Five seniors finish off Florida

On a night when Tennessee's seniors were playing their final game at home, the bench showed why it will be a force to be reckoned with next season and – if the Lady Vols intend to repeat as champions – how key it will be in postseason. Pat Summitt got the 40 minutes of basketball she has been seeking and the Lady Vols dominated on the boards in Thursday's 88-61 win over Florida.

All five departing players – Nicky Anosike, Alberta Auguste, Shannon Bobbitt, Alexis Hornbuckle and Candace Parker – were presented with a framed jersey before the game and honored at center court, where Pat Summitt and their families awaited with hugs. Anosike was greeted by her fiancé, football player Demonte Bolden, because her family was late arriving from New Jersey because of flight delays.

"I have no clue when they got here, but they're always late so I kind of expected it," Anosike said. "I just prepared myself for it."

Anosike channeled that irritation into intensity on the floor and opened the game by grabbing five rebounds in the first five minutes. She had 11 points and nine boards by halftime.

"I think she was mad because her family was late," Summitt said. "She looked like it. Their plane must have been delayed, but she was like, ‘Where is my family?' And I said, ‘They'll be here, and we'll take care of it.'

"She looked to be very focused on what she needed to do. She rebounded the basketball, and she went to the rim. I thought she got us off to a great start. Nicky has been very consistent for us in terms of a player that comes to play every night. Even if she doesn't shoot the ball well, she's a leader by example. She's passionate about playing defense and rebounding the basketball. I like the fact that this year as a senior, and particularly in the second half of our season, she's been more aggressive with the basketball."

Anosike scored inside after spinning around her defender and finishing with one hand. She also got her points from layups, putbacks and the free throw line. Her one first-half assist came on a give and go with Parker on the baseline.

"I kind of had a meeting with myself," Anosike said. "I feel like I've been letting the team down as far as leadership so I felt like I had to step up and do something. I'm going to try to do whatever I can to lead this team to a championship because I feel like I haven't stepped up."

Anosike finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Four other players were in double figures for No. 3 Tennessee (26-2, 12-1) with Parker getting 18, Alex Fuller adding an SEC-high 18 points, Vicki Baugh chipping in 11 and Angie Bjorklund, on the strength of four 3-pointers, scoring 14.

Fuller also hit two 3-pointers, Sydney Smallbone and Bobbitt added one each, and Parker connected from long range to give the Lady Vols nine from behind the arc.

"I think we are going to need to shoot the ball from the three, and we're going to need to make some shots," Summitt said. "I think that's been a key in some of our wins. Angie shot the ball well. I'm pleased with that. Alex hit a couple.

"Just the fact that we can count on some people to stretch the defense because they have the reputation of being able to make threes. It's going to be important for us to not only have the reputation but have the execution to do it."

Florida (16-12, 5-8) was led by Sha Brooks, who hit seven three-pointers and scored 27 points. Brooks, who is from Jackson, Tenn., likes playing in Thompson-Boling Arena.

"I love performing in front of a lot of people showing what I can do and showing what my team can do," Brooks said. "It is a very big deal. I love playing here. When I play here I try to give it my all because I don't get to come to this state very often."

Sharielle Smith hit three 3-pointers for Florida, and Depree Bowden, Florida's lone senior who was presented with flowers before the game by Summitt, connected once. Those 11 made three-pointers were the only fault Summitt could find afterwards with her team's performance, but she also noted that she had the players in different defensive schemes.

"I was really pleased with the energy that we had in tonight's game," Summitt said. "I thought we got off to a good start. Obviously gave up too many threes, but I have to be pleased that we were able to work on some different looks defensively. Changing our defense is something that we've made a priority of late. I think it will help us hopefully against Georgia (the last game of the regular season) but throughout our tournament play.

Summitt also went to the bench early in the game and got a lot of minutes for everyone on the roster. Each player got in the scoring and rebounding columns. Tennessee grabbed a season-high 57 boards to 35 for Florida. The guards were as active on the glass as the post players. Hornbuckle had 10 boards, Bjorklund had seven, and Bobbitt and Auguste each had five.

"The most important thing about this game was rebounding," said Parker, who had six rebounds. "We really pounded the glass. Our guards did a great job."

Tennessee, which shot 42.3 percent for the game, still managed to get 25 offensive rebounds. Florida shot 32.8 percent for the game but only got 13 offensive boards. Tennessee controlled the defensive boards with 32.

"The one thing this year, probably in all my years of coaching here, the defensive boards have been a great priority," Summitt said. "You know players want to rebound on the offensive end. They get a chance for them to score when they're on offense. Defense is a little bit different situation. There's not a lot of praise. People don't put you in the headlines for being a great defensive rebounder, at least not very often in my career.

"The one thing we've tried to impress upon our team is not many teams in women's basketball shoot 50 percent or better. So give them a one-and-done look, one shot and that's it, and they've really bought into the defensive rebounding. I think that's why we're a better rebounding team right now. If we want to win an SEC championship or be in the hunt and get to Tampa and aspire to win a national championship our defensive boards have got to be just as important to us as our offensive boards."

