No. 13/15 Tennessee (16-4, 5-2) will take the best shot of No. 2 Oklahoma (18-2, 7-0) on Monday night at 7:30 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network; TV: ESPN2) at the Ford Center in downtown Oklahoma City. The venue is, once again, the site of an NCAA Regional and tonight's game – much like the Tennessee-Oklahoma game in Tampa in November 2007 – is a beta test for the host site before postseason.
Last year's Tennessee team won that regional final against Texas A&M – a game also memorable because Candace Parker twice dislocated her shoulder – and launched itself into the Final Four and the program's eighth national title. That group won back-to-back championships and lost just one SEC regular season game in two years. But all five starters were drafted by the WNBA and have moved on to pro contracts in either that league or overseas or both.
A crew of players in high school a year ago was left to face the wrath of teams ready for its pound of flesh from Tennessee after years of domination in the SEC and on the national scene.
At least one of those freshmen, Glory Johnson, wouldn't have it any other way.
"We're kind of glad that they did do this and that's one of the reasons that we decided to commit, just because of what they did before for the program," Johnson said.
If she ever tempted to feel a little frustration about the players who set the bar in the stratosphere, angered all their opponents and then left all at once?
"No, we're not mad at those guys," Johnson said with a laugh. "That's just something that we look up to and shoes that we have to fill no matter what it takes."
Parker had one year of eligibility remaining this season, but she left college after four years – three on the court – with her degree and then proceeded to become the top draft pick, get a pro contract, sign endorsement deals, win an Olympic gold medal, become pregnant and get married all before the current Lady Vols had officially opened the 2008-09 season. Johnson wishes her well, too.
"She made a good choice to leave and good for her," Johnson said. "Basically we have to fill their shoes and they're our role models, and that's what we have to do. We have no other choice. Teams may be mad now and they may be trying to attack us because we're young but that's nothing. We'll be back. We'll bounce back."
Johnson's attitude does not surprise Pat Summitt. The freshman forward, who was coached in high school by former Lady Vol Shelley Sexton Collier, has started every game this season and doesn't have to be reminded to play hard, an unusual mindset for a first-year player.
"Glory would say that because Glory is one of the most competitive players on the court for us," Summitt said. "She grew up around here. She was coached by Shelley. You know what amazes me is how many people on our team, if they get beat, they're not upset. If Nicky was here she'd grab a hold of their jersey and say, ‘Let's take care of business.' "
Nicky Anosike was the team leader – it was she who told Parker to take over in games – and she set the tone in the locker room and on the court. The current crop of freshmen should be relieved that Anosike has graduated as her courtside manner was not always gentle.
Anosike's reputation apparently still resonates.
"We talked about it in the locker room," freshman forward Alicia Manning said. "We were like, ‘If Nicky was here she would have never allowed this to happen.' "
"There is no telling what might have happened," Summitt said with a laugh. "She held everybody accountable. Alex is doing the best job she can do, but she needs more help."
Alex Fuller is the sole senior on the team – she arrived with Parker, Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle – and opted to use her fifth year after missing the 2004-05 season with Parker as they both rehabbed from knee surgery.
Fuller has had her share of frustrations with the youngsters but she always smiles when talking about them.
"There are times where, ‘Oh, they're really grown up.' But then there are also times that they're still freshmen," Fuller said. "It has been fun. I'm not old but they kind of bring the young, that young, out of me.
"Monday night will be a challenge, and it will be a test to see where everybody is."
That is the same approach Summitt is taking with the game as she has sought to find consistency in her young team and has noted one predictable factor is the unpredictability of how a game will unfold and how the players will react.
"To beat them Monday night we'll have to have our best effort of the year," Summitt said. "I really believe that. We've been a team that might not play well in the first half, come back out in the second half. We saw that at Rutgers. We've got it in us. Can we come back? Yes. It would be very difficult against a veteran team like this with a young team that we have but I am never going to say we can't do it. We've just got to fight for 40 or 40-plus.
