Senior Night beckons for Lady Vols

Five departing players will be in the starting lineup tonight for Tennessee following a longer-than-usual ceremony as Pat Summitt honors an unusually large senior class. It's not the same class she signed four years ago, but it's a group that hung a national championship banner in the arena after getting some reinforcements.

"Obviously they've kept Tennessee as one of the top programs in the country," Pat Summitt said. "We haven't faltered. They'll always go down in history with a long drought of championships as the team that won the championship in Cleveland. That 2007 national championship we waited a long time for it."

Summitt signed the senior class of 2008 as a Six Pack, but the group was hit by attrition – two transferred and two were hurt and had to sit out a year – and ended up with two newcomers in Alberta Auguste and Shannon Bobbitt, who joined the team from junior college.

Three of the original six, Nicky Anosike, Alexis Hornbuckle and Candace Parker, will also play their final home game in a Lady Vol uniform on Thursday when No. 3 Tennessee (25-2, 11-1) takes on Florida (16-11, 5-7) at Thompson-Boling Arena at 7 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network; senior ceremony video-stream at utladyvols.com with game video available Friday morning).

Parker, who will graduate in May and is the Academic All-American of the Year in the university division, will forego her fourth year of NCAA eligibility and opt to enter the WNBA draft, where she is expected to be the top pick of the Los Angeles Sparks. Junior forward Alex Fuller, who sat out her first year, like Parker, to recover from knee surgery, will watch on the sidelines as her original signing class says its sayonara to the fans.

The class changed significantly from 2004 to 2008 – Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood lasted a year and a half and Sybil Dosty left after two years; Auguste and Bobbitt arrived in the fall of 2006 as replenishments – and the patchwork that remained turned out to be the ones who ended the nine-year title drought at Tennessee.

"You think about that recruiting class what we lost and then what we gained with Shannon and Alberta," Summitt said. "When we lost them I'm thinking, ‘What are we going to do?' And Shannon comes in and does a terrific job. I think the transition for Shannon and Alberta just made us better.

"First of all when they got here they had never had it this good. They had never been in an environment like this. They were humble. They were appreciative. They took nothing for granted. It was great. I have enjoyed coaching those two because they appreciated everything and what they brought to our team. They were good for team chemistry. They've been great."

Anosike said the integration of Bobbitt and Auguste into the team was seamless.

"I think they are the reason that we won the championship, and it wasn't hard at all to get them acclimated to the system just because they were experienced players," Anosike said. "It wasn't like they were coming out of high school and had no clue. They played at two pretty good junior colleges so they were experienced. They wanted to learn, and they wanted to help the team out."

Anosike sees a stark contrast from the team the past two years and when she first arrived in Knoxville. When she was a freshman she noticed cliques – the seniors tended to hang out together and on down the class line. Add to that a freshman class that had not meshed on or off the court, and team chemistry became an issue.

But four years later, Anosike said her classmates would be lifelong friends.

"Definitely," Anosike said. "We've been through a lot as a team, been through some hard losses, been through people transferring, but we're still here standing. We all become stronger as a result of it, and we just want to press on in the last month and a half that we have and get it done."

The Six Pack seemed invincible when it was signed and rated the top recruiting class in the country. Parker, the national player of year, was the last to commit and the crown jewel.

"I think what I appreciate so much about this group is that they could have gone separate ways, and they knew we had talented recruits on our list and as we started to get commitments, and it started to build, then we're sitting there waiting on Candace, and she chose to join this group," Summitt said. "Alexis, she knew what she wanted to do along and even Nicky, but she wavered. And I was like we've got to get this group together.

"The fact they all chose to come here was obviously significant to what we can celebrate for this class. I'm going to miss them. They've been a lot of fun. I've enjoyed watching them as they matured into champions."

On Thursday only half of those original six will say good-bye – Fuller gets senior night to herself next season as the sole veteran – but they certainly left their mark on Tennessee.

"When we first came in as a Six Pack we didn't think anybody was going to leave," Parker said. "Sybil Dosty was my roommate so when she left it was tough. Alex and I get hurt. And then there's four of them. I get added back to the mix and will graduate with them. Shannon and Bird have definitely fit in perfectly.

"It's different. Everything happens for a reason. We're all going to keep in touch. When the 1987 team came back it was weird, like, ‘Man, in 2027 we're going to be coming back.' "

It doesn't take long for any conversation with Summitt and the seniors for talk to turn to titles – the one earned and the next one wanted. The class knows it did something that no class had done since 1998 – hang a championship banner in the arena rafters.

