UT, South Carolina to tangle

The Lady Vols are in the driver's seat atop the SEC standings and they have no intention of surrendering the steering wheel and potentially derailing the preseason goal of winning the regular season. The first test comes tonight in Knoxville against South Carolina, an experienced team that would love to send Tennessee on a detour.

No. 3 Tennessee (19-2, 6-0) will line up against South Carolina (13-9, 3-4), at 7 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network) at Thompson-Boling Arena. A rematch with Georgia looms on Monday, but first the Lady Vols must face the Gamecocks. A familiar face will be on the bench for South Carolina with former Lady Vol Michelle Marciniak serving an as assistant coach.

"We're never going to look ahead, and we respect South Carolina's game so much," said Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick, who prepared the scouting report on the Gamecocks. "I told Pat every year that South Carolina always worries me because they handle the ball well, they press well. They do everything well; they just haven't (always) come up with (SEC) wins. I think they're a very nice basketball team. I don't think anybody in the league overlooks South Carolina, and we definitely don't overlook them."

So far the coaching staff hasn't been concerned with this team's ability to stay in the moment. Several players didn't know they were the last undefeated conference team.

"Every game in the SEC is important, whether you have a loss or you don't have a loss," Head Coach Pat Summitt said. "Obviously we're in the driver's seat right now and it's up to us to keep ourselves in that position. As far as I'm concerned our team has done a good job being focused one game at a time. I do think the SEC is the most important goal or goals that we have within our team, and I think they understand that. They've had good focus, and I don't expect that to change against South Carolina."

From talking to the players it's easy to see why Summitt feels that way.

"Just play hard and everybody play their role and fulfill that role," point guard Shannon Bobbitt said. "Whatever the coaching staff tells us on the scouting report that's what we've got to do and be disciplined and do it."

Forward Sidney Spencer was one of the players that hadn't seen the SEC standings.

"This is huge," Spencer said when told every other SEC team had at least one loss. "I guess we are in the driver's seat for sure. We don't need to take any nights off. If we lost one, would it matter (in winning the regular season)? I don't know. But it would definitely matter in March. I think looking at the bigger picture every game we have to play for March.

"We can't take any games off or any nights off, and every team is looking to give us their best so this I think will make us more focused. It doesn't really change my mindset. I don't feel any different, but it does help us as far as rankings go right now, but we can't lose any of our games."

Spencer's reaction was typical: Initial surprise and then an immediate reminder to not let up.

"It feels good, but we can't lay down, we can't get comfortable," junior center Nicky Anosike said. "We have to just keep going, keep pressing on. It's not over."

Summitt is expected to stay with her starters: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (7.8 points per game, 1.4 rebounds per game, 3.6 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (10.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.4 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (13.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (19.3 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 3.0 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (7.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg).

South Carolina coach Susan Walvius is expected to start: Lauren Simms, 5'9 senior guard, No. 30 (9.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.3 apg), has 989 career points, needs just 11 more to hit 1,000 for her career, had a season-high 20 points against Mississippi State; Stacy Booker, 5'8 senior guard, No. 2 (7.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.8 apg), born in Germany where her father was stationed in the military, graduated from Collins Hill in Suwanee, Georgia, enjoys drawing cartoon characters, hit five three-pointers and had seven rebounds against Stanford, became a starter this season; Shannel Harris 6'0 senior guard, No. 11 (3.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.5 spg), played with Booker at Collins Hills, usually draws the toughest defensive assignment on the perimeter, got career-high eight rebounds against Kentucky, already earned degree in August in finance with minor in psychology, now working on second major in business management; Demetress Adams, 6'4 sophomore forward, No. 24 (6.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.7 spg), AA Player of the Year in South Carolina in 2004, 2005, wants to eventually become a judge, had 17 points, 11 boards against Clemson; and Ilona Burgrova, 6'6 junior center, No. 15 (5.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.2 apg), native of Czech Republic, has extensive international experience, career high five blocks against Florida.

Lea Fabbri, a 5'7 senior point guard, could be available for Thursday's game. She sprained her right ankle in South Carolina's 95-35 win over Alabama on Jan. 14 and missed the last four games. Fabbri's status has been upgraded to questionable, and she practiced this week for the first time since sustaining the injury.

