"Everybody has asked me why," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt of agreeing to play Middle Tennessee at its place for the first time since 1979 when her associate head coach, Holly Warlick, was the Lady Vols' senior point guard. "Rick and his wife Deb and I have been friends for a long time. Obviously I recruited players from Shelbyville and got to know them really well. He presented that and I felt, ‘Well, why not?' He's done a great job with the program there.
"Everybody said, ‘Well, you have nothing to gain and everything to lose.' No, if we lose to them, then we're going to figure out that we aren't as good as we thought we were going into that game. I'm not expecting to have an undefeated season, but we had better be ready to play at Middle."
No. 6/5 Tennessee, 3-0, will play its third game of the season away from home, and the Murphy Center with a capacity 11,520 should be boisterous on the eve of Thanksgiving. That is also Lady Vol Country – the orange fan base extends across the state – but the Blue Raider fans have had this game circled ever since the series was announced in 2006. Middle Tennessee played three consecutive games in Knoxville to get one game in Murfreesboro.
"I think we'll have quite a few fans," Summitt said. "It was good for us to be at Virginia and be in that environment. We had fans there but obviously they had a lot more, so it could be similar to that. I am just glad we had that experience."
Tipoff is 8 p.m. Eastern with local television coverage at WVLT-2 in the Knoxville area, WUXP in the Nashville area and WAPK in the Tri-Cities area. The Lady Vol Radio Network also will carry the game, and Middle Tennessee offers online video for a fee at: B2 Broadband Broadcast.
"It starts between her ears," Lockwood said. "She's a tough kid. The technical stuff, put that aside for a minute. She is never out of the fight. If you've got three-quarters of her body in a lock, she's going to take a toe and wrench it and the next thing you know, ‘What happened to me?' That's her.
"With that mentality, she's got great footwork, she uses her body as well as any player I've ever seen. She seals you constantly. Anytime she's close to you, the next thing you know she's got a body on you and she's sealing you. Her footwork and bodywork are so good in the post, so she presents herself as a great target. Now, once she gets it, she's very, very crafty. She's got a great feel for you. When she puts it down she also knows where the defender is.
"We all have different gifts. Being that she's an undersized post one of her gifts is that she's got a great sense of balance and using your leverage against you. If you lean this way, she can go that way, and she's very good at that. She's as formidable a scorer as I think we will face all year."
Tennessee won last year's game in Knoxville, 81-53, but Clark was 11-21 with 28 points and eight rebounds. She got her points against Glory Johnson, Kelley Cain and Vicki Baugh – who played in that game but remains out this season as she recovers from ACL surgery.
"She's a bear," Lockwood said. "I told our team in the film session she's the best offensive producer that we've played all year hands down. Monica Wright is the most explosive scorer that we've played so far, and Brittney Griner is something you just don't see.
"But in terms of offensive producer, I'm talking results, 28 points a game, 62 percent from the field, averaging seven free throw attempts, making five, 15 rebounds a game. This kid is, head and shoulders, the best producer. I told them (the Tennessee players) this, too. If she were 6'2, she would be a Kodak All-American and she could name her school."
Tennessee's last All-American was Candace Parker, who has taken her game to the WNBA. The Lady Vols, without a senior on the roster, are stacked with talent, though, and last year's freshmen struggled but gained court experience that most first-year players don't get.
One player who has made the leap from freshman to sophomore is Glory Johnson, a 6'3 forward who entered Tennessee with uber-athleticism and is now in the process of transforming all that raw power into basketball talent.
Johnson has been told to play with high energy but remain under control and, so far, she seems to have solved what sounds like a competing puzzle.
"Just knowing not to try to do too much in a game," Johnson said. "Sometimes you can get excited and you get nervous or you want to do so much for your team to help your team out, and you try to do too much."
She also rattled off the names of several teammates and said the players are more comfortable with each other on the court than a year ago, and, more importantly, can trust each other.
"I have (them) to help me out and knowing that they're going to be there and they're going to come hard every game, just like I'm going to come hard every game," Johnson said. "It's just easier to rely on those people."
After the win over Virginia, Summitt was asked if her players had something to prove after last season.
"Absolutely," Summitt said. "We've grown a lot. Last year was a little painful because it was hard to know who was going to show up and play. We weren't as competitive. We didn't have that toughness and that edge to us."