The 1987 team was celebrated last season for the 20th anniversary of the program's first title. The 2008 team ultimately wants to be known as the class that repeated.

"Any group that can win a championship and repeat that performance you can't help but think that was a special group," Summitt said. "Just look at what Chamique Holdsclaw did in her era. The teams that have been able to win more than one they feel like they have bragging rights."

The team's quest to repeat has been a season of question marks because of sporadic play and a puzzling inability to get five players committed to play 40 minutes every game.

Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick had the idea to send the team to the top of the arena before practice Monday to get a fan's view from the seats farthest from the court.

"I almost passed out," Hornbuckle said. "I'm afraid of heights. I was breaking out in a cold sweat. I was trying to act cool, calm and collected."

The players took with them a sheet of paper that had the words of an email sent to the Lady Vols office that questioned how the team was playing. They made their own notes in response.

"They were good," said Summitt, who read the notes later. "They know. They're right on. Nicky Anosike always seem to be able to verbalize better than anybody. She tells it like it is. She's got great leadership skills."

Hornbuckle said her remarks were short and to the point – she agreed with what the email stated.

"We haven't really been doing the game justice this year for whatever reason that might be," said Hornbuckle, who added she is as perplexed as anyone else about the answer. "I'm the type of person we've been talking about it all year. No more talking about it. I agree, and it's time to fix it. Nobody likes hearing the truth, especially when it's not good. It's time to stop talking about it and do it.

"You'll see spurts of us go out and kill a team and nobody can touch us and then they're back in the game. It's a matter of not taking things for granted."

Hornbuckle, between bouts of dizziness – "It feels like if you miss a step, you're going to be on the court" – also thought about what she needed to do.

"What can I do to help my team? What do I need to do in preparation come game time to be able to help my team and let them feed off me?" Hornbuckle said.

The point of the exercise was clear to the players.

"If it's a sold-out arena or when it's just packed, people pay to sit all the way up there to watch our game," Hornbuckle said. "So just imagine if you paid for those seats and you get a performance like we played Sunday."

Thursday is the last game at home and another shot at redemption.

"I think it adds urgency," Hornbuckle said. "Obviously for the seniors it adds a little bit more urgency because you're coming to closure as a Lady Vol. But hopefully it puts a little urgency in everyone else because after these next two games, it's tournament time and every game counts."

Summitt has tried various tactics with the team – though she noted early on that playing games with a veteran group doesn't really work – and hasn't lost one bit of motivation, especially in practice. Interestingly enough the team has excellent practice habits and is often enthusiastic and full of energy even in the lengthy sessions.

They waited last season until postseason – and in fact held two team meetings to air some issues in the middle of the NCAA tourney – to turn up the intensity and that history possibly created a sense of security.

"Unfortunately we did it last year and that's not really something that we're proud of to be able to turn it on for postseason," Hornbuckle said.

The players do have the wherewithal to single each other out when it's needed. This group has never hesitated to get in each other's grill. The challenge now is to demand that level of intensity again.

"Look at yourself and what you're doing and not doing," Anosike said. "If you want to win you have to be honest with each other. Calling each other out on different things."

That approach led to the nets being cut down in Cleveland nearly a year ago. For that reason this senior class will always be a part of Lady Vol lore.

"With all the talent and the personalities, the best player on their team, touted as the best class in the country, with that goes very high expectations, not only from the players but fans, the media," Summitt said. "That's why I was so excited for them last year to be able to win a championship because I know they wanted to leave their mark on the program."

Parker said the banner would be the players' enduring source of pride.

"Knowing that we came here and we won a national championship," Parker said. "I came to Tennessee to be one of the best of the best, and that's our program. We play for the best coach in America, we play for the best fans, we have the best facilities. We've been a part of a lot of growth – we've seen Pratt be built, TBA be renovated, we put up a banner, we won SEC championships.

"I think we've made a difference, and we've been here at a very influential time."

Parker has made it clear, however, that she wants a second title. She is also still waiting for the first one to register.

"I'm one of those people the national championship still hasn't really hit me," Parker said. "We got our rings, we hung the banner, and people are saying congratulations. I don't think Senior Night will hit me until after the season is over and I realize I won't play here as a Lady Vol ever again.

"It's kind of weird that things are coming to an end because you look at games on the schedule – I have a schedule over my bed – and it's like Mississippi State at the end of the season was so far away and then we just played them. It's weird because last year during postseason I couldn't wait to get to postseason again because it's the most fun time of the year. I love it and now we're here, and it's kind of like, well, I'd rather have a few more games in the regular season."

