"It's very nice to be home, finally back in TBA," sophomore forward Candace Parker said. "We've got two home games until we go to Vanderbilt so I'm very excited."
Parker is a big reason why the team won three on the road and 10 straight overall since the lone loss to North Carolina on Dec. 3, 2006. She now has 957 career points and is just 43 away from 1,000 points. Thursday will be Parker's 54th career game. If she gets to 1,000 points within the next three games, she will be the fastest player coached by Pat Summitt to hit the mark. Lady Vols legends Chamique Holdsclaw and Tamika Catchings needed 57 and 58 games respectively.
Catchings is one of Parker's favorite former Tennessee players – and she played with Catchings this past September on the USA national team – so it should be meaningful to be mentioned in that company. Parker, however, has a different standard in mind to join that pair in the record books.
"Honestly it's meaningful just wearing orange and just being a part of this tradition and playing on Pat's court every day," Parker said. "It's meaningful just being a part of it. The points, all that stuff doesn't matter. Our goal is to hang banners so until we do that I don't feel like I can even be mentioned in the breath of those two players."
It is that attitude that has Summitt unconcerned about her players overlooking a team in the Lady Bulldogs that is essentially overmatched against the size of the Lady Vols. Tennessee shares first place in the SEC with Ole Miss – the Rebels will come to Knoxville on Feb. 15 – and doesn't want to lose that top spot. The Lady Vols also haven't won the SEC regular season crown in two years and that is a goal this season.
"We put ourselves in a good position in league play," Summitt said. "And one thing they haven't done, they haven't won the league outright. So I think the fact we play a conference game (before the Duke game) is not a bad thing. It's probably a good thing for us."
The 2006-07 season is broken into segments – the preseason, out-of-conference play, the SEC and the postseason – and right now the emphasis is the SEC. Duke will be the last out of conference team that Tennessee will face until the NCAA Tournament.
"Our main priority is to win the regular season SEC," said Parker, who is one of nine players on the current team who have not done so since only the seniors, Dominique Redding and Sidney Spencer, have experienced that when they were freshmen. "We know that's what we want to do and then we want to go take care of business in the tournament. Our goal is to get a number one seed and then to eventually hopefully win the national championship."
The win Sunday over Georgia was gutted out with half-court defense and offensive board play. Thursday's game would be an opportunity for the team to get back on track offensively before the Blue Devils come to town. Practice sessions Tuesday and Wednesday emphasized shooting drills at game speed.
"I think that they want to play better, and they want to play better in the transition defense, as well as with their offense," Summitt said. "Most of the games that we are approaching now, the topic is this is about us. It's about how we play; it's how we impact and influence how the opponents play."
Junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle appreciates the chance to play quality opponents all season long, such as a matchup with UConn nearly two weeks ago and Duke this coming Monday with SEC teams sandwiched in between.
"Coach purposely sets up our schedule like that," Hornbuckle said. "You have to appreciate something like that to go through the season and be able to play ranked teams just about every night that you hit the floor. If they're not ranked they're a team to contend with in your conference. I think it helps us out, especially looking at the postseason."
Summitt is expected to stay with her starters: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (7.1 points per game, 1.3 rebounds per game, 3.3 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (9.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.4 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (12.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (19.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.7 blocks per game); Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (8.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg).
Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning is expected to start: Marneshia Richard, 5'8 sophomore guard, No. 25 (7.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg), averaging 14.3 points in three SEC games this season, started 17 games last season, played in all 28, was Mississippi state champion in the long jump in high school; Robin Porter, 5'11 sophomore guard, No. 24 (9.1 ppg, 6.7 rpg), started all 28 games last season, had 15 points, six rebounds against Tennessee last season, SEC All-Freshman team, brother Chris was an All-American at Auburn; Tysheka Grimes, 6'0 freshman forward, No. 23 (5.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg), averaged double-double in high school, 15 points, 12 rebounds, and led Capitol High in Baton Rouge, La., to two state titles, also standout volleyball player; Bethany Washington 5'11 freshman forward, No. 14 (6.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg), First Team All State at Vandebilt Catholic High School in Houma, La., high jumper in high school; and Imesia Jackson, 6'1 junior center, No. 45 (11.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg), Crawford, Mississippi, native spent two years at Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis, last season ranked fifth in scoring (18.7 ppg) in the Tennessee Junior and Community College Athletic Association.
Summitt has repeatedly said she likes this year's team – the players have shown maturity and competitiveness – and the team so far has responded to her criticism and encouragement. The biggest area of concern right now is a shooting percentage that has been plummeting after starting off in the stratosphere. A partial drop was expected, but Summitt knows her team needs to start shooting better. The second area of concern is Tennessee's rebounding margin – a slim +3.5 over opponents and an average of 37.2 per game.
"We know we have to get better in certain areas and certainly playing Mississippi State we need to be a lot more efficient offensively," Summitt said. "We could work every day, and it might not be enough on our transition defense and our board play. We've just got to hammer that all year long."
