No. 18/23 Tennessee (19-9, 8-5) takes on No. 19/21 Vanderbilt (21-7, 10-3) at 7 p.m. Eastern (TV: ESPN2; Lady Vol Radio Network), and Fuller will make her 24th start of the season surrounded, as she has been all year, by a squad of underclassmen.
The 6'3 forward from Shelbyville, Tenn., graduated last December with a degree in exercise science and enrolled in master's level coursework this spring in sports management and sports psychology. It would seem the influence of Pat Summitt has ensnared another one as Fuller, for the first time during her five years in Knoxville, expressed a desire to coach when her playing days are done.
"I have a lot of aspirations," Fuller said. "My first thing is going to the WNBA, overseas. I think it's a good experience. I've never really been overseas. I think it would be a good experience to play in another realm of basketball.
"I've done a lot of teaching this year so especially this year made me want to get into coaching – the teaching aspect of it and I feel like I know the game well, even if I'm not playing. I know the strategies of the game and things like that. I want to be around the game even when I'm not playing."
That brought a big smile of surprise to Summitt's face.
"After this year she wants to be a coach? I'm trying to decide if I want to be a coach," Summit joked. "I think Alex knows the game and I think her personality has really blossomed over her career here. As far as being a good teacher I think she'd be a good teacher and a good motivator. You've just got to get with the right people and have a great staff."
That sounded as if Summitt was already coaching Fuller about coaching, and the player had no doubt she would channel Summitt on the court if she did enter the profession.
"You hear it so much and it's so repetitive I probably would take on her same coaching technique," Fuller said.
Fuller will be joined at center court by her coach and her parents, Debra and Troy Price, who have been regulars at Tennessee games at home and on the road for the past five years. They make the trips from their home in Charlotte, N.C., and even made the 11-hour drive to Baton Rouge for the game earlier this week.
Fuller, who has always publicly maintained a mellow frame of mind, might let loose a little bit before the game.
"I think it will be more emotional for my family, particularly my mom," Fuller said. "I'm emotional, too, and I told all my teammates that I wasn't going to cry but more than likely I will. But don't tell them that."
Fuller agreed there could be a ripple effect if her mother cries, but she expected to be OK "as long as I don't look at her."
Of course as soon as the short ceremony is completed the game must be tipped off, but a player with the even keel of Fuller should flip that switch just fine.
"You just refocus," Fuller said. "That's what you have teammates for. That's why there are four other people on the court with you to help you refocus."
Fuller has been the leader of the team since last summer, and those teammates have leaned on her all season.
"She's the heart and soul of us," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "She's our leader, our heart and soul. She gives everything Alex has in practice and on the floor. You can always count on Alex for her effort and her hard work. She loves this program. She's had a great experience with it. I never question her hard work and how she handles this team. She'd be a good coach."
Fuller also is an excellent mimic and reportedly can do imitations of both Summitt and Warlick that leave her teammates roaring but which neither coach has ever seen.
"I want to see it," Warlick said. "I'm sure she has it (down pat). She's been around me for five years."
"I don't think a lot of people see that side of Alex because she does appear to be pretty serious most of the time but certainly I think she does have a great sense of humor, and she's a fun-loving kind of person," Summitt said. "I'm sure her teammates know that as well."
Fuller's wry sense of humor has occasionally slipped out in interviews, which she typically handles with looks of amusement and answers as short as she can keep them. Every senior interviewed usually talks about how quickly her career passed. Not Fuller.
"I personally don't think it went by fast, but I think that is just because I was here that extra year with the knee problems," Fuller said.
Fuller arrived in the summer of 2004 with the much-ballyhooed first "Six Pack," but a medical exam revealed an ACL that needed repairing in her left knee. She sat out that first year for rehab – she had surgery on the same knee in high school – and has dealt with knee pain for most of her college career.
Still, she opted to come back this season and help the coaches with a team of freshmen and sophomores. Summitt just shakes her head as if she doesn't want to think about it when asked how the season might have unfolded without Fuller.
"Without Alex who would have stepped into that role?" Summitt said. "We don't really have anything other than our freshmen and sophomores. It would have been difficult."
The celebration at center court is also an emotional one for Summitt.
"It always is, but it especially will be because of what Alex has tried to do for this team this year," Summitt said. "They haven't always responded to her, but I think for the most part they do listen, and she's obviously invested a lot in trying to pull this team together."
