Tennessee takes on Rutgers today

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – The schedule this week for the Lady Vols is a study in contrast. West Coast to East Coast. Homecoming game to hostile crowd. New opponent to entrenched rival. A true freshman will be at point guard. A fifth-year senior will be at center. Pat Summitt is looking forward to what she calls a "great test" for her team when Tennessee and Rutgers square off Saturday.

The Lady Vols have been on the road for a week and have traveled 4,046 miles, as the crow files, from Knoxville to Spokane to New Jersey. The first game on the trip was a homecoming one for Angie Bjorklund, and the Lady Vols were greeted with cheers and a gentle crowd at Gonzaga. The second game is a rematch of a bitterly contested one last year, and Pat Summitt has already advised her players that the boos and catcalls will be meant for her.

"I don't think they'll be calling their names. I think they'll be calling my name," Summitt said. "For them I think it's going to be a great environment to put a young team in and see how mentally disciplined and tough they can be. Because it doesn't get any better than this."

No. 8/12 Tennessee, 10-2, takes on No. 15/14 Rutgers, 8-2, at 2 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network; TV: CBS) at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, still locally called "The RAC," because it was known as the Rutgers Athletic Center.

Tennessee's record at the 8,000-seat venue – which is sold out for Saturday's game – is 1-3 and the last win came in 1988.

"Dean just told us this morning so we've got a big challenge for us," Briana Bass said Friday after the Lady Vols practiced on Rutgers' home floor.

The last loss was in 2004, when Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle were freshmen, in a game so ugly that Summitt was utterly livid afterwards. A "debacle," is how Dean Lockwood termed it – he was in his first season at Tennessee – and added "I don't know (what makes the venue so difficult for the Lady Vols). I do know the rivalry is big and they get up for games like this. With their history and our history that's just one of those things."

But what makes the Scarlet Knights' home site so difficult for the Lady Vols?

"I really don't know about 1988 because I was only two," redshirt senior Alex Fuller said. "I guess it's because it looks like in this gym the crowd is kind of on top of you looking right over you. It's so compacted. They have just as many loyal fans as we do that come to their home games, so that's another thing and of course the competition that they give us."

The teams have met four times since 2004 – at three neutral sites and in Knoxville – and Tennessee is 4-0 in those games so Anosike and Hornbuckle never again lost to Rutgers. The Lady Vols knocked the Scarlet Knights out of the postseason in a regional final in 2005, regional semifinal in 2006 and the Final Four in 2007 in the national championship game.

Last year the Lady Vols won 59-58 after Anosike hit two free throws with .2 seconds left in the game. There was no question she was fouled – Rutgers pulled her down from behind – but the clock stopped and restarted for reasons that were never stated or clearly known, though speculation centered on the trail official blowing her whistle, and the debate raged after the game about whether or not Anosike was fouled with any time left. The Big East, then-Rutgers athletic director (Robert E. Mulcahy was forced to resign last month over stewardship of the department and its finances in a controversial decision) and even a New Jersey legislator weighed in later.

Half of Tennessee's team was in high school when that game was played, but they will be the ones to take Rutgers' home court this season and hear from fans still irate over the incident.

"We've been labeled as cheaters along with the team from last year," Bass said. "All we can do is block them out."

That is precisely the advice that Fuller offered to her young teammates.

"Last year's game is last year," Fuller said. "It's in the past. We can't change it now. We can't go back and change the past. I just kind of told them they weren't a part of last year's team, they knew they were coming in but as far as playing they weren't on it so not even to worry about it, don't even think about it.

"It's kind of fun to see how other teams are going to react to you, how your adversaries are going to react to you, but you've just got to stay calm and just forget about it."

Has Bass ever played in an environment in which the wrath of the fans was expected to be so severe?

"No, not really, so it's going to be a new experience," Bass said. "I'm ready. I live for this so I'm ready to go out there and play."

Summitt will start Bass at point, a tall order for the 5'2 guard on the road. The backup point guard is the 6'2 Shekinna Stricklen, who starts at small forward. Redshirt sophomore point guard Cait McMahan is available for this game, but she is being brought back slowly after sitting for two weeks with knee soreness.

