Monday, March 30, 2009

UT to Host 'Pat Summitt's Night of 1,000 Stories' May 3rd

Purchase Tickets - Beginning April 1.
Purchase Tickets from the Tennessee Theatre
Tennessee Theatre Box Office - (865) 684-1200
Tickets Unlimited - (865) 656-4444

On February 5, 2009, Pat Summitt won her 1,000 basketball game. To celebrate this remarkable accomplishment, the University of Tennessee Athletic Department will host "Pat Summitt's Night of 1,000 Stories" at the Tennessee Theatre in downtown Knoxville on Sunday, May 3.

"Pat has meant so much to so many," said Joan Cronan, women's athletic director. "This is a great opportunity for us to pay tribute to her for everything she has accomplished for the University of Tennessee and collegiate basketball."

The event will feature appearances by former players and colleagues of Summitt's and include a sneak peak of the Vol Network's documentary on Pat Summitt.

Summitt became the winningest coach in college basketball on March 22, 2005, passing Dean Smith who had 879 career wins. During Summitt's tenure, the Lady Vols have won eight NCAA titles, as well as 27 Southeastern Conference tournament and regular season championships. Tennessee has made an unprecedented 26 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Sweet 16 and produced 12 Olympians, 19 Kodak All-Americans named to 32 teams, and 69 All-SEC performers. Along with the success on the court, Summitt's student-athletes have tremendous productivity in the classroom. Coach Summitt has a 100 percent graduation rate for all Lady Vols who have completed their eligibility at Tennessee.

Tickets to the event will range from $50 - $100 each and go on sale April 1 at the Tennessee Theatre and Tickets Unlimited.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Summitt continues working

Tennessee coach Pat Summitt continues to pound into her Lady Volunteers that they have a lot of work to do before next season.

She didn't think they got the message when she held practice on Tuesday following their 71-55 first-round loss Sunday to Ball State in the NCAA tournament, so they worked some more on Wednesday.

Summitt held a team meeting Tuesday with her players and spent two hours working with the Lady Vols (22-11) on basketball drills. On Wednesday, the players worked out with strength and conditioning coach Heather Mason.

"I thought our first workout, I wasn't really that excited about it because I just didn't think that they were really into it," Summitt said. "After working out with Heather, they seemed really committed, really enthusiastic."

Summitt is taking advantage of a rule that allows coaches eight hours of work — two hours devoted to basketball skills and the rest to strength and conditioning — with their players through April 15.

It's not the first time she's made her players practice after their season ended.

"We just haven't done it this early," Summitt said Thursday. "My thought process is to take advantage of the time. We've got to get a lot better."

Summitt doesn't expect it to end with Wednesday's workout, but it will be on the Lady Vols to stay committed and enthusiastic about improving their game through the offseason.

The coaches may work with the players in groups of four during the summer, but Summitt expects the Lady Vols to spend their own time in the gym shooting or playing pickup with one another.

She didn't see that enough from the seven freshmen on her squad this season.

"Being young is one thing. What we've dealt with was people just coming to practice and not coming to work on their game outside of practice," Summitt said. "I think the message is loud and clear: if you want to be a successful all you've got to do is go over and work on your game."

Summitt said during the team meeting she asked each of her players if they were "in or out" for next season's squad. She asked them to write down what they thought could be done to make the team and each player more competitive and what got in the way of each player performing her best.

"I asked them, 'How many of you are invested in the team?' They all were like, 'Yes.' I went one by one and asked them. Everybody said, 'We want to go to work. We want be here,"' she said.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Alexis Hornbuckle Assists with Workout

Being a player didn't prevent Alexis Hornbuckle from sounding like a coach Thursday afternoon.

The day after returning from playing in Turkey, the former Tennessee standout assisted UT with its women's basketball workout at Pratt Pavilion.

"Older people helped me,'' she said, "so I'm just trying to return the favor."

The program's all-time steals leader, who played a key part in back-to-back national championships, was doling out advice. When asked if the current Lady Vols were receptive, Hornbuckle said, "Some of them, we'll work on it."

Thursday's session was the second basketball-related workout following Tennessee's 71-55 loss to Ball State in the NCAA tournament. The ripple effect from Sunday night's setback, Tennessee's first loss in a first-round game, felt like a shock wave when it reached Hornbuckle overseas.

"I wanted to throw my computer,'' she said. "I just wanted to throw it somewhere. I was just surprised. I was upset."

The workouts also have created a stir with some internet chatter, fueled by conflicting NCAA bylaws, speculating whether these sessions are within the rules. UT coach Pat Summitt said that Todd Dooley, the Lady Vols assistant athletic director for compliance and operations, has fielded phone calls on the matter.

"We're not going to break any rules,'' Summitt said. "So we had to get what we could do and that's what we did. That's why we're doing what we're doing now."

Summitt said that she has taken phone calls from coaches at Texas, Georgia and Duke and assumed that these schools are at least considering a similar approach.

If anything, Summitt felt compelled to further explain these workouts to the players, especially after their energy level was relatively low Tuesday.

"I think part of it was they were down,'' she said. "They just lost. Obviously they were a little wounded. And maybe I didn't do a good job of explaining why we're here. It's to get better."

Summitt reiterated that final thought to the Lady Vols after their conditioning workout Wednesday.

"The point I wanted to make to them is this is not punishment," said Summitt, who was happier with Thursday's workout. "It's an opportunity for us to go back in the gym and look at the skill work that's going to benefit us the most."

Hornbuckle, who is beginning to train for her second season with the WNBA defending champion Detroit Shock, made some points herself on Thursday. She gave an earful to freshman forward Glory Johnson, who was struggling with some fatigue.

