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March 31, 2008
OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA
THE MODERATOR: We're joined by the Texas A&M University Aggies, and Head Coach Gary Blair. Comments, Coach?
COACH BLAIR: First it's great to be playing March 30th, you're going to play your next ballgame April 1st. It's away it's been a long season but in another way it's been the most rewarding season that I've been a part of. These kids have played their hearts out. The kids have overcome diversities, due to injuries during the year, and when the injuries happen, we don't dwell on them, we just put another person in place and we go on.
And this is what this team is about. If Starks is having a bad game, then Morenike Atunrase picks her up. If A'Quo is having a bad game, the freshman, Sidney Colson comes in. If we need to move Gant to the 4 position because Morenike is hot, Reado comes out. If we have Micheaux in foul trouble, Reado goes to the 5 and we play "small ball."
It's been fun coaching this team because we have interchangeable parts. Our egos are all in check, we're on the same page, and these kids really like each other off the court. I think that's a whole lot easier to coach. I've got a tremendous staff, I've got a tremendous support staff, and when you're all on the same page, that's why you're playing late in the season. The game last night, I thought we just hooked up and we played as hard as we could.
We had great defense, great transition in the first half, in the second half I thought our half-court offense and our press-breaking was excellent. That's why we won the game, and we're still going. Open it up for questions.
Q. A'Quo, how do you put that game behind? It's so vivid, the biggest win in school history, how do you go about putting that go game behind and focus on Tennessee?
A'QUONESIA FRANKLIN: Just that we got the "W" and we have to look forward to our next opponent. We did a tremendous job of pressuring the ball and causing tremendous defense and making them uncomfortable, and we're going to go into the next game and keep our same game plan and pressure up on defense.
Q. La Toya, Tennessee has seems like 6-3 after 6-3, you guys are going to be busy. How are you going to stop 'em inside?
LA TOYA MICHEAUX: We faced that in this whole conference, Courtney Parish and Oklahoma and Colorado, we did that last night. We have to keep battling and we fight and don't stop, so that will continue on for tomorrow.
Q. T.K., Patrice, could you answer this? Could y'all talk about Vic and what has your defensive coordinator meant to this team and how much does he ride you when things aren't going good, and how much does he praise you, which doesn't seem to be very often, unless the game is over and you win by 30 or 40. Is there ever a perfect defensive game for coach Schafer?
PATRICE READO: I don't know. It doesn't matter if you're up by 20 or down by 20, he's going to be the same. He's a defensive coordinator, he wants us to play his style of defense. He wants us in the passing lanes and covering the post and defending and everything else. So we just have to give him our best and try to play the type of defense that he wants us to play every game.
TAKIA STARKS: You know, just to echo what Reado said. He just wants us to get out and deny, do all the fundamentals of his style of defense. He did praise me in the shootaround today. He said he did a great job of defense and also the team last night in the game. He's always going to push us to do better and be the best that we can be.
Q. Explain to me why is y'all's defense so different than everyone else's? Why is it different than what everyone in the Big 12 does, and why is it different than what everybody in the country does?
TAKIA STARKS: Everybody plays hard, as Coach says all the time, but you've got to play hard and smart and I think that's where we've really gotten better this year, being smart and making smart plays and making game-changing plays at that.
PATRICE READO: I think we play very hard, we pressure-up on the defensive end, and we stay in the passing lanes.
Q. A'Quo, you're sitting next to him, but I wonder, you get the intensity from Coach Schaefer, but do you ever see that from Coach Blair or is he always Mr. Nice Guy for you guys?
A'QUONESIA FRANKLIN: He's the soft one, but he has his days where he's very tough on us, but he's a little teddy bear.
(Coach hugged player.)
THE MODERATOR: Coach, are you supposed to do that?
COACH BLAIR: Probably not; it's an NCAA violation. I'm sure it is! Hopefully the recruits will notice that I do hug and kiss my players.
Q. Takia, can you talk about the challenges -- you guys obviously relish the defensive -- playing defense and getting in people's face, pressure, trapping. Talk about the challenges Tennessee presents to doing that kinda thing.
TAKIA STARKS: We are just going to go into it like we went into the game yesterday, just playing our game on defense and playing our game on offense, just making smart plays, and I think we did a great job last night with Reado not getting into foul trouble as much as she usually does. That was big for us, and, Micheaux, she was out for a minute but came in and was productive, staying out of foul trouble and making smart plays and playing with pressure as we usually do.
