No. 4 Tennessee (18-2, 5-0) will put its perfect SEC record on the line against unranked Alabama (10-11, 0-6) at 3 p.m. Eastern (CSS, Lady Vol Radio Network) at Coleman Coliseum. On paper this is a game that the Lady Vols should be able to put away early.
But Spencer looked at the schedule this week and saw two road games – in Nashville and in Tuscaloosa – that have challenged Tennessee in the past.
"It's tough to play there," the senior forward said. "We always struggle a little bit at Alabama, too."
Pat Summitt said during her weekly teleconference that both road games this week had her attention. Tennessee wiped out the Crimson Tide, 72-36, in Knoxville on Jan. 3 in the SEC opener. Is complacency a concern?
"You're always concerned about that," Summitt said. "You've got to beat the teams you're supposed to beat, and we are supposed to beat them. That doesn't mean we're going to beat them. It means that we have to respect them, and we have to understand that on a given day anything can happen.
"We have to bring our ‘A' game in every SEC game. That has to be the focus of our team. One game at a time. … We have to believe our team will be ready to play in each and every SEC game, particularly on the road. It can be very challenging."
Spencer intends to bring her complete game. After a summer spent hoisting jumpers from all over the floor and working on dribble drives and a step-back move – which she was using earlier this season – she spent the Duke game solely behind the arc.
"I'm through with being this one-dimensional three-point shooter," Spencer said. "I worked on it all summer and so I'm through with this spot-up shooter. I'm going to be more of a multidimensional player and use everything that I've worked on and not let it go to waste.
"I'm mostly labeled as a three-point shooter because I've been doing well from the three-point line this year (51.1 percent), but I want to be able to go in and to post up or to play off the dribble. I tried to play off the dribble (against Duke), and I traveled. I didn't get my feet right. Just work on that kind of footwork and the mid-range game. I have a step-back that I really like, but I haven't been going to that."
Spencer's first foray with this approach was against Vanderbilt. She responded with a career-high 26 points that included four three-pointers, six free throws, a turn-around jumper on the low block and three other jumpers inside the arc, including one from the elbow.
She watched film of the Duke loss and saw herself not sprinting the floor and not moving much in the half-court offense.
"I didn't like what I saw so I want to change it," Spencer said.
Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb saw plenty of Spencer in the Lady Vols' 67-57 win in Nashville on Thursday and noted that the Commodores let her get loose way too often. Tennessee wasn't setting screens for Spencer. She was simply getting open by constantly moving.
"I think it was a matter of people helping a little too much off of other people and then leaving the shooter wide open," said Vandy point guard Dee Davis, who was eventually assigned to Spencer in the second half although Davis gave up considerable height to the small forward. "She was moving well without the ball, and I think maybe sometimes people lost track of her. We just simply left her open pretty much. It was a huge fault of our own side."
Spencer and Candace Parker are integral parts of the offense and provide an effective inside-outside game. Junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle also has become a solid offensive threat in the last four games and can score inside or outside by spotting up to shoot or creating a shot.
Hornbuckle's ability to create for others is enhanced when her own offense is clicking because she can draw the defense to her. She had three highlight reel assists against Vandy: she caught a pass and immediately dished in one catch-and-release motion to a wide-open Alex Fuller under the basket; a behind-the-back pass to a cutting Parker when two defenders had collapsed on Hornbuckle and the trick pass was the only way to protect the ball. A slow-motion replay showed two Vandy players with flailing arms trying to figure out where the ball went; and a nifty tip of a pass that was soaring over her head and looking like it was headed out of bounds. Hornbuckle jumped and redirected it to Parker under the basket.
When Tennessee needs points down the stretch, Hornbuckle is looking for Parker and Spencer.
"We did make a conscious effort to get Sid and Candace involved down the stretch, because Sid's such a great shooter whether it's her set shooting or creating for herself and Candace is such a big presence," Hornbuckle said of the Vandy game. "Like coach said she's a go-to player. With great ball movement one of those two is going to be open. And like Candace said if they take away one thing something else is going to be open, and they did a great job of knocking down big shots and hitting big plays."
Summitt is expected to stick with her same starters Sunday: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (7.1 points per game, 1.4 rebounds per game, 3.3 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (10.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.4 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (13.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (19.8 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 2.9 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (7.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg).
