Battle of SEC unbeatens

Candace Parker tightened the laces – still pink from the "Think Pink" game – on her basketball shoes before practice Wednesday and answered an assortment of questions about the state of Lady Vol basketball. The program's next big test comes tonight when LSU comes to town in a game that will place the winner in the driver's seat in the SEC.

Candace Parker had an ice bag on her right knee – precautionary medical protocol – and handled a series of questions with her usual aplomb, humor and perspective. She fiddled with the tape on her wrist, adjusted her ankle brace and agreed the pink laces clashed with the orange shoes, but she didn't have time to change them before practice started in a few minutes.

The laces were the last visible reminder of Monday's win over Rutgers, a game in which Tennessee wiped out a five-point deficit with 90 seconds left and won, 59-58, on two free throws with .2 seconds left in a finish that unleashed a storm of controversy over clock issues – who stopped it; who started it – and statements from the Big East, SEC and Rutgers athletic director that provided quite a bit of heat but not much light as the SEC said everyone discharged their duties properly and the Big East and Rutgers hinted at malfeasance. Neither side could submit proof – although conjecture was in ready supply by the party that felt wronged – which would indicate that what exactly happened can't be determined.

Parker provided a levelheaded response, which should be expected from a player in the trenches.

"Something similar happened in high school," Parker said. "It was in the sectional finals in my junior year. She (an opponent) shot a shot, and the ref waved it off and we went to overtime. They said the shot was good; it should have counted. There was all this controversy. It ended their season. I've dealt with this.

"I can confidently look myself in the mirror and say that whether we won or we lost – we lost in the way they did or we won like we did – I can say I would complain about it for a couple of days and be upset about it, but after awhile you have to look at the bigger picture.

"A call at the beginning of the game is no less important than one at the end. We can go back and go through film at junctures in the game where the refs made mistakes and we made mistakes. It's a part of basketball. I don't think there's an asterisk by our win. I'm just going to say that now. I wouldn't want that to end their season, but at this point we won. That's how I look at it. We've moved on."

Not everyone has. Two days after the game, a reporter in Pat Summitt's weekly media teleconference Wednesday asked if she considered forfeiting the game and becoming a "national hero."

Well, no," Summitt said, clearly puzzled by the rather overwrought line of questioning that also involved asking her if the win was tainted. "First of all, I saw the 0.2 go back up on the clock when the officials went to the scorer's table to review what happened. At that point and even now, to me, it is something that has to be managed by the crew. They had gone to the monitor and gone back and that is how the game was closed out."

Summitt's concern Wednesday was getting ready for LSU, the other undefeated team in conference play, because the winner takes control of the top spot in the league.

"I think you go into it saying this could determine who wins the title in the league," Summitt said. "We have to think that way but immediately we've got to go to Nashville and play Vanderbilt regardless of what happens here. It's one game at a time. We know that LSU is the best team in the league right now, aside from us, and we have to prove that we're better than them."

No. 1 Tennessee (22-1, 8-0) takes on No. 7 LSU (20-3, 9-0) on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern (TV: Fox Sports Net; Lady Vol Radio Network) at Thompson-Boling Arena. The slightly earlier tip time – weeknight games are usually tipped at 7 p.m. – accommodates the national television broadcast.

Summitt gave her team the day off Tuesday to rest their legs since the Lady Vols play tonight and then again Sunday at Vanderbilt. The team reassembled before taking the floor Wednesday to meet and watch film.

"Didn't ask them, didn't go there," Summitt said of the players' reaction to the brouhaha involving the ending of the Rutgers game. "We went in the film room and looked at our second-half offense. What little bit we could see. Bits and pieces of something good."

The Lady Vols were 6-26 in the second half and shot 23.1 percent. For the game they attempted 17 three-pointers and made only four of them, none more important than the back-to-back ones by Shannon Bobbitt and Angie Bjorklund to wipe out the five-point deficit.

The team looked at the second-half offensive, no pun intended, clips before practice.

"We were looking at places where we could have been better," Summitt said. "We brushed people instead of screening people. We settled for threes instead of getting to the paint. My disappointment was we come out of our halftime talk saying we've got to have paint points, and we're shooting threes. The lack of discipline or commitment to what we wanted to do bothered me as much as anything."

Parker, who finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds, sighed and said she couldn't explain how the team went from a halftime directive to a disconnect on the court.

