"There's been a lot of doubt about this season and this team and about where we're going to take it," Nicky Anosike said. "We feed off of that. We know what we can do and we believe in each other and when our backs are against the wall we know we have no choice but to fight. It's either win or go home, and we're not ready to leave each other yet."
No. 1 seed Tennessee, 33-2, takes on No. 2 seed Texas A&M, 29-7, at 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN) at the Ford Center. The Aggies are playing the underdog card. The Lady Vols are wearing the same target that has blinked neon orange all season.
No. 3 ranked Tennessee fell behind Notre Dame in the regional semifinal Sunday before pulling away in the second half and winning, 74-64. No. 8/9 ranked Texas A&M trounced Duke, 77-63, and the players said after the game that they didn't think the Blue Devils took them seriously.
"We're not Duke," Alexis Hornbuckle said. "Duke might have came out and not respected this team. We've been here and we know that you have to respect every opponent. Everybody is here for a reason, and everybody wants to come at us the same way we want to come at them."
Tennessee has had a tendency to start slow at times this season and has slogged through some defensive lapses during games. Sometimes the Lady Vols seem inspired only to the point they need to be to prevail.
That method failed them twice in the regular season against Stanford and LSU – two teams who are already in the Final Four with the final two tickets to be punched tonight – but the Lady Vols also have shown considerable resilience when their backs are against the proverbial wall.
"I don't what it is," Hornbuckle said. "I guess we like the pressure. To be honest I don't why we come out so sluggish now and then and other times we can put together a 40-minute game, a 30-minute game and then we just put together a half against Notre Dame. I know for a fact that we've got to put together 40 minutes or more, if necessary, for (Tuesday) night."
This postseason has unfolded similarly to last season in that Tennessee started flat against Drake, was inspired for the most part against Pitt and played sporadically against Marist. In the regional final against Ole Miss in 2007, the Lady Vols dominated a conference foe that was spent after beating Maryland and Oklahoma.
"We like giving y'all a heart attack. That's really our key is to worry you guys and having people talk bad about us all the time," Candace Parker said with a smile. "We've had some wakeup calls. Pittsburgh, we got complacent. A little bit in the Purdue game we got complacent. It's a pattern (of winning) I hope follows from last year."
Last year ended, of course, with the Lady Vols cutting down the championship net in Cleveland. Pat Summitt has been fretting since the preseason about getting the team ready to repeat – one of the hardest feats in sports, Summitt said – but her postseason approach between games has been to emphasize what the team is doing right.
The Lady Vols are, once again, in a regional final, this time against a Big 12 foe that is undersized in the post but makes up for it with pressure defense and savvy guard play.
Before tipoff tonight the Tennessee players will try to both get fired up and relax. It can be a tricky balance.
"You have to realize that they're in our way to get back to the Final Four," Hornbuckle said. "For the seniors we want three more games together as Tennessee Lady Vols. They're one more obstacle that we have to get through. We don't want to be too tight, overanxious, but at the same time it's a lot of emotions flowing."
Hornbuckle has been very candid after the late tipoffs that Tennessee had in the Oral Roberts and Notre Dame games – she doesn't like them and she doesn't know what the team could do differently to adjust. For that reason Hornbuckle was thrilled when the Lady Vols got the earlier tip time Tuesday.
"I think it definitely helps because you're not sitting around all day," Hornbuckle said. "I think we'll play better."
Hopefully for Hornbuckle she will feel better at tipoff. She has a respiratory illness and sore throat and that can drain a player faster, especially one who must play extended minutes.
"I'm working through it," Hornbuckle said.
Senior wing Alberta Auguste, who also has been under the weather in Oklahoma City, understands the frustration with Tennessee's sporadic play and she knows it has been a source of frustration for Summitt.
"We're driving her crazy," Auguste said. "We're driving ourselves crazy because we're putting a whole lot of pressure on ourselves. We know what's at stake and I think we're going to come out ready to play. We know Texas A&M is going to be out to get us."
The Aggies have made school history by getting the team to the Elite Eight. The players realize a berth in the Final Four would put their program on the national map. La Toya Micheaux, a junior center for the Aggies, noted the team's success in the Big 12 but said a win on this stage would catapult A&M to another level.
"This is where it goes beyond playing basketball," Micheaux said. "It's like a Cinderella season. … It's not enough until you beat Tennessee. Making it to the Final Four will give us some respect."
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood used the same word when talking about A&M shortly after Tennessee had beaten Notre Dame. The Lady Vols are expected to be here. A&M wants to knock the heavyweight off the perch.
