"We've got to get more out of our two guard," Pat Summitt said. "Lex has got to be more of a playmaker and scorer for us. She and Bird. If we can get that position producing more points then it's going to elevate our team."
Offensively, the team is being carried primarily by Candace Parker inside and Sidney Spencer outside with some promising performances at times by others, including Alex Fuller and Nicky Anosike, who were "a lot more involved offensively" at Texas, Summitt said.
Against the Longhorns, Fuller and Anosike both scored eight points on 4-5 and 3-6 shooting, respectively.
"I think we want to look to get them more shots," Summitt said. "Parker draws such a crowd that they should be able to get good scoring opportunities."
Production from the two position would also open up chances for everyone else as it would stretch the defense to the perimeter past Spencer, who leads the nation in three-point field goal percentage and is drawing a lot of attention.
"It definitely would help us out a lot – obviously with Sid who can shoot the basketball and takes a lot of pressure off inside, but also I think it's just playing to Lex and Alberta's strong suits and strong skills because they can penetrate and they get to basket," Parker said. "I think once they do that it will open things up for me on the block as well and Sid on the perimeter as they penetrate and dish."
Auguste was a scorer in junior college – and she's hitting 55.3 percent of her shots at Tennessee for a 6.3 points per game average – but she has had to work herself into the flow of a new team.
"I scored a lot in juco," said Auguste, who played last season at Central Florida Community College and averaged 23 points a game. "I feel like I can help the team a whole lot, but right now I was trying to sit back" and adjust to her role coming off the bench and fitting in with new teammates.
"It took time," Auguste said. "I didn't rush it. I was like hopefully it's going to come to me. I get along with everybody. I'm happy that I'm here with them."
Auguste has used her floor time to stand out on defense – she second on the team in steals with 21 – and part of the reason Summitt brought her to Tennessee was to restore the Lady Vols ability to be disruptive on the ball.
"That's something that keeps me going," Auguste said. "If my offense doesn't work my defense can play a major part of my game. Every time I get in I just think, ‘Steal the ball.' That's the main thing I think about when I'm out there."
Summitt appreciates Auguste's steady approach as a team player, but now she wants her to look for the basket more when she's on the floor.
"Bird's looking to pass first," Summitt said. "I like her unselfishness. Lex is very unselfish. But I just think that two position right now is the position that I feel like we have to get more out of, that we have to have consistency from the off-guard."
Hornbuckle is getting used to being the off guard. For her first two years she has had to fulfill the role of point guard because of illness (Loree Moore missed a month to have her tonsils out) and then a transfer (Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood left the team at midseason a year ago). She has also had to fill in at point this season as point guards Shannon Bobbitt, a junior, and Cait McMahan, a freshman, acclimate to Division I basketball, especially with the top opponents that Tennessee lines up against every season.
Hornbuckle has said she needs to think about shooting more but at the same time not over-think the situation and simplify her approach to her game, a word echoed by Summitt.
"Simplicity," Summitt said of how Hornbuckle should package her offense. "I think it's a mentality. I think she has to have a scoring mentality. She's not the shooter that Spencer is, but she can create so much. To me that's where she needs to step up her game. Defensively she's been solid for us. I think she can tighten up her offensive package. I really do."
That means staying fundamentally sound – getting her feet set and squaring up before shooting – and knowing when to create.
"I think every player understands what their strengths are, and she's really good off the dribble," Summitt said. "She can get to the basket. She's good with the pull-up. I think just simplify on her attacks. She'll change her shot sometimes, and she needs to play her game.
"She does a good job of breaking down the defense. I think offensive glass work would really elevate her opportunity to score more. For a two guard she's got great size, she's athletic, and she's a quick jumper. Scoring off her defense and scoring off her rebounding and then she's the type of a player who can rip and go and then get to the basket or pull up."
Summitt had a quick hook for Auguste in the Texas game – she only logged 10 minutes – and in hindsight Summitt said she should have let her play through a few mistakes.
"I was too impatient with Bird," Summitt said. "I told her I was too impatient with her. I've been trying to encourage her to attack middle more. She gets herself down on the baseline and jumps up in the air and leaves her feet. I want her to penetrate, but she's got to think score first, pass second. She's another player that can score more points.
"In that game her mentality was pass. I like the fact she can create, but I think she's also got the ability to get inside the defense and score."
