In-state rivals tip off tonight

If Alexis Hornbuckle doesn't extend her defense to the outer edges tonight against Vanderbilt it's not due to any lingering soreness from hyper-extending her knee in Monday's game. It's because of the layout of Memorial Gymnasium, which leaves her a little leery of drifting too far off the court.

"I get nervous, because I dive everywhere," the junior guard said. "So I always feel like if I go after a loose ball I might just go too far and fall. That's my worst nightmare at Vanderbilt. I've felt like I kind of hold back sometimes."

There are some seats around the court that are below floor level so a player diving for a loose ball could literally tumble off the court. Adding to the odd configuration is the fact that the team benches are on the baselines, which mean the players need to retain a lot of information from timeout huddles to the floor, or bench to scorer's table – which requires a sprint – to the floor.

Tipoff between No. 4 Tennessee (17-2, 4-0) vs. No. 15/14 Vanderbilt (17-3, 3-2) is scheduled for 7 p.m. Eastern (Fox Sports Net, Lady Vols Radio Network).

Alexis Hornbuckle will assist junior point guard Shannon Bobbitt, who will be playing for her first time at Memorial Gym.

"It's different and basically you and coach have to be on the same page before you hit that scorer's table to go in," Hornbuckle said. "You have to have an idea of what she wants you to run and whether it's zone or man, what in-bounds plays, what defense.

"Basically you have to be very knowledgeable in this game because you can't really hear if you're on the opposite end of the court. And if you're going in you don't have the opportunity to sit there (at the scorer's table) and look back at coach and still have communication. You've got to be on the same page as coach before the game even starts."

Bobbitt said she had no preconceived notions of what it is like to play in that setup, because she always had the benches on the sideline.

"I'm just going to be myself," Bobbitt said. "It's just like regular. I haven't played there yet so I don't know how different it will be. I don't know what my comfort level will be so I just have to wait. I'm experiencing everything everywhere I go."

The entire season has been a progression of adjustments for Bobbitt, who noted every road game is a new experience for her.

"I've adjusted to everything," said Bobbitt who believed "fitting well in the system" has been her best adjustment so far.

Senior Sidney Spencer, who has plenty of experience at Memorial Gymnasium, said it has already been discussed with Bobbitt, junior Alberta Auguste and freshman Cait McMahan. Fellow freshman Nicci Moats remains out of action for personal and health reasons.

"We have discussed it with everybody," Spencer said. "Everybody knows how different that court is and how hard it is to play there. As far as focusing every player has their own way of doing that. They know what it's going to be like. Of course we're going to have shoot-around there. You just have to prepare yourself."

Pat Summitt will take Bobbitt aside for some one-on-one instruction.

"We'll talk going into the game about what we want to run early because she'll have her back to me most of the half," Summitt said. "That will be important, and I'll get Lex to help her out as well. … Give her enough information going in that it's not like she is going to need to turn to me early in the game. We can script out what we want to do offensively and defensively. I think with the veterans that we have on the floor the communication of this team has really been very influential in management during the game without having to always get the information from the bench. I think that's what having a veteran team has allowed us to do is go into a lot of loud arenas and hostile environments and keep tight huddles and share information.

"Alexis has been great to work alongside of Shannon in that situation. From that standpoint it's been easy I feel like for the coaching staff to really let go of the reins, if you will, with this team in a lot of situations just because of the communication and their togetherness."

During Summitt's media teleconference Wednesday morning, Summitt's yellow Labrador retriever, Sally Sue, twice barked very loudly. Summitt explained to the media that Sally Sue, who recently had puppies, was very protective of her pups, which was apropos considering Summitt was discussing Bobbitt at the time.

Bobbitt has been making an on-the-job adjustment from high school ball to junior college to playing point guard for Summitt. During the second half of the Duke game Summitt opted to go with a big lineup with Hornbuckle at the point and four forwards – Candace Parker, Alex Fuller, Nicky Anosike and Sidney Spencer.