"What's so surprising is we're in every game whatever we do," Parker said. "We're capable of playing and killing great teams and we're capable of letting other teams hang around with us. It's so surprising because we shot (29.6) percent (for the game), and we won. I don't know how we do it."

Does that create a false sense of security or boost the team's confidence? Parker felt it was beneficial in the long run because the team always believes it can win.

"We weren't shooting very well, our one-on-one defense wasn't very good," Parker said. "I'm not going to even try to diagnose the problem. I do know that we're capable of knocking down shots. We didn't have a good game. I pray we don't have another game where Nicky (Anosike) goes 0-7 and Shannon goes 1-9. We're not going to have a game like that, at least I hope.

"Look at the positive. Coach was harping on Alex playing bad in the Mississippi State game, she came in and gave us a boost off the bench. You have to look at the positives instead of always harping on the negatives."

Fuller's performance off the bench was lost in the maelstrom of tenths of a second. She had six points, four boards, one assist, one block and two steals and played solid defense inside and on the perimeter.

Tennessee sometimes plays better with a chip on its shoulder. It clearly prefers a high level of competition.

"Obviously we respond when there's adversity," Parker said. "We responded after the Stanford game when we lost. We did not play our best basketball against Rutgers at all. We were down with 1:30 left by five. We didn't score in the second half. Defensively we're OK. Rebounding, we can get better. Offensively, we've got to make some things happen."

That was the gist of the coaching staff's talk with the team Wednesday. After practice the players watched LSU film. Several had one-on-one film sessions with assistants.

"We need to play five on five," Summitt said. "We've got to have people step up. We can't have Candace Parker having to make three of every four baskets. We expect more from Alexis. We expect more from Shannon. We expect more Nicky and Alex and Bird and down the line. Sometimes I think players stand around and watch Candace play."

The last time LSU and Tennessee played was in the SEC tourney in Duluth, Ga. The Lady Vols had beaten LSU on Feb. 19, 2007, to stay perfect in league play and clinch the league title in a scintillating performance by Parker, who had 27 points and 13 rebounds. On March 3, 2007, the Lady Vols, except for Hornbuckle, who scored a career-high 29 points, played their single-worst game of the season.

"My single-worst performance," Parker interrupted.

Parker had four points on 2-11 shooting and was defensively indifferent. That loss ended up propelling the team to a national title.

"Our team really looks at that tournament game as a defining moment for our basketball team," Summitt said. "It was a game in which Candace Parker had her poorest outing as a Lady Vol player. As a result, we struggled. LSU played terrific; you have to give them credit. They took it to us.

"At that moment, we had a meeting after the game and a meeting the next day. We basically gave everyone an opportunity to voice their concerns and to determine which direction they wanted to go in. They said right then that they wanted to come together, play together and win a national championship. With that said, we took our days off and then got back in the gym and worked really hard to be a better basketball team and play together. That was a defining moment for our team in the road to the championship."

Thursday's game puts the winner in control of the SEC race and in position for a high seed in the NCAA postseason tourney.

"Obviously we have our work cut out for us," Parker said. "You've got Sylvia Fowles in the middle who commands a lot of attention. They have a great core of players around her who are able to knock down shots, able to get to the hoop. Erica White is running their team amazing right now. I love that little point guard. She's got so much energy and she really knows the game, plays hard all the time. I think this is going to determine a lot.

"I'm going to approach it like any other game. We could play Rutgers and LSU every night, night in and night out and I would love it. That's what you work for and that's what you practice for to play teams that are of your same caliber and will push you to be better. I'm excited about playing LSU and how our team is going to bounce back from Rutgers and how we're going to respond."

LSU played in the last three SEC tourney finals. Tennessee won in 2005 and 2006 before LSU knocked off Tennessee in the semifinal in 2007 and then went on to lose to Vandy in the final. From 2001 to 2007, Tennessee and LSU have won the regular season with the Lady Vols winning in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2007 and the Tigers winning in 2005 and 2006.

"If you look at the history of LSU and Tennessee, it usually comes down to who's going to win the SEC outright," Summitt said. "In the tournament it's usually the two of us and obviously they put us out.

"There's no team in the league that we don't respect but obviously we have reason to believe that LSU is the team to beat because they're right where they want to be in the league. We've got to be ready to play. Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker, what a great matchup. It may be what the people around them bring that separates one from the other."

