Avant's last competitive basketball game was Feb. 2, 2010, when she was at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis – ironically Vicki Baugh also will make her debut Sunday and her last game was Feb. 2, 2009; Tennessee has no games scheduled for Feb. 2, 2011, so that is likely a good thing.
Avant shut herself down last February because of lingering issues from a dislocated shoulder suffered in a car wreck. She enrolled at Tennessee last June and went under the rehab care of Jenny Moshak, who kept her off the basketball court until workouts began in August.
Avant, who had thumb injuries in high school, initially had a here-I-go-again-reaction to the hand contusion but Moshak, the chief of sports medicine, squashed those sentiments.
"Part of me, yes," Avant said. "JMo wouldn't let me get down. Everything that happens to me is a freak injury, which is crazy. I don't do the normal ankle roll or anything. Anything I do has to be over the top. Coach Dean (Lockwood) said we might just put me in bubble wrap until game time."
Avant is now trying to catch up on missed time. During the two weeks off to recover from the nerve contusion, she was under restrictions with regard to conditioning, so she spent time after practice Saturday getting in extra running. Senior guard Angie Bjorklund stayed afterwards to sprint with Avant.
Avant also spent some extra time shooting to work on timing and mechanics. The shoulder injury left her with the odd habit of bringing her guide hand off the ball well before she releases it. It's more of a quirk from long range, as Avant has shown a knack for getting to the rim, and she consistently hits from midrange.
"The main thing I am doing right now is trying to get her to support her shot," Coach Pat Summitt said. "She takes it (her guide hand) off early. It's got to be repetition (to change the habit)."
Assuming Avant can stay healthy between the end of her workout Saturday and the 3 p.m. Eastern tipoff Sunday (Lady Vols Radio Network, Lady Vols webcast) against Union, Summitt expects to get the freshman some minutes for the first time in her Lady Vol career.
"She is good at getting paint points, but she is also good at distributing the ball," Summitt said.
Post players Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain, who were back at practice after dealing with some aches and pains – sore hip for Cain and tight IT band/hamstring for Baugh – are expected to get some minutes, too, but Summitt still wants to be careful with the pair.
"They'll get some reps," Summitt said.
The only two players expected to be missing from action Sunday are Kamiko Williams (violation of class attendance policy) and Alyssia Brewer (Achilles tendon rehab). Tennessee will have 11 available players, compared to eight on Tuesday.
Avant warmed up on Tuesday before the first exhibition game against Carson-Newman but didn't play.
"They told me it would be a game-time decision, and I warmed up extra hard," Avant said. "I warmed up like I was going to play. As soon as I walked over they said, ‘You aren't playing today.' And I said, ‘Are you serious?'
"I was so nervous before. It was hilarious. They are still messing with me about it now. I kept talking about how nervous I was. I'm good now. I think I am going to be much more calm on Sunday."
Avant's mother, Dana Avant, a Tennessee graduate and lifelong fan, will be in attendance. Fellow freshman Meighan Simmons also had her family in the stands for her debut Tuesday – they surprised her by making it from Texas – and the guard got three fouls in five minutes, a situation that had Summitt smiling post-game and saying the youngster was a tad overanxious.
"She was really excited," Avant said. "She was amped up. We couldn't quit talking about it the night before. We went to sleep extra early."
Simmons didn't fall asleep for hours and said after the game that she slept about four hours that night.
"I don't know what time she went to sleep," Avant said. "I fell sleep at 8."
Avant and Simmons can get an extra hour of sleep overnight Saturday as daylight savings time has ended and clocks are set back one hour this weekend. Avant expects a few nerves Sunday, but she thinks the trial run in warmups Tuesday helped in that regard.
"Maybe at tipoff, but I think I'll be alright," Avant said. "That's my way of keeping myself on my toes."
Avant is working on getting back her timing and getting into the flow of practice after two weeks away from the court.
"I think I'll be fine," Avant said.
Her first practice back was Wednesday and it was a defensive one. Avant ended up off the ball on the few occasions that Tennessee was on offense in that session.
"I was in the two position, which is very uncomfortable for me, and I was kind of rushing," Avant said. "I think I am more comfortable back at the one. I honestly didn't know all of the sets. It is very different, the timing and pacing (of playing one or two). That was my first time really playing the two. I will definitely emphasize taking better care of the ball."
Avant has point guard instincts and especially understands the communication she has to have with Summitt on the court. She will seek out Summitt between practice reps for questions and clarifications on both sides of the ball. Both Summitt and Avant have a list of priorities for Sunday.
"Just try to get back in the flow of things, try to get back in the rhythm, try to do what Pat wants, push tempo, set the team up in the offensive sets and just most of all be very, very vocal," Avant said.
After the abysmal performance defensively against Carson-Newman, which had also out-rebounded Tennessee at halftime, Summitt's list was quite short.
"Defense and rebounds," Summitt said. "We've got to get really focused on doing a better job of picking up early. Communication has got to be better. Obviously owning the boards is going to be key for us as a team. We've got to start focusing on how we want to play. I am not worried about who we're playing. I am more concerned about us."
The players got an earful from Summitt on Wednesday in a film session/team meeting that lasted an hour before practice started.
"I can guarantee the defense will be much better," Avant said. "Pat gave us a good talking-to during film and I think everyone buckled down. Everyone is focused now. We don't want to go through any more of those practices. I am a very aggressive defensive player and I use my hands to my advantage, and I was struggling that day."
That practice was primarily spent on defense with towels used to keep players' hands behind their backs or over their heads. The drill is still being incorporated into practice but not at the duration of Wednesday's session.
Avant, oddly enough, almost enjoyed Summitt's outburst on Wednesday.
