The Tennessee and Rutgers players engaged the media in a series of group press conferences, interviews with individual players and locker room chats that revealed just how thrilled both teams are to be in the championship game tonight (8:30 p.m. ESPN, ESPN Full Circle, Lady Vol Radio Network).
There were multiple storylines to explore – the enduring friendship of Coach Pat Summitt and Coach C. Vivian Stringer; Rutgers trying to become the third consecutive first-time champion after Baylor and Maryland; Tennessee trying to restore its reputation as title town; the unlikelihood of the Scarlet Knights getting to this stage after the way their season started, which included Stringer refusing to wear the school's colors and throwing the team out of its locker room for months; the mission that Tennessee players have spoken of throughout the postseason of being the team to get the Lady Vols' first national title since 1998; the offensive explosion of Rutgers in its semifinal win; the offensive sputtering of Tennessee in its semifinal win; the number of players in this game on both teams with connections to New York and New Jersey; the respect the opposing players have for each other, especially those who played together on USA teams; and the fierce nature of both coaches who become mother figures off the court, whether it's to provide a pork chop recipe or lend some guidance.
The players on both teams told engaging stories about themselves and their teammates. They interviewed each other. They endured nearly two hours of questions from print and Internet reporters, broadcast media, Westwood Radio and ESPN – 589 media credentials were issued for the Final Four – and generally smiled throughout. Summitt and Stringer stayed on the dais for more than an hour each in separate sessions, fielding one question after another from everything about Tuesday's game to the history of the sport.
Finally the questions stopped and the players and coaches retreated to their locker rooms and the practice court sessions, which were closed for privacy reasons, except for the final 15 minutes for photo availability. Despite the media commitments and a packed schedule of events since the teams arrived Thursday, Rutgers, 27-8, and Tennessee, 33-3, are where 62 other teams wanted to be – playing in the last game of the 2006-07 season.
"Having been there as a player myself there's nothing that you want more than to win a championship," said Tennessee Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell. "The lack of sleep you really don't put any importance in it, because you know that they're going to be hyped anyway. You want to make sure they're enjoying this whole process, enjoying the journey and enjoying every ounce of being here today and obviously coming out (Tuesday).
"You can say, ‘Hey we've got curfew at 11, light's out,' and hope they're out. At this age just making sure that they get off their feet and keeping their focus. I think they'll be a little tired. We played late last night so it's hard to be on such a high and then come down at one o'clock in the morning. I think (Monday night) they'll be a little more tired (and actually sleep)."
Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 junior guard, No. 00 (8.6 points per game season/10.4 ppg NCAA tourney, 1.5 rebounds per game season/2.0 rpg tourney, 2.8 assists per game season/2.2 apg tourney); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 junior guard, No. 14 (10.4/8.2 ppg, 5.1/4.6 rpg, 4.6/3.2 apg, 3.2/2.0 steals per game); Sidney Spencer, 6'3 senior forward, No. 1 (11.6/11.8 ppg, 4.3/3.6 rpg); Nicky Anosike, 6'4 junior center, No. 55 (7.6/9.6 ppg, 5.9/7.2 rpg); and Candace Parker, 6'5 sophomore forward, No. 3 (19.7/19.4 ppg, 9.9/10.8 rpg).
Stringer is expected to start: Matee Ajavon, 5'8 junior guard, No. 22 (12.5/16.6 ppg, 3.1/3.4 rpg, 3.9/4.2 apg); Epiphanny Prince, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 10 (12.5/9.8 ppg, 4.1/5.6 rpg, ); Essence Carson, 6'0 junior forward, No. 5 (12.4/9.8 ppg, 6.3/6.0 rpg); Heather Zurich, 6'0 sophomore forward, No. 21 (5.0/7.0 ppg, 2.1/3.6 rpg); and Kia Vaughn, 6'4 sophomore center, No. 15 (12.6/11.8 ppg, 9.3/7.4 rpg).
Both teams are coming off superb defensive performances to reach the title game. Rutgers held LSU to 35 points and the total of 94 points was the lowest ever in a Final Four game, breaking the low mark of 102 points scored when Tennessee beat LSU, 52-50, in 2004. Tennessee set a record for most steals in a Final Four game with 20, breaking the old record of 18 by Western Kentucky against Missouri State in 1992.
"Coach always says defense wins games, and I think it's evident that the two best defensive teams are in the championship game," Anosike said. "Especially Rutgers, who like Vivian said, didn't even expect to be here, but their defense carried them through.
"So I think it only makes sense that the two of us are in the championship game."
Monday was a day of media obligations, practice and film sessions. The Lady Vol players got their cell phones and Sidekicks back at breakfast Monday, but the coaching staff collected them again Monday night to ensure the players aren't distracted or disturbed when they should be sleeping.
