Sunday, March 02, 2008

It's board games for Lady Vols

Summitt has reason to get defensive

Of all the motivational seeds planted by Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt in the past two months, the one that's taken root and beginning to flower is rebounding.

Heading into the regular-season finale at SEC rival Georgia tonight (TV: ESPN2, 7 p.m.), the Lady Vols have not been outrebounded in their past 12 games. Two of those games (Kentucky and LSU) were deadlocks. The third-ranked Lady Vols (26-2, 12-1 SEC) have controlled the other 10 by an average margin of 9.7. Their rule was ruthless against Florida Thursday night, with a season-high 57 rebounds and a season-best plus-22 dominance.

In the process, the Lady Vols have upped their rebounding margin for the season to plus 5.1 per game.

"Like coach says, rebounds win championships,'' said freshman forward Angie Bjorklund, who grabbed seven rebounds against the Gators. "We need rebounds in the postseason. That's what's going to win. That's what won for them last year, just from watching."

They'll need rebounds against No. 22 Georgia (21-7, 8-5), too. Statistically, the Lady Vols and Lady Bulldogs are the top two rebounding teams in the league at 41.2 and 41.1 respectively. There's a greater disparity in conference play with UT holding a five-rebound advantage (41.9-36.8). No matter, Lady Bulldogs Tasha Humphrey and Angel Robinson are productive regardless of the boards they're crashing. They combine for about 17 rebounds per game.

The Lady Vols have reached their status the hard way. They were outrebounded in six of their first 16 games and two of their first three SEC games. Two of the deficits reached double figures, including a minus 18 against North Carolina on Dec. 2.

The Lady Vols looked outnumbered that December night. Against Florida, they were overwhelming. The Gators had braced for the possibility and beefed up their starting lineup, deploying 6-foot-3 junior Aneika Henry. Yet when the siege started, they were no match.

"We just weren't physical enough,'' Florida coach Amanda Butler said. "That was disappointing because a majority of what we spent our time preparing for was how physical Tennessee plays. We knew if we didn't initiate the contact and didn't do a good job of boxing out, we would have a result like we did."

Thursday's 88-61 victory showcased two key benefits of rebounding. First, center Nicky Anosike's early assault energized a team that has been inconsistent in its effort.

"When she gets those rebounds, it brings a ton of energy,'' Bjorklund said. "Her intensity inside and her aggressiveness to the boards, it gets me excited.''

Second, the Lady Vols' 32 defensive rebounds literally opened up the court, allowing them to create a tempo that produced 78 field goal attempts and contributed to their season-high 27 assists.

"The best way to get into our transition game is to get on the defensive boards,'' said guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who grabbed a season-high 10 rebounds against Florida. "So we make a point to start there and then finish it out on the offensive end."

Summitt's sermons have centered primarily on the value of defensive rebounding. She repeating the message at length after Thursday's game.

"The defensive boards have been a great priority because I think you know players want to rebound on the offensive end,'' she said. "They get their names in the paper. It's obviously a chance for them to score.

Defense is a little bit different situation. There's not a lot of praise. People don't put you in the headlines for being a great defensive rebounder, at least not very often in my career."

Summitt has her reasons for remaining vigilant. While the Lady Vols have been winning the rebounding war lately, they've lost the defensive battle within the war three times. It played a part in a 78-62 loss to LSU on Feb. 14.

"If we want to win an SEC championship,'' Summitt said, "or be in the hunt and get to Tampa and aspire to win a national championship, our defensive boards have to be just as important to us as our offensive boards."

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