Pat Summitt on the state of the Lady Vols
Although surrounded by the formidable double team of frustration and confusion, Alicia Manning wasn't trapped.
No question, she thought.
"You just can't let that stuff get to you,'' she said. "You can't always be asking why, why, why?
For Tennessee's wing player, the vexing question was why wasn't she playing more. After all, she had established a women's basketball role for herself during the latter portion of last season and played well enough to make the SEC all-tournament team. She reprised her stat-stuffing part with 11 points, five rebounds and four assists this season in a Thanksgiving Day game against Missouri at the Paradise Jam.
"It's the coaches' decision; what they say goes,'' Manning said. "I just have to work on what I do (and) prove back to them what I bring to the table. That's what I did."
The 6-foot-1 junior is getting back in character as No. 5 Tennessee (13-2) prepares to play Alabama (11-3) at 7 tonight (TV: CSS) at Thompson-Boling Arena. That's what the reviews are saying.
After Manning scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds in 24 playing minutes during Sunday's 73-65 win at LSU, teammate Kelley Cain said, "She just brings a lot of energy with her every game."
During her weekly teleconference on Wednesday, UT coach Pat Summitt said that Manning, "doesn't mind doing the dirty work. She doesn't mind battling the boards and playing great defense.
" . . . I look at her as a utility player. That's a tremendous asset to have on a team."
With Taber Spani back from last season's foot injury and Shekinna Stricklen moved from point guard to forward, Manning was caught up earlier this season in UT's lineup shuffle. She resurfaced with a start at Old Dominion on Dec. 5 but her playing time was diminished by foul trouble in the ensuing three games: Texas, Baylor and Stanford.
Associate head coach Holly Warlick made a point of telling a bewildered Manning to relax and play her game.
"She makes things happen when she just plays the game within our system,'' Warlick said.
Manning helped herself with more practice effort and by devoting extra time to her skills, which drew Summitt's attention.
While she's not starting, as she was at the end of last season, Manning has been one of the first reserves off Tennessee's deep bench the last three games and has averaged 20 playing minutes per game.
Manning isn't taking her improving situation for granted. She intends to keep working on her 3-point shot and free throws, among other offensive skills. She figures that scoring consistency is the best way to ensure the viability of the role she's worked hard to establish.
"If I can somehow get even just eight to 10 points a game,'' she said, "on top of what I already bring as far as hustle, defense and rebounding, all that, then I'm pretty set."
Manning's blue-collar sensibility is a worthwhile mindset for tonight's game. It would be a considerable upgrade over last season's effort at Alabama, when the Lady Vols lollygagged from pre-game warm-ups through a 74-67 victory that left Summitt grumbling: "We disrespected the game of basketball."
The Crimson Tide will demand more this time from Tennessee. Alabama senior forward Tierney Jenkins, who's from Mount Juliet, Tenn., leads the SEC in scoring (18.9 points per game) and rebounding (11.4). The Tide's aggressive defense has helped create a turnover margin of plus-9.2, which ranks sixth nationally.