"Just seeing them out there and then you look back and we're in the little tunnel. I looked behind me and I'm like, ‘Oh, man, this is going to be different.' "
Two other members of next year's team were already on the bench with the coaches in street clothes in sophomore Cait McMahan, a 5'4 point guard, and freshman Kelley Cain, a 6'6 center. Both are rehabbing from knee surgeries – McMahan has returned to practice – and will play next season. The country's no. 1 recruiting class of six signees, five of whom were selected as McDonald's All-Americans, also will arrive next season.
"We'll be all right," Bjorklund said.
While standing in that tunnel Thursday, the 6'0 guard/forward from Spokane Valley, Wash., got a quick lesson in how quickly time can pass and how seizing the moment isn't just a Latin phrase.
Last month, Bjorklund saw the 2007 national title rings that her teammates received with some opting for a woman's size while others got a men's cut to display.
"They're huge that's for sure," Bjorklund said. "Those men sizes are like rocks. It was pretty cool."
Bjorklund moved into the starting lineup in her first game as a Lady Vol and has started all but one game since then. She replaced savvy veteran Sidney Spencer, a versatile forward who could play inside and out on offense and defense.
Bjorklund won't play in the paint for Tennessee, but she does have considerable shooting range and has made 62 three-pointers this season – a figure that matches Spencer's senior output from behind the arc through the national title game – while shooting 40.0 percent, a tick above Spencer's percentage.
Bjorklund had to be told how many three-pointers she had made. She truly had no idea.
"I look at it as the here and now," Bjorklund said. "I don't look at the numbers. I just go out there and play my hardest for God and everything falls into place. I'm not seeking points or anything like that. I'm just working my hardest and I think when I play for God it takes off the pressure. It really does. Play for an audience of one."
Being the lone freshman in a lineup of veterans has revealed Bjorklund's composure, according to her coach.
"I think she's done a great job," Pat Summitt said. "She has a lot of composure. She has a lot of confidence. She's worked for her threes and having to work a little harder right now because she's a marked player. I am really, really pleased with what she's brought to our team.
"A player like Angie early in a number of games she's taken pressure off of our team when she's able to open up the game and knock down a shot, just like she went in (Thursday) night. I'm just really pleased overall."
Bjorklund came off the bench in that game so that Alberta Auguste, who plays lockdown defense, could start with the other three seniors plus redshirt junior Candace Parker, who will graduate in May and leave with her class.
Bjorklund is expected to move back into the starting lineup Sunday because she forces opponents to track her all over the floor because of her range – Shannon Bobbitt has hit 54 three-pointers this season so she also puts pressure on the defense from the point guard spot and is deadly from the corners, especially in transition – so opening a game with the freshman helps unclog the paint, especially if she is hitting.
Bjorklund has weathered some shooting slumps this season, both due to fatigue and increased defensive pressure.
"As of now this is probably the longest season I've ever been in obviously," Bjorklund said. "I think just getting into the (SEC) tournament coming up and it's getting more competitive in our practices and the games, we're getting towards the end I'm realizing it's now or never. It's given me a new burst of energy."
Bjorklund hit her first three-pointer against Florida on Thursday and went on to swish three more from long range. A good start is paramount right now.
""This past couple of weeks I'm being going through kind of a little slump, kind of hitting a wall, but I think just getting toward the end and realizing this is it," Bjorklund said. "Especially going into this next game (Sunday) it was a good confidence booster.
"I got in the gym a little bit extra to get my touch down before the game. I think that helped a lot, too. It's just doing the little things to get ready."
Bjorklund also must adjust to more sophisticated college defenses, a process she acknowledges has tested her patience, especially as she learns to read and use screens.
"I still need to work a lot on that, especially reading my defense," Bjorklund said. "I get so anxious coming off that. I've got to read my defense and change my speeds."
Summitt said the young sharpshooter must learn to watch the defense and not watch the ball. That's a difficult adjustment for freshmen to make, most of whom never took their eye off the ball in high school by habit.
"When she's coming off screens she gets very impatient," Summitt said. "There's a reason we want to screen for her because we recognize the fact people are trying to get into her and ride her off the screens. They're bodying her a lot more now. As she sees more and more on tape I think she'll get better and better at it."
Bjorklund starts alongside Alexis Hornbuckle in the backcourt, and the senior told the freshman last November before her first career start to remember it was still just a basketball game. More than three months later Hornbuckle said Bjorklund adjusted well.
"I think she's handled the pressure well," Hornbuckle said. "She came in willing and ready to help the team. When you don't put too much pressure on yourself you're just playing basketball, and that's all she does. She understands her role, and she plays it."
