Freshman point guard Cait McMahan has made one career start – in replace of Bobbitt last Tuesday at Louisiana Tech when Bobbitt had academic priorities to attend to and didn't travel – and watched last season's 75-63 loss to the Tar Heels on television.
Sophomore Alex Fuller played five minutes in that NCAA regional final loss in Cleveland, Ohio. She is averaging 22.8 minutes per game this season and will be expected to help stop North Carolina on the boards Sunday. Senior forward Dominique Redding played less than a minute in the March game. She is averaging 12.7 minutes per game this season and is 6-12 (50 percent) from behind the arc.
Bobbitt and McMahan will be called on to lead the team at the point position, which will allow junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle to stay on the wing. Last March she played point with a barely mended right wrist that she broke in February. Hornbuckle was hampered by a thick brace that hindered her shooting – she was 1-6 from the field – and her ball handling.
This season Hornbuckle is shooting 46 percent from the field – 23-50 – and has been relentless on defense, especially when teamed with Auguste on the perimeter. Hornbuckle has 25 steals; Auguste has 15.
When last season ended, Pat Summitt summed it up with four words: lack of guard play. Tennessee has the guards now, but the Tar Heels remain quick on the floor and dominant on the boards.
"We have to do three things to win the game," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "We have to take care of the ball, we've got to keep them off the offensive boards, and we can't give them open threes. If we do those things I think we'll be in good hands."
There's one thing Warlick might want to do before the game – play "Rocky Top" in the locker room. Bobbitt had a rough road start at Arizona State and spent most of the game in foul trouble. The crowd was loud and rowdy, and it seemed to affect Tennessee's two young point guards.
"Overanxious, nervous, my first time playing away," Bobbitt said. "I'm so used to hearing ‘Rocky Top' when we're running out here, and I'm not hearing it there."
"Maybe I'll put a recording in the locker room," Warlick said with a smile. "She's OK here. Think about our schedule. It's prepared her because it's going to get worse."
The ‘worse' part has arrived and more road tests loom, including a trip to Texas later this month. Sunday's game will be played at 8 p.m. (ESPN, Lady Vol Radio Network) at Carmichael Auditorium, a small gym (8,010 capacity) that can reverberate with sound. The coaches will need their point guards to handle the ball and the noise.
"I told her (Bobbitt) you go against the practice guys every day and think nothing about it," Summitt said. "I think it had more to do with the setting (at Arizona State). They go after her, but the practice guys get after her. She and Cait both, they were average at best, but it didn't totally surprise me because they hadn't been in an environment like that this year. … I thought it was a valuable learning experience for both of them."
McMahan had a solid start against Louisiana Tech in Ruston and said she has shed the road jitters since the game in Tempe.
"I really wasn't," McMahan said when asked if she was nervous before starting. "The start's the same thing as you're coming off the bench except you're in the tipoff. I knew I had a big responsibility. I just knew what I had to do.
"I really don't get nervous anymore. First game's out of the way so now it's just playing."
Bobbitt also said that her case of nerves has been resolved.
"I was nervous," she said of the first road game. "I had to definitely adapt to it. It wasn't anything major – it was me being mentally ready to play and being focused and just calming myself down."
Summitt is expected to reinsert Shannon Bobbitt into the starting lineup. The 5'2 point guard wears No. 00 and is averaging 6.0 points per game, 1.6 rebounds per game and 4.3 assists per game. Other starters: Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (10.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.1 steals per game); Sidney Spencer 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (13.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (18.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (8.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg).
North Carolina is expected to start: Ivory Latta, 5'6 senior guard, No. 12 (13.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.2 apg), five three-pointers against Gonzaga – part of 14 made by the team, which tied a school record – gave her school career record, has 254, previous record was 251; Camille Little 6'2 senior forward, No. 20 (12.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg), named to preseason watch list for John R. Wooden Award; Rashanda McCants, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 32 (9.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg), two-time Class 3A Miss Basketball in North Carolina, older brother Rashad was a star at UNC; Erlana Larkins 6'1 junior forward, No. 2 (12.1 ppg, 8.0 rpg), ACC Player of the Week after leading team to Rainbow Wahine Classic Title in Hawaii, made the all-tournament team at the Final Four last season; and LaToya Pringle, 6'3 junior center, No. 30 (10.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg), entered season ranked fifth in career blocks with 120, has 13 blocks already this season.
This game is likely to be settled in the trenches (board play) and behind the arc (three-pointers).
Tennessee has the edge from long range. As a team the Lady Vols are hitting 48.1 percent with Spencer leading the way at 66.7 percent (14-21). The Tar Heels are at 37.3 percent and are averaging 8.1 made threes per game. However, Tennessee has had a tendency to let teams shoot lights out sometimes from long range.
