Taber Spani elated to be full go at practice

The following anecdote basically summarizes Taber Spani's love of basketball: At a practice session last season when Pat Summitt intended to go long and up-tempo, a staff member walked over to the then-freshman and told her she had to sit out the session. A player given a break from a rigorous practice could be expected to at least try to stifle a smile, but Spani got tears in her eyes.

Taber Spani can smile about it now – she has been full go this week at practice – and she laughed when reminded of that day last season.

"That is me in a nutshell," Spani said. "Because I am someone who cares and I am passionate about what I do. That was the worst thing ever. That was the hardest practice of the year and we were stretching and Jenny (Moshak) comes up and says, ‘You're not practicing.'

"I looked at her like, ‘You have got to be kidding me. Are you serious?' It was best for my foot but as an athlete I am not going to accept not being able to be out there competing. That was totally frustrating."

Spani suffered last season from a serious case of turf toe and painful complications and although she tried to downplay it then, she agreed now that it hindered her a lot.

"It was really bad," Spani said. "I practiced the whole practice on the outside of my foot because I couldn't put pressure on it one time. At SEC play it got really bad. That was really frustrating because I felt like, ‘I can't do this. I can't do this. I can't do this.' But it helped me focus on, ‘OK, I can do these things,' so that is what I tried to focus on. Now, it's awesome because I don't have those limitations."

She had major limitations at that session last season and Summitt intended to put the players through a lengthy and full court practice with an emphasis on transition and defense.

That put Spani on the shelf and she was visibly angry when told of the decision, got tears in her eyes – which brought Pat Summitt over to see what was wrong – briefly argued her case on the basis that it was not fair and then retreated to a stationary bicycle. If the proverbial line that looks could kill were true, anyone in Spani's line of vision would have been vaporized.

"I was really in shock," Spani said Wednesday, smiling now at the recollection. "I was in disbelief. I realize it was the smart thing to do but as a competitor you hate being on the sideline. You do get a different perspective when you've had an injury that this is a gift, and it can be taken away from you at any point, so go hard. You really don't know what the future holds."

Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick laughed when reminded that over the decades a few players may have been reduced to tears at practice but not because they weren't allowed to take the court.

"That defines who she is and what kind of person she is," Warlick said. "She's a competitor and never wants to sit out. You treat even practice like a game, and Taber wants to get better."

Spani had an injury scare last week after tweaking her left knee and having to sit out two sessions for rehab and to await the results of a medical evaluation. She was relieved when Moshak delivered the news that the knee was structurally fine.

"Extremely," Spani said. "When JMo said everything looks good I was just like, ‘Thank you, Jesus.' It's tight and sore but I can deal with that kind of stuff. Foot-wise I feel great. I feel, for the most part, as healthy as I can be for me."

Her foot will always have to be monitored but Spani has shown no ill effects in the preseason practice sessions. She also is a fan of the new NCAA rule that allows teams to start 40 days before the first official game. For Tennessee that date came on Oct. 3.

"I loved it," Spani said. "I love practice. Besides the games, it's my favorite part. And I love Heather (Mason, who handles strength and conditioning). Getting out and finally being able to do stuff on the court that's awesome."

The staff is thrilled to have Spani cleared and on the court.

"I think she is a multidimensional player," Warlick said. "She can play the three or the four for us. She opens up the lane for Kelley Cain, Vicki Baugh, Glory Johnson to be down low. She gives us a dimension that we haven't had at the four spot because she can step out and shoot the three and then go in and post up."

Spani, a 6'1 guard/forward, may have been limited last season, especially in the second half, but she still can draw from that year of experience in orange.

"As a whole you know what to expect," Spani said. "You've had a year in the system; you've had a year with the coaches and with the team. Everything just comes easier and then you're not worried about the first time things anymore. You're like, ‘I know it and how can I get better at this.'

"It's a big difference from freshman to sophomore year although a lot of the freshmen on our teams (over the years) have made great strides."

This year's team has two freshmen, guards Lauren Avant and Meighan Simmons, and they have both shown a willingness to work and learn the system as fast as possible. Both have made first-year mistakes, but they can also make plays. Avant threaded a pass to Cain in transition that hit the 6'6 center high, in her hands and a split second after she got set up deep in the paint. Simmons nailed a deep three in transition over a leaping male practice player. Simmons also has sought out Spani at times during practice for additional explanation between defensive repetitions.

"They get it, and I think that's awesome," Spani said. "They are great assets."

After a Monday session that was somewhat lethargic after four days off, Wednesday's practice at Pratt Pavilion was the complete opposite.

"Today was our best practice since we started," Warlick said. "We were upbeat, energetic. We kept things going, going, going. We didn't have to do a lot of teaching. It was outstanding."

The team closed out the session with a series of high-spirited scrimmages against the male practice players, and when Alicia Manning hit the game-winning shot on a drive to the basket in her segment she was mobbed by teammates, in part, because it also concluded practice.

The fact it was October 13, and the team is already in controlled scrimmages is an indication of the level of advancement for this squad, which is also working in Baugh, who missed the past one-and-a-half seasons, and the two freshmen, along with Spani, who is able to participate in full practices now.

"What we lack is playing with each other," Warlick said. "We've got a veteran group. They know breakdown drills, but I think they've got to get used to playing with each other again and get their timing down. We're going to try to scrimmage every day and put in some special situations. We've got to learn each other and get to know each other a little better on the court."

The next step is consistent communication on the court, something Summitt noted was missing Monday but was in abundance on Wednesday from multiple players. Spani is just a sophomore, but she is likely to find her voice more this season now that she is healthy.

"Absolutely," Spani said. "Everybody is a part of the team whether you're on the court or not. If you're off you always can have a voice, but it's so much easier and so much more natural when you're on the floor to be a voice. I am really starting to establish that, because we absolutely need that.

"Physically, we're there, but that part and the communication and the leadership aspect, that is crucial. I really feel like that is going to determine our success. We're going to have that from both outside and inside players. That is extremely vital and crucial in how far we're going to end up going."

VIDEO COVERAGE: The Lady Vols were in Pratt Pavilion for Wednesday's session and InsideTennessee.com has video clips of the session.


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