Spencer expected to sleep Monday night after spending the wee hours of Monday morning going over the game with her roommate at home and on the road, fellow senior Dominique Redding.
"I replay every game," Spencer said. "It just goes on and on in my mind. So I was laying there all night long in my mind just replaying the game, every single possession we played. I'll be honest with you. I didn't really get a whole lot of sleep. I just laid there, but I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world to come back like that and for the team to dig in and grind it out. If she wants my little Sidekick she can have it. I expect to sleep great tonight."
Redding intended to watch a movie, but she ended up staying awake and talking to Spencer.
"Who cares about sleeping?" Redding said. "You can sleep after. It's do or die right now. It's really special. I love her to death. We're good buddies, and I'm just happy I could go through this with her."
The moment was just as exciting for freshman Cait McMahan, who takes pride in being the only true freshman in the Tennessee locker room.
"No way," said McMahan, when asked if she got any sleep. "I was talking to everybody. It took me forever to go to sleep. I couldn't stop smiling. I thought I was going to wake up and still catch myself smiling."
McMahan spoke in the locker room as the media sessions finally wound down to their final minutes of the day. The players had been getting taped in between interviews and were about to take the practice floor.
"We've got to get in our own little zone starting now," McMahan said. "Everybody needs to get their rest. It's going to be a big game. We've got 40 minutes left to take it home."
At least one player got some rest in Hornbuckle. The team didn't arrive back at its downtown Cleveland hotel, which is just a few blocks from Quicken Loans Arena, until about 12:30 a.m. since Tennessee had the late Sunday night tip.
"Coach took up our phones at two o'clock in the morning," Hornbuckle said. "We didn't get back to the hotel until about 12:30, so about an hour and a half with our family and our phones to talk to whoever you wanted to talk to back home and just try to get some rest. But honestly I couldn't even sleep for about an hour after that and then I finally went to sleep.
"I had to take the time to realize what we had just accomplished, the situation we wanted to be placed in and we got here. After I calmed down I ended up getting about seven hours of sleep. That's a lot for me."
Parker also said she managed to get some rest.
"We saw a little bit of our families, and we were in our room by 1:30," Parker said. "We rushed at breakfast this morning to get (the phones) back. I often wonder how the generation before us occupied their time because I really don't know what I would do without my cell phone or my Sidekick."
Bobbitt said she didn't care about losing her phone – she had 40 text messages and 10 emails of congratulations when she turned it on Monday morning – since she was able to talk to her family after the game.
"We were excited, and we were a little bit too excited," Bobbitt said. "We know we have unsettled business, so we didn't celebrate too much. I'm definitely going to get some rest after practice and watch some film and relax and get ready for the game."
Junior Alberta Auguste got some food, took a shower and watched SportsCenter. She also willingly surrendered her phone.
I didn't care," Auguste said. "She can have my phone. She can take it now."
Sophomore Alex Fuller also was able to sleep, but it took her some time to settle down.
"I wasn't able to sleep until later, just trying to talk to my family in the hotel, just trying to calm myself down," said Fuller, who added the players are young and used to not sleeping. "We're fine. We're all 20, 21 years old."
"I was able to get sleep," said senior Elizabeth Curry, who talked about the game with Parker before settling in for the night. "It helped knowing we still have one more. You live it up for that moment and you go to bed and let it go."
Anosike didn't miss her phone at all.
"I'm not a phone person," Anosike said. "I didn't even have a phone until I got out here and figured out it's hard not to have one. A lot of people want to call and say, ‘Wow, you did a great job.' She didn't want us up all night. It's all great, but she didn't want us up late doing that."
Anosike did miss quite a bit of sleep.
"I was up until 5:30. I could not get a wink of sleep," Anosike said. "I was just so wound up from the game. I still can't believe it like I'm about to play in the championship game."
Anosike said it would not matter if she tosses and turns again Monday night.
"I'm going to have energy regardless of if I sleep 10 hours or one hour," Anosike said. "There is no way that I will not have energy to play in the national championship game. It's going to come from somewhere."
Six of the starters on both teams – four for Rutgers (Carson, Ajavon, Vaughn and Price) and two for Tennessee (Anosike and Bobbitt) – hail from the New York and New Jersey areas. They played against each other in high school and with each other in some cases in AAU or USA basketball. Bobbitt and Price were high school teammates at Murry Bergtraum. Price tried to convince Bobbitt to come to Rutgers, but Bobbitt, who played for two years at a junior college in Texas, wanted to be a Lady Vol
"Just their background overall, playing with Candace Parker, playing for Pat Summitt," said Bobbitt, who added she was initially "stunned" to be in a film session with the iconic coach. "It's definitely a honor to play here. A lot of the people down in Knoxville are very friendly, they're very nice. I just enjoy the whole environment."
