"Something about Starkville just does not bring out the best in the Lady Vols," Alexis Hornbuckle said.
No. 2 Tennessee (20-1, 7-0) takes on Mississippi State (14-8, 2-5) at 8 p.m. Eastern tonight (TV: CSS; Lady Vol Radio Network) at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville.
The Lady Vols know not to pay attention to a team's conference record, especially in light of what happened last season. A perfect run through SEC play was nearly derailed by Arkansas in the penultimate game of the regular season.
"No team can be overlooked," Hornbuckle said. "We didn't necessarily overlook Arkansas last year, but I don't think we came into the game as (mentally) prepared as we needed to be, and you saw how that went down. Any game, any team, any given moment, no matter their rank, in conference or nationally, we're Tennessee so we've got a big target on our back. If we don't come prepared we can suffer a loss that we don't want."
Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said this team doesn't have a habit of not being ready for each game. The players especially haven't anticipated an upcoming opponent – especially important since next week is a lineup of Rutgers, the national runner-up to Tennessee in 2007; LSU, which is also undefeated in SEC play; and in-state rival Vanderbilt on the road.
"This team has not done that," Warlick said. "They have not looked ahead. They've pretty much stayed in the moment. That's why I like this team. They stay in the moment, and they focus on who we're playing. It would catch up to us if we did because we've got such a tough schedule."
The players often don't know who is on the schedule except for the next opponent. In that approach they are very much like their head coach.
When asked what she thought of the stretch of games next week, Nicky Anosike's answer was short.
"I haven't thought about it," Anosike said.
Her answer as to why not was longer. "We just take it one game at a time," Anosike said. "That's what led to the success of last season. We're just really trying to focus on Mississippi State and what we need to do to win that game. And then after that we'll start concentrating on the next opponent."
Shannon Bobbitt, the senior point guard in her second year at Tennessee, sees every game as another moment of experience in her Lady Vol career. She also is surrounded by three veterans in the starting lineup, including four-year starters in Anosike and Hornbuckle.
"This team everybody is mature," Bobbitt said." Everybody knows if you try to look past a team what will happen to you. We already had a loss by going to Stanford, and we definitely don't want to lose again."
Tennessee also wants to repeat its feat of running the table in SEC play.
"Definitely," Bobbitt said. "Why not?"
To do so Tennessee has to take care of business on the road against the Lady Bulldogs, which have beaten Mississippi and Alabama in Starkville. The Lady Vols were last on the road at Ole Miss and came away with a 68-44 win in an uneven game in which the starters played well and the bench played in spurts.
"We went through a little bit of that (lack of focus) at Ole Miss, but managed to keep our intensity," Pat Summitt said. "As I continue to tell them, this is more about us and what we have to do and how we play the game and the energy and commitment we bring to get better.
"We have to become a 40-minute team with a great sense of urgency on each and every possession. That is hard to do sometimes and it has been a little challenging for this team. It is a must for us, but all we can do is talk about it and keep our communication where it needs to be and our commitment where it needs to be."
Anosike realizes the team needs to correct any bad habits now and before postseason begins when a series of mistakes can be season ending.
"I think we definitely have improvement to do as far as not taking possessions off and I think at certain times we get lazy," Anosike said. "I think good teams are going to exploit those times, and it's going to hurt us once we get down to playing really good teams."
Summitt will be looking for both effort and execution Thursday.
"I want this team to play hard for 40 minutes and be more efficient with our execution offensively," Summitt said. We've turned the ball over too much. I just feel like we're too casual at times."
Tennessee only had 11 turnovers against Kentucky on Sunday – a step in the right direction – but the ball has been squirting loose too often in other games. The Lady Vols are averaging 17.8 turnovers a game, though the number has dropped to 14.3 in SEC-only games.
Summitt also is seeking a faster pace from her point guard.
"I want Shannon to push harder on offense and be more aggressive defensively. I thought she was real passive (Sunday)," Summitt said. "We looked at tape (Monday), and she's so coachable. She transferred what she saw and what she needed to change from our tape session and came right down here on the floor. That's encouraging."
Summitt will also want a better start to the game for Hornbuckle. The senior guard didn't have a point in the first half against Kentucky. That happens sometimes. But she also didn't have a single rebound despite being on the floor for 13 minutes.
"That's very odd for me," Hornbuckle said.
She didn't offer any excuses, but Hornbuckle had been sick enough in January to miss practice and then had to miss the Jan. 24 game against Arkansas because of another medical issue.
"My body is still recovering, but I'm feeling better every day," Hornbuckle said. "I was sick. I'm slowly getting back into it."
Summitt had plenty to say to Hornbuckle at halftime about her lack of production. Hornbuckle also had a quiet conversation with a higher power.
