Shannon Bobbitt's academics are in fine shape this semester, and she wants to keep them that way. Tuesday is often an off day during the regular season, especially when conference play starts, but this week the Lady Vols left Knoxville on Monday afternoon for Tuesday night's matchup with Louisiana Tech in Ruston, La. They won't return until the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
Administrator Kerry Howland, who oversees the student-athletes' academics, called Summitt on Monday and said, "Tomorrow, Shannon is going to miss a math test and two psychology classes,' " Summitt said. "I was like, ‘Let me talk to her.' "
Bobbitt, who is a psychology major, told her head coach that she had a test Tuesday, two important classes as the fall semester winds down, including a second test, and a paper to complete.
"She's got another exam and a paper coming up by Thursday," Summitt said, so they both decided it was best for Bobbitt to not make the trip, especially with classes ending next week and then exams getting underway.
With her immediate academic obligations out of the way later this week, Bobbitt will be available for the next road game against North Carolina, which is being played this Sunday. The team's travel day will be Saturday so missing class is not an issue.
"I have to give Nikki (Caldwell) a lot of credit because she works with Kerry on academics," said Summitt, who said the decision to let Bobbitt miss the trip was mutual among all parties.
So Cait McMahan will make her first career start for Tennessee, 5-0, when the Lady Vols line up against Louisiana Tech, 2-3, at Thomas Assembly Center at 8 p.m. Eastern time (CSTV, Lady Vol Radio Network).
"I think Cait has been groomed for the point guard position all her life," Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell said.
McMahan, a 5'4 first-year guard, wears No. 2 and is averaging 3.6 points per game and 1.6 rebounds per game. She will be joined in the starting lineup by: Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (10.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.6 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (13.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (20.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (8.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg).
"Cait will never let you down with intensity ever at any point in time throughout the day, game, practice, it doesn't matter," Hornbuckle said. "That's the most intense girl I have ever played with. But you have to love a player like that. She's so passionate and loves the game. You know you can count on her to do exactly what you ask her to do."
On Tuesday night she will be asked to do more than she has done so far this season by starting, but McMahan has played in all five contests and is averaging 17.6 minutes per game. Hornbuckle also can play point guard, if necessary, and junior guard Alberta Auguste can play at the two spot. McMahan has seven assists and five steals in five games, but she will need to stay out of foul trouble – as will Hornbuckle – and limit turnovers, especially on the road.
Louisiana Tech is expected to start: Eboni Mangum 5'8 sophomore guard, No. 24 (8.2 ppg, 2.0 rpg), made the WAC All-Freshman team, started three games last season; Shan Moore, 5'10 senior guard, No. 21 (13.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg), started all 31 games last season, made the WAC All-Tournament team; Tamika Kursh, 6'0 senior forward, No. 45 (5.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg), had a double-double, 15 points, 12 boards, in first-round NCAA tourney game against Florida State, was a track athlete – long jump, shot put and high jump – in high school in Ft. Smith, Arkansas; Ty Moore, 6'2 senior forward, No. 22 (15.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg), scored in double figures 18 times and grabbed 10 or more rebounds 14 times, no relation to Shan; and Amber Metoyer 5'11 senior forward, No. 2 (5.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg), transferred from Colorado two years ago, played in all 31 games last season; her father Mike Metoyer played football for Colorado and the Kansas City Chiefs.
The senior-laden squad is very capable – the Lady Techsters knocked off Iowa on the road – but losses to Stephen F. Austin and Eastern Kentucky indicate the team is still sorting out early season issues on the court.
Louisiana Tech coach Chris Long minces no words when discussing Tennessee and its go-to player in Parker.
"She's the best that's ever played," Long said. "I'm serious. She does so many things that make you go, ‘Wow.' She is so much bigger and stronger. We have a clip where she catches the ball at the elbow, spins and shoots a one-handed, left-handed jump shot. She's right-handed."
Parker can shoot with either hand and worked in the off-season to develop a consistent shot from both short range – within the paint – and long range. She has attempted two three-pointers this season and made them both.