"I think we're growing up. I think we learned a lot from the Ole Miss game. It's hard really to teach young players to learn from a win. They think, ‘Well, we won. What is Coach all fired up about?' Well, we could have lost that game. We've got to learn how to win and how to close out games."
"Don't have a choice," Summitt said. "If we're not in there battling, if we don't have a competitive commitment on every possession – and every possession matters as we know but it doesn't always matter to this team – we've got to have that. If we make a mistake we've got to put it behind us and we've got to move forward and stay focused."
This game also has a rather big built-in distraction in that Summitt is perched on 999 career wins. The next victory is a remarkable milestone that has generated a tremendous amount of press coverage.
"It's important, but I think Pat is ready for it to happen so we can go through it and start focusing on postseason and things like that and our games coming up in the regular season," Fuller said.
"Once the game starts, that's our time to get focused individually and as a team. We have to think about the task at hand and that's going to be Oklahoma and what we have to do. Of course we'll be thinking about it, but I don't think that will be our main focus."
Freshman forward Alyssia Brewer, who will be playing in her home state of Oklahoma, allowed that the team has discussed the milestone but is taking its cues from its coach.
"Everybody out there wants us to get this 1,000th win and we want to get this 1,000th win as well, but Pat's not going to go in there and say, ‘I want to get this win for me.' She's all about the team and that's not a priority for her," Brewer said. "She just wants to get the win. If it's her 1,000th win or it's her 1,200th win, a win is a win for her, as long as you please her with your game play.
"We might mention it, but I don't think we'll make that a main factor. I think it will also give us some inspiration of how we play that game. This is a huge milestone for anybody and to be a part of this program at this time, whenever it comes, that's a huge deal."
Summitt wryly noted that with players' attention spans she isn't always sure what is on their minds. The topic actually came up as coaches talked about their jobs – as any gathering of professionals is wont to do – after they paid their respects at the funeral of Kay Yow on Saturday.
During one of her myriad of media interviews Saturday, Summitt relayed the story while discussing her daily devotion to basketball.
"My favorite part is being on the court," Summitt said. "As crazy as I must sound I love practice. I love teaching. I love inspiring. I do not think, in general, kids are as motivated today. They're too concerned about texting and talking and being casual instead of being focused and driven and on a mission. We're dealing with some of that on this team, but I'm not the only one.
"When I was at Coach Yow's funeral a lot of us were talking about how much these kids have changed. What do you do? Just keep going at them every day to try to get them to give what they have from the inside out."
Perhaps it's more noticeable for Summitt because she has seven freshmen on this team, though, in a sign of what she is dealing with, only six are in Oklahoma City. Freshman forward Amber Gray didn't make the trip after failing to complete her conditioning workouts on Friday and Saturday.
After the Lady Vols lost to Auburn a week ago, Summitt injected her firebrand personality into practice and the team worked on defense and rebounding in the hardest and most intense session of the season. The Lady Vols shot poorly against Ole Miss – especially from the line – but Angie Bjorklund found a flurry of offense in the final three minutes and buried the three-pointer to win the game.
Tennessee's defense and board play kept the Lady Vols in the game when the shots would not fall. That level of play had been missing in previous games and was most glaringly absent against Auburn.
Johnson indicated talking on the court will immediately improve the defense.
"Basically with communication and whenever a guard drives, help-side has got to be there," Johnson said. "Basically we've got to talk and we've got to shift. When we shift defenses, one person has got to make sure they're guarding another person. There has to be someone next to another person and if not there is always going to be someone on offense open.
"We've just got to talk and communicate. Just something that communication will fix, and quick feet, good close-outs. We've just all got to be on the same page."
Of Tennessee's four losses, three have come to ranked teams on the road. Oklahoma will be the highest-ranked opponent that the Lady Vols have faced so far this season.