"They're on the Cinderella mission right now," Lockwood said. "They feel great about themselves. They just got after a Duke team – I didn't doubt that they could win and would play very well – but how that game unfolded took me a little bit by surprise. It's like Rutgers last year. They got on that ride and played so well and they got so together. It's going to be a dogfight. It's going to be an alley brawl."
That bodes well for Tennessee, which has tended to size up its opponent and play accordingly.
"We're a team that comes together and to some extent plays to the level of our opponent," Parker said. "I feel like they're a great basketball team. They're a number two seed, and they're a number two seed for a reason. We have to play hard and start the game well."
The programs have played once in a 1997 pre-Christmas tournament in Alaska, and the Lady Vols won, 105-81. The veterans on the current teams were 10 and 11 years old when Tennessee and Texas A&M squared off in Anchorage.
"It's going to be a good challenge for us not really knowing them and them not knowing us," Auguste said.
"Sometimes during the season you play a team two and three times, and it's harder because you pick up each other's habits," Anosike said. "But we're definitely ready for a challenge. They're a great team. It will be fun to play someone new."
Texas A&M certainly seems to have Tennessee's attention. If the seeding didn't do it, A&M's defeat of Duke on Sunday should have in a game in which the Aggies broke the Blue Devils pressure, turned the ball over just 11 times, hit seven 3-pointers and stayed even on the boards, 40-40, despite Duke's considerable height advantage.
"We don't take them lightly," Anosike said. "They're a number two seed and they're just as good as any other number two seed."
Tennessee counters with five players in the starting lineup who are all on the same page – trying to go out as champions.
"It's a thrill playing with five seniors," Anosike said. "It feels like everyone understands each other."
Every time the players put on the Tennessee uniform it could be the last time. Anosike said the thought crosses her mind. Parker acknowledged such, too.
"I do think about it," Parker said. "It's gone fast. There are a lot of emotions, but you're playing and representing Tennessee and you're going to play as hard as you possibly can on the court and try not to think about it because you want to live to see another game."
"These are the last three games that we'll get to play with each other and we don't plan on playing any less than that," Anosike said. "I've invested four years of my life in this program. I've worked as hard as I could for this program, and I'm just not ready for it to end."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shannon Bobbitt, 5'2 senior guard, No. 00 (9.8 points per game, 3.0 rebounds per game); Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11 senior guard, No. 14 (10.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg); Alberta Auguste, 5'11 senior forward, No. 33 (5.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg); Candace Parker, 6'5 junior forward, No. 3 (21.5 ppg, 8.4 rpg); and Nicky Anosike, 6'4 senior center, No. 55 (9.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg).
Anosike has stepped up on the scoreboard and on the glass in the NCAA tourney and is averaging 10.0 points and 7.7 rebounds in the first three games.
Notre Dame left Anosike alone at the elbows – the corners of the free throw line – and she drained those shots Sunday to finish with 10 points.
"I know I'm not the first option on offense," Anosike said. "I know I'm not the second option on offense. I know I'm not the third, fourth. Sometimes I'm the fifth option on offense. I know my role on my team.
"I know we have a lot of scorers and that's not really what the team needs me to do at certain points in time, but I felt like (Sunday) the (other) team was really keying in on the inside game and I felt like I needed to hit that outside shot so that they would have the respect for my shot and open things up for Candace inside. If the team needs me to knock down shots I'll knock down shots."
Parker, who has increased her scoring to 24.0 ppg in the tournament, welcomed the assistance.
"It helps a lot," Parker said. "Her defensive presence is second to none. She doesn't get a lot of publicity and praise but what she does for our team … you don't have many 6'3, 6'4 players that can guard one through five and guard them and shut them down.
"She rebounds the ball. She brings energy to our team and to add her offense that's huge for us. She'll get in your face and yell. She looks for me to get me the ball in positions that are easy for me to score."
Texas A&M Coach Gary Blair is expected to start: A'Quonesia Franklin, 5'3 senior guard, No. 10 (7.9 ppg, 4.8 assists per game); Takia Starks, 5'8 junior guard, No. 3 (16.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg); Morenike Atunrase, 5'10 guard/forward, No. 21 (10.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg); Patrice Reado, 6'0 senior forward, No. 24 (8.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg); and La Toya Micheaux, 6'3 junior center, No. 12 (3.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg).
Danielle Gant, a 5'11 junior forward from Oklahoma City, also could start – she is averaging 14.8 ppg and 7.2 rpg – but she missed the second half of the Duke game because of dehydration and needed IV fluids in the locker room. Blair some Monday that Gant had the stomach flu, but he expected her to be able to play tonight.
