Tennessee (21-2, 8-0) wants to win the regular season to help secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. SEC regular season losses last year to Kentucky and Florida caused Tennessee, which won its conference tourney, to get a No. 2 seed. It doesn't seem like this team would forget that against Auburn (17-7, 4-4), but Spencer said it would be a pre-game discussion just in case.
"That's really been something that we talk about before every game and so if anyone has forgotten definitely we're reminded and definitely don't want to fall to them," Spencer said.
The team is treating the month of February as a chance to refine its attack on offense and defense and to make sure Tennessee enters March with some momentum.
"We're continually getting better as the weeks go by," Spencer said. "I hope we just continue to prepare and to get better and then go into the SEC Tournament as the top seed and hopefully have won the regular season outright."
Auburn is the next obstacle to overcome. Coach Pat Summitt expects to get the Tigers' best shot. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. Eastern (CSS, Lady Vols Radio Network) at Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum in Auburn, Ala.
"I try to think of teams that are going to want to get up and down and run with us; I can see Auburn doing that," Summitt said. "I thought Georgia wanted to run with us here in Knoxville more than in Athens. A team can be good if it creates havoc and runs up and down, and it wouldn't surprise me if that is Auburn's game plan."
Summitt is expected to stay with her starters: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior point guard, No. 00 (7.7 points per game, 1.4 rebounds per game, 3.1 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (10.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.2 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (12.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (19.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.8 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (7.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg).
Auburn coach Nell Fortner is expected to go with a guard-heavy lineup: Whitney Boddie, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 44 (8.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg), had career-high 12 assists against Alabama and career-high 21 points against Florida, was named 2005 Miss Alabama while playing at Florence High School; father, Otis Boddie, played basketball at North Alabama; DeWanna Bonner, 6'4 sophomore guard, No. 24 (15.8 ppg, 8.9 rpg), had 19 points and 15 rebounds in Auburn's win over Mississippi State, has 10 double-doubles this season, missed first two games of season with a broken nose, was a McDonald's and WBCA All-American at Fairfield (Alabama) High School; Sherell Hobbs, 5'11 sophomore guard, No. 12 (11.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg), had 11 points, 12 boards against Ole Miss, leads team in steals, younger sister Reneisha is a freshman on Auburn's basketball team; Tamela McCorvey, 5'9 junior guard, No. 4 (9.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg), junior college transfer was recruited last season by Tennessee but decided to stay closer to home (Florida Panhandle) and go to Auburn, only player to start every game this season, had 11 assists against Winston-Salem State; and Jordan Greenleaf, 6'1 freshman forward, No. 21 (4.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg), had career-high five blocks against Mississippi State, team's best offensive rebounder, three-time Georgia Gatorade Player of the Year at Morrow High School.
KeKe Carrier, a 6'7 sophomore center coming back from a foot injury, is expected to come off the bench for the Tigers and is working her way back into game speed. She missed the first six conference games after getting hurt in January.
Tennessee's best and most consistent threat off the bench is Alex Fuller, a 6'3 sophomore forward whom Summitt calls the team's sixth starter. Fuller has played 22.2 minutes per game and averages 7.2 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. She is also hitting 54.1 percent of her shots and is a threat under the basket and beyond the arc. Fuller has more assists (29) than turnovers (26) and also has 22 steals and 10 blocks on the season.
"One thing that really sticks out in my mind is how tough-minded she is," Spencer said. "She's so consistent. She's going to bring a very strong foundation in the post. She's just strong physically and mentally. She's going to get rebounds for you. She's an incredible help-side defender and then she can also step out, and you've got to respect her three-ball and her jump shot because she can shoot that, too."
Fuller spent the summer running three miles a day, lifting weights and playing pickup games. It was the first time in a while that she hadn't spent the off-season in rehab. She missed her true freshman season to recover from reconstructive knee surgery and then suffered a hip flexor injury as a redshirt freshman in the second game of the season that hindered her all year.