Bjorklund's role of late is to also get on the boards. She had seven rebounds against Florida in a team-wide effort to crash the glass. Friday's practice was peppered with shouts from Summitt reminding all players of their responsibility to rebound.
Tennessee had a season-high 57 rebounds against Florida – the single-game record is 76 against Tennessee State in 1988; 63 boards against Kentucky in 2001 is good for 10th place in the record books – because all five players on the floor went to the glass and boxed out.
Nicky Anosike had 12 rebounds, and Hornbuckle grabbed 10, including an offensive one that she secured with one hand somehow while behind the basket. She still managed to land in-bounds, regain her balance along the baseline by nearly going to one knee and then fire the ball to Anosike, who was under the basket. Bobbitt, the shortest player on the floor at 5'2, had five boards in the game.
"Like Coach says, ‘Rebounds win championships,' " Bjorklund said. "We know that we need rebounds in the postseason. That's what won it for them last year just from watching. For me personally it's just a matter of crashing the boards every single time, make sure I'm blocking out every single time. It's just the little things.
"That's a whole other possession when you get an offensive rebound. It's huge. In high school I never thought of it that way, but it really does make a difference. Extra possessions and especially not giving the other team an extra possession."
Summitt doesn't only want her team to own the offensive glass, she wants the players to take over the defensive end, too.
"It's important and I don't think we got that at the beginning," Hornbuckle said. "If they get an opportunity and another opportunity they're going to eventually score. We realized we take away second- and third-chance opportunities that's an advantage for us."
Summitt had been preaching the theme on and off all season, and it finally clicked with the players.
"The best way to get into our transition is to control the defensive boards," Hornbuckle said. "We make it a point to start there and finish it out on the offensive end. If you're able to keep them to one and done, that's going to start your fast break to transition.
"If we get easy buckets, that generates energy. That allows us to play better and more efficient on offense. If you're controlling the boards – like Nicky started out the game with four or five in a row – that gets us excited. That makes us want to rebound and get to the level that she's at. She controls the boards at will. That's huge. She's a big factor on the boards.
"We all know that and she knows that and we know that we can't just have her alone rebounding so we make it a point to help her out. She does a great job of starting us off and we've just got to follow suit."
It sounds so simple when delineated in such terms, but the Lady Vols have had some passive games on the glass.
"That's critical to success," Summitt said. "Rebounding is so critical to how we can control tempo. We can obviously take away second-chance points. We can get to the offensive glass more. I have always thought that the defense and the rebounding would separate us out and give us a chance to stay alive and win in postseason because a lot of times you don't shoot the ball well.
"I don't know that talking to them about it all the time is what's really changed it. I think it's probably just getting out there and committing to it and seeing the results of it."
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said making it a continual point of emphasis seemed to allow the philosophy to seep into the players' mindsets.
"Coaches ask us this all the time: Give us your best rebounding drill. And it's not like it's any one drill; it's just an emphasis," Lockwood said. "Pat really as the head coach anything that resonates with the head coach is going to resonate with all of us – staff, players – and she just makes such a point of that when we're together. She makes such a point to hammer that and then she'll individually call some people out that haven't been rebounding or have done a great job rebounding, so people know there's a reward for that and there's an expectation for it.
"More than any one drill or a segment of practice devoted to it I think it's just been an emphasis. Any breakdown drill that we do we always finish with rebounding."
Anosike is a strong body in the post who can't be displaced once she has position. Before the Florida game she talked to herself about both leading and helping the team because in her assessment – always harsher than anything a coach could say – she wasn't doing enough.
When Anosike, Parker and Hornbuckle are on the same page – the "big three" as Summitt has called them – Tennessee tends to play with a lot more intensity.
"I think the first thing we need to concentrate on is finishing out the (regular) season with no more losses and then once we get into SECs I think we really just all three need to sit down and recap on what we want to do and how we want to do it," Anosike said.
The regular season finale is Sunday night against a Georgia team on its Senior Night with players that have never beaten Tennessee in what is a longstanding and heated rivalry.
The game won't change Tennessee's seed in the SEC tourney – the Lady Vols are locked in at number two. Georgia could be playing for the right to not play Thursday, but the Lady Bulldogs first need a loss by Kentucky on Sunday for the chance to earn a first-round bye.
"We've got to come in on a mission," Hornbuckle said. "It's not about our seed or not having to play on Thursday, it's more or less are we getting better each time we step on the court, whether it's practice or a game? That's how we have to take it."
