Lady Vols begin defense of SEC tourney title

DULUTH, Ga. – The Lady Vols roll into Duluth as both the defending SEC Tournament champions and owners of the regular season title. They will now try to do something that's difficult to do in the SEC – win both in the same season. The last time Tennessee collected two SEC trophies was in 2000, and even that team didn't go undefeated in the regular season.

From Tennessee sophomore Candace Parker's point of view the Lady Vols are back to square one.

"There's no chance of complacency because we haven't done anything yet," said the conference's 2007 Player of the Year. "We haven't won the SEC Tournament champion yet. We haven't gotten a one seed yet. Obviously we won the regular season and I think that's a testament to playing night in and night out. But can we play together when it counts the most?"

Parker has made it clear that postseason counts the most. She has unveiled her game over the course of two seasons and has taken it to another level this year. She raised the notch even higher in the last month of the season. Can she ratchet it up yet again?

"Yes," Parker said. "I feel like there's always another level that I try to take my game to and our team is trying to take their games to collectively. I feel like some teams peak at the wrong time. I feel like we still are improving and getting better. We're peaking at the right time."

Tennessee gets it first shot at showing its postseason form Friday at 1 p.m. Eastern (Fox Sports Net, Lady Vol Radio Network) when the No. 1 seed Lady Vols will taken on No. 8 seed South Carolina. The Gamecocks rallied from 11 points down in the second half to beat Auburn, 65-63, on Thursday.

Given the grind of playing three days – if Tennessee makes it to Sunday's title game – the coaching staff's emphasis for the team is to play well early. It also is advisable to jump out on a team quickly that had to play the previous day because of the expenditure of energy needed to try to catch up.

"That tournament is always tough," Coach Pat Summitt said. "It's demanding because of the short turnaround. It's challenging because there are no secrets. We're all in the SEC family. We know each other. We know strengths, weaknesses. It's not like there's a lot of great preparation time. … We're not very deep, our style is pressure and up and down so I think we have to be mindful of that and use our timeouts and hopefully not expend all of our energy in the first game."

Summitt is expected to stay with her usual starters: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (8.7 points per game, 1.4 rebounds per game, 3.0 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (9.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.1 apg, 3.3 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (11.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (20.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (7.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg).

South Carolina is expected to start Stacy Booker, 5'8 senior guard, No. 2 (8.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.8 apg); Brionna Dickerson, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 32 (6.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg); Melanie Johnson, 6'1 senior forward, No. 23 (8.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg); Demetress Adams, 6'4 sophomore forward, No. 24 (6.0 ppg, 5.2 rpg); and Ilona Burgrova, 6'6 junior center, No. 15 (5.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg).

Spencer missed the practice sessions in Knoxville this week because of illness but was able to practice Thursday in Duluth. She is expected to be available Friday, but bench production, always paramount in the tourney, will be especially important now. Senior forward and sharpshooter Dominique Redding will be valuable in relief as will sophomore forward Alex Fuller, junior guard Alberta Auguste and freshman point guard Cait McMahan.

The starters have logged a lot of minutes this season, especially Hornbuckle and Parker, UT's two representatives on the SEC's First Team.

"Really? I haven't noticed," Parker said with a laugh.

So how do they handle playing in a tourney format?

"Cold whirlpool. Jenny Moshak. Playing smart," Parker said. "I think Coach did a great job last year of resting us when we got ahead. She made sure to get us breaks. Even just using media timeouts that gives you the extra break. But all of us are used to back when we were younger playing AAU playing six or seven games a day, so playing three back to back is fine. We put three games together, and you've got two weeks break. We'll be all right."

Hornbuckle has cited the need for periodic rest, and Summitt has accommodated that need all season. The Lady Vols practiced twice this week in half-court sets and then held a light workout in Duluth on Thursday.

"We play so hard," Hornbuckle said. "Your body needs to rest no matter how much you want to play. There are variations of knee problems and knee aggravations. You've got to rest that. If you get a little minor injury or a hip pointer or (jam) your finger, your body needs rest. It needs time to recover. I think that's helped us over time. We might go sit in a cold whirlpool. That's really not my thing, but when I have to as far as the tournament I know I'll be in there."

