The tent poles of Coach Pat Summitt's system at Tennessee have been defense and rebounding. Despite the program's emphasis on board play, there has been only one player in Lady Vol history who averaged double digits in rebounds. That was Trish Roberts, a Kodak All-American, who grabbed 14.2 rebounds per game in 1976-77.
That nugget of info comes from the files of Debby Jennings, the associate athletics director for media relations, and has been tucked inside the Lady Vol game notes this season. Given the rebounders that have come through Tennessee – Chamique Holdsclaw, Sheila Frost, and Tamika Catchings to name the top three – it's a startling statistic.
Holdsclaw, the program's leading rebounder with 1,295 for her career, came close as a sophomore with 9.4 rebounds a game in 1996-97.
Candace Parker crept even closer with a 9.8 rpg average in 2006-07. This season, the junior forward wants to become just the second player in Lady Vol history to average double digits on the boards.
"That's always been a goal of mine is to get double figures in rebounds," Parker said. "Last year I was mad in the championship if I would have got three more, I would have had 10."
"Yeah, selfish," Parker said with a big laugh "I really feel like I need to rebound better. It's an important emphasis with Pat. Every time I talk to my father he always has something to say about that."
Parker was at 10.3 rpg going into last Monday's game against LaTech, but she only played eight minutes in each half – Summitt wanted to use that game to get significant playing time for the freshmen – and finished with four boards. Her per game averaged dipped to 9.0.
That's no excuse, Parker joked.
"According to Pat and my father I should be getting four rebounds per minute," she said.
Summitt smiles when told of Larry Parker's conversations with his daughter. She hasn't told him to stay on his daughter about rebounding, but she clearly appreciates the backup support.
"That's just Larry," Summitt said. "I think he keeps her grounded."
Parker being focused on board play is something Summitt can get behind. It's been 30 years since a Lady Vol averaged double digits off the glass. Summitt, who was also surprised by the fact, thinks Parker could be the next one.
"I think she can definitely do it," Summitt said. "Throughout the game she's asking Dean, ‘How many boards?' She's very in tune with rebounding and wanting to know how many boards she has and how many she needs. When something is a priority for you, you tend to be able to be more successful at it because of your focus, and she's focused on it."
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood is the position coach for the post players. He gets the in-game stats from the scorer's table delivered to him on the bench.
"During the course of the game I get them because I like to look at them," Lockwood said. "She always checks with me, ‘How many have I got?' "
Lockwood and Parker haven't discussed the double-digit goal very much. Instead, they focus on each game.
"We don't talk about it a lot but before every game – it's based on the team and how much I think she's going to play," Lockwood said. "The West Virginia game? I said, ‘Fifteen, tonight.' " Parker ended that game two short of the target with 13.
For tonight's game with North Carolina, "This needs to be a minimum 12, 13. I'm going to tell her, ‘We're going to go for 16,' " Lockwood said.
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. (TV: ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network) between No. 1 Tennessee, 5-0, and No. 4 North Carolina, 9-0, and a capacity crowd is expected at Thompson-Boling Arena. Gates open at 5:30 p.m.
Parker and Lockwood will keep up their rapport throughout the game, if necessary. In baseball parlance Lockwood is a hitting coach. Parker relies on him to notice the nuances of her shooting stroke and help her make adjustments.
In baseball this can mean a leisurely chat at the hitting cage or a conversation between at-bats. Basketball doesn't afford that much time. During the Oklahoma game, Parker missed a free throw. Between attempts she looked to the bench and asked Lockwood what she did wrong. He pantomimed the needed adjustment. She hit the next shot.
"I'm big into fundamentals," Lockwood said. "I think the game can be over-coached and under-taught."
As far as Parker's free throw attempt, Lockwood had watched her feet and follow-through.
"I'm big on feet," said Lockwood, who demonstrated how a shooter should come off her heels and onto the balls of her feet. "If you have good feet, you're going to have a good shot. When somebody shoots a free throw and they miss, I look at their feet, I look at their hands and I look at the arc of the ball. I look at the mechanics of the arms and legs."
In Parker's case, "she was shooting the ball where her feet were flat," Lockwood said. "They were coming up just barely. We'll have an ongoing communication. So much of it is like hitting. As a hitter and as a shooter you have to feel good about your mechanics.
"Sometimes I've said to her (on a miss), ‘Great shot.' Sometimes on her misses she's short, and I've told her better long than short. We have a little language and ongoing adjustment. If you miss, your misses communicate why you miss. If you can make a little adjustment and have a consistency of what you're doing in your muscle memory – it's built in – that's what we're trying to strive for with her."
