"I'm very proud," Ole Miss' Ashley Awkward said of the SEC's showing in the NCAA Tournament. "I wish Georgia and Vandy could have kept going. What better way to get to the Final Four than two SEC teams playing against each other. That just shows how great our conference is and how strong we are."
It also means the two schools know a lot about each other. Tennessee, 31-3, played Marist in the regional semifinal for the first time in program history. This will be the 38th meeting between the Lady Vols and Ole Miss, 24-10.
They played nearly six weeks ago – an 81-69 win for Tennessee in Knoxville – so both teams have plenty of film. They likely will tweak their scouting reports – Ole Miss is pushing tempo even more – but there's really not a lot new to learn. The players on both sides expect a battle and one that will be as much mental as physical.
"It's going to be a battle of wills," Lady Vol Candace Parker said. "Obviously they are going to try to avenge the loss that they had to us at Tennessee. We know that in a regional final game everybody is going to put everything out on the court. This is to go to the Final Four, something I've never accomplished. I've never played in a Final Four before.
"This is something that we all want to do so it's one step closer to a national championship. People are going to say the only people that can stop us is us and all that stuff, but we just have to go out there and handle business."
That's exactly what Ole Miss said. It's also what Tennessee said. It reflects the players' confidence and familiarity with their foe.
"I don't think we're going in loose, but I think we're going in very confident," Rebel Armintie Price said. "Because nobody can stop us but us. I believe that with everything that I can believe. It's just us playing hard and us getting after it. Can't nobody cut our feet off, can't nobody cut our throat while we're playing but us. If we just give 100 percent effort and just do all we can I think we will be very successful."
Confidence will go a long way in this game, and both teams exuded it Monday when the head coaches and five starters took turns meeting with the media.
"You have to walk into the game with confidence," Lady Vol Alexis Hornbuckle said. "I don't care what game you're playing. I don't care what opponent. Confidence, it starts a lot of things. It's going to make you feel comfortable when you're taking a shot. It's going to give you that extra boost of energy on defense. The first thing is to walk in there with confidence and the rest is with a lot of energy and intensity and let your teammates feed off that.
"And if all five players have that, as well as the bench and the coaching staff, you can just tell. It's going to help you. They're the type of team that's going to be up and down and running. In the Oklahoma game they ran for 40 minutes straight, and if they got tired they pulled themselves. You have to be ready to do the same and willing to make sacrifices. The little things are going to count for a lot tomorrow."
Those little things lead to a big prize – a berth in the Final Four in Cleveland this weekend. Tennessee fell short last season with a regional final loss to North Carolina. It was a defeat that bothered Nicky Anosike long after the game was over, especially when she crossed paths with last year's seniors, Tye'sha Fluker and Shanna Zolman.
Tennessee's seniors this year, Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding, have been to two Final Fours – in 2004 when they made it to the title game in New Orleans and in 2005 when they fell in the semifinal in Indianapolis.
"The seniors they've been so close," Anosike said. "They've actually gotten to the championship game before where no one else on this team has. They've gotten really close and this is their last go-around. We definitely want to win it for them.
"We obviously let our seniors down last year. I remember a few months after that game I was still guilty when I would see the seniors around. I definitely don't want to have to feel that again this year. I think that's a little extra motivation to do it for them. Last year was their first year not making it there. They had to go out on that note."
Tennessee wasn't at full strength in that regional final as Hornbuckle was playing with a still-mending right wrist and a bulky splint on her arm. This year the Lady Vols have a healthy Hornbuckle and a true point guard in Shannon Bobbitt.
"I'm a lot more confident," Hornbuckle said. "It's soothing to know you're 100 percent, minus the nagging injuries that are with you all year. You have two good hands, you're able to run, and you don't have to limit yourself. I'm coming in there smiling basically. I've been blessed this year to not have a serious injury like last year. This year I've come with a whole new mindset. I don't want to fall short now that I know I have everything set up for me."
Hornbuckle is also playing for the seniors.