Hornbuckle said she could summon the energy needed to perform for three days, if necessary, whether it's through pacing or adrenaline.

"I think it comes into play for three games straight; you're playing three games in a row," Hornbuckle said. "But if you're in a close situation or if you had a lead and now your lead is being knocked down your mindset is going to change. What was I'm doing wrong? No matter what I can't get tired. My team needs me on the floor whether it's me, whether it's Candace.

"You'll see it just click. You hate to say it but like we mentioned in the interview before postseason just brings a different type of player out of you. It makes you dig deeper than what you're used to digging. I can run off adrenaline whenever possible. I'm an all-go player anyway most of the time."

Parker and Hornbuckle had both acknowledged two weeks ago that postseason brought a greater sense of urgency and thus players were conditioned to kick it up a proverbial notch when it's win or go home.

"I think we can turn it up a notch," Hornbuckle said. "You've seen it in the big games. Everybody pretty much stepped up. You might have players that get overly nervous or overly anxious and then it takes them a while to get into it.

"But like Candace said postseason is like a whole new game. It brings out the best in you, because you know you have one chance, one game, every game is a one-and-done situation. You win, you go on. If not you've got to sit there and remember all the things you did wrong and all the would ofs and could ofs that you might have been able to do. So I think it's a mindset. I want to go home knowing that if I lose this game I gave every ounce of energy I had. I tried hard on every possession."

Hornbuckle earned her first First Team All-SEC selection after the regular season ended. The team members were voted by the coaches, who tend to notice how hard she works on both sides of the ball.

"With Lex I thought from the beginning of the year that she had to really come into her own this year for us for us to be in the position we're in right now and make a run at a national championship," Summitt said. "She's been very coachable. She's been really very focused, and she's done exactly what I've asked her to do and that's be a scorer. She can create shots for herself; she can create shots for other people. You look at the other side of the ball and no one works any harder defensively than Lex Hornbuckle."

Tennessee has the added pressure of being the team everyone wants to knock off in this tournament. The unblemished run through the regular season painted an even larger orange target on the jerseys of the Lady Vols.

"Having run the table we know that people are going to be a little bit more adamant about making sure that they play a little bit harder, and it's postseason so everybody is going to raise their game," Parker said. "I feel like we've got to go in there and just play Tennessee basketball like we played all year."

The Lady Vols got a wake-up call about playing Tennessee basketball when Arkansas took them to overtime last week. They followed up that game with an inspired performance on both ends to complete the SEC sweep against Vanderbilt on the last day of the regular season.

"You have to respect every opponent," Hornbuckle said. "We could have very easily been upset because they came out ready to play. Yeah, it was their senior night. They were a very athletic team. But we came out and we weren't ready to play the way we have been playing all year. You don't have time to do that in the tournament, whether it's SEC or NCAA, because the minute that you take possessions off or you sit there and wait until the second half to play it might be too late."

Summitt will point out to her team that winning two trophies – the regular season and the tournament – is a formidable task.

"They'll get the history of it," Summitt said. "They'll realize the odds are not in their favor. It's all about what it means to this team. If it's important to this team to be playing on Sunday evening, now we're focused and we're ready to go. We can't have another Arkansas night."

As far as the present Summitt knows who is calling the shots in the postseason.

"Oh yeah, it's their team. Trust me," Summitt said. "They control when they play, how they play. I get to control where we play, except for this weekend. I do set the schedule. That's about it."

That was said with Summitt's trademark grin. She has a little bit more control than that, but she is trying to convey the fact that the players decide what happens next.

"I think we'll get right back up for it, because I personally don't want to end our streak of the SEC tournament championship," Hornbuckle said. "It's nice to have that as well. It's nice to win the SEC regular season, but you get stuff when you go to the SEC Tournament. You get the plaque. You're actually there holding the trophy, and you get to cut down the nets. I think it's a lot better perks as far as the championship."

The team will be presented with the regular season trophy before Friday's game starts – it will be the first time for most players minus Spencer and Redding who won it as freshman – so Hornbuckle isn't familiar with that hardware, but winning in the postseason does create an excitement that the regular season can't duplicate because of the win-or-pack format.

"It's really hard to win the regular season and tournament," Parker said. "That's something we put ourselves in a position to do this year instead of going out there and trying to win the tournament championship after having lost the regular season. I feel like we have all the pieces to put it together. It's just about just doing it."

