Lady Vols open season Sunday

The Lady Vols defense of their national title officially begins this afternoon with the regular season opener against Chattanooga. Last year's team had something to prove and that quest began about the time the buzzer sounded on the season that felt short of the Final Four. Is this Tennessee team hungry to repeat?

"We approach the season like we did last year and that's, ‘We're starving,' " senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. "We want that other championship. It's a whole new season so it's not we want back to back. We want this championship of 2008. That's how we walked into preseason and that's how we walked into the exhibition games, and now we're building on one game at a time starting with Chattanooga.

"For this particular Tennessee team we came in hungry. If you could have witnessed our preseason and how people were still just busting their butts every day – every Monday, Wednesday and Friday we were on the court and giving 110 percent like we had fallen short. The freshmen have followed suit. I don't know what it is, but I am thankful that it is this way."

Tennessee opens at home against Chattanooga (1-0), which beat Austin Peay on Friday evening and will play its second road game of the season Sunday at 3 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena (Lady Vol Radio Network, TV: SportSouth).

Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00; Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14; Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman forward, No. 5; Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3; and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55.

Chattanooga Coach Wes Moore is expected to start: Laura Hall, 5'6 senior guard, No. 10, preseason All-Southern Conference selection, played at nearby Oliver Springs High School; Brooke Hand, 5'8 senior guard, No. 12, preseason All-Conference selection; Jenaya Wade-Fray,, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 15, All-Freshman Team in SoCon last season; Alex Anderson, 6'1 senior forward, No. 40, had 18 rebounds against both Clemson and Alabama last season; and Erin Ogan, 6'1 junior forward, No. 44, played in Knoxville at Powell High School, where she holds the scoring record with 1,753 points.

The Lady Vols went 34-3 last season and claimed the program's seventh national title in Cleveland. Tennessee begins this season as the consensus No. 1 team in the country. The 2007-08 squad – which lost one senior starter and added four talented freshmen – could be even better this year.

"Saying that we can be and saying that we are two different things," Summitt said. "We can be, but are we right now? No. But I think that we can be. A lot depends on the consistency of our upperclassmen and their leadership and helping bring along our four new players and then how these four handle it when we get into really competitive possessions all the time.

"They need repetition. They need to play against people that are going to take away what they want to do, and they will. So I think in time we could be better, but that's probably in February and hopefully for sure by March."

The pressure of trying to repeat can be pervasive, but this team seems immune from it, at least so far.

"I don't feel any different," Parker said. Our team is so relaxed. You hear us. There's no pressure."

Parker was talking in the players' lounge over the din of loud music emanating from the locker room. The team was getting ready for practice, and the players soon emerged with some still singing and dancing to the earlier tunes.

The players are loose – Summitt cited that as a positive last season – and use some of their time off the court to stay that way.

"We don't really talk about, ‘OK, we need to do this on screens,' " Parker said. "We're in the locker room talking about the new song that came out or new dances. I think that's what helped us go so far last year, because we just played in the moment, played the game and didn't worry about all the extra stuff."

Then Parker grinned and said, "That's what the coaches do. That's what they're paid for."

Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Chattanooga game and went over the specifics with the players and staff on Friday and Saturday. The season opener is important in its own right in terms of setting the tone. It's even more important considering that the next two games are against Big 12 foes Oklahoma and Texas. The Lady Vols want to go into practice Monday focusing on those upcoming opponents without any lingering bad vibes from Sunday.

"We don't like to hit a lot of sour notes on Sunday because then you tend to dwell on that longer than what we need to in preparation for Oklahoma," Lockwood said. "I don't think anybody, players or coaches, would be happy if we hit too many sour notes on Sunday. We'd like it to be a game where we can feel good about our effort, feel good about our performance and at the same time we know that this team coming in is not going to back down or not going to roll over on us. We know that this one will be a good first-time challenge."

The Lady Vols beat Chattanooga a year ago, 102-72, but gave up 13 three-pointers, the most ever by a Summitt-coached team. Hand hit six from long range and poured in 20 points for the Lady Mocs. In its season opener Chattanooga beat Austin-Peay, 64-50, in Clarksville. Anderson, the preseason Southern Conference player of the year, led all scorers with 26 points. The Lady Mocs also were picked to win their conference.

"Coach Wes Moore does a great job of preparing his teams and having them get up and down the floor, and they really have great spacing offensively and a toughness to them," Summitt said. "We are going to need to be very focused and go into that game understanding that we have to defend. We certainly will have to defend the three-ball, the inside game and dribble penetration. That is what we need, and I think that is exactly what we will face."

Sounds like the coaches are ready. So how about the players?

"Definitely," Parker said. "Obviously we want to win the national championship. We have six could-be seniors on our team (four seniors and two redshirt juniors). We want to make sure that we all go out with a bang. Winning a national championship would definitely put our mark (on the program). I think one national championship, yeah. But two? You can't deny that. We want to win it.