After the loss to Virginia a year ago in Knoxville, Summitt questioned her team's toughness. After this season's win in Charlottesville, Summitt mentioned her team's toughness.
Johnson sat beside Summitt during that press conference and perused a box score while waiting for the post-game questions to be directed at her. Former Lady Vol Nicky Anosike was asked over the summer why she found herself a fixture in the starting line as a collegiate player and a pro and she said that coaches have enough to worry about before a game without wondering which players would give effort. Anosike always came ready to play.
Johnson nodded when asked if Summitt's comments on Sunday resonated with the team.
"I think we're over (the issue of) giving effort," Johnson said. "We've talked about this several times – just playing like it's the last time you'll play. It's finally hitting people that if I go hard all the time it won't only make me happy with a win it will make the coaches happy.
"Having a successful year is what we all want. Going hard and knowing that you will become successful because each and every one is going hard I think we kind of figured that out. We've just got to keep it going."
The team got an eyeful over the summer of how quickly basketball can be snatched away. Teammate Amber Gray was hospitalized for shoulder surgery and then suffered a stroke brought on by a bleeding aneurysm in her brain. She nearly died and then underwent 12.5 hours of surgery to clip the aneurysm. She is back with the team – though not released to play yet – and is a daily reminder of how fragile life can be, even for the young and athletically gifted.
"We talked about that a lot," Johnson said. "We go to FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes), and she shared her testimony last week and I think that was great for everyone. Just knowing that Amber went through a whole lot of stuff and we were lucky enough not to have gone through that stuff, but she's a living example, and she made it through. Just playing and knowing that she will be back and just knowing that we can play for her now and she's still here and she'll be back with us eventually."
In the meantime the Lady Vols have turned their focus to restoring the luster of the program after 11 losses and a first-round defeat in the NCAA tourney. The 3-0 start was the best-case scenario for a team trying to erase question marks.
"It's really important because we've always had something to prove just because of the Ball State loss and a lot of people underestimating our team," Johnson said.
Tonight's game will be another test for the team, and a raucous crowd should await the Lady Vols. For that reason, the game at Virginia was good timing, especially for the freshmen. Although some fans were in Tennessee orange, the majority of the record-crowd of 11,895 were pulling for the Cavaliers, and there were some scattered boos when the Lady Vols took the floor.
"For me the first time I ever heard any boos it kind of stopped me a little bit when we went to away games last year," Johnson said.
Tennessee played five of its first six games last season at home, and the one early road game was in Chattanooga. The first road game out of state was Dec. 2, 2008, at George Washington, and the band heckled the Lady Vols as they warmed up. The freshmen mentioned it before the game and that's when Summitt realized how wide-eyed her young team really was.
This year's freshmen had their eye-opening moment at Virginia.
"They kind of figured out you're going to go places and people are going to boo you, and you still have to play your game, no matter what," Johnson said.
Most of the Lady Vols are now accustomed to playing in front of big crowds – they mentioned after the Texas Tech game that the environment was too quiet – and they seem to just want fans in the stands at home or on the road.
"I like the stands being packed, whether they're against me or for me," Johnson said. "Because eventually after I show them my game or after we show them our game, they're going to be impressed with something whether they're going to be against you the whole time or for you at the end. I think eventually we turn the fans' heads."
Johnson's ferociousness in the paint and leaping ability often will turn heads in a game. It's not uncommon to hear oohs and aahs when she grabs a rebound one-handed or explodes to the rim after a baseline move. She showed that same ability last year, but this season she is doing it under control.
She ran the break in practice Monday after a steal and went into the paint at top speed. A year ago she would have steamrolled her defender on the way to the rim. On Monday she pulled up and found a teammate cutting to the basket for an uncontested layup.
"She's a lot more mature," Summitt said.
Johnson said the team wants to continue its strong start to the season in Murfreesboro.
"Definitely perform well and show that our talent can go beyond a couple of games and an away game," Johnson said. "MTSU is supposed to be a strong team so coming in from Virginia, we have a win, but at the same time we can't let up on any team.
"I know it's going to be loud, and I know it's going to be packed. I feel confident that we'll play the same. We have got to come prepared. Everyone has got to bring their ‘A' game to every game."
Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard, No. 40 (20.3 points per game, 9.7 rebounds per game, 5.3 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (17.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg); Taber Spani, 6'1 freshman forward/guard, No. 13 (9.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 25 (13.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (9.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.3 blocks per game).
With the news Monday that freshman forward Faith Dupree will be sidelined for the season with lower back issues, Tennessee has just 10 players available at this time on the roster. Summitt addressed those health issues in her Tuesday teleconference with the media.
"We could've tried to piecemeal it together, play her some, rest her and I just don't think that's the best way to go," Summitt said. "It hurts us no doubt. Faith has demonstrated she can score in the paint, she can score from the free throw line, she can shoot the three ball, although that's not a priority for her. I feel like it is going to be a big loss.
"It means that Glory Johnson needs to stay healthy and continue to play the way she's been playing. Lyssi Brewer has had some signs of progress towards helping us in the paint. We need the size that Lyssi will bring and give Kelley some rest, as well as Glory. I wouldn't hesitate to put Taber Spani in as a high post player. She can also stretch the defense a lot like Faith did."
Vicki Baugh, a 6'4 junior forward, is continuing her comeback from ACL surgery, and Summitt addressed her status as well.
"We are putting her back on the floor and giving her more reps now that she's had her time off to rest, which I think really helped her," Summitt said. "I think she probably had her best practice of the year (Monday).
"At the same time, I've told her I don't care if it's January, February, March, or if it's not at all this year. It's something that she has to feel every day what the knee is bringing. When she feels healthy and stays that way, then we look at putting her into the forum."
Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Insell is expected to start: Chelsia Lymon, 5'5 senior guard, No. 00 (10.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.7 apg), hails from Georgetown, Ky., started 32 games last season, was the Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year, her cousin, Tim Hardaway, played for 13 years in the NBA for five teams; Jackie Pickel, 5'10 senior guard, No. 10 (8.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg), hails from Cleveland, Tenn., played at the same high school as former Lady Vol Brittany Jackson, started all 34 games last season, has 169 career three-pointers with 78 coming in her junior season last year; Anne Marie Lanning, 5'11 junior guard, No. 30 (3.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg), hails from Murfreesboro, Tenn., won a state title at Riverdale High School in 2007, started 16 games last season and hit 40.0 percent from long range; Alysha Clark, 5'10 senior forward, No. 22 (28.7 ppg, 15.3 rpg), hails from Mt. Juliet, Tenn., transferred from Belmont University after two years there, has surpassed 1,000 career points at Middle Tennessee in barely more than one season after scoring 935 points last year, was an honorable mention WBCA All-American, Sun Belt Player of the Year and Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year last season; and Brandi Brown, 6'3 senior forward, No. 21 (9.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg), hails from Jamestown, Tenn., started 30 games last season and hit 40.9 percent from long range with 79 made threes, has 185 career three-pointers, the school record is 224, graduated last May with honors with an accounting degree and has enrolled in graduate school to pursue an MBA.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Middle Tennessee game. Here is his assessment.
When Middle Tennessee has the ball Lockwood already outlined the impact that Alysha Clark has on the Blue Raiders. She is the priority for Tennessee's defense when Middle Tennessee is on offense.
"They play through her even more so than what they've been," Lockwood said. "You look at their last box score, 18 of 22 against Austin Peay. It's no secret. She's getting touches, and they need her to score to win games."
But the other four players on the court with Clark also demand attention, according to Lockwood.
"They've got some great shooters," he said. "Jackie Pickel, pure shooter (Anne Marie) Lanning is a very good shooter. She's not producing right now like she's capable but, you wait, that kid will do more, and I hope it's not going to be Wednesday night. (Chelsia) Lymon does a very good job of taking what's there. She's good off the drive. If she's open she'll shoot a three, but she's not forcing them, and she's also got a pull-up game.
"And then who I really like, too, is Brandi Brown. She's always had the three-point game, but she's playing a little bit more in the post now. Against LSU she had a number of good scoring opportunities where she got in the post and she faked one way and would shoot a turn-around jumper or shoot a little jump hook, which she has done a good job of developing.
"You've got five kids who you've got to guard. There's nobody you can say, ‘We're going to play off her.' I think how you guard them, there are some specific ways to guard each of those kids, but there is nobody on that floor – and I think that's what makes them good offensively – that you can say we're not going to guard and that has not been true in our three previous games."
