Lady Vols take it to the Irish

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Tennessee concluded a successful two-game road trip Saturday with another solid 40 minutes of basketball that culminated with an 87-63 win over Notre Dame in front of a sellout crowd and a nationally televised CBS audience. Tennessee had four starters in double figures on a day when the offense was clicking and the defense was stout.

"I thought our basketball team did a pretty consistent job of keeping the pressure on them defensively," Coach Pat Summitt said. "We had some spurts where we faltered a little bit but overall proud of our effort for a 40-minute game. We got to play our bench a significant amount of minutes as well. We're always trying to get better and get our depth better as well.

"Angie, I guess she likes this gym. Our team did a great job. They recognize when someone has a hot hand, and I thought we did a nice job of getting her the basketball. The second half we had better inside action. From a defensive and rebounding standpoint did some good things."

Angie Bjorklund led all scorers with 21 points after hitting 7-9 three-pointers to tie her long-range record set against Gonzaga last month.

Notre Dame's strategy was to cover Candace Parker – she still scored 20 points and now has 1,608 for her career – but that left Bjorklund alone behind the arc.

"I was a little surprised. I was wide open," said Bjorklund, who noted she liked the rims at the Joyce Center. "I really think it was the fact I was open. From the beginning their game plan was triple Candace. I remember the first play, they spot three people to her and left me wide open. I just got into the rhythm early."

Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw indicated that was a huge mistake on the part of the Irish.

"I think our inability to guard the three-point line it's killing us," McGraw said. "We struggled with it all year long, and we just don't seem to get any better at it. I think that was a huge difference. We gave up 33 points from the three-point line, and you can't do that against any team, let alone a great team like Tennessee.

"Parker is a tough matchup for us. We definitely struggled to guard her. I thought Bjorklund killed us from the three-point line."

Tennessee, 12-1, had two other players in double figures. Nicky Anosike scored 13 points to go with nine rebounds, and Alexis Hornbuckle added 10 points and hit both of her three-point attempts, including one that bounced in with four seconds left in the first half to give the Lady Vols a 41-22 lead at the break.

Tennessee shot 72.7 percent from behind the arc in the first half by hitting eight of 11 and finished 11-20 for the game. Overall, the Lady Vols shot 50.0 percent for the game.

Notre Dame, 12-2, was led by Charel Allen with 17 points and Devereaux Peters with 10. But the Irish were 1-5 from behind the arc and shot only 27.3 percent in the first half.

"I'm disappointed that we weren't able to play our game, and certainly their defense was a big reason why, but I was just disappointed with the way we played and our shot selection," McGraw said. "We played scared. We looked like we were afraid to get our shot blocked most of the game and never really took the shots that we normally take.

"We really didn't help ourselves at all by playing the way we did. It was disappointing."

The Irish shot much better in the second half by driving to the basket and getting some steals and finished the game at 42.2 percent from the field.

But the Irish, who jumped out to a 3-0 lead on a steal, layup and foul, went cold after that, and Tennessee went on a 30-7 run to put the game away midway through the first half. Bjorklund drained back-to-back threes after Tennessee opened the game with back-to-back turnovers on poor passes.

The Lady Vols, however, went to work early on defense. The Tennessee frontline was credited with four blocks, but Parker and Anosike altered plenty of shots and forced the Irish to toss up some awkward offerings.

"I think it was just nerves," McGraw said. "I really can't explain it. We were just afraid to get it blocked, and that was a problem. Then we thought maybe we'd tried to get fouled so we kind of threw ourselves in there and tried to get the ball out of our hands. We just really wanted to get it out of our hands too quickly."

One bright spot for Notre Dame was the play of Peters, a freshman post player. She was 5-10 from the field, had eight boards and was not hesitant to mix it up inside. But she struggled at times defensively and fouled out in the second half. She did record two steals and a block.

"It was tough because coming in as a freshman I'm not really used to people being my size," Peters said. "You've just got to keep going at them and keep playing no matter what. That's what I tried to think about.

"Everybody is going to get their shot blocked every once in a while. You've just got to play hard."

McGraw lauded the play of Peters and Becca Bruszewski, also a freshman forward.

"She had a great game, Devereaux and Becca both," McGraw said. "Coming in as freshmen in this kind of environment and such a big game you expect your veterans to really lead and for our two freshmen to step up so well it's great for the future. I think it's great for us down the road. Devereaux was outstanding, and I think if she hadn't had the foul trouble I think she would have really been good.