For Fuller that meant focusing on nine other people – she lost help with the on-court leadership when redshirt sophomore Cait McMahan and sophomore Vicki Baugh were unable to play because of knee injuries – instead of herself and especially the six true freshmen. Fuller also donned the No. 2 uniform of McMahan, instead of her own No. 44, in the first game after the announcement in January that McMahan was out for the season.
"I think I've had to put myself aside and think about other people more – just learning how to communicate with people," Fuller said. "I don't think it's been a challenge. I just have to do it more. I have six freshmen that I have to kind of take care of and let them know the ropes and everything like that. At times it has been (stressful), but I can't think about myself. I can't be selfish in that aspect. I have to keep pushing through and stay strong and let them see that I'm staying strong, so hopefully they will, too."
It also meant unleashing her voice when she felt it needed to be heard in a forceful way, such as when she told her first-year charges to grow up and stop being "young minded."
"I have to think about what I say before I say it and how I say it, just being selective on the aggressiveness of how I say certain things," Fuller said. "There comes a point when somebody just needs to hear the truth so you can be nice and you can say things calmly, but if something keeps happening over and over again you have to say what's on your mind."
It was a difficult year on the court as the Lady Vols finished fifth in the SEC – Sunday's game won't affect their position in the standings – and with the most league losses in program history with five. Fuller has done her part with 10.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game in SEC play, but Summitt has had to reconfigure her starting lineup 12 times to account for injuries and freshmen inconsistencies.
"I think Alex, while she has faced some adversity with her knee problems, she knew going into this year what she needed to do in terms of leadership," Summitt said. "It's been a long time since I'd say we had a better one. We've had some really good leaders and I'd put her in the top five.
"I think coming off of two championships I think that she really wanted to try and get these young players to buy into the system. She spent time with all the freshmen and made it a priority to get to know them and have them over to her apartment and spend time with them. From that standpoint I thought she really invested a lot as a leader in trying to teach them about the culture of this program and what it takes. Obviously while she did a great job I'm sure she's had some frustrating times along the way."
Fuller seems to have already developed a circumspect outlook on her time at Tennessee, beginning with the delayed start.
"It was tough to have expectations and then those expectations get put on the back burner but in the end it all came out for the best, and I think that was the best decision for me, especially in the long run," Fuller said.
"I think in every situation and every year that I've been here it's been a learning experience. I've learned something new about myself. I think I've grown as a person. I've learned things through some of my teammates that I've had."
And despite being the sole senior after her signing class left last year Fuller said she didn't feel lonely this year.
"Not really," Fuller said. "I knew we were going to be a young team. It hasn't really been lonely because I have other people. I have Cait and Kelley (Cain) and Syd (Smallbone), Vicki and Angie (Bjorklund) so they've been here with me for a year."
Fuller also intends to return to campus to check in on the youngsters.
"I'll come back," Fuller said. "I'll definitely come back. I definitely can't wait until they're all seniors. Thinking short term I'll come back when they start playing (next fall)."
If karmic forces are at work when Fuller comes back when the current freshmen are seniors they will have a recalcitrant young bunch of newcomers to keep in line.
But Fuller also isn't ready to say goodbye yet, as evidenced by her answer to a question about her favorite moments as a Lady Vol.
"Can I answer that question later?" Fuller said.
Because she hopes for more magical moments?
"That and obviously winning the national championship, two of them," Fuller said. "I had a good five years but in any experience there are going to be ups and downs.
"We still have hopefully 10 more games (after Sunday). It's not closed yet."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 freshman forward/guard, No. 40 (12.9 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game); Sydney Smallbone, 5'10 sophomore guard, No. 20 (3.3 ppg, 1.0 rpg); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 sophomore guard, No. 5 (11.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.7 assists per game); Alex Fuller, 6'3 redshirt senior forward, No. 2 (7.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt freshman, No. 52 (7.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg).
Summitt has opted to bring Glory Johnson, a 6'3 forward, off the bench in a move clearly intended to inspire the freshman to be more consistent on the court. The two had a talk after practice in what seemed to be an excellent exchange.
"You always hope they respond in a positive way," Summitt said. "We need Glory being more efficient. Glory typically is a player that you know she's going to play hard, but she's got to have so much more composure offensively. She's getting a lot of shots blocked because she just exposes the ball. She's going to have to be a little more creative, head fakes, shot fakes, inside-out.
"Again, she's a freshman, and I expected so much of her coming in. You don't always get what you expect, but you definitely want to expect it if you know they have it in them."
There seems to be little doubt that Johnson has it in her. It's just a matter of tapping into it every game. This will be the 12th starting lineup of the season, and Summitt has said for the past month not to etch one in stone.