Hornbuckle and Auguste are roommates so they can always lean on each other for support if need be. Or just take a nap.
"We don't really talk about our game," Auguste said. "We just practice and sleep (with school out). Hopefully we'll change our game (to score more) and help this team a whole lot."
Summitt has no doubts that both are already helping the team. Hornbuckle is a three-year starter who brings intensity and leadership to the court. Auguste is a first-year Lady Vol who has filled an immediate hole in perimeter depth, especially with her defensive pressure.
The two-game series with West Virginia was put in place for Hornbuckle – the team will travel to her home state next season to play the Mountaineers – because Summitt always wants to get a homecoming game for her players.
"It's a series we started primarily with Alexis Hornbuckle in mind so we could play them home-and-away before she graduates, so I'm excited she has this opportunity," Summitt said. "We are playing an opponent that we're not that familiar with, and it's always a challenge to play outside your conference, but we're excited about this series."
For her part, Hornbuckle is already downplaying the significance and deflecting any hint that the series is different from any other game. Home games can sometimes put undue pressure on a player – think Shanna Zolman going home to Indiana or Chamique Holdsclaw in New York – and Hornbuckle wants no part of the media hype, even if the game isn't even in West Virginia until next year.
"It's a game. It's West Virginia," Hornbuckle said matter of factly. "I'm a Marshall fan personally. It's a basketball game. I know a lot of people who go (to West Virginia). I don't know the basketball team. I'm going to go in there and play Tennessee basketball. Just because it's West Virginia doesn't change anything to me."
The words were delivered with Hornbuckle's trademark smile. But the series likely is more meaningful than she's willing to let on and, regardless, it does mean her family and friends will see her play against a home state school and in her home state.
"That's been our philosophy; it's a priority for us if they chose to come to Tennessee, to give her family and friends and people in that area of the country to have Alexis back home and to have a homecoming," Summitt said. "We try to do that for each and every player that has come here from out of state, and obviously that is quite a few players.
"These players made a choice to leave home and join our family at Tennessee. The sacrifices student-athletes make to leave home, we feel we should reward them by letting them go back and play in front of their families and friends. We appreciate their decision and commitment to be a part of the Tennessee family. I always enjoy games like that because it's truly a homecoming for them. Sometimes they are really nervous, and sometimes they have their best games. I just think it's important to do that for our student-athletes that wear the orange."
The game with West Virginia, 7-4, will tip off at 7 p.m. (Lady Vol Radio Network, video streaming at utladyvols.com) at Thompson-Boling Arena. It is the first of three this season against Big East teams. Notre Dame comes to Knoxville on Dec. 30 – the first game after the Christmas break – and Tennessee travels to Hartford to play Connecticut on Jan. 6. Tennessee, 9-1, played three Pac-10 teams in November – wins over UCLA, Arizona State and Stanford – and has two ACC teams on the schedule in North Carolina (the sole loss) and Duke (Jan. 22).
Summitt is expected to stick with her same starters: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (5.8 points per game, 1.2 rebounds per game, 4.3 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (9.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.4 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (13.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (18.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (9.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg).
West Virginia coach Mike Carey is expected to start: Ashley Powell, 5'6 sophomore guard, No. 23 (1.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.6 apg), started 30 of 31 games last season, had a career-high seven rebounds against UConn in the Big East tourney title game; Sparkle Davis, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 2 (9.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg), transfer from Auburn sat out last season, had a career-high 21 points in win over Duquesne; LaQuita Owens, 5'9 junior guard, No. 1 (10.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg), had to step up last season due to teammate's injury and started 13 games, had two 20-point games; Olayinka Sanni, 6'2 junior center, No. 45 (11.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg); competed in the World Basketball Championships in Brazil this summer by playing for the Nigerian National Team, both Sanni's parents were born in Nigeria, nickname is Yinka; last season set WVU single-season field goal percentage record at 58.3 percent; and Chakhia Cole, 5'10 junior forward, No. 22 (10.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg), has made 76 consecutive starts, made All Big East Tournament team, in her last two games is averaging 15.0 ppg, 6.0 apg, 5.0 rpg and shooting 71.4 percent, nickname is Khia.
The Mountaineers are without guard Meg Bulger – the sister of St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc Bulger – who is out for the season after re-injuring her surgically repaired left knee last summer. She tore the ACL in the knee last winter and missed the team's final 13 games in 2005-06. The 6'0 senior will take a redshirt year and return next season.
