Thursday, March 31, 2005

Despite injuries, the Tennessee Volunteers are back

DETROIT - When the season began, coach Pat Summitt anticipated having another strong team at Tennessee.

The Women's Final Four in Indianapolis was a realistic expectation after last season's young Vols reached the NCAA championship game. None of the three departing seniors were dominant players, and the entering class was considered the best in the history of the women's game.

But then knee injuries hit. The Vols are now down four players from the start of the season - freshmen Candace Parker and Alex Fuller have missed the entire season, freshman Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood battled knee pain before February surgery, and sophomore Sidney Spencer suffered torn knee ligaments during a February practice, ending her season.

That solved the Vols' preseason question about playing time with a 15-player team, but the group now in the NCAA tournament looks a bit different from what Summitt expected, even in early February.

It makes Tennessee's reappearance in the Final Four all the more remarkable. The Vols play Michigan State in Sunday night's second game at the RCA Dome.

"If you'd tell me going into the year we'd be without the following players mentioned, I would say it's a long and very challenging year for us," Summitt said Thursday.

Spencer's loss was the toughest, she said.

"The others arrived with complications, but with Sid, I'll tell you that was the hardest one to take because of the timing of it and all the dimensions of her game because she can play multiple positions," Summitt said. "But the team handled it so well."

The Lady Vols arrive in Indianapolis with a 30-4 record. All their losses came against top-15 teams, including one on the road to Rutgers_avenged in Tuesday's regional final.

Tennessee is similar to Michigan State, though with far less stable parts. There are only two double-figure scorers_Shyra Ely at 14.5 points and Shanna Zolman at 12.5. With 30 starts, Ely is the only Lady Vol to have started more than 24 games.

Eight players have started this season. Among the biggest surprises has been Alexis Hornbuckle, one of the freshmen who survived and thrived. She averages 8.4 points and 5.4 rebounds.

But even though MSU assistant coach Al Brown was an assistant at Tennessee in 1995-2002, that doesn't help much in this week's preparations. Most of the players he knew have moved on, and Summitt never lets anything remain stagnant.

"Part of it is personnel and part of it is Pat because she is constantly changing," Brown said. "She's constantly upgrading; that's what makes her so unique. It's an ongoing change with her, often by the month. It's not a static situation."

As successful as Summitt has been_during the tournament she surpassed Dean Smith's NCAA record for victories and now has 882 -- she's disturbed by the expectation that Tennessee should win solely on reputation.

When someone pointed out that the Vols have gone since 1998 without a national title_their longest drought since their first championship in 1987 -- Summitt said she had no reservations about her program.

"I'm proud of the teams that have been there and played in the championship games and have gotten us to Final Four," she said. "In the role we're in, if we don't win a championship, somehow that's a failure? That's not true. Last year's team if anything, people said they overachieved.

"There's no shame in playing in the national championship game and losing to a team that has been dominant the last three years."

Connecticut beat the Vols for its third straight title last season. Tennessee is back for another try, but the Huskies aren't.

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