Two teams that pride themselves on defense combined with six players who know each other from the playgrounds and gymnasiums of the Northeast set this game up as one of a backyard brawl.
"It's going to be a playground game with fundamentals and discipline," Bobbitt said with the perfect combination of New York swagger and Tennessee style.
Anosike is very familiar with Rutgers' team. In fact, her mother, Ngozi Anosike, has moved to New Jersey and has become a Scarlet Knights fan with the Lady Vols her top choice.
Her mother, who raised eight children alone, didn't see Anosike play until she was in the 11th grade at St. Peter's.
"After that she realized it was fun to watch," Anosike said. "After my freshman year she realized how good they were (Rutgers) after they killed us. She reads about them as much as she possibly can. After us they're probably her favorite team.
"Four of their five starters I played against in high school – Kia Vaughn and Epiphanny from New York and Mat and Essence from Jersey. I've played against them for a long time. When we played Mat's team they killed us. When we played Kia's team we beat them. When we played Epiphanny's team they beat us."
Anosike, who played with Carson for USA Basketball, said her former foes and friends remember her a perimeter player.
"I played a lot of wing in high school," Anosike said. "That's probably how everyone in high school remembers me. That's why it's a little shocking when they watch me now, and they're like what are you doing in the post? Coach told me she needed me in the post and I just had to step up and do it to the best of my abilities."
Tennessee has versatility at every position on the floor.
Anosike can defend in the post or on the perimeter. So can Spencer, who can also play offensively inside or out. Parker is listed as G/F/C – an eye chart as one writer noted – on the scorecards and can play all five positions. Hornbuckle and Bobbitt can play interchangeably at the point and wing guard spots.
Tennessee also has maturity at every position on the floor, something that every player agreed had been missing in the past and even earlier this season.
It is not uncommon for the Tennessee players to yell at each other on the floor or on the bench or back and forth – picture a roster full of Summitts in personality – and sometimes the remarks are not delivered at all gently.
"It wasn't like that in the beginning to be honest," Hornbuckle said. "You're bringing together so many different personalities and everybody has a way of being handled. We kind of had meeting after meeting and like, ‘Look, in the heat of the moment you're going to get yelled at whether it's by the coaches, whether it's by each of us. Take what I'm saying, not how I'm saying it. Understand that I'm trying to be as positive as I can and help you out. Listen to what I'm saying.'
"You have to be able to receive information as well as you give it, so we just understood that. And I think that if it wasn't for that we would not be here today, because when you get oversensitive and you think someone's coming directly at you, you kind of shut down as a person."
Two of the players who had to learn how to talk to each other were Parker and Hornbuckle. The two didn't always see eye to eye until they learned to trust each other.
"Honestly I think it's just you've been around somebody for so many years, and you gain respect for them," Parker said. "We try not to focus on the way something is said but what is said. I know there're times in games where you just can't be sensitive. Obviously they're telling you something for a reason. Coach Summitt doesn't always sit us down and nicely tell us something. I think sometimes we take the attitude of coach and just tell it, say what's on our mind."
Two of the bluntest talkers are the New York natives. Anosike was born in Brooklyn. Bobbitt was born in the Bronx.
"They're roommates and being a point guard you have to be on the same page with your post players because they're battling inside," Spencer said. "The fact they're both from New York it definitely could get pretty heated, but they don't take anything personal, and they know that."
When the players are asked about it away from the court they can't help but smile.
"We yell at each other all the time, but I think we're mature enough not to take the tone of what we're saying but more so the message," Anosike said. "Shannon yelled at me (Sunday), and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I'd better play some defense.'
"It's really eye-opening when your teammate yells at you as opposed to when Pat yells at you. Pat can yell at you, and you can be like, ‘OK, I'd better do this.' But when your teammate yells at you, you just know that you have to get it done. I think that's what got us to this point is the fact that we all are leaders in our way, and we all do listen to each other. I think we all try to be coaches on the floor. Pat can give us the strategy, and she can give us the game plan, but when the game starts, it's us. It's not Pat. Pat can't get on the floor and play for us. I think we learned that. That's a lesson we had to learn the hard way, definitely against LSU (in the SEC tourney), but we picked the right time to learn it."
Bobbitt is apparently in the thick of things quite often.
"I told Shannon, ‘You know what? We're going to fight after the game if you keep talking to me like that,' " Hornbuckle said. "We were supposed to run a play and we just threw it in for the tournament, and we didn't get to practice it much. I was like, ‘Shannon, run this play.' She was like, ‘I forgot it. I just learned it.'
