"Last year, when the buzzer went off at Rupp Arena, I immediately started thinking that we were going to have to go down and play in Knoxville this year. I hope our players will never forget beating Tennessee last year, because it was one of the highlights of their careers, but time moves on and there are other games and situations that we have to focus on."
It doesn't seem like Kentucky's players could ever forget the 66-63 win in Lexington before a record crowd of 13,689. Tennessee players haven't forgotten it either.
"You always remember stuff like that where you could have done more perhaps to help the team," said Lady Vol senior forward Sidney Spencer, who represented Tennessee last October at the conference's preseason media event. "I know when we were at the SEC Media Day looking through the media guide and just seeing all of them saying their most fond memory was beating us - just being reminded of that over and over again."
The Wildcats were up by one when Spencer attempted a three from the corner that fell short. Kentucky hit two free throws for the final margin. Tennessee had lost to Duke three days earlier and it was the first time the Lady Vols had lost back-to-back games since 1997. It also was the Wildcats' first win over Tennessee since 1986. That loss, coupled with a regular season defeat to come later at home against Florida, cost the Lady Vols a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Tennessee played Florida this season in Gainesville and put the game away in the first 10 minutes. The final score was 80-58. Spencer scored 21 points in that game and hit five three-pointers.
"It's kind of the same mentality that we had going into Florida," Spencer said. "We lost to them in overtime on Senior Night. Kentucky, they're a tough team, Mickie DeMoss, the Tennessee way, how we do things around here and how our system goes and how we play, that's going to be real interesting. I'm excited about it. We have a new team. We have some new looks."
No. 3 Tennessee (22-2, 9-0) and Kentucky (16-9, 5-5) are set to tip off at 5:25 p.m. (ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network) as part of the cable sports network's "February Frenzy" promotion. Tennessee's promotion is to "Paint the Town Orange" – the men play Kentucky this Tuesday evening – and fans have been asked to wear orange attire to the games.
The Lady Vol players have acknowledged that this rematch has some added emphasis because of what happened last season, but they are just as quick to point out that Kentucky is a team to be respected.
"You think about it, but you don't linger on it," UT guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. "We want to gain our respect back by coming out and handling our business and trying to win this game, and we can't sleep on them. They're a very respectable team. They did what they had to do. They out-worked us last year, and we have to come do the same thing on our home court."
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt is expected to stay with her starters: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (7.6 points per game, 1.3 rebounds per game, 3.1 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (10.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.3 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (12.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (19.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (7.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg).
DeMoss is expected to start: Carly Ormerod, 5'8 sophomore guard, No. 00 (9.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg), first player at Kentucky to wear 00, because she admired former Kentucky player Tony Delk, never wears matching socks; Samantha Mahoney, 5'11 junior guard, No. 11 (13.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg), leading scorer for Wildcats in SEC play at 13.8 ppg, joined the club of 1,000 career points against Mississippi State on Jan. 25, mother Pamela played basketball at Iowa and Wayne State University; Chante Bowman, 5'11 junior forward, No. 20 (3.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg), defensive specialist at the small forward spot, has started 83 consecutive games, had nine assists against Auburn this season; Jennifer Humphrey, 6'3 senior forward, No. 32 (7.9 ppg, 10.0 rpg), nickname is Lanky, third Wildcat in history to have more than 800 points and 800 rebounds, joining Valerie Still and Leslie Nichols; the only player on the roster from the state of Tennessee (Memphis); had achalasia, an esophageal condition that results in difficulty delivering food to the stomach, went through corrective surgery in the summer of 2004 and has since gained about 40 pounds; and Sarah Elliott, 6'6 junior center, No. 4 (13.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg), also hit the 1,000-career points mark this season on Feb. 1 against Vandy; her mother, Janet, played on the first women's basketball team at Cumberland College; writes the letters "E" and "J" on her ankle tape with the "E" dedicated to teammate Eleia Roddy, who is out for the season with a knee injury (torn ACL in practice in October), and the "J" in honor of her best friend, Joelle Lawson, who died of a heart attack as a Kentucky freshman.