Q. For A'Quo and Takia, Takia, you talked yesterday about there not being so much pressure or more of a chip on the shoulders for the bigger names. You guys are a No. 2 seed. I wonder where the disrespect or the lack of acknowledgment comes from considering you're a No. 2 seed.
A'QUONESIA FRANKLIN: Just coming out of high school, most of those Duke and Tennessee girls were Parade All-Americans. Here at A&M there's no Parade All-Americans, I think we have one All-American, which is Tyra White, the freshman, but we just come out and play hard day in and day out. The other girls with the names, the Duke's and Tennessee's with the names, they are expected to play that way every game.
So I feel like they have the chip on their shoulder simply because they have the -- their names are out there, and we're making names for ourselves.
Q. Morenike, if you look at the starting lineups for tomorrow night's game, it's all juniors and seniors, a lot of experience. What do you expect out of a game like that?
MORENIKE ATUNRASE: I think the same thing with both of us, because we are -- they've been to the big games, and we're headed there, so there will be a lot of competition and a lot of just scratching and clawing out there. We know what to expect, and you'll see a lot of hustle plays and playing hard and making spectacular plays.
Q. Morenike, you've been known lately as instant offense, but last night you had four key offensive rebounds. Do you see your role changing? Talk about your role on this team.
MORENIKE ATUNRASE: My role hasn't changed since before my surgery. I don't think it has changed much. I've gotten back to -- into an offensive state of mind and that has come with me feeling better physically and mentally on the court, but I don't think my role has changed that much. When Danielle or Reado are out of the game, I stick to the game plan, go in and get rebounds or blocked shots and that's been my game plan since I've been at A&M.
Q. For the three seniors, can you talk about how much this is -- you guys aren't ready to quit playing college basketball and what that does to keep you going in these games? And a shot at Tennessee! I mean, what you guys have built this program up from to where you are now, and what this game means to you?
A'QUONESIA FRANKLIN: I think that's one of the reasons why we came to Texas A&M, you know, is to be able to be at a program that's on the rise and not a program that already had a name for itself. And just to play against Tennessee, being in the Elite Eight is an honor to us, and we're really excited to be here. We made it this far, why stop now?
PATRICE READO: Like A'Quo said, that's one of the reasons we came to A&M to bring the program up. I think we're excited to be here in the Elite Eight, and we're going to continue with the pace and right now we just are one of the best right now.
MORENIKE ATUNRASE: We've worked hard for it. Coming to A&M, there was no doubt in my mind that we can't reach the highs that we are at right now. The coaching staff that Coach Blair had, I knew coming here he knew how to coach and what type of players to go after, so there was no doubt in my mind that we wouldn't reach the goals we have reached.
Q. A'Quo, Coach Blair mentioned last night the second half of you showing what you can do for the WNBA and trying to get invited to the Combine. How big is that for you, trying to show what you can do and go to the next level?
MORENIKE ATUNRASE: I did what I could for my team. First half Coach brought me to the sidelines and said, "I need a couple of shots out of you and I need you to lead this team." I think I was 0 for something in the first half and had two back-to-back turnovers on Duke's press, so in the second half I wanted to do what I had to do for my team, hit the open shots, break the press and lead the team to a "W!"
Q. La Toya, can you talk about the challenge of playing an all-around talent such as Candace Parker?
LA TOYA MICHEAUX: It's a challenge every time you step out on the court, no matter who you're playing, but, of course, her name is everywhere, and it's an honor to play against her and honor to play against Tennessee. They've won 7 National Championships, so what can you say. It is a challenge for our team. Like Coach said, against Duke, we were on a high, and if we get the win over Tennessee, it's just something that we have been asking our Coach, give us a nice schedule. Well, we made our own schedule this year.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, athletes. Good luck, ladies. Okay, questions for Coach Blair. What did you see out of Sam Houston in the early 90s, and what is it you learned about Vic on the golf course that made you like this guy, and think you've got to get him on your staff and the bond you have formed?
