- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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With Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson both gone, Pat Summitt knew some Volunteer would have to step up to fill the void this season.
Would it be Shyra Ely, who showed such promise the past two seasons? Would it be Tasha Butts, the most experienced and outspoken of the four seniors? Or would it be Shanna Zolman, the sophomore with the sweet 3-point shot?
All three players, actually, have been an important part of Tennessee's 7-1 start, which included five wins over ranked teams before Sunday's loss to then-No. 5 Texas. But junior Loree Moore, whose name went largely unmentioned before the season began, has probably had the biggest impact on the Lady Vols' early success this season. And according to Summitt, Moore is probably Tennessee's most improved player at both ends of the floor.
Ely, one of several gifted Lady Vols, has lived up to expectations, leading Tennessee in scoring (16.0) and rebounding (7.5) and shooting 46.1 percent from the field. But since Tennessee is notoriously an inside-out team, Ely's emergence hasn't been surprising. Ely is a monster down low with All-American potential, and we've been waiting for her to break out.
Moore, on the other hand, had simply been a piece of the puzzle at Tennessee. Though her ballhandling and quickness were impressive her freshman season, when she started 12 of 34 games and averaged 21 minutes, Moore was still learning. The past two seasons Moore had the benefit of doing so from players such as Kara Lawson, and made the most of it. Moore, who's a very good passer, worked hard between her first and second seasons and went from reserve to starter (all 38 games in 2002-03), averaging 6.4 points and 3.4 rebounds and making a team-best 97 steals. Moore really hit her stride in the NCAA Tournament, when she hit a team-best 67 percent of her shots from the field
This season, all her numbers continue to rise: 8.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.8 steals. The 5-foot-9 guard easily leads the Lady Vols in the last two categories, and despite splitting time at point guard with Butts, Moore ranks fourth in scoring and third in rebounding. Her shot selection also is impressive (43.3 percent from the field), and Moore is a wonderful ballhandler and terrific penetrator (she's especially hard to defend when she gets a full of head of steam going). Moore might also be one of the best on-ball defenders in the country, which is always a priority for Summitt and Tennessee.
Moore is an unbelievable rebounder with great leaping abilities, too. She's a big guard with no fear who can do a little of everything, and some of her skill can be traced to her athletic background (her brother, Brian Hunter, formerly played for the Phillies). But the real turning point for Moore was probably her experience with USA Basketball this past summer.
Choosing to participate with Team USA in the Pan American Games in Santo Domingo rather than travel to Europe with her Lady Vols teammates, Moore started all seven games and averaged 25.5 minutes, 6.4 points and 3.9 rebounds for the silver medalists. While playing for your country is an honor, it's also a very high-stress experience. You have no comfort level; everyday you walk into the gym you must play your best and earn your teammates' respect. It's much different than a relaxed summer of going to the gym at home.
All the big-game experience has paid off for Moore, who appears to be more confident than ever. She has become the Lady Vols' quarterback, their vocal leader. Moore brings a calmness to the Lady Vols, and that poise at point guard could help carry Tennessee far this season.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.
We knew someone would step up at Tennessee. We didn't know it would be junior guard Loree Moore.