A good sign for Tennessee was the scoring production from Anosike and Hornbuckle, who both scored 14 against Georgia in a game in which Parker was bottled up and beaten up by defenders.
The scoring help was a relief for Parker, who kept her composure despite her offensive woes and kept finding open teammates.
"It is. It is," Parker said. "I think it spoke volumes of if you take one thing away then we'll come at you with different weapons. I feel like that's what we did. Their game plan was to double me. Obviously I have all the confidence in the world in my teammates, and they came through and we won the game.
"Nicky Anosike has been huge for us. I think just her defensive intensity as well as rebounding has really helped us, especially in the Georgia game when we really needed her. She came through offensively in that game as well for us – her and Lex both scoring double figures for us; that really helped us out a lot.
"I feel like we're right where we need to be at this point in the season. I think that's what the great thing about Tennessee is is that you take away one option, and you have people that are willing to step up and make good plays. I think that's what maybe we lacked in the past in terms of last year when we were kind of like a few short because of injuries and things like that. But this year hopefully we can continue to be healthy and just continue to work hard every day in practice and improve.
"Every game we look to improve. I feel like everybody is growing in their own way to help this team towards its goal."
Hornbuckle's offensive growth is key for a team that has titles on its mind. She hit two three-pointers against Georgia in addition to getting points off steals and fast breaks. She went back to fundamental mechanics on jumpers and cut back the degree of difficulty in her drives to the basket.
"I tried to work on on-balance shots," Hornbuckle said. "I go in there and sometimes I'm off balance. I'm basically trying to get away from the defense when I shoot. I'm very capable of doing that, but I'm not very efficient when I do that. Coach made it a point to say be more efficient, and I need to shoot more on-balance shots."
Hornbuckle applauded Anosike's offensive performance against Georgia and agreed that Tennessee becomes much more formidable when an opponent has to keep tabs on more than Parker inside and Spencer on the perimeter.
"If we can have that consistently night in and night out we're going to be a team to be reckoned with because then you have to worry about Candace, Sid, Nicky and so on and so on," Hornbuckle said. "It's hard to keep consistently stopping five players on the court."
Anosike has already proven her worth off the floor. She organized a players' only meeting before the UConn game that resulted in the Lady Vol Pact – a list of six promises the players have made to each other and that they read before every game now. Summitt has remarked that this year's team has stood out for its chemistry, and this is one way it manifests itself. The other way is how the team plays.
"I feel like we're able to get out and run in transition as a result of our defense and as a result of us playing hard," Parker said. "We've learned that we can't take possessions off. I think we have outstanding leadership on our team and lead by example. Everybody has a voice, and everybody can use their voice, but you have to put forth the effort and show your team. So I feel like we have a lot of people who are going towards a common goal, and that's what we need."
The pact is an example of that approach and attitude.
"I feel like it's a great example because that's something that we did," Parker said. "That's something that nobody told us we had to do it; we did it. Because we realized that in order to hang a banner we need everybody on the same page. We remind ourselves of that before every game, we read it to each other, and we hold each other accountable."
Another component to a championship season is developing some consistent play off of the bench. Summitt has been happy with the bench at times and disappointed at others. The exception has been the steady play of sophomore forward Alex Fuller.
"I think her board play, and I think she's more mobile and more effective defensively this year," Summitt said of Fuller's improved play. "I want to get her more shots within our offense and see her knock down shots. She didn't shoot the ball well at Georgia, but she did other things – board play and defense were obviously two important aspects of her game. We need to get her more shots so she can obviously score more for us."
Summitt understands that the transition from high school and/or junior college star to substitute is not an easy one.
"I do think in the big scheme sometimes it's difficult for these kids to come into a program when they've been starting all their lives and now they have to come off the bench," Summitt said. "But if we can get them to understand the importance of the valuable role and the valuable possessions that they can play for us and get them just a little bit more focused when they come into the game – they're not responding as quickly as I would like them on the bench.
"We need that sixth, seventh player. It makes a difference. We've got to have it."
Tennessee has put enough combinations together to tally 16 wins, start the SEC with three victories and run off 10 straight after the single loss. Last year the team lost to Duke and then dropped the next game to Kentucky after having trouble shaking the effects of the Duke game.
"We didn't want to be like last year – suffer one loss and just have it snowball in a negative way," Hornbuckle said. "We recovered so well, and I think that no matter what happens Thursday and especially on Monday night we just have to keep building. I'm confident in saying we've definitely got a lot better since the North Carolina game so we just have to concentrate on Tennessee basketball – that's defense and rebounding."
Parker said the players won't be overlooking Mississippi State, which had to start the SEC with four straight games against ranked teams and won at Arkansas before losing to Georgia and LSU. Tennessee will be the fourth-ranked team that the Lady Bulldogs will face.