COACH BLAIR: To be honest, the first time I met him, Gary Wideman was our Converse rep, and he said I want you to meet the new coach at Steven F., so we went over to Water Wood, the golf course, met him at about high noon. It's about 100 degrees, here I am in shorts and looking good as usual, and here comes Vic out there in polyester long pants, with sunglasses hanging down, you know the guys that have the straps over 'em, his hair slicked back like that, and I thought he was salesman or something like that.
And all of the sudden we started playing, and we developed a very good bond of a friendship, because our program was at the top of the Southland conference, and his was at the bottom.
I would try to share a lot of recruiting ideas or knowledge with him, because they didn't have the budget to get out to some of the places, and if I could see a kid that we couldn't use that he could use, I would give him that information and just try to help him along. Then, you know, it's funny, he was too proud to take any strokes from me. And at the time I was about a 7, 8, 9, handicapper, and he was probably about a 12, 13, 14, but all of the sudden as time went on, his basketball teams started getting better and better.
His golf game started getting better and better. Then he met Holly, his wife who was the women's assistant coach at UTA; they never could beat UTA until he married Holly.
He married Holly, she gave up coaching and that's the only way -- Vic never beat UTA when Holly was the assistant over there. But a lot of things changed. He started dressing better, his golf game got a whole lot better, and we became friends. When I had the chance -- when Tom Collin got the head job at Colorado State, Vic was the only person I wanted. Not just because of our friendship, because he could do a lot with nothing. He could sit there and take the two twins, Amy and Andi Sheridan, who was his guards out there, and he could take a lot of cast-offs from other programs, develop them, and he could find the sleepers and develop kids.
That was the type of coach I was looking for, somebody that was passionate about the game of basketball and passionate about life.
The only bad thing is now I can beat him in golf 1 out of 10 now, because I'm still the 7, 8, 9, and he's a 3 handicapper now.
Q. What's the secret to his defense?
COACH BLAIR: Because he's the 12th man, if you go by Aggie terms. He's the 12th man, because it's his passion for the game than when they're playing defense, they're either hearing him or feeling him out there as part of that defense. And that's a little bit of an Aggie thing but that's how there's always somebody there to step in and help. Defense is about trust. You've got to trust the people behind you, because we're fronting the post. You've got to trust the people that's guarding the ball because we're going to be in your shorts, and you're going to beat us by dribble penetration. And that's what happened last night with Duke, and as soon as they beat us on dribble penetration, we were there to take three charges.
We work a lot of the same drills we've been working on for years. We tweak 'em, they get better and better, the personnel gets better, and I've told people before this team is better than the '98 team I took to the Final Four, and a lot of that is because our system is better. I'm a better offensive coach, and he's a better defensive coach, and our personnel seems to be executing better right now.
Q. Coach, Daniel Gant's condition and whether you expect her to be full strength tomorrow? Second, like a lot of coaches and fans, you've seen plenty of Candace Parker on TV. Is it a dream come true or a nightmare come true to stop her?
COACH BLAIR: First, on Danielle Gant, she was able to walk through our stuff today. She had stomach problems again this morning after breakfast, but if I'm going to be there, she's going to be there. And I plan on playing, and she's going to play; somehow, some way.
There is no tomorrow, okay? If you've got the flu, you play. If you've got stomach problems or something, you play. And she will find a way. Our trainer will make sure she's ready to go. If not, I'll be looking for a new trainer. But other than that, she will find a way. The kid's got a lot of heart. It was pretty scary yesterday when that trainer comes down and says, "Danielle Gant cannot go." You don't understand, that's like saying Candace Parker can't go. It's not going to happen, because Gant goes every day, and nobody plays harder in practice or in games than Gant, but she will be out there.
Now on Candace Parker. You know, right now what's going on in the hotel; they're showing all the games of the National Championships and semifinals for 25, 27 years. I'm a part of every one of those. Every game you see on TV, I've either been a part of it or been to -- I've been to every Final Four, I've played against every one of those kids, and this is the best. This is the best, and she's proving it. She doesn't have to wait until her career is over.
I've seen Liebermann, I've sheen Cheryl Miller, played against her, she cost us a couple of National Championships when she beat us in '83, '84; we won the two before that. Tamika Catchings, Holsclaw was a genuine talent that could change the game, Lynette Woodard, Kansas; Janice Lawrence, Louisiana Tech, who we helped coach and everything like that.
