"We should have a chip on our shoulder," Coach Pat Summitt said.
Summitt won't forget the last game with LSU – her team surrendered a 19-point first-half lead on its home floor – and Summitt said she was so mad afterwards that she could hardly breathe.
LSU won that Feb. 14 game in convincing fashion, 78-62, after Tennessee jumped out to a 21-2 lead.
"The wheels fell off," Summitt said.
To get to tonight's championship game Tennessee first had to take care of its in-state rival for a third time. It is difficult to beat a team three times in one season, and Tennessee was playing Vanderbilt in Nashville in a venue that it had never lost at in SEC tourney play.
"I think what makes it so hard is that they know our tendencies, and we know their tendencies, but I guess the team that plays the best defense and rebounds the hardest is the team that's going to come out with the win," UT senior center Nicky Anosike said.
"We knew that going in, and we heard all the stories about how they've never lost in this building, but we just stayed strong."
Tennessee, 29-2, put away Vanderbilt, 22-8 with a combination of offense in the first half and defense in the second half for a final score of 63-48.
"The first half shots were going up," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "I felt like they were owning the boards, but we were tied on the boards at halftime (15-15). They had all the momentum and we didn't gain it until halfway through the first half and the second half was a complete turn-around."
After misfiring against Auburn on Friday, Vanderbilt came out and hit six of its first 11 shots to take an early 14-4 lead. But Tennessee, behind a jumper, steal and assist by Alberta Auguste to Candace Parker pulled to 18-12, and Vandy called a timeout.
That was followed by a Vandy turnover, and Tennessee answered with a Parker layup to draw within four, 18-14. Tennessee used its pressure man-to-man defense to get the Commodores late in the shot clock, and continued to wipe out the deficit. The Lady Vols forced consecutive turnovers by Vandy, including a charge drawn by Auguste, and took the lead, 21-20, on a three-pointer by Shannon Bobbitt at the 9:09 mark of the second half.
Tennessee hit four three-pointers in the first half – including one by Parker – and led 37-28 at halftime. Parker had 17 points at the break, and Hornbuckle added seven points behind 3-4 shooting, including a three-pointer from about 22 feet away.
Vanderbilt was 1-12 from behind the arc in the first half as Tennessee alternated between a blanketing man-to-man and a matchup zone. Anosike stayed on Vandy sharpshooter Christina Wirth, who was 0-4 from behind the arc in the first 20 minutes.
The Commodores ended up 2-17 from long distance – 11.8 percent – so a key part of its offensive attack was neutralized.
"I think Vanderbilt has been very committed to the three ball, and I think we did a better job (than previous games) of extending our defense," Summitt said.
While the first half was mostly offense, the second half was steeped in defense. Vanderbilt went deep in the shot clock and was often lofting shots as time was about to expire.
"I think we really picked up our defense, especially in the second half and towards the end of the first half," Parker said. "We had a lot of defense translate into offense and transition. So I think we really did a great job of just playing defense and playing together."
Parker led all scorers with 25 points, and Hornbuckle joined her in double figures with 14. Anosike and Bobbitt added seven apiece, and Auguste and Alex Fuller chipped in with four each off the bench.
Auguste played 32 minutes both because of her lockdown defense – she had four steals – and Angie Bjorklund's struggles.
"Angie is not playing inspired basketball right now," Summitt said. "I told her, ‘You've got to bring it.' Disappointed, but the important thing is that she learns from it and if she doesn't Alberta is going to have to play a lot of minutes."
Bjorklund, who had three turnovers and no points, accepted responsibility after the game and lauded the play of her teammates.
"I came out flat," Bjorklund said. "Bird came in and played awesome both offensively and defensively. She came out strong. I think that was key, our bench play. Alex came in and she played the wing, too. That's playing out of position, but she got it done.
"I've just got to come out ready to play. I just had a terrible game. I never got in the flow."
Summitt went with a big lineup – and a solid defensive one – for stretches of the second half that included Parker, Anosike and Fuller across the frontline and Hornbuckle and Auguste in the backcourt.
"Coach definitely switched it up putting a big lineup in the game," Anosike said. "I think we were able to affect a lot of shots and deflect passes, and they didn't know how to deal with that."