"She was able to walk through our stuff (Monday)," Blair said. "She had stomach problems again (Monday) morning after breakfast, but if I'm going to be there, she's going to be there. … There is no tomorrow. If you've got the flu, you play. And she will find a way."
ON POINT: The matchup cited by the players Monday was that at the point position where two senior guards, Shannon Bobbitt of Tennessee, and A'Quonesia Franklin of Texas A&M, will lead their teams.
Franklin is similar to former LSU star Temeka Johnson in size, speed and build. Franklin said she heard the comparison a lot when the Aggies played their early rounds in Baton Rouge, where they beat Texas-San Antonio and Hartford.
"I think it's very important for the point guards to lead them teams and execute the offenses," Takia Starks said. "There might be a lot of pressing so we've been working on our press breaks. Both guards on both teams are great defensively."
Starks knows something about guard play. Her dad's cousin is John Starks, a standout for the N.Y. Knicks. She collected his trading cards growing up – "I still have them," she said – and wears No. 3 because it was his number and also that of Allen Iverson.
A&M Coach Gary Blair said either coach would be happy to have either point guard.
"You could have given me Bobbitt and you could have given Tennessee A'Quonesia, and Pat would have been just as happy with A'Quonesia and I probably would have been just as happy with Shannon, but it's working for both of us," Blair said.
Franklin, who is from Tyler, Texas, watched Bobbitt play when she was at Trinity Valley Community College in nearby Athens.
"We watch a lot of basketball," Franklin said.
Bobbitt said she also spends the season watching women's hoops, and she saw some A&M games on television.
"We have to be mindful that they're a team just like us – very athletic, they shoot the passing lanes, they pressure you, they hawk the ball," Bobbitt said. "We have to compete and take care of the ball."
Bobbitt and Franklin are similar in size, stature and speed. Both players can also break a press with the dribble.
"I think the point guard position is going to be the key to the game because they're both great point guards," Patrice Reado said. " That's going to be the key matchup – who's going to run their team the best?"
"It's going to be very key because we're the generals of the team," Franklin said. "We have to go in and make sure we do what we can to get our teams the W."
Bobbitt's approach is straightforward.
"We have to come out and help one another and play Tennessee basketball," Bobbitt said.
POST POWER: Texas A&M matches up well at the guard positions, but they are undersized in the post and must contend with Candace Parker and Nicky Anosike.
The task will fall to Patrice Reado, Danielle Gant and La Toya Micheaux.
"Since I've been in college I've been undersized in the post position," Reado said. "I just go in there like a warrior. We play team defense so there are four other people helping me."
Reado and Micheaux have contended with Oklahoma's Courtney Paris – they were 1-1 against the Sooners this season – but Parker is a different type of post player to guard because she can set up on the high or low block, the wing or behind the arc.
"That's a different challenge and I think it's also an advantage to me because I'm undersized and quick and I can move around, too," Reado said. "I feel like it will be a good challenge."
Micheaux said the post players would rely on ball pressure from the guards to disrupt the post feeds.
"It starts with our guards so that high-low action won't happen," Micheaux said. "She does move so you can't just sit in your position. Me and Reado we're going to have to keep our eyes open and see where she's going and make sure we box out. It's not the first shot that gets you. It's the second and third shot. We've got to battle them on the boards. If you can go against Courtney Paris you can go against anybody."
Micheaux compared her style of play to that of Anosike in that both players are willing to set screens and get on the boards. Micheaux also helps set up her teammates, much as Anosike does for Parker.
"They work great together," Micheaux said. "We have to get (Anosike) off the boards and don't give her the high-post shot. We have to stop it all. We can't let (Parker) go off for 35 points. That's something that was emphasized. Do your job and everything will work out."
Gary Blair indicated that the scheme to guard Parker would be different than the approach used by Notre Dame. Parker tied a career high with 34 points on Sunday.
"I think you've got to give help – we cannot play like Notre Dame did," said Blair, who noted A&M would try to stop the lobs, not send Parker to the free throw line so much, limit touches and keep her off the offensive boards.
"We're going to have our work cut out for us," Blair said.
PARKER POWER: A sign held by a fan in the Ford Center read, "Parker. Can't Stop Her." Another said: "Even Sooners Know Parker is No. 1."
Pat Summitt didn't mince words when it came to Parker. She declared her to be the best player in women's college basketball and one of the top two in the world.
When Summitt was asked how Parker always responds under pressure – both to perform and be the face of the sport – the coach said, "Well, first thing I want to say is Candace Parker is the best player in the women's game, and there has been a lot of questions or suggestions who is the best player. My comment on that is the big question should be who is the best player in the world? Is it Candace Parker or is it Lauren Jackson?"