It could be an emotional night for the coaches, players and their families – and not to mention the fans who have flocked to watch this play – though the seniors said they would not shed tears.

"I really am grateful for all my years here at Tennessee," Parker said. "I'm not going to cry. I don't think so."

Hornbuckle took an equally stoic position.

"If my whole senior class is crying I might drop a tear or two," Hornbuckle said. "But just for me to be announced I'm not going to cry."

The most emotional one on the floor might be Summitt.

"It is emotional for me," Summitt said. "I love this group."

THE SENIORS: All five seniors were asked what advice they would give to incoming freshmen at Tennessee and if they would come back to visit. Here are their answers in the order they will be introduced Thursday.

ALBERTA AUGUSTE

The 5'11 wing from Marrero, La., will start Thursday in place of freshman Angie Bjorklund so the lineup will be senior-laden.

Auguste came to Tennessee from Central Florida Community College and accepted a role off the bench as a defensive specialist. However, her offense was key in the title game win over Rutgers in Cleveland and both Pat Summitt and Candace Parker said Auguste, whose nickname is Bird – a play off the pronunciation of her first name – was key to the championship run.

"Bird was a player that had a great impact on us cutting down the nets," Summitt said. "When I think about her I think about how she stepped up in postseason. She came off the bench and she was the sparkplug that made the biggest difference."

Auguste has 308 points, 154 rebounds, 88 assists and 83 steals and had a career-best eight steals versus Louisiana Tech in 2006, putting her in fourth place in the UT record books for a single-game performance. In the 2007 title game Auguste has 10 points and five rebounds.

Advice: "Come in here with your mind set, work hard, practice hard. Just stay focused basically."

Will she come back?: "Yes ma'am, I will be here supporting them."

"I don't think we win a national championship without Shannon and Bird last year," Parker said.

SHANNON BOBBITT

The 5'2 guard from the Bronx, N.Y., arrived from Trinity Valley Community College in Texas and quickly landed on the list of Summitt's most coachable point guards.

The shortest Lady Vol scholarship player in program history, Bobbitt has 577 points, 191 assists, 145 rebounds and 98 steals. She already ranks eighth all-time in treys made with 122 and is fourth in the UT record books for career three-point percentage at 40.7. In the NCAA Tournament last year, she averaged 10.8 ppg while being named to the 2007 All-Final Four Team and the Dayton Regional All- Tournament team.

Advice: "Live in the moment, enjoy your years here and learn as much as you can."

Come back: "Absolutely."

NICKY ANOSIKE

The 6'4 center from Staten Island, N.Y., has been a four-year starter – 122 of the 135 games she has played – for the Lady Vols.

Anosike has 1,016 points and 816 rebounds along with 149 career blocked shots, ranking her fifth in the record books. She had a career-high 16 rebounds in the national championship game. Her triple majors are sociology/criminal justice, political science and legal studies. ESPN The Magazine placed her on the Academic All-America Second Team.

Anosike will join "Teach For America" next fall – she hopes to play in the WNBA this summer – and has been assigned to Newark, N.J., a few miles from where her family now lives. The program places teachers into inner city and impoverished communities. It is a two-year program, and Anosike also plans to eventually pursue a law degree.

Her brother, Ifesinachi "Ife" Anosike, will see her play Thursday for the first time in person. Ife played college ball at Salem State in Massachusetts and has recently passed his boards to become a registered nurse.

"I've always looked up to him, modeled myself after him," Anosike said. "He's the reason why I decided to play. It will be the first time that he's ever seen me play in person so that's going to mean a lot."

Advice: "I would just say that you have to really try to stay positive because the season is really long and if you have one bad game or one bad practice it's really inconsequential to what you do for the rest of the season or how your season turns out. So just keep in mind how long the season is and not to let a bad run or a bad game or a bad anything really affect you because you have time to make up for that."

Come back: "I will definitely be back. My boyfriend (football player Demonte Bolden) still has another year so I will be back."

ALEXIS HORNBUCKLE

The 5'11 guard from Charleston, West Virginia, is one of the most athletic players to ever wear orange. Last week, she became the new all-time leader in steals with 339, breaking Bridgette Gordon's 19-year-old school record. She has 1,234 points, 672 rebounds, 459 assists, which ranks fourth all-time, and 79 blocked shots.

Her mother, Quan Hornbuckle, will sing the national anthem before the game Thursday.