Last season the Mountaineers were able to regroup and nearly win the Big East tourney in the postseason before falling to UConn in the title game, 50-44, despite playing a fourth game in a row with a rotation of seven players on the Huskies home floor in Hartford. To get to the title game the Mountaineers had to beat Rutgers in a semifinal game. The core of that team returns – two seniors who didn't start have graduated – and this season West Virginia will once again have to overcome the loss of Bulger.
"I think it's just other people stepping up," Summitt said of the team's successful 7-4 start this season. "You cannot predict how teams will respond in adverse situations but obviously they've responded very well and been able to get some balanced scoring. I think that speaks to the character of the team."
She added, "They play well together. To me, that's more difficult to guard than having just one key player. I think that's something that we're starting to see with our own team. WVU brings to the court a commitment to be a solid team, both offensively and defensively."
Summitt is looking to close out these last two games before the holiday with commitment from her own team, which is ranked No. 5 in the country.
"Continue to execute the way we are and get better offensively and defensively; we're always wanting them to be better," Summitt said. "Keep the focus on our transition defense, denying the middle of the floor, the whole philosophy."
Besides seeking more production from the shooting guard spot Summitt wants the "Big Three" – as she calls them – to take over the paint.
"I do think that the big three inside with Candace and Nicky and Alex, I do think we can expect more from them – more consistency and being scorers," Summitt said.
Parker is filling out the stat sheet in the points column, but Summitt wants her to increase her total effort during the minutes she is on the floor.
"I think she is an exciting player, and I think her challenge for her is to keep that intensity, especially on the defensive end and on the boards, because to me that's where she could be so imposing," Summitt said. "I've really challenged the entire team in those aspects of the game, but I do think that she is making strides in those areas."
Parker is the team's most versatile player – she can play one through five though the team needs her in the paint this season – and with Tennessee's short bench she knows she's going to play a lot of minutes, especially as the team gets into its SEC schedule and with top teams still looming out of conference. She's averaging 27.5 minutes per game now and that total will likely move into the 30-to-35-minute-per-game range in the second half of the season and postseason.
That has led to Parker pacing herself somewhat early in the season. So Parker is adopting the philosophy of playing harder now for how ever many minutes so it will set the tone for later.
"It's something that she's really talked to me about is playing both ends of the floor and not pacing yourself and not taking possessions off," Parker said. "I feel like obviously as we play tougher teams I'm going to have to play more minutes. I think that it's going all out and pushing yourself for later on when I do have to do that. I'll have more later if I push myself now."
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report on West Virginia. Here is her assessment.
"When West Virginia has the ball: "I think they're going to look to run on steals and on rebounds, kind of like Texas did. They're pretty versatile because they've got three-point shooters, they penetrate, they run a lot of four out, one in. (Olayinka Sanni) is really, really good inside. I think she's strong and physical. They don't run a lot of set plays; they run a lot of motion and they run back screens, off the ball screens, ball screens. We're just going to have to know their personnel and play it accordingly."
Warlick said Tennessee could relate to losing a team leader at the guard spot to injury, such as West Virginia did when Bulger went down with her knee injury.
"We know it's difficult," Warlick said. "I think they're doing it a little bit by committee. I think their wings are handling the ball more so than they're used to or would want to, but I think they're filling in and doing a good job."
When Tennessee has the ball: "I think they're going to run man-to-man, and I think they're going to run zone on us. We want to continue to focus on our offensive rebounding and getting good efficient shots, not quick shoot the ball, keep our shooting percentage high and make sure we get second- and third-chance points like we've been doing.
"Our offensive boards are key and the defensive boards. I think they go to the boards hard – they're very athletic on the perimeter – so we're going to have a time with that. We've got to turn around and go to the boards as well. I think we can run on them so we've just got to do our thing, what we've been doing."
Sparkle Davis, besides having one of the best names in sports, will be someone Tennessee must pay attention to.
"We looked at her coming out of high school, and she certainly brings the athleticism and the skill to challenge us," Pat Summitt said. "For her, she's gone in and made an impact and that's always a priority for us to bring our defensive intensity and to contain. We don't always go into it thinking we have to stop people, but in this case we need to really be alert and contain her."