Parker just smiled when the remarks were relayed to her, and she noted that doesn't matter much when Summitt is in her grill over her defense.
"For every comment there's a counter: ‘Are you going to get in a stance on defense,' and things like that," Parker said. "I take it and I smile and the next minute I'm frowning. I love her for it. She's going to praise you, but also she's going to tell you everything you need to do. Great players do something with constructive criticism. Everybody can take praise. I'm my biggest critic and always want to constantly be better and work harder."
When Parker was asked how she could improve, she said, "Talk to my dad. He'll tell you. We have a 24-hour rule where we can't talk about basketball for 24 hours (after a game)."
Parker said it's better if they have had time to review the game before breaking down her play. As far as the Notre Dame game, "I think he's going to say I did a better job rebounding but there were still lapses where I could have rebounded better," Parker said.
She said Larry Parker also likely would mention the missed layups and free throws. All of this was said with a smile.
When Parker needs encouragement or advice during the game, she will get it from Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood.
"I look at Dean a lot throughout the game," Parker said. "He's energetic. He's going to give you positive things. He's going to tell you what you're doing wrong. He'll calm me down sometimes. Early on in the game I was so frustrated because I was missing layups that I normally hit. He was like, ‘Don't worry about it. You've going to hit the next 10 shots.'
"I really admire him and thank him because he's been instrumental in my career."
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Texas A&M game. Here is her assessment.
When Texas A&M has the ball: "They score a lot in transition," Warlick said. "They're very athletic. They press, they score off their steals, turnovers. They score in transition and that's what they did (against Duke)."
Defensively, the Aggies are likely to be in a man-to-man.
"They're going to play man to man," Warlick said. They're pretty much a man-to-man team."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We're not going to do anything different," Warlick said. "We want to go inside, establish the inside game, score off turnovers and score off transition buckets. We're going to stick with our game plan and do what we do. We can't miss layups like we did (Sunday). That put us in the hole first half. We've got to be on the attack mode."
Warlick said the guards also have to get to the basket and knock down some perimeter shots.
"I think anytime you do it opens up the inside and it takes a lot pressure off of Candace and Nicky Anosike," Warlick said. "We've got to get some outside shots."
Defensively, Tennessee must bring some pressure.
"We've got to keep them in front of us," Warlick said. "They're very athletic. They're great penetrators. We've got to play better on-the-ball defense than we did (Sunday). And we've got to affect them with our full court press. We're going to have a tough time guarding them, and they're going to have a tough time guarding us."
Gary Blair coached at Arkansas for 10 years before going to A&M in 2003 so he is familiar with the SEC style of play.
"I think he knows our tendencies, what we're going to do, but he's going to stick to his game plan because he's beaten Oklahoma, he's beaten Duke, and they had big kids," Warlick said.
Both teams use eight players with seven for A&M accounting for the bulk of the minutes. Six of Tennessee's players accounted for the majority of the minutes Sunday. For that reason both teams will run and press selectively.
"We're not going to run for 40 minutes," A&M's La Toya Micheaux said. "We pick and choose when we run. If they're in their runs we have to stop their runs. He's not going to run us to death."
BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is 2-2 in games played on April 1. The last win on this date was against North Carolina, 56-50, in the Final Four semifinal game in 2007. Tennessee also won on April 1 against Georgia in 1995. The losses were to Southern Cal in 1984 and Louisiana Tech in 1988. … Tennessee's record in the Elite Eight is 17-5. … Texas A&M is the 70th different opponent for the Lady Vols in NCAA tourney play. … Tennessee's record against Big 12 teams in the NCAA Tournament is 5-0 with victories over Texas Tech (three times), Baylor and Colorado. … The Aggies have played one other SEC team in the NCAA tourney, Florida, and won, 78-76, in 1994. … Ball security was cited Monday by Pat Summitt and the players. The Aggies have forced opponents into 20 or more turnovers in 23 of their 36 games. Those miscues turned into 805 points this season – 33.7 percent of their offensive output. … Gary Blair is 1-11 against Tennessee with the lone win coming Dec. 29, 1996. All of the matchups occurred when he was at Arkansas. … The Aggies are playing in the month of April for the first time in school history.
AIR BJORKLUND: When Angie Bjorklund hit a three-pointer against Notre Dame, her father, Jim, likely jumped the highest. He came out of his chair and high-fived everyone sitting nearby in the Ford Center.