"You're not only playing for yourself but any game from this point out since the NCAA Tournament started could very well be your seniors' last game," Hornbuckle said. "So you want to go out there and lay everything on the line each and every game. It's six games. You have to go out there and give it your all. I felt like I let my seniors down. I felt like I didn't have total control over that as well with the wrist, but at the same time you don't want to be a senior and feel like you got let down so you don't want to let someone else down. It's very important that we get our seniors to a Final Four."
Spencer is savoring every moment of the postseason. Some players will say it's not something they will think about or look back on until it's over, but Spencer has readily acknowledged how special her last season has been and how much she wants it to keep going.
"I'm really enjoying it," Spencer said. "I don't think about the ending. I don't want it to end."
To prevent that Tennessee will have to eliminate a scrappy and sky-high Ole Miss team that has taken out TCU, Maryland and Oklahoma in the tourney while averaging 89 points and forcing opponents into 26 turnovers a game.
The Dayton Region seemed to be the toughest one when the brackets were announced, but Ole Miss, a seven seed, took care of the two and three seeds in Maryland and Oklahoma. Marist, a 13 seed, wiped out the four and five seeds in Ohio State and Middle Tennessee. Tennessee, a one seed, eliminated Drake, Pitt and Marist.
"Obviously that's the reason why we play the games," Parker said. "If everybody advanced who was supposed to it would be the one and two seeds. Ole Miss beat three very good teams. We beat three very good teams, and it's just a battle right now.
"We play in one of the toughest conferences in America so we know what we're facing. We know Ole Miss is a great team, and we know that they're different from when we played them before."
The last two teams standing in the Dayton region are familiar foes, and both sides eagerly anticipated the matchup the day before the game.
"It's going to be a great game out there," Bobbitt said. "It's not going to be no slow game; it's going to be an up-tempo game. We're definitely going to guard them and not let them get many touches, just play honest defense. That's how much we respect them."
Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (8.5 points per game, 1.5 rebounds per game, 2.8 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (10.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.0 apg, 3.1 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (11.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (19.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg); and Nicky Anosike 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (7.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg).
Coach Carol Ross is expected to start: Ashley Awkward 5'6 senior guard, No. 3 (12.8 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.0 apg); Armintie Price, 5'9 senior guard, No. 24 (18.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 3.8 spg); Alliesha Easley 5'8 freshman guard, No. 32 (11.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg); Jada Mincy, 6'1 senior forward, No. 34 (4.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg); and Danetra Forrest, 6'1 junior forward, No. 40 (5.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg).
"Well, the little runnin' Rebels live another day," Ross said in her opening remarks to the media. "It's great to be able to coach these young women another time. It is really a privilege to sit on that bench and watch them play with the intensity and the energy and the passion and enthusiasm for the game of basketball and really how they play for each other.
"I'm just excited that I get to be a part of that one more time, and hopefully more than that. But, we have a tough one in front of us and certainly one that we respect in a great Tennessee team with a great coach sitting on the bench, the best player in the country running around on the floor and a host of other great All-Americans that complement Candace Parker. We realize the task in front of us. It's a good thing we've got some time to try to figure out what is we need to do, because, about seven o'clock (tonight) we've got to have some answers to some very hard questions."
In the first game between the teams, Price spent nearly all of the first half on the bench in foul trouble. She never got on track in the second half and finished with 13 points on 4-11 shooting. She did have four steals, part of 14 total for Ole Miss. Tennessee only had eight thefts.
"I think I got my fouls in about the first three minutes of the game, and I sat down and Candace kind of took over like she usually does, and she made great shots and Hornbuckle got a little hot and Spencer did too," Price said. "I came back in the second half, they went zone, and we kind of froze up, and we lost."
The Rebels rely on their defense and transition to generate points and have not shot that well this season – 41.2 percent overall and 26.9 percent behind the arc – so most opponents threw zone looks at them. But Maryland and Oklahoma also tried some zone, and Ole Miss knocked down the shots against them.
When the Tennessee players were asked at the pre-game press conference who would guard Price, Parker jokingly said she would. Hornbuckle leaned around Bobbitt and pointed at Anosike. Summitt likely will try different options from the speed of Hornbuckle to the quickness and size of Anosike.
