The penultimate regular season home game comes Thursday at 7 p.m. Eastern (CSS, Lady Vols Radio Network) when No. 3 Tennessee (23-2, 10-0) takes on Ole Miss (19-7, 8-3), which, despite a guard-heavy lineup and relatively small frontcourt, is an excellent rebounding team.
Summitt is specifically seeking better rebounding from her perimeter players, with the exception of guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who has been solid all season with the exception of last Sunday's game against Kentucky in which she didn't have a single rebound for the first time in 88 career games.
"I was trying," Hornbuckle said. "In the first half I was like, ‘Man, I have zero rebounds.' So in the second half I was like, ‘OK, I need to get on the boards, at least four minimum.' That's what I reach for every game. I tipped the ball I think three times to one of our players or kept it alive, but I never grabbed a rebound."
It's not a stat Hornbuckle ever wants to see – or not see as the case may be – in the box score, but she knows obsessing over it won't change it. Nor will fretting about the team's average of 37.1 rebounds a game, the worst performance since the 39.4 pulled down by last year's team, which barely beat the 1977-78 squad's next-to-worst mark of 39.7. The only solution is to secure the ball off the glass.
"We don't dwell on it," she said. "We might say, ‘This game we need to come out. We need to establish rebounding early.' But it's not like, ‘OK, we're on the verge of being one of the worst rebounding Tennessee teams.' "
The team has certainly been reminded several times of this ignominious achievement.
"I think she's just trying to get under our skin to make us rebound harder," Hornbuckle said of Summitt. "But like she said it's heart and desire. It's making that extra move, the ball bounces, are you going to take that extra step to get out of your stance or to release your box-out to go get the ball? A lot of these rebounds lately have been pursuing the ball. It's not necessarily just falling in your hand, you have to pursue. I think once we get that we'll be OK. Obviously we don't have a Tye Fluker in the frontcourt along with Candace like we did last year, Shyra (Ely), who was always crashing the boards. But we do have a lot of people who want the ball.
"I think once we establish on every possession we get five to the boards on defense and four to the boards on offense consistently our rebounding is going to go up. A lot of people stand and watch, including myself. You have possessions where you're like, ‘Oh, that shot's going in,' and you don't pursue like you should. I don't even think it's just watching Candace. I know I watch and sometimes your man might not go to the boards so you don't think to immediately run to the boards. You're checking your man.
"It's kind of like you have to make a split decision. Do you go in? Because if it's a long shot it might be a long rebound. So do you run in for the boards or do you stay and check? She's not really going to yell at your for pursuing the boards. So once we get that as a mindset, we'll be all right."
Summitt clearly wants Hornbuckle to head to the paint. Those long rebounds are supposed to be snatched off the defensive glass by the point guard. Hornbuckle, who has played point, understands the challenges of rebounding from that spot.
"It's kind of hard from the point guard position because on offense she's getting back unless she shoots a corner shot or a layup," Hornbuckle said of point guard Shannon Bobbitt. "On defense you've got to be in the right spot at the right time or (shoot the gaps between posts). It's a lot of heart and desire, but at the same time if you are vertically challenged it is a little hard to get so many rebounds."
Tennessee's point guards are 5'2 (Bobbitt) and 5'4 (Cait McMahan). Hornbuckle is 5'11.
"I think it can factor in," Summitt said of size. "They are not going to be a rebounding guard like Hornbuckle, but my take on that, from watching film. I don't think they've felt the responsibility of ‘if I get two boards a game' that they can help us from a defensive point to quickly get in our offense. That is where I have to stay on them and encourage them to rebound because there are more people shooting threes in the women's game. There are longer rebounds coming out, and I think we have to be aware of taking advantage in that regard."
Bobbitt said she wouldn't let her size be an excuse.
"Get all the long bounces and hopefully get lucky for the rebounds that are right under the rim," Bobbitt said. "I'm going to have to get rebounds in order to help this team, and that's one of my goals. It's making it your priority, just having a passion, just wanting. Like people want to score you've got to want to grab the rebound, and our mindset has to change to that."
