Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Tennessee squad one of youngest ever for Summitt

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Angie Bjorklund doesn't like to think of this as a rebuilding year for Tennessee.

"Here at Tennessee, we don't rebuild it. We reload,'' the sophomore guard said Tuesday at the team's annual media day.

Either way, coach Pat Summitt has a lot of work to do after losing five key players from last season's national championship squad, including 2008 player of the year, Candace Parker.

It's one of the youngest teams the Hall of Fame coach has ever led: one senior, four sophomores, a redshirt freshman and six true freshmen. Only one player - Bjorklund - has regular starting experience.

Filling the holes left by Parker, Alexis Hornbuckle, Nicky Anosike, Shannon Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste could be a tall order for this youthful team.

"The fact that we lost five starters from the postseason play, we know we're going to have to grow up in a hurry. We're not going to expect anything less,'' Summitt said.

The challenge to grow up goes beyond the freshmen, which was rated the top 2008 recruiting class. Summitt is looking to senior forward Alex Fuller and Bjorklund for leadership this season.

It's not necessarily a natural role for Fuller and Bjorklund, who have been among the quieter players in the lineup. They've been working on getting more vocal in practices and scrimmages and getting accustomed to their teaching roles with the younger players.

"I've enjoyed it because it hasn't only helped them, it helps me learn how to speak to people and learn how to help people,'' said Fuller, who teammates have jokingly dubbed her "grandma'' for her elder status among so many freshmen and sophomores.

Much of Summitt's work now is devoted to teaching the new players how to practice and perform at the level she expects of her Lady Vols squad. Many freshmen aren't accustomed to the intensity level of practice when they first arrive at Tennessee.

That's not necessarily true with two freshmen, forward Glory Johnson, of Knoxville, and guard Shekinna Stricklen, of Morrilton, Ark.

Johnson and Stricklen, both McDonald's All-Americans, had intense high school coaches and practices that put them ahead of their Lady Vols classmates, and both have a shot at making an impact early in the season, Summitt said.

"I'm probably not set on anything right now other than Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson will be in the lineup,'' she said.

Other freshmen, like forward Amber Gray, from West Chester, Ohio, are "learning to find a different gear,'' but are making process, Summitt said.

Despite winning the last two national championships, Summitt is happy to be able to teach young players who are hungry to learn. That was sometimes a stretch last season as she struggled to motivate a group of seniors who had already won one title.

"There's something to be said about having a young team. It certainly fires me up,'' she said. "I look forward to practice, I say this all the time - it's my classroom, it's my favorite time of the day.''

A national title three-peat might be just out of reach for this team, but there is one landmark to achieve this season. Summitt is only 17 wins away from amassing 1,000 in her career and could achieve that by mid-January at the earliest.

"I know one thing, I hope we can get there in a hurry and get it over with,'' Summitt said.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lady Vols learn intensity

KNOXVILLE — Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt was returning from SEC Media Days in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday when she called to check on the progress of her team’s practice, which was being led by assistant coaches in her absence.

“How’s it going?” Summitt asked first-year assistant Daedra Charles-Furlow.

“Not good,” Charles-Furlow replied bluntly.

Little changed when Summitt arrived.

“Even when I got here, they may have picked it up a little bit, but they had already pretty much established how they were going to practice that day,” said Summitt, whose team includes six true freshmen and one redshirt freshman.

Summitt said she was particularly disappointed with the team’s low energy and lack of respect for coaching.

“It’s unacceptable. It’s not like all those freshmen have all the answers yet,” she said.

Because of the lackluster performance, Summitt added a 6 a.m. practice Thursday to one scheduled in the afternoon.

With senior Alex Fuller and sophomore Angie Bjorklund attending media days with Summitt, redshirt sophomore Cait McMahan was one of four returning players at Wednesday’s practice.

“I’m glad it happened because we learned a lot from that day,” McMahan said. “It needed to happen, and we learned from it.”

One result has been more physical practices.

“We’ve picked up the intensity five times as much since Wednesday,” said McMahan, whose arms were dotted with a patchwork of bruises before practice Friday.

“We just go at it. It’s physical, and we have to bring it.”

Former Lady Vol Alberta Auguste can attest. A member of last year’s national championship team, Auguste has recently aided in workouts to help the six newcomers adjust to the demands of a college program.

“(The freshmen) work hard, and they don’t give up,” Auguste said. “They’ve got a lot of fight in them. It’s just discipline right now. They need a lot of discipline.

“They just have to listen. It’s more about getting feedback and listening to what coaches have to say, and learn from it and grow from it.”