"I think the big thing right now with Bree is handling the pressure," Summitt said. "She's quick enough to do it. She can get by people, which is good. With the exception of the second half of the Gonzaga game Bree has been pretty solid all around. She struggled a little bit in that second half for whatever reason but I thought Stricklen did her best job at the point."

Lockwood said Bass' primary focus must be to take care of the ball.

"She's important – their pressure, and stability," Lockwood said. "She's given us so much stability and she's playing against upperclassmen. Her ability to defend is critical but plus her ability to provide us with a sense of calm and stability and poise is also very, very big. She can score two points and have a huge game for us if she does what she's supposed to do at both ends of the floor."

Bass and the rest of the team fine-tuned the scouting report Friday in a two-hour session at Rutgers and also conducted shooting drills on the perimeter and in the post. Bass said afterwards that the coaches' messages have connected.

"Take care of the ball, no turnovers, run the team, get everyone involved and do what I am supposed to do," Bass said. "We need to limit turnovers and make sure that we keep our composure. That's one of the biggest things that we talked about this year is keeping our composure."

Bass got a boost Thursday with a visit from Shannon Bobbitt, last year's pint-sized point guard. Bobbitt, a native of New York, was home for the holidays.

"It was good," Bass said. "She came and talked to me and gave me some encouraging words, told me to keep focused, keep working hard, different stuff like that, so it was good to see her. She just told me to run the team, stay focused and play hard."

Bobbitt was a boost to the players, too, after they had dropped off Vicki Baugh with Jenny Moshak at a local hospital for X-rays on her injured left knee after Thursday's practice. Bobbitt met the team bus at the hotel and lifted the mood.

"It was good; it was really good to talk to her and catch up on things," Fuller said. "It was really fun."

Baugh, who was on crutches Friday, is definitely out for Saturday's game. Summitt will insert the dependable Fuller, whose nickname on the team is "Sunshine," because of her pleasant demeanor, into the starting lineup.

"I think with Vicki out Alex will settle our team down," Summitt said. "I think as a fifth-year senior she's got a lot of composure. She's been terrific at taking on a leadership role and helping them and handle coming off the bench (or starting) without any problems. Again, they're all about wanting to get better, and they want to win."

"Go wherever I'm told to go," Fuller said with her trademark smile. "I think kind of getting everybody with a level head and keeping everybody comfortable and calm. Those are the main three things I think I need to do."

Fuller has overseen a team this season that is unusually close, so much so that Summitt asked them why.

"They get along," Summitt said. "They get along probably better than any team I've coached in a long time. They all like each other. That doesn't always happen. When you give them time off they all want to go be together, go to a movie together or hang out together.

"I asked them about it because I was curious as to why they are always together. They said, ‘We just love being around each other.' And they're that way in a game. Some of them play more than others, and we haven't had an issue there."

That is unusual – and it's in stark contrast to the last "Six Pack" of recruits that came to Knoxville in 2004 and was down two members two years later – because of the number of high school All-Americans on the 2008-09 roster.

"I think the fact that most of the people on the team are young that's one of the reasons why we're so close," said Fuller, the last remaining member of the original "Six Pack." "And that was one of the important factors coming into the year was for us to be close as a team."

"We stick together," said sophomore Angie Bjorklund. "We have fun. (The long trip) will be a good test for us, especially since postseason we're gone weeks at a time. Coach is always scheduling to prepare us for the end of the season, especially with the competition. Gonzaga in that environment was good and then Rutgers. That's two great environments."

Tennessee's roster turned over this season with the loss of five senior starters, all of whom were drafted by the WNBA last April. Half of the team is true freshmen with Kelley Cain being a redshirt freshman. Four sophomores and Fuller, the only upperclassman, fill out the roster.

For that reason Summitt said this year's game feels much different than the past two when Rutgers and Tennessee played for a national title and then in the infamous clock game.

"It is different in that we had such a veteran team in the last two years with back-to-back championships," Summitt said. "We lost all five starters so it is different. We're teaching every day and they're learning and growing each time they compete in a game situation. We learn a lot more about them and they learn more about themselves.

