Lady Vols, Rebels square off tonight

Coach Pat Summitt notes that Alex Fuller is dependable. The assistant coaches point out her intelligence. Her teammates call her Sunshine.

The junior forward, who could start for every other team in the SEC but has accepted a role off the bench as a Lady Vol, just smiles when she hears the remarks.

"I do what I can," Alex Fuller said. "I don't try to go out of my box. I do what I can. I do what I'm asked."

It is that attitude that has endeared Fuller to her coaches and teammates.

"I guess I am not a selfish person so I don't really put myself and what I want first," Fuller said. "I put what's best for the team."

Fuller showed what she could do when she started at DePaul because Candace Parker missed curfew. She scored a career-high 19 points – Parker started after halftime, but Pat Summitt opted to open up the second half with Fuller, too – on an assortment of offensive moves in the paint, including a hook shot. She also drained a three-pointer for good measure.

"Bursting with pride," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said of Fuller's performance in that Jan. 2 game. "She was wonderful. The jump hook. She does it in workouts. The results were fantastic, but I was more proud of her poise on the floor. She played like she had been starting for 10 games. She played nonplussed, non-rattled."

Fuller returned to her role as substitute in the next game. She averages 17.8 minutes a game but can play as few as nine, such as against Duke because of the post rotation, or as many as 20, as she did Jan. 20 against Vanderbilt.

"It isn't easy," Lockwood said. "Last year she got a national championship in her portfolio to show for it. She realizes she's got one of the best players to ever play college basketball (in front of her in the lineup in Parker).

"Alex is very intelligent. She can process all that and be fine with it. A lesser kid, a lesser intelligent kid would walk around with a chip on her shoulder. She takes pride in the fact and I've told her this, ‘We look at you as a sixth starter. Sometimes you look at your bench as solely your bench, but I look at you as a sixth starter.' She's great. It's her mental makeup that allows her to do what she's doing."

Fuller credits the way she was raised by her parents, Debra and Troy Price, for the way she handles her team role now.

"I guess it's how I was brought up not to be a selfish person and to be humble in everything that I do and everything that I get," Fuller said.

Fuller will be ready again tonight when No. 2 Tennessee (18-1, 5-0) takes on Ole Miss (8-10, 2-3) at 8 p.m. Eastern (TV: CSS; Lady Vols Radio Network) at Tad Smith Coliseum.

The Lady Vols are coming off a big win over No. 9/10 Duke on Monday night on the road but must now recalibrate and get back in an SEC mindset.

"We just have to stay focused and take it one game at a time," Fuller said. "We can't look back at our Duke win; we can't look forward to the next couple of games. We just have to take it one game at a time."

Fuller, a 6'3 redshirt forward from Shelbyville, Tenn., can be used in the paint or on the perimeter. Her ability to hit shots from behind the arc – she has hit nine 3-pointers this season – can make her a tough matchup for an opponent. She also can get inside and score. If she's fouled, she's a 83.3 percent (15-18) free throw shooter.

"She is the type of player who can come in and knock down some shots for us," Summitt said. "She is getting more aggressive with her board play. That is going to be very important for her and for us. She is a very dependable player and understands her role. There will be games where her role will be more important and her minutes will be greater. It depends on how the game goes in terms of our inside game.

"The thing about Alex is that she can step out and play at the three. I prefer her to defend at the four, but certainly she can step out. She has been shooting the ball very well and shooting the ball well from the line. That, for us, is an opportunity to rotate players and keep them fresh and hopefully rested as well."

Fuller went in in the first half of the Duke game and made a tough shot inside in a game in which points were hard to come by because Parker and Alexis Hornbuckle struggled offensively to open up the game.

Fuller's post minutes were limited in that game, and the staff opted to go with a rotation on the perimeter of Shannon Bobbitt, Angie Bjorklund, Alberta Auguste and Hornbuckle so Fuller didn't pick up playing time at those spots.

"It's hard to keep Candace and Nicky (Anosike) off the floor just because of what they can do both offensively and defensively," Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell said. "Vicki (Baugh) gave us some really, really good minutes. Alex gave us about nine or 10. We had good balance as far as when you look at running a four-post rotation. The thing that we've been able to do in the past to get Alex more minutes is play her at the three some or play Candace at the three. But in this situation we went with a (guard-oriented) perimeter by playing Bird a lot more with Shannon and Lex on the perimeter defending.

"There're times when we can be creative with their playing time and there're times when you look at what your needs are in that particular game and go with it. She's a competitor. I know she would love to be in there, and she did contribute. She did some really nice things for us. It depends on the game. It depends on the situation. The main thing is for her to know that her worth and what we need from her and what we expect from her will not be lessened by the minutes that she plays for us."