Alberta Auguste could have been lining up against the Lady Vols on Wednesday. She signed in high school to play with West Virginia before having to take a juco detour to Central Florida and ultimately ending up at Tennessee.
Auguste said when Summitt came calling last winter – Tennessee had lost a guard to transfer and needed immediate help this season – she knew immediately where she was going to finish her college career.
"I think you have to play against the best and play with the best and of course play for Pat Summitt," Auguste said. "You can't take that away. This is a lucky chance for me. I'm here now, and I'm happy."
MAKING THE DINNER: The team won't have any excuse for lack of energy Wednesday evening, not after the early holiday feast prepared at Summitt's house for the players and staff on Tuesday evening.
Summitt scooted out of the arena after practice Tuesday afternoon because she needed to get home to peel potatoes.
"I'm doing beef tenderloin, salmon and chicken. That's the meat," Summitt said. "And then I'm doing asparagus casserole, green beans, macaroni and cheese, jalapeno corn and mashed potatoes. (Nikki) Caldwell's grandmother made a caramel cake. I made homemade ice cream, and the secretaries are coming out and they're all bringing dessert. That's a pretty good meal isn't it?"
The players were excited at practice at the thought of a Summitt home-cooked meal, but the chatter also centered around the fact that they would get to see the seven puppies born last week to Summitt's yellow Lab, Sally Sue. There are several players on the team who have dogs, including Candace Parker, Dominique Redding and Alexis Hornbuckle.
Summitt has commented on the team's noticeably better chemistry this season; it's also apparent from the players' interaction before and after practice.
"I feel like the core group of this team has pretty much been here and been together, and we welcomed in the newcomers and showed them the ropes," Candace Parker said. "It helped us out a lot; it helped the team out a lot. We basically learned from the past and our past experiences."
MAKING THE GRADE: Summitt got some good news from Kerry Howland, the team's academic coordinator, who stopped by during practice to chat with Summitt about the team's fall performance in the classroom.
"She said everybody is good to go," Summitt said. "She thought we had a great semester."
BIRDSHOT: Alberta Auguste made SportsCenter with her shot put-like shot against Texas that was intended as a lob but the ball – traveling on a rope-like trajectory – shot through the basket.
"I doubled over," Summitt said.
She wasn't the only one laughing – so were Auguste, her teammates on the floor and the bench, the rest of the staff and the commentators on television.
"I pulled the ball down and let Candace come down and post," Auguste said. "I was trying to lob her the ball. Obviously I lobbed it too high, and it went in. It wasn't something I was trying to do. All I could do was laugh. I couldn't believe it."
Summitt said the shot won't be worked into the offensive repertoire – "We didn't practice it today," she said – but she was still laughing about it.
"Everybody said I should add that to my shooting," said Auguste, who saw the SportsCenter spot. "But I'm not going to add that."
ON TAP: Six other SEC teams are in action Wednesday evening: Belmont at Alabama; Arkansas vs. Stephen F. Austin; Georgia at George Mason; McNeese State at LSU; High Point at South Carolina; Lipscomb at Vanderbilt.
On Thursday, seven SEC teams are playing: Oakland at Auburn; Louisville at Florida; Georgia at Richmond; Southern at Kentucky; Miami at Ole Miss; Mississippi State vs. New Orleans; and Vanderbilt in its holiday classic vs. Longwood or Indiana State.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with West Virginia, 4-0. The last time the two programs played was Jan. 4, 1986. The series was started initially to get a home state game for former Lady Vol Mary Ostrowski (1980-1984), who is from Parkersburg, West Virginia. … The Mountaineers are not ranked and got toasted by LSU in the season opener, 64-25, but then narrowly lost to No. 13 Texas A&M, 55-52 (now No. 18/19). Pat Summitt's overall record against unranked teams is 548-32 for a 94.7 success rate. … Coach Mike Carey is in his sixth season for West Virginia and is 52-13 (80.0 percent) against non-conference opponents. … Tennessee is 8-0 in games played on Dec. 20. The Lady Vols defeated Princeton last season on Dec. 20, 107-39. … As a team Tennessee is shooting 49.9 percent and is ranked sixth in the country in NCAA stats. Sidney Spencer leads the nation in three-point shooting at 63.4 percent. … Candace Parker is the last woman to dunk in a collegiate basketball game. West Virginia's Georgeann Wells was the first woman to do so. Her slam came 22 years ago on Dec. 21, 1984.