WBKB: Pre-Tennessee presser

No. 7 Duke. No. 3 Tennessee. No. 1 UConn. In the midst of one of the toughest regular-season stretches in program history, women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer talked with the press about her team's upcoming battle with the Lady Vols, and their triumphant performance against the Blue Devils. Plus, injury updates, position switches and a look at scouting.

Q: Can you talk about Tennessee a little bit? They've been climbing in the polls throughout the season, they're playing pretty well, and that young team has grown up. What do you see?

Tara VanDerveer: I think they have a terrific team. They're much improved from last year. That's the great thing about freshmen becoming sophomores. They have every weapon at every position, and they're playing really well.

Q: [Shekinna] Stricklen and [Angie] Bjorklund had big games against you last year. What do you do to stop those two?

TVD: They're playing even better this year. Stricklen plays the point guard for them, and Angie Bjorklund is just a terrific shooter. I think the way they're playing right now, they're two possible All-American guards. They're two of the best young guards in the country, even though Angie is a junior now. They don't just have them, obviously—they added Taber Spani, a three-point shooter along the perimeter. But Pat is missing some of her post players. They're usually a post-oriented team, but the post players also make the perimeter people better because they have such good post players that you have to pick your poison.

Q: How do you see the matchup? Do you like what you're going to have to do, in terms of the continual process of learning and getting better?

TVD: I'm just wondering who did the schedule. I feel like we're playing a NCAA Tournament schedule in December. Playing Duke, Tennessee and UConn, in that order, in such proximity to each other, is what you have to do in March and April. These are Regional Final games or Final Four games. These teams don't have weaknesses. In order for either team to be successful, we have to play well, and that's the bottom line. There are certain things you have to do, and they will have to do them, or we will have to do them, and it will be a battle of wills. Who rebounds? Who defends better? Who knocks down shots? Who hits free throws? Who takes care of the ball? They do everything well, and hopefully we can do everything well.

Q: How much value does the Duke game have when looking at Tennessee? How similar is Duke to Tennessee?

TVD: I think it's really helpful. Duke is not the same type of team. Tennessee's perimeter people are better shooters, but in this game, Karima Christmas shot well, and Shay Selby hit some shots. So I think they're similar in that they're both very athletic, very fast teams, but Tennessee has better perimeter shooters, with Stricklen and Bjorklund. Stricklen is only shooting about 20 percent from three, but Bjorklund is really tough. Then again, [Duke's] Jasmine Thomas is really tough. So they're similar in that respect, although Tennessee isn't as extended and aggressive in going for so many steals—but even then, Tennessee will do a lot, from a three-quarter press to a full-court press to a half-court zone. They're doing a lot of zone this year, so it will be interesting to see how they come out against us.

Q: How do you feel you handled the press against Duke?

TVD: In the first half, we didn't have trouble breaking the press, but we made some bad decisions. We would break it, but then not take the shots we needed to. We had the over-and-back: that was not good. We had a turnover where Nneka [Ogwumike] put it over her head and miscalculated how athletic the player jumping against her was. But I'm glad that our team went up against the press—it's very different playing in a game versus practicing. We can't simulate the athleticism and the quickness that Duke presented, so I think that helped us a lot to get ready for the pressure that Tennessee might put on us. Tennessee is not as athletic from 1-5 as Duke. They're bigger, they're a different team, and so it was great for us to play against. I wouldn't give us an "A", but it wasn't a "D."

Q: What about your rebounding? What grade would you give your rebounding?

TVD: That was an absolute "F." I think a lot of it is that our team has rebounded so well by using our size, and we got away from positioning. So when you go up against other teams that are as big as you, and more athletic than you—and Duke was really the first team where that was the case—you realize that you have to do things right. So that was a definite wake-up call, and it was either going to happen with Duke, Tennessee or UConn, so we have to play much better position rebounding in terms of boxing out, and we have to get on the glass with more vengeance, or that could be a game-breaker.

Q: Going along with that, this has to be one of the taller teams that Pat has started, especially in terms of the perimeter game. Spani is 6-foot-2, Stricklen is 6-foot-2 and Bjorklund is 6-foot-0. How can that be a difficulty, rebounding, since all of those perimeter players are such good rebounders?