Bjorklund has struggled from behind the arc in the postseason – she has hit 68 three-pointers in her freshman year – but she nailed the long-range shot in the second half.
"He loves watching me and Jami play," Angie said, referring to her sister who plays for Gonzaga. "He's proud of us. I'm excited he's down here."
UNPLUGGED: Notre Dame guard Tulyah Gaines inadvertently knocked Mickey Dearstone off of the Lady Vol Radio Network when she crashed into press row trying to save a loose ball. The collision disconnected Dearstone, who crawled under the table, reconnected the line and calmly went back to work.
BEST CHANT: That of the Tennessee band yelling, "Fight, fight, fight" when a livid Pat Summitt challenged an official's call when Nicky Anosike was clipped and tumbled onto the court. Anosike was called for the foul.
BEST FOLLOW THROUGH: That of Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw, who stuck to her plan to wear some red to lure Oklahoma Sooner fans into cheering for Notre Dame.
McGraw had crimson red high heels, a red belt and a red necklace.
UTTER IRONY DEPARTMENT: During the Duke-Texas A&M game an Irish fan expressed a desire for Tennessee to lose because of the publicity given to the Lady Vols. Notre Dame football is one of the most, if not the most, hyped and nationally exposed football programs in the country.
THE STARE: The Monday press conference format was to have the five starters join the head coach on the dais. Before that occurred the Tennessee players did interviews without the coach present and apparently were asked about Pat Summitt's stare.
When they were asked to again "weigh in" on the stare, Summitt said, "I want to hear this."
"It's not so fun now that she's sitting here," Candace Parker said. "Obviously she had a reason to stare at us, stare through us (Sunday). In the first half we didn't come out ready to play, but we regrouped because of the stare and came back in the second half and played a lot better as a team."
That stare likely appeared because of defensive lapses. Summitt said Monday she counted 13 possessions in the first half when the players were supposed to trap ball screens. They did so twice.
"That's a glaring lack of discipline to your system, and we pointed that out (in the scouting report Monday), because that can't happen against Texas A&M, no matter what our scheme is," Summitt said. " … Because this Texas A&M team is going to turn you over and get into you, and we've got to be really efficient offensively and be mindful of taking care of the basketball."
TEDDY BEAR: A&M guard A'Quonesia Franklin called Gary Blair a "teddy bear" during the press conference – he kissed her on the side of the head in return and then joked, "I'm sure it's an NCAA violation."
Texas A&M brings the heat with Associate Head Coach Vic Schaefer, whom the players call the defensive coordinator.
"It doesn't matter if you're up by 20 or down by 20, he's going to be the same," Patrice Reado said. "He wants us to play his style of defense. He wants us in the passing lanes and covering the post and defending and everything else."
SLEEPING SOUNDLY: Candace Parker heard the tornado sirens that blared across downtown Oklahoma City in the early morning hours of Monday because she was awake anyway. The other four starters slept through them.
"I didn't hear sirens," Alexis Hornbuckle. "When I'm asleep, I'm asleep. The hail put me to sleep. It sounds like heavier rain."
A band of thunderstorms rolled across Oklahoma City late Sunday night and early Monday morning and brought hail, torrential rain and tornadic activity.
"I didn't hear it at all," Nicky Anosike said.
"I didn't hear sirens. I was knocked out," Shannon Bobbitt said.
"I didn't hear anything," Alberta Auguste said. "Candace was telling us about it this morning. I slept through it."
"I heard the sirens," Candace Parker said. "I was actually awake. I was watching television. I had to mute my TV."
Parker, who grew up in Illinois, hit the mute button on the television to figure out what the noise was and then went back to the programming.
"I go to bed real late," Parker said. "I can't sleep. I can sleep in the morning. I don't like getting up."
LEAPING LEX: Alexis Hornbuckle hustled to save a ball out of bounds against Notre Dame and ended up leaping over a row of photographers, clearing the court and landing in a chair behind a curtained-off section near the Tennessee band.
Two years ago Hornbuckle broke her wrist after landing amidst the cheerleaders and missed a month of the season. She played the postseason in 2006 with a cumbersome splint on her right arm and wrist.
Did she have any flashbacks?
"Yes, I did," Hornbuckle said. "I was like, ‘Should I get this ball or let it go?' I feel like it's postseason and every possession counts. I kind of learned my lesson of how to fall and how to recover. That's why I kept running instead of trying to stop. I thought just go as far as I could until I slowed down.
"I jumped over the cameras. I wanted to stop myself on the bar (holding the curtains), but I didn't know it was so weak. It flipped over and then I saw the chair and I just put my hand out."