"With a loss you learn from it and whatever we did wrong in a (road) game we'll learn from it," Johnson said. "We played hard, just not hard enough. Our defense is good; it's just not good enough. When you lose you bounce back. You learn from your mistakes, and that's what we'll do.
"Everyone has got to play with one heartbeat."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 freshman forward, No. 40 (13.8 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game, 3.0 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 sophomore guard, No. 5 (11.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg); Alicia Manning, 6'1 freshman forward, No. 15 (3.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 freshman forward, No. 25 (11.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg); and Alex Fuller, 6'3 senior forward/center, No. 2 (7.1 ppg, 5.8rpg).
Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale is expected to start: Danielle Robinson, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 13 (12.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 6.1 apg), hails from San Jose, Calif., Big 12 Freshman of the Year last season, has 112 assists to 73 turnovers this season for a 1.7 assist/TO ratio, is 53-57 (93.0 percent) from the free throw line, a significant improvement over 68-99 (68.7 percent) last season, her mother and brother played basketball at Hampton (Va.) University; Whitney Hand, hails from Fort Worth, Texas, 6'1 freshman guard, No. 25 (9.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg), preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year, hitting 40 percent from behind the arc, played at Liberty Christian High School, second-leading scorer in Texas history with 3,649 points, father Rich Hand was an MLB pitcher; Amanda Thompson, 6'0 junior forward, No. 21 (7.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg), hails from Chicago, started 31 games last season, had a career high 23 points against Oklahoma State last season, was recruited by Georgia and LSU; Ashley Paris, 6'3 senior forward, No. 5 (14.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg), hails from Piedmont, Calif., made 31 starts last season, father was an All-Pro for the San Francisco 49ers, stepfather played football at Stanford, had 23 rebounds against Missouri in the postseason, twin sister is Courtney; and Courtney Paris, 6'4 senior center, No. 3 (15.7 ppg, 13.6 rpg), hails from Piedmont, Calif., Big 12 Player of the Year, three-time All-American, has streak of 112 consecutive double-doubles.
A key player off the bench for the Sooners is Nyeshia Stevenson, a 5'9 junior guard/forward whose 21 second-half points fueled the comeback against Cal. Stevenson was 4-4 from behind the arc in that game and then made five more in a row over the next two games. She is hitting 44.3 percent from long range this season.
Oklahoma has not beaten Tennessee in three tries. The last time the teams met it took 28 points from Candace Parker and 27 points from Shannon Bobbitt, who hit six three-pointers, for Tennessee to prevail, 70-67, on Nov. 15, 2007. That game was played on a neutral court in Tampa as part of the ESPNU Invitational. This game is a featured matchup on ESPN's "Big Monday," and the court is also considered neutral but it's in Oklahoma City, just 13 miles from the campus of Norman as the crow flies.
"No one thinks we're going to win," Summitt said. "No one thinks we are even going to come close. We don't need to put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We just need to go down there and try to become a better basketball team overall – a better defensive team, a better rebounding team, a team that takes care of the ball and executes their offense. That's all we can ask."
The Sooners would very much like to get that signature win, and Coale was asked this week about beating Tennessee or Connecticut – Oklahoma has done neither to date – and how that could validate the program.
"I think when you look at the national landscape of women's college basketball, you see Connecticut and Tennessee, depending on who you talk to," Coale said. "But those guys have won so many titles that when you are able to notch a win against them, I think it's something significant regardless of who your program is or what you've done. We've won five Big 12 regular season titles, and no one else in the league has come even close to that. That's something that we're very proud of, but we haven't beaten Tennessee and we haven't beaten Connecticut.
"We got really close to Tennessee last year. We were one possession away. We got really close to defeating Connecticut in the national championship in 2002, but nobody keeps track of the closes. That doesn't really matter; you have to beat them. So I think coupled with the fact that they are the defending national champions, it would be significant. Regardless of what happens, we're still going to compete to win a Big 12 Championship to play into a great seed in the NCAA tournament and go forward. We'll be better for this experience."
