Lady Vols hit the road to take on Florida

When Tennessee plays at Florida tonight, a senior will be starting her final road run through the SEC regular season and a freshman will be seeing firsthand what all the fuss is about. Both are savoring the second half of the season.

"I do," senior forward Sidney Spencer said. "Every second I don't want it to pass by, but I know that in order to grow as a team and as a player it's going to have to happen. I definitely think maybe on the way down there we'll talk to everyone just about what it means to be in the SEC and in a road game. But everyone knows that these are key games that can be very important to us with our brackets in March."

One of those listening to the veterans will be freshman guard Cait McMahan, a native Tennessean from nearby Maryville.

"I'm real excited," McMahan said. "They said it's a hard place to play. I'm just going to go in like any other game. I haven't really thought of it as my first SEC road game.

"I think I know what it's like because I grew up around here. I know about the SEC teams and how tough it can be night in and night out."

The Florida game has additional meaning to Tennessee because the Gators beat the Lady Vols last season on Senior Night in Knoxville in overtime. The loss likely cost Tennessee a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, despite the fact the Lady Vols regrouped a few days later and won the SEC tourney.

"It was Senior Night. It went into overtime. I didn't have very good clock management in the overtime," Spencer said when asked for her recollection of that game. "That's pretty much the reason why I think we lost that game, and then it really affected us come postseason with our seeding. So this is a big game for us.

"It's a big game just because it's our first SEC road game and they're a good team, and it's going to test our transition and defense once again and it will show us where we are at. It kept us from getting a No. 1 seed. Who knows where we would have ended up, but that's great motivation, and I'm glad that she brought it up so the newcomers that maybe didn't know that's what it was now know, and everyone is really on the same page about that."

Coach Pat Summitt mentioned the game in practice this week for the benefit of the newcomers, specifically Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste, whose nickname is Bird.

"I said to Shannon in practice, ‘You and Bird probably don't realize it but the team you're getting ready to play kept us from getting the number one seed last year, and that was significant,' " Summitt said.

Auguste actually had a seat in Thompson-Boling Arena for the game since she was in town for a recruiting visit to Tennessee.

"She was like, ‘Man, they need me right now,' " Summitt said.

Auguste, who is from Louisiana, played last season at Central Florida Community College, and her coach, Cheryl Rice, has said she intended to attend this upcoming game to see her former player. The game is also a homecoming for senior Dominique Redding, who is from Clearwater, Florida, and should have her own cheering section of supporters.

Summitt used Monday and Tuesday to get her team ready for its first SEC road series and then gave the team off Wednesday to travel to Gainesville. The team will return to Knoxville after the game, practice Friday and then leave Saturday for Georgia.

No. 4 Tennessee, (14-1, 1-0) faces Florida (6-10, 0-1) at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center at 7 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network, pay-per-view video stream at

Summitt sees a Gator team that is similar to last season's in terms of game strategy but one that lost a slew of seniors. There are also just nine players on Florida's roster. Freshman LaKendra Phillips got homesick, left the team and will not return. Freshman LaToya Bullard, who battled chronic back pain and didn't play last season and sprained her knee this season, has taken leave from the team. Sophomore center Jessica Jackson is also not listed on the team roster anymore. All three players are from Memphis.

"They're going to want to run; they're going to want to press," Summitt said. "And we're going to want to run, and we want to press. So it may be the battle of the wills of two teams.

"They've very athletic, they're pressing, playing a lot of zone, running a lot of full court and three-quarter court pressure. They just don't have the depth they had a year ago or the experience factor. It's a different look for them, but I never look past anyone. Because every time we play it does not matter, when they look up and see orange you might as well throw out the film you've been watching because you won't see things like that. Everybody plays us tough. Who do you think is going to lay down on us?"

The answer is nobody, and that's why the Lady Vols have to be ready for every team's best effort. That does seem to have sunk in with this team. Before the UConn game the players called their own meeting. It's something they plan to do now before every game.

"As a coach every year I always preach you taking ownership and when they sincerely commit to it, it is more powerful than anything I can say or do or anything our staff could say or do because it's their idea," Summitt said with a satisfied smile. "They are taking responsibility for how they prepare, how they play, and that's the best thing you can have going for you as a coaching staff."

The meeting was one more step in the team's progression of unity, a process that began last summer when Spencer and Redding organized team nights at their residence for dinner, conversation and non-basketball activities.

"It's fun to see everyone come together and buy into it together and everyone to be on the same page, and you don't have a couple of people here and there, but everyone was there and on the same page," Spencer said. "That's something I think is very key to happen during the season and that has happened."

Added McMahan, "We were all a part of it. We made a pact about giving our all out on their floor. I think we're going to do that before each game, because we got real hyped before the (UConn) game."

Summitt is expected to stick with her starters: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (7.6 points per game, 1.3 rebounds per game, 3.7 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (9.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.4 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (12.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (20.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (8.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg).