A key player off the bench for Kentucky is Jenny Pfeiffer, who has 144 career three-pointers, good for third on Kentucky's career list. She needs 31 more to tie Stacey Reed (1991-95) at No. 2 on the all-time list. She leads the SEC in free throw percentage this season at 90.5 percent. The 5'8 senior guard is averaging 8.8 ppg.
DeMoss should feel right at home since Sunday also is part of Alumni Weekend with about 50 former Lady Vols players and about 100 members of their families in town for a gathering. DeMoss would have coached many of the returning players during her time on the Lady Vols staff from 1985 to 2003.
The 1986-87 NCAA championship team – the first of six NCAA titles won by Tennessee – will be honored at the game, along with all of the returning players.
"Having all the alums back is really special," Summitt said. "I think this may be the biggest turnout we've ever had. I get to spend some time with them this (Saturday) evening. That will be special to just kind of catch up. They all go in different directions but when they come together they're a family. As we say, ‘Once a Lady Vol, always a Lady Vol.' I'm looking forward to the time with them."
The current players are too likely to live in the moment – as is the wont of any student in college – but they do grasp the fact that having a long line of Lady Vols is special.
"It is," Hornbuckle said. "It's a family atmosphere here and no matter what year you played you're still a Lady Vol, you're still a supporter."
Will Hornbuckle come back years later with some little Lex kids in tow?
"I'll be coming back – I don't know about the kids – but I'll be back," Hornbuckle said with a big laugh.
"Once a Lady Vol, always a Lady Vol," Anosike said. "They still keep in touch 20 years later. It's definitely cool that they still keep in touch and still have get-togethers 20 years later."
Hornbuckle understands one other significance of alumni being in town.
"When you have that behind you it makes you want to play that much harder," Hornbuckle said.
Last year's team was visited at practice by two former Lady Vols after the back-to-back losses. That squad was reminded of the legacy it had to uphold on the court every game.
Anosike and Hornbuckle were sophomores last year. The juniors are key leaders this season.
"It's two totally different teams," Hornbuckle said. "Last year's Tennessee team compared to this year ... the chemistry is different, the attitude among our players is different."
Spencer did let the Kentucky game linger in her memory, but she put the thoughts to productive use. She remembered her missed three-point attempt that would have given Tennessee the lead in the closing seconds as she took thousands of shots this summer.
"That was something that I worked on this summer, particularly that three-point shot," Spencer said. "I usually work on those at the end of my workout because that shot was at the end of the game.
"I have this incredible memory. I remember every play of every game. I still go over stuff from my high school years – anytime it distinctly could have affected the game. There were times in that (Kentucky) game we could have won. I know we fouled three-point shooters and sent them to the line. They got a lot of back-door cuts on us because we were pressing on the wings. I know that play (the missed shot near the end) could have changed the whole outcome of the game so I remember stuff like that for sure for a very long time. So I wanted to work on that. Obviously at the end of the game I was tired, and my shot fell short. I wanted to make sure that I worked on that."
Both teams have a lot to play for Sunday. Kentucky needs conference wins to bolster its case for an NCAA tourney bid. The Wildcats are 5-5 in SEC play with four games left – Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas and Florida. Tennessee is undefeated in conference play and wants a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Running the table in the regular season coupled with Tennessee's No. 3 national ranking and top rank in RPI and SOS would seem to ensure such.
"Obviously the Kentucky game is an important game for us, SEC game," Summitt said. "Obviously our basketball team seems to be focused. I think they know what they have to do. They've had that attitude game in and game out. I think that as far as our preparation I think we understand but then the game starts and you've got to play."
As far as any revenge motive after last season Summitt downplayed the notion, especially from a coaching perspective. Summitt and DeMoss remain close friends.
"It may sound strange, but while I was incredibly disappointed on how we performed, if you have to lose to someone, why not lose to someone you respect and care for," Summitt said of last year's game. "She had such an impact on the UT program and the Olympians and All-Americans that were recruited here. I was as pleased for Mickie as much as I was disappointed for our team."
And, as Summitt has done this season, she noted this team's unflappable personality.