Parker is currently shooting 71.8 percent from the line. She has had 39 attempts. The next closest is Anosike with 17 attempts. Parker is fouled a lot over the course of a game – Oklahoma tagged her 14 times this season – so her success at the line is important for Tennessee.
"I'd like to get her to 80 on free throw shooting percentage," Lockwood said.
Free throw shots were the last item on the Lady Vols' practice to-do list Saturday. The players have been loose but productive in practice this week – last year in the week before the North Carolina game Summitt got so annoyed with the lack of focus at one practice session that she tossed out the entire team. It wasn't a motivational tactic. She was genuinely angry. Practice has run smoothly this week.
Parker acknowledged that Sunday's game is one that has a different pre-game vibe.
"I love big games," Parker said. "I love the atmosphere. I wish every game was like that. I wish every game was to the wire, got to make plays. That's one of the reasons why I came to Tennessee. I can't play a schedule (against lesser opponents); as mature as I've become in my three years, I don't think I can play games like that and stay focused.
"That's just how I am. My teammates say I have ADD, but that's just how I am. If it starts getting easy then I'm like, ‘Let's make it hard.' "
Opposing teams come into Knoxville – Tennessee has won 283 games in the arena and lost just 17 over 20 years – hoping to play spoiler, especially this season with the Lady Vols defending their national title and number one ranking. Parker knows the Tar Heels might glance at the 2007 national title banner hanging in the rafters – Tennessee took out North Carolina in the Final Four – and summon additional motivation.
"Everybody comes into Thompson-Boling Arena with an attitude," Parker said. "I think we have always had a target on our back. We will always have a target on our back. Obviously whenever we lose to somebody, like we lost to North Carolina and we lost to Michigan State my freshman year, whenever you lose you have that extra motivation because they ended your season.
"That's the last game that you played. That's who you're playing when you're in the gym by yourselves. Obviously they're going to come in with motivation but winning the game Sunday doesn't bring the title back. Both teams practice the next day. Both teams have games the next week."
Tennessee's short-term goal is to win Sunday's game. The long-term goal is to win another national title.
"Our names went up with that banner when we raised it, but we want another banner beside it," Parker said. "One, all right, you could have fallen into the national championship, but two, it's undeniable."
The players have heard the doubters who said the Lady Vols got lucky as other top teams fell by the wayside in their bracket. They heard the complaints by North Carolina about the officiating in the Final Four. They recognized jealousy couched as commentary.
"Haters are going to hate," Parker said. "You tune all of that out."
Summitt said the 2006-07 team would always be special because it brought a banner to Knoxville after an agonizingly long wait, at least by Lady Vol standards.
"There's a lot of expectations at Tennessee and they all chose to come here knowing that we had quite a drought in terms of championships and were able to do what they did," Summitt said. "And it wasn't like it was easy. It was hard. And they persevered.
"I think Candace recognizes her contribution and the team's contribution. It was a great ending to our season last year, and it's something no one can ever take away from that team and they'll be remembered and go down in history because of number seven."
STARTING LINEUPS: Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (10.8 points per game, 3.6 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (8.8 ppg, 6.4 rebounds per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard, No. 5 (9.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (22.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (8.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg).
North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell is expected to start: Cetera DeGraffenreid, 5'6 freshman guard, No. 22 (12.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg); Heather Claytor, 5'8 junior guard, No. 14 (6.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg); Rashanda McCants, 6'1 junior guard/forward, No. 32 (16.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg); Erlana Larkins, 6'2 senior forward, No. 2 (9.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg); and LaToya Pringle, 6'3 senior forward/center, No. 30 (11.3 ppg, 6.1 apg).
The Tar Heels lost point guard Ivory Latta to graduation and are using two freshmen in that spot now in DeGraffenreid, who hails from Cullowhee, N.C., which is just over the mountains, and Italee Lucas, who is from Las Vegas.
DeGraffenreid has been starting since the loss of senior point guard Alex Miller, who injured her knee last month and is likely out for the season.
"She's very coachable. She listens to you. She's a coach's daughter," said Hatchell, who noted that DeGraffenreid's father played and coached football at Western Carolina. "She's mentally and physically tough. I knew she was going to be a good player because she's so tough."
The freshmen point guards will need that toughness in Thompson-Boling Arena. Sunday's game will be the first for Carolina this season on the road.
"I know we're going to make some mistakes," Hatchell said. "They know that I have confidence in them. I tell them: ‘You are my point guards and I believe in you.'
"They know it's a big game but more than anything else I want them to have fun. Lay it all out there and give me what you've got and you may be surprised at what happens."
