Focused but having fun

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Lady Vols arrived in Cleveland confident, focused and intending to play two games while in town. But their game faces don't mean they don't remember to enjoy the moment. When they need to break the tension on the court, look for Alexis Hornbuckle and Candace Parker to be in the thick of things.

"Everything is so serious all the time," Candace Parker said. "You realize, ‘I've got to hit this shot.' Lex comes up before I shoot my free throws and makes me laugh."

It's not just Alexis Hornbuckle who knows how to settle down Parker. Sidney Spencer and Nicky Anosike contribute, too.

"If I'm struggling from the field Sid coming up and saying something stupid," Parker said, providing another example. "Little things like just take your mind off of it instead of stressing over, ‘Oh, I missed the last two shots.'

"If you get beat defensively Nicky will come up and slap you on the butt and be like, ‘OK, she doesn't beat you anymore.' We keep it playful. But when it comes down to getting down to business we (do).

And what does Hornbuckle say to make Parker laugh?

"Anything. Random things," Parker said laughing. "It would be random. If you haven't picked up on that in three years … "

Hornbuckle laughs out loud when Parker's remarks are repeated, especially the part about her randomness. But the things she says will stay among teammates.

"I can't tell you," Hornbuckle said. "It's a private thing, but it is very random. It has nothing to do with basketball at all. If she's getting discouraged, down on herself, just to say, ‘Hey, you know. We can still have fun and play basketball. Get your mind right.' Just to kind of take your mind off what you're concentrating on. Whatever comes off the top of my head. I don't know. I'm good like that."

Whatever Hornbuckle says, even if it doesn't always make sense, it seems to work.

"I think it definitely helps," Parker said. "We have each other's back, and I think that's important and sometimes to not take things so seriously."

Tennessee, 32-3, will face North Carolina, 34-3, in the second semifinal Sunday at approximately 9:30 p.m. (ESPN, Lady Vols Radio Network) at Quicken Loans Arena. Rutgers, 26-8, and LSU, 30-7, play at 7 p.m. The winners play for the national title Tuesday.

Three of the teams, Tennessee, North Carolina and Rutgers, were here a year ago for a regional that felt like a Final Four. It took a year, but they made it to one together.

"We were hoping last year that that would happen (at the Final Four)," Coach Pat Summitt said. "I'm excited to be there, and I'm sure the other three coaches are as well. That's how it worked out this year."

LSU is playing in its fourth consecutive Final Four. In 2004, Tennessee eliminated LSU in the semifinal; in 2005, Baylor took out LSU in the semifinal; and in 2006, Duke sent LSU home one game short of the title matchup.

All four teams will conduct press conferences Saturday at the arena and hold open practice and autograph sessions beginning at 11 a.m. Tennessee's autograph session is at 1:15 p.m. and its open practice is scheduled for 2:10 p.m.

Tennessee made the title game in 2004, lost in the semifinal in 2005 and missed the Final Four in 2006 after losing in the regional final. The team that eliminated the Lady Vols last year was North Carolina. The Tar Heels also beat Tennessee last December.

"Well, obviously you want to get back at somebody who delivered you a loss," Hornbuckle said. "It came this season and last year in the Elite Eight. But you can't dwell in the past. Both losses were a teaching point, whether it's for that season building for the summer and this season to get us rolling throughout the regular season, SEC and now postseason play. You just have to look at it, ‘We played the game, we lost and how did we lose that game? And what can we do to get better?' "

One thing Tennessee needs to do is avoid foul trouble. Nicky Anosike and Shannon Bobbitt had to sit down early in Chapel Hill and that hurt Tennessee on both sides of the ball.

"We got into foul trouble over there," Summitt said. "I thought Nicky didn't use as good a judgment. We got caught reaching. Shannon got in early foul trouble. But all in all I don't go into games worried about fouls. I think Nicky has a lot more discipline. She's almost a year older now as a player (since that game was four months ago) and just a lot more mature. So I think she knows what she has to do to keep herself (on the floor). (Bobbitt) I think she's making better decisions as well. Both teams are going to want to play that way (aggressively)."

At least Tennessee doesn't lack for confidence at this time of year. Last year the Lady Vols limped into postseason with little guard depth. That's not the case this year with a healthy Hornbuckle and newcomers Bobbitt, Alberta Auguste and Cait McMahan on the roster.

Bobbitt has matured as the season has progressed and has played splendidly in the postseason at the point position.

"Find the open man on the floor, be the leader on the court, run the show," Bobbitt said by way of outlining her responsibilities. "When it comes down to crunch time you know who your bread and butter are and you get them the ball. I've played enough games, but I also learn every game. Enough games is not going to be to the point where I know exactly what to do every game, because I'm learning every game.

"The Duke game was an experience for me because I've never been in an atmosphere like that so that was definitely an experience for me. My first game playing at Arizona State, my first away game, that was a good experience for me. I'm going to learn every game. I've learned a lot. I learned how to keep my composure. I learned about my teammates as a whole that never give up. I see that we have a great team, and we've got a chance of taking it this year."

McMahan, a true freshman, backs up Bobbitt at point guard. She won't shrink on the big stage of the Final Four based on past experiences. She also is not afraid to take chances and learn from them.

"I've already made mistakes (on the court), and I've already gotten in trouble for them," McMahan said. "I've been under the spotlight since I was young. I don't think people should get nervous. Nervous is a mother at home trying to put food on the table. This is a game we're playing. We should love to be out here. Nervous is nothing."

Senior Sidney Spencer comes into the Final Four having scored an NCAA career-high 22 points against Ole Miss in the regional final. She nailed a three-pointer and drained jumpers inside the arc. She also got to the free throw line on a pull-up jump shot after a drive. Her teammates have said they want to win for Spencer and fellow senior Dominique Redding.

"Sid is our senior leader," McMahan said. "She is our leader off the court and on the court. She took me under her wing, and she brought me into how it's going to be on this level. She's the mom of the team. If Sid's hitting her shots and getting open everybody's job is going to be a lot easier. When she's going, so are we."

Tennessee is taking the approach that the Lady Vols system will carry them through Cleveland.

"Basically our mindset is we have two more games," Hornbuckle said. "We've worked extremely hard. Started out with six and we had the same mindset at the beginning that we do now. Everybody is going to have to play Tennessee and as long as we pay attention to our scouting report defense, you're going to have to play Tennessee basketball.

"And that's our mindset. If you go in there with any other mindset and worry too much about North Carolina this, North Carolina that, you forget about Tennessee, and you forget what your teammates can do and what you can do. So that's just our mindset is concentrating on us."

And if need be saying something completely random.

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