Tennessee has three home games and three road games remaining in the regular season. Postseason is a little more than two weeks away.

"It's getting towards the homestretch," Parker said. "I love postseason. I'd have postseason all year if I could."

At least Tennessee doesn't have to worry about peaking too soon, a remark that coaxed a chuckle out of Parker

"We would like to peak, though," she said. "We would like to get to that point. Honestly I don't know what the answer is. Somehow we will figure it out and if we don't we won't win. I hope we do things when we have to at this point."

Parker pulled the ice bag off her knee and headed out of the locker room towards the practice court. She pitched the ice in a trashcan, grateful that she was still lacing up her basketball shoes. The injury scare last week against Mississippi State gave her a second lease on this season.

"To some extent it made me realize one play can take so much away," said Parker, who mentioned players whose seasons have been ended by knee injuries this year. "It really did give me a new beginning. It made me realize how lucky I was."

PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (10.0 points per game, 3.2 rebounds per game, 3.5 assists per game, 1.7 steals per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (10.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.4 spg); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard/forward, No. 5 (10.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.4 apg); Candace Parker 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (20.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.5 apg, 2.3 spg, 2.1 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (9.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.9 spg).

Bobbitt got a technical in the Rutgers game, but won't face any further disciplinary action from Summitt beyond a scolding that made the TV broadcast because Summitt was wearing a microphone. After being told by an official that Bobbitt had pointed at a Rutgers player – who had been talking throughout the game – and said, "You, you," after a foul call, Summitt summoned the point guard to the sideline in an exchange that consisted of Summitt berating Bobbitt and Bobbitt nodding her head and saying, "Rebound," the players' word for bouncing back from a mistake.

"My volume was turned up, but my volume was turned up for a reason," Summitt said. "We don't do that here at Tennessee. Taunting is not a part of it. It's all about staying focused on the team. Shannon understood that. I thought she handled it. We moved on."

Summitt met with Bobbitt on Tuesday but used that session to primarily break down the game tape, as is their custom.

"We focused more on looking at tape and thinking about how she can do a better job of getting in the paint and getting some pull-ups, as opposed to threes and layups," Summitt said. "There's got to be an in-between game for her just like it does for Alexis and Alberta (Auguste)."

LSU Coach Van Chancellor is expected to start: Erica White, 5'3 senior guard, No. 5 (6.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 4.4 apg), has 460 career assists and is fourth all-time at LSU, with eight more she will claim third place, had 12 assists against Arkansas; RaShonta LeBlanc, 5'7 senior guard, No. 12 (6.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.1 apg), has started 61 consecutive games, had a career-high six steals against TCU and Alabama; Quianna Chaney, 5'11 senior guard, No. 15 (14.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.1 apg), had a career-high 27 points against Florida State, which put her over 1,000 for her career, she now has 1,151 career points, had a career-high six three-pointers and career-high eight assists against Auburn in the same game; Ashley Thomas, 6'0 senior forward, No. 54 (5.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.5 spg), has started every game this season, had nine rebounds against Miami; and Sylvia Fowles, 6'6 senior center, No. 34 (17.0 ppg, 9.4 rpg), is hitting 60.4 percent of her shots, needs 17 points to tally 2,000 for her career, has 1,406 career rebounds, ranking third all-time in the SEC.

A key player off the bench for LSU is Allison Hightower, who averages 20.2 minutes per game and has hit 27 three-pointers. She also has 45 assists and 22 steals on the season. The sophomore guard started two games this season when Fowles was out with a right knee injury after partially tearing the lateral meniscus and needing arthroscopic surgery on Dec. 21.

Chancellor is back in the SEC – he coached at Ole Miss – after coaching the four-time WNBA champion Houston Comets and working in broadcast. He replaced Pokey Chatman, who resigned last season.

"We've been friends a long time," Summitt said. "I've enjoyed having him back in the league. He brings a great sense of humor. He has done a great job of coaching this LSU team. When there is a coaching change, there is a transition. He has managed to bring the team together. They seem to believe in what they are doing. He's added a few wrinkles offensively, aside from the motion offense that they are known for and the success that they've had with the motion. They are playing with great passion. It is great to have him back in the league."