Summitt is expected to stay with her starters: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior point guard, No. 00 (7.8 points per game, 1.3 rebounds per game, 3.1 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (10.0 ppg, 4.9 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 (19.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (7.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg).
Ole Miss coach Carol Ross is expected to start: Ashley Awkward, 5'6 senior guard, No. 3 (12.3 ppg, 2.9 ppg), one of three starters from Tennessee on the roster, played at White Station High School in Memphis, averaging 17.0 points in SEC games; Armintie Price, 5'9 senior guard, No. 24 (18.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg), four SEC Player of the Week awards this season, leads the NCAA with 3.7 steals a game, on pace to become just fifth player in NCAA history to have 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 300 steals and 300 assists in a career. She has 1,980 points, 1,122 rebounds, 369 steals and 372 assists. With 20 points she finishes the feat. The four other players are Cheryl Miller, Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Sophia Young. Price has dedicated this season to her mother, Beatrice, who died last August at the age of 49 of ovarian cancer; Alliesha Easley, 5'8 freshman guard, No. 32 (11.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg), played at Briarcrest High School in Memphis, has started all 26 games, scored career-high 25 points against Illinois; Jada Mincy, 6'1 senior forward, No. 34 (4.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg), also played at Briarcrest in Memphis, has put up double figures in rebounding nine times this season, including 15 against Florida, older brother Jerome played basketball at UAB, younger brother Jordan plays at Kent State; and Danetra Forrest, 6'1 junior forward, No. 40 (6.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg), has three career double-doubles, including 15 points, 13 boards, against UAB, nine of her rebounds were in the first half.
Last year in Oxford, Ole Miss led at halftime before the Lady Vols finally pulled away in the second half to win, 78-63.
"They not only hung around. They led us until midway through the second half," Summitt said. "I just remember at halftime being so upset with the team because I don't think we respected Ole Miss last year. If there's something good to come out of it I think we left there feeling like this Ole Miss team is for real and we have to respect every opponent but certainly this opponent because they have the ability to generate a lot of points off their rebounding and off of their defense and that's always a team that is very dangerous.
"Very athletic. They're all over the floor on defense. They gamble. They turn people over. They can get up and down the floor. Price, she's just a heck of a player. She's really, really good. As far as speed and quickness we're going to have to take care of the basketball. I haven't seen them in person but just watching them on tape, they'll run random traps. They'll be all over the place."
Tennessee does have a significant size advantage in Parker and Anosike and will have the edge in the paint in the half-court sets. Parker also emerged from a recent film session with Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood with celluloid evidence of what she was not doing with the ball.
"I really want to give credit to Dean Lockwood," Parker said. "He sat down with me, pulled my clips and my shots that I'd made, pulled my clips and my shots that I'd missed. I'm a visual learner so I just looked at it percentage wise and most of my shots that I hit I was going towards the basket, my head was going forward, I wasn't fading back, I wasn't shying away from contact. I think that's really improved my accuracy these last three or four games."
Parker put 31 points up against Kentucky on an assortment of baskets inside and outside and was essentially unstoppable. Against Auburn she had 25 points and was again dominant inside before going to her perimeter game, too. She ended up with 22 points against Georgia after going inside for points in the second half.
"She's being kind. She deserves the credit," Lockwood said. "We have film sessions periodically and what I'll do with our post kids I'll clip all of their clips that I want them to see and in her particular case there was a series of games we looked at her shot. We felt she wasn't attacking as she could. Arguably the best player in the country – in our opinion she's the best player in the country; if you give me first pick right now and I'm a GM I'm picking Candace Parker – we looked at all the shots and basically the long and short of it was she wasn't attacking like someone of her stature in the game."
Lockwood saw a player settling on fadeaways and floaters and splitting weaker defenders with finesse instead of just powering past them.