Defensively, Lockwood expects varied looks from Middle Tennessee.
"They've been primarily a man to man team, but it wouldn't shock me to see some zone off of them," Lockwood said. "They pressed against LSU. They used a 2-2-1 press and a man-to-man press.
"I think we'll see a variety of things. It's going to be how the game goes. I don't think they necessarily have every segment of that game mapped. I think they said, ‘Here's what we're going to do early. Let's see how Tennessee reacts.' I think a lot of what they do is going to be based on what we're doing or not doing."
When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols will play inside-out with the ball getting passed into the posts or getting into the paint via penetration.
"It's not going to change," Lockwood said. "We do have a little bit of a size advantage, so we want to at least get touches, but our perimeter has got to do a good job as well. One of the things we watched on the Virginia tape is that when we're moving the ball, we're spreading teams out, we're so much better. And that's not genius stuff, but at times we would have the ball in the middle and back to the same side.
"When we're getting ball reversal and we're spacing out, we're a lot more effective. So in addition to playing through our middle that's something we want to do."
Defensively, Tennessee is likely to return to its man schemes after opening the season in its matchup zone for long stretches of time.
It has surprised opposing coaches – not that they didn't know it was coming after the Baylor game, but just the fact they're seeing Tennessee in a zone.
"The objective is to stop the other team," Lockwood said. "It's about, ‘How can we stop you?' For us, we're going by game to game, we're going by opponent strength, and how we match up against it.
"Is man to man still the bedrock defense here? You'd better believe it is. Because you can't play a good zone unless you have good man principles. So that's just common sense. But the object is to stop the other team and I don't care if you use a zone, a man, a gimmick defense, the object is to get stops so we will go game by game and opponent by opponent."
Tennessee used its zone a lot against Baylor and Virginia because those teams are adept at getting to the rim. Middle Tennessee plays through Clark and has good outside shooters, so the Blue Raiders aren't expected to put the ball on the floor as much as the other teams Tennessee has faced so far.
"In terms of the penetration game, Virginia made us get down and defend, so I am glad we had that," Pat Summitt said. "As far as having situations where we may want to double team that is something we will look at and we did it (Monday) in practice.
"I don't envision us playing as much zone. I think we'll have to man up on them. Just in what I saw (Monday) in practice and in the second half (Sunday) we went to our five defense (switching man to man), and I really liked what I saw. The only person who didn't switch out was Kelley (by design)."
Summitt smiled when she was told that opposing coaches are still adjusting to seeing the Lady Vols in a zone. But she likes what she has seen so far.
"I do," Summitt said. "It's all about figuring out a way to be successful, and we may play a lot of man. We may get in the game and see that we need to go zone. I liked our switching man (Sunday). I thought that was the best thing in the second half. It's a wait and see.
"What I really like, though, is our versatility. As we get everyone invested in what they have to do, then that's the big thing. We've got to get Kamiko (Williams) at a different level. She can really help us. She's a great athlete. She's got a good offensive game. She's just loose right now. She's got to get more serious about her game."
Glory Johnson said the success of the zone stems from the players accepting the coaches' system and teaching.
"When we first practiced it we were kind of a little hesitant, but we still trusted our coaches and we knew that they knew what they were doing," Johnson said. "Trusting the system and listening to everything they're telling us to do, and it's worked so far."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Middle Tennessee, 16-0. The teams last played in Murfreesboro on Nov. 26, 1979, with Tennessee winning 63-48. Former Lady Vol Debbie Groover, who stopped by to visit at Monday's practice, scored 13 points in that game. The next game between the two teams was at a neutral site in 1981 and then in Knoxville in 1984. The teams didn't play again until 2006, with the last three games being in Knoxville. … Tennessee is 8-1 in games played on November 25. The last game on this date was in 2008, an 83-56 win over Western Carolina. The lone loss on this date was in 2004 at Texas, 74-59. That day was also a travel nightmare for the Lady Vols as the bus broke down on the way to the game at the Erwin Center in Austin and then the charter plane had engine issues and the team had to wait for a new plane to be sent for the return trip home. … The Lady Vols have tallied 10,011 in season ticket sales. Despite the sputtering economy and the disappointment of last season that is barely off the 10,400 season tickets sold a year ago.