Alabama coach Stephany Smith is expected to start: Nikki Davis, 5'7 freshman guard, No. 12 (6.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg), had 16 points, 11 assists against Birmingham Southern, on pace for 116 assists this season; Kate Mastin, 5'9 senior guard, No. 21 (12.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg), ranks eighth in the SEC for made three-pointers at 38.5 percent, scored 26 points against Arkansas; Navonda Moore, 5'10 senior guard, No. 34 (13.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg), scored a career-high 31 points against Tennessee in Tuscaloosa last season; Tamara Williams, 6'0 freshman forward, No. 32 (4.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg), rebound average has jumped to 6.5 in SEC games, had 10 boards against Auburn; and Talisha Chandler, 6'2 freshman center, No. 40 (7.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg), had 14 points and six rebounds against LSU and is averaging 10.5 ppg in SEC games.
Alabama is a very young team with seven newcomers on the roster – six freshmen and one junior college transfer. After the game in Knoxville, Smith said even such a lopsided loss would help her team.
"Everything helps our kids at this point," Smith said. "Every day of practice. I can't say enough: We are playing six freshmen. Every experience that we have, positive or negative, helps us take a step forward with our program. Watching film from this game, even as much as a lopsided game as it was, will help us."
Alabama has been playing better of late in some games. The Crimson Tide lost to Kentucky by one point, 63-62, and kept the score close until the end in a loss to LSU, 61-45. They played well at Arkansas but fell, 71-63. They were wiped out at South Carolina, 95-35, and turned the ball over 34 times against the Gamecocks. In the first game after the loss to Tennessee, the Crimson Tide lost by five to Auburn, 63-58.
Chandler had a nice showing in Knoxville, especially for a freshman on the road in her first SEC game, with 14 points on 6-10 shooting and five rebounds, but she also had five turnovers. As a team Alabama had 35 turnovers against the Lady Vols.
"Talisha is a very talented player," Smith said. "She is very, very gifted. But if we can continue to get her work ethic up and her focus to detail and playing every possession in practice every day, she has an awful lot of things she can do with the basketball. She can shoot the three, she's a great passer, she can take it off the dribble. She needs some help in the weight room. She just needs to keep working hard at getting better, but she is a very gifted player."
Tennessee had 20 turnovers in that game that was partly due to the nature of play and the turnstile at the scorer's table as Summitt kept players shuffling in and out. No Lady Vol starter played more than 25 minutes.
"Probably just the pace," Summitt said. "I think sometimes things are a little hectic, and the pace was up and down. When that happens and you know that when you're pressing, when you're running, when you've got up-tempo, there's a pretty good chance you're going to have more turnovers. You can live with them if they're deep and not costly, if they occurred in the backcourt and they don't cost you, which I thought we transitioned back pretty well defensively."
Tennessee's bench got extensive minutes in the first Crimson Tide matchup, and it would be nice for the Lady Vols if Summitt could go to the bench often Sunday.
"I thought it was great," freshman point guard Cait McMahan said after that Bama game. "The past games (before Alabama), the bench, we haven't been doing our part and keeping the same intensity as the starters had. But I think this game we came out, kept the same flow as the starters did."
The team was beaten up in Thursday's win over Vanderbilt. Fuller had to get four stitches above her right eye after slamming her head on the floor during a scramble for a loose ball. Parker is still fighting a respiratory infection and had to leave the Vandy game briefly with shortness of breath. Anosike went to the floor hard and was moving gingerly later in the game. Hornbuckle missed practice Tuesday to rest a knee she hyper-extended late in the Duke game. She also has to treat tendonitis in her knee as it flares up. After missing practice, she went 38 minutes in the Vandy game without missing a beat.
"It can be hard, but if your body is able to take it – if I can go back-to-back games and my knee doesn't swell up or my tendonitis doesn't act up – then it's really not that hard, because now I'm just running off adrenaline, I'm running off all the preseason conditioning we went through, and our bodies are able to make it through a 40-minute game," Hornbuckle said.
"It does take a toll, whether it's on your knees, your back, whatever problems you might have, but if you get in there and you treat and you rehab and you minimize those problems, then it's not that bad. Because nine times out of 10 you're playing on heart. If you want to win or you want something, everything else doesn't matter. You want to do whatever it takes."
The Crimson Tide had an open date Thursday and hasn't played since last Sunday's loss to LSU. So Alabama, with the additional benefit of playing at home, will be significantly more rested than Tennessee.
Spencer said Tennessee's schedule is all part of the bigger plan of getting ready for postseason.
"Once you're able to do it a few games in a row I just kind of get into a rhythm of being able to do it and being able to push yourself," Spencer said. "Part of preseason is being able to push beyond what you believe you can push. That prepared us for these times now or in the SEC Tournament when you play games back to back. You have your teammates there to encourage you and support you and keep you accountable. You put it all together, I think you pull through this."
