Pat Summitt seeks competitors

Pat Summitt is looking for a few good competitors, and that quest has led her to a 12th starting lineup combination that will be used in the last regular season game on Sunday. Sophomore Sydney Smallbone, who started early in the season, will join four who have started of late as Tennessee looks to avenge an earlier loss to Vanderbilt.

The team watched film on Friday before practice of the previous evening's 63-61 loss to LSU in Baton Rouge. The defeat meant Tennessee fell to the fifth seed in the SEC and will play on the first day of the conference tournament for the first time since 1997. After spotting the Lady Tigers a 15-point halftime lead the Lady Vols roared back to tie the game in the second half but couldn't complete the comeback.

"We watched the first half because I didn't want them to be all excited about how they came back in the second half," Coach Pat Summitt said. "I've seen enough of that stuff all year long, and I'm sick of it."

That game led Summitt to change her starting lineup yet again, and she will add Sydney Smallbone, a sophomore guard, to the mix with Shekinna Stricklen, Angie Bjorklund, Alex Fuller and Kelley Cain. Glory Johnson, a freshman forward who started the last two games, will come off the bench Sunday against Vanderbilt (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2).

"We have to understand it's a 40-minute game, and I think Alex understands that," Summitt said. "I think Kelley Cain understands that for sure. I think Angie understands it, and I think Shekinna understands it. I'd stop at those four. That right there is my core group.

"I'm going to put Sydney in the lineup. I am absolutely. Because she is the one player (of those remaining on the roster) that understands how to compete and what it takes to play here. She's not the most athletic but she has a huge heart and she loves this program and loves this team. I've had her on a short leash and I'm not saying how long she's going to play, but I'm looking for competitors and those right now, to me, are the best five."

It's a clear shot across the bow of Johnson, who is the most athletic player on the team – and probably the best athlete ever signed to play basketball at Tennessee – but who has been inconsistent in the month of February and has been in and out of the starting lineup this month after starting the first 23 games of the season. Johnson has 19 assists on the season to 75 turnovers at a time when ball security, or the lack thereof, is sending Summitt over the edge.

Smallbone started three games this season last November and had a career-high 12 points against Virginia. She has connected on 34.9 percent of her threes and is an 80 percent free throw shooter. Smallbone has 20 assists to 13 turnovers and eight steals on the season.

Smallbone is a player who gets angry when she makes a mistake. She spent her summer in Knoxville working on her release to get her shot off quicker. She has another attribute that Summitt is seeking in that Smallbone hates to lose.

The first half of the LSU game sent the team into a familiar tailspin – sputtering offense, breakdowns on defense and turnovers. Tennessee has 21 miscues for the game – 15 in the first half and just six in the second half.

"We've had some games like that," Fuller said. "We've had several games like that."

Fuller was at a loss to explain the start, but she wasn't alone. It has befuddled the staff all season.

"I really don't know to tell you the truth," Fuller said. "I was trying to figure it out myself. We saw that it was the second half or never. We were playing to not play on Thursday (in the tourney). I guess that's what everybody finally realized. It's reality now. We can't go back and change it so we just have to deal it."

She did think the second half performance should give the team hope of what it can do when the five players on the floor are on the same page on both ends.

"It does," Fuller said. "I think it shows not only to other people but us, it shows us what we can do and it shows us how we can play when we're all playing together."

Summitt is troubled by what she sees as a lack of focus from all five on the floor once the ball is tipped and the players take control.

"I definitely think that there is a glaring lack of discipline on our team and when you talk about that, that's the attention to detail," Summitt said. "Not setting and using screens. Not talking their action. The lack of screening it was ridiculous we were not more committed to getting open looks. Obviously not taking care of the basketball. But, again, to me that's a lack of discipline.

"The thing that bothers me the most for this team as we go into playing this game against Vanderbilt and then go into the SEC Tournament and eventually the NCAA, they just are not full of competitiveness. We have about four competitive players, but you stop there. Today in our team meeting they admitted it. They know. We've got players that we know are not going to fight hard all the time come game time."

Practice started Friday in the arena and then moved to Pratt Pavilion for free throw shooting and extended sprint work, though the players that logged extensive minutes against LSU were excused from the extra running.

"You saw today they did their sprint work, but they didn't have a choice because they were on my clock and my whistle," Summitt said. "When they're on their clock and they're doing whatever they decide to do I have to be the one to get the hook out and pull them off the court."

Summitt has dipped into her motivational bag all season and is still seeking the right combination on the floor. It's been a difficult season for a coach who has always maintained that she can't coach effort. Her ultra-competitive staff of Holly Warlick, Dean Lockwood and Daedra Charles-Furlow also has been frustrated. Lockwood, a ray of sunshine since he arrived in 2004, has looked beleaguered at times this season.

"It's not just me; it's my entire staff," Summitt said. "You look at Holly and Dean and Daedra, we're all off the charts. We've got our high ‘A' personalities. We expect a whole lot. The biggest thing for me is because I grew up with a work ethic that nobody is going to outwork me and I've always been a competitor. I hate losing with a passion.

"But you can't give that to players. You just can't give it to them. If you could every kid who has ever put on a uniform here would have it."

The good news is that a player can acquire it, and Summitt cited Candace Parker, one of the greatest to wear orange, as an example.

"I guess you can impact it somewhat," Summitt said. "I think with Candace look at how much more competitive she became because of being in this program and the expectations. I think Alexis (Hornbuckle) came in with it. Oh, Nicky Anosike, you talk about competitors, she's one of the best ever. Do we have a Nicky on our team? No, we don't. My question is why would you choose to come to Tennessee if you were a lazy player and uninspired?"

The bad news is Summitt can't recall a freshman class that was quite as non-competitive as this one is as a whole.

"This group has been very laidback," Summitt said. "You go and recruit because they're skilled players; you don't know at that point in time because they're the best player on their team really what's in here. You don't learn the depths of what's in here until you have worked with them and been in the trenches with them and had close games with them. And then you find out who will give it to fatigue and who won't budge."

The calendar flips to March on Sunday and while the veteran teams of the past two years turned it on in postseason while biding their time at times in the regular season, a young team has little prior experience upon which to flip that switch. The Vanderbilt game ends the regular season and then Tennessee will play Thursday in Little Rock against Alabama in the SEC tourney in the first round. The NCAA tourney follows the league one.

"Will we get any better?" Summitt asked. "I don't know. I know we have three games left. At least three games."


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