"Glory has so much athleticism and so much potential but you have to get that laziness out of her,'' Hornbuckle said. "That lackadaisical attitude, you have to get that out of her."

As for the team in general, Hornbuckle advised: "They have to be tough and ready to play the whole time. They don't have that. It comes in spurts. It comes and goes."

Notebook: Freshman forward Amber Gray suffered a left shoulder injury Thursday and will be examined. ... Tennessee's 41.3 field goal percentage, its 837 field goals and its 249 steals were all-time season lows. ... Before losing to three unranked teams this season, UT had lost to 32 unranked teams in 34 seasons. ... The Lady Vols finished with a program-worst 4-8 record against ranked teams.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lady Vols Practice

Although Tennessee is out of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, the Lady Vols were back on the court Tuesday afternoon. Their presence at Pratt Pavilion spoke volumes about the state of the program.

“This to me says at Tennessee we’re not going to accept losing in the first round game and go home and go on spring break; No,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said.

According to the coaches, NCAA rules allow eight hours of work with the team until April 15. Two hours can be allotted for basketball-specific work, which was the case Tuesday. The other six hours are devoted to strength and conditioning.

Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said after April 15, coaches can work with the team only in groups of four players or less.

Tuesday’s workout followed a team meeting Monday after the Lady Vols returned from Bowling Green, Ky. — the site of their 71-55 loss to Ball State on Sunday night. It was the first first-round loss in program history and one of the most stunning results in tournament history.

Summitt said that she asked the players during the meeting whether they planned to stay.

“We went around the table and I said ‘you in or out. We need to know,’” Summitt said. “I told them if you want to leave now’s the time ... We’re getting ready to raise the bar on the expectations we have on the court and in all your strength and conditioning work.”

All of the players were present Tuesday. Departing senior Alex Fuller didn’t need to attend. Still, she showed up and pitched in as a practice player.

“She’s about as lost and confused as the coaches right now,’’ Summitt said. “She doesn’t know what to do with her time right now.”

Summitt thinks that the time spent with UT strength and conditioning coach Heather Mason in the coming weeks should help identify the true competitors among the players.

“It’s going to really challenge this team physically and mentally,’’ Summitt said, “and they need that because we don’t have the mental toughness. We don’t have the competitive drive on every play. We don’t. That’s my biggest concern for this team moving forward. How many of these people really will compete all the time.”

After using 12 different starting lineups this season, Summitt already is sorting out next season’s starting five. She told the team that Angie Bjorklund will report for the opening tip. So will Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain, provided they overcome their knee problems and are healthy.

Cain still was distraught on Monday about not being able to play during the second half Sunday night after her surgically repaired right knee acted up.

“She felt like she was letting the team down,’’ Summitt said. “She doesn’t need to beat herself up.”

As for the remaining starting spots, Summitt told the players: “We’ve got two spots open. Start working.”

In the wake of Sunday night’s loss, Summitt said that she’s heard from several former players, primarily via text messages. Unlike the Ball State outcome, their response was predictable.

“They were shocked; they were angry,’’ Summitt said. “They’re mad about this. They said this doesn’t look like a Tennessee team. I share their feelings.”

But she’s the only one in charge of the cleanup, which has begun in earnest.

“Disappointed in myself, disappointed in the team,’’ Summitt said. “We let a lot of people down.”

Monday, March 23, 2009

Tennessee's fate tied to offseason improvement

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The hopes of Tennessee fans are that next season something good comes out of the miserable one they just endured.

Yes, Tennessee’s storied women’s basketball team won 22 games, but the Lady Vols lost 11—the most since 1976. They didn’t win a conference title and after a first-round exit from the NCAA tournament, the team fell short of even Pat Summitt lowered expectations.

And with no Candace Parker or Chamique Holdsclaw waiting in the wings to lead Tennessee back to prominence, it is up to the current players.

“All I can hope is that it will be a motivation,” Summitt said of Tennessee’s 71-55 NCAA tournament loss to Ball State on Sunday. “We are only graduating one senior and it’s all about what this team decides to do in the offseason.”

Summitt was forced to replace all five starters from last year’s national championship squad, including the player of the year in Parker. After signing a freshman class that included five McDonald’s high school All-Americans, the Lady Vols were expected to struggle this season, but to eventually be competing with the nation’s elite programs again.

That was before losing redshirt sophomore point guard Cait McMahan to a career-ending knee injury and sophomore post player Vicki Baugh to season-ending knee injury. Their absence left the team with one senior and two sophomores to help lead a bench full of freshmen.

Sophomore guard Angie Bjorklund brought the only starting experience to the lineup, and only one freshman, guard Shekinna Stricklen, performed consistently up to Summitt’s expectations. The pair led the team in scoring with a combined 25.6 points per game.

“Angie Bjorklund has had a very good year for us. She’s a special player. Shekinna has grown a lot,” Summitt said. “I’ve counted on her a lot and for the most part been pleased with what she’s done, and these two ladies need to step up and provide leadership for us next year.”

She’s signed three incoming freshmen, though only 6-foot-1 high school All-American guard Taber Spani ranks among the top 30 recruits in the nation as the third-best guard.

There’s still a chance for more of the soon-to-be sophomores to step up. Summitt often praised Glory Johnson for being the most physical member of the squad despite her inconsistent play. Guard Alicia Manning could provide another deep threat for the Lady Vols with more accurate shooting.

Tennessee also needs Baugh and post Kelley Cain, who struggled all season with a nagging knee injury, to be healthy for 2009-10. The team played its best with one of the two on the floor, drawing attention in the paint and opening up space on the perimeter for Bjorklund and Stricklen.