Tennessee's point guard is Shannon Bobbitt, whose coach said this week should be on a short list of top guards in the country.
A preseason panel of ESPN experts picked the top five players at each position, and there was no mention of Bobbitt.
"I don't understand when the experts are discussing point guards that she is not among the top three in the country," Pat Summitt said. "She is one of the best point guards I've ever coached, one of the best in the country right now.
"She is one of the quickest and one of the best at breaking down defenses in the full court, half court. She has a great feel for the game. She knows when and where to go with the basketball. She doesn't force shots. She lets it come to her. If she has to create she can. As a defender she's hard-nosed. People haven't taken advantage of her size against us. It's an incredible story really."
Bobbitt made her way to Knoxville from New York with a junior college stop in Texas.
"Normally, you don't see juco players do as well as she has done," Hatchell said.
Bobbitt has been called a blessing by the coaching staff. Candace Parker said the Lady Vols don't hang a banner without her.
"She's definitely a leader on the floor and in my opinion she needs to be mentioned as one of the best point guards in the country right now," Parker said. "It's disrespectful if she's not. The impact that she's made on our team is amazing.
"We wouldn't have won a national championship if we didn't have Shannon. Her defensive presence and her ability to knock down jump shots, if she were on another team she would be scoring more, but she plays her role on this team. She's one of the best point guards, if not the best point guard, in the country."
The object of these accolades will play a key role in Sunday's game. Tennessee wants to run, and it starts with the ball in Bobbitt's hands.
"I'm an up-tempo type player," Bobbitt said. "What we want to do is play our game and the way we want to play. We're going to try our best to start the tempo off from jump and hopefully the game will play smoothly our way and in our favor.
"They will definitely be athletic. They're going to get up and down the floor. That's North Carolina. That's not even the players; that's just the name, ‘North Carolina.' They get up and down the floor. They're up-tempo. They're athletic. They're good. We're going to have to match that intensity and get up the floor with them and let them play our game."
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-North Carolina game. Here is her assessment.
When North Carolina has the ball: "They're still a transition team. That's their style. A lot of points scored on the break and second-chance points. That's their philosophy – run, half-court trap. They're face guarding this year. They really didn't do that a lot last year. They want to score off turnovers."
Boxing out is paramount.
"They won't beat us on first shots," Warlick said. "They'll beat us on second and third shots. They're just animals on the boards. They're great rebounders. It doesn't take a genius to see it. They've been trained to do it, and they do it. They're great athletes, and they know their roles."
When Tennessee has the ball: "That's our game, too. We're going to run. We're going to do what we do. We're going to get second-chance points. We're going to play inside-out. They're going to double-team us, but we're going to do what we do. We're not going to change anything. We may tweak a couple of things, but we're going to get the ball in as quickly as we can and run it as well.
"Taking care of the ball is going to be key for us, not giving them easy transition points, not giving it away. That's what we did when we were down there. We just turned the ball over, and they shot uncontested layups."
North Carolina won the regular season matchup a year ago in Chapel Hill, 70-57. Tennessee had 24 turnovers and was out-rebounded, 43-33.
But the coaching staff knows the Tar Heels will likely be carrying a chip on their shoulder after the 56-50 loss to Tennessee later that season in the Final Four. The 2007 banner is a large reminder now hanging in Tennessee's arena.
"I think in North Carolina's eyes they think they shouldn't have lost," Warlick said. "You're up by 12, so you maybe shouldn't have. That's why it's a 40-minute game, and we've been there. We've had a lead. It happened with us against Michigan State (in the 2005 Final Four). It made us mad and then when we played them the next year we tried to take it out on them. If they're any kind of competitor they will. They've been waiting for this game, and I would be, too."
When Hatchell was asked during a Friday teleconference if her team was seeking a taste of revenge she said, "Your competitiveness always comes out. Do we remember the Final Four? Without a doubt, we remember the Final Four. I wouldn't call it revenge. It will be a very competitive game."
Hatchell said the outcome could have been different if North Carolina had not lost two players – Camille Little and LaToya Pringle – to fifth fouls late in the second half. Her remarks were tempered compared to those Hatchell made last April. Some Tar Heel players also complained post-game about the officiating, and their remarks were included in the NCAA's official quotes. Had it not been their final game of the season, disciplinary action likely would have been leveled, as criticizing officials is not allowed.
The biggest issue for North Carolina in that game is that the Tar Heels could not score in crunch time. They didn't make a single field goal in the final eight minutes. Their last two points came from the free throw line. They also didn't take advantage of Candace Parker only playing eight minutes in the first half because of foul trouble. The Lady Vols still led by one at halftime.