The team also doesn't want to lose the momentum from the Florida game. It wasn't the final score, 88-61, but how Tennessee played – with 40 minutes of effort – that was significant.
"It's another opportunity to play 40 minutes," Bjorklund said. "This is exciting because I know all of us, we've talked about it so much, stepping up, picking up the energy. This is one more game to have the opportunity to prepare for postseason."
Summitt approaches Sunday's game from, naturally, a coach's perspective.
"I want to see us at Georgia very committed to our defense and our board play and share the basketball offensively," Summitt said. "I think our player movement, ball movement, screening action is all going to be important. It wouldn't surprise me if we saw a lot of zone, but one thing about this team they've played well against zone and man so just staying aggressive offensively."
Hornbuckle approached the last two games of the regular season from, naturally, a player's position.
"We have to approach it as we want to get better," Hornbuckle said the day before the Florida game. "Come tournament time your practices are quicker, everything is flowing a lot faster, and you have to just get it, as coach says, just get it right.
"So I think we've got to take these games and just try to get it right. Georgia will be the toughest of the two because of the environment, the late game, Georgia at Georgia, they play well at home, and they don't particularly like us."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (9.5 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game, 3.6 assists per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (10.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.6 apg, 2.7 steals per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard/forward, No. 5 (10.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.3 apg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (20.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 2.4 spg, 2.3 blocks per game); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (9.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.8 spg).
A key player off the bench for the Lady Vols is redshirt junior Alex Fuller, a 6'3 forward averaging 7.6 ppg and 3.3 rpg. Fuller has hit 17 three-pointers this season and is hitting 52.3 percent of her shots overall – she can score in the post or by moving behind the arc. She is also an 80 percent shooter from the free throw line.
Georgia Coach Andy Landers is expected to start: Ashley Houts, 5'6 sophomore guard, No. 1 (11.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.7 apg, 2.9 spg), played 45 minutes in an overtime win over Florida State, went the distance in 12 other games, including seven in the SEC; Angela Puleo, 5'9 freshman guard/forward, No. 20 (8.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg), Maryville, Tenn., native was SEC freshman of the week Feb. 18 after averaging 17.0 points in wins over Florida and Mississippi State; Megan Darrah, 6'3 senior forward, No. 24 (8.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg), moved to the small forward spot this season after playing power forward, now has 1,010 career points; Tasha Humphrey, 6'3 senior forward, No. 34 (17.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg), SEC player of the week on Feb. 25 for 22-point, 14-rebound, four-assist performance against Auburn, No. 2 on Georgia's all-time scoring list, passing Kelly Miller and Katrina McClain, now has 2,210 points and 1,036 rebounds; and Angel Robinson, 6'5 sophomore center, No. 33 (9.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg), had a career-high 18 rebounds against Florida State.
The Lady Bulldogs are one of the few teams who look the Lady Vols eye to eye across the frontline.
A key player off the bench for the Lady Bulldogs is Christy Marshall, a 6'1 guard who is averaging 6.0 ppg and 3.0 rpg. Marshall, who scored 16 points against Oklahoma this season, also could start the game in place of Puleo.
Former Lady Vol Lindsey Moss, a Georgia native, is now a Lady Bulldog. She missed 10 games this season because of a knee bruise. Porsha Phillips, also from Georgia, transferred from LSU and is on the roster but not eligible to play until next season.
Georgia will honor its seniors, Humphrey, Darrah and Rebecca Rowsey before the game. Rowsey was a starter for most of her time at Georgia, but a knee injury ended her career this season. Rowsey, who has a 3.7 GPA in biology, has been accepted to medical school at UT-Memphis – she is from Henderson, Tenn. – and will start classes next fall. Humphrey (sports studies) and Darrah (management) will also graduate this May.
ON TAP: All 12 SEC teams are in action on the final day of the regular season with seeds No. 4 through No. 11 still to be determined for the SEC Tournament next week in Nashville. Alabama is the No. 12 seed. LSU, Tennessee and Vanderbilt have clinched the top three seeds.
Georgia needs a win over Tennessee plus a Kentucky loss to grab the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in the SEC tourney. Kentucky can claim the fourth seed outright with a victory – regardless of the outcome of Georgia's game – because it would win any tiebreaker with Georgia based on head-to-head competition. A Georgia loss means it gets the No. 5 seed.
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Georgia game. Here is her assessment.
When Georgia has the ball: "They do a lot of high-low. They're post-oriented, but they've got great outside shooters. They run a lot of sets, a lot of dribble handoffs, back-cuts, high-low, ball screens. We've got to guard a lot of defensive concepts."
