The freshman point guard who committed to Tennessee at the age of 14 was hindered in early season workouts by breathing issues as she adjusted to the East Tennessee climate. After practice started, she sustained a nerve contusion of her right hand after taking a charge. Soon after Avant returned from that injury, she suffered a severe right ankle sprain.
After the Christmas break, Avant got hit in practice in the face and fell and hit the back of her head. She missed one game and several days of practice under the program's concussion protocol. All three injuries occurred while playing defense, where the freshman brings a tenacious attitude.
"She's a great defender on the ball," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "She's got to get better off the ball. But she can really help us as far as putting ball pressure when we need it. Also, she is very good in the open court offensively. She makes good decisions with the ball.
"She can give us some minutes at the point, but she's got to stay healthy. She's got to get some practice time, and she needs more reps."
Avant logged 12 minutes Thursday against Alabama and was 2-3 from the floor and 1-2 from the line for five points. She also tallied two defensive boards, a block and a steal. It was Avant's first appearance in a game since Dec. 22, 2010, against ETSU.
No. 5/6 Tennessee (14-2, 2-0) is next in action against Ole Miss (8-5, 1-0) on Sunday at noon Eastern time (CSS, Lady Vol Radio Network) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"We don't want her sitting out," Coach Pat Summitt said. "The only way she is going to get better is to get a lot of reps so therefore she needs to be on the court. She needs to be in practice every day giving it everything she's got."
"I definitely want to keep playing," Avant said.
Avant's teammates – many of whom have had their own struggles with injury over the years – are offering support to Avant to ensure she keeps up her spirits.
"They are just keeping me motivated," Avant said. "When I get down and I start thinking about how behind I am, they tell me it's all right. They tell me to keep pushing and they help me through it. I think (nearly) everyone on our team has had surgery at least once."
Avant is definitely catching up on the court, though she is at ease with the offensive sets.
"I am very comfortable," said Avant, though lining up at small forward against Alabama when Summitt went to the bench with Briana Bass at point guard and Sydney Smallbone at shooting guard was a new experience.
"I was like, ‘I've never done this before,' " Avant said with a smile.
Defensively, Avant plays very effectively on the ball and is still learning the team concepts, which is always a hurdle for freshmen.
"It's starting to make sense," Avant said. "On defense I was kind of undisciplined, and I would go trap when I wasn't supposed to, or I would fall off the ball when I wasn't supposed to. Or I would be too aggressive. I am starting to get our structure, but offensively everything makes sense."
"She's got a true point guard mentality," Summitt said. "It's a matter of her not giving in to fatigue and busting her butt every day."
"I feel like I am definitely playing catch-up right now but everyone is being really supportive and helping me out through this so I am trying to tough it out," Avant said.
One place Avant is not behind is the classroom. Avant took classes in both summer sessions and received Advanced Placement credit from high school coursework at Lausanne in Memphis, an academically elite prep school. Combined with her fall semester hours, Avant is now a junior academically and looking forward to the more challenging classes in her major of kinesiology. Her career goal is to become an orthopedic surgeon.
"I was definitely bored with the 100 level classes and now I am getting into my major so it's really interesting stuff, " said Avant referring to chemistry, math and kinesiology subjects that she will take this spring semester, which starts next week.
That mental aptitude also helps Avant on the bench as she has paid close attention to the coaches during her time off the court because of injury.
"The coaches are really good at making adjustments, especially during the game, which is really difficult because most coaches have to wait until halftime before they make some major adjustments, but our coaches are great," Avant said.
"Our staff makes coaching decisions on the spot, and we just go from there. That's why you see all those runs. We go on big runs. They have their own huddle each timeout where they speak and share their ideas and then they come to us and bring them to us. They're really focused."
The way the Alabama game unfolded the coaches were able to get double-digit minutes for 11 players – Alyssia Brewer (Achilles tendon) and Vicki Baugh (knee) were held out – and it was especially beneficial for Avant as her previous high in game minutes was eight.
"It felt good," Avant said. "At first you kind of get jittery and then I started settling down and felt comfortable playing with my teammates. Just trying to get back in the rhythm of things still. I've been struggling to do that all year and stay on the floor."