"It's not set in stone," Parker said. "We'll probably just throw a lot of different looks at her."
Summitt smiled and interjected: "Coach hasn't figured it out yet."
Later in the press conference, Summitt addressed the question in detail.
"I think Armintie she's going to be a real challenge for us from a defensive standpoint," Summitt said. "But I do think that we have some players that we might even rotate defensively, may change up our defenses. I try to go into a game with a game plan, but so many times you have to have some flexibility there, and you may have to alter your plan as your progress through a game.
"Certainly in Knoxville, she got in foul trouble. Had she not been in foul trouble, it might have been a different outcome because we beat them by twelve, and they shot the ball well in the first half without her. But to me, she is a player that makes them go at both ends of the floor. I wouldn't even go into a game like this saying, ‘We're going to shut down Price,' but we would like to think that we are going to bring some defense and make her work for everything that she gets."
The postseason requires defense and board play to survive and advance. Teams that are weak defensively are long gone in this tournament. Two teams that set the tone defensively – Rutgers and LSU – are already in the Final Four. That is why Ole Miss is still playing. The Rebels' frenetic defensive schemes – it's not so much a scheme as random trapping and jumping the passing lanes – create chaos and force teams into making bad decisions with the basketball.
"Who wants it more and who takes care of the ball more, who does not take possessions off," Hornbuckle said by way of predicting the winner. "It's a 40-minute game and that's how you have to play it, not 20 minutes, not a fourth of the game. They played 40 minutes against Oklahoma taking little to no possessions off, and they played so well together. I think that's very key – taking care of the ball and playing well together."
That's where the maturation of Bobbitt becomes important. Summitt has lauded the play of her pint-sized point guard all season and pointed out how coachable she has been.
"Shannon has always brought quickness and speed to our team," Summitt said. "I think what she's learned this year at Tennessee is how to value each possession both offensively and defensively. I think she's taken a lot more pride in her defense. She plays more on the off guard because we want Alexis picking up the ball, and that's because of her size. Shannon has exceptional speed and quickness and I think she makes up because of her speed and quickness what she lacks in size. Just the heart and a competitor. She's just a warrior on the defensive end."
Bobbitt breaks into a big smile when Summitt's words are relayed to her.
"At this level and at this time period every possession matters," Bobbitt said. "I learned that you can't take possessions off and you've just got to play hard every minute because it will cost you in the long run. It was important (at other levels), but I just wasn't as mature as I am now, and I did take off plays, but it wasn't severe plays and it didn't ever cost us the game. I learned to play hard-nosed defense every second I'm out there on the court."
The players from both teams spoke in the same room of Dayton Arena about an hour apart, but they were essentially saying the same thing – whichever teams wants it more will leave Dayton with the nets.
"I'm expecting the aggressor to win," Mincy said. "I'm expecting the one that throws the most punches to win. In the SEC it's all about power, speed and aggression. The one that wants it the most will win."
Tennessee is no less adamant about what it will take to get to Cleveland.
"We're playing to get to the Final Four," Anosike said. "If there's no competitiveness in that then what's the point? That's what it's all about. It's about competing. So I love it. Bring it."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Ole Miss game. On Monday only the head coach and starters met with the media because of the logistics of closed practices and locker rooms. Here are their comments to the keys to tonight's game.
"It's important to hold onto the basketball against a scrappy team like that," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "You might escape the trap but throw a lazy pass and in essence they still win because they got a steal and they're going the other way. It's very important to limit your turnovers as well as making smart decisions. You have to stay on your toes for 40 minutes, otherwise they'll make this game just crazy."
Sidney Spencer didn't hit a three in the first Ole Miss game – Shannon Bobbitt hit four of them – but she has found her range inside the arc near the top of the key and along the baselines.
"It's got to be key, especially if they trap, to move the ball and try to get a good look," Spencer said. "We worked on that – the post double-teaming and kicking out – and I just tried to move where they can see it. It seems like the pass to the three-point line was going to be kind of far so I just stepped in."
Tennessee out-rebounded Ole Miss in the first game, 44-39.