But this past summer and this season – except for some lower back spasms in one game and a blow to the forehead that needed stitches – Fuller has been healthy.
"Since my sophomore year of high school I've always had an injury," Fuller said. "It is a relief not to have to worry about anything as far as my body goes, just going out there and playing and being able to move how I want to and not having anything hindering me from moving laterally or jumping or making any type of movement.
"I think the hip was the most annoying because it was a situation where I could play, but I couldn't play as hard and how I wanted to. Even though my knees were the most severe I think my hip was the most annoying. I was not 100 percent. It's an obvious difference. My medical report is as thick as a dictionary."
Spencer said she had noticed Fuller's potential in pickup games as soon as Fuller arrived on campus. But it wasn't until this season that the Shelbyville (Tenn.) High School standout got a chance to show everyone else.
"I've always noticed that in pickup and then this year she finally just found her niche and has had her time to shine, and I'm really proud of her," Spencer said. "She does a lot of dirty work for us, especially on the rebounding end. I'm so glad she's on our team. When she comes into the game she brings everyone up. If you're coming off the bench that's what you're supposed to do is bring the level or keep the level or even increase the intensity on the floor, and I definitely think that's her."
Fuller came to Tennessee with a resume full of accolades and awards but she has willingly assumed the role of sixth woman for Summitt. Fuller said it's been her nature since she was a child to do as she was told and do it without protest.
"I'm always been quiet, and I don't really talk unless spoken to basically," Fuller said. "I guess that goes back to how I was brought up. I was a kid that if you sit me in front of the TV I would just sit there and watch it. My attention span wouldn't go, and I wouldn't have to play with something."
Fuller's answers about her game are short – she doesn't like to talk about herself – but she does start laughing when told what her teammates say about her. Spencer calls her a fashion and makeup maven and the team's mom.
"She's really girly girl, and I love it," Spencer said. "It's so much fun. We went bowling the other night, and she broke three nails. She was talking about that. That made me laugh. Not devastated, but ‘I broke my nails.'
"She's kind of like everyone's mom. If she thinks your clothes are wrinkled she wants you to take them off and she'll iron them … especially when we're on the road, and we go out to dinner. She's very truthful, very honest. She keeps it real. In a sense just very nurturing. She has that mama look, too, like you know you've messed up."
Fuller said she is teased "all the time," except when her teammates need some fashion tips or help getting ready for a televised game.
"Well they like me whenever it comes to getting ready before a game that they're going to be on TV or going to the banquets," Fuller said. "They love me then."
Fuller always makes sure to look her best before taking the court.
"I obviously get made up. You don't know who's going to see you. That's my future on the line," Fuller said with a smile and to much laughter from those within earshot.
But underneath that soft exterior lies a player who Summitt admires for her grit and determination on the court.
"She's a focused player," Summitt said. "She's been really adamant about rebounding the basketball. I think she pursues the ball off the defensive glass better than anyone on our team other than Lex. She goes after it. She just likes to fetch it. She doesn't stand around and wait for it to come to her."
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood works with the posts and gives the credit for Fuller's production to the player.
"She's extremely coachable, she's very intelligent, and she's very receptive," Lockwood said. "She's not only coachable, but she takes what she's taught, and she applies it. She's very, very good at carryover. She deserves so much credit because she is the one who's putting in the work and is making the applications towards the game. She's done a great job. We're very pleased with her."
Fuller doesn't see or feel a difference in her quickness on the court this season – she lost about 20 pounds in the off-season from her regimen of distance running and playing basketball – but her teammates and coaches can tell. Spencer remembers a play from Monday's game against Georgia when Tennessee was in a full-court press.
"She's on top of the press so she's having to run sideline to sideline to trap and then she sprints back to the paint to help someone out and then she denies the middle of the floor and ends up getting a steal at half-court and gets a left-handed layup," Spencer said. "She's constantly going. She was nowhere near her player but she still ended up getting there and getting a steal. That's the extra effort and the little things.
