(Eds: With AP Photos.)By BETH RUCKERAP Sports Writer
Tennessee finally has all the pieces it needs to get back to the Final Four. The third-ranked Lady Volunteers also have a little extra motivation now to get there.
Tennessee is led by a seasoned fifth-year senior, has a true starting point guard for the first time in three seasons and is stacked with talent.
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The Lady Vols already were determined to avoid missing the Final Four for a fourth straight year, but they’re especially ready to win the program’s ninth national title in honor of coach Pat Summitt, who revealed in August she had been diagnosed with dementia.
”They’re a real tight-knit group, and I think they really respect all the coaches,” Summitt said. ”Bottom line, they want to win, and that’s what’s important. They’re focused. They understand what they have to do.”
Much of that understanding comes from the growth of Tennessee’s seniors, who have been through a lot in their three seasons. They were the first class to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and they’ll be the first Lady Vols class to graduate without a Final Four if they don’t make it there this season.
Fifth-year senior forward Vicki Baugh, the only player left from the Lady Vols’ 2008 national championship squad, has become the vocal leader of the team, filling a need by setting a tougher tone on the court. Baugh, who’s finally healthy after tearing her ACL twice early in her college career, said her teammates were ”too nice” to each other while practicing and playing.
”I think a lot of us have grown to recognize that on the court it’s about business. It’s not going to change our relationship off the court,” Baugh said. ”We are sisters, and Tennessee’s always going to have that strong bond and family. We’ve grown, and I think it’s just being veterans. We know each other, we know how to talk to each other and now we’re going to hold each other accountable.”
Baugh is surrounded by a cast of Lady Vols who are used to playing big roles for Tennessee, players like preseason All-American and versatile guard/forward Shekinna Stricklen, defensive queen Glory Johnson and sharpshooters Meighan Simmons and Taber Spani.
But what was already a talented and versatile lineup is now complemented by three freshmen whose games have already matured beyond their years. Isabelle Harrison adds some needed height to the post game, forward Cierra Burdick is already among the toughest on the team and Ariel Massengale was dubbed the starting point guard before she even set foot on the court for practice.
Massengale had a setback when she collided with a player and suffered a concussion during preseason practice, but when she’s full-speed, she pushes the ball and sets up the offense in a way that the Lady Vols haven’t been able to do while filling the point guard position with a committee of players over the past three seasons.
”You watch her, and you’ll understand why Pat (named her starter),” associate head coach Holly Warlick said. ”It’s very deserving. She has a great presence about her. She’s a true point guard. You always talk about a point guard being a coach on the floor. She sees everything. She makes things happen.”
The Lady Vols are coming off a 34-3 finish and an undefeated run through the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament and an appearance in the NCAA regional finals. Guards Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone graduated, center Kelley Cain decided to end her career because of ongoing problems with injuries and forward Alyssia Brewer and guard Lauren Avant decided to leave the team.
Though Summitt and her assistants aren’t short on shooters thanks to Stricklen, Spani, Simmons and Burdick, their post lineup will be smaller than what they’re used to without the 6-foot-6 Cain.
”Instead of the big, powerful type front lines that we’ve had, you’re going to see a leaner, sleeker, more mobile and more athletic front line,” assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. ”That’s exciting for us because we can play a faster tempo and do more defensively.”
What Summitt doesn’t expect to change is the day-to-day operations within the Tennessee program now that she’s also focused on battling early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. Summitt will continue to patrol practice, recruit and coach during games while relying on her longtime assistants to share some of the burden – just as she’s always done.
”She is still our coach, still very involved and interacting in practice,” Baugh said. ”We are a family at Tennessee. Whatever comes our way we are willing to handle it as a family.”