"It's very important to control the boards," Hornbuckle said. "Rebounding controls tempo. If we're on the offensive glass getting offensive putbacks it's hard for them to get their transition game started. If we can control the ball on defense and limit their second or third chance shots, then it's going to help us."
Spencer also looks for a fast-paced game.
"It's going to be an up-and-down game," Spencer said. "They play a trapping, running around type defense that makes other teams play fast. We can't throw long passes across the court. They're going to get deflected, if not stolen. We're going to have to win the battle of the boards and just remain disciplined in a lot of our action.
"It's going to be us that stops us. We are very capable of playing Tennessee basketball, but we all have to be committed and play for 40 minutes, unlike the Marist game, when we only played for 20."
Spencer noted Ole Miss was playing much better now.
"I think right now they're playing a lot different than they did in Knoxville," Spencer said. "They're gelling really well on the court together. They're pushing the ball, they're stepping up defensively, they're getting their hands on a lot of balls, a lot of steals. They've really brought it.
"We're definitely very aware of in Knoxville her (Armintie Price) getting in foul trouble so not really seeing her a lot in the first half. I think it's not going to be just one person guarding her. It's going to be basically a team defense type thing. We're going to all have to be on help-side and aware of what she can do off the dribble."
Ole Miss Coach Carol Ross, who spoke with the media before her team practiced, was still deciding Monday whether or not to show her team any film from the first matchup with Tennessee. Ole Miss never watched the first game with Maryland – a 110-79 loss on Nov. 25 – and the Rebels defeated the Terrapins, 89-78, in the rematch March 20 in the second round of the tourney.
"I want our players to play freely and fun with a lot of energy," Ross said. "We don't spend a whole lot of time talking about our opponents. It's not that we don't respect them. It just does not bode well for how we prepare. We do what we do. If it's good, then we usually get to keep playing. If it's not good then we'll pack up and go home. We have to play with a lot of energy and intensity on the defensive end. We do play at times chaotically with our speed and scramble around and make plays, but it's what we do. We've been doing it well recently, and hopefully we can continue it at least one more time."
When asked how she would limit Parker – and it was pointed out that LSU held her to four points in a loss in the SEC tourney – Ross joked about how well she had schemed for Oklahoma's Courtney Paris.
"I did a heck of a job game planning for Courtney Paris, so I'm trying not to over-coach here because she had 30 and 20 I think," Ross said. "We realize her greatness and we realize the impact that she has on the Tennessee team. But I also realize they are a great team, and she is a part of that team. And we will take the Ole Miss team and go at Tennessee's team and not get too sidetracked by individual players.
"If we play the way we are supposed to play then our defense should naturally take away some opportunities. We're supposed to be crowding people all the time when they have the ball so if she's got it there should be a Rebel or two gathered. I don't know if we've got the personnel. I don't have Sylvia Fowles in my locker room tonight. I'd like to have her in there if I could, but that's not going to happen. I don't know that we can do what they did."
Pat Summitt was pleased that her players wanted to scout Ole Miss for themselves in person Sunday when the Rebels played Oklahoma.
"I think the good thing after our game against Marist they wanted to quickly go out and watch Ole Miss, and I think that was probably very telling for them," Summitt said. "You can watch them on TV, and you can watch them in person and that's two different opinions of how they play. On TV, they don't look like that they're that much faster and quicker and more aggressive. But when you see them actually play, when you saw them against Oklahoma, it was glaring.
"Their overall team speed and quickness and their ability to get up and down the floor on both sides of the ball. It was obviously very, very impressive, and I think our players, even last night at dinner, they were talking about what they saw from Ole Miss now that they didn't see prior and probably, early on, they were not pushing the tempo. That's the biggest change. They've always been committed to defense. Coach Ross does a great job getting her teams to just play with passion at both ends of the floor. I just don't think they were coming down and pushing as hard and taking as many early shots."
Summitt's said practicing against guys helps her team get ready for an opponent like Ole Miss.