Fuller seems to fully understand that but, more importantly for the team, she doesn't let her minutes played affect how she practices or subsequently plays in the next game.

"Alex is all about the team," Summitt said. "Like any and every player, they want to play every minute of every game, which is what you want from them. She is a great competitor, but she is all about us winning. She trusts our coaching staff and has settled into whatever you need coach – if you need me on the perimeter, fine; if you need me on the inside, fine. When I've challenged her to get on the boards, she gets on the boards. She is very coachable."

Lockwood recently held a one-on-one film session with Fuller to go over some defensive possessions as a visual learning tool.

"One-on-one defense is probably Pat's biggest thing starting with penetration, because there are times Alex has to guard a three or a quick, mobile four," Lockwood said. "She's as good as we've got denying the high post, but then when a player gets it out on the floor and having to guard dribble drive sometimes is where she has gotten beat.

"There are times when she's having to guard a big, physical post not to get overpowered easily. We call it foot fighting. Feet are moving constantly. You don't let that post show or present a great target to the passer because if you lock in behind or your feet stop moving, once you stop, they can get radar lock on you and seal you. If you keep moving it frustrates them and they're not allowed to present a great target to the passer.

"For Alex it's knowing who she's guarding and what they can do and taking one thing away, taking the strength away. I think Pat is very confident in Alex's ability to handle that, and I know we all are. We feel she can make the necessary adjustments."

Defense is on Fuller's mind as she heads to the scorer's table to check in the game.

"Coach always tells me that I have to go in with a defensive sense of urgency and hopefully putting some points up on the board for the team," Fuller said.

Fuller battled back from severe knee injuries in high school – she missed her first year at Tennessee to rehab from major surgery on her left knee – and was recently held out of practice for several days and missed one game because of sore knees.

"It's better," Fuller said. "It came to the point where I needed to rest, but it's better now."

Fuller and Parker both missed their first year after arriving on campus and rehabbed together on the sidelines. They were friends before getting to college, but that year off the court solidified their closeness.

"We got close back in high school (after meeting at the McDonald's All-American game in 2004)," Fuller said. "As far as Tennessee the initiation of our friendship was going through all that together."

After missing the Kentucky game, Fuller returned for the Vandy game and scored 10 points – she hit two 3-pointers – with three rebounds, one block, a steal and no turnovers in 20 minutes of play.

"It was great," Parker said of her teammate's return to the court. "She brings a lot of energy and the ability to be another solid post player and can step out and hit the three. It makes the high-low game a lot easier for me."

After that Vandy game, Summitt noted Fuller's ability to score inside and outside.

"The one thing about Alex is she's got really good three-point range," Summitt said. "I like her in the high post area. She can make shots for us. I was excited to see what we saw because in the Vanderbilt game she just had a nose for the ball. I thought she made us a better rebounding team."

In the next game against Arkansas on Jan. 24, Fuller played 25 minutes and had seven boards and three assists. She passed up open shots to get the ball to Bjorklund, who was trying to set the school single-game record for three-pointers but fell one short with seven.

"I think Alex definitely puts the team and the team goals in front of her own goals," Caldwell said. "She knows that we count on her in different situations. I know that she would have liked to have got more minutes in that Duke game, but she was still cheering her team on, just as intense in the game.

"She wears a lot of different hats for us and at any given moment – like at DePaul she came in and started and then there're times when she's had to get limited minutes – but she's always ready to give us her best, and that's all you can ask of her."

Fuller's teammates call her "Sunshine," and it's a sobriquet that fits her well.

"I don't know where they got the name from," Caldwell said. "She's got a great personality. She's very bright, intelligent. She'll cut up. She's sunshine."

The nickname originated with Hornbuckle, who noted that Fuller's game face was so different from her personality.

"That was my name for her," Hornbuckle said. "Because everybody thinks she's so mean. They don't know her. Her demeanor, she's quiet, sometimes she doesn't look approachable, but she is. She's the sweetest girl, and so I call her Sunshine."

Fuller was a little surprised by the name but, naturally, smiles about it.

"I'm not sure why I got that nickname," Fuller said. "I like to keep everything at high energy, laugh and just try not to get in a bad mood about anything, just try to look for the positive in everything."

It will be positive news for Tennessee fans that Fuller intends to return next year for a fifth year. She and Parker are both redshirt juniors, but Parker is expected to graduate with her class in May and be taken No. 1 in the WNBA draft.