Summitt was clear about her frustrations with the young players throughout the season: they didn’t play with passion, they struggled with defense like few Tennessee teams have and they often looked lost on the court, she said.

Summitt challenged them by making them launder their own practice jerseys and taking away their locker room privileges. She threatened to make them walk home from away games a few times too.

But the Lady Vols remained as inconsistent at the end of the season as they were at the beginning.

Summitt said she thought they turned a corner during the Southeastern Conference tournament. They didn’t win, but they seemed to grasp how dedicated they needed to be to succeed during the postseason.

If that was the case, it didn’t last long.

The 12th seeded Cardinals made the No. 5 seeded Lady Vols (22-11) look like amateurs. They were smaller but faster. They shot more accurately and as the Lady Vols unraveled, Ball State looked more poised.

The team representing the sport’s legendary program lost to a team making its first appearance in the NCAA tournament. If that wasn’t enough, it was Tennessee’s first loss in either a first or second round game.

“This hopefully down the road will be a valuable lesson for them,” Summitt said.

Notes and Quotes

2009 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament
March 22, 2009

Game #2 (5) Tennessee vs. (12) Ball State
Post Game Notes

Tennessee Lady Vols Notes

Loss breaks Tennessee's streak of 12 straight wins in NCAA Tournament play - the Lady Vols won the NCAA National Championship in both 2007 and 2008

Tennessee, a participant in every NCAA Women's Championship Tournament (all 28 of them), was a perfect 21-0 in first/opening round games, dating back to 1982, before tonight.

Eight of Tennessee's 11 losses have come at the hands of nationally ranked teams; the other two included a 10-point loss at Kentucky and a two-point loss at LSU ... Ball State has not been nationally ranked all season.

16-point differential equaled UT's widest margin of loss this season (a 16-point setback at Vanderbilt on Jan. 11.

Scoring output (55 points) second lowest of the season (lost 62-54 to Duke at home on Feb. 16).

Ball State Cardinals Notes

Ball State's only win of season against a team in NCAA Tournament field

Ball State's only win over a nationally ranked team this season (in only other contest against a nationally ranked team, the Cardinals dropped an 82-51 decision at Louisville

With this victory, Ball State is 18-2 when leading at the half (led UT 29-28 at the intermission)

Ball State is now 19-0 this season when holding its opponents to 70 points or less

Ball State's second win on Diddle Arena floor this season; the Cardinals defeated tourney host Western Kentucky 72-71 in overtime in Diddle Arena on Dec. 20

Ball State has now won 12 games in a row and is 19-2 since Jan. 4.

Eighth time this season - including the last 4 games in a row รข€“ that Ball State has held its opposition to 55 points or less.

Tournament Notes

Game matched women's college basketball's all-time winningest coach (Pat Summitt - 1,005-192) against Ball State's rookie coach Kelly Packard (now 26-8 in his first season as a college head coach)

Game was also a matchup of a school with a record 104 wins in its participation in a record 28 NCAA Tournaments (every one - all 28 - since 1982) - Tennessee - against a school making its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament -- Ball State.

NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament
March 22, 2009

Game #2 (5) Tennessee vs. (12) Ball State
Post Game Quotes

Tennessee Quotes

Head Coach Pat Summitt

Opening Statement:
"Obviously our team and our coaching staff are very disappointed. I thought we had good preparation and that our team was ready to play. I think Ball State really put us on our heels early and for whatever reason we were not committed to defending the way we needed to defend. Porsche Green did a tremendous job. This team is very well coached. I think Kelly has done a super job. They play with a great deal of confidence and a lot of freedom. I thought we were tentative and maybe uptight. You have to give credit where credit is due and that's to this Ball State basketball team. They had a lot more toughness than we did. They beat us to loose balls and they made shots. They played well together. We had a lot of empty possessions. Our
post was 9-of-12 and you combine that with 14-for-41 from the perimeter. Obviously we have been very fortunate at Tennessee to have advanced to the Sweet 16 and this is the first time we haven't done that. Our hope is that it will be motivation. We only graduate one senior. It is all about what this team decides to do in the offseason. Angie has had a big year for us. She is a special player. Shekinna has grown a lot. I have counted on her a lot. I've for the most part been pleased with what she has done. These two young ladies need to step up and provide leadership for us next year. Tonight was a night where Ball State was better than Tennessee and I wish them well."

Angie Bjorklund, G/F, Sophomore, #5

On cutting the lead to eight late in the game:
"Throughout the game you cannot think you don't have a chance. We were trying our best to come back and fight through it, but obviously it was too late."

On handling Ball State's guards defensively:
"Their guards did an awesome job. We were trying to switch to steal. That was our game-plan in the second half. Sometimes we switched and had some mismatches with a post on a guard. At the same time that's not an excuse. You have to defend no matter what."

Shekinna Stricklen, G/F, Freshman, #40

On cutting the lead:
"You just can't give up, no matter what. You always have to continue to work hard and hopefully you can get a turnaround. We weren't able to get enough turnarounds."

On making adjustments without Kelly:
"That was a big loss for us when Kelly wasn't able to come back in during the second half. In the first half she was really killing. When she couldn't go in the second half, we just had to move a lot on offense. That was a big loss for us."

NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament
March 22, 2009

Game #2 (5) Tennessee vs. (12) Ball State
Post Game Quotes

Ball State Quotes

Head Coach Kelly Packard

Opening Statement:
"Our entire program obviously wants to start with the awe that we came in with yesterday for Tennessee. We did come in with awe and with complete respect for their tradition, legacy and everything that Tennessee is. Right on the heels of that, this was an accomplishment by a
group of people with great heart that came in here respectfully of an opponent but had some real healthy, classy pride in our own talent. That is all I wanted today. I wanted us to play with class. I wanted us to play with character and I wanted us to finish no matter the outcome the same way these young ladies have represented themselves and Ball State University the entire season. It is okay to be in awe of an incredible, worthy opponent."