Her performances over the past two weeks resulted in back-to-back selections as SEC Player of the Week. She left Sunday's 88-64 win over Middle Tennessee in the second half when she went hard to the floor and hurt her right knee, but on Monday afternoon she was back on the practice floor.
The Lady Vols held a light and short session to work on their scouting report defense and get in some shooting repetitions. They departed late Monday afternoon for Ruston.
This will be the 39th meeting between two storied programs – Tennessee and Louisiana Tech are the only teams to play in all 25 NCAA tourneys – in a series that has spanned four decades. They are also the only women's programs to have more than 700 all-time wins.
Tennessee leads the series, 21-17, and has an 8-6 record in Ruston. The Lady Vols have won the last six games in a series that started with Tennessee claiming only one win in the first 12 matchups from 1978 to 1987.
The Lady Vols come into this game sporting a newfound commitment to defense and shooting the ball in eye-popping fashion. They have shot 50 percent or better in every game so far.
"I think Tennessee is probably stronger than they've been in quite a few years," Long said. "Their athleticism rivals any team they've ever had. They are pressing and are more aggressive than they've been in the last few years, and they've always played great defense.
"We are going to have to rebound and attack offensively and get after them on defense. It's an opportunity to play against a great team at home and an opportunity for our team to get better."
Auguste, whose nickname is Bird (a play on the sound of her first name), will be playing in her home state. Auguste is from Marrero, Louisiana – she was born in New Orleans – and played at John Ehret High School. It will be her second road game for the Lady Vols, but Auguste wasn't fazed at Arizona State and played significant minutes.
"Wow," said Auguste when asked what the atmosphere was like on the road. "Of course everybody is going to be against us because we're one of the best teams in the nation. We know to expect that. We've got to go out there and just play."
Auguste can score but also is earning raves for her rebounding and defensive intensity. She is averaging 18.2 minutes per game and has stats of 7.4 ppg and 2.8 rpg. In five games, she has recorded two blocks and seven steals. She also is feeling more comfortable as she adjusts to new teammates and adapts to her role on the team.
"Yes, I feel that," Auguste said. "I feel like sometimes I'll have my game and sometimes I'll just have my spurts … it's going to come sooner or later. At first I was nervous … but now I'm getting real comfortable with the team, and I know what they want from me. Now's the time for me to step up and play that role."
With just nine scholarship players on hand Tuesday, bench play will be important. Fortunately for Tennessee, the bench is playing some of its best ball of late. McMahan came off the bench Sunday, along with Auguste and forward Alex Fuller.
"I think that no question Cait and Alberta and Alex did a great job off the bench," Summitt said after the win over Middle Tennessee. "To me when you have a team and your starters get you out to a great start and you sub at the bench and there's no letdown that allows us to keep fresh bodies on the court, rotate people at different positions, because we have players that can play multiple positions so you can just keep the pressure on. That's been big for us. I thought it was big for us when we played Arizona State and Stanford and now obviously against Middle Tennessee it's huge."
Auguste had eight points and four rebounds in Sundays' game. Fuller had a career-high 12 points and six boards. McMahan played 15 minutes and hit a short jumper in transition – her only shot attempt – and also had a rebound, assist and a steal. More importantly, she had only one foul and one turnover.
Summitt even noted that the team didn't have a drop off defensively in the first half when she substituted.
"I thought when we went to our bench in the first half we didn't lose anything," Summitt said. "You've got Alberta coming in at times for Alexis, and we don't lose much in terms of quickness. I think we still have size and presence there."
Hornbuckle also saluted the bench during the post-game press conference.
"Our bench play was outstanding," Hornbuckle said. "Alex came out on a mission. Every shot she shot or looked at was open, and it was good. I didn't want the ball. I just wanted to give it to her. And Cait came out. And Bird you know exactly what you're getting out of her. She's a very consistent player. She's going to hit the boards, she's going to play hard-nosed defense.
"You put that together, and you've got five people starting out, whoever that might be, with a great intensity. Subbing in, nothing drops off, and that's a coach's dream right there."
McMahan missed two weeks of prep time in late October and early November while she recovered from arthroscopic surgery to clean out her surgically repaired right knee. Still, she was a vocal presence at practice, and she doesn't hesitate to speak up on the floor.