"Looking at what they did you have to be happy with that and how they battled. They competed. They were out there doing whatever they could do, and that's going to help us down the road."

The Lady Vols have rededicated their direction on the court since the loss to Stanford before the Christmas break. Summitt held some lengthy team meetings and practice sessions in Knoxville before departing for the road trip. She also considered changing the starting lineup but opted not to until she had to because Parker missed curfew in DePaul and was replaced in the first half by Alex Fuller.

"I think our loss to Stanford got our attention," Summitt said. "I think our team had been a team that would come out and play well and play hard in spurts but in terms of the consistency and the sense of urgency did not think that we had played that way until DePaul. I thought at DePaul we had 40 minutes of intensity. I thought we had the intensity here today."

McGraw saw a different Tennessee team Saturday – and at DePaul – than she had seen earlier this season.

"I thought it started at DePaul," McGraw said. "The rest of the team stepped up. I thought that in the Stanford game it was all about Candace Parker and the rest of the team kind of laid back and watched her go to work. I thought at the DePaul game with her not playing in the first half they were all able to kind of come out of their shell a little bit and got a little more involved.

"I thought they did that today. They didn't really look for her all the time, and they're a much better team I think when they play that way."

Parker said she has always known her teammates can fill up the basket, and she had plenty of help, especially early in the game from Bjorklund. The Fighting Irish left Bjorklund unattended, and she nailed the open jumpers. Bjorklund also hit shots with a defender running at her, and she curled off a textbook screen in the second half and drained the shot.

"I think if I was that open I'd probably make them, too," McGraw said in a remark intended to point out how poorly her team defended. "It's a little easier when nobody is around you and looking at what they have inside you know they're going to rebound it if you miss it. I think that gives a shooter confidence."

The Lady Vols played with a lot of offensive confidence Saturday in a continuation of what started Wednesday at DePaul.

"I knew that's how our team is," Parker said, when asked if she were surprised by how her teammates picked it up in her absence at DePaul and when she was being surrounded by defenders Saturday. "I like to say pick your poison because if you're going to double me it's going to leave somebody else open, and they're perfectly capable of knocking down the shot or getting to the basket. I've always had the utmost confidence in my teammates, and I was really proud of how they responded at DePaul and how we came out today and responded.

"We knew it was a new year, and we had to take care of business and be a 40-minute team."

Summitt said her team also decided to pay better attention to scouting reports. The assistants spend hours watching film, finding a team's tendencies and identifying players' strengths and weaknesses. The team gets a film session and on-court instruction with each report, and it infuriates Summitt when they don't take advantage of the information.

"I think the loss to Stanford we learned a lot from that in terms of scouting report defense," Summitt said. "That's been the biggest challenge with our team is just making that commitment. I think they now understand it. I think with Candace not being in the starting lineup (against DePaul) I'm sure our team felt a great sense of urgency that they had to step up and play. We do rely a lot on Candace, and I was pleased with how Candace handled it and I was pleased with how our starters responded."

McGraw is likely wondering why her team disregarded instructions. Bjorklund was clearly someone who needed to be covered.

"We didn't get any better since Maryland, and that's disappointing," McGraw said. "Still can't guard the three-point line. It's very, very disappointing when you look at what we've been able to do so far and certain people shooting certain shots. Today we didn't do that. We really didn't play well either end.

"But I think that they are a great team. We tried man, we tried 2-3, we tried 1-3-1, we tried to press. We pretty much tried everything we had, and nothing really was effective. I don't think we could have shut them down. I just think if we could have guarded the three-point line and given them two-point shots, maybe we only lose by 10."

Anosike took full advantage of open two-pointers. Notre Dame keyed so much on Parker that Anosike was left all alone at the elbow – the corner area of the free-throw line.

"The thing about Nicky is she's looking to score more," Summitt said. "They had so much attention directed to Candace that they really didn't (cover Anosike) – especially when she lifted up on offense around the free throw area, she was wide open.

"She had dribble drives. She had open jumpers, but she put the ball on the floor. I like the fact that she's becoming more aggressive offensively and not hesitating. The fact that she's not indecisive – do I pass or do I shoot? – now she's looking to really score when she catches the basketball."

Tennessee also got offense from Bobbitt on the strength of two 3-pointers. Alberta Auguste was 4-7 from the field and finished with a nine points and a season-high seven rebounds.