Advice: "Just be open-minded and mentally strong. You have to believe in your game and what you can do, but at the same time you have to be willing to change some things. I came in here very hardheaded – still am from time to time – and it made it tougher because I wasn't as open-minded. Your journey will be a lot more enjoyable early if you're open-minded and willing to listen and compromise a little bit with coach and her coaching style."

Come back: "I'll be back. I'll be back to scrimmage and play with them. That's the fun part. I think about every player that comes back. I'll eat up Vicki Baugh, smack her shot a little bit."

CANDACE PARKER

The 6'5 forward from Naperville, Ill., is one of the most-decorated players ever at Tennessee with a Wade Trophy, Wooden Award, Honda Award, Final Four MVP, SEC Player of the Year, SEC Rookie of the Year and two-time All-American honors.

In three years Parker has played in 99 games with 98 starts and 94 games in double-figure scoring, 45 games in extra-digit rebounding and 43 career double-doubles. She is sixth in career points with 1,882 and 10th in career rebounds with 883. Last week, she became the all-time leader in blocks in UT history with 247. She also has seven career dunks.

Advice: "Basically just listen. Absorb, watch film, because people who have been there, done that, experience is the best teacher. You have to go out there and do it but also listen to those that have experience. I just hope that our senior class has left Tennessee better than what we came into it as. I just hope that we've made a difference and helped grow this program. Listen and absorb everything that everybody is telling you and realize that everyone here is genuinely trying to help. Utilize all the resources – the practice facility, the coaches, film and all that stuff."

Come back: "I'll come back and see everybody. It's truly a family, and I really enjoyed my time here at Tennessee. It's very special."

PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Pat Summitt is expected to start all five departing players: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 guard, No. 00 (9.7 points per game, 3.3 rebounds per game, 3.5 assists per game, 1.7 steals per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (10.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.5 apg, 2.7 spg); Alberta Auguste, 5'11 senior guard, No. 33 (4.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.4 apg); Candace Parker, 6'5 redshirt junior, No. 3 (20.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.7 apg, 2.4 spg, 2.3 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (9.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.8 bpg).

Freshman guard/forward Angie Bjorklund, who is averaging 10.0 ppg and has started all 27 games this season, will come off the bench so that Auguste can move into the lineup. Auguste started one game this season against Arkansas when Hornbuckle was out for medical reasons.

Florida Coach Amanda Butler, a former Gator player from 1990 to 1994, is expected to start: Sha Brooks, 5'7 junior guard, No. 3 (11.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg), has hit 24-26 from the line in last six games; Jennifer Mossor, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 22 (8.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg), has averaged 14.2 points in last five games; Depree Bowden, 5'11 senior guard/forward, No. 20 (13.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg), had 16 points and nine rebounds last year against Tennessee, has 910 career points; Sharielle Smith, 5'10 sophomore forward, No. 24 (8.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg), missed the first two games of the season with a stress fracture, scored 12 points in season debut against Nebraska; and Marshae Dotson, 5'11 junior forward, No. 44 (14.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg), scored 20 points against Tennessee last season in 80-58 loss in Gainesville, didn't start the last game against South Carolina because she had missed two practices with the flu, scored 17 points off the bench, despite her lack of size she ranks seventh in the SEC in rebounding.

Tennessee also will recognize Bowden, Florida's lone senior, during the pre-game ceremony.

Four Gator players, as well as Butler and Assistant Coach Susie Gardner are natives of the Volunteer State. Butler and Gardner, who was the head coach at Arkansas last season, are from Mt. Juliet, Tenn.

Juniors Sha Brooks (Jackson) and Kim Critton (Memphis) and freshmen Kerri Simpson (Charleston) and Ndidi Madu (Antioch) also are from Tennessee. Madu tore the ACL in her right knee in practice in November and is out for the season.

Florida came to town two years ago on senior day in 2006 and left with a 95-93 overtime win, the Gators only victory ever in Knoxville.

"I remember that," said Hornbuckle, who was a sophomore sitting out the game with a broken wrist. "It's great motivation. I don't want to lose. I don't want to play bad on my senior night, and I'm sure all the other seniors don't want to experience that either. We're going to come out fired up and ready to play."

Auguste was on her visit to Tennessee during that 2006 game and committed to the Lady Vols before she left to return to Florida.

"We're a whole other team this year, and they're a whole other team this year," Anosike said. "We just have to stay focused on the game and not try to let our families keep us from being focused. We have let that happen in the past, the Final Four our freshman year, we let our families and all that stuff get into our minds, and we didn't concentrate on the game. Those of us who were there know what can happen if you don't concentrate on the game."

Hornbuckle's thoughts as she takes "The Summitt" for the final time are already focused.