A key player for South Carolina off the bench is 6'1 senior forward Melanie Johnson, who posted double-doubles in the wins over Florida and Kentucky, averaging 19.5 points and 12.0 rebounds in the two games. Another big contributor is 6'5 forward Iva Sliskovic, who needs 65 points to hit 1,000 for her career.

The Gamecocks enter this game with the confidence a winning streak provides.

"I think that this is the best time to face Tennessee," Burgrova said to "Carolina Insider," radio man Brad Heller's report on the Gamecocks Web site, www.uscsports.com. "If we would have faced them after the Mississippi State game, then I don't think we would be as confident. But right now we are pumped up, so I think that we can do it."

Marciniak, who played at Tennessee from 1993 to 1996 was the MVP of the Final Four in 1996, when the Lady Vols won a national title. Marciniak, a transfer from Notre Dame, scored 1,004 points in three years in Knoxville. Her 11 steals in a single game against Kentucky in 1996 is still the school record. When Walvius hired Marciniak she cited her Tennessee pedigree as a significant reason. Summitt has grown accustomed to her former players and coaches coming back on the visitor's bench.

"Obviously we've had a lot of players and graduate assistants go into the coaching profession," Summitt said. "It didn't surprise me when she got out of the pros that she wanted to get into coaching because I think she loves the game and she wanted to stay in the game. So it will be great to have her back in Thompson-Boling Arena, but we're not here to do her any favors."

That last line was delivered with Summitt's usual smile. She knows her former player coaches like she used to play.

"Think about Michelle the player," Summitt said. "She's pretty fiery, obviously very competitive. I just think when players have that personality and they go into coaching the personality really doesn't change."

Another former Lady Vol player was in Knoxville already this week. Kara Lawson spoke to the Tip-Off Club on Tuesday and was asked by the media what Tennessee needed to do to get to the Final Four. Lawson said Bobbitt must continue to be an outside threat, and the team needed better support from the bench.

"I think Kara Lawson nailed it," Summitt said. "She's right on target. The one concern I've had all along has been the lack of contribution that our bench has had. There's not the consistency with the exception of Alex Fuller. She's been very consistent."

The bench is down to four basketball scholarship players – sophomore forward Fuller, freshman Cait McMahan, junior Alberta Auguste and senior Dominique Redding – plus senior walk-on Elizabeth Curry.

"Cait's done some good things, but we need more from her," Summitt said. "We need more from Alberta. Clearly, Dominique as a senior should be making a bigger contribution. If we can get two, maybe three of those players, then now I like our chances.

"We're not where we need to be yet, but I do think we can get there. I like this team, I like the chemistry of this team so we're going to show Kara Lawson what we're made out of at the end of the year."

Again, Summitt smiles. Tennessee is definitely not peaking too soon, but the signs of improvement, though incremental at times, have been there since the beginning of the season.

"I think with the new people that we have playing the role that they're playing it's probably a good thing that we're where we are," Summitt said. "I'm not fearful that we are peaking too soon, but I do think we have stepped up and played well when we had to close out games. Obviously Duke is the exception, but we got off to such a slow start that put us in a hole. I think this team understands. I just want us not to play to the level of our competition but go out and play Tennessee basketball."

Part of that formula is bringing the heat on defense. A big part of that equation is the pressure that Anosike can provide on the perimeter if need be. But Anosike sprained her left ankle against Vanderbilt last week – she said a player fell on her leg during a scramble for a loose ball and her ankle rolled – and she is playing through some pain.

Anosike said she took ibuprofen – "as much as they would allow me" – and didn't feel pain in Sunday's Alabama game. But she was limited to 10 minutes of court time.

"I know my ankle is going to get better," she said. "It's not really that serious of an injury. It's going to take time. Ankles heal slowly like Jenny said so I'm just trying to be patient and stay positive."

Jenny Moshak, the team's head of sports medicine, said Wednesday that Anosike was doing better.

"Jenny can do wonders," Summitt said. "So I'm counting on Moshak."

"Swelling's down," said Moshak, who walked into practice as if in cue as Summitt was addressing the media about Anosike. "She's functioning a lot better; it's just when she gets running and cutting that it talks to her. You also really have to understand she hasn't been hurt very much in her career. This is a new experience for her. Her freshman year she had a little patellar tendonitis for a couple of days, but that's pretty much it.