But to prevent mental lapses like Wednesday’s practice, Summitt said she wants upperclassmen and returning players to be assume more assertive team leadership roles.

That includes McMahan.

When the point guard wasn’t taking an active role in a drill during Friday’s practice, Summitt verbally reprimanded her.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Summitt to receive Lapchick Award

Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt has been selected as an inaugural recipient of the Joe Lapchick Character Award.

The award, the idea of former St. John’s player and longtime high school coach Gus Alfieri, was established to recognize basketball coaches who have shown the character and coaching ability of Hall of Famer Joe Lapchick, who coached at St. John’s and with the New York Knicks.

Other recipients being honored at at the Nov. 20 ceremony at Madison Square Garden in New York City will be Hall of Fame coaches Lou Carnesecca of St. John’s and Dean Smith of North Carolina.

“There could not be a better time to focus attention on character in sports but the present and Joe Lapchick is the model for the person we should look to,” said Alfieri, who was on Lapchick’s 1959 NIT Championship team.

Summitt, who enters the 2008-09 season with a 983-182 career record in 34 seasons at Tennessee, is the winningest coach in college Division I basketball history. Every student-athlete Summitt has coached and finished her eligibility at Rocky Top has graduated. She is very involved in the community and continues to be a spokeswoman for the United Way.

“It is an honor to have been selected as the first recipient of the Joe Lapchick Character Award. He was a legendary figure on both the collegiate and professional level of our game,” said Summitt. “I am humbled to accept an award which bears his name.”

Lapchick was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1966 after a successful playing career with the Original Celtics and Cleveland Rosenblums. He won four NIT championships in 20 seasons at St. John’s and led the NBA’s New York Knicks to three NBA Finals.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Former Lady Vol Nicky Anosike named NCAA Woman of the Year

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - Former University of Tennessee Lady Vol basketball standout Nicky Anosike (2004-08), a two-time NCAA Champion, was honored tonight as the 2008 NCAA Woman of the Year Award in Indianapolis, Ind.

Anosike, who just completed her first season as a member of the WNBA All-Rookie team while playing for the Minnesota Lynx, was unfortunately unavailable to attend. She is spending the off-season playing basketball in Israel and her Elizur Ramla team opened the season today versus Maccabi in Ashdod, Israel.

Anosike received the award--one of the most prestigious that the NCAA bestows--at the 18th annual NCAA Woman of the Year Awards Dinner at the Murat Centre Egyptian Room in Indianapolis. Accepting the award on her behalf was her mother, Ngozi Anosike and her head coach at Tennessee, Pat Summitt. The award honors female student-athletes who have completed their eligibility and demonstrated academic and athletic excellence, as well as community service and leadership.

"We are all so excited for Nicky," exclaimed Summitt. "She is one of the hardest working student-athletes I have encountered in my 35 years of coaching.

"Nicky worked tirelessly in the classroom and wanted to be challenged every day. When one major wasn?t enough, she picked up another one. That stimulated her to tackle a third major and while juggling life and being a student-athlete at Tennessee, she turned in a 3.74 GPA. Academically, she was truly amazing," said Summitt.

Her coach also saw Anosike transfer that quest for knowledge on the basketball court. "I don't think Nicky had any idea how much potential she had or gifted she was as a basketball player when she came to Tennessee," said Summitt. "For four years, Nicky worked on every aspect of her game to improve daily. Her tenacity and unfailing will to succeed helped us to win two NCAA titles.

"Nicky Anosike is a winner in life and she embodies all of the traits of the NCAA Woman of the Year. We are so honored and proud of her!" Summitt said.

The original list of candidates of 130 female student-athletes for the NCAA Woman of the Year Award was narrowed down to a top three list for each division (I, II, III). A committee comprised of representatives from NCAA member schools and conferences selected the top 30 honorees and then nine finalists were named, three from each division. The Committee on Women's Athletics selected Anosike from the nine finalists. An hour-long broadcast of the event will air on ESPN2 at 4:30pm on Dec. 5.

Anosike, a Staten Island, N.Y., native, is the third NCAA Woman of the Year from the University of Tennessee and joins Lauren McCalley, diver, 2005 and Catherine Byrne, swimmer, 1992 as recipients. In the 18 year history of the award, Anosike is just the second basketball player to earn the honor joining 1995 honoree Rebecca Lobo of Connecticut. Anosike was a triple major at UT studying political science, criminal justice and legal studies and earned a 3.74 GPA.