"I actually didn't realize it was three bigs in there," Fuller said. "It's hard for people to play with us because all of us are long, and we're tall. It's hard for people to get around us and go inside."
Vanderbilt had trouble scoring in the second half – the outside shots weren't falling – and the bigs were impeding forays into the lane.
"They really picked up their defense and their denial and took things away from our offense," Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb said.
Balcomb noted Tennessee's speed and height in the last matchup. On Saturday she said the difference was much more basic: One team made shots; the other didn't.
"I think teams know that I'm a shooter so I think they're starting to do a better job than early in the season," said Wirth, who noted she also missed open looks at the basket.
The third encounter ended the same way as the previous two – with a Tennessee victory – but Balcomb noted that her young team had played harder each time and shown improvement.
"We know each other very well," Balcomb said. "It's like an NCAA game. Both teams are very prepared, they're both very successful and you're going to see great defensive efforts and people being taken away from things."
There's another factor, too. The two programs don't particularly like each other. That was apparent when Bobbitt was trying to dribble out the clock at the end and Risper fouled her with nine seconds left – putting Bobbitt on the line – rather than let time expire.
"It's pretty difficult (to play a third time), because they kind of have a grudge towards us because we have beat them twice and then we come to play them again they kind of want to come at us hard just like we come at them," Fuller said. "So it's tough just because they play a lot harder."
Balcomb pointed out the Parker factor and how much she affects the outcome.
"I don't think it's so much height and athleticism, but they do have one of the best players in the country, and that changes your team defensively," Balcomb said. "Candace Parker changes a game. You've got to play her a certain way and try to take away her without giving too much to everybody else."
Complicating that is the fact that Parker has elevated her already sublime game to another level this postseason.
"Yes, she has," Summitt said. "I'm not surprised because just look at the senior play. I think these seniors understand this is it. I think they know they've just been playing around at times and not really committing to a 40-minute team and just kind of looking at their opponent, sizing it up and deciding how they want to play, and that's not good. And it's cost us. That's what cost us the LSU game."
The players' approach to the rematch Sunday (7:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network) is to both remember and forget what happened in Knoxville.
"It was a beating," Hornbuckle said. "It's over and done with. That was then; this is now. We're not the same team. We're not playing the same. We're playing a lot better. We're playing better together. So I'm anxious to see how we handle this challenge."
"Definitely we're happy to get the rematch," Bobbitt said. "We forgot about that game. It's in the past now. We know they're a great team so we're going to come out and compete."
LSU's win in Knoxville was a shock because of how the game started – Tennessee's big lead – and how it unfolded – LSU trailed by only three at the half and outscored the Lady Vols, 48-29, in the second half.
"We think about it, but obviously this is a new game," Parker said. "We're a new team. That's how we're approaching it."
The loss was Tennessee's only one in conference play and cost the Lady Vols the SEC regular season title. A tourney trophy would help ease the sting of that defeat and the veterans on this team have a track record of losing the regular season and then claiming the tourney championship – they did it in 2005 and 2006.
The senior class of Parker, Hornbuckle, Anosike, Auguste and Bobbitt are 123-15 overall, though Auguste and Bobbitt came in midway through from junior college. They are 52-5 against SEC teams and have been to two Final Fours, winning it all in 2007. The class of 2008 has two SEC tourney titles and one regular season championship in 2007.
This will be Tennessee's 18th trip to the SEC title game. The Lady Vols record in the 17 previous games is 12-5. Tennessee won titles in 1980, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1994, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2005 and 2006.
The Lady Vols defeated LSU in 2005 and 2006 to win the trophy. Essentially none of that – including the game in Knoxville this season – is supposed to matter Sunday.
"We expected to play LSU," Anosike said. "We can't let all that other stuff enter our minds. We've just got to go out and play."
Summitt will likely mention the loss to LSU, but her reference will be to sound her familiar warning bell about what happens when a team doesn't commit for the entire game.
"We'll definitely talk about it," Summitt said. "We have to know that we have to play a 40-minute game and every possession matters, and you can't be casual. Hopefully with the veterans we have they'll hold everyone on the team accountable. We've got good leadership, and that's important at this point in time."
Summitt also has production off the bench – something that was scattershot in the regular season – and Auguste's minutes were crucial Saturday.