That goal is made more challenging by the fact that teams will be gunning for Tennessee that much harder.

"Oh, yes, I definitely think so," Parker said. "We just have to come out – we've been gunned for the whole season; everybody's been trying to come out and beat us – but we've done a great job."

Hornbuckle added, "I think they're going to come harder than they did in the regular season, because we outright won. Everybody wanted us to get that loss; everybody wanted us to give that loss. Even though they weren't able to do it in the regular season they realize it means a lot more in the tournament. So we have to be ready to play that much harder against any team that we face."

Of course the teams that have to face Tennessee also know that a formidable foe awaits, even if the Lady Vols have players logging a lot of minutes and a short bench.

"Everybody's got matchup issues with Tennessee," South Carolina Coach Susan Walvius said. "Every program does. They just are a great basketball team. They are big. They're athletic. Their defense is awesome. They're a great rebounding team. They've got a lot offensively. They're shooting the ball extremely well. They're hard to guard because they can stretch your defense out.

"They're a tough matchup for any team. When you go undefeated in the Southeastern Conference, it certainly shows your strength as a basketball team. They have played the toughest schedule in the country. We've got to go out and just fight. We've got to work."

Tennessee has three players who have never been in the postseason as Lady Vols in Bobbitt, Auguste and McMahan. But they are at least familiar with the opponents.

"You just watch film and learn from the mistakes you made in the first game," Bobbitt said. "And I know the teams have gotten better so you're going to look at the new ideas and the techniques that they have to see how they're going to try to stop us from the previous game."

Even veterans can learn lessons late in the season and the Arkansas game was a good example.

"The starters, we take responsibility," Spencer said. "We didn't come out starting the game well. They'd turn the ball over and then we would turn the ball over. We just had a lot of miscommunication. We had a lot of lapses. It humbled us and made us realize we've got to get back to work and continue to work."

The team uses its huddles on the floor – Summitt has noted that this team has tight huddles – to reorient itself when necessary and to encourage a teammate or take blame for a bad play.

"It's really great when we huddle up," Spencer said. "Everyone is saying (something). I'm saying, ‘My fault. I gave up a middle drive.' Someone is saying, ‘Sid, keep shooting because we've got the rebound.' We're all talking to each other and we just remind each other of the strengths and what we need to do. Maybe we need to get a stop on defense or maybe we're not communicating well. So we always are talking about what we can do the next play and just build each other up."

Tennessee comes into this tournament in a different position. Last year they were trying to lay stake to a number one seed in the NCAA tourney. This year they want to protect the one they should already have secured.

"I feel like it's a different mentality, but I feel like we have the right one," Parker said. "This whole season going undefeated in the SEC, of course people are trying to come out and beat us every night. It's something that we're used to, wearing orange across our chest, everybody trying to come out and play their best game and hit shots they've never hit against anybody except us. We're ready. We're ready to go out and protect our SEC regular season championship.

"It's postseason so of course everybody is going to be bringing their best game out. This is the time to bring your best game out. But so are we. We'll be fine. I'm confident in our team."

Hornbuckle doesn't want to take any chances and wants to leave the selection committee no choice but to reward the Lady Vols for their body of work.

"I think we should get a number one seed but after last year you never know," Hornbuckle said. "You have to go in here and that should definitely lock our number one seed up if we're able to go in here and win the tournament as well."

So, what are Tennessee's chances to pull off the double-double?

"The things that I think I've learned over the years is that it depends on how important this is to your basketball team," Summitt said. "As a coach you want to win every game. It's a priority. We've obviously coached in the league a lot longer than they've played in the league.

"And secondly, leadership. I think the leadership is really key for our basketball team and having our leaders step up. Like we go to Arkansas and we're not inspired to play but then the key people that had to step up and charge the team up did that. You're talking about Candace and Lex and Nicky, in particular those three, and then Shannon responded very well."

So is Tennessee ready for postseason?

"We should be," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "We've got all the components that we need. We play together. We enjoy being around each other, and it's a lot of fun."

TENNESSEE SWAGGER: Former Lady Vol Michelle Marciniak is very familiar with the mystique of the Lady Vols. She played for Pat Summitt from 1993 to 1996 and won a national title as a senior.