"I've been overall pleased. That Virginia loss was a tough one because we were at home, but we weren't ready to defend them in late game situations. I think we're getting a lot better and that's why you play a team like Rutgers because they will expose your weaknesses. We've got to be ready to take care of the basketball and we've got to play great defense and rebound the ball. That's always a must on the road."

Both Tennessee and Rutgers are incorporating young players, the Lady Vols even more so with three freshmen in the starting lineup. The Scarlet Knights aren't starting their freshmen, though first-year guard/forward April Sykes is averaging 12.4 minutes and has played in nine of Rutgers' 10 games. Freshmen Brooklyn Pope, Nikki Speed and Chelsey Lee have played in eight games. Redshirt freshman Khadijah Rushdan has played in all 10 games and started one.

New Jersey media reports noted Coach C. Vivian Stringer has held seven to eight-hour practices during the holiday break in two sessions daily. She also has taken away the team's practice gear and ordered players to do their own laundry. A practice observer noted they looked like a recreation-league team in mismatched attire.

But the defense that Rutgers will deploy Saturday won't even remotely resemble a ragtag bunch. The Scarlet Knights deploy suffocating pressure in various looks.

"Vivian's teams, they're always ready and prepared and obviously play well against us," Summitt said.

The two coaches remain very close friends, but had not had time to talk much before this game.

"I think we probably both have been trying to figure out how to get these players to play. She's done a little bit more than I have," Summitt said, referring to the loss of practice clothes. "I've just worked them pretty hard."

"I know she's been busy," Summitt added to laughter from the New Jersey media. "I know they've been in the gym quite a bit lately, and we have, too. And we've been traveling. She's without question one of my best friends in this profession, has been and hopefully always will be.

"I think both programs have enjoyed a lot of success and I think it has been good for the game. It's on CBS, so it's big time and a great opportunity to showcase two of the best programs in the country, and it's been that way for a long time. And Vivian has been one of my dearest friends and I know come game time we won't be chatting up anything but before and after, absolutely. She's a great lady."

Summitt knows Rutgers' pressure can be daunting, but she won't overemphasize it, which could be to the psychological detriment of a young team.

"I think that's something that we have to address but I'm not going to elaborate," Summitt said. "They'll see tape and they'll see who they are and how mentally focused they are on the defensive end and how athletic they are. Their defense is so solid and they're so committed to it."

Summitt and the coaches have been pleased with the players' response in practice on the road, especially since they were returning from a holiday break at home.

"Coach does a good job of keeping us focused and she talked to us about that (coming back from holiday)," Bjorklund said. "You've got to make sure coming off this break that you stay focused. I think we're doing a good job of that."

Assistant Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow said there's a lesson to be learned from last year's clock game. Charles-Furlow, who was an assistant at Auburn last season, got razzed about it just for being a former Lady Vol.

"Even though I wasn't here for it I still got flak for it," Charles-Furlow said. "Neither of the coaches was controlling the clock. It is what it is. Unfortunate, but that's the way the cookie crumbles. I think the lesson is you don't want to get yourself in a position where that is the deciding factor."

The coaching staff is enjoying the young team, primarily because they spend the bulk of their practice time perfecting the craft of teaching basketball.

"It's been really good overall," Summitt said. "I think it's been good for me because as I say all the time, ‘Every moment is a teaching moment.' I love teaching. Every one of these players is very eager to learn. It's not that they think they know it all. I don't think that they've backed down from any challenge that we've presented to them. They want to win."

And despite that youth Summitt hasn't revised how she wants the season to end.

"My expectations never change," Summitt said. "It's always to win a national championship. I think we brought in players that have a chance to cut down nets and it's just a matter of will we be in St. Louis. That's a goal. That's the Final Four site and that's a goal of ours. Are we there yet? No. We're a long ways away from being at that level, but I have seen so much progress from one game to the next. I thought winning our game at Old Dominion after a loss to Texas, we went to the wire with them, but we found a way to win and playing Stanford on our home floor and we go into overtime and play the best ball of the night.

