The Lady Vols are the No. 2 seed in this tournament after losing to LSU, a game that was all the more galling for Tennessee because the Lady Tigers wiped out a 19-point first-half deficit in Knoxville.
"Staying on top is a lot tougher than getting there," Candace Parker said. "We lost one game in the SEC and we lost the SEC title and that's just the way it is. "If you stumble one time in the regular season …
"Having lost there's an extra motivation. We lost the SEC regular season so we don't want to be one of the only teams up there without a banner on either one of the years."
Parker was referring to the banners that hang in Thompson-Boling Arena and denote SEC accomplishments. The years 2005 and 2006 are on the tourney titles banner; the year 2007 is on the regular season champions banner. The year 2000 was the last time Tennessee won both.
Tennessee, the No. 3 ranked team in the country, also is motivated by coming to Nashville as the No. 2 seed in its conference tourney.
"It kind of does give you a sense of urgency to get the title," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "We don't like being number two at anything. Number one priority is playing together. I feel like if it's generated on the offensive or defensive end when we come out ready to play together and determined to play together, it feels like everything else just falls into place.
"The effort is there, the rebounding is there, the offensive efficiency is there so just trying to be on the same page I think that is key for us."
Tennessee has had considerable success as the No. 2 seed – it last two SEC tourney titles in 2005 and 2006 came from that position. As the No. 1 seed a year ago the Lady Vols lost to LSU in a semifinal game.
Coach Pat Summitt's postseason mantra – rebounding wins championships – seems to have settled in with her players. The Lady Vols have cleaned up the glass lately and are getting rebound production from all five spots on the floor.
Tennessee wants to run off defensive boards and score on offensive ones.
"You've got to make people miss and if you make people miss they're going to be rebounds so you've got to get the rebounds to start your transition attack," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "One of the ways we score easily is through offensive rebounding. One of the ways we get to the foul line is through offensive rebounding."
Hornbuckle cited the benefit of board play in the 72-63 win over Georgia to close the regular season because the Lady Vols were leaving points at the free throw line, where they shot 8-20 as a team.
"I think that's a must," Hornbuckle said. "That's what kept us in the game at Georgia because obviously it wasn't our free throws."
"Everybody was shooting hard at Georgia," Hornbuckle. "(The misses were) very contagious at the free throw line. I was frustrated."
Hornbuckle said another priority in Nashville will be getting back on defense, and that was an emphasis in practice this week.
"Defensive transition that killed us in the Georgia game," Hornbuckle said. "They had a few open looks that shouldn't have happened. Being mindful on defense, where your player's at, knowing where the shooter's at, talking and matching up early, that's so key in postseason."
The players have been anticipating postseason and will enter with a mix of veterans who won the national title last year and three newcomers, one of who, Bjorklund, is a starter and the SEC Freshman of the Year by the coaches' vote.
This will be Bjorklund's first postseason in a Tennessee uniform.
"I'm a competitive person and we obviously didn't get the SEC championship but hopefully we can get the tournament championship," said Bjorklund, a 6'0 wing and go-to three-point shooter for Tennessee. "I'm looking forward to it."
Another freshman, Vicki Baugh, comes off the bench and will be expected to provide immediate post help.
"Her getting the minutes that she has and the experience she's going to be a huge part of the postseason," Bjorklund said. "She is a huge part of this team. Especially on offense when she's looking to score she's good."
Baugh seems to have turned a significant corner – she came to Tennessee having never played with her back to the basket – and is much more offensive-minded when she enters the game now.
"Her defense, that's a place she can get a lot better, playing position defense," Summitt said. "I want her aggressive. When I say that, I want her looking to attack the rim, which she's done a better job of."
Baugh teamed up with Hornbuckle at Georgia to deny drives to the basket and, in a display of athleticism and speed, showed what she can do. She deflected a Georgia pass deep under the basket, Shannon Bobbitt secured the loose ball, and Baugh beat her down the floor to get in position under Tennessee's basket for an easy bucket.
Junior forward Alex Fuller and senior wing Alberta Auguste also will need to be ready to come off the bench, along with freshman guard Sydney Smallbone, as Tennessee faces three consecutive days of play if it makes Sunday's title game.
Auguste was 4-5 from the field against Georgia and had a key offensive rebound and putback when Tennessee needed some breathing room against the hard-charging Lady Bulldogs.
Auguste took extra shots after practice Tuesday with "The Vol Gun," which automatically feeds the ball back to the player through a chute. It has a high net and forces the shooter to put arc on the ball.