The NCAA Woman of the Year Award was created to honor a senior female student-athlete who has distinguished herself throughout her collegiate career excelling academically and athletically in addition to demonstrating strong community service and leadership. To be eligible, the female student-athlete must have earned a varsity letter in an NCAA-sponsored sport and competed during the 2007-08 academic year. In addition, each individual must have completed intercollegiate eligibility in her primary sport by the end of the 2008 spring season and must have a minimum cumulative grade-point average of 2.5. The Award has been given by the National Collegiate Athletic Association since 1992. The prior recipients of the NCAA Woman of the Year Award are:

1991 Mary Beth Riley, Canisius College
1992 Catherine Byrne, University of Tennessee
1993 Nnenna Lynch, Villanova University
1994 Tanya Jones, University of Arizona
1995 Rebecca Lobo, University of Connecticut
1996 Billie Winsett-Fletcher, University of Nebraska
1997 Lisa Coole, University of Georgia
1998 Peggy Boutilier, University of Virginia
1999 Jamila Demby, University of California, Davis
2000 Kristy Kowal, University of Georgia
2001 Kimberly A. Black , University of Georgia
2002 Tanisha Silas, University of California, Davis
2003 Ashley Jo Rowatt Karpinos, Kenyon College
2004 Kelly Albin, University of California, Davis
2005 Lauryn McCalley, University of Tennessee
2006 Anne Bersagel, Wake Forest University
2007 Whitney Myers, University of Arizona
2008 Nicky Anosike, University of Tennessee

2008-09 Tennessee Lady Vol Hoops Opens Practice at Pratt Pavilion

The 35th edition of Tennessee Lady Vol basketball with head coach Pat Summitt at the helm took to the court tonight at the Pratt Pavilion practice facility on the Brenda Lawson Court.

The first official practice of the 2008-09 season for the defending NCAA Champs saw 11 players go through a lively and spirited session. Only sophomore Vicki Baugh, who is still somewhat limited following surgery last May to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, served as a sideline spectator while rehabbing her knee.

Six newcomers joined six returnees for the opening day of team practice. The session was punctuated by a great deal of teaching and breakdown drills for the youngest team in Summitt's tenure on Rocky Top. Newcomers Briana Bass, Alyssia Brewer, Amber Gray, Glory Johnson, Alicia Manning and Shekinna Stricklen were sponges absorbing every defensive dictate and drill and all appeared to be quick studies.

The biggest smiles in the gym might have belonged to a couple of players who redshirted last season due to injuries. Redshirt sophomore point guard Cait McMahan was back on the floor after a year's absence following surgery on June 6, 2007, to repair articular cartilage damage in her right knee. "I can tell you it felt great getting back out on the court tonight," said McMahan. "We've got a young team but there is so much talent. It will be an exciting season."

Also sitting out last season was redshirt freshman Kelley Cain, a 6'6" center who was recovering from surgery in December 2007 to address and correct the patella subluxation of her knee. "Finally!" said Cain. "I was so ready for this day to come. I thought we all did a pretty good job for the first full practice."

McMahan and senior forward Alex Fuller are the only upperclassmen in the group. Joining them are a trio of sophomores including Baugh, Angie Bjorklund (the returning SEC Rookie of the Year) and Sydney Smallbone who all benefitted from a great deal of experience playing on the 2008 NCAA Championship team.

The enthusiastic start was not lost on the head coach. "I really liked the pace of practice tonight with this group. They are athletic and have great quickness rim-to-rim," commented Summitt. "The first thing that I noticed was good team speed in the drills. For such a young group, I'm also impressed with their on-court communication. All in all, a good start."

The Lady Vols return to the court at Pratt Pavilion tomorrow morning. A public practice will be held in Thompson-Boling Arena on Sat., Oct. 25. The time will be announced after kick-off for the UT-Alabama football game is set.

Tennessee's first exhibition game is slated for Nov. 6 in Thompson-Boling Arena versus Carson Newman at 7 p.m.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lady Vols Will Be Youngest, Most Inexperienced Squad

KNOXVILLE -- The University of Tennessee Lady Volunteer basketball team enters the 2008-09 season with the distinction of being the youngest and most inexperienced group ever to don the orange and white uniform.

Nevertheless, this collection of players takes to the court with the same goal of all other previous Tennessee squads, to join the elite assemblage of the "Lady Vols of the Rings."

The record speaks for itself, that season after season Lady Vol Basketball has a championship ring to it.

During head coach Pat Summitt's 35 years at the helm of the winningest program in collegiate history only 153 women have been selected to join the Lady Vol basketball family, including this season's group of six eager newcomers. Incredibly, every Lady Vol hoopster (since 1976) has enjoyed the opportunity to play in at least one Final Four during her career, and 58 of those accomplished women have earned National Championship rings coming in 1987, 1989, 1991, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2007 and 2008.