"I could have graduated in May, but I'm not going to," Fuller said. "I'm going to graduate in December (with a degree in exercise science). Hopefully, I'll play with Kelley (Cain) and all the freshmen coming in."

Fuller added the qualifier of "hopefully" only because she doesn't want to talk about next year or deflect any attention from this season.

"I'm trying to not think in the future and to think of now," Fuller said. "We're more worried about now."

Fuller would be the only senior next season – there won't even be a junior because Cait McMahan will be a redshirt sophomore – and will have her hands full with three true sophomores, one redshirt sophomore, one redshirt freshman and six true freshmen.

"I'll be the oldest," Fuller said. "It will be a challenge for me. I always think of (former Vol) Dane Bradshaw because when he was here (last season) he was the only senior, and he had to deal with that role, and he handled that well."

The coaching staff knows Fuller will be dependable in that role as well.

"She's going to give us great leadership," Caldwell said. "She's going to be someone that they can go to and talk to about playing here, playing for this staff. She's going to be a good floor general for us because her work ethic is very, very good. I think she's someone that they're going to be able to count on.

"We expect her to embrace all seven, if you count Kelley in that group, first years on the court and really be a great extension of our staff and be a great teacher and helper, along with being a great teammate for them as well."

The coaches' words do reach Fuller, and she finds some comfort in them.

"It boosts your confidence and lets you know that your coaching staff believes in you and that they know if they need to call upon you they know they're going to get what they need," Fuller said.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (9.8 points per game, 3.0 rebounds per game, 3.8 assists per game, 1.8 steals per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (10.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.4 steals per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard, No. 5 (10.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.5 apg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (20.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.4 apg, 2.6 spg, 2.1 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (9.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.9 spg).

Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner is expected to start: Shantell Black, 5'4 sophomore guard, No. 11 (10.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 5.7 apg), leads the team with 103 assists and 38 steals; Kayla Melson, 5'8 freshman guard, No. 20 (8.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg), scored career-high 16 points against Wisconsin, had career-high six steals against Louisiana-Lafayette; Liz Robertson, 5'10 sophomore forward, No. 14 (8.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg), leads team with 25 three-pointers; Dee Forrest, 6'1 senior forward, No. 40 (5.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg), tied for first in the SEC with 4.0 offensive boards a game; and Shawn Goff, 6'3 junior center, No. 35 (12.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg), leads team with 43 blocks and leads the SEC at 2.39 per game, had a career-high six swats against Miami.

Ladner is in her first year at Ole Miss, which is also her alma mater (1981). She replaced Carol Ross, also an Ole Miss alum, who retired after restoring the program to NCAA success. Ross took the team last season to the Elite Eight, where they fell to Tennessee, 98-62. That team took out defending champion Maryland and then Oklahoma to reach the regional final but no longer has those senior stalwarts, Armintie Price, Ashley Awkward and Jada Mincy.

Carla Bartee, a 6'1 senior forward, has started 13 games this season. She averages 9.7 ppg and 8.5 rpg. She had a career-high 18 boards this season against UAB.

Two years ago Tennessee struggled in Oxford – the Rebels led in the first half – but went on a 20-5 run midway through the second half to secure the 78-63 win.

Ole Miss' two SEC wins this season have come at home against Arkansas and South Carolina. The Rebels lost to Georgia, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt on the road. Prior to last week's game at Mississippi State, Ole Miss ranked first in the SEC and 11th in the country with a 38.8 three-point percentage. Since that time, Ole Miss is 0-for-24 behind the arc after going 0-for-13 and 0-for- 11 against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, respectively.

Despite that 0-fer, Ole Miss still ranks fifth in the conference with a 34.6 shooting percentage from behind the arc. Tennessee now leads the league at 39.1 percent.

SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Ole Miss game. Here is her assessment.

When Ole Miss has the ball: "They'll run selectively with their transition game but primarily they like to establish an inside attack. Goff is their best post player and they'll isolate her on the low block, do high-low action, do screening action for her. They also try to get their perimeter game going. They run some kids off of staggers and things like that.

"We've just got to be really conscientious of the fact that they do share the ball. It's not a one-woman show. They've got a fairly balanced attack in their offensive scheme and they run a lot of different looks, a lot of different sets. Primarily they're a team that will set ball screens, set staggers, they'll look for the high-low action, and they'll look for isolations when they can get them."

Defensively, the Lady Vols expect the Rebels to show zone looks.

"They're running their matchup zone, making you beat them from the outside," Caldwell said. "They'll get after it with their pressure here and there selectively, but they're still the aggressive matchup team and they're going to battle and try to keep us off the boards. We've got to make sure that we don't get complacent in our zone offense and still go on the attack mode as if we were running our man."