"To me it's all about this year a lot more than it is about last year," Summitt said. "Last year's team had a different personality from this year's team. I think with this year's team they are more competitive, they take a lot more pride in how they play. And when I say that I mean in terms of the SEC race – seems to be very important to them.
"They've put a lot of emphasis on taking care of one team, one game at a game. I think that was a little bit different last year for us. Coming off the Duke loss we were absolutely just not emotionally ready. Kentucky is a good team. They were down 16 at Ole Miss the other night and they come back and they win the game. They've got a lot of grit. You know Mickie is going to have them prepared. It's going to be exciting for us and hopefully a great atmosphere here at Thompson-Boling."
The players readily acknowledged that the Florida rematch was a grudge match – the Gators beat the Lady Vols on Senior Day for the first time in program history and became the first unranked team to win in the arena – but the Kentucky game hasn't publicly elicited any vociferous remarks.
"I don't know. I haven't really heard that from them," Summitt said. "I've heard it from other people. I think the thing is that we understand we really want to win this league, and we have to do it one game at a time. My goal for them is to go undefeated, but sometimes my goal might vary from their goal depending on how they play. I do think this team is a very focused team and obviously they remember last year. Whatever motivates them. Whatever gets you excited."
There is some additional motivational. The outcome did remain tucked away in the back of their minds.
"Yes, it definitely is," Anosike said. "But we were at a time when we were down, just came off a loss to Duke, so that was a rough point in the season for us. But I think we're more prepared this year.
"We have to come in ready and focused, but at the same time we have to have that mindset that we can't take them lightly, and they are capable of winning."
Parker took a more playful approach. A week ago – the day before the Georgia game – a question arose about when the Kentucky game was.
"Sunday," Parker said.
Eyebrows were raised and a remark was made that she seemed to know right away when that game was scheduled. Players often don't know any opponent but the next one.
"It's just another game, you know?" Parker said grinning and looking around in mock confusion. "I don't even know. I have no idea" when the game is scheduled.
"To be honest with you, we went to Kentucky, we didn't play well, we didn't regroup after a loss to Duke, we carried it over, and obviously that's a game that hurt us in the long run losing that game. It's something I definitely remember, and we all remember the feeling watching them celebrate on their court."
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood doesn't anticipate that the staff will have any trouble getting the team up for this game.
"I would hope not," Lockwood said. "If we have trouble getting up for this game, we're going to have trouble getting up for a lot of things. I don't think we're going to have any trouble being motivated."
SCOUTING REPORT: Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for Kentucky. Here is his assessment.
When Kentucky has the ball: "They're really big into their high-low action. Similar to Duke, they run two high ball screens, and they play off of that, play high-low. They dribble penetrate and kick. They really try to get the ball inside. (Samantha) Mahoney and (Sarah) Elliott are two very consistent scorers for them so both those players are very, very involved in all their action. Their two high ball screens are what they're running a lot of, and we have to do a good job against that. They run a number of different sets and different looks, and we have to just be prepared."
When Tennessee has the ball: "I think for us it's establishing our tempo. We want to play the game at our pace. They want to play a little bit more half-court – they've been in the 60s – whereas we want to play a little bit faster. I think more than any one specific person we're attacking or any one set we're using, we want to establish our tempo. Obviously part of our thing is always establish inside touches, so we want to do that. If we go do those two things early we'll be pleased."
Is Kentucky likely to bring much full-court pressure?
"They've shown different looks," Lockwood said. "They've shown some 2-2-1, a little bit of 1-2-1-1 and then some man-to-man full court when they've felt like they've needed to get the ball back. I don't think they're going to do it a lot. I think they might go 2-2-1 to try to slow us up a little bit, but I don't think they're going to really try to come and extend their defense. I don't think they want to open the floor against us too much."
POWER PLAY: Pat Summitt has said all season that Tennessee must establish a low post presence to succeed in the postseason. Candace Parker can be a force on the low blocks, but she can get bottled up and bodied up by multiple defenders.