"I was like, ‘I just learned it, too. You've got to run the play.' She said it (Sunday) night on the court. I was like, ‘You know I love you, but I tell you what … .' That's the type of team that we have to be able to talk to each other in that manner but realize that it's all positive and realize it's for the betterment of the team. Not everybody has that amongst their team."
Bobbitt just smiled sweetly when asked about the exchanges. She wore her glasses during the media interviews, which gave the primary instigator a studious and innocent look.
"We definitely had meetings about screaming at each other," Bobbitt said. "Don't take it personal. We're here to help you. We did a great job taking that into consideration."
It also helps that Bobbitt has earned the respect and admiration of her teammates. Summitt should she would adopt her if she could.
"She does a lot to be so small, a little bit of everything so we call her Lil' Bit," Hornbuckle said. "She brought so much to the team. She's a big ball of fire. She could be getting yelled at and still be smiling. Not too many people can do that. I don't do that. She can be looking at coach and saying, ‘OK, Coach, I got you.' To have somebody like that you feed off that. Shannon's standing here getting her ears chewed, and she's standing there with a smile on her face ready to be receptive and ready to turn that into positive play.
"I know I personally feed off that type of play and that type of person. She's done so much, and she's done so much coming into this program as a first-year point guard. She's left her mark being an energetic player. We know that the defense starts with her as well as myself at the guard position and trickles on down to the post, as well as Nicky, whether she's on guards or post players. It all starts with Shannon, and we all feed off that."
When asked which players could be overly sensitive to criticism, Hornbuckle cited herself.
"I know I can be sensitive at times. I know it's hard to believe, don't worry about it," Hornbuckle said with a laugh. "I would get sensitive at times because my personality is I'm always right. I could be dead wrong, and I know I'm wrong, but I'm going to fight you like I'm right.
"Candace was kind of like the same way, even Shannon at times. But then we all realized like, ‘That's dumb. We're not going to get anywhere.' We all need each other. I need Shannon's speed and tempo in order to get Sidney a basket. Everybody needs everyone so we just kind of swallowed our pride that it's all for the good."
Spencer said the nature of sports mean players have to learn to put aside individual needs and adopt a team personality.
"It's loud in there the only way you can hear each another – you can't talk like this to one another – you're going to have to scream if they want to hear what you're trying to say," Spencer said. "It may look like … we all have different body language and faces that we make, but we all know that we're here and we're on the same page trying to win a national championship. We're not going to take it that ‘Oh, she yelled at me,' we're going to be like, ‘OK, I got you.' "
The Rutgers players had to adopt a similar attitude, but it was to survive their coach. The Scarlet Knights began the season giving up a lot of points. The trademark Rutgers defense was nonexistent. Stringer didn't see any competitors on her team. They lost to Duke, 85-45, at home at the once-fearsome RAC. They stood 5-5 at the end of December.
Stringer tossed the players out of their locker room early in December. They lost all access to the shower and laundry facilities. Their practice gear was locked up. They were not allowed to wear anything with the name Rutgers on it.
After giving up 87 points to DePaul – the team goal was 55 – Stringer made the players run wind sprints for each point surrendered over that goal – 32 – to the point of exhaustion.
Then winter break rolled around, and things really got brutal.
"I believe during the break there's no limit on hours?" Vaughn said.
When told that the 20-hour a week practice rule only applied when classes were in session Vaughn raised her eyebrows, shook her head and said, "They shouldn't tell her that. We had two-a-days. We got up at 5 a.m. We would tell the managers to tell her she had a phone call and she had to leave. We ran. We ran a lot. We would scrimmage for four hours. How could you possibly scrimmage for four hours? Well, we did it. And we ran and we ran and we ran."
"Winter break is a long time," Carson said. "We were there all day. It's kind of dark when you get up, and it's kind of dark when you leave."
The players called it "track practice." The assistant coaches were rarely seen so there was no one for the players to turn to since they can serve as a buffer between player and head coach.
"There was no one there to help us out, to feel bad for us," Carson said.
Stringer showed up in blue outfits, pink ones, brown, anything but red and black.
The players changed clothes in the bathroom. They washed out their practice shirts on the road in a hotel sink. They took naps on training room tables. The Michigan State players laughed at them for looking so mismatched in their assortment of practice gear. That made them mad and they beat the Spartans, 63-57, on Jan. 28.
That also was the final turning point. The locker room was reopened right before February. Word came through Chelsea Newton, a former Rutgers player and now director of player development, but Vaughn didn't believe it until she heard the news from Stringer herself.
By that time Rutgers had become a defensive team. No opponent scored more than 57 points in January, and South Florida was held to 36.