"To her credit she's has a lot of experience," Summitt said. "Last year she got a lot of quality minutes, and was really big for us in our championship run. I think this year she has a lot more confidence, and she's been rewarded for that. She's working hard in practice. She's got a little laidback in her, but if she can dial it up right now she can really help us."
Auguste actually enjoys playing defense and teams with Hornbuckle on the perimeter to disrupt opponents.
"Of course. Why not?" Auguste said. "That's our pride. We expect to play defense, and defense wins games. That's what we went out there and did."
"You score off your defense," Hornbuckle added, while pretending to interview Auguste along with a reporter. Auguste also had to contend with freshman Kelley Cain trying to distract her while she answered questions.
I don't know why I sit beside y'all two," Auguste said.
"Bird is playing tremendous," Hornbuckle said. "Big Game Bird. She's come ready to play, and she knows that we need her and that's exactly how she's playing. She came out defensively getting stops and getting in the passing lanes, grabbing rebounds and then she was knocking down jumpers. Whenever you have that coming off the bench we have no choice but to play well. She's going to make us look bad."
Auguste was iced down in the locker room – she got leg cramps towards the end of the game – but said she would be ready when called upon Sunday.
Auguste also had three rebounds – Tennessee prevailed on the boards, 33-29 – including two key offensive ones to keep possessions alive. Anosike led the team with 10 rebounds, including seven on defense.
"That's Nicky," Auguste said. "She's aggressive, and she likes to attack. That's her game."
Anosike played 35 minutes Saturday – she has never missed a game in four years and has played in 139 – Parker went for 36, and Hornbuckle, who has chronically sore knees, was on the floor for 39 minutes. The Lady Vols will have to recover quickly overnight.
"I'm going to pray for my legs to come back a little more – just to have some legs and be able to run," Hornbuckle said.
Bobbitt, who played 31 minutes, said it's a mental process, as much as a physical one.
"It's all in your head," Bobbitt said. "You just get enough rest and you go whirlpool, and you'll be all right."
Tennessee guards will have to contend with the speedy Erica White and the shooting ability of Quianna Chaney and Allison Hightower.
The Lady Vol guards have also been productive in the tournament, led by Hornbuckle with 30 points in two games.
"Coach has been stressing guard play, and we need that to win," Anosike said. "They really keyed into that, and they've been bringing it."
"We're going to go at Sylvia," Summitt said. "We're not going to back down. I'm not sure Shannon Bobbitt needs to go at Sylvia but I think Candace and Nicky can definitely do that and Vicki (Baugh). As far as guard play we still want to hunt paint points and get our guards to really break down the defense and get inside the paint, because that's where Alexis and Alberta can be so effective for us."
Summitt continued to sound her 40-minute theme, and she will drill it into her players' heads again Sunday.
"Absolutely," she said. "When you get into postseason, whether it's your conference tournament or the NCAA Tournament you have to understand that it's survive and advance. You have to have a mentality that every possession really matters. A 40-minute game is very important."
Tennessee has shown it can turn it on when the lights come on.
"Well, that's not really what we want to be known for, but it's postseason now," Fuller said. "We know that this is the end of the road. We lose; we go home. So we want to do it for each other."
Parker, who needs just 19 points to tally 2,000 for her career, just smiled when she was reminded that she had said all season that Tennessee would turn it up in postseason.
"I love postseason," Parker said. "Postseason could be all year. I love it."
LSU vs. KENTUCKY
RESULT: LSU 66 – KENTUCKY 49
Through the first television timeout the points and turnovers were equal at four. LSU had three turnovers and two points; Kentucky had two points and one turnover.
LSU started holding onto the ball and hitting some shots and built a lead. However, Kentucky's Samantha Mahoney was answering for Kentucky and scored five straight points on a drive down the middle and a three-pointer to bring the Wildcats to 21-17.
But LSU had three players in double figures at halftime – Sylvia Fowles with 14 and Quianna Chaney and Ashley Thomas with 10 each – and led by 11 at the break, 37-26. Mahoney led Kentucky with 10 points midway through the game.
Chaney continued to hit in the second half – she finished with 18 points – and LSU secured its spot in the title game with a 66-49 win. Fowles ended up with 20 points and 13 rebounds to lead all scorers. Ashley Thomas had 11 points, and Erica White added eight. LSU shot 49.0 percent for the game.