Florida coach Carolyn Peck is expected to start: Jennifer Mossor, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 22 (5.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg), high school basketball standout in Florida committed to Gators in 2004, also four-year starter for volleyball team at Orlando Colonial High School; Depree Bowden 5'11 junior guard, No. 20 (12.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg), leads team in steals (37), assists (39) and blocks (15), scored a career high 25 points against Temple, 2006 SEC Honor Roll student, standout volleyball player in high school; Kim Dye, 5'8 senior guard, No. 4 (5.1 ppg, 1.3 rpg), first-year starter played in 28 games last season, hit five three-pointers against Vandy to set career high in points, pitched a no-hitter in Little League when she was 12 years old; Sha Brooks, 5'7 sophomore guard, No. 3 (14.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg), preseason First Team All-SEC, has averaged 17.8 ppg over the last four games, set Florida freshman record with 61 three-pointers, has added 15 pounds of muscle in off-season conditioning, made SEC Academic Honor Roll as an freshman; and Marshae Dotson, 5'11 sophomore forward, No. 44 (12.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg), had 22 points, nine rebounds against Georgia and helped hold Tasha Humphrey to eight points, four rebounds, played in all 30 games last season, also earned SEC Academic Honor Roll status as a freshman.

Tennessee's win over UConn was forgotten by the time the Lady Vols gathered for practice Monday, but it couldn't help but be a boost for the team's confidence to beat their archrival on the Huskies' home court in Hartford.

"In this game you've got to have confidence," McMahan said. "That's a really big thing. Winning at UConn we got big confidence. Now there's a difference in being confident and having cockiness. We have confidence. We're not cocky. We're respecting every opponent, and we're going into Florida respecting them."

Summitt surveys her team and picks up on some swagger but more importantly she sees a unified group.

"I think this team has that swagger, but at the same time I think the difference in last year and this year is just the chemistry of our team," Summitt said. "It's hard to get people to mesh together. It's all about personalities and respect and leadership and for whatever reason I never felt that last year's team had what this year's team has in terms of just the cohesiveness of this basketball team."

This year's team sets its own tone early and those regular season losses to Kentucky and Florida likely had a carryover effect.

"Our motto this season has been to take one game at a time because we know last year that that or the Kentucky game cost us the No. 1 seed and where we were placed bracket-wise," Spencer said. "So we really want to make sure we take every game one at a time and as we go through the SEC to make sure that we bring our boards and our transition defense every night because you never know when your shot's going to fall, but we can definitely control those two aspects of the game, which are keys to victory."

Tennessee is a much more effective basketball team when Spencer gets on the boards. She had nine rebounds in the win over UConn to go with 14 points, three assists and three steals. Now Summitt wants more out of Anosike, who had three rebounds against UConn, all off the offensive glass.

"Anosike didn't have a defense rebound," Summitt said. "She is the one player, other than Parker, that I would think could really take on the responsibility of being one of the best defensive rebounders on our team. She's in position to be; she's got the body to be. But for whatever reason she hasn't done it. She's got to do it for us It's huge that she takes that on because she's more than capable of doing what we need down there. She's much better on the offensive end, but she's got to be able to do both.

"We need five people to understand that defense and rebounding, it includes all five people. Cait didn't have a defensive board (vs. UConn), but she didn't play the minutes Shannon played, and she only had one. You box out, and you've got to go get the ball. We're going to be doing a lot of rebounding drills."

Those drills were a major part of practice this week, along with game tempo shooting drills. Summitt also took that opportunity during practice to remind the team of last year's loss to the Gators.

"I think she is planting a little motivational seed," Hornbuckle said. "Definitely. I think it's the right type of seed to plant personally because you want to gun for that number one seed. We could have been placed in a better situation last year. That means a lot. We don't want to be put in the same situation again two years in a row."

Hornbuckle won't take it one step further and say it cost Tennessee a trip to the Final Four because of the vagaries of postseason.

"You can look at it like that but in all honesty it's NCAA," she said. "Anything can happen in March. You can say if I was in this bracket we would have definitely made the Final Four, but you never know because there are upsets over upsets all the time every year. I think maybe we could have been placed in a better situation as far as the Final Four, but we would have had to play it out."

Hornbuckle watched the loss to Florida from the bench with a cast on her right arm after she broke her wrist two weeks earlier in a game against Vanderbilt.

"It was frustrating," Hornbuckle said. "I think that was my very first time since my junior year in high school sitting out for the game because of an injury. It was tough, especially seeing how the outcome was – a loss on our home court, SEC game. It was devastating to watch but at the same time it told a lot about the team and it gave me a chance to sit there and analyze our team and Florida. It's a little bit different team on both ends now obviously.

"I don't think you can carry over last year's team. You can't really make the comparison because they are totally different teams. They've faced some adversity. We have to come ready and just do our scouting and when we get on the court play scouting report defense and play Tennessee basketball."

But last year's game will be in the back of the team's mind. It would be hard for it not to be, considering what it meant for Tennessee.

"I don't think there's any question losing to Florida late costs us the number one seed," Summitt said. "We just know if we want to be a number one seed as well as win the conference, we've got to take them one at a time and be ready to play.