Avant's goal for the new year of 2011 is to stay healthy.
"Definitely, hopefully," Avant said. "I just try to come out every day and bring the intensity and show the coaches I can lead the team."
Summitt nodded when asked if Avant could play a role off the bench this season, even with the time lost to injury.
"That's the plan," Summitt said.
The 110-45 destruction of Alabama came after a hard-fought win at LSU to start conference play and was a team-building game for the Lady Vols.
"I think everyone needed that as a confidence builder, and everyone got good minutes," Avant said. "There were different rotations they put out on the floor to see how well they worked together. I think this really benefited everyone, especially our confidence level as a team. I think we showed the coaches how seriously we can take this game because they've been speaking about our focus during shoot-around.
"I think we hunkered down and played defense. Even when the bench came in we definitely came in and tried to keep up the intensity level, and we weren't letting up at all. I think everyone is really getting into that SEC mindset."
Tennessee was the media and coaches' picks to win the league after sweeping the SEC regular season and tourney titles a year ago, the first time that had been done in a decade.
The last two games have shown how deep the Lady Vols are offensively. They relied on the inside power of Kelley Cain and Glory Johnson against LSU and got stellar shooting performances in the next game from Angie Bjorklund and Taber Spani and a record-setting 11-assist night from freshman Meighan Simmons.
"Everyone can score from whatever team they came from so we do have a lot of weapons, but I think the best way to utilize everyone effectively is to exploit our matchups because we're going to have a mismatch against every team we play against, and it's going to be someone else's game each night," Avant said.
"One night it's going to be Kelley's night. The next night, it can be Strick's (Shekinna Stricklen) night. The next night, Meighan's night. We're just really good at sharing the ball and keeping everybody motivated, and everyone staying ready and waiting for their turn when they have that mismatch."
Simmons set a freshman record for assists and two of her first four helpers came on passes to Bjorklund. She also found Stricklen and Johnson in transition.
"They helped her out a lot (by finishing)," Avant said with typical point guard mentality. "Angie was perfect. She didn't miss a shot. We are finally starting to get that chemistry, and we are finally starting to jell."
Avant has had a bird's eye view of the season both from her time on the court, even if limited, and from a perch on the sideline while healing. She sees a team that can set its own ceiling.
"I think the difference between the Baylor game and where we are now is we're starting to form an identity and everyone is starting to come into their roles," Avant said, referring to one of the two Lady Vol losses this season. "We are just starting to reach our potential. I think our potential is a national championship. I think when we start gelling and everything starts coming together, nobody is going to be able to stop us. We have so many offensive threats and everyone is stepping it up defensively.
"And just the way our coaching staff adjusts I think we're really starting to work it out (and want) nothing short of a national championship this year."
Summitt sees that same potential in this team, and her volume has noticeably increased at practice since the Baylor loss, as she also believes she will have to pull it out of them, as a whole. The team's personality is somewhat laidback, and Summitt's makeup is no such thing.
One example is how much trouble she has had getting players to keep their hands up on defense.
"It drives me nuts when I am having to yell to them to get their hands up," Summitt said. "That should be a given every day when they step up across the line, they know that have to play with high hands, low hips, and quick feet.
"We have people who are not passionate about doing it on every possession. When we get to that and get that sense of urgency, and when we are sprinting to drills and dominating the boards we are going to be a lot better."
It happened during the LSU game in a possession early in the first half and right on cue, Summitt was off the bench and yelling across the court.
"We all have to talk to each other," Johnson said. "A lot of the time when I have my hands down I feel like my hands are up, but they're out to my side. When you have your hands up you look a lot bigger."
Avant wants to be a part of that push for improved play this season. She looks at the big picture and sees some spots where she can help Tennessee, especially over the course of a long season in a physical conference such as the SEC.
"I feel like I can help my teammates, give them a break every now and then and relieve them," Avant said. "I think that will be really important to them come tournament time having extra bodies that are available."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Meighan Simmons, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 10 (16.1 points per game, 2.8 rebounds per game, 2.7 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 senior guard, No. 5 (11.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.6 apg); Taber Spani, 6'1 sophomore guard/forward, No. 13 (8.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 junior guard/forward, No. 40 (10.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.1 apg); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt junior center, No. 52 (8.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.9 blocks per game).
