Shannon Bobbitt keeps team loose

TAMPA - Thirty minutes before practice was scheduled to start one afternoon this season the players began to emerge from the locker room after they arrived from class and lunch. They started stretching, putting on knee and ankle wraps and taking some shots. It was a routine pre-practice routine until Shannon Bobbitt came out and found a microphone at the scorer's table.

Shannon Bobbitt walked with the microphone to center court and starting dancing. And rhyming. And rapping. Her teammates switched from sedate stretching to uproarious laughter, especially the freshmen.

Alberta Auguste found a second mike, and the act became a duo. The lyrics were improvised based on what was happening on the floor, and they mixed in their teammates' names. Auguste peeled off to stretch, and Bobbitt returned to her solo act. Her teammates watched and then went back to their practice prep.

Finally, junior forward Alex Fuller told Bobbitt, "Nobody is listening to you." Bobbitt stopped in mid-move and informed her teammate, "I am listening to myself!" That set off more squeals of laughter. Bobbitt finished her song – by now it was about Nicky Anosike shooting a free throw – and then traded the microphone for a basketball.

The staff arrived a few minutes later, and practice commenced as always.

"She's just goofy," senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. "Her and Bird together you never know what you're going to get. You can't help but laugh at them."

The team needs someone like Bobbitt to break up a long season, especially one as demanding as being a Tennessee Lady Vol where practice is sometimes something to survive.

"Loosen up. Not be so tight," Hornbuckle said. "You're worried about we're about to have a tough practice or whatever, and you have somebody like Shannon or Bird and when Nicky jumps in it's off the wall. It can be Vicki. It can be Alex. This whole team it's a great personality. You're bound to smile when you're around this team."

That team vibe can only help in the crucible of a Final Four, which Tennessee, 34-2, finds itself in to finish the season in Tampa. The Lady Vols will conduct media interviews and hold a public practice Saturday at The Forum before taking on LSU, 31-5, in the second semifinal Sunday. Connecticut, 36-1, and Stanford (34-3) play in the first semifinal. The winners meet Tuesday for the right to take home the national title trophy.

The Lady Vols practiced Friday and also participated in ESPN promo shoots and a banquet for the teams. It's a whirlwind of activity, and Tennessee went through the process a year ago in Cleveland, as did LSU. The Lady Vols won the championship in 2007, an accomplishment that Bobbitt said she came to Tennessee to fulfill. Does she want two?

"Why not?" Bobbitt said. "We definitely have the team to do it, and we're just going to take it one game at a time."

Bobbitt said that midseason – though she would likely say the same thing in Tampa – and if Tennessee is to repeat, the senior point guard will have to produce. Her three-pointers a year ago against Rutgers broke open the game and propelled Tennessee to its seventh title.

Bobbitt struggled in the regional final against Texas A&M and Pat Summitt intended to watch film with her point guard either on the flight to Tampa or after arrival.

"She's got to get us in our offense a little bit quicker and get some better looks from the three ball," Summitt said. "I thought she really forced penetration and the ball got stuck in her hands quite a bit. She's obviously very receptive to taking the information and using it, and I have no doubt that she'll do it."

Bobbitt seeks out Summitt for film sessions both to help her short term and later in her basketball career.

"It helps me think about what am I doing on the court and what she really looks at and what she expects of me," Bobbitt said. "I try to really see what she's seeing."

Summitt has an attentive pupil during those sessions.

"When she watches film she'll say, ‘I've just got to get better. I've got to learn. I've got to learn more about the game. Just teach me,' " Summitt said.

Summitt didn't see Bobbitt's center court show, but she likely would have smiled. Bobbitt seeks out Summitt in practice, and vice versa, and invariably the guard will make Summitt laugh.

"It has to be natural," Bobbitt said. "I do not act. I do not pretend. That's me. Life's too short. I understand this is basketball, this is business, but I try to let her know I'm going to do what she expects of me but at the same time, smile."

That approach has worked. It also helps that Bobbitt is always smiling.

"First and foremost is she's so positive," Summitt said. "She's just real. If she thinks it she'll say it. She's got a great sense of humor. She's always in a good mood. How many players come in every day and they're in a great mood?

"Shannon of all the players on her team by far you know every day exactly what you're going to get from her. She's been one of my all-time favorite point guards. She's right up there in the top three. That's because she doesn't make excuses. If you call her out, she goes, ‘You're right, Coach. I did that. I'll fix that.' How many players do you know that don't make excuses? She's one of the best ever."

When informed of her lofty ranking on Summitt's list, Bobbitt did what she does best – she smiled.

"I thank her for that," Bobbitt said. "I matured as I got older. I started to understand I don't know more than the adults that are older than me. They're not trying to hurt me; they're trying to help me. I definitely listen to Pat. I look up to her. I'm very proactive so that helps me a lot."

Bobbitt's sincerity likely resonates with the head coach, who can tell when someone is genuine.

"Definitely that's me," Bobbitt said. "I'm not going to try to pretend and I'm not going to be anybody else. That's my personality. I like to have fun. Life is too short."