"That was the first time I got to really see Pat Summitt at her best," Avant said. "She is very intense. It was an eye-opener, and it's hard not to be motivated by her, especially by that speech. She laid it on all of us, especially the ones who didn't play, just to emphasize how important it is and how much she emphasizes it (defense) during the season."
The veterans made sure the freshman knew how to interpret the coach.
"I think they are quite used to it," Avant said. "They were just trying to make sure I handled it OK. I handled it pretty fine I think. They were like, ‘Are you all right? That's Pat for you. We're getting into season form now.'
"They took it very positively. I think everyone responded to her really well. Sometimes we just need that, even if we're doing awesome, just to stay on our toes."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 junior guard/forward, No. 40, played 14 minutes in first exhibition game and just two in second half, scored 15 points before halftime, will start this game at point guard; Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 senior guard, No. 5, will make her season debut after sitting out Tuesday for being a wee bit late to class; Taber Spani, 6'1 sophomore guard/forward, No. 13, was 9-14 from the field in first exhibition game, appears to be back to pre-injury form after being hindered last season by a serious turf toe condition; Alicia Manning, 6'1 junior guard/forward, No. 15, like Spani can line up inside or out, earns minutes with board play and tenacity, had 15 rebounds in Tuesday's game; and Glory Johnson, 6'3 junior forward, No. 25, was 8-12 from field in Tuesday's game, has a history of excellent starts but has added composure on both ends to her beginning this season, has held down the paint while teammates heal.
Summitt is expected to bring post players Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain off the bench as they ease back into playing status. Baugh is coming back from two ACL surgeries and didn't play last season. Cain has a history of knee issues and also banged her hip last month in practice. Both missed Tuesday's exhibition to rest.
Spani and Manning logged 33 minutes in Tuesday's game because the Lady Vols were down to eight players and then seven when Kamiko Williams fouled out. Johnson tallied 30 minutes. Tennessee has 11 players available Sunday and will likely try to spread out the minutes more this time.
Union Coach Mark Campbell is expected to start: Kayla Hudson, 5'8 senior guard, No. 20, hails from Gleason, Tenn., has dished out five or more assists in 74 games, started every game of her career, had six assists in Saturday's 83-57 win over St. Francis; Lavanda Ross, 5'8 junior guard, No. 35, hails from Jackson, Tenn., had 14 points, seven rebounds in Saturday's game; Kayla Bryant, 5'8 senior guard, No. 21, hails from Shelbyville, Tenn., has three career games with 10 or more points; Hope Adams, 5'11 junior guard, No. 4, hails from Oxford, Miss., tallied eight Saturday; and Zeinab "Sara" Chan, 6'4 senior center, hails from the Sudan, selected TranSouth preseason player of the year, has scored 20 or more points 15 times in her career, tallied 18 points Saturday.
Beatrice Awino Duol, a 6'6 center from Mombasa, Kenya, came off the bench Saturday to play 14 minutes and tallied four points and four rebounds.
Union, located in Jackson, Tenn., in the western division of the Volunteer State, is an NAIA powerhouse and starts this season ranked No. 1, a position it has held for 36 weeks over three seasons. The Lady Bulldogs have three NAIA All-Americans in Chan, Hudson and Ross and have won six national titles, including the past two.
Union, 2-0, has already played two regular season games this week – wins over St. Catharine (Ky.) and St. Francis (Ill.) – and now enters exhibition play with games against Tennessee and then Vanderbilt this coming Tuesday. The Lady Bulldogs play in the TranSouth Conference and have won 12 regular season titles and 10 tourney championships in its 14-year history.
Campbell is in his 12th season and is the reigning NAIA Coach of the Year.
FAST FORWARD: Freshman Lauren Avant is a first-year player on the court but close to being a third-year student in the classroom. Avant graduated from an elite prep school in Memphis – Lausanne sends 100 percent of its graduates to college – and compiled Advanced Placement courses in high school.
Combine those with her summer and fall credits, and Avant will start junior level work in the spring semester.
"I am ready to get into my major," said Avant of her kinesiology and pre-med track.
Avant's most dreaded class this semester is freshman general psychology, one of those courses with mass enrollment that is taught in a large lecture hall by a graduate student. The material is basic and non-interactive, and Avant is not used to that setting. Classes at Lausanne average about 20 students per course, and laptops are used for note-taking beginning in the fifth grade.
"I can't wait to get into some challenging things," Avant said.
Avant smiled when it was suggested that perhaps she should sneak her playbook behind the psychology text for that class. Angie Bjorklund used to read "Raise the Roof," Pat Summitt's book with author Sally Jenkins about the 1998 team, by slipping it inside a textbook in middle school.
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee is 0-3 against Union in program history. The teams played three times in 1975 – once in Jackson in the month of February and twice at neutral sites in March – and the Lady Vols were defeated each time. The scores were 80-67, 95-90 and 94-93, and the season was the inaugural one for Pat Head, now Pat Summitt, and then a graduate student at Tennessee. The last loss to Union kept the Lady Vols out of AIAW postseason play, and it was the last time Tennessee didn't make the postseason. Summitt is now in her 37th year and has 1,037 career wins. … Tennessee's overall record in exhibition games is 47-11. The most recent home losses in exhibition play were to U.S. national teams in 1995 and 2007. The Lady Vols also lost to Athletes in Action in 1992 and UNIMEP Sao Paulo (Brazil) in 1987. The first exhibition loss in program history was in 1979 to the now-defunct Soviet National Team. … Tennessee opens the season next Friday at Louisville for the first official basketball game at the KFC Yum! Center along the downtown waterfront. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. with a tape-delayed broadcast at 9:30 p.m. on CBS College Sports.