83-60), both wins for the Lady Vols.
"I always do Stanford, and Arizona State was new so I took them," Warlick said. "It wasn't by design. There are certain teams I always do."
Warlick and the rest of the team would like to run UT's record to 3-0 against the Pac-10 and 4-0 overall before hosting the upstart Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee on Sunday afternoon.
To that end the players watched film and practiced Thursday morning – they ended the session by dancing and singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" – before taking the rest of the day to spend time with friends and families for Thanksgiving.
The players worked on specifics for game preparation and also did some game-speed shooting drills. Point guard Shannon Bobbitt, who was 0-2 from the line against Arizona State, shot free throws on her own before and after practice.
Bobbitt stumbled on the road against the Sun Devils – she had three rebounds, three assists and a steal, but she also was 0-1 from the field, had three turnovers and stayed in foul trouble. Point guard Cait McMahan also struggled – she had two points, a rebound, an assist and a steal but she also had two turnovers and fouled out. In her defense, McMahan appeared to take two charges that were called blocks, but both point guards fouled too much while on the floor – 18 minutes for Bobbitt and 13 for McMahan.
"I thought the two that were the most obvious (in the Arizona State game) were Cait and Shannon," Summitt said. "There were a lot of fouls in that game, some called, some not, but it was a very physical game."
Warlick, who played point guard for Summitt from 1976 to 1980, agreed with Summitt's assessment that the young guards – McMahan is a freshman and Bobbitt a junior college transfer so both were playing for the first time on the road for Tennessee – were overanxious.
"Absolutely," Warlick said. "They were playing in a hostile environment, and it was a tough crowd. They bring the heat. It's tough to be a point guard because you're getting everybody set up in the offense; you've got pressure on you. It's just hard.
"It was great for them because I don't know if they were physically or mentally ready for that challenge. They snapped out of it. When Shannon wasn't playing well, Cait played well. And then when Cait didn't play well, Shannon came in. They came in and helped each other out. It's just part of growing up. Shannon is almost like a freshman in that kind of an environment because she's never been in that situation. That's why we play the schedule we do."
The other junior college player, Alberta Auguste, had a breakout game against the Sun Devils. Auguste scored nine points on 4-4 shooting and pulled down five boards, including four on the offensive end. With McMahan and Bobbitt both in foul trouble, Alexis Hornbuckle moved to the point and Auguste filled the wing. Freshman Nicci Moats logged 19 seconds to end the first half after Auguste took a shot to the head that required stitches above her left eye.
"After the injury I was a little nervous, but right now I'm doing OK," said Auguste, who didn't miss any practice this week.
"It didn't bother her," Warlick said of Auguste playing on the road. "She played well. … The two junior college kids and the freshman have just fit in. I think Cait and Shannon bring so much energy, vocal-wise, that it helps us."
The Lady Vols will be back in the comfortable atmosphere of Thompson-Boling Arena, but they have a very modest two-game home winning streak – Chattanooga and UCLA – after losing to Florida last season on Senior Day on Feb. 26, 2006. Tennessee was without Hornbuckle that day – she was recovering from surgery to repair a broken wrist – and although Candace Parker set four career highs – points (34), rebounds (15), field goals (12) and minutes played (41) – Tennessee fell in overtime, 95-93.
The 2005-06 team was weak on defense and lacked depth at the guard spots. So far this season Tennessee has taken tremendous strides in correcting those deficiencies. Summitt thinks Bobbitt and McMahan have the Arizona State game out of their systems.
"It starts with your point guard how you play in the full court and half court," Summitt said. "You've got to have leadership. They just need to be on top of their games. I think both of them let their offense affect their defense. I think defensively they have to be solid. They were a foul a possession. That's why Shannon put her hands behind her back. She couldn't quit fouling. I told her at least get them up in the passing lanes and use them for something worthwhile."
Summitt will stick with her starting lineup: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (7.0 points per game, 3.3 assists per game, 2.0 steals per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (12.0 ppg, 4.7 spg, 3.0 rebounds per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (14.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 1.3 spg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (20.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.0 apg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (7.7 ppg, 4.7 apg, 3.7 rpg).
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer is expected to start: Candice Wiggins, 5'11 junior guard, No. 11 (14.7 ppg, 4.3 apg, 3.7 spg), two-time reigning Pac-10 player of the year, currently the school record-holder in points per game with a 19.6 career average; Cissy Pierce, 5'10 junior guard, No. 13 (8.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 0.7 spg), a starter after playing in 29 games last season, held the record in high school in the long jump (19'3-1/4"); Brooke Smith, 6'3 senior forward/center, No. 30 (17.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.0 apg), the school record-holder in field goal percentage at 59.1%, played water polo in high school; Jillian Harmon, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 33 (7.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.3 apg), played in all 34 games as a freshman and started 25, posted double-doubles against UC-Santa Barbara and Washington; and Kristen Newlin, 6'5 senior forward/center, No. 43 (11.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.3 blocks per game), holds the Cardinal single-game school record for blocks with eight, was a four-time state champion and state record holder in the 100-meter backstroke in high school.