On what she is feeling:
"Pride and pride in these young women. I just think of watching them grow and build something so special. That has been all the fun for me, the fact that we are pretty darn skilled and have a lot of fun together is awesome. To put it all together, we put competitiveness at a really high level against an opponent that you can only dream of playing. To get to go out and do what they just did, it's going to take us a really long time to get our minds around the accomplishment that they have been able to achieve."

On defeating Tennessee:
"We were obviously really concerned about the mismatch from a height standpoint. We really expected a physical game. We do things as coaches that we think strategically will address the size issue but you can't. After that, I think that the biggest thing that I saw was the implementation of the scout strategy that we gave them. On top of that, it's not something that you see on a stat sheet, its desire, will and belief in one another. I think as they started to see some success that it bred confidence. I think the biggest factor that I saw was sheer will. We got outrebounded strongly so I think that you have to look at other categories to see where we made a difference. I told them all along that our offensive execution and the number of screens that we could set knowing that team that is full of freshmen that haven't had to defend screens for a long time, that that would be our best thing. Then we could see how mature they have gotten so far this year."

Kiley Jarrett, G, Senior, #12

On the margin of victory:
"This is just unbelievable. Tennessee is a great team. I would be lying to you if I told you I thought it would be a 16 point victory. They are a great team and I'm not going to take anything away from them, but we were just confident coming into this game and we knew what we
could do. It hasn't hit me yet. It is just unbelievable."

On preparing for Tennessee:
"We knew that they were going to be physical from the tip. You can't prepare for that in practice. You can play against your scout guys in practice but you can't simulate how physical they are going to play. We knew it was going to be physical from the tip and we just had to
execute our plays. I think it worked pretty well for us tonight."

Porchia Green, G, Senior, #3

On scoring:
"Pat Summit gave us a compliment about our great screening action and we just used that to the best of our ability. Screening is what gets you open and helps you execute. We knew it was going to be a tough game and there are no words to describe the basketball tradition at Tennessee but we came out and gave it our all and played to the best of our ability. We stayed focused and stuck to the scouting report and we ended up with a good outcome."

On what she prayed for during the game:
"I pray all the time. I say that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me and I prayed for our team. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us and he answered my prayer tonight."

Emily Maggert, F, Sophomore, #41

On Tennessee's Kelley Cain leaving the game:
"Once one tall girl came out another one came in. They just kept bringing big girls in and we just had to keep pushing them back and boxing out."

Interesting Facts

• Tennessee's loss was the first time a defending champion has lost in the first round.

• Ball State had just one win this season vs. the tournament field, and that came against an Evansville team that made the tournament with a losing record.

• The Lady Vols lost to a team seeded lower than four for the first time in school history (51-1).

• Tennessee ended the season 22-11, trying the school record for losses in a season (16-11 in 1975-76, Pat Summitt's second season).

• The Lady Vols had never missed the Sweet 16 prior to this season, going 27-for-27.

A Shocking First for the Tennessee Women

A couple of weeks ago, I was expecting a late-afternoon phone call from Pat Summitt. An hour passed after the appointed time, then an hour and a half. Finally the phone rang. Summitt was apologetic.

“I came home and fell asleep,” she said. “It’s been that kind of season.”

A trying, exhausting season came to a stunningly premature conclusion on Sunday night as fifth-seeded Tennessee, the two-time defending national women’s champion, lost to 12th-seeded Ball State, 71-55, in the first round of the Berkeley Region in Bowling Green, Ky.

It is difficult to overstate how unprecedented and unexpected the Lady Vols’ defeat was. This is a program that has won eight national titles and is the only university to have made the field every year since the N.C.A.A. began sponsoring a women’s tournament in 1982.

Until Sunday, the Lady Vols were 42-0 in first and second-round games. Meanwhile, Ball State (26-8) was making its first appearance in the tournament. The Cardinals were led by the senior guard Porchia Green, who delivered 23 points and 8 rebounds.

Some will say this game ranks among the greatest upsets in the tournament’s history. On reputation, perhaps, but Tennessee had lost its entire starting lineup from the 2007-8 season, including the country’s consensus best player in Candace Parker.

The Lady Vols (22-11) struggled to find consistency all season in 2008-09 with a young roster and did not win the Southeastern Conference tournament. Never had the Lady Vols been seeded as low as fifth in the N.C.A.A. field. This was Summitt’s youngest team in her three and a half decades at Tennessee, one that included seven freshmen and that did not inspire the fear in opponents that its predecessors had.

No one expected Tennessee to three-peat as national champion. Still, no one expected the Lady Vols to be ousted in the first round, either.

“I like our personnel,” Summitt said in our conversation. “The difficult part for me is that young kids give in to fatigue. The hardest part is to have players come into the program and not understand our culture and how hard you have to play.”

She still relished going to practice every day and molding callow players into champions, said Summitt, the only college coach, male or female, to have won 1,000 career games.

“I’ll love it when we get a little tougher,” she said.

On Sunday, the Lady Vols were not tough enough, at least after halftime, when the 6-foot-6 center Kelly Cain could not take the court. She aggravated an injury to her right knee, the same knee that needed surgery last season and forced Cain to redshirt as a freshman.

Afterward, Summitt congratulated Kelly Packard, Ball State’s first-year coach. Then Summitt told ESPN that the defeat was “one of the toughest losses I ever had to deal with at Tennessee.”

She was characteristically unflinching in criticizing her team’s performance as too soft.