Stringer threatened to take the plush locker room away if the team slipped and give it to the soccer team. The basketball team would move to soccer's quarters.
"I don't know about y'all but I'm fighting for this locker room," Vaughn told her teammates. "We were hurting. We really were. She was putting us down, she didn't believe in us, and we had to believe in each other. The coaches right now they're going to be our enemies, but no matter what we stick together."
And then Stringer began to wear the school colors again. The assistants, who had been on the road hunting for some new players for next season, returned to practice.
Rutgers continued its upward progression until losing to UConn, 70-44, in the regular season finale. The Scarlet Knights got their revenge in the Big East Tournament title game in a 55-47 win over the Huskies. Then they beat Duke, 53-52, in the Greensboro Regional. The turnaround was remarkable. After all that, Rutgers now finds itself matched up with familiar foe Tennessee, the team that has knocked out the Scarlet Knights in the past two NCAA Tournaments.
Rutgers and Tennessee always seemed to be on the same side of the bracket and meeting in regionals. This year it took until the final game of the season for the programs to meet.
"It always seems that we always are playing one another," Stringer said. "And we're such good friends. I'm sure that we prefer not to play. But on the other hand, we continue to want to make ourselves worthy to be considered in that elite company. To have an opportunity to play them time and time again. And so for those schools that avoid great competition, it's like this, you can run, but you can't hide. You can run, but you can't hide. Because ultimately if what you say you want is a national championship, they're going to be there. Lurking somewhere.
"That is what we want. We want to play the best. I'm excited about playing them. I'm not going to get hung up on, ‘Well, they just keep on beating you. I've lasted this many years, you know, so I've got it in me. That's one thing about it. I can persevere. … It's appropriate. That's the team that it should be.
"Anything short of that probably is like, well, but you didn't play the mighty Tennessee. So you know we get a chance to play them and if we're not good enough, we're not good enough. If we're good enough you'll find out Tuesday night. You'll know."
Both teams are laying claim to the notion that this national title is their destiny.
"Obviously with what this team has done I can see where Coach Stringer would go in that direction and inspire her team," Summitt said. "At the same time, I told our team we're not leaving here without a national championship. So I think you have two teams that really feel it and believe it."
Much has been made of Rutgers' offensive flurry to start the game in the win over LSU. The Scarlet Knights were 8-10 from behind the arc in the first half. In the first four games of the tourney Rutgers had shot 19-52 from behind the arc (36.5 percent).
Much has been made also of Tennessee's poor shooting in the win over North Carolina. The Lady Vols had started the tournament shooting 117-232 (50.4 percent) in the first four games. They shot 27 percent against North Carolina. No team had ever won in the Final Four shooting less than 33.1 percent.
A Final Four is nothing if not unpredictable. Bucket loads of pregame analysis will be sifted through in the hours before the game. Most of it becomes rather meaningless at this stage.
"I think you're going to have a great game and obviously it's going to be the kind of game where players have to make plays," Summitt said. "And they have to make stops. They have to score. To me, it's two teams that want this and in such a way that I think you're going to see a basketball game played with tremendous intensity and competitiveness."
Can Rutgers scorch the nets again? It's possible. Can Tennessee miss a lot of shots again? Of course. Will they? Who knows?
"We didn't really shoot the ball so well, and we had to find other ways to score," Spencer said. "It seemed like we were all missing layups and easy shots. We're going to definitely have to bring our defense. We're just going to try to execute and if we're not scoring we've got to rebound the ball, and we've got to make stops. It's going to come down to possessions. And if we're making more stops and out-rebounding them then I think we have a good shot."
Summitt has preached possession basketball all season. She doesn't want to see her players take a possession off in practice, much less a game, especially at this point in the season. But it's a season-long lesson, and one that Tennessee seems to have learned. The comeback against North Carolina when the Lady Vols were down by 12 points with 8:18 to play and ultimately prevailed, 56-50, convinced the players that Summitt was right.
It wasn't the foul calls, or lack thereof. It was one team making stops when one had to be made and finding some way to score as the seconds ticked away.
"It didn't affect me last night," said Hornbuckle of her shooting struggles, a performance Summitt likened to not being able to shoot a BB into the ocean. "As a player you're more than an offensive-minded person. I never quit being a leader, I never stopped trying to get people into the game, I never stopped trying to get our fans into the game, I never stopped playing defense.
"(Tuesday) it's a new game, it's a new team, it's a new setting. So you just have to come out here like my shot's going to fall and I'm going to do whatever it takes to help my team win. And if I don't have a good offensive night (Tuesday) as well I guarantee you that I will have a good defensive night, and I will be a leader."
Hornbuckle's turning point came in the loss to Duke when Tennessee spotted the Blue Devils a 19-0 lead but battled back before falling 74-70.