"It's hard to repeat, but it's hard to beat Tennessee."

SCOUTING REPORT: Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee vs. Chattanooga game. Here is his assessment.

When Chattanooga has the ball: "They've got three seniors that are really key, pivotal players for them. They can shoot the ball. The name of this game you've still got to put it in the basket, and they've got kids who can do that. If you let those kids have looks, they can make shots.

"Alex Anderson is probably their best all-around player, best athlete. She can drive in. She's really good at creating mid-range points. Then you've got Hall and Hand who can shoot deep. Fray is a good player who has made shots for them. We have to guard. This is not a team that we can just let do their thing and have shots and have easy looks.

"Our big thing still is going to be pressure. We have to pressure, and we have to bring the heat to them. We have to make them, especially from the perimeter, we have to try to overwhelm their guards in terms of just giving them a lot of pressure, not letting them run their sets, not letting them feel comfortable, making them handle it under pressure. That's where it starts for us. And in the interior we have to control the boards. We can't let this team get a lot of offensive rebounds because that's more opportunities for them and, again, they can shoot the ball. Our big thing is come out with pressure and control the interior."

When Tennessee has the ball: "We'd like to really run. We'd like to have our transition really produce some points for us. Obviously you're going to hear this all year for us, but we've got an inside attack that we feel can be the core of what we're doing and at least generate some things. We like to play from the inside-out. We've got some shooters. We've got some drivers. So if we can move the ball early we can get some inside touches and some paint points. Now that puts pressure defensively on your opponent. Now the perimeter game is going to open up that much more. We'd like a balanced attack from us.

"You're going to hear, it's almost trite and cliché-ish, but you're going to hear it: Establish inside-out, balance in our attack, it starts with our transition game and getting the ball inside."

Lockwood knows that the Lady Vols know they carry a big orange target every game out.

"They're definitely aware of that," Lockwood said.

The crown of the national champion means an already bright orange bull's-eye just went DayGlo.

"I'd rather be in the position I'm in now to have won, but at the same time everything has its positives and its negatives," senior center Nicky Anosike said. "Being the underdog has its positives just because no one expects you to win and you go in having nothing to lose, but now it's like we have everything to lose. But I would definitely rather be in the position where the target is on our back."

Do the Lady Mocs have the Lady Vols' attention, especially considering there's a No. 1 vs. No. 6 matchup with Oklahoma coming up Thursday?

"I hope so," Lockwood said. "Quite honestly the only way I can answer that question with any level of intelligence is to see us play in the first five to seven minutes. But I trust our team. I really believe they know that the capability is always there to play poorly or not play well or to get beat if you're not on top of what you're doing mentally and physically. So I think this team has respect for Chattanooga, certainly enough to know that if you let them have good looks they're going to make shots. If you let them get to the basket, they're going to finish and make plays.

"I think from that standpoint we're aware that this is a formidable team. You have a team that got to the tournament and wins 20 games. That's something you have to respect."

AWESOME ANGIE: Freshman Angie Bjorklund started both exhibition contests for the Lady Vols – she hit nine 3-pointers and averaged 19.5 ppg – and she is expected to start Sunday in her first official game.

The guard/forward from Spokane Valley, Wash. – the first Tennessee basketball player from the state of Washington – would become the 11th Lady Vol to start her first game. The other 10 were Bridgette Gordon and Sheila Frost (both 1985); Tiffani Johnson (1994); Chamique Holdsclaw (1995); Kyra Elzy (1996); Semeka Randall (1997); Gwen Jackson (1999); Ashley Robinson (2000); Shyra Ely (2001); and Candace Parker (2005).

As Bjorklund drained shot after shot one recent day after practice, Dean Lockwood was asked if he could remember a freshman who shot that well.

"I've been around a guy named Houston that was pretty fair," Lockwood said.

Lockwood was referring to legendary Vol Allan Houston, who holds the men's record for all-time points scored at Tennessee with 2,801. (Holdsclaw holds the overall record at Tennessee with 3,025 points.) Lockwood was an assistant on the men's team from 1986 to 1991.

"Allan played like a junior his freshman year," Lockwood said, but "in terms of recent memory, no. She's pretty special in that regard. She's so even-keeled and even-tempered, and I think that helps her demeanor on the court. It helps her to be poised and relaxed. From what we've seen in two exhibition games she doesn't press issues, she doesn't panic, and she plays with a very good basketball demeanor. Combine that with her skills, and you've got a pretty talented kid."

Bjorklund earned the right to start based on her preseason practice performance. She made a case to stay in the lineup with her production in the exhibition games.

"I definitely think that Angie can make an impact," Pat Summitt said. "I felt that before she ever got on campus just watching her in high school and watching her in AAU. I like her demeanor. She's not a player to really get rattled by what happened. She doesn't seem to carry a mistake with her. I think her demeanor is favorable for her to be consistent and step in and help us."

