"And I wanted to get away just to grow up and do the little things that I wasn't doing at home. Doing my laundry. I'm away from my family. I can't always fall back on my family so I think I've grown up a lot working through things on my own and figuring out things that I could usually talk to my parents about or talk to my sister or brother about. But now I'm doing it on my own. It's been a good experience so far."
Smallbone will have her own cheering section Saturday.
"I have at least 20 family members going," Smallbone said. "My grandpa bought 20 tickets, my mom's dad. So I have a lot of people from that side coming, and I have people flying up from Texas. And then I've got past teammates. They're going to be there for Melissa and for me. Becca Bruszewski, I played with her in AAU for years. It's going to be cool to see them."
Melissa Lechlitner is a sophomore guard for Notre Dame who played with Smallbone at St. Joseph's High School. Becca Bruszewski is a freshman forward for the Fighting Irish.
No. 3 Tennessee, 11-1, and No. 14 Notre Dame, 12-1, square off at 2 p.m. Eastern before a nationally televised audience on CBS and in front of a sellout crowd. Capacity at the Joyce Center is 11,418.
"I think that it's exciting for us to be able to play Notre Dame here on CBS in front of a sellout crowd, and it's also a challenge," Coach Pat Summitt said at practice Saturday. "We talked about the environment that we played in the last time we were here and the toughness of Notre Dame throughout the whole game. As a team, we had a hard time getting in a flow because they played us really, really tough on the defensive end. Their defense caused problems for us.
"Hopefully having been through that and understanding what we have to do, we'll be ready to play."
Tennessee also wants to keep its momentum going after an impressive drilling of DePaul on Wednesday.
"We want to beat another Big East opponent – bottom line," Summitt said. "Every time we play we have a lot to lose. Right now seeding is first and foremost on my mind. I know it's early in the year, but we don't want to lose the top seed. We lose here? We might lose the top seed. But that's true if we go lose to Auburn (in the SEC opener next week). We could lose the top seed. Stakes are always high for us in terms of seeding."
Seeding and postseason are never that far from Summitt's game plan. Her schedule is designed to put her team in tough environments and expose them to different styles of play and different regions of the country.
"I just want to get Vicki and Sydney and Angie as much playing time as I can between now and postseason," Summitt said.
Summitt fully intends to use Smallbone on Saturday, as she did in the DePaul game.
"She's playing. How many minutes I don't know, but she's playing," Summitt said. "The only game I didn't play her was at Stanford, and I regret it. Might have made a difference in the outcome."
Smallbone played 19 minutes in the 102-68 win over DePaul. She scored six points and was credited with one rebound and one assist. More importantly, she did not have a turnover.
"I thought she did a nice job," Summitt said. "She came in and was solid defensively. Had a couple of good post feeds, knocked down a three. I'm really pleased."
Smallbone completes this week's homecoming tour of the Midwest. Parker played before family and friends in Chicago. Smallbone, who is from nearby Granger, Indiana, gets her turn this afternoon. Smallbone said the key is to focus on the Tennessee system and not the surroundings.
"Just worry about what we do at Tennessee and worry about ourselves and not worry about the things that are going on outside the court with the crowd," Smallbone said. "We've just got to run the Tennessee system. I think that helps a lot."
Learning the system is a challenge for any freshman, and Smallbone has had to make the adjustment from go-to prep star to role player.
"The players that are here help so much just learning from them," Smallbone said. "Alexis Hornbuckle and Shannon Bobbitt, being on the bench and being able to learn from them it helps a lot when you get into the game, kind of mimic what they do. You learn how to handle different situations just from watching them. It's been good for me to sit and watch what they do. It helps me when I get in a game.
"I am a freshman. I need to come in here and try to learn as much as I can for the future. It's something that I think I've handled well. Nobody likes to be sitting on the bench all the time so it's something that pushes me more and motivates me more to learn more and improve on my game so that I can come in and be an impact player for the future."
Summitt tries to be patient with her freshmen, but she also knows they have to get ready. Smallbone has gotten an earful of instruction a number of times both in games and at practice. Smallbone said she would be more upset if Summitt weren't singling her out.
"If she's telling me I'm doing things wrong that means she cares," Smallbone said. "The second she doesn't get in my face when I'm messing up I think that shows that she doesn't care as much. The fact that she's taking the time that I'm doing things wrong and telling me I need to improve on things, I think that shows that she cares about me as a player, and it's something I need to take upon myself to fix."