"That was a lineup that I thought we were forced to use in that game," Summitt said. "But we are not opposed to playing a big lineup and I think at times we can be very, very effective with it. I just felt like Duke did a great job of attacking Bobbitt and posting her up. Obviously I think this was probably the biggest stage in Shannon Bobbitt's career. I don't think that in some situations she was as comfortable as she has been, but I think she will learn and grow from this, and it will enhance her play down the road. But I went with a big lineup so that we could match up with their guards and obviously with Anosike's ability to guard on the perimeter, we were able to generate a lot on our defense, and I thought it was a very effective lineup for us."

Summitt will use the lineup again if needed, but the plan is to keep Bobbitt involved and Hornbuckle on the wing as much as possible.

"I think that certainly we can keep her on the floor," Summitt said. "In those situations I think she's going to be just better prepared having been in the situation that she was in on Monday in the Duke game. That's going to make her tougher. I think it was as much mental for her as it was physical, just being mentally tough and disciplined to do what she had to do on the defensive end. I thought she played on her heels more than she's played on her heels all year."

Playing point guard at Tennessee and in the SEC is a tremendous challenge. Playing point for Summitt increases that exponentially. Is the level of difficulty fully appreciated by some?

"That I don't know," Summitt said. "I certainly appreciate her. I appreciate what she's brought to our team, and I'm confident that she's capable of learning from this and providing the kind of leadership and direction that we need.

"Quite honestly I really don't care what other people think. I think it's all about what Shannon thinks and how her team feels and how her coaches feel about what Shannon's doing and her growth as a player. And I think she's making great strides."

The entire Tennessee team has made great strides since last season when a loss to Duke sent the team into a tailspin and was followed by a loss at Kentucky. This team is determined to not let the latest Duke loss linger and the players seem to have bounced back, based on their practice performance Tuesday. They aren't guaranteeing a win Thursday, but a loss wouldn't be because the team was still mired in the funk of the previous game.

"I think this team has a different mindset," Hornbuckle said. "We want to get back, we want to win, and we want to work hard. We're willing and open to learn and open for suggestion. Last year I think it was so negative at times, whether getting down on yourself or you think that somebody was coming at you the wrong way. But this year it's like, ‘OK, you said what you had to say. I'm going to work on it and then we'll build on that.' Instead of taking it personal just realizing that we all have the common goal so when somebody speaks to you it's to help you, not to hurt you."

Summitt is expected to stay with her starting lineup: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior point guard, No. 00 (7.25 points per game, 1.5 rebounds per game, 3.3 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (10.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.4 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (12.5 ppg, 3.6 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (19.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.9 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (7.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg).

Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb is expected to start: Dee Davis, 5'7 senior guard, No. 10 (7.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg. 6.5 apg), three assists shy of the school record 673 held by Ashley McElhiney, First Team All-SEC pick last season by the coaches, outstanding athlete also played softball and volleyball in high school in Cincinnati; Jennifer Risper, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 2 (5.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg), made her first career start last season against North Carolina, was the team's defensive player of the year last season, brother Derek is a senior forward for Eastern Washington; Caroline Williams, 5'10 senior forward, No. 33 (12.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg), former walk-on started every game last season, set the school record for made three-pointers in a single season with 95, has 56 so far this season and hits at 47.5 percent; Christina Wirth, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 34 (12.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg), can play four positions on the floor, also an excellent three-point shooter, father Alan Wirth played Major League Baseball with the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, older sister Alana plays basketball at Barry University in Florida; Carla Thomas, 6'3 senior center, No. 50 (16.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg), the 11th Vanderbilt player to reach 1,000 points before her senior year, was the team's leading scorer last season vs. SEC opponents, brother Art played football at Virginia.

A key player off the bench for Vanderbilt is 6'4 junior center Liz Sherwood, who tends to have big games against Tennessee. She was 9-10 from the field and had 20 points last season in the game at Knoxville.

When Summitt was asked why she smiled and provided an answer that played off the intense dislike between the fan bases of the in-state rivals.

"She probably hates orange," Summitt said. "Most of those people over there do."

Speaking in general Summitt noted teams tend to get up to play Tennessee.

"I think a lot of times there are a lot of players who play more inspired against us," Summitt said. "If I was the coach I'd be mad. Why don't you play that way all the time?"