“We never really seemed to defend one on one,” Summitt said. “They were a lot tougher physically, more aggressive. They made shots. We didn’t come ready to play.”

A couple weeks earlier, as our conversation ended, I told Summitt that she and her team would undoubtedly be back on top in a year or two.

“Two years?” she said with a laugh and her famous impatience. “I may be in the nuthouse. I can’t do that.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ball State stuns Tennessee 71-55

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Tennessee’s title defense ended sooner than expected, wrapping up the worst season ever for Pat Summitt’s vaunted program.

Ball State stunned the two-time defending national champions 71-55 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday night, snapping one of the more remarkable streaks in college basketball history.

The Lady Volunteers (22-11) had never lost on the opening weekend of the tournament, going 42-0 through the years.

Tennessee also became the first defending champ to lose in the first round of the women’s tourney. Old Dominion won the title in 1985 and failed to make the tournament the following year.

The 12th-seeded Cardinals (26-8), who were making their NCAA debut, will play Iowa State in the second round on Tuesday.

Porchia Green led Ball State with 23 points, Audrey McDonald added 18 and the Mid-American Conference champions dominated the second half to capture the biggest win in school history.

Shekinna Stricklen had 17 points for Tennessee. The Lady Vols shot just 35 percent and played the second half without center Kelley Cain, who went down in the first half with a knee injury.

The way the Cardinals played in the second half, it might not have mattered if Cain was available.

Green and backcourt mate Kiley Jarrett did whatever they wanted against the bigger—but decidedly slower—Lady Vols.

Ball State took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by Emily Maggert with just over 14 minutes remaining and Tennessee simply could not catch up.

The Cardinals pushed the lead to 10 on a pair of free throws by Jarrett with 7:20 to go and Tennessee would get no closer than eight the rest of the way.

Jarrett celebrated the victory by jumping into Green’s arms at midcourt as the buzzer sounded while the large contingent of the orange-clad Tennessee fans who made their way to E.A. Diddle Arena walked to the exits in stunned silence.

This one may take a while to sink in.

Getting through the first two rounds has been a mere formality for the Lady Vols through the years, as Tennessee used its perfect opening weekend record to win eight national championships, including titles behind star Candace Parker each of the last two years.

Parker is long gone now and the seven freshmen that comprise the core of the youngest team of Summitt’s remarkable coaching career will have to wait at least another year to get a shot at No. 9.

The Cardinals made sure of that.

Tennessee lost each of its starters from last year’s team to graduation. That, coupled with inexperience, led to a very unTennessee-like season.

The Lady Vols lost 10 games during the year—eight of them to ranked teams — and entered the tournament with the lowest seeding in the program’s history.

Still, Summitt remained optimistic the Lady Vols would respond to the challenge of playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

The team watched a documentary of the 1997 national championship season on the trip to Bowling Green. The Lady Vols entered that season’s tournament with 10 losses before things clicked in March.

The players hoped history would repeat itself.

Instead the Lady Vols made the kind of history they were hoping to avoid.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lady Vols embracing rare underdog role

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Pat Summitt couldn’t help but laugh. Neither could her players.

In an effort to get her young team ready for the opening round of the NCAA tournament, the Hall of Fame coach dusted off a copy of “A Cinderella Season,” a film documenting the Lady Volunteers’ run to the 1997 national title.

That team, like Summitt’s current group, endured a very un-Tennesseelike regular season, dropping 10 games before figuring it out in March to win the program’s fifth NCAA championship.

A dozen years later, the message—and the mission—hasn’t changed. That much was obvious while watching former stars Chamique Holdsclaw and Kellie Jolley cut down the nets in Cincinnati.

“We were kind of laughing because a lot of comments coach was making (in the film) was the same, just different names on the back of the uniform,” guard Angie Bjorklund said. “There were a lot of similarities. Hopefully history repeats itself.”

It always does for the Lady Vols, at least in the opening two rounds of the NCAAs.

The fifth-seeded Lady Vols (22-10) are a perfect 42-0 all-time on the tournament’s first weekend heading into Sunday night’s matchup with 12th-seeded Ball State (25-8) at E.A. Diddle Arena. The winner will play fourth-seeded Iowa State (24-8) or East Tennessee State (20-10) for the right to advance to next week’s regional finals in Berkeley, Calif.

It’s a trip the Lady Vols have booked with ease over the years, but this season has been among the toughest in Summitt’s record-setting career. The only college basketball coach to win 1,000 games has found her patience tested by an inexperienced team that features seven freshmen and just one senior.

The learning curve has been steep against the nation’s toughest schedule. Eight of Tennessee’s 10 losses have come against ranked opponents, and the team has struggled to play with the kind of consistency Summitt knows they’ll need to make a run at a third straight championship.

How far have the Lady Vols fallen? The No. 5 seed is the lowest in the program’s 28 NCAA appearances.

“It is quite different than it’s been the last couple seasons when we had such a veteran team,” Summitt said. “I have been in situations many, many times where we were the underdog as we are here. … They know what they have to do and that they have to bring it.”

While Tennessee was getting a history lesson trying to stir up the echoes, Ball State popped in a couple of episodes of the TV show “Prison Break” during the bus trip to Bowling Green.

There’s no DVD highlighting one of Ball State’s NCAA tournament runs; the Cardinals have never been here before.

The Mid-American Conference champions are making their tournament debut, and the players brushed off any similarities between the inmates on “Prison Break” and their own impending challenge.

“I don’t think any of us have in mind of escaping Tennessee,” said Ball State guard Kiley Jarrett. “We have to keep in mind that it’s just another game.”