"Given that scenario I do think all the returning players understand how costly that was. They're mindful of that. I've got to believe we'll be ready to play, probably even more so because of what happened last year."

The team understands now that No. 1 seeds are earned and lost in the regular season. So a team with the motto of one game at a time must also never lose sight of the big picture – brackets in March.

"I know we as a team know before the game that we are playing for a number one seed every night we step on the court and every day we practice we're preparing for a number one seed," Hornbuckle said. "I think that helps us to not lose focus and realize the end results, not necessarily OK, we need to beat Florida because it's an SEC team and they beat us last year. It gives us a little future to look at."

SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant coach Nikki Caldwell handled the scouting report for the Florida game. Here is her assessment.

When Florida has the ball: "I think inside we're going to have a good challenge with Dotson (who Caldwell noted had 22 points against Georgia). Obviously their guard play with Brooks and Bowden, I think those two kids can at any given point get their shot off. They're a complicated defense for us because they can shoot the three, they can put the ball on the deck, they can penetrate. So we're going to have to come in and be able to limit their touches. Those three ladies in particular are going to be keys for us defensively."

When Tennessee has the ball: "Florida plays primarily zone. I know second half in the Georgia game they did play man to man, but they're primarily a matchup zone team. I think we're going to have to be aware of them really keying in on Sidney Spencer and trying to take her out of the equation whether it's face guard, box and one or what have you.

"We're going to have to be on top of our zone offensive attack and then obviously if they do go to their man, we're going to run our man options and things like that. Like any game try to establish our inside-outside attack first and foremost and try to get our transition game going as well. That's going to be key. That's been a plus for us in our ability to force turnovers and get some easy baskets. We're going to attack them as well, aggressively, as I know they're going to come out and attack us."

Caldwell sees the loss last season as additional motivation and also a win at Florida is needed if Tennessee is to meet its goal this season of winning the SEC outright in the regular season.

"Our kids have set some goals in the SEC and obviously each game you want to meet the goals that you've set," Caldwell said. "I think last year's team had an opportunity to put ourselves in a better position in regard to the NCAA's selection committee but even with the losses to Florida and Kentucky they still took care of business in the SEC Tournament by coming in and beating some very good teams.

"New year, new conference play, new players. So hopefully the ones who returned from last year will use that as motivation. But bottom line is any game you play in the SEC everybody is going to come at you with their best shot and you've got to be able to answer their punches."

HIT AND MISS: Candace Parker and Sidney Spencer are consistently hitting shots for Tennessee – 55.7 percent and 48.6 percent respectively with Spencer at 52.4 percent behind the arc – but the shooting percentages of Nicky Anosike, Alexis Hornbuckle and Alberta Auguste have been falling of late.

Summitt doesn't pick up on any over-reliance on Parker.

"It hasn't been an issue to date," Summitt said. "It could happen. If it does we're going to address it, because we have to have five offensive players that are aggressive on the floor, regardless of who gets the most touches."

Auguste has been getting good looks that aren't falling. Hornbuckle and Anosike need to get in the gym and take extra shots.

"If you're not shooting the ball well the only way to fix it is to get in more shots," Summitt said. "I think they're just going to have to have more repetitions. And it's got to be game shots at game tempo, and that's where I think sometimes we aren't as committed to that. We can't be casual and go out and just shoot around. We've got to say, ‘Here are the shots I'm going to get in the game, and here's how I've got to move quickly to get them.' Absolutely we addressed it, and all the coaches have to hold them accountable.

"I think without question Lex and Bird have got to knock down more shots for us. She (Auguste) got some great looks, but as I told her she's got to become a better practice player. We've got to pick up our intensity and tempo in practice in all of our shooting drills, in particularly with our perimeter."

ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are in action Thursday: Kentucky at Alabama; LSU at Ole Miss; Georgia at Mississippi State; and Vanderbilt at South Carolina.

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series against Florida, 34-2. One of the Gators' wins came last season; the other was in 1997. … Tennessee is 8-1 in games played on January 11. The sole loss was in 1986 against North Carolina. … Florida coach Carolyn Peck, who is from Jefferson City, Tenn., was an assistant under Pat Summitt in the 1994 and 1995 seasons and played for Vanderbilt. Peck's brother, Michael, is an assistant at Florida. … Florida's Kim Dye is a native of Fayetteville, Tennessee and played at Shelbyville High School with Tennessee's Alex Fuller. Two other Gators are from Tennessee – Sha Brooks (Jackson) and Kim Critton (Memphis). … The last two games with Florida have gone into overtime. Tennessee won 91-82 in Gainesville with the Gators prevailing 95-93 in Knoxville. Otherwise, Tennessee tends to win big with the average score 86.2 for UT and 65.3 for UF. … The win over UConn was Summitt's 375th all-time over a ranked team. She has a career record of 375-146 over ranked teams for a winning percentage of 72. Summitt's record against unranked foes is 552-32 for a winning percentage of 94.7. With 927 victories to date, Summitt is 73 wins away from the uncharted sum of 1,000 for her career.

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