"It's probably a lot like playing against our practice guys," Summitt said. "They don't run a whole lot of sets. They like to shoot it, and they are aggressive. I mean that as a compliment. It's hard to guard when there's not as many patterns, but there's a lot of individual plays, one-on-one plays.
"They're hard to guard one-on-one. You really have to be disciplined and very committed to your defense, and in particular a one-on-one game. The one thing I thought about the teams we've played this year that might reflect what Ole Miss brings now, North Carolina would be one, obviously LSU, as well as Ole Miss. If you think of the teams that really push tempo and play off the dribble with a great deal of success, they're right there with those two teams in particular."
Spencer also noted the positive effect of practicing against men in getting prepared for this game.
"We play against practice players, guys that are really quick," Spencer said. "Their defense is just as good, if not on some days better and so we go against them, which I think helps us in the long run to be able to face challenges we may have if someone is trying to trap or pressure us."
Shannon Bobbitt cited shot clock management as a key. Sometimes Tennessee's point guards have let the shot clock tick down to a few seconds, and the result can be a forced or hurried look at the basket.
"We cannot not get a good shot off," Bobbitt said. "We are too great of a team to let the shot clock run out on us. I'm a point guard so I'm supposed to know that all the time. I've definitely learned from it, and you learn from mistakes. I'll look forward, look at that shot clock and getting us in something quick and running our offense."
TICKING TIME: Candace Parker, a redshirt sophomore (and junior academically) pointed out Monday that the opportunities to win a national title are few.
"We definitely want to play for the seniors, and we definitely want to get them to a Final Four, and we definitely want to win a national championship," Parker said. "I think the thing that crosses my mind is everybody keeps saying next year, next year, but we're running out of years here. My class is about to be a senior and then there's no next year. So it's tough because you never know when you won't get another chance, and you have to just seize the moment now."
Parker announced two weeks ago that she would return to Tennessee next season and intended to stop speculation that she would leave early for the WNBA. But it didn't stop the speculation, which has started anew. When asked about it, Parker quickly cut off the line of questioning.
"I'm not even going to talk about that or touch on that, because there's no point," Parker said. "I'm focused on now and being here in Dayton and winning a regional championship. I'm not focused on all the speculation and everything else that's out there."
Was she annoyed that her announcement didn't stop the speculation?
"I don't even want to talk about it, because then it will bring something else back up," Parker said.
THE WAITING GAME: The Tennessee players were thrilled to learn the Lady Vols got the 7 p.m. tip time Tuesday and didn't have to wait an additional two hours to play. Their regular season evening games are typically at 7 p.m. so it's a routine they're used to on the road.
"I like trips like this because you get to sleep in. Don't have to wake up for class," Parker said. "Usually get some breakfast, come to shoot around, go to pregame, get a nap and then get ready for the game."
Alexis Hornbuckle's day revolves around food, a nap and music.
"You wake up, you eat breakfast, you might have film, you might lay around, do homework – (people) forget we're students – take a nap, talk on the phone, to your family, taking ‘you' time and whatever you need to do to focus, listen to music," Hornbuckle said.
"I personally wake up, go eat breakfast, I'm going to have to take my nap, have to listen to music right before I get dressed. Right before the games I've got to listen to rap. Lil Wayne gets me hyped up. Throughout the course of the day it might be gospel in the morning, something R&B, something calm and soothing, just listening to the words. When it gets close to the time to leave and get dressed it's time for the rap music to be put on. It's time to get hyped up and pumped up and just think about the job at hand."
The players don't do much while in town besides sleep, eat, study and play ball, though they did take in the movie "300" on Saturday after the open practice.
"We've just been to the gym, the hotel and restaurants," Parker said. "We're here to take care of business. We're not here to have a lot of fun. This is fun. This time of year you just hope to delay and savor because it only happens once a year."
TRIAGE UNIT: The last time Tennessee and Ole Miss played, two Lady Vols ended the game in the training room. Alex Fuller got poked in the right eye – it completely closed on her – and Cait McMahan sprained her elbow after falling to the floor during a scramble off a missed free throw.
Fuller harbors no ill will towards Ole Miss and said the eye poke "was a freak accident."
