Lady Vols look to make statement
DAYTON, Ohio -- The more things change, the more we wait to see whether they stay the same for Tennessee.
The locker room top-seeded Tennessee occupies for Saturday's Sweet 16 game against No. 4 seed Ohio State (ESPN, noon ET) is the same one it occupied four years ago at University of Dayton Arena, an instance of history repeating itself that allowed longtime team trainer Jenny Moshak to sit in the same spot along one wall Friday morning while the Lady Vols waited for their turn to practice, as she had while players endured similar waits four years ago in the Sweet 16. Pat Summitt is most definitely the same, save for a couple of additional championship rings now in her possession. Even the infamous ramp that leads to and from the locker room is familiarly steep.
But for most of Tennessee's roster, the few short steps from the locker room to the court on Saturday afternoon represent an opportunity to explore a great unknown. And they represent a chance to take the first step toward proving to themselves, more than anyone on the outside, that they are connected to the program's legacy by more than the color orange.
Talent, rebounding and defense. It's not a complicated recipe. Yet the number of programs that combine those traits as consistently as the one in Knoxville is only slightly greater than the number of words that rhyme with Tennessee's primary color. Take a former player with breathtaking individual skills who nonetheless played like she would have been more comfortable busting the wedge at Neyland Stadium, and you sum up more than three decades of success.
"Tamika Catchings is Tennessee in a nutshell," sophomore Taber Spani said by way of explaining the program's allure to a kid growing up in Missouri. "I think what really drew me was just that they were always at the top -- I felt like they were always at the Final Four, they were always competing for championships. And I think as a competitor, as a player, I feel like all of these guys who came here, we had that same desire to compete for championships."
One of those times Spani and her current teammates might have watched from afar was 2007, when Candace Parker and company knocked off Marist and Mississippi in a regional in Dayton en route to the first of back-to-back national championships. As it was, not one of the current players was around for that championship run, and only current Lady Vols Angie Bjorklund, Vicki Baugh and Sydney Smallbone played any minutes for the second title-winning team in the run.
In fact, nine Lady Vols have yet to advance beyond the Sweet 16, an unfamiliar reality for a program with almost as many Final Four appearances (18) as all-time NCAA tournament losses (21). The measuring stick at Tennessee is Final Fours, if not championships, but for a core group that lost in the first round against Ball State two years ago and was upset in the Sweet 16 by Baylor a year ago, winning Saturday would begin to square the ledger.
"I think they've put in a lot of time this year to get to this point and they want to go forward," associate coach Holly Warlick said. "Yeah, I think it would make a statement for them. They win and they may have the monkey off their backs because this game right here is, [for] the majority of our team, it's the farthest we've gone. So in order for us to say we're going to make a statement, we need to win.
"We've lost in the first round, we lost last year in the regional first round, so this is a statement game for these kids."
And even for a team that ranks sixth in the nation in points per game and field goal percentage, Tennessee prefers to make its statements by speaking softly and beating your brains out with defense and rebounding. Two years ago, when current rotation players Glory Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen and Alicia Manning were freshmen following in the footsteps of Parker, Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle, the Lady Vols allowed opponents to shoot 39 percent from the floor (41 percent in SEC play) and outrebounded foes by an average of nine rebounds per game. Good numbers for most, but so-so for Tennessee, which then watched Ball State shoot 44 percent in a first-round stunner.
The numbers improved last season, when opponents shot just 35 percent against the Lady Vols. But when it came down to the pressure of the postseason, Baylor shot 49 percent and matched Tennessee rebound for rebound.
As the Sweet 16 arrives Saturday, Tennessee is third in the nation in field goal defense at 33 percent, trailing only Connecticut and Baylor, and fourth in rebounding margin at 12.3 rebounds per game, trailing only Connecticut among teams still in contention. It's an elite offensive team by any measure, statistically one of the program's best since 2000 thanks to an array of accurate shooters and a pace few teams can keep up with. But it's the words heard almost as often in Summitt's world as "Rocky" and "Top" that matter more to those involved.
"The coaches always emphasize it, and it's always been like, 'Oh, OK, defensive and rebounding, we get that. That's our program.' But it's just now really starting to kick in with a lot of our players," Bjorklund said. "The older you get, you have a greater sense of urgency to win. You start buying into Coach's system. And it's just a maturity process, with the older we get the more we realize, 'Hey, this really is what it's going to take to win.' Once everyone starts buying into Coach's system, that's when you see teams that have won in the past win."
Of course, until such time as Tennessee is answering questions Saturday afternoon about playing the winner between Notre Dame and Oklahoma, there will still be questions about whether this team can live up to those words. It won't be easy with Ohio State All-American Jantel Lavender on the other side, even if Tennessee has three big bodies in Kelley Cain, Vicki Baugh and Alyssia Brewer to rotate in against Lavender when not using a smaller lineup.
Summitt's team was good enough on defense and the boards to survive a second-round scare against a tough-minded, good-shooting Marquette team, but it wasn't great at a time of year when that puts survival in peril.
"I think our team got a little uptight," Summitt said. "We [were] at home, we should be in our comfort zone, but I think they felt the pressure to win that game. And it took through the halftime and into the second half until we really opened up and started to play better defense, get on the boards, take care of the ball. I think it was probably good that we experienced that, and they went through it and they battled and got out of it."
In a players-only team meeting the day after that game, all involved agreed on a written pact, as had Tennessee teams before them in the postseason, pertaining to the accountability and effort required to win a championship. And it was a similar message that Spani said Bjorklund, an important part of the last championship team, reiterated on a recent bus ride.
"Teams really shouldn't be necessarily afraid of us because we haven't proved anything to them," Spani recounted of Bjorklund's message. "But that is our job. As a Tennessee team, we feel like our goal is to get to a Final Four and to win championships. And we haven't done that yet, so that's definitely a huge motivation for us because we feel like Tennessee teams kind of get defined by that.
"And as a group together, we want to be among one of those special teams at Tennessee."
Two guesses at what parts of the game they need to control in order to qualify.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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