Spencer also is a senior so she sees no reason to hold back or give anything less than maximum effort. Some seniors don't think about their final trips to different venues. Spencer has been acutely aware of it all season.
"We went to Florida, we went to Georgia and every time I was like, ‘OK, this is my last time I'm going to play here,' " Spencer said. "So I just try to not take things for granted and just enjoy every moment of it."
Spencer would especially enjoy a victory in Tuscaloosa, a road game in which a significant number of family and friends make the short trip from Hoover to see the town's favorite basketball player.
"It's great to be close to home and have my family there and friends," Spencer said. "I love that. It's really great for women's basketball because the fan support is not as strong in Alabama so to have them come and support us in Alabama, I think it's great."
SCOUTING REPORT: The teams already have game film from playing each other a little more than three weeks ago. Tennessee's concern in the last matchup was stopping the best scorers, Navonda Moore and Kate Mastin. Mission accomplished. Moore had five points on 2-8 shooting and Mastin had zero on 0-2 shooting. But Bama will likely make some adjustments to get their top two scorers some better looks at the basket this game.
Tennessee's intent to focus on them left some open looks inside for Talisha Chandler. Alabama also can get the so-called garbage points with putbacks and board play and did out-rebound Tennessee, 34-32.
Tennessee will want to push tempo and will likely see a mixture of man and zone in half-court defensive sets. The Lady Vols will first look to go inside and take advantage of size mismatches. Tennessee is averaging 75.1 points a game and will want to hit that and beyond to keep the game pace as quick as possible.
ON TAP: Every SEC team is in action Sunday. The other matchups are: Vanderbilt at Arkansas; Auburn at LSU; Georgia at Florida; Kentucky at South Carolina; and Mississippi State at Ole Miss.
NICCI MOATS OUT: Freshman forward Nicci Moats will remain on medical leave for the remainder of the 2007 season.
"Nicci is a great young lady, and we're all very supportive of this decision," Pat Summitt said. "We're looking forward to having her back on the court next fall."
Moats played in nine games this season and tallied seven points, eight rebounds, four blocks and two steals in 38 minutes of play. She last played Dec. 22, 2006, against Old Dominion prior to the Christmas break.
The 6'2 forward from Daleville, Virginia, didn't return with the team to practice after the holiday break but did return to school in early January to enroll for spring semester. Moats had met with Summitt between semesters to ask for some personal leave because of matters unrelated to basketball. She has attended some practices and has been on the bench at home games.
"After talking with the medical staff, I decided to take a leave from playing with the team for the remainder of the season so my focus can be on getting healthy and concentrating on my academics," Moats said.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Alabama, 38-2, and has never lost to the Crimson Tide at home or away. Both losses came at neutral sites in 1981 and 1984. The win streak for Tennessee has reached 31 consecutive games. … Tennessee is 12-4 in games played on January 28. The four losses occurred in 1970 to Tennessee Tech, 59-45; 1977, to Belmont, 60-59; 1990, to Georgia, 81-76; and 1991, again to Georgia, 81-74. … Candace Parker is two points shy of 1,000 for her career. If the sophomore scores them Sunday, her 56th collegiate game, she will be the fastest Pat Summitt-coached Lady Vol to hit 1,000. It took Chamique Holdsclaw 57 games and Tamika Catchings 58 games. Parker would become the 30th Lady Vol all-time to notch 1,000. Catchings finished her career with 2,113 points and is one of two Lady Vols to hit 2,000. The other was Bridgette Gordon with 2,460 points. Holdsclaw is the sole member of the 3,000 club with 3,025 career points and holds the highest total ever at Tennessee, men or women. Parker is not too far away from 500 career rebounds with 467 so far. … Tennessee is No. 1/1 in RPI/SOS. Alabama is No. 99/58. … Both teams have a +4.5 margin on the boards with UT averaging 37.8 rebounds and Bama, 39.0. The Crimson Tide has trouble taking care of the ball and averages 22.7 turnovers. They will take it away with an average of 11.1 steals. Tennessee averages 16.7 turnovers and 13.0 steals. Tennessee is winning games by an average margin of 18.9 points. Alabama is losing them by a -0.1 margin. Tennessee averages 6.2 blocks a game. Parker leads the team with 56. … Alexis Hornbuckle had six assists against Vanderbilt and now has 304 for her career. She moved into a tie for 11th place all-time with Tonya Edwards for steals with 223. Hornbuckle leads the team this season in assists with 81. Shannon Bobbitt has 67, and Candace Parker has 42.