"I had to pray at halftime," Hornbuckle said. "I was like, ‘Look, I need some strength right about now.' My shoes say ‘Give Me Strength' for my grandmother (who died Dec. 22) so I looked down at that and said, ‘Play every moment like it's your last.' "
Hornbuckle finished with a stat line worthy of an entire game with 13 points on 6-11 shooting, four rebounds, six assists, three steals and no turnovers.
The entire team elevated its defensive pressure and turned an eight-point halftime lead into a rout and a 79-51 win. Kentucky had 36 turnovers and Tennessee capitalized on those miscues to the tune of 40 points.
"We have so much athleticism on this team that we thrive on our defense," Hornbuckle said. "If we can get a defensive board or if we can get a steal and an easy transition layup we get into a rhythm a lot better. We're not too efficient in the half-court at times so we want to generate most of our points in the transition game.
"I think we were committed on the defensive end. Our press slowed them down and we had them late in the shot clock. We made it a point to be more committed whether it was in our half-court defense or in our press D."
Hornbuckle's three steals moved her to 319 for her career. The school record has stood for 19 years and is held for Bridgette Gordon with 333.
Some players aren't aware of records, but this one means something to Hornbuckle. She pointed to her jersey number – 14 – when asked about the record. Fourteen more thefts would tie Gordon. With No. 15, Hornbuckle claims the title as all-time steals leader at Tennessee.
"I'm aware of it because I'm a defensive-minded player," Hornbuckle said. "I take pride in defensive accomplishments such as trying to break a steals record. I want to break the record. I want to do it at home because it would be more exciting at a home game.
"It's very important to me. It's going to leave my mark on what type of player I was on the defensive end. I'm very excited."
The next opportunity comes tonight against Mississippi State. The coaches will be looking for a lot, but at least they know the Lady Vols haven't overlooked anything.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (9.8 points per game, 2.9 rebounds per game, 3.6 assists per game, 1.8 steals per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (10.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.5 spg, 1.2 blocks per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard, No. 5 (10.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.5 apg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (20.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.2 apg, 2.4 spg, 2.0 bpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (9.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.1 apg, 2.0 spg, 1.2 bpg).
Tennessee is ranked first among conference teams in scoring offense (80.2 points per game); three-point accuracy (38.4 percent); made three-pointers (6.71); blocks (6.33 per game); and steals (12.76 per game). The Lady Vols are second in scoring margin at +20.5 ppg; overall field goal percentage (46.8); free throw percentage (72.2); and assists (16.86).
Parker leads the league in scoring at 20.4 ppg. Bjorklund is fourth in three-pointers at 2.19 per game. Hornbuckle is fourth in steals at 2.5 per game.
In conference-only games, Tennessee is first in scoring offense (77.9 points); scoring margin (+27.4 ppg); blocks (6.71 per game); steals (14.29); and turnover margin (+10.29). The Lady Vols are second in field goal percentage (45.7); scoring defense (50.4 ppg); field goal percentage defense (35.9); assists (15.86); and offensive rebounds (15.1).
Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning is expected to start: Alexis Rack, 5'7 sophomore guard, No. 2 (11.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.8 apg), second in the conference with 2.64 made three-pointers per game, has 117 career three-pointers; Marneshia Richard, 5'8 junior guard, No. 25 (9.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.4 apg), had 14 points in the win over in-state rival Ole Miss, is playing with a broken nose and must wear a protective mask; Robin Porter, 5'11 junior forward, No. 24 (6.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg), had a career-high five blocks against Alabama; Tysheka Grimes, 6'0 sophomore forward, No. 23 (11.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.7 apg), had a career-high 15 rebounds against Alabama; and Imesia Jackson, 6'1 senior forward, No. 45 (8.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg), had 18 points and 10 rebounds against Oklahoma.
Despite a lack of size across the frontline, Mississippi State ranks first in the conference in offensive rebounds at 15.7 per game and is second in 3-point field goal defense at 28.8 percent. In SEC games only, the Lady Bulldogs are third in 3-point field goal defense at 23.8 percent and fifth in offensive boards at 13.29.
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Mississippi State game. Here is her assessment.
When Mississippi State has the ball: "They're a very athletic team. They're quick, physical. They like to run the ball. They've got multidimensional players – they penetrate, they shoot the midrange jumper, and they'll shoot the three. It's going to be kind of a difficult guard for us because they're very athletic. When you're athletic and can do multiple things they're difficult to guard."
On the defensive end, Warlick expects Coach Sharon Fanning to deploy of mixture of looks against the Lady Vols.
"The run a man to man, they switch on screens, they run a 2-3 zone," Warlick said. "I think she'll mix it up against us. They press a little bit. I think she's going to try to change it up on us and try to keep us off guard.
"We have more of a physical presence as far as height, but every time we've played down there it's gone down to the wire. They've lost a lot of SEC games, but they've generally been in the game until the last 10 minutes and then they've run out of steam. She's does a great job with them.