"The role from last year to this year for her have definitely changed, but I think she's always been capable of that. She had to have her chance and have the minutes on the floor."
Summitt attributes the difference to conditioning and confidence.
"I don't think her body would have allowed her to play as athletic" last season, Summitt said. "She's just in better shape, a year older. I think mentally obviously a good place, but I just think physically she's just in the best shape she's ever been in."
Fuller said she can tell that she's physically stronger – she tests out among the top of the team – and she realized she was quicker when she was among the head of the pack in team sprints. But she didn't notice the weight change until others pointed it out.
"I couldn't really tell but a lot of other people could tell that I had changed physically a lot, comments about my weight," Fuller said. "I don't think you can really tell you're losing weight unless it's just a drastic change so it was kind of surprising for me.
"When we conditioned I could tell I was faster because I was coming in the top two, top three in the sprints but as far as on the court I can't tell a difference. On film I can't really tell."
Well, she did notice one thing on film – her hairstyle is different this season. She said that with a teasing smiling and added that she does notice other things, too.
"I think I step out more on the perimeter," Fuller said. "Last year and this year I played inside and out. I'm playing more inside this year, but I'm also stepping out and having to playing guards on defense.
"I think I've established my mid-range game a lot more this year, and I'm a lot stronger on post defense. I think like (Monday) night being able handle a post like Tasha Humphrey. I think I'm one of the strongest people on the team. You wouldn't be able to tell just looking at me, but I know I definitely am."
That toughness was on display in the game against Vanderbilt in which Fuller's head collided with another player's head, and she had to get four stitches to close the wound.
"I watched it on film when I watched that game again," Fuller said. "Me and the girl were diving after the ball and it was the back of her head that hit me. I thought we hit foreheads. It was the back of her head that hit me and nothing happened to her."
"I didn't think it was because I just don't like looking like that on a daily basis," Fuller said. "I tried to (avoid mirrors) but coming from my room to the door there was a big mirror right there."
Fuller's mother, Debra Price, wasn't at that game – she and Fuller's father, Troy Price, rarely miss any games but they weren't able to attend the two in which Fuller got hurt (back spasms against Mississippi State that initially appeared to be more serious) – but Fuller had other family members there since Nashville is close to Shelbyville.
"We texted and emailed a lot throughout the day all day," Fuller said. "I was able to send her pictures daily so she could see it. It's gone. You can't really see it, but I have a small bump. It hurt, but I didn't cry so it didn't hurt that bad. That's how I see it. It doesn't hurt too bad if I'm not crying.
"I think of myself as a strong person so I try not to let anything break me. I guess I'm kind of self-healing. I don't like to put my problems on everybody else."
Fuller certainly doesn't cause any problems for Summitt, who would take a team full of players with similar attitudes.
"She's coachable," Summitt said. "She's just a great kid. She's someone that you enjoy coaching daily."
Fuller's play off the bench is a big reason that Tennessee is undefeated in the SEC. She's playing 24.6 minutes in conference games and averaging 7.0 points and 5.3 boards a game in those eight contests. She's also perfect from the line (10-10) in SEC games.
"It's tough going in every night in the SEC because we know we're going to have competition every night," Fuller said. "We know we basically have the target on our backs, but we have to come together as a team as well as individually stay focused."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Auburn game. Here is his assessment.
When Auburn has the ball: "They really are a strong dribble drive team. They've got very quick kids on the perimeter. They can penetrate. They can create shots off the dribble. (DeWanna) Bonner is probably as good a one-on-one player as there is in the conference as far as her ability. Bonner is 6'4 and can shoot over people. She's got a real nice pull-up; she can get to the basket. So we've just got to guard dribble drive. We have to do a good job on penetration. They'll look for it all the time. Even their shots in half-court offense they'll real good at taking you off the dribble, pull-up jumper, taking you to the basket, drive and kick, that kind of stuff."