"I'm living day to day," Summitt said. "In most cases I just have to come out here and see what they're going to bring. Possession by possession."
Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb is expected to start: Jence Rhoads, 5'11 sophomore guard, No. 22 (5.9 ppg, 4.0 apg), had a career-high 15 points against Auburn, 2.5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked fifth in the NCAA; Jennifer Risper, 5'9 senior guard, No. 2 (8.4 ppg, 2.8 apg), eight of her nine double-figure games have come in league play; Merideth Marsh, 5'9 junior guard, No. 23 (11.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg), leads the SEC with made 3-pointers at 2.9 per game and connecting at 50.7 percent, scored a career-high 26 points against Florida; Christina Wirth, 6'1 senior forward, No. 34 (15.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg), scored 20 points in loss to Ole Miss, fourth in the SEC in scoring, averaged 20.5 points in wins over Florida and Georgia, candidate for league player of the year; and Hannah Tuomi, 6'0 sophomore forward, No. 15 (11.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg), second in the SEC in field goal percentage at 51.8 percent.
Summitt has said that Balcomb, who is in her seventh year at Vanderbilt, is one of the best teachers of offense in college basketball. The Commodores are the only team in NCAA Division I that have been ranked in the Top 10 for field goal percentage in each of the last seven years, including the current 2008-09 season.
Balcomb's Vandy teams have made 48.4 percent of their shot attempts (6092-12,599) and have been ranked either first or second in the country three times.
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the rematch with Vanderbilt. Here is her updated assessment.
When Vanderbilt has the ball: Vanderbilt can shoot the ball from the outside but a big part of the reason for its healthy field goal percentage this season is the Commodores ability to get into the paint for layups and short jumpers.
"They penetrate and we were not ready for continuing penetration," Warlick said. "It's all about guarding one on one. It's been like that for awhile, so we've got to make a strong commitment of guarding the ball and showing a lot of help, and we haven't done that consistently."
Warlick's first scouting report before the 74-58 loss to Vandy in Nashville on Jan. 11 had emphasized the Commodores' ability to play off the bounce.
"Absolutely," Warlick said. "And they're doing it even more. They shot 11 layups against Auburn when they played them, and Auburn's in their matchup (zone, which is intended to stop penetration). They're going to get in the paint, and so it's our job to try to keep them out of the paint and make them shoot over us."
Defensively, the Commodores could show man and zone looks.
"They're playing a lot more man to man and I think as the game goes, Melanie (Balcomb) is a good Xs and Os coach and she'll adjust," Warlick said. "So we prepared for both."
When Tennessee has the ball: Kelley Cain came off the bench in the first game because she was still testing her right knee, which had been surgically realigned and then tweaked in three collisions that deprived her of playing and practice time. She also sustained a serious concussion in November that caused her to miss games and practice.
Cain has moved into the starting lineup and is averaging 9.8 points per game and shooting 64.1 percent in SEC play. She also has 24 blocks against conference foes.
"She has been our focal point the last six or so games," Warlick said. "She's what Tennessee basketball is all about – playing inside-out. We want to go to Kelley. We want to go inside to Kelley. She's shooting over 60 percent. She's 6'6. We're not very smart if we don't. She's playing real well."
Defensively, the Lady Vols have to guard Vandy's dribble penetration while not losing the three-point shooters, and it was a point of emphasis in practice.
"We're going to mix it up," Warlick said. "We're going to tweak some defenses that we've put in."
DOORMAT REMATCH: After Vanderbilt's win over Tennessee in Nashville, the Commodores revealed some of the motivational techniques used by the coaches before the game as the Lady Vols had won 16 in a row in the rivalry.
"One thing that Coach did was she had some of our practice players come out and wear all orange and just run around our court to upset us," Jennifer Risper said in the post-game press conference. "And she also when they ran out played ‘Rocky Top' to get us fired up, and I think it worked. She also got a doormat, a Tennessee doormat, so we could walk on it. I don't know if I should have said that one."
The orange-clad practice players and "Rocky Top" seemed like standard fare to tell the media, but the news of the doormat was one of those things usually left in-house. The remark was reported in newspapers, AP wire and online stories and didn't take long to reach Tennessee.
Tennessee freshman Shekinna Stricklen just smiled when asked about it this week and had little to say except that the team had not forgotten about it.
"I know we're going to be ready for the Vandy game," she said.
Senior Alex Fuller also didn't want to say much about it.
"I really don't let that kind of stuff affect me," Fuller said. "That doesn't concern me. That's what they do. That's not how we are."
