Thursday, March 03, 2005

No. 5 Tennessee Aims for SEC Tourney Title

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- For the first time since 1997, Tennessee is going to the Southeastern Conference tournament without a trophy.

The No. 5 Lady Vols are not the SEC regular-season champions. That honor went to top-ranked LSU, which beat Tennessee on Feb. 10 and finished a perfect 14-0 in conference to snap the Vols' streak of seven straight crowns.

Tennessee hasn't won the SEC tournament since 2000, but the Lady Vols have some extra incentive this year.

"We do have a veteran team that understands tournament play," coach Pat Summitt said Wednesday. "And (there's) a little bit of motivation since they did not win the regular season."

That's not the only reason to win when the SEC tournament begins Thursday in Greenville, S.C. Summitt is one victory from tying Adolph Rupp for second place in all-time NCAA wins and could break Dean Smith's win record as soon as the second round of the national tournament -- if the Lady Vols win out this weekend.

Summitt is in third place at 875 victories, behind Rupp (876) and Smith (879), but doesn't want the record chase to be a distraction.

"Obviously this program has enjoyed tremendous success, and I'm thankful for the opportunity the university provided Pat Summitt a long time ago and more importantly for the commitment they made to women's basketball," she said.

Tennessee received a first-round bye as the second seed and will face either Kentucky or Auburn in the second round Friday.

Summitt likes what she's seen from her team in practice this week.

"They really seemed excited about preparing," Summitt said. "So from that standpoint I go in optimistic, but we've been in the business long enough here to know the players have to bring it themselves when it comes gametime. The leadership has to be there, which we're counting on from our seniors."

The Lady Vols went 13-1 in the SEC this season and have lost only three regular-season conference games during their run of seven titles. They shared the 2000 title with Georgia.

The 68-58 loss at LSU last month ended Tennessee's SEC regular-season win streak at 42 games. The Lady Vols had trouble stopping LSU's Seimone Augustus, who had 25 points, and Sylvia Fowles, who finished with 17 rebounds and five blocked shots.

Tennessee rebounded well from the loss, especially on offense. After shooting 31 percent against LSU, the Lady Vols have shot at least 43 percent in their past five games, going 50 percent or better in three of those games.

"We have made a significant improvement on our half-court execution. In particular, I think our shot selection is better, and that has led to just being percentage-wise at a different place," Summitt said. "That is a must for us. You've got to make shots."

Seniors Shyra Ely, Brittany Jackson and Loree Moore are looking to win their first SEC tournament.

"We've won the last three regular seasons but lost the last three tournaments. Maybe it's time to turn the tables and win the tournament games," Ely said. "I think it's really important to the senior class."

Tennessee has won 10 SEC tournament titles but struggled in the last four seasons after winning in 2000. The Lady Vols have reached the finals only once since then.

The Lady Vols found out last week they will enter the postseason without two reserves. Forward Sidney Spencer has a torn ACL, and guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood has patellar tendinitis that requires surgery.

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