The Lady Vols will want to mix up their defensive looks.
"I think we'll do some stuff to extend our defense only because of us," Lockwood said. "That's what we want to do. I think we have to be careful. We don't want to give them a ton of open floor, but we do want to kind of make them have to see things in front of them and not three-quarters of the court where there's nothing in front of them. So it's kind of a balance."
When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols sometimes have seen teams daring them to shoot from the outside by packing the paint to try to neutralize the inside presence of Candace Parker.
"There's a point depending on how far people back off you've got to make shots," Lockwood said. "But initially we want to get touches inside. We want to get ball reversal so we move the defense east and west so the gaps are wider, and we can dribble drive. Our goal is always to get paint points early, which is not just post-ups but drives, offensive rebounds and getting fouled. Those are all paint points."
Tennessee also wants to run when it has the ball and force the game into an up-tempo pace.
"We would like to," Lockwood said. "Obviously that's our game, and we want to do that no matter who we play, but I think we can be somewhat effective against Auburn doing it."
Tennessee also wants to use this month to restore its post presence. Nicky Anosike is physically imposing but has tried to rely more on her face-up game lately. She went back to her roots better against Georgia by powering the ball inside and drawing fouls. Anosike's presence inside also will take some of the defensive attention away from Parker and give her more room to maneuver.
"She's got to get back to it," Lockwood said of Anosike's power game.
Anosike started out the season shooting fairly well from inside and outside, but has had some tough games of late in terms of shooting percentage.
"I think what happens is it creates uncertainty a little bit and say I'm going to try this, I'm going to try that as opposed to just go back to where your bread is buttered and use that as your bedrock, use that as your base," Lockwood said. "It doesn't mean you can't do other things, but it would be like the equivalent of if I've got two 300-pound tackles and I was playing against a 250-pound defensive line I'd be crazy if I didn't try to run the ball once or twice.
"I think that's what she's just got to understand. Her bread is buttered there, and that's where she's so good and can be so good and get fouled, that will open up other things for her. So we don't want her to do the other things first. We'd like her to start with the inside action and establishing a real presence and then that other stuff is going to be better for her like the Georgia game."
ON TAP: Nine other SEC teams are in action Thursday in the following matchups: Georgia at Alabama; South Carolina at Arkansas; Florida at LSU; Kentucky at Ole Miss; and Savannah State at Mississippi State. Vanderbilt is off Thursday.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Auburn. 30-8. The Tigers' last win came in Chattanooga at the SEC tourney in 1997, the same year Auburn won the tournament title. Tennessee's defeat of Auburn in the 2006 SEC tourney was the Lady Vol program's 1,000th victory. The two teams were fierce rivals in the 1980s and 1990s. Tennessee's second national title came against Auburn in 1989. … Tennessee is 12-3 in games played on February 8. The three losses came against Western Carolina, 60-44, in 1969; Union (Tennessee), 80-67, in 1975; and Auburn, 66-60, in 1986. … Former Lady Vol Daedra Charles Furlow is an assistant coach for Auburn. Charles, whose No. 32 jersey has been retired, was a 6'3 center nicknamed "Night Train" and a two-time Kodak All-American. She played at Tennessee from 1988 to 1991. … By the numbers: Tennessee averages 75.0 points per game, Auburn, 71.2. The Tigers get an average of 42.4 rebounds a game, the Lady Vols, 37.5. Tennessee turns over the ball 16.4 times a game, Auburn, 15.8. Tennessee steals the ball 13.0 times a game on average, Auburn, 8.5. The teams are about even in blocks with 5.7 for Tennessee and 5.9 for Auburn. … Pat Summitt's record when facing unranked opponents is 557-32 (94.7 winning percentage). Auburn is not ranked. The last time the Tigers defeated a ranked opponent when they were not ranked was Jan. 26, 2003, when Auburn beat Arkansas, 64-36.