I didn't get a chance to go against Ann Meyers; it was right after that I got into the college game, and she was a great one. Carol Blaskowski was a little bit before my time, but Candace Parker is the best one I've seen. She can play all five positions, she is 6-4 or -5, and she's exactly what the WNBA needs right now, because she's going to go to a media capital.
And I know you would love to have her in Chicago, but LA would be awfully stupid not to take her because of what she can bring back to the league. But Candace Parker's just special.
Q. How are you going to neutralize Candace Parker?
COACH BLAIR: I think you got to give help -- we cannot play like Notre Dame did. That's their style. Notre Dame had a tremendous game plan. They ran a three-quarter press to take time off the court, see if they would throw it away or see if they would disrupt them a little.
You've got to take those backdoor lobs when she goes flying in the area; hopefully she will be under the charge, or whatever, you're going to have to keep her off the free-throw line, like we tried to with Chante Black and make sure if Chante Black is going to beat us, it's going to be with a two-point play not a three-point play. Try to limit her touches, because she can jump over everybody. And the key is keeping her off the offensive boards, but at the same time you've got to do the same thick with Nicky as well.
We're going to have our work cutout for us. So a lot of times we might be able to front her and get backside help, and she still might be able to jump over and catch and finish at the same time. Sometimes you pat her on the back and try to shutdown the others, but the "others" are pretty good.
Q. Coach, Coach Summitt said she missed you at the conferences, and she gave us her best imitation of you. I was curious about your relationship with her and maybe give us your best impression of her.
COACH BLAIR: Pat is special. I met her in 1977 working a basketball camp at North Texas. Sara Rappe was the coach there, one of her teammates in the Pan American Games and Pat and Billy Moore came down to work, and I was a high school coach, just won my first state championship, and I thought I was somebody until I met Pat. And Pat was young, just really getting started there. I played pick-up with her one day and she tore me another one, okay?
In my eyes, she was Candace Parker! (Laughter.) And she would throw the elbow, she'd do this, behind the back passes, the whole nine yards, and I thought, golly, who is this? It was funny. We developed a friendship, and later on I went to LA Tech, and as an assistant we played Tennessee every year in the regular season game, or we would play them in the NCAA Tournament.
So you would just get used to it. Then when I got to the SEC, she was -- Pat can walk into this room here and make every person in this room feel important, and not too many people can do that. She can walk into a reception, and whether you're a junior high coach or college coach, whether you're Nancy Lieberman or Debbie Antonelli, she gives time to everybody, it's a special trait that she has. Our families I wouldn't say were real close, because we've been competitors, but we were at Sandestin together, always at the SEC tournaments and her son, Tyler, when I was at Arkansas, I sent him a "Hog" hat and Pat said, "My God, the kid wears it all around the house."
So two days ago I saw him over at the marble slab creamery, and my wife was over there, and he's a junior in high school looking like a great young man. Pat is special because of what she's meant to the game. Because she has mentored a lot of young coaches that are now out there coaching. She's doing it the right way, she recruits the right way, she coaches hard, and she prepares well, and she always has a good staff.
To me that's someone you should look up to, both on and off the court. I tell you one thing, she is not going to me out there singing "Rocky Top" in some little short skirt like she had to do there. I don't know who sounded worse, her singing or Bruce Pearl with no shirt on. That's not going to happen for me either way.
Q. Any memorable games between you and her in the SEC, and are you hoping for the most memorable tomorrow?
COACH BLAIR: 77-75 we beat her for the only time at Arkansas, December 29th. My two little guards, Christy Smith, my point guard, and Kim Wilson, my sixth-footer, had 42 points against Tennessee, and we won 77-75. And that was the year they had 10 losses and still won the National Championship. That one meant a whole lot. The next year we go to the Final Four, we beat Duke. We lose to her in the semifinal game. '98, in my estimation, was the best team she ever had. The chemistry, she didn't just have one Candace Parker. She had Holsclaw, she had Jolly, she had Catchings in her rookie year, and that team was just very good. Probably the biggest thing I think a year later or two years later, we're playing at Knoxville, I'm up by 13 at half.
Normally I have a halftime speech when we're down by 13, if you're getting blown out, hey, get ready for the next game, which was usually LSU, and they weren't quite as good as they are right now, or they were close. But I didn't have the speech ready to be up by 13. She kicked me in the second half. I think we lost by 10, but I learned a lesson there; I better have that speech ready in case we were up, and we were up.