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

When LSU has the ball: "They do a good job of really pushing the basketball. Erica White does a fantastic job of just running the ball up people's backs. She is facilitating, she's dishing, she's getting the ball to all the right people, getting them into their action. They're a team that plays slow to fast or fast, setup, slow, then fast. She can change the tempo of the game with her ability to push the rock. So transition defense is definitely key. She's making sure that everybody is getting touches. She keeps everybody happy. As a point guard that is what she does a great job of."

Caldwell said the motion offense is still LSU's signature look, but they have the added benefit of four players who must be guarded on the perimeter.

"They're primarily running their motion offense, which gives them isolation for dribble drives, gives them isolation for three-point shooters, gives them isolation for Sylvia down the gut," Caldwell said. "Because the way that Thomas has been shooting the ball with her face-up game you've basically got four kids on the floor who can shoot and extend the defense so they give people problems because you can't just go double on Sylvia because Thomas can knock down that open jumper.

"You've got the four-out, one-in look quite a bit. They love to pound the ball in to Sylvia whether it's the wing pass or the high-low pass. We've got to really make sure we're getting them out of their comfort zone when they catch and when they do catch applying great ball pressure."

Fowles had 19 points and 20 rebounds in the last matchup between the two teams in the SEC tourney, a 63-54 win for LSU.

"She's physical, she posts well, she scores around the basket, she is very, very efficient, Caldwell said. "A lot of her shots are in the paint. She's a player that game in and game out has established an inside paint presence both on the offensive and defensive end."

Pat Summitt said Fowles deserves as much attention for her defensive presence as her ability to score inside.

"I know everyone thinks that she is a great offensive player, but she may even be more of a force on the defensive end when you look at her presence and ability to block and alter shots," Summitt said. "She does a tremendous job of providing support at the basket, defensively. She is an intimidator for most players that go inside against her. She plays really hard and with a passion."

Caldwell said Tennessee expects the Tigers to play man defense.

"They're going to man," Caldwell said. "They'll man up. They have their matchup zone, but they've been playing primarily man to man."

LSU has been flying somewhat under the radar nationally as attention has focused on UConn, Rutgers, Tennessee, Maryland, Stanford and North Carolina. Meanwhile, the Lady Tigers have been mowing down foes.

LSU defeated Mississippi State, 84-31, on Jan. 20 to break the record for largest margin of victory by the Lady Tigers over an SEC opponent. The 53-point win surpassed the 44-point win over Kentucky on Jan. 16, 2003.

"They've done a good job of wiping out their opponents," Caldwell said. "They are flying a little bit under the radar because they had a couple of early losses, but they're a team that's on a mission."

The Lady Tigers also won't be intimidated in Thompson-Boling Arena. They won the last time they played in Knoxville, 72-69, on Feb. 9, 2006.

When Tennessee has the ball: "We've got to get back to running the ball," Caldwell said. "That's a strength of ours. We've got to get transition points, transition opportunities. We've got to get back to having a balanced attack. We've got to have an inside attack and the perimeter game has got to knock down shots. Period. You can't be working that hard and not reward yourself on the offensive end.

"You've got to be able to play on both ends of the floor. Sometimes you can control if that three-ball's going to hit, but our guards need to be a little bit more creative in their scoring opportunities, whether it's layups, causing more deflections and steals or getting to the free throw line."

Caldwell thinks the team is well past the controversy of the finish in the Rutgers game and ready for SEC play again.

"I think they're ready," Caldwell said. "We watched film. We talked about it. We saw areas of improvement that can assist us in (Thursday) night's game. We went to scouting. They understand when you're in this part of the season, they know they've got a tough road, but in the end it will also help prepare them for March Madness. That's how regionals will be. The Final Four will be like that.

"We took a day off. They should have their legs. We made a point to them our next opponent is not the opponent we just played it's the opponent we're getting ready to face."

Alexis Hornbuckle, a steady performer for Tennessee this season, was in foul trouble in the Rutgers game and struggled offensively – she had three points – but had six assists. Considering the Lady Vols only made 16 baskets for the game, she found another way to contribute on offense.

"That wasn't a great game for our team as a whole," Caldwell said. "I think we've got to get back to what is our strength."

Caldwell agreed the fouls on Hornbuckle took her off her game, which is a gambling one on defense that usually pays off.

