Tennessee sits alone atop the standings because two teams, LSU and Ole Miss, have two losses each. Ole Miss handed LSU one of its losses. With six games to go – three on the road and three at home – Tennessee can still be tripped up on its way to trying to run the table and win the regular season outright.
"I think we can cite a couple of examples in our conference where an Ole Miss bites LSU and so LSU is in the position they are," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "I think we only need to cite some league examples and then I think like we did today and like we're going to do tomorrow we focused exclusively on Auburn. Kentucky is not even coming out of our mouth right now until after the game."
Tuesday's session lasted less than two hours and included some up-tempo full-court work against the male practice players. The Lady Vols worked on transition offense and transition defense and worked in the half-court sets on getting the ball inside. Coach Pat Summitt sat on a wooden stool under the basket directing traffic and keeping notes.
Once again the coaching staff got a productive session out of the team and was able to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short period of time. The Lady Vols were wedged into a practice time between the UT men's walk-through and the LSU men's shoot-around since those two teams played Tuesday night in a game that UT won, 70-67.
The players also got in game-tempo shooting repetitions, half-court defensive drills and went through the on-court scouting report and shot free throws. They made the ones from the stripe at the end when it counted and didn't have to run any post-practice sprints. It was a practice typical of this season: get in, get it done, get out. The players are happy. So is the coaching staff.
"Oh we love them, great group of kids," Lockwood said. "People who enjoy being around each other they're fun to be around. If you have people that love each other and they enjoy being together then consequently when you're in their midst you're going to have fun with them. I think this group is like that. They like each other. They like being around each other and consequently we have fun being around them."
Tennessee (21-2, 8-0) defeated rival Georgia, 73-57, at home in a Monday night game so Tuesday was the only day for full-court work in preparation for Auburn. The team will use Wednesday for a travel day and leave that afternoon after class. Any workouts at Auburn will be short and light. The game against Auburn (17-7, 4-4) is set for 7 p.m. Thursday (CSS, Lady Vol Radio Network).
Summitt watched the Georgia game tape later Monday night and saw essentially the same things she saw live – a shaky first half followed by a solid second half.
"It was pretty much what I thought," Summitt said. "In the first half everybody wanted to be a guard and we were jump-shooting the basketball, just not real disciplined on the offensive end. I thought Georgia got deep in transition a few times and that hurt us. I thought second half was our half. First half was more Alexis than anyone else. She really did a nice job. We ran a couple of sets for her and that seemed to really get her in a good rhythm, a good place. Second half I thought we played really well both ends of the floor."
Alexis Hornbuckle had 14 points – 12 of which came in the first half – and nine rebounds and set the tone defensively from the opening seconds. Georgia coach Andy Landers call her the "straw that stirs the drink" for Tennessee.
"If you play against her and he's played against her she's done a lot of damage just from her intensity on the defensive end, penetration game," Summitt said. "She made big shots at Georgia. She made big shots here last night. I think she's a much-improved player."
Hornbuckle had several highlight steals but none better than stripping the ball from Georgia's Janese Hardrick, who had just come down with a defensive board, and going in for an uncontested layup. Hornbuckle wasn't in position to get the rebound without going over the back so she snuck around to the baseline and popped the ball free without Hardrick ever seeing her.
"She is playing smart; she's playing within herself. A lot of good things," Summitt said.
Lockwood comes up with one word when describing Hornbuckle: consistent. But when it comes to basketball Lockwood is, thank goodness, not a man of few words.
"She's our most consistent player at both ends of the floor right now hands down," Lockwood said. "She plays with tremendous energy. There's just a fire and a spark about Lex at both ends of the court. Right now we've got other kids who play very hard defensively but they're maybe not as productive or efficient as Lex is offensively. And then we have some other kids offensively doing some good things but at the defensive end they're not quite to her level. She's our most consistent player at both ends of the floor.