Even if Tennessee is hardly just another opponent. Ball State coach Kelly Packard admitted there was a little bit of an “awe factor” while talking to Summitt during an administrative meeting early Saturday afternoon.

“How can there not be?” Packard said. “You look at what she’s accomplished in the women’s game and the fact that she’s done it for the length of time that she’s done it and how she’s remained passionate about it. … Hopefully I got my ‘wow’ in this morning.”

Tennessee’s struggles have Iowa State in an unfamiliar position as the slight favorite to make it to California. Not that the Cyclones are looking ahead. Coach Bill Fennelly knows his team isn’t talented enough to take anybody — particularly high-octane ETSU—for granted.

“To our kids’ credit, everything is about the next 40 minutes that you play,” he said. “We’ve given our kids lists of all the men’s games, the teams that got beat. The chance to play Tennessee would be great, but the only way that happens is if you win on Sunday night. Our kids are very, very good at that.”

They’ll have to be if they want to slow down the Atlantic Sun champions. ETSU’s frantic style of play is in stark contrast to Iowa State’s methodical approach. The Buccaneers average more than 12 steals per game and try to turn each game into a track meet. Fennelly, however, isn’t worried about his team suddenly forgetting its identity.

“You can’t change a lot; you are who you are,” Fennelly said. “We won 24 games playing a certain way, and that’s the way we’re going to play tomorrow night. I have a lot of confidence the players understand that.”

Although Tennessee and Ball State were glued to the TV on the bus trip, the Buccaneers were fixated on the Internet. They followed the 16th-seeded ETSU men’s gritty 62-52 loss to top-seeded Pittsburgh on Friday, drawing inspiration from the way the men hung around until the final minutes.

“It was great to just see how they didn’t back down,” forward Siarre Evans said. “They make jokes about No. 1s and No. 16 seeds, about them getting killed, but they played with confidence and handled their business.”

The women’s task appears to be more manageable. The Buccaneers are making their second straight NCAA appearance and were hardly overwhelmed last year against Oklahoma State in an 85-73 loss.

And the Buccaneers don’t expect to be wide-eyed while playing on the NCAA’s biggest stage.

“We’ve got that experience so now our focus is turning towards winning basketball games,” ETSU coach Karen Kemp said. “Last year we were a little happy to be there … This year our focus is going out and playing hard and coming out on top.”

Monday, March 16, 2009

Tennessee Lady Vols get program-worst No. 5 seed

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Pat Summitt spent Monday trying to keep herself from thinking too much about the Lady Volunteers’ fate in the NCAA tournament bracket after a roller-coaster 10-loss season.

A practice, a workout, a nap and an afternoon in the kitchen later, Summitt and the Lady Vols found out they were a No. 5 seed—the program’s worst seeding ever.

“It doesn’t really bother me,” Summitt said. “A four seed? Yeah, that would have been good, but as I look at the bracket, I don’t see where it’s a big deal.”

Tennessee (22-10) drew the Berkeley, Calif., regional and a first-round matchup against Ball State in Bowling Green, Ky., on Sunday. That region features five teams the Lady Vols faced this season, including two that beat them: sixth-seeded Texas and top-seed Duke.

The Lady Vols are the defending national champions in name only after graduating five seniors and replacing them with seven freshmen.

Monday was the first time the freshman participated in Summitt’s selection day cookout. The team crowded into her pool house to watch the announcements, cheering at clips of themselves and falling silent at a clip of Summitt speaking of her frustration from the season.

A fixture atop the bracket since the first NCAA tournament in 1982, Tennessee has earned a top seed 19 times, a No. 2 seed four times and No. 3 seed three times. The analysts usually talk about Tennessee being among the teams to beat, but this time the talk was about the Lady Vols’ off year.

“It just motivates us,” said freshman Shekinna Stricklen, who leads the team with 13.1 points per game. “Some people like us and some people don’t, and we’re going to get there either way we go.”

Tennessee, which is the only team to play in every NCAA tournament, has only been seeded as low as fourth once—in 1986. The Lady Vols also hold an unblemished streak of reaching the regional semifinals in every NCAA tournament.

Tennessee took 10 losses into the NCAA tournament in 1997, earned a No. 3 seed and made an unlikely run to the title.

“I keep thinking about that. Ten losses, and now we’re going to win it all,” Summitt said.

Summitt had hoped a strong schedule and high RPI would help the Lady Vols make a strong case for a No. 4 seed, though she said she wasn’t surprised that didn’t happen. Tennessee and Oklahoma have alternately held the strongest schedule throughout the year, and the Lady Vols are currently seventh on the RPI list.

Lady Vols fans travel well, and Bowling Green is located only 155 miles from Knoxville. The team has played much better when they’re fans are around. Eight of its 10 losses were on the road.

Bowling Green is also close to Summitt’s childhood home of Henrietta, Tenn., and the Hall of Fame coach is already making plans for her entire family to come.

“I’m calling them tonight and telling them to start counting tickets,” she said.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Auburn routs Lady Vols 78-58

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — DeWanna Bonner let fly with a long 3-pointer that dropped straight through the net, then backpedaled downcourt with her tongue out and her shooting hand extended.

Calm, tough and never intimidated, Bonner scored 26 points to lead No. 6 Auburn over No. 19 Tennessee 78-58 Saturday night. The Tigers went on a 21-4 run at the start of the second half to hand the Lady Vols their most lopsided loss in a Southeastern Conference tournament game.

“We were fully aware that you go through Tennessee to get to a championship, and that’s what we had to do tonight,” Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. “I felt like in the 20 minutes of the second half we understood that and played much better basketball.”

Auburn (29-2) advanced to the championship game at this event for the first time since winning the title in 1997.

