Lady Vols motivated by predicted finish

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Alex Fuller and Angie Bjorklund saw the prediction that Tennessee would finish second in the league before they traveled to SEC Media Days on Wednesday. The senior and the sophomore chatted with their coach and decided the matter was simply preseason motivation.

"Angie and I saw that this morning together," said Alex Fuller, who wasn't inclined to let loose any remarks that could backfire, but she couldn't help but arch an eyebrow as she talked about it. "We just kind of looked at each other.

"We talked to Pat and she said we've lost so many points from the five seniors and we've got so few coming back. That shows that we still have something to prove to people."

Tennessee and LSU have had a stranglehold on the top of the SEC standings – six regular season titles for the Lady Vols and three for the Lady Tigers in the last nine years – but the media voted Vanderbilt No. 1 in the league followed by Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Florida, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, South Carolina and Alabama.

"From the outside looking in I can see from the numbers of seniors we've lost and no one has seen our freshman play – some might have in high school – but we're on the inside, and we know the talent we have and how hard we've been working," Angie Bjorklund said. "I think we'll be all right this year. I think this will be a little motivation for us."

The ranking surprised Pat Summitt. She expected to be placed fourth.

"That's because of who we lost," said Summitt, referring to the departure of four senior starters and consensus national player of the year Candace Parker, who took her 21.3 ppg average to the WNBA this summer where she was MVP and Rookie of the Year.

The Lady Vols return just four players – Angie Bjorklund at 8.4 ppg; Fuller, 6.1 ppg; Vicki Baugh, 5.3 ppg; and Sydney Smallbone, 2.9 ppg, for a total of 22.7 points per game.

"If you look statistically we return 22 points. I don't know how many games we can win if we average 22 points," Summitt said with a smile. :Our team last year put up a lot of numbers, and that's a whole lot to make up. I think that tells me where we are right now (predicted to finish second) may be a little higher than I anticipated, but certainly I think we can get back to where we want to be.

"It's just going to take a lot of work, and we've got to believe in each other, and we have to play well together."

Tennessee has been able to use slights, perceived and real, to its advantage in the past. They were underdogs at the Final Four last April as all but one national prognosticator picked Stanford to win the title.

"It's not like we haven't been there," Bjorklund said. "We're kind of getting used to it here. We'll just keep proving people wrong."

Bjorklund, who hit seven 3-pointers in a game on three occasions as a freshman, will have to increase her scoring if Tennessee is to challenge for the top spot in the SEC. She hit 68 three-pointers last season, second to the 78 stroked by now-graduated Shannon Bobbitt.

"Angie Bjorklund has got be more consistent," Summitt said. "I was looking at her numbers coming down on the plane (to Birmingham)thinking, ‘Wow.' She's got to elevate her offensive output."

Bjorklund crashed into a freshman wall last season and willed herself across the finish line. She attributed the drop-off to fatigue from going from high school to USA basketball to college. But Bjorklund is certain it won't happen again.

"No way," she said. "I've been there, done that. This is a new season, and I'm looking forward to it."

She also sought the counsel of a sports psychologist, Dr. Joe Whitney, director of mental training at Tennessee.

"It definitely helped," Bjorklund said. "I'll take advantage of that. I'm going to take advantage of all the resources I have here. A lot of it's mental, and I think people should look into going, whether you hit a wall or not. Everyone needs to get their mental side straight."

Fuller has taken the task of keeping 11 other people on the straight and narrow path. The lone senior on the team inherited the role as leader and has embraced it.

"Not really to keep up with them but just to look after," Fuller said with a smile. "It wasn't that I had to make an effort. I had to keep everybody in line. That's just the role of a senior in my eyes is to make sure that everybody is doing what they need to be doing."

The youngsters tease the 22-year-old redshirt senior by calling her grandma.

"I really look up to her, but every now and then we give her a hard time," Bjorklund said.

"They've called me that before," Fuller said. " I guess to them I really am because I'm four or five years older than most of them."

Even the second-year players are hearing it from the true freshmen.

"Sometimes the freshmen call Kelley (Cain) or one of us mom," said Bjorklund, dragging out the word mom. "They're our children. We'll just joke around, but that's kind of how it is. We are family at UT."

Fuller sends text reminders to players about meeting times and when to report to the training room. She also will note when a shirt needs to be ironed or tucked in.

"She has definitely stepped up and taken that leadership role, which is awesome," Bjorklund said. "We definitely needed that from her. That's her role, and she's taken it. Even last year with our seniors she'll take care of you. She'll be helping us get ready with makeup or hair or whatever it is. She has that motherly instinct."

The youth of this year's squad was apparent with Bjorklund making the trip to Birmingham as a sophomore. Seniors usually handle the task of SEC Media Days.

"Everyone knows how young we are with Alex being the only senior," Bjorklund said. "I think that just means everyone has got to step up and fulfill their roles early."