In Stanford's home game Tuesday evening against Missouri at Maples Pavilion, freshman guard JJ Hones, the 2006 Gatorade State Player of the Year in Oregon, got her first career start in place of Harmon. She had four points, four rebounds and four assists in 28 minutes and has tallied 14 assists in the Cardinal's first three games. Hones, a high school All-American, is being groomed to run the point – her development means Wiggins can play the wing, where she is the most effective – but against Tennessee's pressure Wiggins will likely be the one bringing the ball up the court.
"In here? Wiggins. I'd be surprised if she's not handling the ball," Summitt said. "Wiggins is pushing tempo for them. She's a player. She can shoot, drive, run the team."
This game will complete Tennessee's matchups with Pac-10 teams in the regular season. Stanford will head to Athens after Friday's contest for a Sunday game with Georgia. The Cardinal will host South Carolina on Jan. 8 to complete the SEC trifecta.
Auguste and Bobbitt are making their first runs through the gauntlet of a typical Tennessee schedule and are taking the one-game-at-a-time approach.
"We're excited for every game to tell the truth," Auguste said. "Anybody we play on our schedule is a tough game. I just take it one game at a time. Stanford, they come in here, we've just got to play our game."
Auguste had to adjust to playing in front of larger crowds – she estimated a few dozen people watched her team at Central Florida Community College – but it's a change she welcomed.
"I love it," she said. "The fans are supportive. I'm happy to be here and play in front of thousands of people and show what I am capable of doing. It's fun."
Bobbitt, who forged the nickname "Something Special," while playing at New York's famous Rucker Park, said the crowd fades into the background for her once the ball is tipped. She estimated a few hundred folks watched games at Trinity Valley Community College in Texas.
"The crowd does not get to me believe it or not," Bobbitt said. "I played in Rucker Park (with thousands) there. It's not a big thing for me. I don't go for the hype. I'm myself."
With that attitude in mind, Stanford "is just another game to me," she said. "I don't look at it as one game more important than the next. Every game is important to me. Everybody's the same game. I don't look at anyone different."
Tennessee will need that steady approach against Stanford, especially from the point guard position.
Bobbitt has turned to Hornbuckle when she needs help. Hornbuckle has a vested interest in keeping Bobbitt and McMahan up to speed at the point position, because if they can hold down that spot, Hornbuckle is free to stay on the wing.
"From my standpoint she helped me to be a mentally strong point guard," Bobbitt said. "She told me the positive things to do and the things not to do. She's the backbone of this team, she's the toughness of this team and she definitely carried me under her wing and helped me throughout every practice and helped me every day."
Stanford comes in with a blemish on its record – a loss on its home floor to No. 24 BYU – but Summitt said that outcome has no effect on this matchup.
"It is what it is. It is Tennessee and Stanford," Summitt said. "We've had a lot of great games. When the two teams meet, it is very intense and highly competitive. It's usually a game that is going to go to the wire. When I think about the teams we've faced over the years in our non-conference schedule, this has been a great matchup. I think there is always a lot of interest in this game in particular, and we've learned a lot about ourselves playing against them because they are so well coached and disciplined in what they do."
Tennessee has shown its ability to light up the scoreboard – three players are averaging in double figures and all five players on the floor at any given time can score on this squad – but the Lady Vols are being plagued by an old nemesis in three-point defense.
Lady Vol opponents are averaging 6.3 made three-pointers a game – the same number Tennessee is averaging each game with Spencer hitting 60 percent of her long-range attempts and fellow senior Dominique Redding, 57.1 percent. Hornbuckle and Bobbitt are at 50 percent from behind the arc. That's a good thing for Tennessee since stopping the other team remains an issue to date.
"Probably the biggest weakness of our defense is the lack of pressure in guarding the three," Summitt said. "We have given up way too many threes. … We look like a team that hasn't worked on it enough and that's my fault. I told them that I would take responsibility for it. At the Arizona State game I thought it could have really cost us. Chattanooga and UCLA got to shoot the three as much as they wanted to, as did Arizona State. It's about time we addressed it, and hopefully we will be better when we play on Friday."
Oddly enough Stanford, usually a strong three-point shooting team, is struggling early as a team. The Cardinal has made just 31.4 percent (11-35) of its long-range attempts. Opponents are hitting 42.6 percent (26-61), led by BYU's 11-27 performance. However, both Wiggins (4-10 so far this season) and Newlin (2-4) are more than capable of stroking shots behind the arc.
