Monday, January 22, 2007

Bobbitt, Tennessee ready to take on top-ranked Duke

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Shannon Bobbitt glanced both ways, then focused her attention back on the basket straight ahead.

Speedy point guard Shannon Bobbitt, Pat Summitt's first juco signee since 1977, is averaging 7.5 points and 3.3 assists.

But when the Tennessee point guard hoisted up the 3-point attempt, it missed everything. She got another chance just a few seconds later after a teammate's rebound, but this time, Bobbitt's shot was even uglier: nothing but … backboard.

A half hour later after Saturday's practice had ended, Bobbitt was patient as this reporter gently tried to revisit the two misses.

"I took two bad shots out there," Bobbitt admitted, not defensively but just matter-of-fact. "A good shooter doesn't dwell on it. I was going to get back on defense, no problem."

Actually, No. 4 Tennessee (17-1) is hoping Bobbitt's defense poses quite a problem when Lindsey Harding and top-ranked Duke (19-0) visit Thompson-Boling Arena on Monday night (ESPN2, 7 ET).

The Blue Devils climbed to No. 1 just a week ago after toppling defending NCAA champion Maryland. Harding broke down the Terps' defense time and again off the dribble to score a career-best 28 points. The 5-foot-8 senior point guard torched Tennessee in their last meeting, too, finishing with a team-high 15 points, four assists and eight steals as Duke routed the Lady Vols 75-53 almost exactly a year ago, on Jan. 23, 2006.

Harding, one of the country's top point guards, not to mention a national player of the year candidate, has taken on a bigger offensive role at Duke this season, increasing her scoring average almost four points to 14.1 ppg while shooting 48.2 percent from the field.

To hand Duke its first loss Monday, the Lady Vols -- who have won 11 consecutive games since losing to North Carolina on Dec. 3 but have dropped two straight against the Blue Devils -- know they'll need to keep Harding in check.

"I don't think Harding is someone you can stop," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said after Saturday's practice. "I think she's a player if we can contain in the full court … if we can just slow down their transition game to some degree of success, that will be really key for us."

Whether out of respect for Harding's talent or hesitancy to put too much pressure on any one player, seemingly everyone in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday -- from Summitt to Bobbitt to superstar Candace Parker -- avoided talking about any specific, crucial one-on-one matchups for Monday.

Said Parker: "It's definitely going to be a team effort."

Added Bobbitt: "Us as a whole, we all just got to get back on defense and pick up the point guard and the 2-guards as quickly as possible."

And Summitt? The coach with 930 career wins was quick to spread the wealth, too, pointing out that Tennessee won't hesitate to rotate its four guards and that junior Alexis Hornbuckle will also often draw the defensive assignment on Harding.

There's no doubting that a total team effort will be needed from whichever team emerges as Monday's winner. And it's impossible to downplay Hornbuckle's contributions -- even as she struggled through a 2-for-10 shooting effort against UConn earlier this month, for example, Hornbuckle's hustle on defense and on the boards played a vital part of the win.

But no one can deny Bobbitt's an X factor. With speed Summitt has compared to North Carolina's Ivory Latta or former LSU standout Temeka Johnson, Bobbitt just might have the sort of fast feet that might be able to force Harding side-to-side as opposed to penetrating inside.

In the two biggest games of the season so far, Bobbitt played well defensively. She certainly helped frustrate UConn guard Renee Montgomery ("Tennessee shut down our offense … I didn't take control of the game," Montgomery confessed) in the Lady Vols' Jan. 6 win in Hartford, Conn. Bobbitt also put in a terrific defensive effort on Latta and played a part in slowing down UNC's frenetic pace in a 13-point loss on Dec. 3 ("I though it was too slow. I wanted to push the ball more. I don't think we were as aggressive offensively as we needed to be," Tar Heels coach Sylvia Hatchell said afterward).

Still, someone more than 300 miles away Saturday was the only person who didn't talk around Monday's impending matchup.

"[Bobbitt] has added a lot of speed and quickness at the top of the point for Tennessee," Harding said during a phone interview. "A lot of teams like to trap, but she's a player who can break through it. And defensively, her quickness makes it harder to get by her. She's brought a lot to Tennessee."

Bobbitt's road to Knoxville was more roundabout than most of her teammates'. Bobbitt (Trinity Valley CC) and fellow Tennessee junior Alberta Auguste (Central Florida CC) are just the second and third junior college signees in Summitt's 33-year tenure, and the first Lady Vol juco players since 1977. At 5 feet, 2 inches, Bobbitt is also the shortest scholarship player in Tennessee history.

Bobbitt has started all but one game this season and is averaging 7.5 points. The Lady Vols' second-best 3-point shooter, Bobbitt is 28-for-68 from behind the arc and ranks second in assists (59, or 3.3 per game) behind Hornbuckle.

But Bobbitt seems to relish her role as a defensive stalwart, too, and seemed to look forward to the challenge of defending Harding, even willing to give up her trade secrets.

"I watch her stomach … she can fake with her eyes, but her stomach's still going to be there," Bobbitt explained. "I'm going to play her straight up; you can't force her left or right because she can use both hands. She's a great player and I'm just going to do the best I can."

Harding knows what's coming.

"I think the thing Tennessee looks to do is try to get the point guard out of the play, deny her the ball and not let her touch it," said Harding, whose Blue Devils beat Tennessee in their last (and only) meeting in Knoxville and are one of just nine teams to win at Thompson-Boling. "But the good part about our team is that I have three other players on the floor who can play point."

And if they end up with the ball in their hands, Bobbitt will be watching their stomachs, too.

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