"For you, you need to exploit your muscles, figuratively speaking, and say, ‘I will get the shot I want. I will dictate the kind of shots,' " Lockwood said he told Parker. "Basically in a nutshell we want you to be more attacking. I want to see an attacking player. She's very visual. It takes time for all of us to learn how players learn. You can talk about things on the court, but I think seeing it really helped her.
"But I think she deserves the credit because you can do that with a lot of players. She has the ability to see it and then apply it."
The film study also showed Parker that she wasn't getting enough free throw attempts, and underscored what Summitt had been repeatedly trying to tell her – she had to go inside first to open up the outside game for herself.
"I just think scorers look for different ways to score," Parker said. "I feel like I wasn't getting to the line the amount of times I think I needed to. Obviously I wasn't converting on those times I went to the line, but I feel like I wasn't getting there.
"I just wanted to make a more concerted effort to be stronger with the ball, go to the basket and not be out of control, establish inside and then go out. I think one of the things that coach Summitt was disappointed with me in was in the first half of the Georgia game (on Feb. 5 in Knoxville) I kind of stepped out first. I need to establish inside and then she doesn't care how it happens. Go inside-out and then after that it's fine."
Tennessee also got Bobbitt back on track scoring-wise in the Kentucky game. She was 4-7 from the field and hit both three-point attempts for 12 points. She spent time on her own with the Tennessee Gun – an automatic ball feeder – to get back some confidence.
"A couple of games before the Kentucky game I didn't feel like I shot the ball well and I felt like I was in a little slump," Bobbitt said. "So I decided good shooters don't get frustrated; you just bounce back. I came in here one night at nine o'clock and just shot for an hour and a half about 500, 600 jumpers.
"During the Kentucky game I was like I'm going to shoot the ball and see what happens and get the touch back and that's what happened and it helped us get that victory."
The Gun allows a shooter to take jumpers from different spots by rotating the feeder chute. The shooter doesn't have to rebound because the Gun will "pass" the balls back out in intervals that can be staggered.
"You get a lot of repetition, try to get your feel back and get comfortable," Bobbitt said. "I'm getting it back."
What makes it go?
"Not having confidence in your shot or rushing a shot," Bobbitt said. "When you take the shot you've got to be confident it's going in every time you shoot it. You just bounce back."
Tennessee will need to hit some shots against Ole Miss in what should be one of the toughest SEC matchups at home this season. The Lady Vols are undefeated in the conference. Ole Miss has lost to Georgia, Mississippi State and Kentucky but beat LSU and Vanderbilt.
"This is an SEC team that managed to figure out a way to beat LSU," Summitt said. "Extremely athletic, play very hard, generate a lot of their points off of their defense. They'll run a lot of trapping action. Sometimes it appears to be more random than a defensive scheme, and it's hard to know when the traps are coming. I think that's going to be a challenge for us. They're a great rebounding team and that's a place where we really have to step up and take some ownership of the boards."
The Rebels average 45.2 rebound a game with opponents getting 40.7 for a +4.5 margin. Despite the Lady Vols' woes on the board they still have a +3.4 margin with 37.1 per game for Tennessee to 33.7 for foes.
Hornbuckle said Tennessee can board the ball – the Lady Vols, for example, out-rebounded Duke, 46-35; Mississippi State, 45-30; and Auburn, 42-35 – but it needs to be a consistent effort from all five players on the floor.
"I think we have that mindset, but we haven't put it into effect in too many games," Hornbuckle said. "You've got to start somewhere, and it's been off and on. We need starting (tonight) turn it on and leave it on.
"It's possible. It's been shown. We've done it, but it's not consistent at all. It's like, ‘OK, is so-and-so going to rebound today? Is Lex going to go to the boards or is Sid going to sit around and watch? It should be going into the game coach knows we're going to have so many offensive rebounds, we're going to have so many defensive rebounds and then you can set your own personal goals as far as how much you want to get."