"I've been encouraged by a lot of that and I do think this team has a chance to really, really be good."

The next test comes Saturday against a rugged Rutgers team that will be seeking both revenge and trying to please its own uber-demanding coach.

What kind of environment is this going to be and what kind of test will it be for a young team?

"Two words to answer your question," Lockwood said. "Question one, hostile. And number two, big. Big test. Very big test. Obviously with the circumstances being what they are and the rivalry being what it is, that's (heckles) going to happen. We just have to be prepared for that. We told our kids before we came over here we're very thrilled to have this opportunity, because it is going to tell us a lot, and it's going to mature us."

PROBABLE STARTERS: Pat Summitt is expected to start: Briana Bass, 5'2 point guard, No. 1 (5.4 points per game, 2.2 rebounds per game, 2.7 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 sophomore guard, No. 5 (14.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 freshman guard/forward, No. 40 (13.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 freshman forward, No. 25 (13.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg); and Alex Fuller 6'3 senior center/forward, No. 44 (5.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg).

Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer is expected to start: Epiphanny Prince, 5'9 junior guard, No. 10 (17.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg), shooting nearly 60 percent from the field in the past three games, preseason Naismith Trophy watch list, had a career-high 33 points against UConn last season, lists Diana Taurasi as one of her favorite pro athletes; Brittany Ray, 5'9 junior guard, No. 35 (10.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg), has 101 points already this season after scoring 129 points last season in 26 games, has played in 72 career games with 22 career starts, brother is former Villanova basketball star Allan Ray; Heather Zurich, 6'1 senior forward, No. 21 (5.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg), Saturday will be her 100th career game, logged 37 minutes in the win over George Washington on Dec. 29, shooting 53.8 percent from the field in last three games, her uncle, Jim, played football for Rutgers; Myia McCurdy, 6'1 junior guard, No. 24 (2.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg), has started all 10 games this season, the Cincinnati native lists Tamika Catchings as her favorite pro player and the Indiana Fever as her favorite team; and Kia Vaughn, 6'4 senior center, No. 15 (9.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg), averaged 11.3 points and 9.7 rebounds in previous games against Tennessee, has 909 career rebounds, preseason Naismith Trophy watch list, has seven younger brothers.

VICKI BAUGH UPDATE: Sophomore forward Vicki Baugh entered the Rutgers athletic center on crutches Friday and will not play today in what is a major blow to Tennessee's post game.

Baugh and Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, spent the practice time in a rehab session.

"She's got some swelling and we're working on range of motion, we're working on strengthening, typical rehab stuff to try to get her back," Moshak said.

Baugh landed hard on her left leg at Thursday's practice session and crumpled to the floor in pain.

"When it first happened that's our teammate and that's our friend so of course it kind of shook us all up, but we had to keep practicing and keep our mind where it needed to be," Alex Fuller said.

X-rays taken at a local hospital were negative.

"Obviously not having a broken bone in there when she was tender on her bone is always good," Moshak said. "You start ruling things out. That's a plus."

The biggest question with Baugh is the status of the ACL in her left knee, which was surgically repaired last May. Initial tests indicate the ACL is OK.

"That's what it's showing us at this point," Moshak said.

But a more detailed exam will be needed for a definitive answer, and Baugh will see Tennessee's orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Greg Mathien, when the Lady Vols return home.

"Dr. Mathien is going to meet us on Sunday and then we'll know more then," Moshak said.

How long Baugh will remain sidelined is not yet known.

"It depends on how she responds, but she did very well in the rehab today," Moshak said.

Baugh had just turned a corner on the court in terms of getting comfortable from her ACL surgery and this latest setback is frustrating for her.

"I'm sure there's a level of frustration," Moshak said. "She was really starting to pick it up in her play and play well and this is a big game on our schedule so I know she wants to contribute to her team."

PAGING KELLEY CAIN: Pat Summitt sent out an adamant reminder to Kelley Cain to be ready for Saturday's game. With the loss of Vicki Baugh, the 6'6 rebounding center becomes vital in the paint.

