No. 18/23 Tennessee (19-8, 8-4) takes on LSU (15-9, 8-4) on Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern (TV-FSN-South; Lady Vol Radio Network) at Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The game will determine who secures that valuable last first-round bye for the SEC Tournament next week in Little Rock, Ark., since the top four seeds don't play until the second day.
"We just lay it on the line," Coach Pat Summitt said. "We need to win this game at LSU. We have talked all along about not wanting to play on the first day of the tournament for a number of reasons. Obviously you miss more school, and we've missed enough classes.
"We know that we've got to go in and play well to beat this team, but that would be big for us to avoid having to play on the first day of the tournament. That makes for a long challenging road to win it."
The last three times LSU and Tennessee have played each other there has been a lot on the line – an undefeated record in regular season conference play last February, the SEC tourney title last March and the semifinal game of the Final Four in Tampa last April. Tennessee lost the regular season matchup but won the last two postseason games.
"Those were just two incredible games, and both teams played their hearts out," Summitt said. "They made a lot of great plays, and we had our backs against the wall in Tampa and didn't know if we were going to be able to make a play in seven seconds, but we made a great play thanks to Candace Parker and then with (Nicky) Anosike missing and (Alexis) Hornbuckle tipping the ball in. Just like in Nashville (in the SEC tourney) it could have gone either way.
"And right now it could go either way. It's not about two veteran teams playing; it's about two young basketball teams playing. It's going to be interesting to see how far have we grown versus how far they've grown in this game."
Both the Lady Vols and Lady Tigers lost all five postseason starters, the majority of whom took their games to the WNBA. The result this season has been multiple starting lineups – Summitt has used 11 and LSU Coach Van Chancellor has used 10.
"If he finds out he'll try to tie me tomorrow," Summitt said Wednesday.
They enjoy a great relationship off the court, and Summitt expects the two coaches to chat Thursday about dealing with such young teams.
"We have seven freshmen, and they have (seven) freshmen," Summitt said. "Watching tape on them you're thinking that they're relying, as we are, predominantly on freshmen to make plays. It will be interesting because it will be on the road. We haven't always played our best games, particularly in hostile environments. We're going to have to have great, great focus."
In a positive sign for the staff the players seemed to find some early focus in their own film session.
"They watched as a team before we watched as a team and staff so they've done some work in advance to try and help out themselves as far as what they want to do and getting a feel for a team like LSU," Summitt said.
The players went over the scouting report in a short practice session and then left late Wednesday afternoon for Louisiana.
Before practice began they met with Melissa McCray Dukes, who played at Tennessee from 1985 to 1989. Dukes arrived on campus with Shelley Sexton Collier, who had already talked to the team. Collier, who played from 1983 to 1987, brought her former teammate to the arena and stayed in the room while Dukes addressed the team without the coaches present.
"Melissa and Shelley wanted to come over and visit with the team," Summitt said. "Melissa is in a tough battle with cancer right now and she's been wanting to come over. She wanted to come talk to the team. Shelley had already talked to them. I think it's great when you have players that live in this area that are so invested in our program still.
"I told our team I love those two. They're like daughters to me. When they were playing here I'm sure they weren't that fond of me at times, but that's all part of it. But once you're a Lady Vol you're always a Lady Vol, and I think all the players that wore the orange they come back and they want to see us continue to be successful. Hearing it from former players sometimes is far more powerful than hearing it from your coach that you're around every day or your coaching staff."
Dukes sat courtside at practice wearing a pink bandana to cover her head.
"I explained to them that three years ago I began my battle with breast cancer, and I thought it was over," Dukes said. "Three years to the day here we go again, but it's something I know that I can do, not only I can do, I believe that I will live. That comes from my faith in God, but it also comes from when you've done all that you can do.
"I told them, ‘I've lost my hair.' The reality is I have no hair, but I am not my hair. That's not who I am. It's the person that I am on the inside and that person believes. I believe in success, I believe if you work hard good things happen, but I also believe you have to have some good people around you and I think they have that. I want them to appreciate the talent in their teammates. Be glad they're on their team and realize it's not about you as an individual, it's really about the team."
Dukes believes her story resonated with the players – it would have been impossible to miss the notion of always fighting – because she once was in their shoes: young and playing for Summitt.
"I think people have to have somebody to identify with and maybe if I had not been a Lady Vol before and I didn't have the real stories to tell they could look at me and say, ‘How would she know?' But they know because I've experienced it," Duke said. "They know I have two national championships. They know that I went to four Final Fours. I think that can get their attention than just talking about what you've heard. I've actually experienced it. And fighting breast cancer again in this way, it's my reality to fight, and I know it has to be theirs.