A key player off the bench for Tennessee is Alex Fuller, a 6'3 sophomore forward that Summitt knows could be a starter. Fuller has made the most of her minutes – and her one start in place of a sick Parker a week ago – but Summitt plans to keep her in the sixth man role.

"I have thought about starting her, but I'll just be very honest with you, she's the best thing happening for us off the bench right now," Summitt said. "I'm not going to change it right now. We have six starters."

The timing of the Vanderbilt game is interesting because the Commodores are a team that tend to pour it on early against the Lady Vols in Nashville and seize double-digit leads. Tennessee is coming off a game in which Duke exploded to a 19-0 lead and held on to win 74-70. A 19-0 deficit can be more psychologically damaging to a team than merely being down 19, and it took the Lady Vols some six minutes to score. Duke pushed the lead to 21, before the Lady Vols managed to cut it to 11 points by halftime.

"Honestly, no. I don't ever remember a start like that of any team doing that to us," Spencer said. "I just looked up, and I couldn't believe what the score for. But they came out extremely focused and determined and executed almost to perfection in that first eight minutes."

That is also what the Commodores like to do to the Lady Vols in Nashville. Last year Tennessee trailed 33-19 in the first half but came back in the second half to get Summitt her 900th career win.

This will be Spencer's last time to play at Memorial Gym and she has taken the approach of savoring her senior moments.

"Definitely I'm looking forward to it,' Spencer said. "Vanderbilt is a very tough place to play. Every time we are there we are down 15 points in the first half and have to claw our way back. After being there four years just one time I want us to not dig a hole like that and just to play.

"I think Vanderbilt comes out to play like Duke did – on fire and executing perfectly. I don't know if it catches us off guard; I'm not really sure. But I think this year I just really want to try to make the extra effort to make sure that we're all focused and we're ready to go.

"Learning from last year there shouldn't have to be any extra talking or what-not. We should know from experience and how things played out last year and that should be enough for us all to be motivated."

Hornbuckle shook her head as she recalled the past games at Vanderbilt and wants her team to not start the game in a hole.

"It does have to stop," Hornbuckle said. "To be honest, though, every year that I've been here that we played at Vandy they make all their shots at least in the first 10 minutes of the game. We come out there energetic and enthusiastic thinking you're busting your tail and the next thing you know you're down by 12. Hopefully this year, especially after the start that we had (Monday night), we can come in there with a different mindset."

Hornbuckle has been an offensive threat in the last three games – her scoring average is now in double digits – but the team's overall shooting percentages has taken steady downward hits because of the recent struggles of Anosike and Bobbitt.

"I'm not as concerned about our shooting overall," Summitt said. "I'm concerned about Nicky Anosike not having any post-ups (against Duke) and not scoring for us. We haven't shot the ball as well, but on a bright note I thought Alexis looked really good and did a lot of good things for us, helped us get right back in that game. Spencer didn't shoot the ball well for Spencer. Certainly we're going to have nights like that, but we obviously got all over the glass. That's the good news. There was a time when we weren't rebounding well."

Summitt has met with both Anosike and Hornbuckle to underscore what she wants.

"It would help if she wanted to get on the block, bury people and score," Summitt said of Anosike. "She's really been more committed to finesse and face-up. I told her we need her as a strong, physical low-block player. There are times when we need that."

As far as Hornbuckle, Summitt wants the guard to continue the way she has played of late.

"Coach said I need to be averaging at least 15-plus a game, no less than 15 a game," Hornbuckle said. "I know I'm capable of doing that. It's just a matter of shot selection. If I go in the game, and I'm taking all these runners and off-balance shots I'm not going to get to hit that 15-point mark.

"I might be breaking down a defense and helping my team out, but if I can't finish it, it really is nothing. I think (Monday) night I made a point of emphasis for myself: If you do have a shot, if you do penetrate square your body up. Take the best shot possible. That way if it doesn't go in, it just didn't go in. It wasn't because you were out of control."

The next game is always the most important, but in this case a well-used sports cliché is actually accurate. An SEC game against one of the conference's top teams is of paramount important for a Tennessee team whose stated goal is to win the regular season outright.