TVD: The player who really rebounds well—outrageously well—for her position is Stricklen. For a quote-unquote point guard to lead their team, or be tied for the lead in offensive rebounds with Glory Johnson, and be second on the team in overall rebounds, it changes your mindset a little bit. She's 6-foot-2, but she's still a point guard. Sometimes your point guards, when you're boxing out, are thinking about what they're having for dinner that night. They're just not part of the conversation. But this time, they better be. She changes the rebounding picture a lot. But obviously, Glory Johnson gets on the glass. Basically, against Tennessee, you rebound or you don't play. What I've found about our team—and this was highlighted for me in the Duke game—is that when you ask the team to focus on something, they do it. For the Duke game, we said that we needed people to focus on help-side defense, and our team played terrific help side defense. There might be a lot of things we ask them to focus on for the Tennessee game, but rebounding will definitely be one of them. I have confidence that our team will say, "Hey, to give the team a chance, we need to rebound," and then they'll go out and do it.

Q: Kelley Cain is not at the level Jayne [Appel] is, at least not as consistently, and she has had some problems with foul trouble and injuries, but when she's good, she's extremely good. What do you think of the matchup? Will a big part of the game be to try and get Cain into some foul trouble?

TVD: Kelley Cain is a huge part of their team's success. And Jayne is barely 6-foot-3; she's not 6-foot-6. Kelley can change things with her size, and from past perspective, that's their only big big. [Alyssia] Brewer is not that big, [Faith] Dupree is out, and Vicki Baugh hasn't played at all yet. So Cain is really a key part of their team and how well they do. They're really different without her out there. But Jayne is really coming into her own. She's a warrior, and has been practicing really hard. I don't think she's had a breakout game yet, and it would be really exciting to see her go head-to-head with Kelley Cain.

Q: This stretch of the schedule, a month ago, may have looked like fun, like a great idea. How is it, now that you're in it?

TVD: It is great. We took each of the logos of all the schools, color printed them, and hung them on my office door. So I look up there and see Old Dominion, Rutgers, and all the way through Utah and DePaul. Now it's Duke, Tennessee and UConn. It's extremely motivating for me to look up and see that on my wall, and we put the same kind of printout on the locker room door. Our team is excited. Before the Duke game, I said that I could tell that we were practicing and were focused in a way that I had never seen before in December. I know I can count on seeing that the week before we play Tennessee, but this has been the whole season and I think it's great for us. For any team right now, whether it's Duke, Tennessee or UConn, the December game is a midterm; it's not a final exam. If you're doing well and playing well, that's great. If you have things you need to work on, you'll find out when you play this competition. There's no other way to get the point across—how can I get the point across to box out if we don't play a Duke? We've been out-rebounding people all season, so if I just say it, they'll say, "Eh, what's she talking about?" So this schedule has been the best thing for this team.

Q: Is this week stressful? Do you have a sense of a lot of seriousness? Are the players feeling it?

TVD: I think I've felt it more before this three-game stretch. When you're playing Duke, Tennessee and UConn, in that order, you can't get down 0-1. I don't feel it as I did three days ago. I think our team felt pressure going into the Duke game. We wanted to do so well; we worked for two weeks to get ready for these games. Everyone on our team has worked really hard. There is a certain amount of, "Hey, we've got to get it done!" It has that tournament feel to it. It has an NCAA Tournament feel to it that will help us tremendously come April and March.

Q: What is the condition of some of your injured players, like Melanie Murphy and Michelle Harrison?

TVD: Melanie Murphy had a scope of her knee and, if you ask her, she thinks she'll be ready for the UConn game. She's doing her rehab, she's coming along. I hope that she's back after Christmas. Hannah Donaghe is out with her ACL. She's not playing for another six weeks. We're really waiting on Sarah Boothe to see how her rehab is coming. She's coming, but we're seriously looking into redshirting her. Michelle Harrison had a concussion and so she was not allowed to play in the DePaul game. Then the Duke game was pretty physical, so I was afraid to put her in that game with a concussion a couple of days before. She'll be ready for Tennessee. Joslyn Tinkle went in for a little bit and I thought she did very well for us. I think she'll be a great player for us. But right now, she is just overwhelmed with how many things she has to do, and the pace of the game, so it will take her a little while to get up to speed, in terms of learning our out-of-bounds plays and such.