"I think I have matured even from the beginning of the season," Hornbuckle said. "I would forget to play defense or I would take a possession off. In the Duke game I told myself you cannot be the type of player you want to be and your teammates need you to be if you are self-centered. You just have to step outside of your comfort zone. You cannot throw yourself a pity party because you are not scoring. Tennessee is not about Alexis Hornbuckle.
"You realize that, but you don't really realize that until you hit adversity and you grow into the type of person that your coach sees you as being. I realized that my team needs me to do more than score. My team needs me to be a defensive stopper. My team needs me to be a leader, and I've accepted that role and grown and built off of that."
It wasn't just Hornbuckle who got the message. Parker learned how crucial her defensive play was to the team's success. Tennessee lost to LSU in the SEC tourney because Sylvia Fowles dominated the paint with little resistance from Parker.
"If that LSU loss hadn't happened I don't know if we would be here today," Hornbuckle said. "Everything has changed. Candace realized, ‘Hey, I need to be accountable on the defensive end as well as the offensive end.' She's come out and been so tenacious and so energetic on both ends of the court."
Summitt also took one look at her team speed last fall and began emphasizing defense on the first day of practice. It was much easier to get the team's attention after the loss to North Carolina in the regional final that left Tennessee at home for the Final Four for the first time in four years.
"We've gotten so much better defensively since October since practice started," Hornbuckle said. "I think a lot of the games that we lost – well, obviously we only lost three but to me it feels like a lot – were because we had too many defensive breakdowns, and we tried to rely on our offense. Coach made it a point of emphasis that one-on-one defense is important, and everything else will fall into place. You'll become that helper and also rebounding. That's a big part of defense.
"We wanted to pull together as a team like no other Tennessee team has since all of us have been playing together. I know that last year it didn't really feel like a team effort throughout the year, especially down the stretch. We just didn't want to be put in the same situation. If we ended up falling short we wanted to fall short together instead of having individual effort."
Much has been written about this team's chemistry on and off the court. It started with weekly dinners at the seniors' house to get to know each other in the preseason in get-togethers to "test the waters," Hornbuckle said, to gauge individual personalities. It continued with regular team meetings about basketball during the season.
"Once you start playing it's a whole different personality that comes about," Hornbuckle said. "All the competitiveness, all the people that think, ‘OK, you say you saw this, but I felt like I did this.' And once we erased all that and realized you're watching so you're more than likely bound to be right, and it kept building and it snowballed into a positive effect. We have talked about it throughout the year.
"We had a meeting before the North Carolina game (Sunday). I said, ‘Ladies, you know it's going to be a tough situation. It's not going to be a game where we win by 20, and adversity is going to come upon us, but when it comes don't take anything personal.' I even apologized ahead of time. I said I'm sorry for yelling at y'all ahead of time because I know it's going to come out."
It certainly helps that this team has one goal: to cut down the nets Tuesday night.
"I think there are 360 other teams out there that would love to be in our position right now," Parker said. "I really feel lucky to be here, but we worked really hard to get where we are at. It was great to beat North Carolina and finally get over the hump and get to the national championship game, but I don't think we're satisfied yet."
"Just to be able to play in a national championship game as a senior it's a dream come true, and I wouldn't want to do it with any other players than the ones we have on this team," Spencer said.
"Everyone knows Tennessee has won six national titles, but I have never won one," Anosike said. "I don't even know how to explain what it would mean to win. This is something you dream about. If you told me when I was younger that I would be playing for Tennessee in a national title game, I never would have believed you. You never think a dream like that will come true, and here I am."
"Everything happens for a reason and it was my destiny," Bobbitt said. "It was meant for me to go the juco route. And I'm happy about that because it helped me as a player and a person."
"You come to Tennessee wanting to be national champions and to fall short for the past two years and now to be in the situation to actually get there … that's something you can never take away," Hornbuckle said. "You're national champions for a whole year as well as the rest of your life. That's something you can look back on and say I was part of a national championship team."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood was the primary scout for the Rutgers-Tennessee game, although the assistants all help each other at this point in the season. Here is his assessment.
When Rutgers has the ball: "They are so good in terms of their penetration, their ability to get into the lane, their ability to get fouled. They're averaging 20 free throws a game in the postseason. Their ability to create off the dribble one on one, they're just very, very good. They have enough of an inside attack – Kia Vaughn is really establishing herself as a low post presence and also someone who can face up and hit a mid-range shot – that will make you guard it and combined with that there's a penetration game that they have. Our first concern is how good they are with the basketball off the dribble.