Ole Miss' Jada Mincy, who is fierce on the floor but engaging and funny off of it, reacted with concern when reminded that two Tennessee players had to leave the game and didn't return.
"They did? Do I do that?" Mincy said. "Because they always are mad at me on my team."
Mincy's tally against her team includes one broken nose a year ago. The victim, Armintie Price, recalled the incident like it was yesterday and was still a little peeved about it.
Price had gotten injured in a game against Memphis after taking a shot to the nose.
"It was so bad," Mincy said. "She had gotten hit, bleeding blood everywhere."
That incident didn't break Price's nose, but it left her face swollen and sore.
"The next day Coach Ross was like, ‘Armintie, do not practice. Just walk through,' " Mincy said. "Ashley Johnson got tired. She was our senior last year. She plays Armintie's position, and she was playing the whole time that whole practice going full speed. So she was like, ‘Armintie, just one time. Just come in one time for me.' "
"I said, ‘Coach said I couldn't.' " Price said. "She said, ‘Just come in for a minute.' So I come in and Jada Mincy on my team she went for a rebound and I did, too, and she just hit me in the nose and cracked it and this (pointing to the bridge of her nose) was all over here. I went crazy."
"Of course she comes in there one time, the ball's in the air and me and Armintie are both aggressive and we both collided, and I elbowed her and broke her nose," Mincy said. "It was one play. I got in trouble kind of. Coach Ross got mad at her but then she got mad at me. She was like, ‘Jada, I was in the air. You didn't see me?' And I was like, ‘You didn't see me?' I'm much bigger than her so she was going to go down."
"I got it fixed, I had surgery and wore a mask," Price said. "Coach Ross said I was turning the ball over because of the mask, you can't catch because of the mask, so I quit wearing the mask."
In the Ole Miss media guide, Price lists her phobia as "getting hit in the nose."
Obviously the Ole Miss players can get physical. Price was asked to compare her game with Parker's.
"I guess you could say nasty-type player, not nasty as in mean or rude, just the type of player that will get all-out, dive on the floor for everything," Price said. "Who cares if my hair's messed up. I'm just the type of player who will leave it all out on the floor. I'm playing for the rest of my teammates, this program. Candace Parker is a great player. I take nothing from her. I think she's a player who has a lot of style and a lot of show. I think she loves to win, and she takes great pride in her program and her coach so I think it's going to be a great showdown."
"Absolutely it's going to be on the floor fighting, sideline plays, deflections, all types of plays going on," Mincy said. "It's what you see in the SEC. It's one of the most powerful conferences in the country."
A defensive tussle suits Nicky Anosike just fine.
"Whenever you play a defensive battle you have to have heart, you have to have desire and you have to want to compete," Anosike said. "I think that's what we've proved all year is that we want to do those things."
Anosike pointed out that mental toughness in this game and not making mistakes would be just as important as physical performance.
"We train all year to get to this point and you get here and you find out it's more mental than physical," Anosike said. "It's nothing we haven't faced. There are teams we have faced who have had a lot more animosity towards us than Ole Miss does right now. We've had to go into hostile environments like UConn, like LSU, North Carolina. We just have to pull it out. We have to suck it up and deal with it. Be tough."
Both teams sounded like they were ready to rumble.
"I think it is going to be a great battle, and I think it's going to be a great game," Price said. "I think the one that gives the greatest effort and just fights and makes it nasty is the one who's going to come out on top."
Hornbuckle smiled when asked if she expected a battle.
"It's going to be very physical; it's going to be fast-paced," Hornbuckle said. "We're not going out with the intention to come at somebody, to hurt them, but we're going to stand our ground. It's going to be all for one. Everybody is going to have to pull together their own personal strengths and just play together as a team.
"May the best team win. The tournament is all about survive and advance."
FRIENDLY RIVALRY?: The Tennessee fans were definitely pulling for Ole Miss on Sunday – it was something Jada Mincy noticed and appreciated.
"In that Oklahoma game, it was pretty great, because a lot of the orange people were yelling for us," Coach Carol Ross said. "I don't know how great it's going to feel (Tuesday) night when they have so many people that follow their program."