"It's a typical Mississippi State team – athletic and play hard. They play hard all the time. They play hard on offense, and they're very aggressive on the defensive end."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We're not going to change our game plan. Go inside, play inside-out. Just do our thing. Make sure we get offensive putbacks and try to improve on what we do and improve on things that we can better at. If we take care of business and do what we do best, we should win the basketball game, but that's why you play.
"They tend to get up to play us and rightfully so. We're going to have to have our ‘A' game."
ANGVILLE: Angie Bjorklund is well suited to being a freshman starter on a national title-defending team. She has proven to be unflappable on the court and easygoing with her teammates.
"I think her demeanor is favorable for her game because she doesn't lose her composure, and she doesn't get rattled," Pat Summitt said. "She could be 0-11 and shoot it like every one of them has gone in."
Tennessee needs for Bjorklund to shoot the ball to be successful, and she has had the green light since the exhibition opener. She has had some big games – a career-high 29 points against Arkansas and three games in which she hit seven three-pointers to share a Lady Vol record with Shanna Zolman – and some other games in which she barely released the ball with five shots taken against Stanford and just three against Vanderbilt.
"I hope it's not being a freshman because it's a long season for freshmen, but one thing we've tried to do is be aware of giving them days off," Summitt said. "I remember they were asking me for a day off and it was a day when they didn't have classes, and I was like, ‘I've given y'all more days off than I've given any team off in the history of my career.'
"But a lot of that has to do with our numbers and how hard we play. That can happen (fatigue) but because of the number of days we've been giving them off it shouldn't happen."
Bjorklund indicated fatigue wasn't a factor in her off nights. It was more likely related to early success, or the lack thereof.
"I've noticed if I hit my first couple of shots I'm looking to score a lot more than if I miss my first couple of shots," Bjorklund said. "I'm not going to try to keep forcing it up when I have the most talented teammates in the nation. I'm going to look to get it inside more. I know that's not how it should be (hesitating to shoot after missing early), but I've noticed the games where I've been on fire and shooting a lot is when I hit the first few shots."
Summitt wants Bjorklund to keep firing even if her early shots miss the mark. She also wants the guard to hunt shots within the offense. The coach has noticed a difference in the last several games.
"Just in her composure and her ability to get herself open not only at the three, but I think she's done a really nice job of playing off the dribble, not totally committing to the three ball, but attacking the defense," Summitt said. "She's done a good job with inside-out – getting the ball inside and getting it back.
"I have seen her rush very few shots. She typically is going to have her feet set, and she's definitely going to square to the basket."
Bjorklund is also an excellent free-throw shooter, so the next step in her evolution as a offensive player is to get to the line.
"She doesn't get fouled as much going to the paint as much as Alberta (Auguste) or Lex because when they go they're looking to go to the rim," Summitt said. "She's looking for her pull-up. I have not impressed upon her getting to the free throw line because I like what she's doing on the outside.
"There may be games where she's not shooting the ball well, then it's time to say, ‘Get to the free throw line.' Same thing with Lex. If the shot's not falling, get to the free throw line. So now she's attacking more."
Summitt sees an unselfish player in Bjorklund – and that is good on a veteran-laden team – but she has a simple policy for the freshman.
"I want her to shoot every time she's open," Summitt said. "I think there are times when she's unselfish. She's not here to impress everyone by forcing shots in order to get her average. When we put the emphasis on going inside then she's going to look to get the ball inside. We can get inside-out looks and get her more active when she feeds the post to get herself open."
Bjorklund knows her performances have been inconsistent at time, but the last thing a shooter needs to do is fret.
"It's off and on," Bjorklund said. "I'm just kind of rolling with it. If I'm hitting my teammates are looking to get me the ball more and if I'm not I'm looking to get it inside more. I'm not going to necessarily force up more shots unless I'm really hitting and then I need to try to get myself open more. With this team, well Candace is always on fire, but sometimes it's Shannon, Lex. It's different people stepping up. I'm OK with that."
Bjorklund came out of the locker room for an interview after a grueling two-hour practice and then a weight session. She was finishing a Gatorade and carried two bottles of water.
"I'm trying to hydrate," she said with a smile.
She sat between two writers and patiently answered questions about her shot, her role on the team, her coach's expectation and the adjustment for a freshman on the college level, which also includes remembering to consume enough fluids.
In high school and AAU ball, she spent plenty of time shooting on her own. In college, she has found that she has to cut side sessions short.
"It's been a lot of work," Bjorklund said. "I knew it was going to be coming in. I'm having fun with it, but at the same time I don't want to call it a job, but it's a lot of time.