Mahoney was the high scorer for Kentucky with 17 points. Sarah Elliott had 12 points for the Wildcats. Kentucky only had 10 turnovers to 12 assists but couldn't overcome 31.1 percent shooting from the field.
LSU, 27-4, will make its fourth consecutive appearance in the championship game. The Lady Tigers are 0-3 in those games, losing twice to Tennessee and once to Vanderbilt.
"I think just our focus and our toughness to come out and play well as a team and just make sure we play team ball and stick together," Chaney said of the difference in the approach from last year's title game to now.
"It's like a sense of urgency," Fowles said. "You want to win it real bad, but you've got to calm down and make sure you come out on the right note. I know me personally I always get over-hyped for games like this, and I learned how to calm down and let the game come to me."
When a post-game press conference question turned to Tennessee – the Lady Vols had yet to tip off the second game – LSU Coach Van Chancellor intervened before his players could answer.
"I don't usually take over like this, but we will not answer any questions in regard to playing Tennessee at this time because Tennessee has got to win a game," Chancellor said, though he politely added that questions after the Tennessee-Vandy game would be fine.
"I want to have access to the press," Chancellor said. "We need the press, and I don't want to cut that out."
Chancellor has been a welcome addition to the SEC coaching ranks, not the least of which is his rapport with the media. When asked what his team had improved on this season he mentioned ice cream.
"I don't think there's any doubt the most improvement they've made is having a little fun, just fun, just enjoying playing and having fun, winning the SEC championship and stopping at Dairy Queen and having ice cream," Chancellor said.
Chancellor did go on to discuss offensive gains, particularly getting Chaney to shoot more and setting screens in half-court sets.
Kentucky, 15-15, stayed within striking distance of LSU but could never make a run that was significant enough to reel in the Tigers.
"I'm very proud of our effort." Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "To see our players go out and battle and to see our players prepare (Saturday) morning and listen and really want to come in and win this game is something that I think speaks to what kind of team we have been able to become."
The Wildcats were plagued by injury this season. Starting point guard Carly Ormerod went down early with a foot injury. She was replaced by freshman Amber Smith, who tore the ACL in her right knee on Feb. 3 and was lost for the season. Mahoney took over at point for the rest of the season.
Ormerod missed 16 games and returned Feb. 17 to provide some help off the bench. Redshirt junior center Eleia Roddy missed all of last year and the first 12 games of this season because of a knee injury. She graduated last December and returned to action Jan. 1.
Mitchell used 10 different starting lineups this season because of injuries.
Still, the Wildcats managed to earn the No. 4 seed in the SEC tourney and make it to the semifinal after struggling early in the season. Mitchell thinks his team has done enough to earn an NCAA bid.
"Are you going to reward a team based on the team they started out to be or the team they became?" said Mitchell, who cited those injuries and a tough pre-conference schedule. "We didn't duck and run, and we could have scheduled in a manner that would have gotten us to 20 wins, but I don't know if we would have become the team that we were able to be or that we are today had we done that. I'm real proud of our players. … I think there's a lot to be said about Kentucky, and I think that we are extremely deserving."
ODDS AND ENDS:
TIGER LUNGS: Those of four LSU fans with furry hats, face paint and mini-megaphones who sat near the court and kept a running commentary throughout the first game from encouraging LSU players to discouraging Kentucky players and offering advice to the officials on every possession. Timeouts were used to chant L-S-U over and over. LSU guard Erica White pointed at the group in the second half to acknowledge their efforts.
VAN WEAR: After electrifying the Sommet Center with gold pants on Friday, LSU Coach Van Chancellor was in a black suit Saturday. He did wear a gold tie with purple accents.
BEST FLIPS: Those executed by the LSU cheerleaders who hold up both index fingers on a one-and-one at the free throw line and then flip backwards for a made shot.
BEST SIGN FOR LSU: "Kats meow. Tigers roar"
LOUDEST CHEER DURING THE LSU-KENTUCKY GAME: That of Tennessee fans when the overhead scoreboard/video screen showed a live shot of Lady Vol players getting loose in the hallway outside their locker room.
"We're playing three home games with this much orange, and we are very appreciative of what they've done for us here," Candace Parker said. "They've given us the extra boost. We couldn't have done it without them."