A go-to player, or players, could emerge during the season, but the plan is to let that develop.

"We have some players that can be go-to players," Summitt said. "We've got to get Vicki Baugh healthy. That could really make a difference for us. Alex Fuller has to knock down shots."

Freshman guard Shekinna Stricklen joined Bjorklund on the All-SEC Second Team – Tennessee did not have a player on the First Team – and could follow in Bjorklund's footsteps by starting her first game as a freshman.

"Shekinna Stricklen has got a chance to be a special guard for us," Summitt said. "I expect her to be in double figures. She's got to take some shots to get there, obviously take and make. Another player that has impressed me a lot is Glory Johnson, just her athleticism and then Kelley Cain inside.

"We're just going to have to do it collectively. We're not going to have that Candace Parker that we're going to go in and demand she get the ball. I think balance will be a key as well."

The current players are motivated to show they can succeed despite the personnel losses.

"In the back of our heads we know people have picked us second (in the SEC) and it's kind of a motivation factor for us as a team to show we can get to that next level even though we might not have the five seniors that we had last year," Fuller said. "We have six new freshmen that are coming in that are going to help us."

Cain is a redshirt freshman who didn't play last year to recover from knee surgery so technically Tennessee has seven freshmen, but the 6'6 center did have a front row seat from the sidelines to absorb as much information as possible. Fuller doesn't regard her as a freshman.

"I really haven't thought about it, but I guess I don't because I did say six," Fuller said.

Fuller also didn't ponder the fact Bjorklund was a sophomore at Media Days, nor does she fret that she's the sole senior with no junior class.

"Everybody makes their own decisions," Fuller said. "We haven't missed a step without a junior class."

Fuller laughed at the notion of Senior Night being renamed "Alex Fuller Night" on March 1, 2009, in the last home game of the 2008-09 season.

"It will be just me," she said.

But the beginning of the season, not the end, is on her mind right now.

"I'm looking forward to surprising people, because I know we're kind of underdogs," Fuller said. "I'm looking forward to showing people how talented we are."

PAIRED UP: Alex Fuller and Angie Bjorklund were Tennessee's two representatives in Birmingham four days after the two of them got tangled up under the basket at practice Saturday.

Fuller, a stoic person on the court, went down in pain and grabbed her knee. The team headed to the opposite basket while Fuller was being examined, but Bjorklund stole some glances back.

"I was kind of freaking out," Bjorklund said. "I said a little prayer."

Fuller's left knee was tweaked, but she escaped serious injury because it was bent and she completed the fall rather than having the knee get planted and jarred sideways. Fuller received treatment and was cleared to practice the next day.

"Anytime you see a teammate go down, especially if it's a knee, that's scary," Bjorklund said. "I've been there. Stuff like that happens in practice; you collapse into each other. I don't even know exactly what happened. We just kind of fell on each other."

Fuller finished the session in the training room and was approached by Bjorklund as they left the gym afterwards.

"I was like, ‘Is your knee OK?' She said, ‘Yeah, it's good.' Thank goodness," Bjorklund said.

Fuller missed her freshman year because of ACL surgery on the same knee.

"I've had other injuries so I know what things feel that," Fuller said. "That was my main concern. I honestly didn't know what it was."

Fuller has endured multiple knee surgeries. To not have her senior year snatched away before it even started was hard to even put into words.

"It was a huge relief," Fuller said.

Fuller's original class graduated last May, but she still exchanges occasional emails and text messages with Parker, Alexis Hornbuckle and Nicky Anosike.

Parker and Fuller spent their first year at Tennessee on the sideline together rehabbing from knee surgery. Parker headed to the WNBA; Fuller decided to return for a fifth year.

"I think it was good for me, first of all, to come back and get another year of experience for hopefully going professional," Fuller said. "And then also to come back for the other 11 girls that I am playing with now."

COUNTDOWN TO 1,000: Alex Fuller and the rest of the team have a chance to make history this season as Pat Summitt closes in on 1,000 career wins. She has 983, and SEC Commissioner Mike Slive noted Summitt's tally in his opening remarks Wednesday.

"I had no idea until someone mentioned it. I was like, ‘Wow.' Being a part of her 1,000 wins is really exciting, hopefully being a part," said Angie Bjorklund, who didn't want to count wins prematurely.

"It will be a special day when we get that for her," Fuller said. "It's special that we're going to be a part of it. That's going to be on us for her to get that milestone."

Tyler Smith, a forward for the Vols, already knew Summitt needs 17 wins to reach 1,000 without being told the number.

"If I could play for her I would play for her," Smith said. "Her record proves it. She's got eight national championships. That's an amazing accomplishment. That's just unbelievable. She's the winningest coach in history. For her to accomplish that is not only good for her but on the men's side we really appreciate how well she has done coaching on the women's side."