"Your body is torn down at times. I always thought I'd be the player to come in and shoot extra, but I can't do more than like 20 minutes max of extra shooting because they work you. Coach is on you about keeping your intensity the entire practice and you're going two hours a day doing that, it's hard.
"It's been fun, but it's been a lot harder than I expected. It's been tough, but it's good. She's getting the most out of me. It's pushing me to that limit, and I'm getting better."
The days off are a godsend and the tapering in the weight room is intended to save the players' legs.
"We have our days off and they space it out nicely," Bjorklund said. "We're going lighter on our lifting. At the same time the intensity of practice is picking up, too. I think it's getting to crunch time. I've never been on a team where everybody is working. I love it. I can't really describe it."
Bjorklund also is clear on her role as a Lady Vol.
"My role is being a scorer for this team and also what I've been working on – every day in practice I need to work on my defense and rebounding because me not stepping up is going to affect our team in the long run, especially when it comes down to crunch time," she said.
"But I think keep looking for my shot, keep having a scorer's mentality. Coach is talking to me about it time and time again what it is. She makes it pretty clear what everyone's role is."
LOOKING AHEAD: With Rutgers defeat of No. 1 UConn on Tuesday, the Lady Vols could move into the No. 1 slot when the new AP poll is released Monday. Tennessee first has to get past Mississippi State.
"We have to take care of business on the road at Mississippi State," Pat Summitt said during her Wednesday teleconference. "Hopefully we'll be inspired and ready to do so. I hadn't really thought about it (being No. 1)."
Rutgers will be in town Monday to play Tennessee. Tipoff is set for 7:02 p.m., and ESPN2 will have television coverage.
"The fact that Rutgers won last night and upset the No. 1 team in the country, that certainly will generate even more excitement for our fans and for women's basketball fans," Summitt said. "If in fact we do go in as the No. 1 team, there will be a lot of people that will tune in and watch that game with tremendous interest. I am hoping we can sell the place out. I thought about it last night when that game was over, if nothing else, maybe we can create an even more exciting environment and get a sellout."
As of Tuesday, some 16,000 tickets have been sold. The renovated arena now holds 21,678.
Monday's game is also part of the "Think Pink" campaign to raise awareness of breast cancer and promote research. Fans have been asked to wear something pink and 10,000 pink T-shirts will be given away at the game.
"We'd like to pack this place and everyone have on pink," Summitt said. "I've got me an outfit. I don't know if I can go all pink."
One outfit is solid pink – pants and top. The second is a more understated pink pinstriped suit.
"I'm leaning in that direction," Summitt said.
Two of Summitt's assistants, Holly Warlick and Nikki Caldwell, will present a $10,000 check to the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. The contribution is from money raised during the coaches' Cruisin' for a Cause cross-county motorcycle ride.
Last September, Warlick and Caldwell raised more than $50,000 through their 11-day, 3,000-mile cross-country ride from Berkeley, Calif., to Knoxville. They held rallies in seven cities, meeting with supporters and survivors and sharing the message of breast cancer prevention and awareness.
This coming spring, they will take to the highway again and raise awareness from Knoxville to Key West, Fla. and back. The ride, beginning on May 11, will again benefit the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund, University of Tennessee Breast Health Outreach Program and The Wellness Community of East Tennessee.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Mississippi State, 26-0. Tennessee is 11-0 both in Knoxville and in Starkville and 4-0 at neutral sites. Mississippi State is the only SEC school that has never beaten Tennessee. … Tennessee is 8-1 in games played on February 7. The lone loss was to Appalachian State in 1970. The last game played on this date was a win over Arkansas in 2002. … Candace Parker has been named the Women's Basketball Coaches Association National Player of the Month for January for the first time in her career. Parker, the reigning State Farm Wade Trophy Player of the Year, shot 63 percent from the field and averaged 19.1 points per game during the month, as the Lady Vols posted a 9-0 record. Parker, who plays all positions on the court, pulled down 8.1 rebounds per game during that time and also averaged 2.3 assists, 1.8 blocks and 3.1 steals. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee averages 80.2 points per game while allowing 59.6. Mississippi State averages 68.9 while allowing 60.3. The Lady Vols shoot 46.8 percent from the field overall, 38.4 percent behind the arc and 72.2 from the line. The Lady Bulldogs shoot 38.6 percent overall, 30.6 from three-point range and 65.9 percent from the stripe. Tennessee averages 40.6 rebounds per game with opponents getting 36.4 for a +4.2 margin. Mississippi State averages 40.0 with foes getting 37.8 for a +2.2 margin. The Lady Vols average 16.9 assists and 17.8 turnovers while forcing 22.2 turnovers a game. The Lady Bulldogs average 14.1 assists and 17.5 turnovers while also forcing 22.2. Tennessee averages 12.8 swipes and 6.3 swats. Mississippi State averages 10.4 steals and 3.2 blocks.