Sydney Smallbone put up two points, two rebounds, two assists and one steal in 14 minutes of play before family and friends. She played high school basketball with Notre Dame's Melissa Lechlitner – her sister, Amanda Lechlitner sang a soaring rendition of the national anthem – and played AAU ball with Lechlitner and Bruszewski.

"We played together for years," Smallbone said. "It was our dream to go and play Division I basketball. We grew up together learning the game. So to get a chance to play against them, to see them and to see what they've done as players was a good experience for me and I enjoyed coming in.

"Playing for Tennessee is a dream for many people, and I'm happy to be with Tennessee. It was good to come in and see family members and let them have the chance to watch me play because they don't always get to see me play down in Tennessee so that was a fun atmosphere."

Summitt said this week that she wanted to get the freshmen as many minutes as she could between now and March. Smallbone can shoot the ball – she misfired on two three-pointers, but one rattled in and out – and Summitt knows she needs the four bench players – Auguste and Fuller are the veterans – to get ready.

"I love her work ethic," Summitt said of Smallbone. "She came in and she was so committed to bringing the intensity whether we were lifting or whether we were running or we were doing skill work. She sets a great example, and she's been a great teammate. She's listened and responded to the upperclassmen. The upperclassmen have done a great job with our freshmen, and that's always important because they're the ones who have to lay the groundwork of this is how we do things.

"With Sydney you never have to worry about her intensity. She's very coachable, been working with her on her defense."

Summitt smiled and put her arm around the freshman before saying, "I don't know that she played a whole lot (of defense) before she got there, but she shot it well. But that's true with all freshmen, unless we recruited defensive specialists, they come in and have a lot to learn. What she has done from the time I talked to her after the Stanford game to now it's just tremendous and her ability to comprehend and commit to what we've asked her to do defensively. Very coachable."

Parker also cited Smallbone's willingness to work and fit into the team framework.

"She's been a great teammate," Parker said. "She's always the hardest worker. Her work ethic is second to none, and I love that about her. On the court she can shoot the ball well, and I think she's going to help this program after we leave and just continue to grow. I think she's grown leaps and bounds from this summer, and she will continue to do so."

Parker also saw a familiar face on Notre Dame's team in Lindsay Schrader. The two played AAU ball together in Illinois. Parker didn't treat her friend to any special favors. She rejected a Schrader shot by spiking it out of bounds on a bounce.

"She's a very close friend of mine and she's a very tough-minded, hard-nosed kid and she's doing a great job at Notre Dame," Parker said. "I wish her all the best."

The Midwest road trip was also a homecoming for Parker, who played before family and friends this week.

"It was fun to see my family and friends and be able to play in front of my grandmother," said Parker, who noted Joan Potter had not seen her play until this week. "It was a great road trip, but I am ready to go home to Knoxville and get away from this cold weather. I am not used to snow."

Parker grew up in Chicago so that remark drew laughter. It also solidified that players adopt Tennessee just as much as the program embraces them.

"I think a lot people that go and watch Tennessee play, that is basketball at the highest level," Smallbone said. "Playing for Coach Summitt she's been around for so long and she's done so many great things. So to get an opportunity to play for her is second to none. There are a very limited number of girls across the country that do get a chance to play for her.

"Watching her on TV and watching her programs on TV is watching basketball at its best and it has been for the history of women's basketball and since she's been coaching women's basketball."

Before the game the baseline was crammed with fans – wearing Notre Dame and Tennessee gear – who were snapping photos with cell phones and digital cameras of the Lady Vols stretching and shooting.

"We came to Tennessee because we were those people with the cameras taking pictures of Pat," Parker said. "I remember when I was in seventh grade I went to the DePaul game and was 5'10, 100 pounds drenched and I walked up to Coach Summitt and was like, ‘Can you take a picture with me?' And she took a picture with me. I still have that picture today.

"To be a fan of women's basketball is to be a fan of Tennessee. That's a responsibility that we have to represent our school well. It's something that we don't take for granted. We appreciate walking out and having fans want our autographs and to take pictures because everybody around the country isn't as lucky as we are. I enjoy it. I get really excited when I see young girls that look up to us and want to be where we are and want to wear the orange."

There was a smattering of boos when the Lady Vols took the floor, but it was drowned out by cheers, especially when Summitt was announced.