Florida Coach Amanda Butler said the Tennessee players simply wanted the ball and went after it.

"We just weren't physical enough," Butler said. "That was disappointing because that was the majority of what we spent our time preparing for was how physical Tennessee plays. We knew if we didn't initiate the contact and didn't do a good job of boxing out early that we would have a result like we did.

"I felt like we were a little more passive in the paint than we should have been. Again, you've got to give the credit to the Tennessee players who did initiate the contact and who were the aggressors, especially in the paint."

Butler, a former Gator player who is from Mt. Juliet, Tenn., was disappointed in how her team played, but she had nothing but praise for Tennessee.

"Obviously a disappointing loss for us, but we knew that we were going to have to play very well tonight," Butler said. "This was a special night here at Tennessee, and this is a special place. I'm from Tennessee, and I can appreciate the loyalty and energy and passion with which people support this program.

"This is a fantastic group of seniors that deserved all those folks to be in the stands. We just got outplayed in a couple of categories, specifically rebounding. Sha was a bright spot for us. She played great. This is a tough environment to overcome, and you're certainly not going to beat a good team like Tennessee if you don't rebound."

Tennessee also led in the assists category with a season-high 27 to 10 for Florida. The Gators had 21 turnovers to 16 for Tennessee, and the Lady Vols tallied 27 points off miscues compared to nine for Florida.

Tennessee's bench accounted for 46 points compared to 15 for Florida. Smith and Marshae Dotson had nine points each, but Brooks didn't get much help in the scoring column.

Fuller and Baugh were difference-makers for Tennessee off the bench. Baugh had three blocks and continued to show the tantalizing athleticism of her overall game.

"Vicki has to understand I didn't recruit her because of her defense, but she is a great defensive player," Summitt said. "But she has to have an offensive mindset of going to the rim, which she can do. Her face-up game she's probably more comfortable there than she is off the dribble.

"She and Alex are going to have to play a big role for us in the future. I just want her right now to focus on how she can come off the bench and help give us a spark. Certainly she's more than capable of doing it. We've seen it a number of times this year."

Fuller added five rebounds – four on the defensive end – to go with her 18 points on 7-12 shooting. Her ability to hit shots in the paint and behind the arc makes her a difficult matchup. Fuller, a redshirt junior, could have joined the group of departing players, but she decided to return for a fifth year next season.

"Alex is a player that could have been out there tonight (with the other seniors), and she chose to stay," Summitt said. "I told our staff even in the course of the game, ‘Aren't we glad that Alex Fuller is going to stay?' Her game has improved with each and every season.

"She's shooting the ball well for us but just her composure within the offense is something that I've noticed it has a settling effect. We sometimes rush, and she's not a player that's going to rush the action."

Bobbitt and Hornbuckle combined for 15 assists to just four turnovers.

"They did share the ball tonight," Summitt said. "There have only been a couple of games this year that I felt like the ball got stuck in player's hands for whatever reason. I think that this team is in a pretty good place in terms of sharing the basketball.

"They realize when we need to go inside. Sometimes we have to remind them from the bench, but I do think they're mindful of shot selection and getting people the right touches at the right place. They've done a much better job of feeding the post. When you improve in that area then you put a lot more pressure on the defense."

One of Hornbuckle's slickest assists came on a pass flipped backwards in transition to Smallbone, who drained the three. Smallbone found Bjorklund on the next trip down the floor. Parker zipped a pass out of a double team to Bjorklund, who drained the shot from the corner. Those all came in the first half.

Parker also found Bjorklund in the second half after blocking a shot, grabbing the ball out of the air and leading the break. She dribbled nearly the length of the floor before finding Bjorklund under the basket with a no-look pass. Bobbitt swiped the ball on the in-bounds pass and found Parker under the basket for the ‘and-one' play.

"As a point guard, that's my job," said Bobbitt, who had seven assists and leads the team with 101 on the season. "I just wanted to get the open players the ball, and they knocked down shots so it made me look good. They did a great job."

Florida made a change to its starting lineup by inserting Aneika Henry, a 6'3 forward, to try to counter Tennessee's size. Henry had six rebounds but only got two shot attempts in 21 minutes of play.

"One of the reasons we wanted to start Aneika was to get a little bit more size in the paint," Butler said. "She had some flashes where she got in there and mixed it up, but just not enough consistency."

Henry had to try to contend with Parker and Anosike, who was correctly described as being on a mission.

"There's no doubt," Butler said. "Rebounding certainly was a big part of that mission. She's a special player. She's so strong, and she's a wily senior. She knows the ins and outs in the paint. She uses her size so very well, and she did a great job of fighting in the paint, too.

"When she did miss the shot, she was bound and determined that she was going to get that offensive rebound. She played a great game and set the tone early really for that rebounding battle, which we got whipped in."

Parker had another sublime performance – 18 points, six boards, four assists, two blocks and a steal – in just 22 minutes on the floor. She now has 1,900 career points and 889 career rebounds. Coaches who have had to scout against her for three years are likely happy to see her taking her game to the WNBA.