The University of Tennessee has turned into the "Ringdom" of women's collegiate hoops.

"The student-athletes who come to Tennessee to play on the Lady Vol basketball team want to join our great tradition and hopefully have an opportunity to win a national championship," Summitt said. "We can enjoy that type of success when each player takes responsibility for her individual game and exhibits a great basketball IQ by sharing the ball and playing together."

As the 2008-09 team begins its quest to attain this elite status, the players realize that a brand new line-up will take to the court replacing the quintet of starters drafted by the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA): 6'4" post Nicky Anosike (8.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg), 5'11" forward Alberta Auguste (5.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg), 5'2" point guard Shannon Bobbitt (9.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.3 apg), 5'11" guard Alexis Hornbuckle (9.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and 6'4" redshirt junior All-American, Olympian, Player of the Year and number one draft pick Candace Parker (21.3 ppg and 8.5 rpg).

The scoring and rebounding firepower contributed by the departed starters helped propel the Lady Vols to consecutive national championships in 2007 and 2008.

"No doubt, we lost some great players to graduation" Summitt said. "Each player contributed something unique to make the past two seasons very special. Candace's incredible all-around game... Big Nick's leadership... Alexis' 'whatever we need - get it done attitude'... Little Bit (Bobbitt) bringing up-tempo basketball every night, and Bird's (Auguste) defensive emergence.

"It's crossed my mind that you don't replace players like these overnight," deadpanned Summitt. "Rather than thinking that 'we're rebuilding and won't be as strong,' I'm thinking how excited we are about our incoming and returning talent. The question I have is, 'how long will it take to mold them into a championship team?'

"Time will tell. But it will be fun for our coaching staff to help each player achieve her individual and team goals."

Like the sparkling jewels adorning each of UT's eight National Championship rings, the 2008-09 edition of Tennessee women's basketball is a team of multi-faceted gems. Six players return from last season, including four who saw time on the court and two who were sidelined following surgeries.

Lone fifth-year senior post Alex Fuller (6.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg) is the elder stateswoman of the group. As a junior, the 6'3" Fuller played in 37 games and averaged 15.8 minutes per contest. In her second-ever start in 2008, she replaced Parker in the starting lineup versus #15-ranked DePaul and turned in a career-high 19 points. Although she plays inside, Fuller is capable of pulling the trigger from three-point land as she connected on 22 of 68 treys last season and more than doubled the output of her first two seasons.

"I expect a great deal of insightful leadership from Alex this season," said Summitt. "She came in with a large and highly-touted class herself and has a clear understanding of what needs to be accomplished with a young team. On the court, Alex will play multiple positions for this team," she continued. "Her experience, versatility, great composure and heady play will be an asset for our team in the coming year."

Tennessee's only other upperclassman academically is 5'4" redshirt sophomore point guard Cait McMahan (2.4 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 1.4 apg as a rookie), who will be returning to the court this season after undergoing surgery on June 6, 2007, to repair a lesion on the articular cartilage in her right knee and a subsequent clean-up of the knee on Sept. 3, 2008. Other than helping her team to a championship in 2007, McMahan went through a lot. After battling cancer for most of young Cait's life, her mother, Teresa, finally succumbed to the disease. The loss of her mother was followed by the news of additional surgery to Cait's previously ACL-damaged right knee and having to sit out last season.

"I am so excited to get Cait back on the floor and give her the opportunity to be a leader for this team from her point guard position," said Summitt. "Over the past year she has matured tremendously after facing a lot of adversity. She's in a good place in her life right now and is chomping at the bit to contribute to this team.

"Cait needs to get on the court and get some repetitions to be able to run our sets with efficiency. She knows what we expect from her offensively (with all of our options) and defensively as a vocal leader. Cait said she is anxious to drop her cheerleader pom-poms and get back on the floor," said Summitt.

Between Fuller and McMahan, the upperclasswomen have three starts between them, but that doesn't seem to faze Summitt.

"Yes we are young and short on experience overall, and that inexperience could affect us in the early going. But we are not short on talent, and I am thrilled about the talent and depth at every position.

"Coach (John) Wooden has said many times that he'd take talent over experience any day," said Summitt.

One of the talented players from the Lady Vol sophomore class who gained a ton of experience last season was the 2008 Southeastern Conference Rookie of the Year in 6'0" guard/forward Angie Bjorklund (8.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg), who returns as UT's leading scorer. Bjorklund became just the 11th Lady Vol all-time to start her very first game as a UT freshman. In all, Bjorklund started in 30 of 38 games and tied Tennessee's school record for most three-pointers made in a game with seven on three occasions.