"I think that we are doing a very poor job of guarding three-point shooters," Summitt said. "Look at how many threes we've been giving up. That's the biggest concern."
Tennessee has allowed 6.8 made threes a game but two teams – Chattanooga and Middle Tennessee – made 13 apiece.
North Carolina has amassed a whopping +23.9 rebounding margin. Tennessee's margin, albeit against much tougher opponents than Carolina has faced so far this season, is a paltry +3.5. Regardless of opponent, that number has to go up for Tennessee to compete for titles in March in the long term and to have a shot at taking out Carolina in the short term.
Tennessee will need to box out and keep the Tar Heels, especially Little and Larkins, from getting to the glass so often. The team averages 53.7 boards a game with 21 of those coming on offense.
"It's going to be very important for us," Fuller said. "She (Larkins) is one of their most physical players and I think their best rebounder so it will be very important for us to have the off-side boards, even double box on some."
Fuller is a fundamentally sound rebounder who uses positioning and footwork to get to the boards.
"I guess it's just because I've had to do it so long in my basketball career," said the 6'3 forward. "In high school I was always the biggest person but once you get here and everybody is as tall or taller than you, especially the post, you kind of have to change the things that you do – basically moving your feet, getting strong, just kind of trying to find ways to worm around all those people that are bigger than me. Once I see the ball go up I'm going to the rim to rebound. So it is kind of instinctive – somebody shoots, rebound."
That is one reason that Fuller should play significant minutes on Sunday.
"Absolutely," Summitt said. "She's playing good minutes now. I go into every game thinking that Candace and Nicky and Alex, they've got to play high minutes for us."
Parker and Anosike played high minutes last season – and 35 and 36 minutes, respectively, in the last meeting with North Carolina. Fuller's insertion into the mix has lightened the load on the two this season.
"I have a lot of confidence in Alex," Summitt said. "Alex is a fundamental player, but she's also more mobile and really playing a lot more athletic this year. I think what she did in the off-season to get her body in great shape has certainly complemented her game and our team."
Fuller dropped about 20 pounds with a regimen of running, lifting weights and playing basketball. The result was a quicker and more agile player.
"She's just done a heck of a job for us," assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "The key to Alex's game is position. She puts herself in very good position. She's not afraid of contact. She's willing to do the things that it takes to be a good rebounder. She's got excellent hands. Alex has come in and played a very valuable role so far for this team. We look at her as one of the players we consider like a starter even though she's coming off the bench."
Another key player coming off the bench is Auguste. She wasn't nervous in her first road game or the second one. The 5'11 guard/forward has brought a defensive presence to the perimeter that Tennessee sorely lacked last season and has teamed with Hornbuckle to wreak havoc in the backcourt.
Summitt hoped that the addition of two jucos would give her an automatic defensive upgrade, but the results have been even better than anticipated.
"I'd only seen Alberta and Shannon play on other teams," Summitt said of recruiting visits she made last winter. "I didn't know how quick and athletic and rangy they might be and what a difference they might make. I thought they would, but I didn't have anything to go on. I couldn't see them all summer. Once we got into our skill work (in the preseason) we worked a lot of offense. We were trying to get them very comfortable with all of our offensive schemes. I didn't know until I put them on the floor and actually saw them in a full-court press situation. Then very quickly I knew that we were going to be able to extend our defense and disrupt more from our defense."
As far as how much Summitt might deploy Hornbuckle and Auguste together – they combined for 14 steals against Louisiana Tech – she wasn't yet ready to make that determination.
"I think I'll just have to read that during the actual game," Summitt said. "If you look at stats the two of them have really helped us tremendously on the defensive end. I think Bird (Auguste's nickname) has become very valuable to this team with her defense and her board play. She's an instinctive rebounder as well. She's going to come up with steals and board and deflections."
North Carolina and Tennessee play a similar style of basketball in terms of wanting to run and generate points off of the defense. The Lady Vols couldn't do that last March with their depleted backcourt and had to try to grind out wins with offense and as much defense as they could muster. Tennessee can return to its preferred style of play this season.
"There're some similarities obviously in extending the defense and trying to dictate with your defense and influence your opponent," Summitt said. "We have been able to do that. Last year we were limited in what we could do. We didn't have the depth at the guard position or the athleticism at the guard spot, in particular when Lex was injured.
"I think it's more we're able to extend our defense and play more like we want to play year in and year out. We've typically played that style, but we were limited last year, and now we're not limited. We run some different things. Our defensive schemes are similar in that we are aggressive and up-tempo with it but not necessarily our alignments in our defensive schemes. They vary."