Tennessee also used a special defensive scheme to fluster Erlana Larkins. Sidney Spencer shadowed her every move by fronting and face guarding, and the guards slipped behind Larkins to knock away any passes that managed to get through. Larkins didn't score in the first half and finished with four points. Spencer has since graduated.
"She's a tough player to defend and certainly their anchor," Pat Summitt said. "When we think about what we have to do from the post defensive perspective it's to bring great intensity, try to limit touches as best we can. She's going to get her say in a lot of cases as far as being able to get the touches because they're going to get her the basketball as best they can." Hatchell was asked about the prospect of guarding Parker, and she said it would take more than one player. Pringle, Larkins and Jessica Breland, a 6'3 sophomore forward, will take turns.
"We're going to put some size on her, some athleticism," Hatchell said.
Tennessee, overall, looks just as formidable as last season, Hatchell said, even with the loss of their three-point sharpshooter in Spencer.
"They're pretty doggone good," Hatchell said. "(Angie) Bjorklund has come in and she's a great three-point shooter. They have very few weaknesses, if any. They're Tennessee. It's an honor to play there."
Both coaching staffs see the game as an early season learning experience.
"That game last year exposed our weaknesses," Warlick said. "You play to win but we're going to get something out of it, win or lose. They're more athletic than we've seen any team. They're quicker than we've seen any team, outside of the USA national team. We've got to take care of the ball. We haven't played anybody like them yet."
Hatchell echoed the remarks.
"It's early … but it's going to be good to play a team like this," Hatchell said. "Win or lose, we're going to be a better team for this."
THE SERIES: The two teams played each other in the late 1970s – Holly Warlick was the Tennessee point guard for the first-ever game in 1978 and a home game in Stokely Athletics Center in 1979 – and 1980s, but then didn't face each other again unless matched up in postseason. Last year's game at North Carolina was the first in the regular season since 1988.
The home-and-home series ends after Sunday's game, and both coaches want to renew the contract, but league obligations and scheduling matters are a sticking point right now.
Sylvia Hatchell said during her teleconference that North Carolina now plays Tennessee and Connecticut in the same season with both games either on the road or at home. She wants one of those games at home and the other on the road during the same season and suggested skipping a year with the Lady Vols. Tennessee proposed that North Carolina come to Knoxville two years in a row. That way, the Tar Heels would host UConn and play Tennessee on the road in 2008-09. Tennessee would return to Chapel Hill in 2009-10.
"Skipping a year means we have to pick up another game and just a one-year game," Pat Summitt said. "It puts us in a bind from a scheduling standpoint."
Both schools also have league obligations – the SEC is going to divisional play in 2009-10; the ACC is also adding games – so that is complicating the process, too.
"I'm hoping we can keep this series going," Hatchell said.
For now, it appears the series will continue but there may be a one- or two-year gap in play as the schools work out the scheduling and conference issues.
"It would disappoint me if we dropped the series," Summitt said.
ON TAP: Seven other SEC teams are in action Sunday in the following matchups: Ole Miss at Ohio State; Florida at Louisville; Georgia Tech at Georgia (TV: CSS, 2:30 p.m. Eastern); Clemson at Arkansas; Mississippi State at Memphis; LSU at Tulane; and Vanderbilt at California.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series, 13-3, and is 5-0 in games played in Knoxville. The last time the Tar Heels played in Knoxville was in 1987. The last time they played the Lady Vols in the state of Tennessee was in 1998 in a regional final in Nashville. Tennessee won both games. … Tennessee is 5-3 in games played on December 2. The three losses were to Montclair State, 87-80, (1977); Old Dominion, 66-54, (1981); and Duke, 59-57, (2004). The last win on this date was in 2001, a 93-56 win over N.C. State. … The three other 2007 Final Four teams all appear in Knoxville this season. North Carolina is first Sunday. Rutgers (Feb. 11) and LSU (Feb. 14) also come to town. … North Carolina and Tennessee were also undefeated when they met in the regular season a year ago. … Coach Sylvia Hatchell was a graduate assistant during the 1974-75 season under Coach Pat Summitt, her first year at Tennessee. … Lady Vol freshman forward Vicki Baugh came close to a rookie record when she secured 16 rebounds against Louisiana Tech last Monday. It was the most rebounds by a freshman since Michelle Snow's 17 boards vs. Mississippi State on Feb. 6, 1999. Chamique Holdsclaw holds the all-time rookie mark with 19 rebounds vs. Georgia on Jan. 8, 1996. … Nicky Anosike's 13 points against LaTech put her over 800 points for her career with 807. It also was the 100th game she had started out of 113 in her career.