"If you're going to help this team in the postseason, if you're going to go to the next level, you're going to have to get in the gym and work on your game," Summitt said of her advice to Auguste. "Players have to get in the gym if they want to get in the repetition to gain more confidence. That's one thing about Candace Parker. You don't have to worry about her getting in the gym."
This is Parker's favorite part of the season – something she has readily acknowledged – and she has spent considerable time in the gym before and after practice in preparation.
"This is what I love," Parker said. "Last year after postseason ended and we won a championship I wanted to just skip right to this point in the season. I really enjoy it. It's what you play all regular season for, it's what you train for, it's what you lift for, it's what you put your body through. Great teams step up.
"I don't think we're playing our best going in but last year we weren't either. I think we have a lot of things that we need to look at going into this tournament. We haven't peaked, we aren't playing our best basketball and we're still (third) in the country. I feel pretty confident about what we're going to do and I think all of us are focused a lot more."
Anosike had a talk with herself before the last week of the regular season because she felt like she had not done enough to help her team. She has responded since, especially on the boards. She had 12 rebounds against Florida and 11 against Georgia in the last two games.
"I feel like last year the reason why we won (the national title) was because Candace was doing her thing all year, Lex was doing her thing, everyone was doing their thing, but I felt like I needed to step up and do something that the team was lacking, which was rebounding," Anosike said. "I think we've gotten a lot better at rebounding but these games coming up in order to win we're going to have to rebound. I think I need to start stepping up in that area because I have the most ability out of anyone else to do that."
Anosike is 6'4, solid and plenty strong to hold position in the paint. When she rebounds with tenacity it trickles down to the rest of the team.
"She's stepped up as a leader big time just getting us hyped and especially with her intensity inside and her aggressiveness to the boards," Bjorklund said. "It gets me excited. Her getting her numbers every game is going to be key for us."
Bjorklund's play will also be key for Tennessee She has hit 62 three-pointers this season and her long-range ability will be needed in the postseason to help create space inside for the post players.
"So many times they tell me you're not a freshman anymore," Bjorklund said. "I feel like I've learned the system better and I've gotten used to the coaching style and how the players play. Going in the tournament I can't look at myself as a freshman. At first it was just getting down Coach Summitt's system and the way we play here at Tennessee.
"As a basketball player skill only takes you so far and then confidence takes over. The seniors have taken me under their wing and shown me the way."
Baugh also has heard from the veterans about the postseason and the need to ratchet up the level of play.
"It's a lot of pressure, but it will only make you a better player," Baugh said. "The competition is going to be crazy and I know there's been a lot of upsets in the past and teams that came out ready to play."
The bench will be needed in the postseason and the substitutes seemed to hit their stride in the last three games of the season.
"It's back up where it needs to be, but there's always room to go up and that's not only from the bench, that's from the starters as well," Hornbuckle said. "The minute you get complacent that's where you start dropping off because other teams start coming past you. You never really arrive. If they continue to play the way they are then we're going to be tough to deal with."
Three of those starters, Parker, Hornbuckle and Anosike, have been called "the big three" by Summitt. For Tennessee to succeed in the postseason the trio has to be on the same page, Summitt has said.
"I feel like we need to be a stronger three than we were last season, and I don't think that we're there yet," Anosike said. "It's going to be harder this season to win. Everybody knows that it's harder to win back to back (national titles). I think that we need to get stronger, and that's definitely something that we need to talk about."
The SEC tourney allows Tennessee its first shot at the one-and-done format of postseason, and that is especially beneficial for the newcomers.
"This has been a dream of mine to be able to go to the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament," Bjorklund said. "The one and done I've never really experienced that.
"The SEC Tournament is huge. Winning this would put us in the best position possible going into the (NCAA) tournament. I know as a freshman you don't know a whole lot about it but from what I know it's a big deal."
The Lady Vols are aware that they are playing for the best possible seeding in the NCAA Tournament so a good showing in Nashville is paramount.
"You have to do well in it, because our goal is to get a number one seed," Parker said. "You want it to be in your hands and not in the committee's."
The players have heard the rumblings about Tennessee possibly being a No. 2 seed in NCAA play, but Hornbuckle said the only control they have is to win.
"You never know with us and the NCAA Selection Committee," Hornbuckle said. "Obviously the main objective is to win so if there is a slight possibility (of a two seed) we still hold the upper hand."
Anosike said a talk with the freshmen was on the itinerary list to ensure that they knew what the Lady Vols faced in Nashville. The issue of seeding becomes secondary.