When Tennessee has the ball: "Inside-outside. We definitely want to try to establish paint points whether it's through post feeds or dribble drives or offensive putbacks. We don't want to get into a jump-shooting contest. We don't want to go in jacking the ball. We definitely want to get the easy twos when we can, get our running game started, generating with our defense and making sure that we're doing a good job of sprinting the floor. We really want to focus on our primary offense and getting early baskets."

The staff knew it had to get the team refocused on conference play after coming off the last-minute win over Duke.

"We gave them a day off after the win and today we went really light," Caldwell said Wednesday after practice and just before the team departed for Oxford. "We've got a veteran squad. What you're hoping for in a game like this is that our team comes out and plays with great intensity, plays with great passion for the game and don't take it for granted that you're able to play this game and remind them of that.

"I think they're hungry. I think they know what we want to accomplish in conference."

Tennessee went undefeated in regular season play last season. It is a feat the players want to repeat.

"Which is a great goal for them to have and is very doable for them," Caldwell said. "I think if they can keep their mindset on that and the intensity and the effort and the energy, that's what we're going to be looking for."

TICK TOCK: If Angie Bjorklund hears the fans counting down the shot clock on the road again she'll know it's not intended to be helpful.

"I think that will go through my head," Bjorklund said.

On Monday night the "Cameron Crazies" at Duke shouted a shot clock countdown of 5-4-3-2-1.

"In my head I was like, ‘Why are they counting down for me? Maybe that's my fans?' " Bjorklund said.

That's an understandable mistake for the freshman. Tennessee often has a lot of fans on the road. But in this case the Duke students were hoping for some deception.

When they got to one in their countdown – the shot clock was actually at seven seconds – Bjorklund lofted an off-balance shot with her body sideways to the basket from about 25 feet away. The ball never touched iron and swished through the net.

"It was lucky," Bjorklund said. "I just threw it up there. I was like, ‘Sweet. It went in.' "

ON TAP: Eight other SEC schools are in action Thursday in the following matchups: Alabama at Mississippi State; Vanderbilt at Florida; Kentucky at Georgia; and South Carolina at LSU.

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Ole Miss, 31-7. The Lady Vols are 14-2 in Knoxville, 13-3 on the road and 4-2 at neutral sites. The last win for the Rebels was on Feb. 4, 1996, when they prevailed 78-72 in Oxford. … Tennessee is 10-4 in games played on January 31. The four losses were to East Tennessee, 22-16, in 1924; Belmont, 64-61, in 1970; Mississippi, 69-65, in 1987; and Texas, 69-67, in 1989. The last win on this date was against Georgia, 77-70, in 2005. … Ole Miss has a win streak over Tennessee that no other SEC team has been able to claim. Between 1985 and 1987, the Rebels defeated the Lady Vols four straight times and had victories in five of six games during that time. The programs have been playing each other since 1977. … Ole Miss Associate Head Coach Peggie Gillom-Granderson still holds Tennessee's school record for single-game points by an opponent. On Feb. 4, 1978, Gillom, who played from the Rebels from 1976 to 1980, scored 45 points (on a record 21 field goals) at Stokely Athletics Center. … Thursday's game will serve as "Think Pink" Night at Tad Smith Coliseum. Fans are asked to wear pink in support of breast cancer awareness. The "Think Pink" initiative is an effort by the WBCA to assist in raising awareness. Tennessee's "Think Pink" game is Feb. 11 against Rutgers. … Four players on Ole Miss' roster are from Tennessee: sophomore guard LaKendra Phillips, Memphis; freshman center Kayla Holloway, Dyersburg; sophomore guard Alliesha Easley, Cordova; and sophomore guard Bianca Thomas, Henderson. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is averaging 80.9 points per game with opponents scoring 60.9. Ole Miss averages 67.5 with opponents getting 68.9. The Lady Vols are shooting 47.2 percent from the field overall, 39.1 percent behind the arc and 73.6 percent from the line. The Rebels hit 41.6 percent of their shots overall, 34.6 from three-point range and 63.5 percent from the stripe. Tennessee averages 40.5 rebounds per game with opponents getting 36.3 for a +4.2 margin. Ole Miss averages 40.5 with opponents at 38.2 for a +2.3 margin. The Lady Vols average 16.8 assists and 17.9 turnovers. Opponents surrender the ball an average of 21.7 times. The Rebels average 14.2 assists and 18.1 turnovers with opponents losing the ball 17.2 times. Tennessee averages 12.5 swipes and 6.5 swats. Ole Miss averages 9.1 steals and 3.7 blocks.

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