Jan. 14, 2009
"I think our Vanderbilt game was really a very tough challenge for a young basketball team against a pretty strong group and a good veteran group that obviously came out and did a good job both on the offensive and defensive end. I never felt like we were committed to defending dribble-drives or one-on-one. But I give Vanderbilt and (head coach) Melanie (Balcomb) and her staff a tremendous amount of credit for how we played because they certainly disrupted our action. The one thing that we did not do a good job of was defending in transition and they got to attack the basket in the open floor. That was the one thing that concerned us the most that we did not commit to. So now it's getting ready for a Mississippi State team who is again, another veteran team. She's added some junior college players who I think have stepped in and had an impact right away. They're a veteran team. They have only one freshman. We are going to, again, be in a situation where we know we have to step up and do a much better job on both ends of the floor - particularly our defense and our board play - and have a different level of commitment in those two areas, and taking care of the basketball. Those are the factors that we are really focusing on. Obviously it will be good to get back home and play South Carolina here as opposed to having another road game. These are tough games back-to-back, but that's just part of our league. I think the league is stronger. A lot of people were thinking it was going to be down, but I think it has more quality teams than maybe a year ago."
How do you think Mississippi State's junior college transfers are fitting in and how do you see the team meshing together?
"Well I think they've done a really nice job of blending the talent - the returning players and the new players - and they seem to be playing well together. We recently brought in junior college players Alberta Auguste and Shannon Bobbitt. They fit in and helped us be very successful. I think the same is going to happen at Mississippi State. Without seeing them on the court and just seeing them on tape, I see a commitment to aggressiveness and rebounding. You can just tell they've had game experience. (Also) you look at shooting percentages and you look at free throw percentages. They look more like veterans. I wouldn't say they look like rookies by any means."
In your experience what is the adjustment for a junior college player to the SEC?
"I think it's more about personality and it also depends on what kind of college program they came from. I think with Alberta, she was more laid back in general, while with Shannon, she was more assertive and aggressive. But she was a point guard. Sometimes I think it's a little more challenging to get your people in the paint (to adjust) - your post people or your wing players - as opposed to a point guard. Because a point guard has the mentality so many times of pushing the tempo, picking up the basketball and playing up and down with a lot of energy. That is what I saw from my experience with junior college players. The guard play seems to be much more effective early and much more comfortable at times than maybe your wings or post game."
Former Lady Vols Carla McGhee and Nikki McCray are on South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley's staff. What will it be like to have those two on the opposing sidelines?
"I am pretty accustomed to seeing former Lady Vols on the opposing bench and that's something I'm pretty proud of - the number of players that decided to leave Tennessee and go into the coaching ranks. I know Dawn, when she brought the two of them in, she was excited, and obviously I was excited for Carla and Nikki. You always have a feeling a pride and they're always family. Once a Lady Vol always a Lady Vol. So I'm proud for them. Just watching Dawn over the years, I've thought it's been great to have Dawn in our league. It always makes us better when we have coaches that come in and we know that they are going to get the job done. It takes time, but there is no doubt in my mind it's going to happen - probably in a timely fashion."
Were you able to identify at some point that Carla McGhee and Nikki McCray could make an impact as coaches?
"I'll have to be honest with you, I don't always see that. It's with some more than others. I think with guards probably more than post players just because they tend to be the ones that have to call the plays and be more vocal. They're the first to pick up the ball in transition. The post players they get to go back and run the paint, and we try to get them the basketball. So I think from that standpoint I see the guards and what their personality brings to the team most times earlier than post players. Not all. Like Daedra Charles, who we hired here at Tennessee - she was one of the most vocal post players that I coached. I think Carla was comfortable in taking that role on, but not as early as a guard. Much of it goes not so much to position, though, it's their personality and the high school coaching they had."
How much of the same sets are you running? Will you have to change anything or prepare differently knowing you have two former players on the opposing bench?
"I think we've changed quite a bit. I know when (Tennessee men's basketball coach) Bruce (Pearl) came in I liked an awful lot of what he brought to the court, and I think just over time our game has changed. I think it's a little more complicated and maybe we make it that way and shouldn't, but I think as far as trying to be more creative with our sets in the half court game and giving - I would say I give players more freedom now. That's not always to our advantage, but I give them a little bit more freedom on the offensive end. The better the players, it's more important to let the players make plays. We still do obviously use a lot of sets and that's just kind of a feel for the game."
What kinds of things can you do to help the freshman mature faster?