"We just think we need to win every single game because if you don't win then you go home," Anosike said. "That's how this part of the season works. I know the freshmen aren't really familiar with that part of the game. It doesn't really hit home until you do get beat and hopefully we can pound it in their heads enough so that it doesn't take a loss for them to understand that.
"We definitely talked, but we haven't really keyed in on what this part of the season means. That's definitely something we have to get into their heads before we even step on the court on Friday."
Anosike said the issue of NCAA seeding would be addressed later.
"I think we'll deal with that when it comes," Anosike said. "I think right now we have to deal with the SEC Tournament and do whatever we need to do to win that first. It's now or never. You have to just give everything that you have. If I don't give it now I can never give it again. Whatever I have in me I'll give it."
Anosike and the rest of the team got a view of what some of their fans give when Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick had the team march to the top of Thompson-Boling Arena after a lackluster win over Mississippi State at home on Feb. 24.
"It taught us a lesson that people don't have to take time out of their day to come up here and they definitely don't have to walk up all those stairs to watch us play," Anosike said. "I had never been up there. It's really high, and it's tiring trying to get up all those stairs.
"For them to come and sit until the end that shows how much they love us and how unappreciative we were being. It was a reality check."
The fans will also turn out in force for Tennessee in Nashville on Friday, and Summitt knows what she wants them to see from her team.
"Forty-minute games," said Summitt, whose other priorities were "our defense, our board play and our guard play. We've got to be more productive, much more consistent (from the guard spots)."
Parker's priorities included the same 40-minute theme.
"I think playing 40 minutes, playing with emotion," Parker said. "Unfortunately I've been saying this all year, this team does things when we have to, and we have to now.
"It's postseason. We're really going to buckle down. I want to provide my team what it needs."
For the Lady Vols to win in the postseason to the extent they want to – tourney trophies in the SEC and NCAA – they will have to refocus in March and correct some of the issues that cropped up during the season, such as 40-minute games (better), rebounding (much better) and turnovers (still squirting too many).
Can the team recalibrate and get on a postseason success track?
"I think so because they've proven that they've done that in the past," Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell said. "You always want them to play in the moment and be here and now. Obviously it's a long grueling season. You look at the schedule we've had this season and the ranked opponents that we've had to play game in and game out and knowing that we've always got a bull's eye on the back of our jerseys because everybody is wanting to beat Tennessee.
"They've had a long, grueling regular season, but that's why you have that season to prepare you for March. We're going to do everything in our power I know as a coaching staff to put them in the best situation they can possibly be in to cut down nets in Tampa."
That process starts Friday. The first net awaits in Nashville.
TENNESSEE-FLORIDA: The teams played eight days ago in Knoxville, an 88-61 win for the Lady Vols on senior night on Feb. 28.
"It always helps to have that first game under your belt and have some actual film of you versus them to look at and see where we fell short and see what we did well, so that's what we'll do now is go back to the drawing board because obviously the game plan we were in in Knoxville didn't turn out so well," Florida Coach Amanda Butler said.
The Gators pushed tempo in that game and got 27 points from Sha Brooks but couldn't keep the Lady Vols off the boards. Tennessee had a season-high 57 rebounds against the Gators.
Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (9.7 points per game, 3.3 rebounds per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (10.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 freshman guard/forward, No. 5 (9.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (20.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (9.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg).
Butler is expected to start: Lonnika Thompson, 5'4 sophomore guard, No. 2 (3.1 ppg, 1.4 rpg); Sha Brooks, 5'7 junior guard, No. 3 (12.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg); Depree Bowden, 5'11 senior guard, No. 20 (13.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg); Marshae Dotson, 5'11 junior forward, No. 44 (13.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg); and Aneika Henry, 6'3 junior center, No. 42 (4.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg).
Jennifer Mossor has started five games this season for Florida and is averaging 8.0 ppg. Sharielle Smith has started nine games this season and is averaging 8.8 ppg and 5.9 rpg.
Summitt wants solid guard play in the SEC Tournament, and that starts with Hornbuckle and Bobbitt.
"I think she has to play to her strengths – play great defense, be the best rebounding guard and get paint points," Summitt said of Hornbuckle. "She's so good off the dribble."
Bobbitt provided much-needed offense in the Georgia game and her three-pointers and drives to the basket took pressure off of Parker, who scored 30 points and 13 straight through one stretch in the second half against Georgia last Sunday.
"She picked her game up at Georgia," Summitt said of Bobbitt. "She's got to stay on top of her game. She's got to commit to both end of the floors, pushing tempo, making shots, defending. If she's not scoring and Lex isn't scoring and Bird's not scoring, it'd be hard for us to win."