USA GAME: The USA team has rolled through its college competition since leaving Knoxville and next faces Texas A&M on Sunday. The last two teams on the eight-school tour are USC (Tuesday) and Stanford (Thursday).

The Lady Vols lost, 83-72, but the 11-point margin has been the lowest to date. The USA beat Baylor, 82-58, and waxed Arizona State, 82-48. Prior to the Tennessee game, the USA team downed Maryland and Connecticut by scores of 90-73 and 90-74, respectively.

Tennessee is used to winning its exhibition games and had won 17 consecutive contests until the Nov. 4 loss. The Lady Vols overall record in exhibition games is 31-4, with the USA team accounting for two of those defeats in 1995 and 2007. The other two were to the USSR Olympic team, a 102-59 loss in 1979, and to Athletes in Action, 70-68 in 1992.

Lady Vol center Nicky Anosike said Tennessee got what it needed in the USA game.

"I think we had a quality exhibition game that kind of showed us where we are right now and losing by 11 to a great team of professionals shows that we're right where we need to be for right now, but we do have improvement that we need to make," Anosike said.

"I think it's helped us figure out where we need to improve just because we played against such great competition. I think it was a positive experience overall, more positive than negative that we got out of it."

The exhibition games, especially the second one against Carson-Newman, allowed the Lady Vols to get court time for the four freshmen. Tennessee found out that all four could contribute this season.

"I think they're a lot farther ahead than I was my freshman year just as far as knowing the plays, footwork, all that kind of stuff," Anosike said. "They definitely need to improve by the time we get into the real tough games of the season, but I think that they're in a good spot for right now."

And despite their lofty ranking as the top recruiting class in the country, the four newcomers have come in with an attitude that has made it much easier to work them into the flow of an established team.

"It's pretty easy just because we have enough players who were here last year," Anosike said. "It's just a different mixture. I guess those players who weren't here last year they kind of bring a new perspective because they haven't won and the players who were here last year they bring a different perspective because they did win. It brings a nice little mix to the team, and I think it's going to be a positive for us."

The four freshmen have also been willing to listen. For Alexis Hornbuckle that has meant talking more as the floor leader. For Anosike, who didn't hesitate to upbraid her teammates last season when necessary, it has meant talking less to allow the freshmen some time to adjust.

"Slowly but surely," Anosike said when asked if the muzzle was coming off. "It's only going to be when it's needed. Freshmen are fragile. I'm just trying to make sure that the freshmen feel as comfortable as possible, that's all."

That process has been aided by the fact that the freshmen want to learn.

"I don't think any freshman would come in and act like they know everything when they're coming into a team who won the championship," Anosike said. "There's no freshman in America who can come into a college who won the championship the previous year and know everything.

"They don't come in and act like they know everything. They come in just trying to learn. I think that's what any freshman would do coming into a championship team that just got off a championship season. You know you have a lot to learn in a hurry because they're going to be trying to go after another championship. I think they have a lot of respect. All four of them were at the championship game or semifinal game and got to see us play. I think they have a great respect for what we did and the work it takes to get there and they're willing to join in."

Hornbuckle is anxious to begin the season. Her anticipation is not predicated on the urge to win another title but the more immediate desire to just play.

"I'm ready to get on the court and play games with this team," Hornbuckle said. "Just watching us progress from preseason to individuals to first team practice to first official practice. I am getting more and more excited. I was a little nervous because we have four freshmen so you feel like you're trying to put two groups together. I'm excited to get my senior season off to a good start."

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee is 21-6 against Chattanooga. The last loss came in 1973 with the other defeats in 1972 (twice) and 1971 (three times). … Tennessee is 1-0 in games played on Nov. 11. That win was in 1995 over Lithuania in an exhibition game. … The average score of a Tennessee vs. Chattanooga game during the Pat Summitt Era is 85.4 (1,196 points) for the Lady Vols and 60.2 (858 points) for the Lady Mocs. … Candace Parker dunked last season against Chattanooga on Nov. 12, 2006, to mark the first time a woman had slammed in Thompson-Boling Arena. … Sunday's game marks the 20th anniversary of the arena, which opened in 1987. The arena opens this season with a $19 million facelift that includes 32 luxury suites, 166 seats in the loge area below the boxes, black seats and a center-hung scoreboard. TBA now seats 21,678. … The Lady Vols record in the arena is 280-17. There were nine flawless seasons: 1988-89 (15-0); 1991-92 (14-0); 1992-93 (13-0); 1993-94 (15-0); 1994-95 (15-0); 1997-98 (16-0); 1998-99 (14-0); 2000-01 (15-0); and 2002-03 (16-0). There are 15 home games on the schedule this season. ... Freshman center Kelley Cain is out for Sunday's game because of a knee injury she sustained in practice last week. She is undergoing treatment and remains day to day.

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