"The message comes from the heart because you care about them beyond this. That's why I think it's so important to recognize it's not just a game, it's life, because I want them to succeed after they leave and if you don't get the necessary tools and get those skills today you won't succeed later."
It was a powerful speech – Summitt realized it from some early feedback even though she wasn't in the room – in which Dukes reminded them of what it meant to wear orange and how many people they represent every time they take the court.
"I really just wanted to remind them of who we are, what the program means," Dukes said. "It has a history. It didn't start two months ago. And to remind them to fight because it's who we are and it's what we do. This is not a game. We say all the time, ‘It's just a game.' It's not. It is really life. If you quit here, you will quit later.
"I think people don't always identify with that but if they look at their own lives and be really honest at some point in their life they quit at something and then they continued that. What I asked them to do – and I would not accuse anyone of quitting – I said, ‘Only you can look at yourself and determine if at any point during the game you quit,' but fighting is what we do. It's who we are. It's why this program is where it is."
Dukes told the players about her religious faith and her belief that the lessons she learned at Tennessee laid the foundation for the rest of her life.
"The faith that I have in God, this adversity just reminds me in believing in something, and I have faith. It's been tested, it's been tested in sports, it's been tested in life, and because I could survive those things – not just survive but because I was better for having gone through it – I know I can do it," Dukes said. "It's not easy to do, but I learned those lessons, those fighting lessons somewhere and I believe I learned them at Tennessee. We would fight when there was absolutely no reason to believe that you could win, but somehow we believed.
"That's what this team needs to do. We can have a lot of excuses, and we can have a lot of reasons. I believe the reason that they are here is that it's something they have already. Sometimes we just have to be reminded and the coaching staff is kind of like parents. You can tune your parents out. We've all done that. We've tuned them all while they were talking. Somebody from the outside comes in and it's like an, ‘Aha, moment.' If they believe, ‘I can do it,' then ‘I can do it.' "
Dukes is undergoing chemotherapy to combat her cancer, but she wanted to speak to the players so Collier – the two overlapped for two years and won a national title together in 1987, the first for Tennessee – made sure her former teammate had a ride to the arena.
"I care about this program," Dukes said. "I care how we represent ourselves. You cannot win every game. I recognize that. That is reality. They are a young team, but what I want them to do starting this year is to build an inner resolve within themselves so that when they get finished with the game each individual can look at her teammate and say, ‘I gave my best.' When it's not enough to give it for yourself – because sometimes we'll quit if it's just about us – do it for the team.
"They have so much talent, and they're wonderful young ladies. I can tell that being around them. I want them to believe in Pat and believe in the program. She knows what she's doing, and she has put together a group of people who knows what they're doing – trust that. Just trust that. Trust Pat.
"I told them, ‘Pat will ask you to do things that you have no idea that you can do, but because she asked you to do it and the team believes you can do it, it's a little crazy, but you'd be surprised at the things you can do.' I know because I've done some of those. I just want them to know that I care about them and I don't want them to get down on themselves. We can be disappointed but you've got to get up fighting. So hopefully that will happen for them. I want them to succeed."
Heartfelt remarks have not been in short supply for the last week.
At a team meeting last Friday to let players speak one by one, freshman forward Shekinna Stricklen changed the tenor of the room when she stood up and apologized for her recent play and letting down her teammates and coaches.
"I was just telling the truth," Stricklen said. "You could see in the last four games how I was playing and I believe a lot of us have really turned it around. I know Coach can't coach effort. That's something we've got to do on our own.
"It was a good meeting, and you just hate losing. We're just tired of losing. And if you're a big part of the reason why you're losing, you've got to change attitude."
Tennessee changed it against Mississippi State on Sunday, a must-win game for the Lady Vols to stay in the hunt for the fourth seed in the SEC.
"I was really pleased with our Mississippi State game in the second half and how we closed it out," Summitt said. "I thought we played better together at both ends of the floor than we had played in any game this year. I'd say this was our most complete game for 40 minutes of the season."
The team meeting and visits from Collier and Dukes came after back-to-back losses to Duke and Kentucky last week. If the Lady Vols close out the regular season playing better and rattle some cages in postseason those two games will be remembered as the tipping point.
"As much as the losses have hurt I think it's always a time, especially for a young team, to come together," Summitt said. "I'm seeing a little better chemistry and commitment. Does that mean we've arrived and we're going to keep winning, I don't know. This has been a season unlike any season I've ever coached because of the youth of our team. I do think some of our freshmen have committed to being invested in whatever it is we want to do on the court.