"I'd have to say leadership and not being scared of anything," McMahan said when asked to list her strengths. "I'll take a charge. I want to be like (UT men's player) Dane Bradshaw; I want to be everywhere on the court. I want to be the person that makes the big plays on defense. I want to be that defensive player.
"My three-point shot stunk in high school because I could always just take it to the goal anytime I wanted. That's one thing I worked on all summer – threes, threes, threes, threes, threes. People are going to be doubling on Candace, doubling on Lex and all that. My (defender) is going to be sagging off."
McMahan was stroking threes in the preseason but then had to miss time for rehab. Summitt thinks she will look for her shot again, but for now McMahan is concentrating on running the offense. She has already shown an ability to drive to the basket and she hit a layup against Stanford with a sweet hesitation move from the wing.
"I don't like to point out my weaknesses," McMahan said when asked to list those. "If I had to say anything it's my first step off my (right) knee, but that's going to get there. I love playing defense. I like it better than offense now. I just love getting in the other person's grill and making them nervous."
The coaching staff will try to make sure McMahan isn't nervous Tuesday.
"We're just making her realize that we're going to take this as any basketball game," Caldwell said. "There's five of them, five of us, and let her know she's not having to do it by herself. I think that's a good thing for her to get this type of experience and this type of exposure early, because we're going to be in more hostile environments. I think that the schedule that we keep year in and year out just prepares our kids for March Madness."
Nobody expects McMahan, who is from nearby Maryville, Tennessee, to be too fazed. She has grown up around the program and would come to campus in the off-season to seek out the Lady Vols for pickup games. Parker and some teammates would go to Heritage High School to watch McMahan play.
"It's pretty neat," McMahan said of now being on the team. "I used to think I was a little child compared to them, but I'm only two years younger. Coming to college is a change, and it changed how we respond to each other."
SCOUTING REPORT: Nikki Caldwell handled the scouting report for the Louisiana Tech game. Here is her assessment.
When Louisiana Tech has the ball: "They'll probably try to isolate inside with their four-out, one-in action. They're very good as far as creating their own shots, so a lot of one on one, defend the dribble drive and then we've got to be able to match their intensity on the boards."
Tennessee intends to deploy different defenses.
"We're going to mix it up," Caldwell said. "We're going to do a little bit of both (zone and man) and work on our matchup, work on our presses and then obviously our man to man is out bread and butter."
Tennessee needs to address its three-point defense. Opponents are averaging 7.4 made threes and hitting 43 percent of them.
"We've identified where we've given them up," Caldwell said. "It's us having to rotate our defense, and it's us not getting back in transition. I think we're going to go into this game and make it our priority. They're getting about 15 points from the three-point line so I think a good goal for us would be limit them to one a half."
When Tennessee has the ball: "Like always establish our running game as well as our inside attack. We've got to make sure that we take care of the basketball, especially against a team like LaTech, who is a very good defensive team. We need to make sure that we're making the most out of each possession."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee is 9-0 in games played on November 28. … The Lady Vols are rebounding the ball better of late. Going into the Stanford game they had a slim +1 margin. In two games Tennessee has upped that to +6.0 … The Lady Vols are averaging 19.2 assists per game. Last year that number was 15.4. They have a +6.8 turnover margin over their opponents. That number was +1.8 last year. They also are averaging 14.2 steals per game compared to 9.0 last season. Alexis Hornbuckle leads the team with 19. … Candace Parker has moved into fourth place in career field goal percentage – 64.2 percent – after shooting 7-9 against Middle Tennessee. For the season she is shooting 62.7 percent. She now owns the school dunk record with four – two in the NCAA tourney last season and two at home this year – and has passed Michelle Snow, who dunked three times. …Sidney Spencer leads the team in three-point attempts with 19 and has made 12 for a 63.2 percent success rate. … Pat Summitt's road record is 299-78 all-time in hostile arenas. She could get No. 300 on Tuesday in Ruston. … Tennessee's first national title in 1987 came against Louisiana Tech, 67-44, at the Final Four in Austin, Texas.