Whitney Boddie scored 17 of her 19 points in the second half for the Tigers, including eight during their decisive run. Bonner sank her long 3-pointer to make it 60-41 with 9:04 remaining.

Angie Bjorklund scored 17 points for Tennessee (22-10), which led by five at halftime but ended up with a 20-point defeat. The Lady Vols lost to Alabama 85-66 in the 1984 SEC tournament, but this was one point worse.

“We went in at halftime feeling pretty good about what we had done,” Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. “The wheels fell off in the second half.”

The Auburn celebration really began at the start of a timeout with 3:34 remaining, when the Tigers came off the court exhorting their small section of fans to cheer louder. The Auburn band began playing “Ticket to Ride”—with Tennessee 20 points behind and facing certain elimination.

Auburn will bring that swagger into Sunday night’s championship game against No. 22 Vanderbilt.

Bjorklund scored all of her points in the second half, but that wasn’t nearly enough to keep it close. Summitt was annoyed enough with her team that she called a timeout with 2:38 remaining and the outcome no longer in doubt.

“I just didn’t want us to quit playing,” Summitt said. “I don’t care if there are three minutes left to go, it’s still a teaching moment. We caved in. We gave in in the second half.”

The first half went much better for Tennessee, which was seeded fifth in this tournament but appeared poised for an upset with the help of its usual crew of orange-clad fans. Despite an early injury to 6-foot-6 Kelley Cain, the Lady Vols led 31-26 at halftime.

“We saw a player go down and we never want to see that,” forward Alyssia Brewer said. “We knew that we had to come together and replace what Kelley would give us.”

Briana Bass, the Lady Vols’ 5-foot-2 guard, drove to the basket and scored after faking a pass to the perimeter. That started a 14-6 run to close the half that had Summitt pumping her fists as her team headed off the court.

Cain returned for Tennessee in the second half, but it was top-seeded Auburn that took control of the game. Boddie’s jumper put the Tigers ahead 35-33, and Bonner added a layup on a fast break for a 44-33 lead.

“Every game we’ve been here, they have the home-court advantage with all their fans,” said Bonner, Auburn’s career leader in scoring. “But our fans were awesome tonight. You could hear them as loud as the Tennessee fans.”

Tennessee lost five SEC regular season games this season for the first time — and missed out on a bye at the SEC tournament for the first time since 1997. The Lady Vols can take some solace in what happened that year: They lost to Auburn in the SEC tournament semifinals, then went on to win a surprising national title.

“I think we’re at the crossroads,” Summitt said. “We’ve got to decide who we are. Are we going to be a 40-minute team? Are we going to commit to our defense for 40 minutes? And we’ve got to make shots.”

For Auburn, the talk is now of another No. 1 seed—this one in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers still have another game to play against the SEC, but their resume seems to improve every time they take the court.

Auburn’s win was its second this year against the Lady Vols. The Tigers won the regular season matchup 82-68.

“Tennessee is a measuring stick for everybody, and I think that we measured up pretty well this year against ‘em,” Fortner said. “We’re building our program at Auburn, and we feel good about the direction we’re going.”

Friday, March 06, 2009

No. 19 Tennessee beats No. 21 Florida 71-67

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Angie Bjorklund scored 25 points, and No. 19 Tennessee beat No. 21 Florida 71-67 Friday night to advance to the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament.

Bjorklund went scoreless the previous night in Tennessee’s first-round win over Alabama, but she made an impact immediately against Florida, scoring 13 points in the first half to help the Lady Vols (22-9) take a 38-21 lead into intermission.

Florida (23-7) pulled within three late, but Tennessee’s Kelley Cain caught an airball by teammate Shekinna Stricklen and was fouled hard by Marshae Dotson with 3:26 remaining. After a near-altercation under the basket, Cain made both free throws to start a 7-0 run that put the game away.

Tennessee improved to 38-3 in its series against Florida and avenged a 66-57 loss to the Gators last month. The Lady Vols will play No. 6 Auburn—the tournament’s top seed—in the semifinals Saturday night.

Stricklen scored 18 points. Sha Brooks led Florida with 22, and Dotson added 20.

Despite their higher AP ranking, the Lady Vols are seeded fifth in this tournament and Florida was fourth. The Gators have lost five of six.

Bjorklund sank an early 3-pointer to break a 9-9 tie and put the Lady Vols ahead to stay. Later, with Tennessee ahead 30-21, she scored eight straight points to make it a 17-point game at halftime.

Bjorklund’s 3-pointer in the second half made it 54-43, and after Florida scored five points on one possession to cut the lead to six, Bjorklund made a wild shot off the backboard followed by an open 3 for a 59-48 advantage.

Florida answered with a 9-1 run, capped by Dotson’s basket after an offensive rebound. But the Gators turned the ball over twice in a row after Cain’s free throws, and Brooks fouled out while chasing down Glory Johnson after Tennessee broke the Florida press.

Bjorklund went 9-of-15 from the field and 6-of-10 from 3-point range.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Lady Vols top Alabama 68-49

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Pat Summitt and Tennessee began their bid for another Southeastern Conference tournament championship a day earlier than usual.

Shekinna Stricklen scored 14 of her 16 points in the second half, and the No. 19 Lady Vols pulled away for a 68-49 win over Alabama on Thursday night in the first round. This was Tennessee’s first appearance on opening day at this event since 1997—the Lady Vols missed out on a bye after struggling a bit during the regular season.

They trailed 31-30 at halftime against Alabama before rallying for their 35th straight win over the Crimson Tide.

“We talked about what we had to do—we had to take care of the basketball, and we had to have a different sense of urgency,” Summitt said. “Sometimes this team is far too laid back for my liking.”