We played well, but Tennessee did sort of like what they did to Notre Dame in the second half. And at their place, it's hard to win. They have great crowds and just a tremendous following there.
Q. Coach, obviously you have a load of experience playing against Coach Summitt and Tennessee, but your players don't. What do you say to them to overcome maybe the intimidation factor or just to get them motivated -- to get them geared up for it?
COACH BLAIR: This is one thing about these kids right here. They watch ESPN Monday night games, all the television games. This one right next to me, a junky, she's going to be a great coach, A'Quonesia is. Right now our kids are not household names like they are. There's not much you can do about that. I'm sure Candace probably didn't know all the names of Davidson when they were playing 'em, but the difference between Davidson and us, we're not David and Tennessee is Goliath. We're a No. 2 seed that has earned our way up there, and right now all the 1's and the 2's have advanced.
Maybe that's good for women's basketball, maybe that's bad, but we're not the Cinderella team we were in '98, when we were just happy to be here. We're getting a chance to play against -- she's the legend, she's the best. When you start looking at her and Geno and Leon Barmore and Tara VanDerveer and Vivian and Theresa Grentz, there has been a lot of great ones out there, but our kids do not get caught up in that.
That's what is good about this team; most of them cannot pronounce Nicky's last name. They know who she is, they know that she's very good. Bobbitt, the kid winked at me when we were going off the court, because she's from Trintity Valley; that's right down the road. That was one of the first junior college kids that Pat has ever signed, and they made a recruit in her finding somebody that can direct an offense and still score for her as well.
I'm familiar with all their kids. Most of them didn't answer my recruiting letters or my phone calls, but I'm familiar with them. But our kids play for what's on our jersey at Texas A&M. They don't play for the headlines or who they can be. In years to come, hopefully, they'll remember our names, but right now we're having the time of our life right now. We're playing and having fun, and that's just so important right now. Can you have fun when you're still winning and losing? And that's what we're doing.
Q. I wonder if you would talk about the team's effort and just how big that's been in terms of what you've been able to accomplish this season.
COACH BLAIR: Dan, you've seen my ball clubs over the years, and it's -- this team is a lot more physical than my Arkansas teams, a lot more physical, but what we're not is what I've seen in the paper a couple times, "bully"! I mean, why do you get that term? We're not a bully out there how we play defense. I've never heard Vivian's team be called bullies, okay? I've seen that in a couple of newspaper columns, and that's called "defense"! It's called great dense! When Parker slaps one of our shots down, that's not her intimidating, that's just good defense.
And that's how we have to play, because we do have some limitations out there. We try to hide our weaknesses, we try to use our weaknesses to become strengths. La Toya Micheaux sets better screens than anybody in the college game, I believe, and she's very proud of that, because she might not be as efficient on the offensive end as some of those kids that are still left playing in the tournament, but she's getting the job done. Little A'Quonesia -- you could have given me Bobbitt and you could have given Tennessee A'Quonesia, and Pat would have been just as happy with A'Quonesia, and I probably would have been just as happy with Shannon, but it's working for both of us.
A girl like Morenike should have been recruited by the top 10 teams in the country. She might not have been on the right AAU teams to get noticed. Danielle Gant, she's the hardest working kid I've ever had, and that goes all the way back to Louisiana Tech when I was the assistant coach. That is the hardest working kid, and she has to find ways to score because of her size. She's 5-10, and she just keeps coming at ya and coming at ya, and most kids will not play that hard. A guy asked a while ago on our defensive style, why doesn't everybody else play our defensive style? Because they won't commit to it.
They want to get back on offense as quick as they can. Our style means we want to keep you on offense for 25 to 28 seconds. We want to take you deep into the count to wear you out a little bit, and most kids don't want to do that. Remember what Rick Pitino went to the Celtics, and he says, boys, we're going to press, we're going to get all over the court. Those pros weren't going to commit to that, and he's back in the college game where they will commit to that.
We play a little bit sort of like what Billy Gillespie did at A&M when he was coaching there with his defensive style. I think defense wins when you do not have the Candace Parker's, the Courtney Paris's, you can win by putting four to five people in double figures, and in case some kid is having a bad night, somebody else will step up.
THE MODERATOR: Coach, thank you for your comments.
End of FastScripts