"Angie returns for her sophomore season with valuable playing time and experience on the big stage," said Summitt. "Our team is fortunate to have a player like Angie who opens up our offense and stretches the opponent's defense when they are forced to closely guard her from the three-point line. I see her composure and experience helping to guide our freshmen this season," said the head coach.

Last season, Bjorklund was one-half of the "killer B's" along with classmate Vicki Baugh (5.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg). Prior to their rookie season, Bjorklund and Baugh played on the USA U19 World Championship team and gained valuable experience playing with each other. The synergy they developed while winning the gold medal transferred to their time on the court together at Tennessee.

It was never more evident than during the 67-64 win at Duke in 2008 when the duo took over a lethargic Tennessee team to propel them out of a first half slump. A tremendous multi-dimensional talent, the 6'4" Baugh really came into her own down the stretch last season and returns as UT's most accurate shooter, at 55.2 percent, and leading rebounder, at 4.0 rpg.

Baugh made some key plays in the NCAA title game versus Stanford. With a little more than seven minutes to play, her slashing-through-the-key lay-up gave the Lady Vols a double-digit lead (55-44) that they would not relinquish down the stretch en route to NCAA Championship number eight.

Unfortunately for Baugh, on that play she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee and required reconstructive surgery on May 13, 2008.

"As a freshman, Vicki played a significant role for our basketball team," said Summitt. "Some of her key contributions came in the six games during our national championship run and in the SEC title game. Things were really starting to come together for her, and it's just so unfortunate that she suffered a torn ACL.

"She has been a relentless rehabber and is anxious to return to the floor. When her knee is 100 percent, I see Vicki playing a big role for us. She plays hard on both ends and has a nose for gathering in rebounds - I can still see her grabbing boards in the Louisiana Tech game when she had 16 in just 25 minutes."

The third member of the sophomore class is 5'10" guard Sydney Smallbone (2.9 ppg, 1.1 rpg), who saw action in 29 games last season while logging 11.3 minutes per contest. Smallbone is slated to provide backup at point guard and help hold down the two spot in the lineup. A tough three-point shooter, her playing time should increase with improved defensive play.

"Syd is a year older and more comfortable with what we're doing on both ends of the court," said Summitt. "She is getting her shot off quicker and can really stretch the defense with her three-point shooting ability. Syd has taken the challenge to become a solid defensive player for us."

A solid player all the way around is 6'6" redshirt rookie post Kelley Cain, who is anxious to restart her Lady Vol career. As a true freshman in 2008, Cain initially missed several workouts due to a concussion suffered in practice. She made her Lady Vol debut in the exhibition game versus Carson-Newman in impressive fashion, scoring 11 points, grabbing a dozen boards and adding four assists, three steals and two blocked shots. Unfortunately, the next week in practice, Cain landed on a defender's foot and suffered a subluxated patella which required surgery on Dec. 11, 2007.

At 6'6", she ties Vonda Ward (1991-95) as the tallest Lady Vols in the history of the basketball program. Cain has been impressive in workouts and is a diligent player who absorbs the nuances of a prowler in the paint every day at practice.

"We are very excited about Kelley's return to the court," said Summitt. "She has the entire post package with size, presence, an advanced skill set and a great shooting touch around the basket. I am challenging her to be a rim-to-rim runner and sprinting the floor on every possession.

"Kelley rarely misses a shot, and she is a great post presence on defense. She can play behind or in front to force the lob. She has a great basketball IQ and thinks execute on every play," continued Summitt.

Six returning players have already experienced the excitement of joining the exclusive group of the "Lady Vols of the Rings." They will be a ready reference for the talented and multi-faceted gems in Tennessee's rookie class.

Early on, the head coach saw a meshing of the two groups of returning and rookie players. "At first glance, this team appears to have good team chemistry, high energy, commitment to playing together and sharing the ball, and being intense every day in practice. Our returnees have done a great job in relating the culture of our program to our new players - bringing intensity to every possession. They have been fun to watch.

"And fun to coach," related the head coach. Speaking of coaches, Summitt added a gem to her staff in May 2008 when former Lady Vol and assistant coach Nikki Caldwell left UT to become the head coach at UCLA. With Caldwell's departure, Summitt tabbed former Lady Vol Olympian and All-American Daedra Charles-Furlow to join the Tennessee staff. Charles-Furlow, the Wade Trophy winner in 1991, collected two championship rings as an outstanding Lady Vol center in 1989 and 1991.

