Thursday, March 22, 2001

Tennessee finds motivation in tribulations

Star's injury casts doubts on Vols

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Tennessee has lost Tamika Catchings, the national women's basketball player of the year last season, to an injury. It has played poorly in two of its last three games. Its defense is being maligned. All of which could give Xavier hope. Or Tennessee a rallying point.

        “We heard how the Xavier players were cheering (because) they really wanted to play us,” Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. “Well, they got their wish, but you'd better be prepared for what you wish for. (Hearing) that is an inspiration to our team, and we'll be a better team because of it.”

        Thus may a sleeping giant awaken. The Vols (31-2), top seeds in the Mideast Region, will try to dispel doubters when they meet fourth-seeded Xavier (30-2) in a regional semifinal Saturday in Birmingham, Ala.

        “We can't really control how other teams think of us, or if they think we've fallen,” Tennessee sophomore point guard Kara Lawson said. “But as far as our confidence level goes, we think we can win the national championship.”

        Tennessee has done so six times, including three consecutive titles from 1996-98, and is making its 20th consecutive Sweet 16 appearance.

        Chances for another title appeared slim when Catchings went down Jan.15 with a torn ACL. But Tennessee is 15-1 since the injury, and it has improved its field goal shooting (45 percent before, 47 percent since) and free throw shooting (66 percent before, 71 percent since). It lost to Connecticut with her and beat the Huskies without her.

        “I think we've adjusted,” Lawson said. “People have taken on larger roles and stepped up.”

        The Vols lead the nation in rebounding margin at plus-11.4 a game. They are the top seed overall in this tournament. They have an average scoring margin of plus-21.9 points despite a schedule that included games against 17 ranked teams. Six different players earned at least honorable mention All-American honors.

        But there are trouble spots.

        Leading scorer Gwen Jackson (11.5 ppg, 6.2 rebounds) has averaged just seven points and 3.3 rebounds the past four games. She lost her starting spot, and she looked lost playing just seven minutes (with two points) Sunday in a victory over St. Mary's.

        The Vols' defense was poor Sunday, as the Gaels made 10 of their first 16 shots, shot 45.5 percent overall and committed just 10 turnovers. Freshman point guard Corrie Mizusawa crowed afterward about her 11 assists and one turnover.

        “Everybody was telling me about (Tennessee's) on-the-ball pressure,” she told reporters. “Coming from what I'd heard, I expected a lot more. I didn't see it as a major factor.”

        Summitt, who singled out junior center Michelle Snow as her worst defender Sunday, said defensive deficiencies have existed all along but are magnified in the postseason.

        “What looked like a little-bitty hole,” she said, “looks like a huge hole.”

        Tennessee allows 37.2 percent shooting by its opponents. Xavier will enter with a 20-game winning streak, the nation's longest, and an offense that ranks second nationally in field goal percentage (52.1) and fourth in 3-point percentage (42.5).

        What remains to be seen is how the Vols will respond to talk of their vulnerability.

        “It's a big fishbowl here — everyone watching you, analyzing you,” Summitt said. “It seems the perception is that the program isn't as strong as it has been. We'll just try to use that to our advantage.”

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