The teams seemed ready to inject some friendly friction Monday.
For Ole Miss it's because the Rebels' last win in this series came in 1996. The players on this team were in elementary and middle school when Ole Miss last beat Tennessee. Not being psyched out by the Lady Vols is part of the game preparation.
For Tennessee the players have to beat an SEC foe that they've beaten once – a rematch can often favor the losing team – and that is very familiar with them.
Both programs were pulling for the SEC, and Candace Parker had predicted Ole Miss' tourney success to date.
"Anytime an SEC school is in the tournament I'm cheering for them and hoping they do well to support the conference," Sidney Spencer said. "I definitely have watched them. I knew they were a dangerous team."
Price, a friendly person off the court, said she knows the Tennessee system well but not its players.
"I'm friends with everybody on every other SEC team but not Tennessee," Price said. "We have not made friends. Tennessee just chooses not to be friends. Tennessee is all about business, and I guess that's been a good thing for them because they're the ones winning championships, and everybody else isn't."
Alexis Hornbuckle is friends with other SEC players, notably Tasha Humphrey of Georgia and Sylvia Fowles of LSU, and she said it's more a matter of who she crossed paths with before arriving at Tennessee.
"I think it has a lot to do with who you know coming in," Hornbuckle said. "I'm friends with Tasha, talk to Sylvia, so it's just a matter of who you know coming in. I'll be nice, I'll be cordial, but I'm not the type of person who will venture out. I think our team kind of has that same personality."
Most teams do take on a cloistered personality. Players do their best to keep outsiders away by calling players-only meetings and keeping things secret, like the details of the Lady Vol Pact and why the Tennessee team had been hauling a baseball bat around in February.
Ole Miss is the same way, according to Ross, who was asked a question that she had to find amusing, though she gave a straightforward, and funny, answer. Ross, who has known Summitt and been close friends with her for years, was asked if coaching against her was intimidating. Anyone who knows Ross knows nothing backs her down.
"I don't look down there," Ross said. "Maybe it would be if I looked. I don't think about things in those terms. I think our team, if you could sum us up, we throw a lot of adjectives around because there are so many that are appropriate for this team but I think if you could cut it all down to one word we're fierce competitors. That's two words.
"We are competitors. I want to beat Pat Summitt just like our players want to beat Tennessee's players. It's just who we are. It's what we do. We're big thinkers. We dream big. We don't limit ourselves. We don't disrespect our opponents, but we don't play an awful lot of attention to them, not because of anything negative, it's just that we are in our own little world and we like our world, and we don't want to invite a whole lot of people into it. When you start getting distracted and you start talking about the other team's coach, the other team's players, then you've lost who you are. So we keep the reins on pretty tight. We have a love fest with ourselves, and nobody's invited."
ALL-AMERICAN: Pat Summitt said last week that if Armintie Price wasn't voted a Kodak All-American then the process was flawed. Carol Ross couldn't agree more.
"Certainly, if she's not a Kodak All-American, they don't even need to have a team," Ross said. "She is one of two people in the history of the game to throw up some staggering numbers that put her in company with Cheryl Miller."
Price's three steals against Oklahoma gave her 401 for her career. She and Miller are the only two players in NCAA history to record at least 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 assists and 400 steals.
"For most of the season, she was one of five players in the history of the game that threw up some crazy numbers with points, rebounds, steals and assists," Ross said. "She's not only made herself one of the best players this season, but she made her mark in the history of our game. It would be a terrible injustice if she's not an All-American."
As Ole Miss continues to win in postseason the publicity for Price continues on a national level. The brilliance of her game was well known by those who closely follow the SEC, but the lack of television exposure kept Price under wraps.
"The SEC has been aware of her really since her career started as a young player," Ross said. "There's a lot of good about playing at this time of year that includes our whole team but for me personally one of the things that brings me great joy is to know that she is finally going to have the national spotlight. And for her to have that shine on her it certainly means that our team needs to keep winning and finding ways to be successful. So even though I'm happy for everybody, it would really be a sad, sad day if a player of her caliber is not recognized for her greatness."