The players also don't want to have a repeat start of past Vandy games, but they do know they can recover if it were to happen.

"I think it might be a little dangerous, but at the same time you've got to look at it like this: We were able to claw our way back against the number one team," Hornbuckle said. "We didn't quite get over the hump, but we were able to claw our way back.

"I honestly believe that we're not going to get down by 10 or 12 points at Vanderbilt, because we realize we can't put ourselves in that position. Scouting report defense is so important and if we follow that I truly honestly believe that a team will have a tough time making a run like that again."

Summitt is taking a wait-and-see approach. She has witnessed too many times in which the players take the floor and act as if they never had a scouting session.

"You never know," she said. "You hope they learn. But I think the most important thing is you're not always going to make shots. I told Candace, ‘You're going to miss free throws. You're going to miss shots.' But it's how you make up for that on the defensive end to generate better opportunities, limit points obviously of the opponent and generate more possessions for yourself. That's just something that you hope that they learn from this game."

Parker, who missed six of seven free throws against Duke, spent extra time after practice Tuesday taking shots from the line. Spencer, who was 4-4 in that game, said a short memory is the best approach from the stripe.

"When I went to the line I was extremely focused because I knew we needed every point we could get and mine were early on," Spencer said. "Everyone has shot it seems like 10,000 free throws in their lifetime so it's nothing that is physical or fatigue. We've shot them at all different points in practice.

"Just continue to get repetition in, and they're going to fall. It shouldn't be discouraging. If you start dwelling on it, ‘Oh, I missed three free throws last possession,' then you're not going to be focused on the next to come. So you've just got to let it go and get back to the line and try to make it then."

Memory is also a buzzword for this game. Remember what happened last season at Vanderbilt and don't forget how Duke started, but don't let it spill into Thursday once the ball is tipped.

"I know the SEC is extremely important right now, and we can't let that slip away," Spencer said. "You can't dwell on the past, but you can definitely learn from the past."

The team's goals weren't altered this week. They remain to win the SEC and claim the program's first national title since 1998.

"The mission is you're still looking at the same goal," Hornbuckle said. "You still want that national championship. So everything, every game, whether it's a win or loss, is a learning experience. It's for us to know what we need to come in to practice and work on. We definitely cannot do like we did last year and snowball down hill. Vandy is a test for us, because now we have to test our maturity and our mental and physical strength."

Duke, while ranked No. 1 in the country, has some weaknesses, one of which coach Gail Goestenkors noted after the game was rebounding. No. 2 North Carolina has had a tendency to turn the ball over too much. No. 3 Maryland's approach on defense has been lackadaisical. No. 4 Tennessee has to get better at the free throw line and in transition defense. For all the teams these are correctable mistakes.

But the lack of a truly dominant team in women's college basketball – at least as demonstrated so far in the regular season – is setting up an engaging finish to the season to see which four teams can actually make it to Cleveland. And the depth extends well past the top four with a number of ranked teams having a legitimate shot to get to the Final Four.

"I think it's wide open," Hornbuckle said. "There're great teams out there, there're are really, really good teams that execute, but every team has its flaws. No team is perfect. But at the same time it's always going to be the team that executes the best, whoever's the most efficient, whoever plays defense for the longest amount of time and the team with the most heart.

"You can have a few players with the most heart, three or four players, but if all five people aren't on the same page throughout all forty minutes of the game you'll always have a flaw."

Tennessee's first chance to fix that flaw comes Thursday.

SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report on Vanderbilt, as she usually does for the Commodores game. But with the short turn-around time this week and recruiting and scouting obligations, Warlick wasn't available for an interview this week.

Pat Summitt pinch-hits this game for the assessment.

When Vanderbilt has the ball Summitt wants to see one thing: all five of her players committed to scouting report defense.

Against Duke the team drilled on the court in practice and watched film in the locker room. Then the players took the floor and acted as if they had never seen a scouting report.

"I think it's a lack of discipline," Summitt said. "I think we lack defensive discipline more than anything. You can't expect this team to win a championship with the way that they use the scouting report right now. We talked about it. They want to win so I think they have to figure out how they can win and be the most effective defensive team.