"It's a different pain than a workout pain or a conditioning pain or anything like that because that goes away. When you go to make a cut you don't expect that to be painful. She may take a little while to warm up. This cold weather doesn't help. Flying didn't help us the last trip, but she's much better."

Anosike was cleared to practice and is expected to play tonight. Summitt knows what she's brings on defense. Now she wants Anosike to plant herself on the low block and use her strength to score and/or get fouled and use what Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood has been drilling for months.

"She's got to get on the block and score on the block," Summitt said. "Dean's done a great job of teaching our post people how to seal and how to read and just really simplify what they have to do and sometimes we over-complicate. I just think we have to have better discipline out of our post-up action. I like the fact that Nicky worked on her face-up game. That doesn't mean she can't use it.

"But it seems like that's what she's wanted to do is be a finesse player. You look at that body, and you don't think finesse. You think this could be one of the best post-up players on this team because she does have the most physically imposing body. She's just not getting in and battling and getting post points. It's just establishing that low post game for us. Candace has probably done the best job of that. Candace obviously goes to her face-up game early at times. I really think to win against the best teams in the country we have to have that. Hopefully we'll figure it out."

Anosike sounded as if she had already simplified matters.

"I just have to make the shots that I take," Anosike said. "Definitely have to work on my free throws. I think more so it's a mindset, just staying positive."

The month of February means the start of eight SEC games to close out the regular season and the time to finish off fixing some things before postseason begins. The first shot comes tonight against South Carolina. A win puts Tennessee halfway through the SEC slate with a perfect record. A loss means Tennessee might have to share the steering wheel. For that reason the Lady Vols are looking at the next opponent, not past it.

"It's real important," McMahan said. "We're going to go in and act like this is any opponent. We're not going to overlook them at all. I think we've learned from mistakes last year – getting beat by Kentucky and Florida. We're not going to look past them."

CAIT'S KNEE: Cait McMahan, a freshman point guard from nearby Maryville, Tennessee, had her senior season of high school wiped out by a torn ACL – she had surgery Dec. 8, 2005 – and then suffered a bone bruise to the right knee last September and ended up needing arthroscopic surgery.

The result is a tender knee that requires a lot of treatment and limits her time on the court. She's not missing practice but she can't spend any time shooting on her own.

"It's working, but it still hurts constantly," McMahan said. "You've just got to go with it. I'm not the only person with knee problems."

McMahan said the issue is not so much the knee but the secondary issues that the injury caused such as tightness in her IT band. She feels the effects when she tries to make a sharp cut on the court.

"I can't do anything," McMahan said of out-of-practice work. "Not at all. She (Moshak) told me that three months ago. A month ago I said, ‘I can't do this,' started shooting, and my knee started acting up. Jenny said that's not a part of the plan. If I don't want it to hurt then I can't shoot extra."

McMahan, a prototypical gym rat, would nearly live on the court if allowed. Telling her it's practice and nothing else is equivalent to telling fish not to swim.

"It does kill me," said McMahan, who avoids the arena and the temptation by staying away. "Before the game it's on my mind that I'm going to hurt. But I've got other stuff to worry about then what's going on inside my body and my pain, just got to play through it. I feel it, but I can't do anything about it. I think we're going to have to look into some things."

Whatever those options might ultimately be will come after the season. For now, McMahan said, she can manage the knee with treatment before and after games and at halftime if need be.

The 5'4 McMahan used her quickness to drive to the basket pretty much at will in high school. But her size means that approach in college must be balanced with a consistent outside jumper. And, for now, she can't work on her shot.

"You can't go to the basket being my size at will or your shot's going to be down your throat," McMahan said. "Shots are going to fall. I can't really work on my shot right now because of my knee and I'll get in trouble (if she comes to the gym on her own). It's frustrating so I've just play with the cards I'm dealt with."

McMahan has been a key contributor this season already. She averages 14.5 minutes per game and has hit some big shots, including a three-pointer against Georgia on the road in a tight game. She picked up quickly on the offense, especially for a freshman, and doesn't hesitate to take charges on defense. She intends to spend the off-season in a gym firing up shot after shot.