But it's not as if anyone on the court or bench for Tennessee has dismissed the remark either, especially Holly Warlick, a Knoxville native whose rivalry with the in-state school goes back to her playing days in orange from 1976 to 1980.
"We don't laugh it off, no," Warlick said. "That would get me fired up. You do something as a coach, and it worked. We did (mention it) afterwards. They are aware of it, yes. What she used to motivate her kids we'll turn around and help it motivate our kids. They were (upset), but that's just part of the game. What they used to motivate them the first game we'll use to motivate us the second game."
The Vanderbilt players were understandably thrilled to finally beat Tennessee. It also was Balcomb's first win over the Lady Vols at Vandy. She has one other career win when her Xavier team upset Tennessee in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tourney in 2001.
When Merideth Marsh was asked if Vanderbilt was 16 points better than Tennessee, she didn't hesitate with her answer after the game.
"Definitely," Marsh said. "Coach is really big on stats, the numbers on paper, and if you look at it we are that much better than them."
Vandy's Christina Wirth said, "You should get excited about every game, and we have an extra special game against a rival or a team you haven't beaten in a while, I think that makes everyone excited. We were just excited. We knew that we didn't have to play our ‘A' game. We just had to play with heart and just outwork them, and that's what we did."
Pat Summitt said the remarks should fire up any team in a rematch, but she couldn't predict how this year's Tennessee squad would react.
"Only if they're really competitive people and just remember right now we're looking at five (players who are)," Summitt said. "I've tried all kinds of things, too. We've tried everything with this team to motivate them, and it's been difficult. It's been a real challenge."
The primary motivation for Tennessee is to end the regular season with a win and some momentum heading into postseason.
"A win would really help us and kind of give us a little revenge on Vanderbilt for the beginning of the year when we played them at their place," Fuller said. "A win would really help us going into the SEC Tournament."
"It's aways good to win on your Senior Night for Alex and to win your last game on your home floor," Warlick said. "It's an in-state rivalry – it's Vanderbilt. It's huge. It's huge for us. It's a huge confidence builder for us. It's huge for us to play a 40-minute game. We've done it (only) a couple of times this year.
"It's a big game for us. Every game for us is a grow-up game."
NEXT SENIOR NIGHT – 2011: Tennessee won't hold a Senior Night for a player at the end of the 2009-10 season because there are no juniors on the roster.
Cait McMahan, a redshirt sophomore, had to stop playing basketball in January because of a balky right knee and is now a student-assistant coach. Had McMahan not needed knee surgery after her first year of college, she would have been a junior this season.
McMahan entered Tennessee in 2006 with Nicci Moats, a forward from Virginia, but Moats transferred after a year and then stopped playing basketball for health reasons. Lindsey Moss, a class of one the year before in 2005, would have been a senior this season but transferred to Georgia and then also quit basketball to focus on other career goals.
Pat Summitt would like a more-balanced roster in the future.
"I've thought about it, but it is what it is," Summitt said. "When you lose players and players transfer sometimes you have to fill the void. That's the ideal (balanced classes), but we're not working with the ideal right now."
Tennessee has signed three players from the class of 2009, which will take the scholarship numbers to 14, one short of the limit, next season. One player is already committed from the class of 2010 – Lauren Avant, a top-ranked point guard from Memphis – so that would top out the roster at 15 since nobody will graduate next season.
But McMahan has said it would take "a miracle" for her knee to allow her to play again, so that could free up a scholarship, if Tennessee opted to use the max. Summitt can't identify specific players because of NCAA rules about recruiting, but she can discuss numbers, and the signing class of 2010 could add a member.
"At this point we haven't made that decision," Summitt said. "I would say it might be a class of two, depending on what happens with everybody else."
VICKI BAUGH UPDATE: Tennessee's chances for success next season are greatly increased if sophomore forward Vicki Baugh is ready to play after undergoing her second ACL reconstruction on her left knee.
The first operation was last May after she tore the ligament in the national title game against Stanford. The second surgery was last Tuesday after she sustained the same injury on Feb. 2 against Oklahoma.
Baugh was courtside Saturday at practice for the first time since her second operation, which was done by Drs. Greg Mathien and Russell Betcher, the team's orthopedic surgeons.
"Basically she struggled the last couple of days with the pain and with some nausea – everybody responds to the anesthesia a little bit differently and the pain meds – but now we've got all that regulated," said Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine. "Today was her first real day of rehab, and she caught up from the day or two we missed before. So I am very pleased with where she is right now."