"We are thrilled to have Daedra rejoin the Lady Vol basketball family as an assistant coach," said Summitt. "She loves the program and our university and will bring a great deal of knowledge and experience to our staff and players. As a former player she understands both the system and the expectations of the Tennessee program. That combination should prove to be a valuable asset." So, what are the multi-facets of this rookie class which possesses many diverse qualities, talents and features? "I love the versatility of this group," said Summitt. "Just about every player in the class can play multiple positions. Shekinna Stricklen and Alicia Manning can probably play both guard spots or at the three; Glory Johnson, Alyssia Brewer and Amber Gray will mix it up at power forward or in the post." Summitt did concede that, at 5'2", Briana Bass would be best suited at her point guard slot.

Bass, a diminutive sparkplug from Indianapolis, Ind., is extremely quick with great handles and will immediately remind Tennessee fans of the recently graduated Shannon Bobbitt. Bass and Bobbitt share the distinction of being the shortest scholarship players in the history of Lady Vol basketball.

"Briana has great floor leadership and seems comfortable and confident to run our basketball team. She loves to push the ball, has great offensive instincts and is vocal and solid on defense," remarked Summitt. "Bri has a lot to learn-her position plus everyone else's-but she is an eager learner and a great communicator."

If Bass is the shortest rookie at 5'2" then high school All-American Alyssia Brewer is the tallest signee at 6'3". The highly-decorated Sapulpa, Okla., native is a rangy lefty who can step out to the three or mix it up inside with her strength.

"Lyssi has size, touch, excellent passing skills and great court vision," said Summitt. "I want her to develop a scorer's mentality. Her offensive package is very versatile, whether it is her face-up game, stepping outside to shoot a three or her post skills from the four...she is a blend player and has a great up side to her game.

"A key for Lyssi is to commit to being a great rebounder for this team," concluded Summitt.

Already turning heads in camp with her rebounding ability is 6'1" Amber Gray of West Chester, Ohio. Another high school All-American, Gray is an undersized post who can step out to shoot the three-ball and has many facets to her game.

"She is a great communicator," said Summitt. "Amber is talking on the court all the time. She has a great offensive skill set and can defend at the four spot. At the same time, she can play the three and shoots the three-ball pretty well. She is another example of a multiple position player for us."

One of the most decorated rookies for the Lady Vols is high school All-American and local talent Glory Johnson, who could be listed as a "Candace Parker-like" forward-center-guard as a 6'3" blend player. Comparisons of Johnson have been made to the talent level of a young Tamika Catchings on either side of the ball.

"Glory is a terrific athlete, and I'm glad she's in orange," commented the head coach. "I'm very excited about the potential of her game. She reminds me of Tamika Catchings in just how hard she plays. Glory runs the floor, she's aggressive to the ball and the paint, and she makes people around her better.

"She is the type of player who recognizes that she has an opportunity to play a big role here as a hard-nosed player, scorer and rebounder."

Besides dipping into its own backyard for Johnson and the states of Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio and Oklahoma, for other freshmen, the Lady Vols also nabbed a rookie from Georgia in 6'1" guard-forward Alicia Manning from Woodstock.

"Alicia is a skilled player with a great basketball IQ who can help us at either guard spot or the three," said Summitt. "While Cait has been sidelined in the preseason, Alicia has been getting a lot of reps at point guard. She doesn't mind playing off the dribble and gets to the paint. I really like her game."

While the entire team, fueled by the enormous energy from the rookies, has looked good in preseason drills, Summitt is quick to point out the need for great rebounders. "As we try to find ourselves offensively in the early going, we need a huge commitment from all 12 players to defense and board play."

Fortunately for Summitt, she won't have to look very far to get that type of production out of 6'2" rookie forward Shekinna Stricklen, a multi-decorated high school All-American from Morrilton, Ark., who possesses a huge game.

"Both Shekinna and Glory came from strong prep high school backgrounds, and it's no wonder why they are two of the most talented freshmen in the country," remarked Summitt. "I wouldn't hesitate a moment to play Shekinna in any position on the perimeter. She has a great all-around game - range from the three, gets to the rim, is a great passer and has a knack for getting on the boards all of the time.

"Maybe our slogan should be, 'no rebounds, no rings'," quipped Summitt. "Honestly, Shekinna can be a great rebounding guard for us."

Over the last two seasons, the Lady Vols knew that running the ball started with rebounding, and that resulted in two championship rings. Whether or not this team collects any baubles is entirely up to them.

"The personnel may change from year to year, but our system won't change," advised Summitt. "We will play up and down basketball...we will press and run...and we'll establish a strong inside game. It's simply Lady Vol basketball. The caliber of players we have year-in and year-out makes that happen and our fans expect that level of excitement.