A key player to create some space in the paint is Nicky Anosike. The center who has the strength to impose her will – as Summitt has noted – had drifted away from her power game and gone to face-up play.
Dean Lockwood, her position coach, and Anosike had a film session to try to identify what needed to be corrected.
"He's showing me what I was doing wrong," Anosike said. "He's showing me, ‘You can do that face-up game, but at the same time you need to have the power and just having that balance.' I'm reading the defense and doing whatever is open, but I'm just trying to get back to doing both and not just one or the other, having a double attack."
Anosike took steps toward reestablishing herself on the low block and having that double attack in the last two games against Georgia and Auburn.
"Coach has been talking about an inside presence so I feel like I need to step up into that," Anosike said. "It definitely opens it up for people like Sid, who want to shoot from the outside, and it just opens it up for the whole team."
SATURDAY SESSION: Pat Summitt has said all season that with a short roster and an up-tempo game pace she would need to schedule additional rest days for her team, and she has done it. The team took off Friday except for a weight workout. Usually a Friday is used as an up-and-down practice with Saturday as a taper-down day.
But in the 72-62 win over Auburn on Thursday, Candace Parker played 37 minutes and Alexis Hornbuckle logged 32. Summitt decided the team would benefit more from some time off the practice court.
This team has been mature enough to handle days off. The players came back Saturday morning and got through their scouting and shooting drills in efficient fashion. The men played at 1 p.m. – UT annihilated Vanderbilt, 84-57 – so the arena was full of distractions with TV crews, food vendors, arena workers, media members, ushers and fans milling about as the Lady Vol coaches put the team through it practice paces.
One distraction was actually on the court. The color guard practiced its marching, cadence and presentation of the flags. During the first swing across the court, the marchers split the team, which was working on opposite baskets, and the players barely registered their presence and kept shooting. On the second swing across the court the Lady Vols were about to form their post-practice circle at mid-court but were split in half by the group, which kept its focus and cadence. The players, though somewhat startled, waited for the flag bearers to clear the court and then officially closed the practice session. Practice was followed by a film session in the locker room.
"Typically we take a lot of days off," Summitt said right before she joined the team for the film work. "People from the outside may not know how we do things inside. But with this team we're so much about playing 94 feet of basketball and when you're going to press and you're going to run, and you're going to expect them not to take possessions off, they not only need their minds, more importantly I think for this group they need their legs and their energy."
LOVE FOR LEX: A significant portion of that energy has been provided by Alexis Hornbuckle, who carried the team in the first half against Georgia and joined forces with Parker at Auburn to lead Tennessee to a hard-fought road win.
"I have been extremely pleased with Alexis' maturity as a basketball player and as a leader, and the example that she's set for us on the defensive end," Pat Summitt said. "What we've seen evolve here with her game is more than her being a great defender. She is the player that gets us going. There is no question that she is relentless in her effort and gets players to pick up their intensity. The thing that I am really pleased with is the fact that she doesn't only bring it on the defensive end, but on the offensive end, too.
"Her offensive game is much more polished than ever before. She had to make the decision to be disciplined and know how she wanted to break down the defense and getting on-balance shots and being a scorer for this team. It has taken pressure off of our team in a really good way. People have been keying in on stopping Candace Parker and Sidney Spencer and now here comes Alexis. I also think she's had an influence on our point guard play. She has been able to free up other people and she gets open and does a lot of good things. Looking at the national scope of things, I don't know where there is a better guard out there in terms of defensive presence, offensive aggressiveness and now offensive production."
If that reads like an endorsement for Hornbuckle as defensive player of the year and national recognition, it is. Summitt thinks that highly of Hornbuckle's play.
Television announcer Joe Ciampi is also high on Hornbuckle. Ciampi, who used to coach in the SEC at Auburn, has said if he were drafting a team he would take Hornbuckle first.
"He calls me his sparkplug," Hornbuckle said. "He's like, ‘You're everywhere on the court. You start up the defense. You do what it takes on offense.' That's a compliment. I appreciate that. It makes me realize hard work does not go in vain. I don't have to be scoring 20, 30 points a night, but the little things matter.