"Definitely," McMahan said. "I can't wait. It's killing me right now knowing I can't work on my game."

BIRD ON A PLANE: Alberta Auguste, whose nickname is Bird, spent the plane ride from Knoxville to Tuscaloosa seated beside coach Pat Summitt. They intended to watch five games. They got through four before the plane landed.

Summitt used the one-on-one time to show Auguste exactly what she wasn't doing and what she needed to do. On a plane a coach has a captive audience but in Auguste, Summitt also had a willing one.

Auguste responded in the Alabama game by scoring 12 points and hitting all four of her shot attempts, including three 3-pointers.

"I think there was great carryover," Summitt said of the film screening to the court. "Anytime players have the chance to really watch themselves. We pulled up the last five games, and we got through four of them. I think there was a pattern there of her not playing low on offense and just reaching defensively. I thought she was a much more disciplined defender and much more confident on the offensive end."

This was one Bird who felt much lighter on the flight home to Tennessee.

"Woo, did I. A lot," Auguste said. "Coach looked at me and said great game. Every time we had a timeout she pulled me to the side, ‘Keep playing like this.' It made me feel good."

For a player suffering from a recent lack of confidence – Auguste started out strong this season and then steadily slipped from game to game – those few words from Summitt had a huge impact.

"It made me feel good," Auguste said. "Actually it made me feel like she was having confidence in me thinking I could do it. She told me in the Vanderbilt game that she's not giving up on me. She wants me to fight more, and she's going to get the best out of me. I think by playing that game (Sunday) made her think, ‘All right, Bird is coming along. I'm getting her to play her game now.'

"It helps a whole lot just talking to her. She encouraged me to do things. Sometimes I get mad at myself and she told me don't do that. There're a lot of things that she said that helped me a whole lot. She pointed out a lot of things to me."

The film showed what words couldn't effectively relay.

"When I get in a game I'm too relaxed," Auguste said. "My composure on defense – like being intense the whole time. Because my defense creates my offense. That's pretty much what got me going for this (Alabama) game – just going out there and being aggressive on defense, and my offense just came. Basically my intensity level I learned from that, not being relaxed and just play, get aggressive. At points in time I was not playing aggressive, moving slow, not reacting on defense, those type of things."

Auguste doesn't mind words of criticism from Summitt. Like any newcomer she initially recoiled but then realized the words were intended to get her to another level of play.

"In a way she's been getting on to me like when I go out there on defense and I don't do my assignment," Auguste said. "She'll yell at me. Sometimes I get down on myself and then for her to fuss at me it makes me kind of worse, but I'm to at that point, ‘Well she cares. That's why she's fussing at me.'

"If she didn't care she would let me just go ahead and have my attitude and sitting on the end of the bench. But that's not her style. She sees something in me so she's going to get it out of me so I have to help this team."

Auguste, who is somewhat quiet and reserved, smiled throughout the interview as she talked about the impact of talking one on one with Summitt. Given that response – both at Alabama and her demeanor afterwards – it would seem film sessions would be on the plane docket for the rest of the season.

"I do watch film with players, but I think with her I think it was important that we have that one on one," Summitt said. "I think really with Shannon and Cait and Bird it's important because they are all first-year players. I think when I have an opportunity to spend quality time and watch film with them I think it just helps them learn more about what we're looking for specifically and to just help them break the game down.

"I'm going to watch with Shannon on Wednesday. We're going to take the last five games with her and do the same thing. The assistants have been watching (with players) more than I have. Dean's been watching the posts, and Nikki (Caldwell) and Holly will split up perimeter. I've been watching with the point guards since the beginning of the year."

Shannon Bobbitt has a specific plan when she sits down to watch film.

"I try to watch after every game all my mistakes I do," Bobbitt said. "Like the Alabama game I watched it and saw my mistakes and tried to learn from them. Try to watch every chance I get to watch film with coach. Something I could have done better."

Didn't she at least take a peek at the six three-pointers she hit against Bama?

"You can't miss it, but I definitely look for errors, where I can get better at," Bobbitt said.

SCOUTING REPORT: The Lady Vols also watched film as a team Wednesday afternoon as part of the game preparations for South Carolina. Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report on the Gamecocks. Here is her assessment.