The Lady Vols (21-9) went on a 12-0 run to start the second half. Kelley Cain scored five points during that decisive stretch, and Stricklen capped the run with a 3-pointer.

Alabama (13-17) never pulled closer than seven points after that. Freshman Ericka Russell led the Crimson Tide with 18 points.

Stricklen made a pair of 3-pointers that put the Lady Vols ahead 61-45 with just over six minutes remaining.

“Intensity was higher,” Stricklen said. “We just got it going in the second half.”

Nobody played more than 28 minutes for Tennessee, which needs to win four times in four days to earn a record 14th SEC tournament title.

“I was mindful of, tomorrow we had to play another game,” Summitt said. “But first thing’s first: We had to win this one.”

Tennessee lost five SEC games during the regular season for the first time. As a result, the Lady Vols were denied a bye and had to play on opening day of the conference tournament for the first time in a dozen years.

In 1997, Tennessee lost in the SEC tournament semifinals—then went on to win the national championship. That was the start of a 46-game winning streak.

Russell made two early 3-pointers sandwiched around a driving three-point play, giving the 12th-seeded Crimson Tide a 9-2 lead. Tennessee didn’t take its first lead until Glory Johnson’s two free throws made it 21-20.

“We made some shots in the first half,” Alabama coach Wendell Hudson said. “Of course, Tennessee went on a roll there. Once they got started making shots, it was the difference in the basketball game.”

The fifth-seeded Lady Vols will face fourth-seeded Florida on Friday night.

Stricklen added six rebounds and seven assists for Tennessee. Cain scored 12 points with six rebounds and seven blocks, and Johnson added 11 points and seven rebounds. All three players are freshmen.

“I always go back and think, ‘Would I rather have talent or experience?”’ Summitt said. “I’d rather have talent, but right now they should be a little more experienced than they play sometimes.”

The Lady Vols withstood an 0-for-7 shooting night from sophomore Angie Bjorklund.

Tennessee outrebounded Alabama 44-29 and held the Crimson Tide to 30 percent shooting. Alabama went 7-of-32 from the field in the second half, including 3-of-14 from 3-point range.

Alabama trailed 30-25 before Varisia Raffington made a 3-pointer while being fouled for a four-point play. Dedrea Magee then scored just before the buzzer to give the Crimson Tide a one-point lead heading into halftime.

“We had nothing to lose and we just wanted to come out and play hard,” Russell said.

Alabama then went nearly five minutes without scoring at the start of the second half.

“Coach said at halftime the last thing we wanted to do was go home tomorrow,” Cain said.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

No. 18 Tennessee beats No. 19 Vanderbilt 75-66

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Pat Summitt had a secret goal this season for her Lady Vols: 20 wins.

Her squads had done it for the past 33 consecutive seasons with few problems. After many painful losses, this year’s team—her youngest ever— managed the feat in the final game of the regular season with a 75-66 win over No. 19 Vanderbilt on Sunday night.

“I normally don’t set goals for how many games, but my goal was 20 wins,” Summitt said. “I kind of sat on that. I didn’t talk about it much, and there was a time I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t know if we’ll get 20 wins or not.”’

The win also helped the 18th-ranked Lady Vols (20-9, 9-5 Southeastern Conference) remain perfect against the Commodores (21-8, 10-4) in Knoxville and avoid a season sweep by their interstate rival. Vanderbilt beat Tennessee for only the seventh time in history, 74-58 in Nashville on Jan. 11.

Summitt was so angry after that loss she made the Lady Vols launder their own practice clothes, the first of many creative motivational tactics she tried this season to little avail.

She surprised her players at courtside before the game dressed head-to-toe in the signature Tennessee orange, prompting chuckles from the players. Summitt declared it a good-luck charm.

“That’s all I’m wearing for the rest of the season,” she said. “I thought, ‘Can I do this? I did take my orange shoes off.”

Even with the lucky orange and the win, Tennessee finished the season with its worst SEC record and will play Alabama on Thursday in the first round of the conference tournament—the Lady Vols second appearance in the opening round.

Vanderbilt, which was tabbed by the league coaches in the preseason to win the SEC, fell one conference win shy of tying its record for SEC victories and finished second behind Auburn, receiving a first-round bye in the league tournament.

Tennessee dominated the boards, grabbing 48 rebounds to Vanderbilt’s 20.

“It really came to rebounding,” Commodores coach Melanie Balcomb said. “They really pounded the glass, and we just didn’t get the job done on the boards. I think that was the difference in the game, because I think we beat them in a lot of other areas.”

Shekinna Stricklen, who led Tennessee with 18 points, hit a fast-break jumper to give Tennessee a 57-48 lead with 9:28 left in the game.

“In the first half, I was having trouble breathing, but coach was getting on me and told me that it wasn’t an excuse, and she told me that I just had to play through it,” Stricklen said.

Vanderbilt went on an 8-0 run, and Meredith Marsh hit 3-pointer with 7:02 left to cut the margin to 57-56, but the Lady Vols responded by going on a 16-3 run.

Alex Fuller, the lone senior honored on senior night, had a double-double for Tennessee with 17 points and 14 rebounds. Angie Bjorklund added 16 points and Kelley Cain had 15.

Christina Wirth led Vanderbilt with 20 points. Merideth Marsh added 13 points and Tia Gibbs had 12.

Vanderbilt, which averaged 46.4 percent shooting this season, managed only 38.5 percent against Tennessee.

“Good shooters keep shooting, and I have confidence in all of our players,” Wirth said.

The Commodores scored 23 points off of 17 Lady Vols turnovers while committing only nine of their own.

“I think that’s a really good effort,” Balcomb said.