"I've learned in my short years here at Tennessee, you don't look past anybody," Parker said while shaking her head. "We lost to Florida, and we lost to Kentucky last year on dwelling in the past and looking towards the future. We don't want to do that. Our goal is to get a number one seed to put ourselves in the best position to get to the Final Four.
"In the SEC everybody wants to get Tennessee. We know that we're going to have to just come out and play Tennessee basketball, and everything will take care of itself."
Hornbuckle and Parker were interviewed at different times, but they are definitely on the same page.
"That's where teams get in trouble when you look at a team's record and you take them lightly because they can come out and play the best night that they'll ever play all season," Hornbuckle said. "Everybody plays out of their mind against the Big Orange. We can't take any team lightly."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Mississippi State game. Here is his assessment.
When Mississippi State has the ball: "We have to guard dribble drive, dribble penetration. They'll set some ball screens for their penetrators. They have one inside player (Imesia Jackson) averaging double digits per game. They do a lot of things for her to drive and also to duck in. So our post defense has to be certainly adequate to good. We just have to guard dribble drive. We can't let them have the paint."
As far as shooters, Lockwood said the Lady Bulldogs were "streaky." A freshman, Alexis Rack, scored 24 points against Georgia Tech after hitting six of nine behind the arc.
"They're not a team that I would call pure shooters, but they do have people that can make shots," Lockwood said. "So we have to be very wary of that. Definitely."
When Tennessee has the ball: "The number one thing is we want to pound it inside. We want to really take advantage of our size. We want to run on them. They're a team averaging in the 60s (63.3 points) so we don't want a slow game. We want a fast game. We want to transition as much as we possibly can. We want to get it inside.
"And then also our big thing we want to make this team have to defend. We don't want one, two passes, quick shot, unless it's a great shot. We really want to run, we want to get it inside, and we want to get great shots on our possessions."
The coaching staff used Tuesday's practice to work on defensive concepts applicable to Mississippi State and Duke but limited Wednesday's session to getting ready for the Lady Bulldogs.
"We have done a few Duke things, but today was exclusively Mississippi State," Lockwood said after Wednesday's practice. "There was nothing at all Duke. We're going to remind them in here (the scouting film session, which was to follow practice): We're in an SEC race. We earned first place at Georgia. We don't want to stub our toe and relinquish it by losing a game at home to a team we should not lose to. Quite frankly we should not lose this game. But are they good enough to beat us if we're complacent? You bet they are."
At least all the players, even the newcomers, now understand that when an opponent sees orange and white, the level of play elevates beyond what the Lady Vols saw on film.
"It's happened to us a few times so I don't know that we're real astute if we haven't caught on to that at this point," Lockwood said with a smile.
ON TAP: Every SEC team is in action Thursday evening. The other matchups are: Alabama at Arkansas; Auburn at Florida; Vanderbilt at Georgia; Kentucky at LSU; and South Carolina at Ole Miss.
Tennessee is off Sunday since the Duke game is Monday evening (7 p.m. ESPN2). Ten SEC teams are playing Sunday: LSU at Alabama; Arkansas at Florida; South Carolina at Mississippi State; and Kentucky at Auburn. Two teams are playing in the Russell Athletic Shootout in Duluth, Georgia: Georgia vs. Florida State; and Vanderbilt vs. Georgia Tech. Ole Miss is off Sunday.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Mississippi State, 25-0. One of the closest games was March 5, 2000, in the SEC tourney title game. The Lady Vols prevailed in Chattanooga, 70-67. Another close call was an SEC tourney semifinal game on March 8, 2003, when Kara Lawson hit a shot at the buzzer for the 76-75 win in Little Rock, Arkansas. The average score of a Tennessee-Mississippi State game is 83.0 to 71.1. The Lady Bulldogs are the only SEC team to never beat the Lady Vols. … Tennessee is 9-3 in games played on January 18. The three losses were to Western Carolina, 77-46, in 1969; Louisiana Tech, 81-63, in 1984; and Ole Miss, 80-78 in overtime, 1992. … Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning served as a graduate assistant under Pat Summitt during the 1975-76 season, and the coaches have remained good friends. ... Alexis Hornbuckle had 64 steals as a freshman and 91 as a sophomore and has 57 so far this season for a career total to date of 212. The single-season record at UT is held by Holly Warlick with 141, a figure that will be hard to top. But Hornbuckle can move into UT's top 10 for career steals this season with 15 more takeaways. Lea Henry is No. 10 with 227. The career leaders are Bridgette Gordon (338); Tamika Catchings (311) and Chamique Holdsclaw (307). … Other stats to watch: Tennessee is averaging 37.2 boards a game. Mississippi State averages 42.9 rebounds a game. The Lady Vols average 13.3 steals a game. The Lady Bulldogs swipe the ball 11.3 times per outing. As far as turnovers, Tennessee surrenders the ball 16.6 times per game. Mississippi State turns it over 19.1 times per game. The Lady Vols are hitting 40.3 percent of their three pointers. The Lady Bulldogs are at 27.3 percent behind the arc.