TENNESSEE SIGNS: Summitt Equals Champions. First-time Seven National Champions. "PAT FOR PRESIDENT '08"
Another sign was done in the shape of a bracket with the Lady Vols vs. Anyone Else and the Lady Vols, of course, advancing.
LARGEST SIGN: That held up by a group of fans that stretched across several seats and said: "Hi Angie From Spokane" Angie Bjorklund didn't play well Saturday and agreed she needed to show those fans a little more of her game Sunday.
"I need to, definitely. That's awesome," Bjorklund said.
BEST BOUNCE: The one Alexis Hornbuckle got on a baseline jumper that hit the back iron and went through. Hornbuckle just shrugged on the way down court. How did it fall?
Hornbuckle pointed to the heavens for an explanation.
"When it came off it had the worst rotation," she said. "I really thought I was going to air-ball it. The ball was still sliding up in my hand when I was shooting. I was like, ‘Just make it to the rim please.' It did. Bounced in luckily."
Hornbuckle should have gotten style points for a later basket. She grabbed a defensive rebound, dribbled the length of the floor, spun in the paint and then floated in the jumper. That finish brought a shout from Hornbuckle as she went back down the floor.
BEST DECISION: That made by Alexis Hornbuckle early in the first half. A Vandy player had gotten deep in the paint behind her and, rather than foul, Hornbuckle scooted out of the way to avoid picking up a second foul and landing on the bench.
"Sometimes you've got to play smart, because I'd rather be on the court trying to help my team out and if I get another foul I've got to sit on the bench," Hornbuckle said. "Coach always says, ‘Never take yourself out of the game.' I'm confident in our defense. Two points (for them); we'll come back with four more."
BEST TIP DRILL: That by Alexis Hornbuckle late in the second half. She missed a jumper, tipped the ball once, tried to tip the ball in, missed, tipped the ball again but missed the shot and got fouled.
"Lex, that's three boards right there!" Candace Parker said from the bench.
Hornbuckle actually got credit for two, but it did push her to seven rebounds for the game, three on the offensive end.
LOUDEST FAN: The one sitting across from Tennessee's bench who yelled at Candace Parker: "JUST PIVOT AND DUNK IT CANDACE!" He followed that up with a booming announcement: "CP3 IS THE MVP!"
Even Parker heard him, but she doesn't know him.
"I have no idea who that is," Parker said.
BEST SHOW OF SUPPORT: Candace Parker to her teammates, Angie Bjorklund and Alex Fuller. Bjorklund has struggled with her shot lately, and Parker talked to her right before the second half and gave her a pat on the back.
"The thing about Angie is that any moment she's going to bust out," Parker said. "She's a great shooter. They're great shots; they're rimming out. We've just got to continue to get her good looks, and I know she's going to knock them down."
When Alex Fuller came off the bench and nailed a three-pointer, a timeout followed, and Parker gave her a hug as they headed to the bench.
"She said, ‘Way to knock it down,' " Fuller said.
ORANGE, ORANGE EVERYWHERE: Once again Tennessee fans blanketed the event, even for the first game, and filled up sections throughout the Sommet Center. On Friday the tourney set a session three record (first set of games on the second day) with 9,938 fans in attendance, the majority of whom were wearing orange.
"It lets us know that we have to represent every time we step on the floor, because there are so many people out there watching us and who support us and who love us and we can't let them down," Nicky Anosike said.
Saturday's session set an all-time session record with 12,897 fans in attendance. If some 5,000 show up Sunday – a guarantee with Tennessee in the final – the 2008 tourney will set an overall record for attendance.
"It's unbelievable," Pat Summitt said of all the orange in the Sommet Center. "Our players were shocked (Friday). I told them, ‘This place is going to be full of Tennessee. It's going to be orange.' It's really impressive.
"I did an alumni event the other day, and I was amazed at how many people from all over the country flew in for this game. They're Tennessee fans, not (just) graduates, fans."
CRITTER FREE: Pat Summitt has had no more encounters with wildlife since her escapade with a raccoon last week that left her with a dislocated shoulder. The team hotel is tucked away downtown behind the Sommet Center, but the urban environment has been peaceful.
"I figured I'd open the door and they'd be running down the hall," Summitt said.
"There was a little opossum outside asking for Pat," Candace Parker said.