"I think Shekinna Stricklen has stuck her neck out and said, ‘This won't happen again. You can count on me.' She told the whole team, the staff, everyone."
Fellow freshman Glory Johnson applauded Stricklen's remarks and said they struck a chord with her.
"It was basically she wasn't giving her all and when I realized that she said that, I realized I wasn't giving my all, either," Johnson said. "There were things I needed to work on and possessions I was taking off. She admitted and it was great that she did that, and we should have done the same thing. We need to admit the fact that we've been taking possessions off and haven't been working as hard as we can, just putting it all out there."
Redshirt senior forward Alex Fuller was furious after the loss to Kentucky. Afterwards she chided the team for being "young-minded" and said it was time to grow up. The message got through to the youngsters that she has guided and counseled since last summer.
"It really did," Stricklen said. "She's been so good to us. She has been a really good leader, and we respect her and we respect the coaches. If we do everything they tell us we're going to be all right."
Has the team made a big step towards maturity?
"I think so. I think our maturity level went from around here to up here," Johnson said, starting her arm at chest level and raising it to her head. "We've definitely grown as a team and each player. Each player has developed every day."
One of the former players that spoke to the team, Collier, was Johnson's high school coach at Webb School of Knoxville. So Johnson had a better idea than most freshmen of what to expect at Tennessee. Still, it was a major adjustment.
"Coming in as a freshman you don't really know what you're going to experience," Johnson said. "You've got to take it how it is – playing hard, knowing that you're going to have to work hard, knowing that you're going to have to play hard and compete every single day, it's always a challenge. But now that I'm here getting used to it I know what I need to do. I'm glad to be here."
Johnson also has a healthy attitude about being moved to a small visitor's locker room and the team having to provide its own practice gear, even offering to share with teammates who might be running short since she could dash home for more clothes.
"It's motivation," Johnson said. "We need to earn the things that we have and not take anything for granted. We've been blessed and kind of spoiled. Take away the things that are given to us and have to work for them back. It may not be the best locker room, but we're going to be in it and it's a place to change and a place to get ready for the game.
"Take it as it is. Work with what you have. Pat is a great coach and sometimes people need to be mean to get their point across, and that's what we need."
Does Summitt think her young team is finally understanding how it has to play every game?
"I would hope," Summitt said. "We're running out of time. It's about time that we get it and get it all the time. I don't know with a young team. It's wait and see. You can sit around in the office and think, ‘What are they going to do?' You could drive yourself crazy as a coach and a coaching staff. It's wait and see, and that's what we're going to do. Are we going to be disappointed if they don't bring their ‘A' game? Absolutely. Be careful what you show us and what you showed us in the Mississippi State is what we expect.
"I think anytime LSU and Tennessee play it's going to be a great basketball game regardless of youth or experience. We know what's on the line. Going in I didn't know how many games we could win. I knew some way somehow we had to get to 20 (wins), now (it can be) 21. We need these last two games and if we could win both that would be huge for our basketball team and program."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Coach Pat Summitt is expected to stick with her big lineup – her 11th combination of the season – that started the last game: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 freshman guard/forward, No. 40 (12.7 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game; Angie Bjorklund 6'0 sophomore guard, No. 5 (11.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 freshman forward, No. 25 (11.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg); Alex Fuller 6'3 redshirt senior forward, No. 2 (8.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt freshman center, No. 52 (7.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg).
LSU Coach Van Chancellor seems to have settled on a lineup that has just one freshman on the court for the opening tip. He is expected to start: Latear Eason, 5'8 sophomore guard, No. 3 (3.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg), hails from Chicago, started 12 games this season, scored a career-high 16 points against Arkansas, had six assists versus Florida, played in 20 games last season as a freshman, injured her knee after the SEC tourney and missed the NCAA tourney; Allison Hightower, 5'10 junior guard, No. 23 (14.4 ppg, 4.5 rpg), hails from Arlington, Texas, has 17 steals and nine blocks in last five games, had 21 points against Florida this season, played in all 37 games last season with two starts, was the SEC's Sixth Woman of the Year last season and preseason All-SEC First Team this season, won the Texas 4A state title in the high jump in high school; Katherine Graham, 5'11 sophomore guard, No. 1 (5.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg), hails from Birmingham, Ala., injured her knee Jan. 14, returned to starting lineup Feb. 5, played in 24 games as a freshman; Kristen Morris, 6'2 senior forward, No. 44 (5.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg), hails from Lathrup Village, Mich., has scored 64 points in last six games, has played in 30 games last season and 101 overall; and LaSondra Barrett, 6'2 freshman forward, No. 55 (11.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg), hails from Jackson, Miss., has earned SEC Freshmen of the Week honors three times this season, set an LSU freshman record with 27 points against Arkansas, cousin of Washington Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell, attended same high school as former LSU player Ke-Ke Tardy, won two Class 5A state titles, also played volleyball.