"Much like last year, our success as a team was a direct result of how quickly we were able to get our freshman class committed and engaged into this style of play and intensity," reiterated Summitt.

Just because the Lady Vols have the youngest team in program history doesn't mean they will shy away from the competition, as another daunting schedule is waiting in the wings. Summitt wouldn't have it any other way.

"We're not going to change the toughness of our schedule regardless of our roster," exclaimed Summitt. "Our schedule has always prepared us for postseason. Our fans expect it, we expect it and that's who we are."

In addition to the familiar faces of the Southeastern Conference foes, the Lady Vols also will run the gauntlet of powerhouses and traditional rivals.

"Once again, I'm thrilled that we'll be playing 17 home dates (including the exhibition games) in our arena," said Summitt. "Our young team will certainly benefit from playing in front of our great fans -- they will be treated to a tremendous home schedule."

Home schedule highlights include a rematch of the 2008 NCAA Championship game versus Stanford in Knoxville, as well as the Kellie Jolly Harper (Western Carolina head coach) and Tanya Haave (San Francisco head coach) homecoming games. "I am glad that we were able to schedule both Kellie and Tanya's teams at home this season," said Summitt. "I am proud of them and the success they have enjoyed as college coaches. It is so gratifying to see 70 former members of the Lady Vol basketball family involved in coaching at the professional, collegiate and high school levels." In all, UT will be facing competition from 10 different conferences, including a pair of universities each from the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, BIG EAST, Southern and the West Coast Conferences.

The Lady Vols officially open the season at home on Nov. 15, facing the University of San Francisco. That's followed by a visit from the ACC's University of Virginia (Nov. 17) and a trip down the road to Chattanooga (Nov. 21). The Lady Vols close out the month at Thompson-Boling Arena with three consecutive home dates, facing long-time rival Louisiana Tech (Nov. 23), Jolly Harper's Western Carolina Catamounts (Nov. 25) and BIG EAST foe DePaul (Nov. 30).

Tennessee starts the December portion of its schedule on the road at George Washington University (Dec. 2) and takes a break for final exams before resuming hoops on Dec. 11, taking on Middle Tennessee State in Knoxville. The Lady Vols will then hit the road for a pair of games, traveling to Texas (Dec. 14) and Old Dominion (Dec. 18). The Big Orange returns home to take on Stanford in a Sunday night (Dec. 21) prime time meeting on ESPN2. The Lady Vols defeated the Cardinal last April in the 2008 NCAA Final Four title game. Following a break for the Christmas holidays, Tennessee will head to Spokane, Wash., for an Angie Bjorklund homecoming game at Gonzaga (Dec. 30).

In January, the Lady Vols open the 2009 side of the schedule on the road against BIG EAST foe Rutgers on Jan. 3 in a marquee CBS showdown. Back in Knoxville, UT starts SEC play battling Kentucky at home (Jan. 8) and then travels to Vanderbilt (Jan. 11) and Mississippi State (Jan. 15) before hosting South Carolina (Jan. 18). UT hits the road again, going to Arkansas (Jan. 22) and Auburn (Jan. 25) before returning to the Arena to entertain Mississippi (Jan. 29).

Sometime in January or February, the Lady Vols should claim their 17th win of the season. That triumph will be a historical milestone for Coach Pat Summitt, as it will mark her 1,000th career victory.

To open the month of February, the Lady Vols step out of conference play for an ESPN2 "Big Monday" meeting at Oklahoma (Feb. 2) and return home to meet Georgia in a key SEC game on Feb. 5. Other February home dates include Alabama (Feb. 12), an ESPN2 "Big Monday" showdown with Duke (Feb. 16), and Mississippi State (Feb. 22). February road trips include jaunts to Florida (Feb. 8), Kentucky (Feb. 19) and LSU (Feb. 25). UT plays a rare March regular season game, entertaining Vanderbilt in the finale on March 1 before heading to North Little Rock, Ark., for the SEC Championship. This season, Tennessee will play home-and-home SEC games with Kentucky and Mississippi State to go along with its annual home-and-home traditional rival contests versus Vanderbilt.

"Once again this year, the SEC - from top to bottom - will be as strong as it has ever been," professed Summitt. "We've had an infusion of some new coaches making a tough league even tougher. To be sure, the SEC schedule will be extremely challenging." Ah, that word "challenging." How about this one Lady Vols, what about a "three-peat" for a challenge? Summitt smiled at the question, "Never say never! It's funny, but it didn't come up until the team photo shoot and some of the players said 'let's do a back-to-back-to-back photo.' I guess that's the exuberance and youth of our basketball team. You've got to love their enthusiasm," said Summitt.