"It's difficult to fast forward the process. However, there are the things you can control like how hard you are willing to work every day in practice. Obviously with this group, it's how invested are you going to be in playing defense and rebounding. We've been able to cover up a lot of warts with that. Just by saying 'OK, we are going to commit possession by possession to be a great defensive team' and I don't think this young team has played, at best, one half. We are so far from being a 40 minute team. That's been very frustrating. That's something we can change, but the players really have to buy in and commit on a totally different level than they've done in the past. I've thought a lot while watching tape about maybe if we go in and say 'we're going to play no more than seven players.' We may need to shorten our bench because when we have rotated a number of players I'm not happy right now with what we've been doing with that."
How do your teams typically respond to a bad loss?
"Well I think our veteran teams have responded in the past in a very positive way. They're very focused and determined with a not-going-to-let-it-happen-again kind of attitude. This group? I don't know. They are much more fragile and I think that it's going to be important as we move forward to fight through and focus on what we can control. And really focus in on our scouting report. We constantly talk about defense and our board play. You're not going to be able to control every night whether or not you shoot the ball well. You just have some bad shooting nights, and what do you have to fall back on? That is just a commitment to being a good defensive player and a good defensive team. And controlling boards on both ends. Again, we're just not where we need to be."
Mississippi State has never beat UT in women's basketball. They've had some close games over the years. One that sticks out is the (Feb. 14) 2002 where Kara Lawson hit a game-winning three. Is that the one game from the series that sticks out for you?
"We were in a desperation situation when Kara just stepped up and buried a deep three from on top of the floor. That one stood out because I really wasn't sure we could win that game. I think Kara played pretty well against them. I wish we had a Kara Lawson right now. Her basketball IQ is really something special."
Has there been a constant that may have allowed the Lady Vols to have such great success against Mississippi State?
"I don't think so. It's just been a commitment to our defense and our board play, and taking care of the basketball on the road. It's been something that has always been very important to our program. Typically the players that are there when we get players come in, they talk about it and they emphasize it. I don't think that we've done anything besides that."
Do you recall that mindset or energy level that set the tone in the first half of the 1989 NCAA Championship game against Auburn?
"I definitely I thought in Tacoma (Wash.) we brought it. When I say we brought it I mean we had a pretty strong frontline game. I thought we had a team that was really mentally strong and tough, and determined. If you're talking about the Auburn championship game, I remember that's when Bridget (Gordon) came to the bench and had been hit, and she had a loose tooth. She was sitting there looking very nonchalant. I had no idea she had been hit so hard in the face, and I just remember telling her that she had to step up. And everyone had to bear down defensively and with board play. 'We're not going to leave here without a win. You're going to have to find a way to go get it.' Bridget was the one I really challenged. I remember seeing that jumper on the right baseline. I think she hit three in a row. She was so tough, but this whole team was tough. I think just their determination and their commitment - the one thing they learned that this team hasn't bought into is that you can control your destiny if you control the boards and you control how you defend your opponent, and take away what they do best. That's where we are. We're young and we're trying to figure that out. But that was a veteran team. And the veteran teams, they seem to get it. It's not like our language has changed over the years. I feel like I've repeated myself now and I'm in my 35th season."
Was Bridgette Gordon the leader of the 1988-89 team. Did you have a feeling if you challenged her that she would respond the way she did?
"I think Bridgette was very strong-willed and tough-minded. She wanted the role of being the go-to player. I don't know that anyone else had the attitude, toughness and confidence that she had. I just thought she was the best player under pressure on that team, and she came through. She came through a lot of times for us. I think that's something that when you find a player like that, you have to give them a little bit more freedom. At the same time you have to continue to challenge and you also have to get them to understand how much you believe in them. Although I'm sure there were times she thought 'I'm the only name she knows' - and maybe not in a good way. She could take it, and I think it's important that you find out who can take it. Like right now on our team, I don't see a lot of people that can take the challenge. I think Glory Johnson is a player than can get there. I think if Vickie Baugh is healthy, we're a whole different team. She's a player that can take that challenge. Alex Fuller can take that challenge. Right now, our young players, they sometimes don't see that as a great compliment - us saying 'hey, step up, you've got to do this.' I think that we will get there. It's a long season, and I've just got to keep challenging and also encouraging and not break the spirit of anyone on the team."
Why do you think some young players don't want to be challenged or don't take being challenged as a compliment?
"I think because they want to come here because of the great tradition and to play on the big stage - all the national exposure and the television exposure. Yet, when they get here and they realize that because of our loss of five starters, now all of the sudden - it's kind of like be careful what you wish for. You're here and we've got to perform. It's not like we're coming in and we've got a process that we can go through because we've got a veteran team. No. We're thrown into the fire and thrown into the mix of things right away. Expectations never change here. They never have and they never will if I have anything to do with it. That's who we are and what we expect."