Tennessee has a long-stated goal to win the SEC regular season. With 10 conference wins so far a corollary to that is to go ahead and finish 14-0 in the SEC for the first time since the 2003-04 season.
"We want to run the table," Hornbuckle said. "Since I've been here we haven't won regular season SEC. We've won the tournament but now we want to see if we can go undefeated in the SEC, win the regular season, go into the tournament and win that and just go into the NCAAs with a better mindset. It's always if you win something, OK, we can do this, but we need to do this better. But when you lose it's like we almost had that and maybe if we do this. Everything is a learning experience but when you win it instills a little bit of confidence in you."
Parker concurs but knows a closing slate of Ole Miss at home, LSU and Arkansas on the road and Vandy at home means the team can't overlook any opponents.
"Nobody wants to lose," Parker said. "We have some tough games. The way they scheduled us … it's tough. These last four games aren't going to be easy, but we're going to go into it with a great attitude and keep doing what we're doing."
For Bobbitt this is her first swing through the gauntlet of SEC play. But she grasps the importance of winning the next four games.
"That's going to help for the SEC Tournament and for the NCAA Tournament," Bobbitt said. "Who wants to lose? We've been progressing and getting better every game and every practice and that's what we're going to continue to do."
She also knows the unblemished conference record puts an even bigger bull's eye on Tennessee.
"Of course. I would want to upset a team," Bobbitt said. "We're just going to have to keep our focus and stay confident and finish out the regular season strong."
Summitt also has an eye on the day the NCAA brackets are announced next month, but at least this team has been able to put her at ease somewhat with its ability to zero in on the next opponent.
"For me I'm always looking at the big picture and if we want to get a number one seed then we need to take care of business in these next four games," Summitt said. "And I think our team, while they might understand it, all you have to do is remind them of a year ago. We cost ourselves by not closing out the end of the year in the way we needed to and the fashion we needed to. To me they have a good bad example to look at from a year ago and hopefully to learn from.
"I think that this team has demonstrated a lot of maturity and focus in getting ready for all of our games. I can't remember thinking that we didn't respect them or we're not ready to play them. We might have been not as sharp in our action at the beginning of a game, but I've not seen that from this team this year. I think this team is a year older and wiser and just the maturity I've seen from our veteran players in particular.
"But that doesn't mean that it can't happen. You always err on the side of caution when it comes to not getting focused and ready to play. We'll remind them of that. We did (Wednesday). We'll talk about it before the game and then it's up to them. It's the players' game. They have to go take ownership."
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Ole Miss game. Here is her assessment.
When Ole Miss has the ball: "They're very athletic. Great one-on-one players. Super quick with the ball. (Armintie) Price is just an exceptional kid. She doesn't take a possession off. She plays hard every possession so as a coach you love that kind of kid. She's the real deal. She's an awesome kid."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We've got to take care of the ball because they trap, they're in the passing lanes, they look to steal the ball. We've got to make sure we get shots off. We can't turn the ball over. Their offense starts with their defense. They'd rather steal the ball and run and shoot layups than get set in the half-court game."
In that regard Tennessee will be looking in the mirror somewhat.
"Person for person I think they've got more quickness on the perimeter because they're a perimeter-oriented team," Warlick said. "We've got our work cut out for us taking care of the ball and defending. We'll see how good our one-on-one defense is because they're going to challenge us."
Ole Miss' go-to player is Price, a senior who has excelled in the SEC since her freshman year.
"She has been a go-to for them, and she plays hard at both ends," Pat Summitt said. "She's one of the best players in the league and for whatever reason she doesn't get the credit she deserves. She's one of the best in the country. She plays both ends like Lex and rebounds. She's their Parker as far as everybody looks for her every time down the floor. And she has to do a lot, but she's capable of doing a lot."
Warlick said Ole Miss doesn't get the level of national television coverage that other teams are allotted and thus Price doesn't the national attention she deserves.