When South Carolina has the ball: "They're big, athletic. I think they've got experience; they're an older team. The team that's playing now has been starting for the last four years, give or take a couple kids. I think they're athletic, they shoot the three ball. They've got good players in each position, and their post players are playing well. They run the high-low, they drive from the high post. So we've got our work cut out for us inside."

When Tennessee as the ball: "I expect South Carolina will play man to man and zone. We've just got to stick to what we do best. We've got to get good open looks, ball movement is going to be very important to us, establishing the inside game early and finishing shots and completing the play – making ‘and ones,' making free throws. They're a very good defensive team. They put a lot of pressure on the ball. They're physical inside. They're going to make us have to work."

Pat Summitt expects to see full-court defensive pressure after watching South Carolina on film.

"They're more athletic on the perimeter right now," Summitt said. "I would look for them to press more perhaps than they have in the past. They've still got the bigs that can score. They rely on the high-low game. It's a team that will stretch your defense. Also their one-on-one game. I think a lot of people are trying to challenge us if they don't score early to score late on penetration. It should be a good test for us."

Teams haven't pressed Tennessee very much this season. Even North Carolina, with its athletic and quick perimeter and post players, dropped back most of the game. That is likely due a lot to the Shannon Bobbitt factor. She can get the ball down court in a hurry regardless of pressure.

"I think it's all relative to guard play," Summitt said. "Right now we have guards that can beat you off the dribble. This is a team that gets in the attack mode and puts people on their heels. Not a lot of people have had success pressing us so from that standpoint I wouldn't expect to see it that much. But some people will bring it, and I think South Carolina is probably one of them."

Warlick sees a balanced team that could use its record to sneak up on unsuspecting teams. The Gamecocks have back-to-back conference wins over Florida and Kentucky coming into the Tennessee game.

"South Carolina is a nice team," Warlick said. "I don't care if they're in the middle of the league. They're a tough team to play. They're athletic and anytime you play an athletic team they're always going to be in the game. And they've got experienced post players."

ON TAP: All 12 SEC teams are in action Thursday. The other matchups are: Alabama at Auburn; Arkansas at Mississippi State; Ole Miss at Florida; Vanderbilt at Kentucky; and LSU at Georgia.

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with South Carolina, 36-2, and has never lost to the Gamecocks in Knoxville. South Carolina's wins came in 1973 at a neutral site and in 1980 in Columbia when Tennessee lost, 56-52. According to Tennessee's game notes, "the Carolina Pep Band positioned itself behind the UT bench and played its amplified drums, electric guitars, etc. for all 40 minutes of the game. UT huddles, held practically at the free throw line, did little good. Shortly thereafter, a ban on bands playing during the game and disallowing electronic amplification was instituted by the AIAW." … Tennessee is 7-0 in games played on February 1. … South Carolina leads the league with a +11.2 rebounding margin, good for sixth in the country. Tennessee has been inconsistent this season on the boards. Tennessee averages 37.5 per game, the Gamecocks, 46.1. Both teams average about the same number of steals and turnovers – 13.0 thefts for Tennessee, 12.8 for South Carolina and 16.6 giveaways for Tennessee and 17.6 for Carolina. … Michelle Marciniak wore No. 3 for the Lady Vols. That number is now worn by Candace Parker, who just joined the 1,000-point club last Sunday. Parker is just 25 rebounds away from 500 for her career. … Pat Summitt's record against unranked teams is 555-32. South Carolina is not ranked. Of Tennessee's 21 games so far this season, 10 of the teams were ranked in the top 25, and the Lady Vols record is 8-2 with the two losses being undefeated Duke and North Carolina. South Carolina is 0-4 against ranked teams this season but only lost to Vandy by one point, 67-66, on Jan. 11 in Columbia. … If Tennessee wins Thursday, it will be win no. 20 this season and will mark Summitt's 31st consecutive season with at least 20 victories. If this team tallies number 20 on Thursday, it would be the third-fastest Summitt team to do so. … From South Carolina's radio man Brad Heller's report on www.uscsports.com: "The Lady Vols are well-known for their pyrotechnics display during the starting lineups at home games. All of the lights will go out at Thompson-Boling Arena on Thursday, except for one: a mini-flashlight, so yours truly can announce the lineups on the radio."

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