Like the sparkling jewels adorning each of UT's eight National Championship rings, the 2008-09 edition of Tennessee women's basketball is a team of multi-faceted gems. It's almost as if it's a rite of passage when a student-athlete decides to become a Lady Vol basketball player. Chances are more than likely that she will become a member of the exclusive group of "Lady Vols of the Rings." Because Lady Vol basketball always has had a championship ring to it.


POINT GUARDS: Cait McMahan, Briana Bass, Alicia Manning
TWO GUARDS: Angie Bjorklund, Sydney Smallbone, Shekinna Stricklen, Alicia Manning
FORWARDS: Alex Fuller, Glory Johnson, Amber Gray
POSTS: Kelley Cain, Vicki Baugh, Alyssia Brewer

Friday, October 03, 2008

Sparks' Candace Parker will be named WNBA MVP

Sparks forward, who will be named winner Friday night, has already won the rookie of the year award.

One day after winning the WNBA's rookie-of-the-year award, the Sparks' Candace Parker will add the Most Valuable Player award to her resume.

Expectations for a No. 1 overall draft pick often exceed reality. That's not the case for Sparks forward Candace Parker. She was better.

Tonight, one day after accepting WNBA rookie of the year honors, Parker is expected to be named the league's most valuable player. The announcement will come during Game 2 of the WNBA finals in San Antonio and it will make her the first WNBA player to win both awards, regardless of the year.

It also will put her in an even loftier group: only two NBA players have won both awards in the same season -- Wilt Chamberlain in 1959-60 and Wes Unseld in 1968-69.

"It would mean a lot to me, playing in that highest level and actually winning the MVP award," Parker said Thursday morning in an interview with The Times, not long after being named the top rookie.

The former star for the Tennessee Lady Vols averaged 18.5 points (fourth best in the league), 9.5 rebounds (best in the league) and 2.3 blocks (second best) during the regular season. Only teammate Lisa Leslie, a three-time MVP, averaged more blocked shots. Parker also shot 52.3% from the field and averaged 3.4 assists.

"She's pulling those type of numbers with great people around her," said Sparks General Manager Penny Toler. "I know people say that's easier, but it isn't. Sometimes, if you have a rookie, they may sit back and say, 'Well, let me just do the minimum.' But she never sat back, she did as much as she could to try to help us win."

Parker, 22, said she was proudest of her rebounding, an aspect of her game that has been reinforced by every coach she has had, from her father, Larry, to Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, to Sparks Coach Michael Cooper.

"With rebounding, you get extra possessions, you finish possessions and it's important to your team," said Parker, who credited Cooper for giving her the chance to grow as a player.

"He never lowered the bar," she said. "He always continued to raise it and I think that's why I always continued to be successful this year. . . . Sometimes, coaches have a really tight rein, but he let me make mistakes and grow from them. . . . I'm better because of that."

From the season's opening tip, she proved she wasn't a typical rookie, scoring 34 points in her first game, the most by a WNBA player in her debut. She also contributed 12 rebounds and eight assists. Two games later, she totaled 16 points, 16 rebounds, five assists, five steals and six blocks in a double-overtime loss to Indiana, becoming the first WNBA player to total at least five in each of those statistical categories.

She gained national attention at the end of June when she scored off slam dunks in consecutive games, joining Leslie as the only player to dunk in a WNBA game and the first to dunk twice. She never attempted another one.

"There were lots of other chances," said the team's co-owner, Kathy Goodman. "I kind of liked the idea that she didn't feel like she needed to keep doing it."

She combined for 71 points in back-to-back victories over Phoenix and Houston in early July then helped the U.S. women's team win gold at the Beijing Olympics in August.

Parker, who is enjoying her first extended break from basketball in two years, never felt like she was running out of gas, but she was wary of injuries.

During the NCAA tournament, Parker suffered a separated left shoulder, which required her to wear a brace throughout the WNBA season.

"I heard about rookies getting injured during the middle to end of the season," Parker said. "My main thing was just to stay strong and do as much as I could to prevent that."

After returning from the Olympics, she helped the Sparks win five of their final seven regular-season games, then helped them topple Seattle in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

Though her shooting percentage dropped during the postseason as she increasingly became the focus of defenses, she found other ways to contribute, totaling a season-high 17 rebounds in a one-point, last-second loss to San Antonio in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.

The Sparks were then eliminated by another close loss in Game 3.

"We expected a lot of great things out of Candace," Toler said. "Did we expect rookie of the year? We knew it was seriously possible. If she wins MVP, I think we all have to say, 'Wow.' "