"I do think she's overlooked," Warlick said. "We've played against her, and I've watched her. She's the real deal. I'm telling you if she's not an All-American there are not too many out there that are better than her."
A few folks are finally taking notice. Price has been featured on ESPN.com and was ranked the top player at the two-guard spot. She is joined on the list by junior Matee Ajavon (Rutgers); junior Candice Wiggins (Stanford); senior Shay Doron (Maryland); and senior Cori Chambers (Georgia). Remarkably, Alexis Hornbuckle – the player Summitt compares Price to – didn't make the list.
Tennessee's coaches and returning players already knew how good Price was from past games played against Ole Miss. They got an eye-full of evidence Wednesday during the film scouting session.
"I think Price is probably one of the hardest players to defend in terms of her aggressiveness, and then she just works so hard," Dean Lockwood said. "She works at both ends of the floor and makes a lot of good things happen for the Ole Miss team."
"I feel like Ole Miss is a team that is going to challenge us," Candace Parker said. "I think they play a lot of our style, which is up and down, up-tempo game. I feel like Armintie Price really has played well for them this year so it will be crucial that we contain her."
Ole Miss has other players who can score, including point guard Ashley Awkward.
"She loves the pull-up jumpers so she'll play a lot off the dribble," Lockwood said. "She'll penetrate and create off the dribble and she'll penetrate and pull up off the dribble. That's two ways she can really, really hurt you."
Awkward also is a streaky shooter from behind the arc and if she gets comfortable can make several in a row.
"We've got to make her shoot over a contested hand, because she can hit two or three if she gets in a rhythm," Lockwood said.
Tennessee's perimeter defenders will have to not lose either Awkward or Price on the floor. And when the Lady Vols have the ball the key is to keep it.
"Their defense is very frantic in that they make their opponent play very fast and create a lot of turnovers," Sidney Spencer said. "Wherever they have opportunities they will trap, and they want to get points in transition through their pressure.
"Last year I definitely remember we were down until about midway through the second half. It just seemed like we were fighting an uphill battle the whole game. We didn't play very well defensively. I know I had six or seven turnovers."
Spencer, who remembers key details of games played long ago, had six in that game. On Thursday she wants Tennessee to play with a lead and not have to battle back.
"I feel like it's really important to get off to a good start in any game," Spencer said. "In games that we've gotten off to a slow start we haven't played as well. I feel like it's key for us to keep doing what we've been doing, build off these last four games, and we'll be fine. That's a goal of ours we set to run the table in the SEC and then go into the tournament and hope we win that, too. We've got four games left that are going to be tough for us so we've got to keep focused. … Our goal is to win the regular season outright. We definitely don't want to take any possessions off."
Warlick applauds the goal but knows the last four games make it a formidable challenge.
"I think the game (Thursday) is going to be a difficult game," Warlick said. "They beat LSU, and we go to LSU, and it's never easy playing down there. We've got Vanderbilt here, and we seem to always go to the wire with them here, and Arkansas is a tough place to play. We've got four games that we can't sleep on any of the teams. We've got to come ready to play."
ROLE PLAY: At least this Tennessee team is not uptight. After practice and the film session ended Wednesday afternoon, Sidney Spencer and Candace Parker emerged from the locker room to do separate television interviews.
Spencer went first, and Parker slipped between two sportswriters with a television microphone that wasn't in use that she found on a table and held it in front of Spencer, who immediately started laughing in mid-sentence.
Parker took over the interview and asked if she had any "hidden talents" such as bowling.
"Bowling? I've never bowled in my life," said Spencer, who has bowled and beaten some of her teammates.
Parker then smoothly segued to a question about senior walk-on and former manager Elizabeth Curry – once she realized that was the topic at hand – and Spencer answered.
When the media mentioned to Parker that now she knew how easy the job actually was, she reacted with mock outrage: "But not how well I am doing?"