"We did the same thing at Georgia. What we were supposed to do on ball screens and what we did on ball screens has been very inconsistent. So there's been a pattern, and the thing is it hadn't caught up with us until now."

The Commodores will present the biggest challenge of the season in terms of showing different offensive looks.

"They run more sets than anyone we play," Summitt said. "You have to guard tendencies. You have to be more aware of the tendencies of back screens and ball screens and staggers. You defend more concepts. You can't memorize all those box sets. I've been coaching 33 years, and I can't."

To prepare for this game Summitt had the team practice guarding specific tendencies – not every set play – and they will draw from the Duke game, too.

"They defend concepts," Summitt said. "Like with Duke we defended stagger screens prior to this game and high-low action and ball screens and handoffs. So I think with a team like Vanderbilt that they run so many different options that as opposed to trying to evaluate what they're in or what they're going to run, just guard tendencies."

Getting better defensively was an objective after the loss to North Carolina, Tennessee's only other defeat this season, but Summitt said Duke's approach with the ball was nothing like the Tar Heels.

"The North Carolina game was more transition basketball than it was defending sets," Summitt said. "With Duke we defended a lot of set plays. So I think it was more the style of play from our opponent.

"In the North Carolina game it was different; it wasn't so much about us defending their sets and not being disciplined in that. This was glaring (in the Duke game). This was very glaring that they were not all on the same page together and communication was not in place, and it needed to be. Having addressed it they have to take the ownership now."

When Tennessee has the ball, the approach remains the same: Establish an inside game, which will open up space for the shooters. Summitt wants to see Nicky Anosike plant herself on the block and become a physical post-up scorer as she has demonstrated at times that she can be.

"I appreciate the fact that she's worked on her offensive game and her face-up skills, but face it we know this game in March and April is going to be won or lost in the paint," Summitt said.

The Vanderbilt game is one in which the players really need to be prepared because for one half they can't hear Summitt when Tennessee is on offense and for the another half they won't hear her while on defense.

"Some players might look at it as it's time to rest," Alexis Hornbuckle said of the lack of coaching scrutiny. "But at the same time when you're confused coach is the one that helps you out so you want to hear what she has to say. It says what you know and what you're capable of recognizing and what you're capable of doing without the coach being in your ear because now you're in control."

ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are in action Thursday in the following matchups: Florida at South Carolina; Mississippi State at Kentucky; Arkansas at LSU; and Ole Miss at Georgia.

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series against the Commodores, 47-6. Of the six losses, four have come at Vanderbilt. … Tennessee is 25-0 in games played on January 25. The last time Tennessee played on this date was in 1998, when the Lady Vols beat Vandy in Knoxville, 86-54. Tennessee has never lost to Vandebilt in Knoxville. The Commodores will visit Knoxville this season for "Senior Day" on Feb. 25. … Vanderbilt and Tennessee don't agree on how many times they have played. Tennessee records the first game as a 96-27 win on Jan. 18, 1976. Vanderbilt doesn't recognize that game as official. So this is either the 54th or 53rd meeting between the schools, depending on whose game notes are read. Candace Parker and Alexis Hornbuckle have double-digit scoring averages against Vandy – 16.5 ppg for Parker and 10.2 for Hornbuckle. … If Parker were to dunk Thursday she would become the second Lady Vol to dunk on the Commodores floor. Michelle Snow did it on Jan. 23, 2001, when she broke free down court and caught a 60-foot pass from Kara Lawson. She finished with a two-handed slam and got called for a technical for hanging on the rim. Parker's first dunk on an opponent's home court came this season against UConn in Hartford. Three of her dunks were in Knoxville this season and the first two were last year against Army on a neutral floor in Norfolk, Va. Her next dunk will be her seventh collegiate slam. … Parker has 979 career points and is just 21 shy of 1,000 for her career. Thursday will be her 55th career game. If she gets to 1,000 vs. either Vandy or Alabama this Sunday, Parker will be the fastest player coached by Pat Summitt to hit the mark. Chamique Holdsclaw did it in 57 games, and Tamika Catchings made it in 58.

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