"This is it," Hornbuckle said. "There's no next home game. This is it. Put it all out on the line."

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

When Florida has the ball: "They do a lot of ball-screening action within their offense. You've got to be aware that their point guard and their big men down the middle (Sha Brooks and Marshae Dotson and Sharielle Smith) are playing very good basketball. They're distributing the ball well. They're also doing a good job of playing off the dribble and hitting the spot-up three when they need it. They run a lot of four out, one in, isolation for the post game, looking for the high-low action. A lot of ball screens."

Caldwell expects to see mostly zone defenses from the Gators, and they will extend it.

"Primarily they're going to be a zone defensive team," Caldwell said. "They'll play some man and they'll mix up out of their zone how they defend you. They may not overextend on certain players, they may trap on the wings, they'll dig on the posts, double. They're going to keep a lot of variety on how they defend us.

"They also will extend and play a 2-2-1 three-quarter court press, a 1-2-1-1, and they'll pick up man to man full court. They're going to come in here and try to really get after it."

When Tennessee has the ball: "Offensively I think we've just got to do a much better job of sprinting to get into our action – sprinting the screen, change directions coming off a screen, just really being more efficient on how we run our action versus what we run. I think that's going to be key for us.

"To get our offensive game really being efficient we've got to get our defensive game going, because that's what generates transition baskets for us, early offense. And we're just a whole lot more fun to watch."

Like Summitt, the assistant coaches also will be sad to see these seniors leave Tennessee,

"They're a special group," Caldwell said." Two out of their three years, thus far, they got to a Final Four. We were Elite Eight one year. They've done a lot as far as keeping our program at that national level.

"We're won a lot of ballgames. We've lost some close ones. But it's all about the journey. It's all about the relationship that you build and hopefully when it's time to move on to the next level they can take some things from our program and what it's meant to be a Lady Vol and to be at this great institution with this great community support.

"Hopefully they'll remember that and take that with them. It's been a very special and memorable four years with this group."

ON TAP: Six other SEC teams are in action tonight in the following matchups: Arkansas at LSU; Vanderbilt at Auburn; and Georgia at South Carolina. Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Ole Miss are idle. Tennessee used its idle conference dates this season to schedule Duke and Rutgers.

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Florida, 35-2. The Lady Vols are 16-1 in Knoxville, 15-1 in Gainesville and 4-0 on neutral courts. … Tennessee is 9-2 in games played on February 28. The two losses were to Appalachian State, 58-50, in 1969; and Kentucky, 80-74, in 1982. The last win on this date was against Georgia, 85-69, in 1999 in the SEC tourney title game. … Tennessee broke the 200,000 home attendance mark in the game against LSU on Feb.14. A nation-leading 220,408 people have clicked through the turnstiles in 14 home games, an average of 15,743. … In SEC games the Lady Vols have allowed just 56.0 points per game. UT's average margin of victory in SEC games, 21.7 ppg, has jumped 10 points more per game than the season's overall average. … Tennessee's record at home against SEC opponents is 163-12. Only six SEC teams have managed to win in Knoxville – Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU and Ole Miss. Only LSU and Florida have done so this century. The Lady Vols' overall record against SEC teams is 263-34 dating back to the 1982-83 season. UT's overall record in Thompson-Boling is 292-18 since opening the 1987-88 season in the arena 20 years ago. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee averages 78.9 points per game and allows 60.3. Florida averages 69.5 and allows 69.8 The Lady Vols are shooting 45.8 percent overall, 37.7 percent from behind the arc and 72.1 percent from the stripe. The Gators shoot 41.7 percent overall, 30.3 percent from behind the arc and 70.8 percent from the stripe. Tennessee averages 40.6 rebounds per game with opponents getting 36.1 for a +4.5 margin. Florida averages 39.7 boards per game with opponents getting 37.7 for a +2.0 margin. The Lady Vols average 16.6 assists and 17.3 turnovers while forcing 21.4 miscues from foes. The Gators average 13.0 assists and 20.0 turnovers while forcing 19.5. Tennessee averages 12.2 swipes and 6.1 swats a game. Florida averages 9.5 steals and 3.2 blocks. … Candace Parker is leaving Tennessee with degree in hand after playing for three years to enter the WNBA draft, but she's not the first player to do so. That distinction belongs to Florida's Tonya Washington, who sat out as a freshman and earned her degree in four years in school while playing just three. She opted to enter the WNBA draft and on April 25, 2000, Washington was picked by the Washington Mystics as the second selection in the second round.


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