"One of the reasons we are playing better is we have settled on a lineup that we feel confident about," Chancellor said.
It will be "Senior Night" for LSU with Morris the only departure. Tennessee's "Senior Day" is this Sunday with Fuller being the lone one to leave.
LSU has won three games in a row going into Thursday's matchup with the Lady Vols.
"She is one of the main reasons we turned things around here," Chancellor said of Morris. "She's a smart player. She knows what to do, what shots to take and how to play out there. There is no question she has been a key to our recent success."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-LSU game. Here is his assessment.
When LSU has the ball: The Lady Vols are going to need to play disciplined defense against the Lady Tigers, according to Lockwood.
"They're only averaging (60) points a game, but you have to temper that with the fact that they're very deliberate," Lockwood said. "They're very efficient at running what they run, and they're going to make you guard action. You're going to guard three or four screens in a possession. You're going to guard some ball reversals. You're going to guard some actions – multiple actions as we like to call them. They're very proficient at running their stuff. They're just not taking a ton of shots. They're not shooting quickly. They're very disciplined. They're very patient. They're going to make you go through the meat grinder on defense as opposed to just saying, ‘We're going to make two quick passes and jack it up.' They're going to make you guard some stuff.
"Allison Hightower is the real focal point for them. She's a seasoned, experienced player now, obviously their go-to after the losses. She is a big part of their attack. The post players, both (LaSondra) Barrett and (Kristen) Morris are playing very good for them. (Katherine) Graham is shooting the ball better recently. (Andrea) Kelly (a juco transfer from Okaloosa-Walton Community College) comes off the bench and shoots it very, very well. (Latear) Eason is their point guard, the driver and creator. We have to guard. We have to be prepared to guard a very patient, deliberate offensive team and a team that is going to show you multiple actions."
Pat Summitt said a defensive key is to keep Hightower from getting to the paint where she likes to shoot a running floater over the taller post players.
"Try to keep her from getting in the lane, and that's hard to do," Summitt said. "She appears to be very confident with that. Again, that's where we have to be, in terms of our paint defense, our defense in the lane has got to be at the best. We've got to be at our best on the defensive end because we know that she can get inside and score over people."
LSU's strength is its defense, and it is also deliberate.
"They're very solid," Lockwood said. "They don't beat themselves. Like a tennis player that keeps the ball in play it's not like they're going to show you tons of extended defense and pressing and trapping. They'll do that selectively, but what they're really good at it playing very good position defense. They keep you in front of them. Their on-ball pressure is very, very good. They're sound on the help-side. They're not giving up a ton of offensive rebounds. They're a team that does a very, very good job of being unspectacularly spectacular, so to speak.
"They play their man a couple of different ways. I've seen them where they've denying one pass away (guarding the offensive player tightly to deny that pass being made) and really pressuring and then I've also seen them play more in the lanes a little bit (sagging off an offensive player somewhat and playing the passing lanes). So they've got some diversity as to how they play their man defense, and I've also seen a little bit of 2-3 zone. They'll mix it up enough to use what they need to based on the opponent to keep you off balance. They're very solid."
When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols have found a synergy inside between Alex Fuller and Kelley Cain, and they want to establish that, plus be able to rotate parts with them.
"Whoever happens to be with them, we want to work through our middle," Lockwood said. "We want our posts to get touches. They don't have to shoot and score every time, but we want them to touch, and we want to play the inside-out game. That's really important for us to establish that. We're going to have to soften them up. We're not going to be able to be one, two passes and a quick shot. We're going to have to move the ball well and screen well and all the while take care of the ball well. One thing that will make (LSU) run and get in transition is turnovers."
Ball security was on Summitt's mind during her Wednesday morning teleconference.
"I just think that they have great quickness and can be very explosive when they get out in the passing lanes," Summitt said. "They get a lot of paint points in transition, so first and foremost we have to take care of the basketball. I think they do a great job of taking away the middle of the floor, they really get out and deny there. We can't have those flat passes, so again ball security."
Summitt also wants her team to take that ball inside – guards and posts.
"I think we're going to have to get inside and get paint points from our guards as well," Summitt said. "Post play is going to be critical to our offensive success. … I think the battle of the boards is always, always a big challenge when Tennessee and LSU play. It's a war on the boards and we've got to battle. Our guards have to battle, our posts have to battle because they've got the size and the quickness that can give you problems."
