Sunday, February 10, 2008

Parker, Auguste and Bjorklund pronounced fit to play against Rutgers

The injury news was all good for Tennessee on Sunday afternoon.

Specifically, the update was good enough for Pat Summitt. And that was saying something, considering UT's women's basketball coach earlier had tumbled to the court after accidentally backing into freshman forward Vicki Baugh.

"I'm the only injury, isn't that great news?'' Summitt asked rhetorically. "Better me than anybody else."

Lady Vols Candace Parker (left knee bruise), Alberta Auguste (left shoulder/biceps strain) and Angie Bjorklund (broken nose) all were on the court Sunday after suffering injuries in Thursday night's game at Mississippi State. Parker was wearing a sleeve on her knee, finding one that fit properly by the workout's conclusion.

The trio was pronounced fit to play against Rutgers at 7 tonight at Thompson-Boling Arena. (TV: ESPN2).

"It's a great feeling,'' said Summitt, ignoring her discomfort, "a great feeling."

Tennessee will line up like Tennessee for tonight's top-10 showdown, which will be part of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association's "Think Pink" campaign to raise breast cancer awareness. The return of the aforementioned players will aid the second-ranked Lady Vols (21-1) in playing up to their capabilities, too.

The seventh-ranked Scarlet Knights (19-3) will require the best response that UT can summon. Summitt can imagine Rutgers' motivation after its 59-46 loss to Tennessee in last season's national championship game in Cleveland, Ohio.

"If you flip the script and we're playing them and they beat us for a national championship, I can imagine the emotional intensity and level of competitiveness,'' Summitt said. "I expect that from them."

UT is embarking on a difficult three-game stretch that continues with No. 8 LSU on Thursday and at Vanderbilt on Sunday. Rutgers, meanwhile, is completing a four-game obstacle course that started with games at West Virginia and Pittsburgh and continued last Tuesday with a 73-71 upset at home of top-ranked Connecticut.

A lineup like that doesn't leave much room to breathe, let alone celebrate.

"I did not even spend 30 seconds thinking about how great we played (versus Connecticut) when I came to practice the other day,'' Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. "I was excited when we played UConn as I should have been, but when I came to practice the next day I did not say one word about it. The next focus was Tennessee."

Rutgers' overall schedule is ranked third in degree of difficulty by, behind Tennessee's and Connecticut's. The Scarlet Knights have forged their play against Stanford, LSU, Maryland and Duke.

"I think Vivian strategically put together a very demanding schedule and I think it's helped them,'' Summitt said. "They're not going to back down from anyone. ... So they're as prepared as we are when you look at who they've played and the toughness they have shown in a lot of big games."

Compared to their last meeting with UT, Rutgers is more physically imposing around the basket. Rashidat Junaid started at center against Connecticut, allowing Kia Vaughn to move to forward and creating a 6-foot-4 tandem on the front line.

The Scarlet Knights also are potentially more explosive. Guard Epiphanny Prince scored two points in the national championship game last April. She went off for a career-high 33 against Connecticut. The 5-foot-9 sophomore was encouraged by Huskies center Tina Charles, Prince's friend, to have a scoring encore ready for UT.

"I told (Epiphanny) 'make sure you beat them,' " Charles said. "I told her to play her 'A' game, just like she did against us."

Interestingly, Rutgers had success against UConn with its "55" defense, a press Stringer picked up when she was coaching at Iowa from Hawkeyes men's coach Tom Davis. His assistant was Tennessee men's coach Bruce Pearl.

The Lady Vols' coaching staff consulted Pearl in preparing for the alignment last season.

"I do believe that Tennessee knows how to break the play and what's going on with it,'' Stringer said.

Being prepared for everything else Rutgers dishes out with its physical, defensive-minded style is another matter. It's a good idea for Tennessee to remember last season as well and consider its own encore.

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