A national fixation seems to be comparing Latta and Bobbitt. They are similar in stature, and both play the point position.
"A lot obviously has been said comparing the two to each other," Summitt said. "I think she'll (Bobbitt) be ready. I know it's a game she's looked forward to."
But it was not Latta that Summitt had in mind when she had to re-hit the recruiting trail after guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood transferred in December 2005. Summitt was thinking of LSU's Temeka Johnson, another pint-sized point guard who was a standout in the SEC, so she went to see Bobbitt play for Trinity Valley (Texas) Community College.
"This was more about Johnson, her style and what she brought to the team and the fact that we played against her, and we couldn't take advantage of her size," Summitt said. "Not in her entire career could we really post her up and take advantage of it. She broke down the defense a lot. She could get inside the defense, she could make shots, she got other people involved. Shannon does the same things.
"I've been pleased with her leadership and her ability to push tempo. I've been pleased with her overall commitment to learning all of our offensive schemes. She's been able to pick things up and really direct our team. I'm very pleased with her speed and her quickness, but I don't think she has really been able to disrupt as much defensively without fouling as she should be able to. She's played a lot with her hands, and I think for her right now she's got to play with her feet and really work more with her hands in the passing lanes. But that's pretty correctable. She's got to know what she can and cannot do from a defensive standpoint.
"The one thing that was inside my head was that we've got to have better guard play. You cannot play against people like North Carolina and not have guards. We just didn't have the guard play. We couldn't handle the pressure."
Bobbitt will have to handle that pressure and apply some of her own. That means she has to avoid the foul trouble that plagued her on the road against Arizona State, a game in which she ended up playing with her arms behind her back. Has she had trouble adjusting to the hand-check rule on the perimeter?
"Not really. There was a hand-check rule in junior college," she said. "I guess me being so physical when I bump them or anything like that. I'm not the type of person to get in foul trouble. I don't know what happened that game."
Bobbitt said her approach now is: "Just stay calm, don't get early fouls and get in foul trouble and just be myself."
That sounds like advice McMahan would give herself, too. She also has been in foul trouble on occasion – both the hand-check rule and calls for blocks when she was trying to draw charges.
"On a couple I've watched the film, and I lean back," McMahan said. "Hopefully I can fix that, and things are going to go my way or not my way. I love taking charges even if I get the call or not. It's just fun to me."
McMahan watched last year's game against North Carolina back home in Maryville, Tennessee, on television.
"I wish I could have been out on the floor," McMahan said. "I was mad. I was mad that we lost. … This year we have the guard play. We have the quickness that we didn't have last year, because we've got so many new players that bring so much stuff in the backcourt. It's a way different ball game than it was last year."
McMahan also acknowledges that despite the calendar barely having flipped into December this is a big game. She understands the reasoning that a win or loss at this point in the season won't mean much, if anything, in March, but it means a lot to her right now.
"They put us out last year so we've got a little bit of revenge (for motivation)," McMahan said. "To me I'm playing like it's my last game I'm going to be in. It's North Carolina. I don't really care if it's March or whatever."
McMahan understands the significance of seizing the moment. Her mother, Teresa McMahan is battling cancer for a third time and will watch her daughter play in this North Carolina game on television back home. McMahan has the words "Strong like Mom" on the back of her right shoe.
"I don't want to be scared, and I know I'm not going to be," McMahan said of her mindset going into the game. "I'm just going to go in there and have fun and do whatever I can to make this team win."
Hornbuckle, an emotional player in her own right, has said McMahan is the most intense person she has ever played with on the basketball court.
"I think that means … after the Stanford game they made fun of me because I was just screaming and hollering on the court," McMahan said with a smile. "I bring a different kind of energy. I'm just psycho on the court I guess."
McMahan also is unflappable. During the broadcast of the Louisiana Tech game a very perturbed Summitt could be seen yelling for McMahan to: "Get over here!"
"My high school coach did that a lot. To be successful you've just got to take stuff," McMahan said in a casual tone.
Her older brother, Reese, 22, wasn't the least bit casual about his little sister playing in Carmichael Auditorium, the college gym of Michael Jordan, an icon at North Carolina and later in the NBA.
"My brother is actually a huge North Carolina guys' fan," McMahan said. "I think a year ago when I signed he said, ‘When you're going to North Carolina, are you playing in Carmichael?' I was like, ‘I don't know.' He said, ‘If you do that's where Jordan played. You better kiss the floor.'