Tennessee does have the players this season to address the defensive shortcoming. Anosike and Hornbuckle have always been disruptive defensively and Bobbitt and Auguste have added speed to the perimeter. The breakdowns have usually come in matching up in transition with the Lady Vols flooding the lane instead of communicating and sending defenders to the outer edges.
In the half-court, the Lady Vols play a gambling type of defense with double-teams, traps and switching in an effort to force turnovers or bad decisions with the shot clock winding down. Sometimes that pressure leaves them exposed on the perimeter, particularly by a team that can pass well.
As a team Tennessee is averaging 15.3 steals a game against Chattanooga, UCLA and Arizona State. Through the first three games last season – Stetson, Chattanooga and Michigan State – the Lady Vols averaged 9.7 thefts a game.
Hornbuckle leads the team with 14 takeaways followed by Parker, Bobbitt and Auguste, who have six apiece.
"I feel like some kind of way we're going to get a steal, we're going to score off of transition or something. It hypes me up," Auguste said. "It makes me play harder. It makes me realize this is what we need to do to win. Defense is really the key to our success this year."
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Stanford game. Here is her assessment.
When Stanford has the ball: "They look to score quickly. They look to go high-low a lot. They spread the floor wide on transition. They want to get a three-point shot off. They've got big strong physical kids inside, and they've got great shooters outside so we've got our work cut out for us. Wiggins is outstanding. She's got a great support staff. They're pretty set in what they want to run. They're a very disciplined team. They just do things the right way."
When UT has the ball: "We're going to try to go inside as well. They're very physical. They'll face guard and then they'll play behind and double down through the wing. We play very similar really. We like to go inside, establish that early in the game. We like the transition. It's a matter of us being more disciplined than them. I think they're great offensive rebounders. And we're going to have to get on the offensive boards. We've got to get second-chance points to win. We've really got to be as committed as they are to looking inside and establish our inside game first. I think it's going to be two similar teams out there playing."
Tennessee will rely on its man-to-man defense and might sprinkle in some zone looks, too.
"I would hope we would play a little bit of zone," Warlick said. "But they spread the floor in their offense."
Added Pat Summitt, "If we do a good job out of our pressure we can be effective. They run a lot of triangle offense, run some quick hits, but they really play well together. They read well and play well together. They do stretch your defense with their offense."
Summitt is particularly cognizant of the abilities of Smith and Newlin in the paint because of their offensive repertoire.
"You have to guard Brooke and Kristen before they get the ball, because they've got great up-and-unders and hooks and turn-around game," Summitt said. "They can go over both shoulders. They are both very, very skilled and well drilled in their action. Trying to limit some of their touches will be important. That is something that has been a challenge for us, to not be complacent after their people get the ball. This will be a big test for Candace, Nicky and Alex in particular."
UT sophomore forward Alex Fuller, after playing sparingly last season because of an injured hip flexor, is becoming a stalwart for the Lady Vols on both ends of the floor – she is a steady shooter and instinctive rebounder and can also play solid post defense because of footwork and positioning.
Tennessee will hope it can continue its hot shooting. The Lady Vols haven't shot less than 50 percent yet this season and haven't allowed an opponent to shoot in the 50 percent range. Arizona State came the closest at 46.9 percent.
"We have to do something that we didn't do at Arizona State and that is finish strong," Summitt said. "We are a team right now that tends to play spurts. I think our consistency in the second half needs to improve significantly to go against a team like Stanford."
ODDS AND ENDS: Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer has signed a six-year contract extension that will keep her on The Farm through the 2011-12 season. Now in her 21st year as the Cardinal's head coach, she has led Stanford to two NCAA titles and 18 consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament. … Tennessee coach Pat Summitt signed a six-year contract extension last spring that increased her annual compensation package to $1.125 million for the 2006-07 season and runs through 2011-12. Over the life of the six-year contract, Summitt's compensation will average $1.3 million a year. She is now in her 33rd year at the helm for the Lady Vols and is the winningest coach in Division I basketball history. During her tenure, the Lady Vols have won six NCAA titles with 25 consecutive appearances in the Sweet 16. … The head coaches on the sidelines Friday have 1,578 wins between them – 662 for VanDerveer and 916 for Summitt. …Both teams were picked in the preseason to win their respective conferences – the Pac-10 for Stanford and the SEC for Tennessee. … The Lady Vols are 7-1 in games played on November 24. The one loss came in 2002 against Duke, 76-55. … The average score for the UT-Stanford series is 78.1 to 71.2 in favor of Tennessee. … So far this season Stanford has a +10.3 rebounding margin over opponents. Tennessee has a scant +1.0. … The Tennessee win at the 2004 Midwest Regional final over Stanford was the 100th NCAA tourney game for Summitt. Her overall record in the tournament is 89-13. …