"They're very nice," Summitt said. "I like that. They're super nice people. I think they appreciate good basketball. It's not that way everywhere I go, trust me, not for me personally. And I'm sure some of the players they get their share of some shots to the ear, but that's OK. They're passionate fans. I'd rather have that than not have fans in the building."

The game was sold out, and the Joyce Center was packed to the top with 11,418 fans. Some fans walked up to buy tickets on game day, only to discover that none were available. A packed house, pro or against Tennessee, seems to liven up the Lady Vols. DePaul managed to pack 3,501 in a bandbox listed as 3,000 capacity.

"Obviously I enjoy it," Summitt said. "The hard part would be to get this team to play well when we didn't have a lot of people in the stands. I think they thrive on it. Fortunately at Tennessee we have a lot of great fan support so they're playing in front of 16, 18, 20,000. When they do that I think they get a little spoiled because our fans are passionate, but our fans also travel a lot.

"We have a lot of Tennessee fans in the area in Chicago. When we walked in I was amazed at DePaul how much orange we saw other than the Parker family. I never want them to take this for granted. There were days when I started coaching, and we had 50 some odd people come to games. You could count them all. So many people follow Tennessee, and it's because of the student-athletes that come there. Obviously we've had a lot of great players and a lot of great teams, and I want this team to be right there with the others."

Parker was asked if a nice reception was the norm or if the players got heckled on the road sometimes.

"LSU and Connecticut are the two places where they probably heckle us the most," Parker said. "And Duke. How could I forget them? They're right on top of you. Most other gyms they're happy to see us and want to take pictures and autographs before the game. It's nice. Notre Dame really welcomed us."

UConn is also in the state of Indiana to play Purdue on Sunday. Summitt was asked if the nearby presence of the Huskies had crossed her mind because of the game that won't be played this regular season – Tennessee and UConn.

"Once I made that decision we moved on," Summitt said. "I have a lot of respect for the job Geno does and for the program, but we've got a pretty tough schedule, and we've already played some pretty tough teams. We've got some tough teams coming up in our conference. We've got Rutgers to play down the road. Duke. We haven't had much luck there. We've got a tough schedule."

Notre Dame came into this game ranked No. 14 in the country. Tennessee is ranked No. 3. UConn holds the top spot. McGraw saw a chasm between the top teams and the rest of the field.

"There's a huge gap," McGraw said. "I think there're probably five teams up there. Connecticut is probably the best team in the country and then you have Rutgers, a great team as well. The conference doesn't get any easier. We've got to go to West Virginia and Louisville. It doesn't get any easier. The Big East is a great league, and this kind of game is going to prepare us to play Connecticut and Rutgers. But I think there is definitely a gap after those first five teams."

Summitt noted she hasn't watched a lot of basketball outside of Tennessee's next opponent, but she thought there was still time for teams to separate themselves and for some to fall back to their pursuers.

"I don't know how many teams are right now in my mind Final Four teams because we haven't been through our schedule and haven't seen a lot of (other) teams play because when you're playing you're not as involved in watching others," Summitt said.

"I do think that there're probably about eight teams that are really playing strong basketball. I don't think that the gap is that big. I think it all depends. This is a long season, and players will get better and teams will get better and some will not improve. I think the ones who do get better have a chance to join that elite top dozen."

Summitt found some time to do some recruiting – the lifeblood of staying among the elite – on this trip on Friday evening. She and Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell watched top guard prospect Skylar Diggins set a Washington High School career scoring record – surpassing the 1,635 points scored by Jackie Batteast, who went on to play for Notre Dame – and the South Bend Tribune noted Summitt's presence and ran a photo. Diggins is a high school junior with several top schools, including Tennessee, Rutgers, UConn, Purdue, Notre Dame and Georgia, in pursuit.

The presence of Tennessee looms large, even on the road in hostile territory.

"They're a great program and they're a great team, and I think that we played against that a little bit today," McGraw said. "I expected maybe in the beginning of the game we would play like that and then we'd kind of loosen up and just play, but I thought that definitely we were intimidated today."

Tennessee took a charter flight back to Knoxville immediately after the game. Summitt decided to give the team the day off Sunday, and the players will return to practice Monday.

The road trip not only secured two wins against Big East teams, it restored Summitt's sense of equilibrium in terms of the path her team is on as the calendar turned to 2008.

"I really think this is the most talented team in the country, and I want to do everything that I can, along with the help of my staff and the help of the players, to see that we do play 40 minutes of basketball and more if we need to," Summitt said.

"Love the game, play with passion and play with purpose."

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