Wednesday, December 19, 2007

California dreaming: Lady Vols head west

The Tennessee women’s basketball team hasn’t been this far from home all season.

The Lady Vols don’t have to count the miles from here to the West Coast for affirmation. The nature of the competition ought to suffice.

The road starts in earnest for UT with a game against UCLA. Tipoff is 10 tonight at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles. The trip concludes at No. 5 Stanford on Saturday night.

To date, top-ranked Tennessee (9-0) has played only two games away from home. The first, against Oklahoma on Nov. 15, was at a neutral site in Tampa, Fla. The second, versus West Virginia on Nov. 21, was senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle’s homecoming game in Charleston, W.Va, and drew many UT supporters.

There will be no such mitigating circumstances surrounding tonight’s game. It will be played on the Bruins’ home court against a team that, despite its 4-5 record, gave then-No. 3 Maryland a tussle at this venue before losing 79-75 Nov. 25.

On the one hand, the Lady Vols have plenty of battle-tested veterans who know their way around real road games. Their experience informs them about the importance of defense and rebounding and warns them about an opponent possibly playing above and beyond its usual means.

Senior center Nicky Anosike’s senses have been honed to the point where she apparently can detect a different tone to the referee’s whistle.

“I think when you go on the road you have to be more prepared not to get calls,’’ she said.

On the other hand, the Lady Vols have freshman Angie Bjorklund starting. Fellow rookies Vicki Baugh and Sydney Smallbone are called upon off the bench. Therefore, one-third of UT’s lineup still needs guidance.

“Our young players have typically played better at home, and that’s not uncommon by any means,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said. “I do feel like we’ve been able to get them some experience on the road. Our young players haven’t played as well on the road this year. That is just part of the process.”

The majority of that road experience was confined to Bjorklund’s 29 playing minutes against West Virginia. Baugh and Smallbone played a combined 12 minutes in that game. Baugh was limited to five minutes after suffering a strained left knee in the first half and being held out as a precaution.

Against Oklahoma, the trio combined for 32 minutes — a manageable workload for one player, let alone three. Again, Bjorklund was the busiest, playing 19 minutes.

After shortening its bench for a hard-fought 83-79 victory over North Carolina on Dec. 2, Tennessee has spread the playing minutes more evenly across its last three games. The only deterrent was Baugh’s foul trouble limiting her to nine minutes versus Old Dominion.

Summitt has seen enough to say: “I have more of an awareness of where we are with our bench. We are making progress.

She also knows where Tennessee is for the next two games.

“Would I go four deep on this road trip? Yes, I’d like to,’’ Summitt said. “Minutes played? It depends on how they step out on the floor and perform. Will I be patient? Possibly. These are two fine teams and two big road games for us. Ultimately we want to come home with two wins.”

Viewing Option: UCLA All-Access will have tonight’s game live on the internet at Video and audio are free. Those interested merely need to register.

Getting the Gold: Summitt and former players Holly Warlick, Jill Rankin and Cindy Noble were members of the 1980 U.S. women’s team and are among the Olympians this week officially recognized with Congressional Gold Medals.

Notebook: Former Los Angeles Lakers’ great Jerry West and Lakers’ general manager Mitch Kupchak attended practice Tuesday ... Lady Vols forward Candace Parker went to the Toronto Raptors game against the Los Angeles Clippers Tuesday night. Parker’s brother, Anthony, is a guard for the Raptors.

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