Defensively, the Lady Vols have been more in the mode of holding down the fort rather than deploying themselves as a weapon. Tennessee has the athletes to become a formidable defensive team, but it's been a process to get them on the same page.
"I think so much of it is going to be when the light comes on collectively," Lockwood said. "In our last game our zone was really good for us in the second half. It's almost on a game-by-game basis right now to see what's working and what group is clicking, but we would certainly like it to be where we can use our defense as a weapon or it becomes a weapon. It will depend on our combinations."
The PMAC usually houses a raucous crowd when Tennessee arrives in town, and it's also Mardi Gras in Louisiana. The Lady Vols have been in plenty of hostile environments by this time of the season and should be ready.
"Absolutely," Lockwood said. "I don't know that any place is that much more hostile than any other. I think the added dimension is the significance from the game itself. I think our kids have been around enough now to know, ‘Hey, we're going to go into a hostile place,' and it won't be that earth-shattering to them."
Summitt's scheduling philosophy with out-of-conference matchups prepares her team for such venues.
"There's no doubt with our schedule being as tough as it's been and the road games we've had and we've been in some loud gyms," Summitt said. "I think that they should be aware when we are in an environment like that we've got to have great communication, we've got to have real tight huddles. We've been in a lot of places."
Freshman Shekinna Stricklen believes the team has heard and seen enough on the road to be ready for Baton Rouge.
"I really do think we are used to it," Stricklen said. "I think going into LSU we're all going to be focused and we're going to be ready to play. As long as we've got each other's back that's all that matters."
Summitt wants them talking to each other during the game and focused on the game plan, which was outlined Wednesday and will be reinforced Thursday.
"They have to be very committed and invested in the scouting report defense," Summitt said. "They can't take possessions off like they did in high school. They give it to fatigue. But we can't do that now. If we give it to fatigue then we're not going to win."
ON TAP: Only six SEC teams are in action tonight. The other two matchups are: Georgia at Kentucky; and South Carolina at Mississippi State.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with LSU, 37-11. The Lady Tigers beat the Lady Vols in Knoxville last season, 78-62. LSU last won in Baton Rouge, 68-58, on Feb. 10, 2005. Tennessee won at the PMAC, 56-51, on Feb. 19, 2007, in its last game at LSU. Tennessee won five straight games from 2000 to 2002 but over the next 14 games the outcome has gone back and forth with the Lady Vols holding a slight 8-6 edge. … Tennessee is 8-6 in games played on February 26. The six losses are the most losses of any date on the all-time Lady Vol schedule from November through April. The defeats were to: Carson-Newman, 14-13, in 1920; Cincinnati, 54-23, in 1924; Maryville, 28-27, in 1926; Chattanooga, 53-47, in 1971; Chattanooga, 50-49, in 1972; and Florida, 95-93, in 2006. The wins were against: Carson-Newman, 52-37, in 1971; Chattanooga, 56-53, in 1972; Tennessee-Martin, 71-41, in 1981; Vanderbilt, 80-75, in 1982; Vanderbilt, 74-72, in 1984; Alabama, 81-65, in 1989; Florida, 92-80, in 1999; and Arkansas, 93-71, in 2005. … The Lady Vol program is trying to keep its streak of 20-win seasons intact and are one victory away from that milestone. With one more win, Tennessee will reach at least 20 wins in a season under Coach Pat Summitt for the 33rd consecutive time. Despite the 19-8 overall record, this Lady Vol team can finish ahead of several others with a win this week. The 1984-85 Lady Vol team achieved 20 wins on March 3, 1985; the 1980-81 team, March 10, 1981; the 1981-82 squad, March 13, 1982; and the 1983-84 group, March 17, 1984. With the exception of the 1984-85 team, which sustained three ACL injuries, the other squads advanced to the Final Four. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is averaging 71.0 points per game and allowing 63.3 points. LSU averages 60 points a game and allows 52.3 points. The Lady Vols are shooting 41.0 percent from the field overall, 31.9 percent from behind the arc and 66.8 percent from the free throw line. The Lady Tigers are shooting 41.3 percent overall, 29.6 percent from long range and 65.4 percent from the line. Tennessee averages 43.8 rebounds a game with a +7.5 margin. LSU averages 38 rebounds a game with a +2.3 margin. The Lady Vols average 13.5 assists and 17 turnovers a game. The Lady Tigers average 13.1 assists and 14.2 turnovers. Tennessee averages 8.3 steals and 4.8 blocks a game. LSU averages 8.6 steals and 5.0 blocks.