Gang from New York helps lift Lady Vols

CLEVELAND -- Arguably the toughest person on Tennessee's roster wears bookworm glasses, stands 5 feet, 2 inches, and hopes to become a nurse someday. But when Shannon Bobbitt opens her mouth, that fuzzy exterior gives way to attitude and grit.

She's from New York.

In one room Monday afternoon, Bobbitt was telling a story of how she learned to play basketball by schooling the boys in the projects of Harlem. A few doors down, teammate Nicky Anosike shared similar scars from her days in the Staten Island projects. They're roommates at Tennessee, where life moves a little slower and the people are a little friendlier.

On Tuesday night (ESPN, coverage begins at 7:30 ET), they'll get a taste of the old neighborhood when the Lady Vols play Rutgers for the national championship. Put politely, Anosike and Bobbitt give Tennessee some swagger, which is necessary in the orange-hot glare of a program that used to spit out national championships.

Put not-so-politely, the East Coasters are blunt and direct.

Anosike drafted a sort of manifesto for the team in January, just before the Lady Vols were to play Connecticut. It contained eight dos and don'ts for the team. It didn't involve the coaches. Every player signed it. Tennessee has won 20 games since.

Bobbitt is a point guard who barks out orders so loud that sometimes spectators wonder whether the team is bickering.

"It's not screaming," teammate Sidney Spencer said. "It's just coaching each other up.

"I think sometimes her swagger can be a little intimidating. To only be 5-2, her heart is 7 feet."

Tennessee tugs at the heart of every sweatband-wearing girl in the playground and grabs All-Americans from all over the map. And by Tuesday night, Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer might wish Pat Summitt had stayed out of the Scarlet Knights' backyard.

Stringer said signing Bobbitt was "the smartest move Tennessee could have made." It allowed Alexis Hornbuckle to move back to her natural position as a 2-guard and gave the Lady Vols a rare element of quickness.

Bobbitt is just the third junior college recruit to play for Summitt in more than three decades. She's also the smallest scholarship player in the history of the program. Stringer remembered her from high school but lost track of her, then a nephew sent a tape of Bobbitt from Trinity Valley Community College.

"She was just as smooth as Allen Iverson," Stringer said. "She's just a little itty-bitty person, you know.

"I would like to have brought Shannon to Rutgers. We did have her visit, and I'll leave it at that. … She's doing it all right now and she brings fire and fight and she's a true point guard because she's unselfish and she doesn't care who gets the job done as long as they win. And that's what you want from a point guard."

Anosike was also heavily on Rutgers' mind around 2003. She was New York's Miss Basketball, a McDonald's All-American, a scrappy center who could play the point. She didn't go to Tennessee because she dreamed of wearing the orange and white. Anosike yearned for something away from the hustle and bustle of the big city.

She prides herself on doing the "dirty work" and put in 40 minutes in Sunday night's 56-50 comeback win over North Carolina in the semifinals. On Monday, the Lady Vols' media flacks called Anosike a warrior and said it was one of her career-best all-around performances.

After Sunday night's game, Summitt took away all the players' cell phones because she wanted them to rest up for today's workout.

"I was up until 5:30," a bleary-eyed Anosike said Monday. "I could not get a wink of sleep. I still can't believe that I'm about to play in the championship game."

The New Yorkers share whatever they have at their pad in Knoxville. Bobbitt says that Anosike, who stands 6-4, "takes up all of the room." Anosike says they give each other plenty of space.

It's something they don't have in New York.

Anosike's mom left there and moved to New Jersey, where she picks up the local paper and follows Rutgers religiously. She teases her daughter about how she should've gone to school in Piscataway. She wanted Anosike to be around and baby-sit her brother, who's 8 years old and a handful.

Anosike has more pressing things to do. First, there's this nine-year title drought every Lady Vol hears about. Maybe that, in some way, prompted the manifesto. She also is playing for some friends from the West Brighton projects, a tight community that saved the newspapers chronicling Anosike's success and supported her in the playground ball days.

Bobbitt hopes some old friends will be watching Tuesday night, too. She still thinks about the boys in the projects who made her tougher, who talked trash but eventually were humbled.

"I used my quickness and my dribbling skills to talk for me," she said. "That won me a lot of games. I actually left just fine. The boys were beat-up and bleeding.

"Believe it or not, they did look up to me. They never really saw a girl who could handle the ball like me, so I was definitely a role model."

Even at 5-2. Even in big-old New York.

"That 'I don't take anything from anyone' attitude that comes from New York really got me here," Anosike said. "I think it's the reason I've been able to have success, and Shannon has that attitude.

"That's the reason she's here, and that's the reason I'm here, too."

Elizabeth Merrill is a writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.