LADY VOL DEFENSE: Tennessee made its reputation on man-to-man defense, but the Lady Vols have shown some zone looks, too, this season.
"Typically we're going to start in man, we're going to play a lot of man," Pat Summitt said. "But if need be we're not opposed to going to the zone if that means maybe to not expose ourselves as much to penetration."
Florida is a team that will drive to the basket – and did so repeatedly against South Carolina – so Tennessee may mix up its defensive schemes Friday. Tennessee has used matchup zones this season and can put one of its post players at the top to try to disrupt opponents.
"We're going to need it," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "It's a good changeup for us, and we're so big. When we play it right we can cause people a lot of problems. Our man-to-man is our bread and butter, but it has a lot of man-to-man principles and we put it in the zone for us.
"I would anticipate us needing it down the stretch, especially in the SEC Tournament because we play three games back to back to back hopefully."
ACADEMIC DEMANDS: Balancing basketball and books can be just as difficult for a senior getting ready to graduate as a first-year collegian.
Alexis Hornbuckle, a psychology major, is taking 16 hours this semester so that she will graduate in May.
"I need spring break to come," said Hornbuckle, who has battled through fatigue this season. "Academics is kicking my butt right now, late nights, writing papers, trying to study. I can't really study on the road, as far as on the plane and on the bus, it gives me headaches. When I'm in town I'm trying to do as much work as possible. I can feel that it's taken a toll on my body."
Angie Bjorklund, a freshman still deciding on a major, has learned to stay in communication with her instructors and make use of academic assistance for student-athletes.
"Our teachers are understanding, and I have tutors and the Thornton Center," Bjorklund said. "We have so much support. A huge thing is time management."
The team arrived in Nashville on Thursday – they left Knoxville after class – and will miss Friday classes. But they have a break from any travel next week between tournaments so they won't miss class, and spring break starts the week after next.
EVENING MISHAPS: It was not an uneventful Wednesday evening in Knoxville as Pat Summitt injured her shoulder protecting her beloved dog from a raccoon and two of her players were involved in a minor traffic wreck.
Cait McMahan and Angie Bjorklund were on the way to church Wednesday when they collided with a car on Alcoa Highway. Summitt was on the way home and came across the accident scene. She stopped – she said she saw her players outside the car – and realized right away that everyone was OK.
Nobody was hurt in either vehicle – Summitt said the players were not at fault in the wreck – and Bjorklund, who is cleared to play Friday, and McMahan made it to church afterwards. McMahan is taking a redshirt year this season to rehab her knee.
Summitt continued home to prepare to leave Thursday for Nashville. She was taking out the trash, accompanied by her dog, Sally Sue, when they encountered a very large raccoon on the back deck. The raccoon and the dog began to tangle, and Summitt's first instinct was to protect her pet.
Summitt delivered a forearm shiver to the raccoon, knocking it well off the deck, but she dislocated her right shoulder in the process and had to be treated by the Lady Vols team physician, Dr. Rebecca Morgan.
"I'm fine," Summitt said. "It's just sore."
Summitt, who is not wearing a sling, hoped to keep a low profile over the mishap; however, the news spread in Nashville and it came up when Summitt spoke to the alumni association on Thursday evening.
"As long as people can see the humor in it," Summitt said with a laugh.
A fan at the downtown gathering also already knew about McMahan and Bjorklund, and wanted to make sure Summitt knew the players did make it to church that night.
In hindsight, Summitt said, confronting a raccoon was not the smartest decision.
"It was just my impulse," Summitt said, to protect her dog, which was not hurt.
"She wanted to go after it," Summitt said. "But I told her to get back in the house."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee has a 55-16 record in SEC Tournament play The Lady Vols are 5-0 against Florida in the tourney with the last meeting coming in 2000 in Chattanooga. … Former Lady Vol Shelia Collins will be honored at halftime as Tennessee's SEC Great in the class of 2008. Collins played from 1981 to 1985 and scored 1,423 career points with 40 points in a single game vs. Ole Miss. Collins was inducted into the Lady Vol Hall of Fame last fall. … Tennessee's record in the second round of the SEC tourney is 24-4. The last loss in the second round was in 1993 to Georgia. … The Lady Vols are 5-0 in games played on March 7. The last win came against Auburn, 66-51, in second-round action in the 2003 SEC tourney. … Tennessee has an excellent track record in the tourney when it finishes second in the regular season. The Lady Vols were No. 2 in the conference in 1988, 1989, 1992, 2005 and 2006. Tennessee won the tourney title in each of those years. The 2008 team will try to keep the streak intact.