HOMECOMING GAME: Tennessee freshman forward Alyssia Brewer could have been wearing a Sooner jersey this evening, but she opted to leave her home state for Knoxville.
For Brewer there is a bit of a pride factor tied to this game.
"There is because OU was in my top three and so it was a big decision to either come home or stay here and obviously I came here," Brewer said. "I've got to let them know I made the right decision."
Brewer will have her own cheering section of family and friends. Her hometown of Sapulpa is 87 miles from Oklahoma City. Shekinna Stricklen brought her own crowd for the game at Arkansas. Now, it's Brewer's turn.
"I'll have a lot there," Brewer said. "Family-wise I'll have over 40 and then friends and my high school team. Aunts and uncles. My family is kind of like Strick's. It's pretty big. I love going home and my family being able to watch me play. In high school my mom watched me play but she didn't see me play outside (of high school), and I thought I played way better on my AAU teams. So I'm glad they're getting the opportunity to see me play outside."
Brewer went to Oklahoma home games when she was in high school so she has seen the Paris twins play from a seat in the stands.
"Ashley has definitely become a better player than when I last saw her playing in high school when I would go to their games," Brewer said. "Her game has elevated to a whole new level. She lost all that weight and she has the guard skills now. With Courtney you just have to box her out. You have to get tough with her. It's the little things that will be the key to this game. I went to a lot of home games (in Norman), probably at least four or five a year.
"There was a huge difference from my freshman to my senior year. OU was on the scene, but it was kind of like Courtney Paris goes to OU. Now you have Courtney and Ashley and all the other people. They got a lot of work done in the past four years."
Brewer is sporting a spiffy hairstyle, as is Stricklen. Glory Johnson also had her hair done, as did Kelley Cain. Alex Fuller laughed and said it was just a coincidence, despite national television on Monday.
"I just really needed to get my hair done so I got it done and you've got to look good when you go home," Brewer said with a smile. "You've got to look good on TV."
Brewer especially wants to look good in the box score after the game, and the rebound tally would be the first place to look. She has had some solid games but has been chastised by Pat Summitt for her inconsistency.
"I still have the mindset that I need to stay consistent and if I do that, it pleases Pat," Brewer said. "It not only pleases her; it makes me a better player. Whenever I do that it will be good."
Brewer also believes the game will be a measuring stick for a young team still trying to find its stride.
"I think it definitely will," Brewer said. "When you're playing against the best post players and especially the best post combination in the country it will show us where we're at in our defense. I know that we can handle them. I know that we can."
Post depth is an issue for Tennessee as Cain continues to come back from knee injury – though she had a solid practice session over the weekend – and Vicki Baugh remains day to day.
"There is a lot of pressure for the posts going in there and not having as many (available players) as the guards," Brewer said. "We've just got to shake it off and go play. Definitely. I definitely am (excited).
"We've just got to play our game. We all know we can win this game. It's just a matter of how hard we want to work on the court, all the little things that we want to do, getting loose balls, having all the hustle plays. We just have to do all the little things possession after possession. We can't go in there thinking we have to rush things, we have to get it done now, because that is what causes turnovers. It's a 40-minute game. That's a long time. We've got to take care of the ball and use the minutes to our advantage."
Brewer just smiled when she was reminded that Tennessee was not expected to win the game.
"It is what it is," Brewer said. "People have their own opinion, and they can stick with it, but I'm going into Monday knowing that we can prove them wrong."
She sighs when asked about the team's struggles with ranked teams. It's not at the question; it's because she knows the performances have been uneven, often within the same game.
"You can say everything in the whole entire world what you need to do but until you get it done it's not done," Brewer said. "We just need to quit saying stuff and go out on the court and show it."