"She's just a free spirit on the floor," Caldwell said. "We've got to make sure, A, Hornbuckle stays on the floor, and B, we make sure we put her in position to get some easy looks. She's always been a tremendous defender. She's one of the best rebounding guards in the country."

Hornbuckle and Nicky Anosike are the team's toughest defenders. Anosike only played 15 minutes against Rutgers because of her offensive struggles, though her offensive rebound and the subsequent free throw shots saved the game.

"They feel a sense of pride in their defensive abilities," Caldwell said. "They take complete ownership of stopping and defending their players, which is a good thing to have."

The winner of Thursday's game is definitely in the driver's seat in the SEC, but Caldwell preached caution. Both teams are undefeated in league play.

"We're the only ones who haven't lost, but there is still more basketball to be played," Caldwell said. "We're at Vandy on Sunday. One game at a time. One play at a time. One score, one stop at a time. Stay in the moment. Worry about what you can control and that's what's going on right then and there."

ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are in action on Valentine's Day in the following matchups: Alabama at Auburn; Florida at Georgia; Kentucky at Vanderbilt; and Mississippi State at Ole Miss. Arkansas and South Carolina are idle.

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with LSU, 35-10. The Lady Vols are 16-1 in Knoxville, 11-5 in Baton Rouge and 8-4 at neutral sites. The programs have been playing since 1977. … Tennessee is 11-3 in games played on February 14. The threes losses were to Farragut School, 15-4, in 1908; Western Carolina, 86-82, in 1975; and Old Dominion, 90-66, in 1983. The last win on Valentine's Day was against Mississippi State, 80-78, in 2002. … Tennessee has a 17-game winning streak at home and a 22-game winning streak in regular season SEC play dating back to last season when the Lady Vols went 14-0. …. Monday night's crowd of 17,690 was the country's largest to support the Women's Basketball Coaches Association's "Think Pink" events to raise breast cancer awareness. A halftime auction of Tennessee coaches' "Kiss Cards" raised $9,500 for local organizations that work with cancer patients with Summitt's signature, photo and lips imprint being sold for $4,000. UT Assistant Coaches Holly Warlick and Nikki Caldwell presented a $10,000 check to the Wellness Community of East Tennessee in memory of Tom Cronan, the late husband of Athletics Director Joan Cronan, after raising money during their "Cruisin' for a Cause" cross-country motorcycle ride in September. … LSU Associate Head Coach Bob Starkey has shaved his head to support his wife, Sherie. She was diagnosed with breast cancer this past summer and has responded well to treatment, according to LSU. Starkey wanted to support his wife and raise awareness of breast cancer in conjunction with the "Think Pink" campaign. … Sunday's game against Vanderbilt is sold out, according to Commodore athletic officials. The capacity at Memorial Gym is 14,316. This is the fifth advance road sellout this season for Tennessee. Duke, Notre Dame, DePaul and Stanford also sold out the Tennessee game. The Lady Vols have a 14-game SEC winning streak on the road. The last loss away from home to an SEC opponent was against Kentucky, 66-63, on Jan. 26, 2006, in Rupp Arena. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee averages 79.6 points per game – the SEC's best offense – and allows 60.0 points. LSU averages 71.0 points and allows 49.8 – the SEC's best defense. The Lady Vols are shooting 46.2 percent overall, 38.2 behind the arc and 72.1 percent from the line. The Lady Tigers are shooting 45.5 percent overall, 34.7 percent from three-point range and 69.8 percent from the stripe. Tennessee averages 40.7 rebounds per game with opponents getting 36.4 for a +4.3 margin. LSU averages 37.4 boards with opponents getting 34.8 for a +2.7 margin. The Lady Vols average 16.7 assists and 17.1 turnovers with opponents losing the ball 21.5 times. The Lady Tigers average 17.6 assists and 12.8 turnovers with opponents surrendering the ball 20.2 times. Tennessee averages 12.1 swipes and 6.3 swats a game. LSU averages 11.7 steals and 4.6 blocks. … Thursday's game will feature two players who have dunked in college. Candace Parker most recently dunked against Kentucky on Feb. 3. Sylvia Fowles dunked this season on Nov. 21, 2007, against Louisiana-Lafayette and became the sixth woman to do so in a women's NCAA game, joining Georgeann Wells of West Virginia; Charlotte Smith of North Carolina; Sancho Lyttle of Houston; and Michelle Snow and Parker, both of Tennessee.

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