"She is," Butler said when asked if Parker were a handful and then some to scout. "On the other hand, it's fun to scout against her because she does so many things. As someone who's a fan of the game and who played in this league and you watch women's basketball all the things that she's done to raise the level of awareness and dunking and all the publicity and attention that she's brought, it's all positive.

"She'll have a great professional career, and we are very pleased that she's chosen to start that career."

That remark was made with a smile and brought laughter from those in attendance. Parker opted to forego her fifth year of eligibility and is expected to be taken first in the draft in April.

Parker joined her classmates, Anosike and Hornbuckle, in leaving in 2008 after being part of the best class ever signed at Tennessee. Fuller also is in that class, and two others departed for other schools. Auguste and Bobbitt arrived as juniors from the juco ranks to shore up the roster.

"It would take a lot of time to sum up what they meant. What all they put me through. Is that what you mean?" Summitt said with a smile. "Obviously, they've had a tremendous impact on our program. You have a nine-year drought you're going to remember the team that got you another banner at the University of Tennessee, and that's what they did. They're a talented group.

"I told them before we went out it was pretty emotional for me because they become like daughters, and I'm going to really miss this group. There are some days I might not think that, but for the most part they've worn the orange with great pride. They've had tremendous success. They've taken care of business in the classroom. I wish them well, but there's a lot more basketball to be played. I want to see them really step up and do what they're capable of doing."

For Summitt that means repeat their national title. All five seniors came to the post-game press conference and their remarks made it clear they were grateful for the time at Tennessee, but much remained to be done.

"It's special to come in with these ladies and Shannon and Bird to join last year," Hornbuckle said. "It's been a great time. It's been a great journey and obviously we're not ready to end it yet.

"This is a step closer to the end of regular season, but postseason is a whole new season to us. It's time to get back in the gym and go to work and try to produce 40-minute games that we weren't able to do our year."

Auguste came on her visit to Knoxville two years ago when Florida beat the Lady Vols on senior day. She saw a team that needed guard depth.

"It brought back flashbacks," Auguste said. "I knew I could help them. I committed the same day. I'm a factor now, so I'm happy."

"That why we won," Parker said as Auguste's teammates teased her and repeated Summitt's published quote that Auguste was a factor in the postseason last year and the reason the Lady Vols won a national title.

The players were loose after the game and took their time leaving the floor. Parker addressed the crowd after Summitt called them "the greatest fans in women's basketball" and thanked them "for the best four years of my life." She answered, "I love you, too" to a fan who shouted devotion to Parker.

Bobbitt and Auguste danced at center court and then Summitt had the families return to the floor for a very large group photo. Anosike's family did get a ceremony, too, at the 7:24 mark of the second half in the media timeout. They came onto the floor, Anosike joined them from the bench, and Summitt left the timeout to hug them and have photos taken.

It was a festive and familial evening before 16,532 people ready to roar approval – both for the team's play and the seniors.

"There is no better place to play college basketball than Knoxville," Parker said. "The fans have given us motivation over the past four years and support. We just wanted to go there and play for them. They've been great to us through good or bad."

Tennessee will get back to work Friday with shooting drills taking priority. Auguste, Bobbitt and Hornbuckle combined to go 4-21 from the field.

"We're going to be in the gym," Summitt said. "We're going to get a lot of shots in. Lex said tonight, ‘I couldn't buy one, Coach' and I thought she had some good looks. I don't remember her forcing a shot. We can obviously pull out those and put them on tape and let her take a look at them.

"But at this time of the year I'm not going to put a lot of emphasis on it. I want her to stay confident and the best place to get your confidence is in the gym and certainly we'll be in the gym with them (Friday) and make sure those three get a lot of good looks, a lot of shots."

Despite the missed shots on the perimeter by the trio, Tennessee still led by 20 at halftime, 46-26, behind the offense of Anosike, Parker and Bjorklund. Baugh and Fuller combined for eight points in the first half. Tennessee never let the lead drop below 17 points and had an answer for every Florida shot. Florida wanted to play up-tempo and that fed into the Lady Vols' preferred style.

"That's what great teams do," Butler said. "When you score on them, they answer. That's what they did. That wasn't surprising. I thought we did a poor job with our transition defense as well, which hinges a lot on communication. We knew it was going to be difficult to communicate in here, as well, because it is such a loud place to play.

"Again, you have to credit Tennessee for that type of mindset, that when you do score on them, they don't hang their heads, they answer. They come right back down and try to put it right back in the hole and regain the momentum. They certainly were able to do that."

The seniors were true to their word and didn't cry during the ceremony – Summitt was the most emotional – and seemed to want to let their play speak instead. Summitt has been seeking a 40-minute game in terms of effort, and she got it Thursday.

"Obviously, I am very proud of all these seniors, and their impact on the program has been documented, but they're not finished," Summitt said. "We just have to keep them focused on what they need to do to move forward and close out our regular season and get ready for the SEC Tournament in Nashville. That should be a great environment and obviously it's going to be very, very competitive and so we're just trying to take it one game at a time and get ready for that.

"I do think we have the most talented team in the country, but we've got to play with a sense of urgency throughout the postseason. On every possession we've got to be passionate about execution."

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