On Friday, Marciniak will sit on the opponent's bench – she is in her fourth year as an assistant at South Carolina – and try to help the Gamecocks find a way to beat Tennessee.

"Tennessee is really good; they're really confident," Marciniak said. "You've got to play extraordinarily well and over the top in order to beat a team like Tennessee.

"When you play for Tennessee you have a swagger. And that swagger, to me, gives you 20 points a game right from the get-go. So that's what you're playing against. I understand that more than anybody else but how you counter that is you hope that some things don't go their way. Because they're human, and they're not deep. Foul trouble is the biggest thing or if Spencer's off, if Parker gets frustrated. You kind of hope that those factors factor into a game to win a game that we're about to face."

Marciniak was a standout for Tennessee and was the MVP of the 1996 Final Four. She also had success in the SEC. It's a different game from the perspective of a coach.

"When you come here on the other end you have less control," she said. "You just hope the work ethic that you've instilled in your kids the entire year will eventually pay off at tournament time. I'm really happy for our team. It comes down to not necessarily the performance here but the time that you put in to get here. To me it's all about work ethic.

"I'm proud of them. I'm happy for them. When you see things finally come together for your team and you know how hard you've worked things start falling your way, and that's what happens."

Marciniak has been told before that she sounds like her mentor, Pat Summitt. On Tuesday Marciniak, like thousands of others across the country, saw Summitt sing "Rocky Top" and cheer with her staff at a timeout of a televised UT men's basketball game.

"I thought it was great," Marciniak said. "Pat is very serious, and she's been very serious her entire career. It tells me she's at a point in her career where she is actually enjoying her success. Pat really has a very funny, great personality off the court, and people don't see that.

"What she did it makes people draw closer to her, relate more to her as a person, not just as an icon and a basketball coach. I think she's more real to people for what she did. I give her a lot of praise for doing that because it did show a side of her that she has protected for her entire life. But she's really that way a lot. She's funny.

"I thought it was good for the game. I think anytime you have men's basketball and women's basketball supporting each other I think that's huge. There needs to be more of that. To me (Bruce) Pearl and Pat were the ones that kind of started that. Women's basketball made it to the Today Show; they made it to national news. That's what we need for our game so good for Pat."

Marciniak's loyalty may lie with South Carolina now, but her orange roots still run very deep.

"Everytime Tennessee plays I watch them on TV," Marciniak said. "Everytime Tennessee plays and we're not playing against them I root for Tennessee. I check their box score every game. I still do. It's just a habit. I'm very close with Pat. I'm close with the program. I've kept in touch.

"It's important for Pat for her former players to keep in touch with her. She creates that. She's tough on them, but they all come back for Alumni Weekend, and they all keep in touch with her. To me that's a sign of a great coach to let go of the kids that play in her program, and they come back to her. I'm really proud of Pat. I'm happy for her and all of her accomplishments and how she handles herself. She's a professional in every sense of word."

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with South Carolina, 37-2. The one loss at a neutral site was in 1973. … Tennessee is 9-3 in games played on March 2. The three losses were to Tennessee Tech, 54-51, in 1974; Auburn, 61-59, in 1997; and LSU, 81-80, in 2002. … Tennessee's record in the second round of the SEC tourney is 22-4. This will be only the second time the Lady Vols have faced the Gamecocks in the SEC tourney. The first time was in 1997, when Tennessee had to play in the first round – for the first and only time – and won 75-48. … The SEC Tournament's inaugural year was 1980. Tennessee's record in the tourney is 54-15. The Lady Vols have won the SEC tourney 12 times. The regular season title in 2007 was the program's 14th. Tennessee has won the regular season and tourney in the same year five times – 1994, 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 (co-champions with Georgia in the regular season). … By the numbers: Tennessee averages 38.2 rebounds per game. South Carolina hauls in 44.2 a game. The Lady Vols average 15.9 assists, the Gamecocks, 15.1. Tennessee averages 5.5 blocks. South Carolina swats 5.9 a game. The Lady Vols take the ball away 12.4 times a game to 12.0 steals for the Gamecocks. Tennessee averages 16.1 turnovers, South Carolina, 18.0.


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