Then it was Parker's turn to be interviewed. Once Parker got miked up Spencer asked her to talk about her Valentine's Day plans. Spencer then left a flummoxed Parker with a peal of laughter.
"I'm going to knock you out Sid," Parker said to the fleeing Spencer.
Pat Summitt laughed when the exchange was relayed to her.
"I've enjoyed this team a lot," Summitt said. "They are fun. They know when to be serious. They know when they can joke around. But they keep things real. In terms of working with them on a daily basis and coaching them it's been a very enjoyable year, not just speaking for myself but for our entire staff."
ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are in action Thursday in the following matchups: LSU at Arkansas; Auburn at South Carolina; Georgia at Kentucky (Fox Sports Net, 7 p.m. Eastern); and Vanderbilt at Mississippi State. Alabama and Florida are off.
TOP RANKED: The Lady Vols softball team is now ranked No. 1 in two polls. On Wednesday, the USA Today/National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) rankings had Tennessee at the top of the list. This came the day after the Lady Vols were No. 1 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll for the first time in program history. UT also becomes the first softball team from the SEC to rise to the top slot in the coaches' poll.
"I think Karen and Ralph Weekly have done a tremendous job of putting together the caliber athletes," Pat Summitt said of the softball team's co-coaches. "The recruiting they have done nationally has been tremendous. They put Tennessee softball on the map.
"With Monica Abbott, I'll never forget the day I met her on her recruiting visit. Both coaches said if she comes to Tennessee, she'll take us to the Women's College World Series and that happened. It's really great to see how they've been able to assemble so many talented players and go back-to-back to the WCWS and put Tennessee in the forefront. The exposure has been incredible. Even when I'm out recruiting, it's amazing how many people have talked about our softball team. They are a great source of pride for all of us."
The softball team is in action again starting Friday in Las Vegas at the Louisville Slugger Desert Classic. Tennessee will open at the event against Florida International at 9 a.m. PT/noon ET.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the serieswith Ole Miss, 29-7. The Rebels last win in the series was Feb. 4, 1996, in Oxford. The last win in Knoxville was Jan. 31, 1987. … Tennessee is 15-1 in games played on February 15. The lone loss was in Knoxville to Ole Miss, 67-65, in 1984. … Tennessee's lone player from the state of Mississippi was Pashen Thompson, who is from the town of Philadelphia and played from 1993 to 1997. … By the numbers: Tennessee is scoring an average of 75.3 points per game, Ole Miss, 79.0. The Rebels average 13.5 steals a game to 12.8 for the Lady Vols. Tennessee gets 16.1 assists per game to 13.7 for Ole Miss. The teams lose the ball at about the same rate – 16.1 turnovers for Tennessee, 15.7 for Ole Miss. … The Lady Vols have been forcing turnovers at a high clip in SEC games this season: 26 per game and an average of 26.2 points per game scored off turnovers. Tennessee is giving up only 50.4 ppg in SEC contests while scoring 72.5 points in those 10 games. Ole Miss has been forcing 24.4 turnovers per game. … So far, 197,753 people have clicked through the turnstiles at Thompson-Boling Arena this season. Tennessee thus will break the 200,000 home attendance mark for the 10th time in program history tonight. … Despite some impressive conference wins against ranked teams the Rebels are not in the top 25, though they were last month. Pat Summitt's overall record against unranked teams is 559-32 (94.7 percent). She will try to get No. 560 and win No. 937 overall tonight. … Three Ole Miss basketball players, Armintie Price, Danetra Forrest and Carla Bartee, formed The Anointed Voices, a primarily gospel singing group nearly two years ago. The trio has performed locally and was invited to be the 2006 Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Induction Banquet. They are scheduled to sing the national anthem at a home game. … The Rebels have played four overtime games this season, including a triple overtime outing (a loss to Rutgers) and two double-overtime games (a loss to Rice, a win against Arkansas). The Rebels won the single OT game against Kentucky and are 2-2 in games decided in extra periods.