Q: Can you talk about the dynamic athleticism of Glory Johnson and Nneka?

TVD: Nneka has improved so much. She always had the athleticism, and now she has the confidence to go with it. She's not thinking about where she needs to be and what she needs to be doing. The women's game needs that athleticism. That's what makes it exciting. And Nneka can get up there on the rim, I told her, "You can get a goal tending, I'm okay with that." She's very athletic, so I hope the officiating doesn't let it become a wrestling match, and take away the athleticism that we want to showcase for our fans.

Q: Can you talk about Jeanette Pohlen, and the things she does? You've talked earlier about how Kayla [Pedersen] has been overlooked, but it seems like she's starting to get some national recognition. But can you talk about what Jeanette does that people may not see?

TVD: A lot of people talk about, and for good reason, Jayne, Nneka and Kayla. But as good as your front line may be, your guards will determine how far you go. Jeanette, as a freshman, played the four, the three, and the two, and then in the middle of the year last year we said, "You have to be our one." She is very athletic—she's fast, she has a motor. When people talk about players and what they bring—she's tough, she goes hard, she pushes the ball in transition. She's leaning the position, she's not a born point guard. But she really makes our team go, from either the one or the two. But with her speed, her motor, she just goes and goes and goes. I think she's improved a lot. I think her best game was the DePaul game. A lot of the time, she just wants to go one speed and she's learning to slowdown a little bit, read the defense better, and make better decisions. As she makes better decision, our team will go with that. And she's had great help—I think Melanie Murphy has been playing really well at the point, up until she got hurt. JJ [Hones] is coming along, and we need Ros [Gold-Onwude] to play well.

Also, I'm looking at playing Kayla at the two, that's coming. Because we can Joslyn at the three and we can play Michelle Harrison at the three, we can then match up with Tennessee's wings.

Q: An off the wall question: When you tell people that you play Tennessee, do they react differently? You see this reaction from people who don't really follow the game. They'll say, "Oh, you're playing Tennessee, that must be a tough one," simply because it seems that everyone knows that Tennessee is a good team? Is that a reaction that you still get from people?

TVD: Tennessee has a great program and a great coach. Year in and year out they get great players. We started this series with Tennessee when Jennifer Azzi came to Stanford. I had no idea at the time that it would build into a yearly game with them, and we haven't held up our end of the bargain in terms of a rivalry. But we have had some great games with them. People do recognize that Tennessee is one of the teams in women's basketball, and people want to see them. So I know we'll have a great crowd and an incredibly exciting atmosphere.

Q: Is it any different when you play three opponents this good when you prepare, scout and practice? Do you divide the workload any differently with your assistants?

TVD: It's magnified, not different. I have two assistants scout—Bobbie Kelsey and Kate Paye do all the scouting. They split up all the teams and take the same teams every year. It worked out well in that Bobbie had both DePaul and Duke. So she's excited that she's done. And then Kate has Tennessee and UConn, and she's ready. We had two weeks between Gonzaga and when we played DePaul, and we used those two weeks to preview the teams that we're playing. We couldn't wait until after we played DePaul to work on them, so we worked on DePaul, Duke and Tennessee over those two weeks. We would throw in some UConn tapes, and any time teams did similar things, we would work on them.

Q: What do you think about UConn?

TVD: I've watched more videotape and games than ever. And what I tell my team is that we're not looking ahead, we're working ahead. Some of our kids know the plays that Tennessee runs. They remember stuff from playing UConn and Tennessee. They have their scouting reports, and they work really hard on bringing them up to speed on what to expect. The number one thing for us is to be healthy, and for our team to focus on what we do. Our team and coaching staff sees this as a tremendous opportunity to play these teams at this time. It lets us know where we're at and what we need to work on. It helped us a lot to play UConn in December two years ago before we played them in the Final Four. Same thing with Tennessee. So there's not many surprises out there. What could be harder than what we're doing right now? When the bracket comes out, no one is going to say, "Ooo, wow, uh oh." We're playing that slate right now. This is a very tough schedule.

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