Bobbitt's ability to make someone laugh in practice isn't limited to the head coach.

"Sometimes I have to stop laughing at Shannon during practice," freshman forward Vicki Baugh said. "She does things – and she's not even doing it on purpose – to make you laugh. A lot of energy. She brings the energy. It helps a lot."

Bobbitt has roomed with Anosike, a fellow New Yorker, since she arrived on campus two years ago. Fortunately, Bobbitt does have a studious and quiet side. Both are honor roll students.

"She's not like that 24/7," Anosike said. "She's pretty laidback most of the time, but I think sometimes she gets a little fun and crazy. She likes to make everyone around her laugh. Definitely good for the team, but she's not like all the time. When we go back to our room, she's pretty relaxed."

Bobbitt came to Tennessee with Auguste – both were junior college players – and they immediately bonded over that shared experience.

"I think we will always be close, good friends," Auguste said.

Auguste also confirmed that Bobbitt could throttle down.

"She has an off/on button," Auguste said. "She's like a light bulb. We have fun all the time, even when we argue. We find ways to get excited and get everyone pumped up before practice and before games."

Bobbitt's energy level is high, as evidenced by her continuation of the song-and-dance routine after Auguste had bailed and her teammates had gone back to getting ready for practice.

"The majority of the time she is always full of energy," Fuller said. "She's always animated and everybody sees that on the court. It helps to have humor every now and then since everything is most of the time intense."

"Very energized person," Candace Parker said. "She's going to tell you how she feels. She's the funniest dancer. (What fans see) that's what she's like."

Bobbitt can also adjust to that intensity. The psychology major will graduate in May and wears a Vol Scholar patch on her jersey that recognizes her academic acumen.

"All across the board, in the classroom, on the court, everything has been intense," Bobbitt said. "Everything has been business-like. I've been enjoying it and learning."

She watched Tennessee and its coach on television when Bobbitt was a prep star in New York – she also made a name for herself at famed Rucker Park – but ended up enrolling in junior college. She succeeded there on and off the court and joined the Lady Vols for her last two years of collegiate eligibility.

"When I was young just watching her coach on television I'm like, ‘Wow, one day I hope I can play for her.' And then I'm like, ‘I don't know if I can play for her,' " Bobbitt said.

But Bobbitt adjusted to the expectations and quickly took the approach in practice of nodding her head and correcting her mistakes.

"All my dreams are coming true playing for her and I'm learning a lot from her," Bobbitt said. "I learned a lot here. I learned how to put priorities first. I learned how to work hard. They prepare you here. Growing as a player, growing as a woman."

The coaches missed Bobbitt's center court performance – by the time the staff arrived the players were well into standard pre-practice activities – but Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood smiled about it.

"I can only imagine," Lockwood said. "It's a long season and to say every day players are going to love coming in and going to practice I think for many that is a stretch. You get into the dog days and when you have somebody like that it keeps everything upbeat and lighthearted and it keeps everybody with a good mood and a good spirit.

"You can't fake that – somebody that connects with people. She just has it and our kids love it and respond to her."

Bobbitt is fun loving, but she is also already nostalgic about the end of her playing days at Tennessee.

"I'll miss everyone," Bobbitt said. "I'll miss everything. Everything."

SEC POWER: When four teams remained in 2008, two were from the SEC. An SEC team is guaranteed a spot in the title game because Tennessee and LSU play each other Sunday in a semifinal.

As Pat Summitt walked the back hallway of the Ford Center toward the locker room after Tennessee's win over Texas A&M – LSU had won the night before against North Carolina – she stopped and smiled when asked about the conference's success.

"I think up there on the East Coast they don't talk a whole lot about us, but we still exist," Summitt said. "Everybody has been talking about some other conferences, but there's two SEC teams in the Final Four so I think that speaks for itself."

She also expressed excitement for LSU Coach Van Chancellor, who is taking his first team to a Final Four.

"I was happy for Van and for LSU and the league," Summitt said. "He's won Olympic gold and WNBA championships and even for me I hadn't really thought, ‘He's never been to a Final Four.' "

Summitt had continued walking but then suddenly stopped when she spotted a penny. She peered closer, saw it was tail's up and left it on the concrete floor.

Summitt is superstitious – a penny must be head's up; she once famously fished one out of an airport toilet with then Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss – but she also knows what it will take to take on LSU.

"It's a great rivalry, because it's two great teams," Summitt said. "You've got two of the best players in the game with Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker and obviously everyone wants to watch that matchup, but I think it's going to be very important what the other people do. I think Alexis and Alberta are going to really have to step up. Shannon is going to have to shoot the ball a little bit better. Nicky has been a great defender for us, and she's got to be that. And we've got to get better bench play. That was probably the one downside to our play in Oklahoma City and so hopefully we'll see more production off of our bench.

"It's the same for both teams. We know each other. I think it's a matter of execution and who can make the big plays at both ends of the floor. I don't see that one team has a edge over the other."

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