Smallbone, a 5'10 guard, is an excellent outside shooter. She scored 1,711 points in high school and is St. Joseph's all-time leader in points, free throw percentage (86.0 percent) and three-pointers with 246. She was an 89 percent free throw shooter as a senior. Summitt has told Smallbone that she was recruited for her offensive abilities – in other words, she needs to shoot the ball.
"I need to become more of a scoring threat, and I do need to look for my shot more because sometimes I get caught looking for this cut or looking for this screen," Smallbone said. "It's something I need to take upon myself and look for my shot."
But all freshmen must also become defenders, and Smallbone has struggled like every newcomer before her. She is trying to soak up, and implement, the defensive system.
"Take everything they tell us and try to learn from it and not to make the same mistakes," Smallbone said. "It comes with working hard on defense. It's not necessarily making all the right decisions, but it's busting your butt every possession because defense is a lot of heart and how hard you're going to go. That goes along with crashing the boards and rebounding, too."
Smallbone can lean on her suitemates, Baugh, Bjorklund and fellow freshman Kelley Cain, for support. Cain had season-ending knee surgery in December but is traveling with the team now and remains upbeat and smiling at practice while she undergoes rehab.
"Even with Kelley Cain out right now, the three freshmen talk to her a lot and try to include her as a teammate," Smallbone said. "In the dorm we have a lot of fun because it's the four of us together, and we're going through the same stuff on the court and with the schoolwork, and trying to balance both of those. So we're all on the same page."
Smallbone welcomed the break between semesters because it meant no class attendance, study hall, tests, quizzes or papers due. For first-year players the break can really be beneficial because it means their attention can fully turn to the court.
"We can just focus more on basketball," Smallbone said. "Soaking everything in because obviously you're learning something every possession. There's so much going on. The biggest thing with me that I need to do right now is take what is given to me, take what is taught to me and learn from it the first time and not make the same mistakes that I keep making.
"It's something I need to take upon my shoulders to get better at. The coaches have taught us the little things that we need to do. It's a matter of implementing that and fighting through the little things and fixing them."
Smallbone is trying to do what all newcomers must do and that is make daily progress, even if it is incremental.
"It's a comfort zone," Smallbone said. "With every practice that we do and every drill that we do I'm getting more comfortable with my teammates and I'm understanding them better and how they play. It helps me to come in and play with them."
Smallbone left her comfort zone to come to Tennessee. She cited the history of the program and the coaching staff as primary reasons to wear orange.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think I'm a Lady Vol and I have the opportunity to play for such a great program," Smallbone said. "I'm very fortunate, and it's a honor to be here. I wouldn't trade it for anything, and I'm very happy that I came here."
STARTING LINEUPS: Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (9.8 points per game, 3.3 rebounds per game, 2.9 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (12.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2.4 steals per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard/forward, No. 5 (9.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (21.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.6 apg, 2.5 spg, 2.2 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (8.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg).
Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw is expected to start: Tulyah Gaines, 5'7 senior guard, No. 1 (6.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 4.0 apg), team captain has started past 55 games at point position, had nine assists against IUPUI; Charel Allen, 5'11 senior guard, No. 2 (13.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.3 apg), also a team captain, preseason All Big-East Team and Wade, Wooden and Naismith preseason watch lists; Ashley Barlow, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 20 (13.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.2 apg), scored a career-high 22 points this season against Purdue, needs two points to reach 500 for career; Lindsay Schrader, 6'0 redshirt sophomore guard, No. 24 (10.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.9 apg), missed last season with a torn ACL in her right knee, had 10 points and eight rebounds against Maryland; and Melissa D'Amico, 6'5 senior center, No. 33 (4.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg), has started nine times this season, is 10th on Irish career list in blocks with 87.
Notre Dame can bring some size off of the bench. A key player for the Irish is Devereaux Peters, a 6'2 freshman forward who is averaging 8.8 ppg and 5.3 rpg. Peters has scored in double figures in seven of the past eight games and is hitting shots at a 60.0 percent clip. Erica Williamson, a 6'4 sophomore center, has averaged 12.3 ppg and 7.0 rpg in the past three contests. Becca Bruszewski (4.4 ppg), a 6'1 freshman forward, is second on the team with a 57.5 percent field-goal percentage.
Brittany Mallory (7.3 ppg) and Melissa Lechlitner (5.9 ppg) also come off the bench and give the Irish additional depth at the guard spots. Mallory is a 5'10 freshman, and Lechlitner is a 5'7 sophomore.