Bjorklund said Summitt commands that type of respect from athletes.

"Male, female, you have to have that respect," Bjorklund said. "I think that speaks to the respect our guy's program has for us and how much we have respect for our guy's program. Our relationship there is really strong."

Besides reciting Summitt's win total and number of titles, Smith also knew how many players the Lady Vols lost and how many All-Americans were signed. When asked why he would play for Summitt if he could, he cited the championships and her ability to recruit.

"Losing five players and a player like Candace and bringing in five All-Americans?" Smith said. "That's a great recruiting class."

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Auburn's DeWanna Bonner was selected as SEC Player of the Year. Bonner, a fixture on the SEC First Team since her sophomore season, is a 6'4 versatile forward who averaged 18.4 points and 10.0 rebounds per game last season.

She has toiled behind the now-departed Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles in the SEC but received 24 of 25 possible votes in the media poll. Vandy's Christina Wirth got one vote.

"It looks good on paper, but I have to prove myself," said Bonner, who thanked her coaches and her teammates for helping her get better.

Auburn Coach Nell Fortner lauded the selection of Bonner.

"I think DeWanna is very deserving of the preseason pick," Fortner said. "I think she is a tremendous player whose game has grown, and she's done a great job for our program, really elevated it. Now she has to get out there and make it all happen. We want that at the end of the year.

"I don't think there's any question in my mind that she's one of the top 10 players in the country when you start breaking it down. I know her so well, and I know what she's capable of doing on the basketball court. She's incredibly versatile, and she can play every position. She works her tail off. She is a very dangerous player because she's a threat every time she has the ball in her hands. She can pass, shoot, drive at 6'4, and that makes a big difference. And she's a tremendous rebounder."

Bonner prefers to play the small forward spot, but she expects to see significant court time at power forward. She would be paired in the paint at times with the 6'7 KeKe Carrier, who is back this season.

"I think you'll see a much more spirited player," Fortner said of Bonner. "When kids get to be seniors that sense of urgency kicks in. I think you'll she her do more. She is going to want to win every game that we play. She wants to lead this team to the NCAA Tournament. I think she kind of deferred a little bit at times. She's not a demonstrative-type of player. I think you'll see a little more of her really taking charge of games this year."

Bonner couldn't help but smile when asked if she wasn't too sad to see Parker and Fowles, two dominating post players, take their games to the WNBA. Every collegiate post player who faces Tennessee and LSU this season is likely glad the two have graduated.

"I give them all the credit, but that's two players not to have to worry about," Bonner said with a smile.

The Tigers were picked to finish third in the SEC and placed Whitney Boddie on the All-SEC Second Team.

"We're excited about it," Fortner said. "This is where you want your program to be. You want those high expectations, and our kids are really excited about it."

The SEC could undergo a sea change this season after years of dominance by LSU and Tennessee because both teams lost all five starters.

"That is kind of rare," Bonner said.

But Bonner and Fortner noted that traditional powers don't just cede the stage to up-and-coming teams.

"It's a matter of going out and proving yourself," Bonner said.

"Even though Tennessee lost a lot of players they've got some good ones coming back," Fortner said. "Don't forget about Angie Bjorklund and if Vicki Baugh is healthy. Alex Fuller was a great player off the bench for them last year. I thought she was really good for them.

"I don't feel sorry for anybody who is working with freshmen, because they're all good freshmen. And LSU has got a bevy of really good freshmen. Andy (Landers) always does a great job at Georgia with what he has and (Ashley) Houts is one of the best guards in the country, along with Angel Robinson (at forward). Porsha Phillips (a transfer from LSU) is eligible this year. She's a heck of a player."

Fortner recognizes that the preseason look of the SEC has been shaken up because of personnel losses among Tennessee, Georgia and LSU.

"Even though it looks like the league might be down what's different about the SEC to me is we always have great athletes," Fortner said. "We always have physical athletes that can get up and down the floor. Whether they're young or old they're always outstanding athletes so that puts them ahead of a lot of people in the country in my opinion. That's just how I see it."

Fortner is clearly not ready to surrender this season when it comes to the SEC's position in women's basketball. She has heard that the league is down this year, but she sees a deeper one.

"I think we'll have more teams in the NCAA tournament this year than we did last year," Fortner said.

The SEC had five teams make the field of 64 last March – Auburn, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and LSU.

She also thinks the league's streak of having at least one team in the Final Four should continue. The last time the league was shut out was in 2001.

"I do," Fortner said. "Because you don't ever count Pat out. And don't count us out. You just never know. Nobody says at the beginning, ‘This is what is going to happen.'

"You can try to pick it but you've got kids when they're focused and they're hungry and they've got that kind of experience behind them, you don't know what's going to happen. And never count Pat out. You can't ever count her out."

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