"I think it's going to be cool. We're walking in the same footsteps that Michael has walked, and Jordan is going to be the best ever that's played the game. It's exciting. Reese told me there're pictures up of him. That's going to be kind of neat. I can't wait to see his pictures to see what he looked like in college."
He had hair for starters. Fuller also mentioned that the team had talked about playing in Jordan's old home.
"We were talking about that the day before yesterday how he played in that same building so it is kind of hyped for us," Fuller said Friday before practice.
Fuller and the Tennessee team would like to make better memories for themselves. Last March they fell behind North Carolina by 16 points in the first half. They managed to cut the lead to five in the second half but couldn't keep pace and succumbed 75-63.
"I was in disbelief. I didn't think it was reality," said Fuller who would like to make her own reality "by winning."
She also noted the revenge factor but cautioned that too much hype – Fuller describes herself in general as "just laidback" – can hinder execution.
"Of course if somebody ends anything of yours you're going to come back with a vengeance once you meet them again," Fuller said. "We're just going to have that in the back of our heads that they did end our season, but we also know that we have to treat this just like another game and coming into this game is like any other game – working hard, doing what we need to do to win."
Summitt welcomes the early season measuring stick. She knows her team plays better defense this season and can deter an opponent from doing what it wants. But can Tennessee do it against North Carolina?
"I think it's for us an exciting game because of what happened last year at the end," Summitt said. "I think we all feel like we're a lot better – granted they are, too. They're going to be older and wiser. For our team I would think they would be excited to see how we match up against them now as opposed to last year. And I'm anxious to see that now.
"But I understand it's December. But that's why we play these games. We play these games now so we will have a better idea of where we are, where we need to be, how we play against a team like North Carolina, which we know is one of the best teams and one of the most athletic teams in the country."
Does she think Tennessee is ready for its test?
"Probably as much as you can be this time of year, about the same as them," Summitt said. "They've played about the same number of games we have."
The longest part of Sunday will be waiting for the late tipoff, at least for the coach who awakes early by habit.
"Well I've learned that this group can sleep until noon if you let them," Summitt said. "We might get them up at 11. It won't be as long for them as it will be for the coaches. I can't sleep in."
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report. Here is her assessment.
When North Carolina has the ball: "We don't want them to have open looks from threes, and we've just got to keep them off the boards. They're tremendous rebounders. Little is a beast on the boards. She's something else. (And Larkins, too.) Their whole team is very athletic and they pursue the ball, and they're very good at it. Probably 60 to 70 percent of their points come from turnovers and second-chance points, which is a credit to them because they play so hard."
When UT has the ball: "We're just going to play our game. We're not going to do anything different – we're trying to take care of the ball and get good shots. We're going to run the same offenses, maybe do a little bit more press releases because they're really strong on the ball. But we're going to play our game."
Warlick hopes the experience at Tempe will help the team handle the atmosphere inside Carmichael.
"It's loud," she said. "But we were in Arizona State, and it was loud. That's the reason why we're going and (why) we went to Arizona State, just to prepare our players because we're going to get in those situations. … It was good for us. We're learning, and we won. That's key. We could have learned and gotten beat, which I guess isn't all that bad. But we want to win every game; that's what our goal is anyway."
ODDS AND ENDS: In games played on December 3, Tennessee is 13-0. … UT leads the series against North Carolina, 12-2. The Tar Heels won last March and in 1986. … Against the ACC, Tennessee has a 77-14 record. The Lady Vols beat Maryland a year ago but have lost the last two games against Duke. The Blue Devils come to Knoxville Jan. 22 for a "Big Monday" matchup on ESPN2. … North Carolina will be Tennessee's fourth ranked opponent in seven games. The others were UCLA, Arizona State and Stanford. The Tar Heels will be playing a ranked opponent for the first time this season. ... North Carolina has put up some gaudy per game statistics against its first seven foes: 95.1 points, 19.7 steals and 53.7 rebounds. But the Tar Heels also are turning over the ball 23.6 times a game. Tennessee's same numbers: 84 points, 15.5 steals, 35.0 boards and 17.0 turnovers. … So far Tennessee's highest offensive outpouring was 102 points (Chattanooga) and lowest was 71 points (Louisiana Tech). Arizona State scored the most against Tennessee (74 points) and Louisiana Tech the least (50). For North Carolina its highest output was 103 points (UNC-Greensboro) and the lowest was 83 (Winston-Salem State). Arkansas put up the most (69 points), and Winston-Salem State the least (32). … Tennessee's Pat Summitt and North Carolina's Sylvia Hatchell are both in their 32nd year of coaching. They have combined for 1,643 wins – 919 for Summitt and 724 for Hatchell.