"Ajavon and Carson, I think, are playing as well as any two combination of players in this tournament. You take any two players, give me two players off of a team, a Batman and Robin, and for them you take your pick who's who at any given moment. They're playing as well as any tandem of two people that are out there. (Sunday) night was a classic example. They had daggers in their hands in the first half. They had 29 of the 37 points. They did a number on LSU."
When Tennessee has the ball: "I don't think a lot has changed with us. We want to play it through the inside. We want to get our inside people touches. We want to establish that we can get the ball inside. We want to be able to play through Candace Parker, get Nicky touches and make things happen off of that. Our ability to generate some paint points, our ability to move the ball and just to be able to create a tempo that we like to play at. Rutgers will run, and they're very athletic, but then also they'll slow down.
"They're averaging in the 60s. You look at this team and you say this is a team that could easily be in the 80s. It's easy to get fooled by that. But I think the biggest thing we want to do is we want to play to our inside game, and we want to establish our game tempo."
Lockwood's voice was deep, and his eyes were bleary as he grabbed a sandwich in the locker room and sat down with a pile of notes. His trademark sense of humor was intact when he was asked if he had gotten any sleep.
"I slept 10 hours, and I went fishing this morning," Lockwood said.
Actually the coaching staff stayed up until nearly dawn.
"We spent a lot of time with preparation with Rutgers," Lockwood said. "We just spent a lot of time putting a report together and putting clips together.
"For us as coaches sleep is a fantasy right now. I think maybe two hours and 15 minutes. I can't tell you the last six hours sleep that I had. I'm counting on Wednesday night I'll catch up with all of it. I think it's a combination of stuff you have to do and also just being wired. All of us are just really excited about this."
Lockwood expected another late night Monday of "refining" his report for Tuesday's film session and "having a comfort level that what we're doing is accurate and right on the mark."
Nikki Caldwell sat beside Lockwood and pulled up film clips nonstop on a laptop.
"You just look at it as part of it," Caldwell said. "You watch as much film as you can to prepare them the best way you can. We've got next week to catch up on our sleep. We're just grateful to be here. Your primary focus is making sure your team is prepared."
The fact the two teams left standing have been defensive juggernauts in the tourney struck the hard-working assistants as apropos.
"Obviously there have been a lot of good defensive teams in the tournament, but I think at this stage of this game we've probably defended as consistently well as any two teams that are out there," Lockwood said. "Here we are."
BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is 12-3 in the series against Rutgers and 5-0 in postseason play. … Tennessee is 0-1 in games played on April 3. The loss was to Michigan State, 68-64, in 2005. Former Lady Vol Semeka Randall is an assistant for the Spartans and a beloved native of Cleveland. She is back home for the Final Four. … Tennessee is 4-0 against the Big East this season with wins over West Virginia, Notre Dame, UConn and Pitt. … NCAA Tournament Stat Watch: Tennessee is averaging 72.9 points per game to 64.6 ppg for Rutgers. Tennessee yields 49.8 ppg to 44.6 for Rutgers. The teams are nearly identical in board play – 40.0 rebounds per game for Tennessee to 39.8 for Rutgers. The Lady Vols have the edge in assists – 14.8 to 11.0 for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights squeak ahead in steals – 10.8 per game to 10.0 for Tennessee. The Lady Vols lead in blocks – 6.2 to 4.8 for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have fewer turnovers – 11.8 per game to 13.2 for Tennessee.
SCOUTING MATTERS: Nikki Caldwell scouted the Pitt and North Carolina games this postseason. In both cases she moved Sidney Spencer inside to guard post players and sent Nicky Anosike to the perimeter. The defensive scheme worked perfectly both times. In the North Carolina game, Erlana Larkins was held to four points on four shot attempts.
"I think sometimes people forget Sid was a post player," Caldwell said. "We kind of converted her. She obviously has the ability to step out and knock down the three ball, but her physicality is one of any post we've got on our squad right now. She can bring a lot of versatility to us. Sid took the challenge. I thought she did a great job of doing what we asked of her. She, along with our team defense, held Larkins to four points. She does a good job of matching the physical play inside. Sid is very physical. She'll battle."
Spencer wanted no part of the credit for Larkins' low numbers unless the team was mentioned, too.
"It was definitely not me that stopped anybody last night," Spencer said Monday. "It was the team. My teammates were continually telling me, ‘We've got you, got you, got you. Just do what the coaches ask. We've got your back.' I just trusted them completely, and it happened the way it did, the way the stat sheet said. But it was not me."
BENCH PLAY: Tennessee's reserve players, Dominique Redding, Alex Fuller, Alberta Auguste and Cait McMahan, got a shout-out from Alexis Hornbuckle on Monday.