Summitt and her staff have considered changing the starting lineup, but they opted not to tinker with it.
"Right now I don't want to change because I like having Alex (Fuller) coming off the bench," Summitt said. "I like having Alberta (Auguste) come off the bench. Those are two players that can come in and immediately help and keep us right where we were at or maybe even help us more."
Summitt had to make a change against DePaul because Parker missed curfew on New Year's Eve in Chicago. Alex Fuller was inserted at the power forward spot and responded with a career-high 19 points. She will return to her role as sixth woman on Saturday. She has done an exemplary job of handling coming off the bench with starter's skills.
"I think in this program you have to handle it because you come in with a lot of great players," Summitt said. "In a lot of situations once we identify who our starters will be, the players coming off the bench are as important, if not more important, because they have to sit and watch and then have to come in and perform immediately."
Parker missed the first half of the DePaul game – which happened to be her homecoming with dozens of families and friends in the stands – for violating the team rule on curfew. She scored 17 points in the second half and apologized in the post-game press conference.
"I think the way she handled it couldn't have been better," Summitt said. "It was difficult for her. It was difficult for me. It was good for Candace. It was good for our team."
Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick returned to the bench for the DePaul game – she had missed the California trip because a blood clot developed in her calf after she broke her ankle – and the Lady Vols had one of their best games of the season.
"I'll take all the credit for that," Warlick said with a big laugh. "No, I think we were focused. They were very attentive. They listened. We played well together. Anytime your star player sits the first half and Alex Fuller has a game the way she did … She was awesome. We did some good things without Candace there, and I was proud of them. I was very proud of them. They did what we asked them to do. They stuck to the game plan and played good defense, distributed the ball.
"And when Candace comes in, it's a bonus. I think Candace has a greater appreciation for people coming off the bench, because it's difficult. It's hard to come off the bench and get started. When you come off the bench, you're asked to maintain the level of play, and there's no time to get warmed up. That's what makes a sixth man and people coming off the bench special when they can come in and make a difference."
Warlick still has a hard orange cast and is on crutches. She brought her four-wheel scooter on the road so that she can zip around the court at practice. She color-coordinated the sock over her cast with her outfit. It was brown at DePaul and will be black for the Notre Dame game.
SCOUTING REPORT: Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Notre Dame game. Here is her assessment.
When Notre Dame has the ball: "They're more athletic then they've been, and they're pretty solid at the post, solid at the wing and guards. They've got a good thing going on right now. I think they get up and down the floor when the opportunity presents itself. I wouldn't say they're just a running team, but I think they can run the ball. Different guards bring the ball up. They've got a good game plan, and they stick with it."
Charel Allen led the team last season in points and rebounds and was an All-Big East Team selection and WBCA Honorable Mention All-American. Ashley Barlow was on the Big East All-Freshman Team.
"I think Allen is their team leader, and I think Barlow is having a great season," Warlick said. "She's athletic, she can shoot some threes, she can penetrate. She's having a good year."
Tennessee intends to deploy an assortment of defensive looks.
"We're going to press them, try to make them play a little bit up-tempo," Warlick said. "We're going to man to man; we're going to zone a little bit. We're going to zone press to our matchup. We're going to pull out our arsenal."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We need to run every opportunity we get. We need to get quick, easy baskets. I think we've got to make it an up-tempo game. I think they want to slow the game down because of their three-quarter court press. They try to slow the ball down. I think we want up-tempo, and I think they want a little bit more of a deliberate game. I think they're going to run a matchup against us."
That means the Lady Vols need good ball movement on the perimeter and entry passes that find the weak spot of a two-three matchup. Outside shots also need to fall for Tennessee.
The Lady Vols do have some long-range shooters in Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone, who is playing in her hometown.
"Focus on her defense, and her offense will come because she's an offensive player," Warlick said of Smallbone. "She'll be fine."
Alexis Hornbuckle is leading the team in three-point percentage at 51.6 percent (16-31). Hornbuckle has always been a superb defender, rebounder and ball distributor. Her offensive package this season has been eye-opening. At DePaul she shot 6-12 from the floor, including 3-4 from behind the arc. She also had six assists and no turnovers.
"She had a super game," Pat Summitt said. "She played both ends of the floor. She's playing really well for us. Shot selection has been solid – probably has been her biggest growth from last year to this year."
Warlick said as Hornbuckle goes the team goes.
