March 01, 2004

Lady Vols have developed mental toughness

KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee's relatively easy 85-62 victory over No. 15 LSU to close out an unbeaten SEC season on Sunday was just the kind of performance coach Pat Summitt wanted to see as the Lady Vols head into this week's conference tournament in Nashville.

With the defeat of No. 1 Connecticut by Villanova on Saturday, the Lady Vols should enter the tournament as the top-ranked team in the country and with a lot of momentum from having won their last couple of games in more familiar fashion.

The seniors on this squad have not won an SEC tournament championship, but with adversity as the primary adversary this season, the Lady Vols appear poised to take the title for the first time since 2000.

``It wasn't about physical ability. It was about mental toughness in the SEC tournaments,'' senior Tasha Butts said. ``This year, we've put ourselves into so many situations like that, that our mental toughness has improved. We're ready for the physical game and toughness of the tournament.''

Some of the situations that Tennessee was put into were dictated by the lack of a returning All-America go-to player (or players) that Summitt is used to relying upon each season.

But overtime victories on the road against then No. 6 Stanford and unranked DePaul and an impressive offensive show at No. 13 Oklahoma indicated that this Lady Vol squad might not be the ``weak sister'' everyone thought in preseason.

A loss to Texas in Knoxville dictated a new list of things to work on, and as the SEC season began, Tennessee seemed prepared to overwhelm opponents with its deep post rotation and solid perimeter shooting.

Adversity came again at Duke, when the Lady Vols took the No. 1 ranking from the Blue Devils on their home court but lost point guard Loree Moore to a knee injury.

On that day late in January, the season in many ways began over again, and the remaining players struggled to recover the offensive chemistry Moore had created with her floor presence. A loss to Connecticut revealed how critical Moore had been to the team. The Lady Vols continued to win in the SEC but could no longer dominate an opponent, even lowly South Carolina.

Then a strange thing happened. When junior Brittany Jackson sprained a knee in practice and missed the Florida game, the Lady Vols had less depth but showed a tougher mindset, overcoming various weaknesses to defeat the Lady Gators in the closing minutes.

At Ole Miss and Arkansas, Tennessee began to looked as though it had found itself again, having worked through its losses -- both on the court and from the team roster.

On Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena, the Lady Vols used their inside presence, rebounding and defensive pressure to demolish an LSU squad that with Auburn will be one of the top contenders in the conference tournament.

And they did it without Loree Moore, with Jackson on the floor only sparingly and amid the emotions of Senior Day but with one senior -- Courtney McDaniel -- not present, having effectively resigned from the squad ``for health reasons.''

``I think this is the best we've played against a better team since losing Loree,'' junior Shyra Ely said. ``We've dealt with a lot of adversity this season, and I think you have to dig deep as a team in critical situations. And I think that's why we're playing better as a team.''

And that's also why it looks as though there won't be another conference team that can match the ``mental toughness'' of the Lady Vols in Nashville next weekend.

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