Price smiled when told of the remarks by Ross and Summitt.
"It's very nice," she said. "That was one of the goals I set when I first came here. I went into (an assistant coach's office) and said, ‘I want to be that. I want to strive to be one of those great players.' If I don't get voted, oh well. It's not going to define who I am or the type of team that we are. It will be all right to me."
Parker certainly appreciates Price's game and vice versa.
"I feel like Armintie and I have different styles of play," Parker said. "She plays on the perimeter mostly, and I'm inside playing the four. I respect her as a player, playing against her a couple times during my career. She is hard-nosed and plays both ends of the floor. She just provides a tremendous boost for her team."
"She's a great player, a wonderful player," Price said. "Anybody that can dunk that's a female, I think they're awesome. She has great moves, inside game and outside game. It will be a good matchup."
BRING THE HEAT: Neither Tennessee nor Ole Miss seemed to mind the heat Sunday in Dayton Arena.
"This is the time of year that you're working out in the summer for," Candace Parker said. "This is the time of year that you're running sprints with Heather (Mason) for. We realize that, and we realize that no matter what we do, no matter how well we play, we still only have three more games left so we just want to make this game the best and the next and the next."
The experience reminded the players of days spent in high school gyms. The Ole Miss roster is full of players from West Tennessee and Mississippi so they are used to sweltering summers.
"You had to have a cold towel and ice around you to stay hydrated the whole time," Jada Mincy said of Sunday's game in 90-plus indoor temperatures. "Every day we practice, we practice really hard. It's the same thing playing in this gym. We had a lot of energy to give. A lot of energy was taken from us. Yesterday, we slept, we hydrated, we ate."
"We kind of enjoyed the heat," said Ashley Awkward, who, like Mincy, is from Memphis. "You can't really run when you're cold and you've got the air getting in your throat and you're popping the cough drops everywhere. We took the heat as our advantage to get loose. In the summer conditioning we're used to running in 100-degree weather. We're used to getting sweaty."
Shannon Bobbitt grew up playing outside on the concrete playgrounds of New York. The heat also didn't faze her.
"I'm going to just care about getting the win," Bobbitt said. "It doesn't bother me."
CANDACE BEING CANDACE: The Tennessee players are swarmed by autograph seekers when they arrive at and leave the arena. Candace Parker is often a target in strange places, too.
"I feel like the weirdest encounter of someone wanting an autograph was in the bathroom," Parker said. "That's probably my limit. Out of the stall and hey. I think that's the biggest thing that has floored me."
Parker agreed to sign but asked that they exit the bathroom first.
BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee leads the series against Ole Miss, 30-7. … Tennessee is 5-2 in games played on March 27. The two losses were to Georgia, 67-63, in 1983, and to Iowa, 72-56, in 1993. … … Ole Miss did knock Tennessee out of the NCAA tourney on March 22, 1985, in a triple overtime game in the Sweet 16. Since then Tennessee has not lost to an SEC team in the NCAA tournament and has beaten conference foes 10 times. … Ole Miss has been in five overtime games this season and has a 3-2 record. Tennessee had just one, a win over Arkansas. … Ole Miss Coach Carol Ross and Tennessee Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick go way back in the SEC. They played for their alma maters in the inaugural SEC tourney title game in 1980 – an 85-71 Lady Vols win – and both were selected to the All-SEC Tournament Team. … The SEC will get two teams in the Final Four this year with LSU already in, and Ole Miss and Tennessee fighting for a spot. In the 26 years of the Final Four there have been only two times, 1992 and 2001, when an SEC team didn't claim at least one spot. … Tennessee is 16-5 in regional final games. Stat Watch: Tennessee averages 73.9 points per game to 78.1 for Ole Miss. The Rebels get 43.7 rebounds a game to 37.9 for Tennessee. The teams are fairly close in steals – 11.9 for Tennessee, 13.8 for Ole Miss; turnovers – 15.4 for Tennessee, 16 for Ole Miss; and assists – 15.6 for Tennessee, 14.1 for Ole Miss.