Cain struggled against Gonzaga – Summitt later characterized her brief minutes as taking off too many possessions – and didn't play in the second half. Cain had been a force in preseason, but two practice collisions – one gave her a serious concussion, the other tweaked her surgically repaired right knee – set her back and she is trying to relocate her stride.

"Kelley Cain had better come to play or it could be a long afternoon, a real long one," Summitt said. "If she comes to play we're a different team. She's got to learn from the last game and be ready to play."

"6'6 who can play," Dean Lockwood added. "She's not a 6'6 stiff. She's a 6'6 kid who definitely has a skill set and can definitely do some things. Just what we talked about with Alex Fuller is what Kelley continues to aspire to and we want her to attain a level of consistency in terms of her effort, a level of consistency in terms of her approach, a level of consistency in terms of her competitive drive day in, day out. Those are the things that we are looking from more from Kelley and I think that Kelley is looking to build up in her game because when she can get on that path – she's not going to get where Alex is as a fifth-year senior instantly – but if she can get on that path, oh my goodness we're going to be very pleased with what she brings us.

"A lot of times when things aren't going right or you're having up and down performances as she has had, you sometimes look at the external stuff but I think you have to mix external and internal in that she's got to get to that consistency level where that effort output and that approach is exactly where Alex is. Day in and day out whether it's five minutes or 35 minutes you know what Alex is going to give you and that's what we've got to get from (Number) 52."

THE BJORKLUND FACTOR: Gonzaga Coach Kelly Graves said after Tuesday's game that Angie Bjorklund was the difference-maker for Tennessee because of her basketball savvy and calming influence on the team.

Dean Lockwood said such remarks are always welcome by the Tennessee staff because it provides some insight from an outsider.

"Somebody's outside opinion who plays against you it's always interesting to us to get that input and that feedback because they see us in a different light," Lockwood said. "We look at that and sometimes that gives us feedback because we're so tunnel-visioned with our team."

Tennessee is still sorting out its go-to players with different ones having stepped up this season. But Bjorklund, with her year of experience and knowledge of the system, has emerged as a vital player both because of her shooting and her effect on Shekinna Stricklen, who is noticeably more relaxed with Bjorklund on the perimeter with her.

In the past three games Bjorklund is averaging a team-leading 19.7 points per game. Over the same span Stricklen is averaging 18.5 ppg.

"To a degree I would not disagree with what he said," Lockwood said. "With this team she's almost as experienced as anybody we've got. She brings a real skill package. Her pure shooting ability is something our team does put a certain amount of trust, confidence, faith, belief in.

"Her being on the court when she's in that mode I think it is very, very stabilizing for us and also it's kind of empowering. When you have a better player next to you, you feel a little bit empowered yourself. I think that's what that gives some of our young players."

SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Rutgers game. Here is his assessment.

When Rutgers has the ball: "Very good one-on-one team. They have two players that are All-American type candidates in Epiphanny Prince and Kia Vaughn so they've got a good inside-outside attack. They're very effective off the dribble. I would call them a team that's kind of streaky. Brittany Ray, pure shooter. Heather Zurich, pure shooter. Prince, very good shooter. They've had games where they've shot it well; they've had games where they've not.

"You treat them like a bomb. Very carefully. One wrong cut, one wrong move and you have a lot of people in pain. That's right now how they are. They're very potent offensively even though you look at their numbers – they're scoring 61 points a game – but they're still very capable of having runs at any given point in time, particularly those two players. We're going to have to guard the perimeter and guard the arc very well, stay in front on dribble drives and at the same time not allow Vaughn to have a field day. Tough order."

The Scarlet Knights are known for their suffocating defense, and Lockwood expects an assortment of looks.

"I think they're going to mix it," Lockwood said. "I think we'll see some full court pressure. I think we'll see some three-quarter court pressure. I think there will be times when they maybe just go in their half-court defense and really try to defend us that way. They're very active on the ball, quick hands, an aggressive on-ball defense and physical. By nature Rutgers' teams are very physical and this one is no different."