Brewer shouldn't fret about playing in a big game. She has been the recipient of some heated instruction from Pat Summitt and hasn't flinched. She could have played for her home state school tonight. Instead she will play in her home state and then return to Tennessee. Does she think she made the right decision?
"Definitely, definitely," Brewer said. "It's had its rough times but you had to expect that coming here to this program. Pat is going to be on your butt the entire time no matter if you think you're doing good or you're doing horribly, she's only trying to make you a better player. I definitely think that I have turned it up a notch since I've been here and became a better player."
FILM SESSIONS: The Lady Vols did some shooting and scouting in Knoxville on Sunday and then took a charter flight to Oklahoma City. Pat Summitt said a primary emphasis before this game was film study, and she set up some one-on-one time with players, too.
At practice Saturday one of the male practice players donned crimson T-shirt and shorts and used athletic tape to make a No. 3 on the front and "Paris" on the back. By the end of a physical session in the paint, the tape was in shreds.
"It's not like we're the favorite by any means, but I don't mind being in an underdog role as long as we will go and compete and control what we can control," Pat Summitt said. "We can control how hard we work, we can control how we defend and how we rebound, and we can control how we take care of the ball. Our turnovers and our lack of rebounding have costs us in games. Not defending in transition we've given up a lot of points. We've just got to get better."
Summitt will keep a close eye on the board numbers because boxing out has been a major emphasis of late.
"I think we need to win that," Summitt said. "They get a lot of second-chance opportunities. So if we can hold them to one shot and box out then we've got a good chance, but if don't do that it's going to be a long, long (evening) for us."
Senior Alex Fuller underscored the same points as her coach in a separate interview.
"I think the key is our rebounding and our boxing out and our turnovers from the guard position," Fuller said. "They're big girls obviously. We just have to have at least two people boxing them out.
"I think it will show where we are as a team. It's a big challenge for us and for the program. They're the number two team in the country right now. For us as a ‘young team,' it will be a big challenge."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Oklahoma, 3-0. The series began in 2002 with a home-and-home game for each school and the third matchup was last season in the ESPNU Invitational. … Tennessee is 13-2-1 in games played on February 2. The last win on this date was against Ole Miss, 78-63, in 2006. The two losses were to Georgia, 72-56, in 1985; and Vanderbilt, 76-59, in 2002. The one tie was to East Tennessee, 25-25, in 1925. … The March to 1,000, a nugget from the Lady Vols game notes by Debby Jennings: Pat Summitt's first shot at the milestone is against a team whose program was imperiled.Oklahoma announced it had decided to drop women's hoops while the Final Four was being held in Knoxville in 1990. The WBCA board of directors, led by President Rene Portland and the late Pres.-Elect Kay Yow, came up with the idea to pass out red ribbons to the fans at Thompson-Boling Arena in support of the Sooner basketball program. Since Summitt wasn't coaching – Tennessee had been eliminated in the regional final – she was a sought-after interview. Longtime Sooner media relations staffer Debbie Copp sent Summitt a note when she became the all-time winningest coach in 2005 that said "with all her victories at Tennessee, the most important one may have been for a school she never coached – the University of Oklahoma." A full house, or close to it, is expected at the Ford Center tonight. Capacity is 19,136. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee averages 72.3 points per game and allows 63.2. Oklahoma averages 80.3 points and allows 60.6. The Lady Vols are shooting 40.8 percent overall, 33.4 percent from behind the arc and 67.5 percent from the free throw line. The Sooners are shooting 49.1 percent overall, 34.6 percent from the arc and 66.9 percent from the line. Tennessee averages 44.2 rebounds with a +7.4 margin. Oklahoma averages 43.5 boards with a +11.7 margin. The Lady Vols average 12.9 assists and 17.1 turnovers a game. The Sooners average 17.0 assists and 16.0 turnovers. Tennessee averages 8.8 steals and 4.8 blocks. Oklahoma averages 9.1 steals and 5.5 blocks.