"I think Alexis is an ‘X' factor for us," Warlick said. "If she plays solid, the team plays solid. She's that much of an impact to our team. She's playing with a lot of confidence, and she's a great player. She's staying within her abilities. Great things happen around her because she's athletic, and she plays hard all the time. When you play hard all the time, things are going to happen.
"If she can continue to perfect her outside shot and three-point game, that's tough because you've got to guard the three, and you've got to guard the penetration. It makes her a difficult player to defend."
Hornbuckle did not practice Friday because of some lower back pain, but she is expected to be good to go Saturday.
Summitt gave the team off Thursday, and Friday was a light session used to prepare for Notre Dame, go over the scouting report, get in some shots and shoot some free throws.
"We need our legs, the way we play and the number of players we're playing with, we need our legs," Summitt said. "(At DePaul) that's probably the best 40-minute effort we've had."
Summitt expects the effort level to be on display Saturday, too. And if not?
"I would be very disappointed," Summitt said. "We'll go back and work real hard if they don't do it. I think they know."
Summitt still isn't sure that this team gets it yet. She wants to see a lot more than a one-game total effort.
"A little too early to tell for me. I'm not convinced," said Summitt who will be watching for "high energy, great effort, playing well together, taking care of the basketball. I think that's key to keep our turnovers down."
That energy can be produced by Tennessee's style of play, which will be to run Saturday.
"We favor that," Summitt said. "We want to generate that kind of energy. We want that pace. I think in most cases it favors us."
Alex Fuller said the team knows it needs to keep its momentum.
"It's very important, especially for us as a team," Fuller said. "We've got to keep a 40-minute game going each and every game."
ON TAP: Four other SEC teams are in action Saturday in the following matchups: SE Louisiana at Alabama; Texas Tech at Arkansas; Florida at Temple; and Vanderbilt at Princeton. Two SEC teams play Sunday: Georgia at Xavier and Savannah State at South Carolina.
The SEC season opens this Thursday. Tennessee will host Auburn.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Notre Dame, 18-0. The Lady Vols are 8-0 at home, 7-0 on the road and 3-0 at neutral sites. … Tennessee is 3-3 in games played on January 5. The three losses were in 1992 (Minsk during a British Tour exhibition); 1997 (Connecticut); and 2002 (Connecticut). The three wins were in 1978 (Delta State); 1979 (UCLA); and 1988 (Northwestern). … Sydney Smallbone is the fifth Lady Vol to hail from the state of Indiana. The others were Shanna Zolman, Shyra Ely, April McDivitt and Abby Conklin. … BY THE NUMBERS: The two teams are statistically very similar. Tennessee averages 82.1 points per game. Notre Dame averages 81.6. The Lady Vols average 41.1 rebounds per game. The Irish average 40.6. Both teams are shooting 47.7 percent from the field. The Lady Vols are 72.7 percent free throw shooters as a team. Notre Dame is 71.9 percent from the line. Tennessee averages 17.8 assists with Notre Dame at 17.7. The Lady Vols get 12.2 steals on average with the Irish swiping 12.9. The one stat that is dissimilar would be the turnovers. Tennessee averages 19.4. The Irish average 12.9. Both teams will force turnovers. Lady Vol opponents average 21.6 while the Irish cause teams to cough it up 24.2 times per game. … The last sellout at the Joyce Center was Dec. 31, 2005, when Tennessee was in town. The Irish are ranked eighth in the country in home attendance at 6,551 fans per game. Tennessee leads the nation at 14,382 per game. … Only five teams have recorded 10 or more wins against Notre Dame: Tennessee, Connecticut (20), DePaul (17), Purdue (14) and Rutgers (14). With a minimum of five games played Tennessee remains the only opponent that Notre Dame has never beaten. … Notre Dame redshirt sophomore Lindsay Schrader and Tennessee redshirt junior Candace Parker were teammates on an AAU team coached by Parker's father, Larry. … The Irish are not letting opponents score very often with a 54.3 points per game average. That is the best average in Muffet McGraw's 21-year tenure. The 2001 national championship team allowed 54.5 ppg. … Notre Dame's sole loss this season has been to Maryland. The Irish led in the first half after going on a 10-0 run, but Maryland went on to a 75-59 win. Notre Dame has been a team of runs this season and will go 10 deep to keep fresh players on the floor. … Early arriving fans at the Joyce Center on Saturday will receive blinking shamrocks. The gates open at 12:45 p.m.