Tasha Humphrey is a difficult player to defend because she can shoot in the paint and from the perimeter. Humphrey has made 30 three-pointers this season.
"She can shoot the three from outside and then she goes inside and posts," Warlick said. "She shoots a really nice fadeaway. They want to go inside because they've got two very good shooters and then they've got a penetrator in (Christy) Marshall and (Angel) Robinson inside she posts well and posts hard and so does Humphrey inside. He wants to establish the inside game."
Angela Puleo is a player that must be guarded on the perimeter, and the Tennessee native – she played at William Blount High School in Maryville – likely has something to prove against the school so close to her hometown. She leads the team with 46 made three-pointers.
"She's a great shooter; she's a great scorer," Warlick said. "You give her an inch and she's going to score. He's run things to her to get her open looks, which is smart."
Defensively, Warlick expects to see the Lady Bulldogs in their traditional man-to-man, but with some zone looks, too.
"He runs man to man, but he's been running a little bit more of a two-three matchup," Warlick said. "He's running a 2-2-1 kind of a full-court press to slow people down to get them late in the clock in the frontcourt. He's mixing up his defense. He's probably having to run more zone than man because I don't think his depth is as good."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We can't turn the ball over. That's key for us. Take quality shots. When we start turning over the ball great things don't happen for us. We're going to go inside. We're going to do what we do. We're going to run. We're going to push the ball. We're going to press. We want to score in transition."
Warlick also wants to see Tennessee get on the boards with the zest it showed against the Gators, especially from the guards, Angie Bjorklund and Alberta Auguste. Alexis Hornbuckle can be counted on to board, as can Nicky Anosike.
"Angie is getting on the boards more," Warlick said. "Lex has been a staple. It's huge. Anytime we can get second chance boards, it's big. Anosike, she and Lex are staples. If we can get consistency rebounding, especially from the wings, Angie and Bird coming in, then we're happy."
There is considerable familiarity between the teams and not just because they are conference foes. Hornbuckle and Humphrey have been friends for years. Bjorklund played against Ashley Houts in AAU games.
"I loved her game,' Bjorklund said. "She kind of reminds me of Cait (McMahan) with her competitiveness and all over the place. She's tough."
Warlick doesn't expect any letdown from Thursday's game. The sight of Georgia jerseys should inspire the Lady Vols and vice versa for the Lady Bulldogs when they see orange.
"It's Georgia," Warlick said. "They're going to focused. We've never been passive against them. They have friends on the team. They're Georgia. They're competitive, and they play hard. I don't see any problem getting up."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Georgia, 38-14. The Lady Vols are 15-4 in Knoxville, 10-7 in Athens and 13-3 at neutral sites. The series began in 1969. The Lady Bulldogs last win in the series was March 6, 2004, in a 68-66 overtime win in the SEC Tournament. Tennessee has won the last six in a row – five in the regular season and one in the SEC tourney in 2006 in a semifinal game in which Candace Parker played point guard while Alexis Hornbuckle sat on the bench with a cast on her broken right wrist. … Tennessee is 10-3 in games played on March 2. The three losses were to Tennessee Tech, 54-51, in 1974; Auburn, 61-59, in 1997; and LSU, 81-80, in 2002. The last win on this date was against South Carolina, 81-63, in 2007. … When the teams meet lately they tend to either clamp down defensively or it's off to the races. In the last five meetings, the games have either been low scoring (58-55 and 52-41), track meets (94-85 and 89-79) or somewhere in between (73-57). Tennessee has won 11 of the last 12 dating back to 2001. The 41 points scored last year by Georgia in Athens were the lowest since 1973. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee averages 79.2 points per game while allowing 60.4. Georgia averages 70.2 points per game while allowing 58.0. The Lady Vols shoot 45.6 percent overall, 37.8 percent from behind the arc and 72.2 percent from the line. The Lady Bulldogs shoot 42.1 percent overall, 33.0 percent from behind the arc and 73.6 percent from the line. Tennessee averages 41.2 rebounds per game with opponents getting 36.1 for a +5.1 margin. Georgia averages 41.2 boards with foes getting 35.9 for a +5.3 margin. Tennessee averages 17.0 assists and 17.2 turnovers while forcing 21.4 miscues by opponents. Georgia averages 14.1 assists and 17.2 turnovers while forcing 18.1 turnovers. The Lady Vols average 12.3 swipes and 6.2 swats a game. The Lady Bulldogs average 8.7 steals and 4.0 blocks per game.