When Tennessee has the ball: "We want to establish some paint touches and be able to get the ball inside. This is a team we're going to have to loosen up. Ball movement and spacing are going to be very, very important because one or two dribbles is not going to get it done with this team. We have to be offensively very smart, and we have to take care of the ball. It's so important for us to take care of the ball in this game."

The Lady Vols also could switch up their defensive looks and the strategy was an ongoing one.

"I think we're going to vary it a little bit," Lockwood said. "One of the things for us is we're going to see what's effective and see what's working, but we're going to vary it. We're not locked in. We're still talking about the different ways we might play them. We don't want them to get locked on any one thing for too long. That's the main thing."

ROLLING ALONG: When Pat Summitt was asked if she was ready to see the state of Tennessee again she had to first ask how long it had been.

"How long have we been gone?" Summitt asked. "My problem is I bought too many clothes yesterday so I don't know how I'm going to get them home. I'll have to ship my new wardrobe home. Great shopping."

The Lady Vols will catch a late evening flight out of New York on Saturday after the game – adding the final 605 miles of the 4,651-mile journey – so the trip will end up at nearly eight days.

"We've been gone for a long time so it will be good to get back home," Alex Fuller said.

The Lady Vols have seen a few of their freshman foes at the team hotel in New Brunswick.

"I know they're staying at the same hotel as us because the dorms are closed," Briana Bass said. "We saw them the first day we got there."

The Lady Vol freshmen also must stay at a hotel in Knoxville during the break so the return home just means checking in again for the first-year players.

Bass likes the way the young team has performed on the road of late.

"I think the last road games we really played as a team and kept our composure," Bass said. "I think that we're growing, we're really growing over these past few road games."

To continue that trend Fuller has some advice for the team for Saturday's game.

"Just not to let the crowd get in our heads, not to let hard things that might come in front of us, not to let that hurt us, think positively and just think the next play every play," Fuller said.

ON TAP: Seven other SEC teams are in action Saturday in the following matchups: Alabama at Southeast Louisiana; Arkansas at Texas Tech; Stephen F. Austin at Auburn; Florida at Ohio; Kentucky at Miami (Ohio); LSU at Connecticut; and Vanderbilt at Iowa State.

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Rutgers, 14-3. The Lady Vols are unblemished in Knoxville at 5-0, perfect in postseason at 6-0, and unbeaten at neutral sites at 2-0, but 1-3 at Rutgers. The only win in Piscataway came Dec. 30, 1988, in a blowout at 93-53. When Tennessee returned to the site on Jan. 17, 1994, as the No. 1 team in the country the unranked Scarlet Knights won, 87-77. Only two of Tennessee's players, Alex Fuller and Cait McMahan, were even born the last time the Lady Vols won at Rutgers. … Tennessee is 7-1 in games played on January 3. The last time the Lady Vols played on this date was in 2007 in a 72-36 win over Alabama. The lone loss on this date was to UCLA, 65-62, in 1981. … Tennessee has a 399-154 (72.4 percent) record against ranked teams. The next win over a ranked foe will be No. 400. … Five coaches on the sideline Saturday are in the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame – both head coaches in Pat Summitt and C. Vivian Stringer, who combined have 1,805 wins, and Tennessee Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick, Tennessee Assistant Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow and Rutgers Assistant Coach Clarissa Davis-Wrightsil. Davis-Wrightsil, a legend at Texas, still holds the record for most points ever scored in Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville when she tallied 42 points on Dec. 9, 1987. … The Scarlet Knights have a 6-0 record in the month of December after a rugged start with road losses at Cal and at Stanford in November. Rutgers, which played four games at home last month and one in New York, defeated George Washington on Dec. 29 to cap the perfect month. Saturday's game is the first in 2009 for both Rutgers and Tennessee. The Lady Vols stayed home for most of November – five games vs. one on the road – but have spent the bulk of December on the road. – four games away vs. two at home. Tennessee was 5-1 in December with the loss coming at Texas and road wins over George Washington, Old Dominion and Gonzaga. … Rutgers is protecting a 20-game home winning streak. Tennessee has broken two streaks this season – Old Dominion's 29 games and George Washington's 17 games.


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