Not that Hornbuckle would mind that kind of scoring output if it happened.
"It's lovely," she said. "I think I concentrate on so many other aspects of the game during that game that I don't even worry about shots. If it's open I'll take it. I find myself forcing sometimes when I do that if over-think that I need to score this time."
Freshman point guard Cait McMahan is more emphatic. At times the notion has been floated that Tennessee is a one-woman team because of the transcendent nature of Parker's overall game. McMahan is not hearing of it.
"First of all, if you say it's a one-woman team you obviously do not know basketball," McMahan said. "Because, yes, Candace is one of the best players, but if we did not have Alexis Hornbuckle we would not even be contending for anything. Alexis is the unsung hero to me. She gets it done on both ends of the floor.
"We've got Sidney. We've got Shannon doing her thing. We've got people off the bench. You don't know basketball if you say that, but people say what they want. A one-woman team cannot win as many games as we have, but say whatever."
ON TAP: Nine other SEC teams are in action Sunday in the following matchups: Alabama at Ole Miss; Auburn at Vanderbilt; Mississippi State at Florida; South Carolina at Georgia; and Connecticut (Big East) at LSU. Arkansas is off Sunday.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Kentucky, 40-6. The Wildcats have won twice in Knoxville in 1983 and 1985 but never in Thompson-Boling Arena. … Tennessee is 8-2 in games played on February 11. The two losses were to Tennessee Tech, 60-48, in 1970; and Eastern Kentucky, 89-68, in 1976. … The ‘DeMoss Factor' is cited in UT's game notes for this stat: Since the 2000 season, the average score of a Tennessee-Kentucky game was 80.5-63.3, +17.2 margin for the Lady Vols. Since DeMoss arrived at Kentucky three years ago that margin has shrunk to +8 with the average score 70.3 to 62.3. … By the numbers: Tennessee is averaging 74.9 points per game, Kentucky, 70.8. The Wildcats average 42.4 rebounds a game to 37.7 for the Lady Vols. Tennessee swipes the ball 12.8 times a game compared to just 7.0 times for Kentucky. Tennessee leads in turnovers with 16.3 to 15.9 for Kentucky. The Lady Vols reject 5.5 shots a game to 4.5 for the Wildcats. … Mickie DeMoss has already gotten through a ‘homecoming' at Tennessee as the Wildcats' head coach. Kentucky played in Knoxville on Jan. 23, 2005. DeMoss got a standing ovation from the crowd and then the Lady Vols started the game 22-0 and went on to win 67-49. DeMoss has been on the visitor's bench before when the opponent was Tennessee. Prior to joining the Lady Vols staff in 1985, DeMoss was an assistant at Memphis, head coach at Florida and an assistant at Auburn. She left for Kentucky in 2003 after 18 years at Tennessee. … Former Lady Vol Niya Butts, who played from 1996 to 2000, is an assistant for DeMoss. … Both benches will be filled with connections to Tennessee since two of Summitt's assistants, Holly Warlick and Nikki Caldwell, also are former players. Twelve of the 13 members of the 1987 NCAA Championship team will be honored in pre-game ceremonies. "The Corn-Fed Chicks" – as they were called by Long Beach State All-American Cindy Brown after the Lady Vols won 74-64 in a Final Four semifinal game – went on to defeat Louisiana Tech, 67-44, in the title game in Austin, Texas on March 29, 1987. … If Tennessee beats Kentucky, it would mark the 10th SEC win of the season and the 10th consecutive year of at least 10 SEC victories and 14th overall for the program. That is an eye-popping statistic in this conference. So far this season Tennessee is holding SEC opponents to an average of 49.1 points. ... With 11 rebounds against Auburn, Candace Parker moved past 500 for her career. She now has 509 boards and 1,067 points through 59 career games. … Pat Summitt's record at home in three facilities – Alumni Gym, Stokely and Thompson-Boling Arena – is 429-41. Her record at the arena is 277-17. Only nine teams are responsible for those 17 losses: Florida, LSU, Duke, Connecticut, Louisiana Tech, Georgia, Texas, Stanford and Auburn.