"Our bench play has been tremendous," Hornbuckle said. "Alberta Auguste has come into this tournament with a new mindset. Obviously you've watched her throughout the year. She's come off the bench and struggled at times or tried to force things. She's just letting the game come to her. It's beautiful to watch her and coming to realize her strengths, and everybody is playing their roles so well.
"When we sub we don't drop off. At times throughout the season that happened. Now everybody just knows what stage they're on. I'm proud of our bench. I don't care if you play two minutes or 36. You come in here and you give us everything you have, and we'll come here and start the game off as well as we can. It kind of filters throughout the team."
Auguste played 16 minutes against North Carolina and teamed up with Hornbuckle to harass North Carolina's ball handlers. She had two rebounds, four points, an assist, a block, a steal and just one turnover.
"We're just hungry," Auguste said. "We want it. Whatever it takes for us coming off the bench we will do it."
LADY VOL PACT UPDATE: Nicky Anosike fielded questions about the Lady Vol Pact, a document the players drafted and signed during a team meeting held the day before the UConn game. The meeting was for players only, and the coaches weren't even told what was in the pact.
The pact made the rounds of the media, who learned Anosike was behind it. The pre-law major also secured signatures for the pact.
"I didn't make anyone sign it. It was optional," said Anosike, who noted that every player did. "We all collectively put together a couple of things that we wanted to do consistently throughout the rest of the season. We don't even have to recite it anymore. We know it, and it's a given. It was a list of eight things that we wanted to do and get done.
Anosike also revealed a little more about its contents.
"It was things like I will give my all on both ends of the floor, I will encourage my teammates, things that don't necessarily say we will win but things that will get you a win if you really commit to it," Anosike said. "I wrote a majority of it, but I consulted everyone on it and asked them what they felt about the different things. I wanted to know if they agreed with some of the things that I was saying or they disagreed. There were some things I wrote down in the beginning that people were like, ‘No, let's not even touch that subject,' and that we had to remove off of it, but I had everyone's approval in what I wrote down."
CAIT'S HEART: Cait McMahan was granted an exception to the phone surrender rule. Her mother, Teresa McMahan, is very ill with cancer back home in Maryville, Tennessee, and McMahan needs to have immediate contact with her, if necessary, while on road trips.
"I get to keep my phone because of my mom in case of emergency," McMahan said. "The team voted on that. But I don't stay on my phone because I don't think it's fair."
McMahan was getting ready to put on her shoes to go practice. The words "Strong Like Mom" are written across the sides of both of her shoes.
"I just turn to God for support, and I know she's smiling," McMahan said.
McMahan's strength impresses her teammates. They try to return it with shows of support.
"We just try to be there," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "I've been to Cait's house and talked to her mother. I spoke to her mother before the sickness got to the point of where it's at. Cait does a good job of having this outer shield of everytime she's on the court it's business. Her positive attitude to have your mother go through something like that and come into a practice or a game every day fired up and every day positive that just speaks volumes.
"It just speaks to my heart. You cannot complain about anything when you see somebody else in that type of situation. I feel like it would be great to be able to bring one home and have her look her mother in the eye and say, ‘Mom, I accomplished it.' That just motivates us every day."
COACHES' SUPPORT: Both the Tennessee and Rutgers players spoke about how much they turn to their head coaches for support on and off the court.
"When I first stepped on campus there was a family-like atmosphere," Matee Ajavon said. "It was one thing that really pushed me into going to Rutgers. Coach Stringer is a mother-like figure. She's a person who's been through it all, knows it all basically. She's a good role model."
Sidney Spencer had a story to share about cooking and coaching.
I always tell this story," Spencer said. "I think I was making meat, wait, I think it was pork chops. And to show how much of a mother figure she is to us, I called her and asked her for a recipe to use. She gave me a great one, and it was some of the best pork chops I have ever made.
"But, in typical fashion, she was yelling at us the next day in practice. That is why I love her so much as a person. She is tough when she needs to be and the most loving and compassionate person in the world the rest of the time. I have been blessed to be a part of her program."
SAY WHAT?: Towards the end of Alexis Hornbuckle's session with the media – there were three minutes left – some questions came from the very back of the room about the matchups with Rutgers and the importance of confidence.
Hornbuckle managed to keep a straight face and deliver some stock answers. The questions were from Sidney Spencer, who had slipped into the interview room with Shannon Bobbitt and Nicky Anosike. They had already crashed Candace Parker's media party, too.
"How beautiful is Nicky?" Anosike asked.
Hornbuckle smiled and said, "Well, Nicky Anosike she's a very beautiful lady, but she has nothing on Alexis Hornbuckle."
The moderator then ended the timed-out session, suddenly wise to the wisecracks, as the three wayward players ran from the room laughing.