Injuries caused Tennessee women's coach to adjust her lineup, find new stars.
DETROIT -- When the season began, coach Pat Summitt anticipated having another strong team at Tennessee.
The women's Final Four at the RCA Dome was a realistic expectation after last season's young Lady Vols reached the NCAA championship game. The three departing seniors were not dominant players, and the incoming freshman class was considered the best in the history of the women's game.
But then knee injuries hit. The Lady Vols are down four players from the start of the season -- freshmen Candace Parker and Alex Fuller 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 Tennessee's preseason question about playing time, but the group now playing in the NCAA Tournament looks a bit different from what Summitt expected, even in early February.
The Lady Vols play Michigan State in Sunday's second national semifinal game.
"If you'd told me going into the year we'd be without the (missing players), I would say it's a long and very challenging year for us," Summitt said.
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."
All of the Lady Vols' losses came against top-15 teams. 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.
Even though Michigan State assistant coach Al Brown was an assistant at Tennessee in 1995-2002, that doesn't help much this week. 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, she's disturbed by the expectation that Tennessee should win solely on reputation.
When someone pointed out that the Lady Vols haven't won a national title since 1998 -- 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 the 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."