"She plays with great energy and she just creates problems because she can do so many different things. She's hitting her shots from the perimeter better so obviously you have to respect that, and she can drive, and she can create for other people. And then her rebounding gives her a dimension that is just altogether different for a 5'11 guard. She's just done a lot of good things."
Last April, Tennessee had six players on the roster. Four players – two true freshmen and two juco guards – were scheduled to arrive in the summer. One of the freshmen, Nicci Moats, has taken a medical leave of absence from the team. The other freshman, Cait McMahan, has developed into a reliable point guard who can provide some valuable minutes. Another new guard, Shannon Bobbitt, is the starting point guard. The other guard, Alberta Auguste, has become an excellent defender and is developing some offense.
Those newcomers, combined with the elevated play of Hornbuckle, Candace Parker and Sidney Spencer, the lockdown defense of Nicky Anosike and the efficient and steady play on both ends of Alex Fuller, have allowed Tennessee to be more successful than prognosticators in April would have thought.
"I think our returning players are better," Summitt said. "I think we added three guards and much-needed guard play. I think Candace is playing much better. I think Alex is playing a lot better. You've got Candace, Alex and Alexis that are all playing, to me, at a much higher level. It seems like they worked in the off-season. I think the chemistry's better. Sid has obviously stepped up for us."
One player that Tennessee needs for depth reasons and for experience, especially with the postseason three weeks away, is senior Dominique Redding, who didn't play against Georgia. Redding is an athletic guard/forward who can score but has to bring more intensity, Summitt said, in practice and on defense and board play.
"She just needs to be accountable every day in practice," Summitt said. "She's a senior; she needs to be accountable. She knows what she has to do. She hasn't been performing at the level that she should perform at. That's totally up to her. Any person can turn anything around that they so desire to do. She's been practicing well."
Redding could be a key contributor because Tennessee is down to nine basketball scholarship players.
"I wish Redding was contributing more," Summitt said. "You're talking Cait, Bird and Alex. I wish we had one more dependable player."
So what has Summitt asked of Redding in the last month of the regular season?
"To be a competitor," Summitt said. "To compete on every play. To be something other than a shooter. Just to be a defender, a rebounder, a hustle player. A lot of times players they don't change at this stage of their career. Certainly I think she can bring a whole lot more to our team than she has, but I've felt that all along. I think it's just being a stronger competitor. Look what Sid's done with her game. Sid is so competitive, and I think that shows up in her hustle plays and her rebounds. She makes up with her competitive drive what she lacks in speed and quickness and athleticism."
Spencer, who hadn't hit a three-point shot in two games, drained two in transition against Georgia. Bobbitt found her once. On the second one Parker passed from the high post to Hornbuckle on the wing, who found Spencer at the top of the floor.
"It feels good to hit a shot once in a while," Spencer said with a smile. "The two feeds … I thought that they did a great job in our running game just pushing the ball. They drew three or four people in there and just kicked out to me. I knew they were looking for me on the court to get some shots."
Landers referred to Spencer as "waiting like a coiled cobra to strike" from behind the three-point line.
"That's a pretty descriptive description of me," Spencer said with a laugh.
Have you ever thought of yourself as a cobra?
"I can't say I have," Spencer said.
"When she hits them, they can be poison," Lockwood said.
Spencer will be looking next to strike at Auburn. She knows the pristine conference record just means teams will want even more to knock off Tennessee.
"It's hard being on the top because everyone's wanting a piece of you and wanting to get you when you're least expecting it," Spencer said. "Either way it's hard trying to chase somebody in this league and it's hard being on the top because everybody wants you. Either way I just want to focus on each game, one game at a time."
Summitt, as a coach, will fret before every game. But she doesn't worry as much about this team's focus and preparation.
"Every game concerns you as a coaching staff because you never know, but I will say I've gained a lot of respect for this team and how they've been business-like," Summitt said. "They want to win. They're a competitive group. Talent's better. They don't mind calling each other out. I love that. It makes my job a lot easier."