The operation also addressed damage to the medial meniscus and lateral meniscus in Baugh's knee.
"Six out of 10 times you tear your ACL you tear a meniscus with it so it's more common than not," Moshak said. "The good news is that Dr. Mathien and Dr. Betcher were able to repair the medial meniscus and anytime you can repair the meniscus you're saving it for the future and that's a key for anybody when they're looking at arthritic conditions and things like that down the line. So that bodes well for her.
"The lateral meniscus they had to trim up so they couldn't save that but there's still a good portion of it left. And then the ACL reconstruction went very well."
Baugh's upbeat attitude saw her through the first operation, and Moshak said there were signs that had not diminished despite the rigors of facing the same rehab again.
"She struggled the last few days with some nausea, but her affect today was wonderful," Moshak said. "Her humor was back. Her work ethic was extremely good, and we caught up to where we needed to be. In fact, she's probably a tad bit ahead of schedule from the standpoint of range of motion. She already got 90 degrees today by herself and 100 with assistance so she's doing very well."
Baugh could make the trip to Little Rock, Ark., for the SEC tourney by "meeting certain (rehab) thresholds with me and then permission from Dr. Mathien," Moshak said.
"Yes, it does (help her to be with the team), and it helps the team for her to be around them so it's a win-win situation, but we're not going to jeopardize her rehab if she's not ready. However, Vicki's work ethic right now, if she produces every day what she produced today I think she'll be going with us."
Tennessee went 3-4 in the games played after Baugh's injury.
"If we had Vicki Baugh out there from start to finish … ," Moshak said. " You can tell the impact that she has immediately (when she went in a game). You can tell the impact that she has in practice. We miss her. We miss her greatly."
ON TAP: All 12 SEC schools are in action today, which will determine the final shuffling of seeds for the tourney next week. The other matchups are: Mississippi State at Alabama; Arkansas at Auburn; Florida at Georgia; Kentucky at South Carolina; and LSU at Ole Miss.
Only four seeds have been determined already: Tennessee is No. 5, Kentucky, No. 10, South Carolina, No. 11 and Alabama, No. 12. Tennessee will open play on Thursday against Alabama at 7:30 p.m. Eastern at Alltel Arena in Little Rock.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Vanderbilt, 52-7. The Lady Vols have a 23-0 record in Knoxville. This will be the 60th meeting in the in-state rivalry. … Tennessee's record in games played on March 1 is 8-4. The last win on this date came against Georgia, 81-67, in 2002 at the SEC tourney in Nashville. The four losses on this date were to Maryville, 23-11, in 1920; Appalachian State, 58-50, in overtime in 1969 (one of the eight wins came on the same date in 1969 to Union (Ky.), 43-23); Union (Tenn.), 94-93, in 1975; and Ole Miss, 83-78, in 1986 in the SEC tourney. … Tennessee will eclipse 200,000 fans at home on Sunday. It will mark the 12th consecutive season to go over 200,000 at Thompson- Boling Arena. A total of 195,834 folks have attended 14 games at home this season for an average of 13,988. A season high 16,990 showed up at the Duke game on Feb. 16. … From media chief Debby Jennings' game notes in a sign the tough season – by Lady Vol standards – hasn't deprived her of a sense of humor: "The 2008-09 Lady Vols have played way too many games with Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams crooning in the background, "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late," in the popular song from associate coach Holly Warlick's sophomore year as the UT point guard in 1978. Anyway ... Against LSU, Tennessee fell into an 18-point hole in the opening 20 minutes while recording just seven field goals on 28% shooting. In the furious second half rally, UT connected on 67% from the field and outscored LSU 41-28 but fell a bucket short in the final eight ticks. Tennessee has fallen into a first half deficit in too many games and didn't have a finishing kick except for the Rutgers game." … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is averaging 70.7 points a game while allowing 63.3 points. Vanderbilt averages 72.8 points a game while allowing 58.6 points. The Lady Vols are shooting 41.1 percent from the field overall, 32.5 percent from behind the arc and 66.7 percent from the free throw line. The Commodores are shooting 46.4 percent overall, 36.0 percent from long range and 72.5 percent from the line. Tennessee averages 43.5 rebounds a game with a +7.7 margin. Vanderbilt averages 34.7 boards a game with a +1.3 margin. The Lady Vols average 13.3 assists and 17.1 turnovers a game. The Commodores average 15.7 assists and 15.8 turnovers a game. Tennessee averages 8.2 steals and 4.6 blocks a game. Vanderbilt averages 10.7 steals and 2.0 blocks a game.