Vicki Baugh, a redshirt junior who has appeared in nine games for Tennessee this season, did some extra shooting work with Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood after practice Saturday as she continues to come back from two ACL surgeries.
Baugh's playing status is determined on game day – she practiced the past two days – and depends on how her knee responds.
"With Vicki it's just a day-to-day thing," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said.
The 6'4 forward is an athletic post player who could provide valuable depth, even if only in limited minutes because Cain's hip and lower back can affect her daily status and Alyssia Brewer is working her way back into basketball condition after having Achilles tendon surgery last September and being off the court for three months.
"It gives us more depth at that position," DeMoss said. "Vicki gives us another scoring threat inside. She rebounds well. She can defend. It gives us another quality low block player."
Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner is expected to start: Valencia McFarland, 5'4 freshman guard, No. 3 (11.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 4.1 apg), hails from Edwards, Miss., has tallied career-high seven assists in two games this season, averages 35.2 minutes per game, went the distance in four games this season, scored career-high 24 points against Illinois, two-time Gatorade Player of the Year from state of Mississippi in 2009 and 2010, set the 3A state record in the high jump in high school; Kayla Melson, 5'8 senior guard, No. 20 (15.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 5.2 apg), hails from Montgomery, Ala., scored career-high 30 points – and 12-14 from the line – in comeback win over Vanderbilt a week ago, only Rebel to start every game this season, averages 37.8 minutes per game, has tallied 955 career points and has 425 career assists, her 67 assists so far this season lead the team, started 28 of 30 games last season, ranked first in the SEC last season with 5.9 assists per game with a 1.7 assist/turnover ratio, 2005 Class 6A Player of the Year in state of Alabama; LaTosha Laws, 5'10 junior guard, No. 23 (5.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg), hails from Memphis, Tenn., started 12 of 13 games this season, tied a career high with six assists against Southeastern Louisiana, scored career-high 17 points against Jackson State; Courtney Marbra, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 25 (5.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg), hails from Jackson, Miss., started 12 of 13 games this season, played in 21 games last season, cousin of former Boston Red Sox outfielder Ellis Burks and former Ole Miss guard Alisa Scott; and Pa'Sonna Hope, 6'2 freshman forward, No. 15 (9.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg), hails from Cleveland, Ohio, leads the Rebels in rebounding, won Division 3 state title as a junior in high school.
A key player off the bench for Ole Miss is Nikki Byrd, a 6'4 junior forward from Brookhaven, Miss., who has started two games this season. Byrd averages 7.9 points and 6.4 rebounds a game.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Ole Miss game. Here is her assessment.
When Ole Miss has the ball: The Rebels want to run the offense through the paint, and they also will crash the offensive glass.
"They run a lot of ball screens trying to get some penetration into the paint and penetrate and finish or penetrate and kick to a shooter," DeMoss said. "The post players like to pound the boards pretty hard."
Ole Miss also would like to increase the tempo and score in early offense when possible.
"They're a quick tempo team," DeMoss said. "They want to shoot early. If they can get it in transition they surely will. They've got good team speed so they will get out and run. (Valencia) McFarland is really good in the open floor."
The Rebels also like to get to the boards on offense and average 17.6 on that end of the floor so the Lady Vols must box out "a lot better than we did against Alabama," DeMoss said.
"They're good jumpers; they're quick jumpers," DeMoss said.
Defensively, Ole Miss shows a lot of zone looks.
"They are primarily a zone team, but they will run whatever is the most effective defense," DeMoss said. "I've seen them run a 1-2-2. I've seen them run a 2-3. And I've seen them run a man to man.
"It all depends on who they're playing. They play according to the scout."
Ole Miss also likes to pressure the ball in full- and half-court schemes.
"They'll go 2-2-1 full; they'll go 2-2-1 half," DeMoss said.
When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols' philosophy doesn't change game to game – get the ball into the paint. The points don't have to always come there, but the ball needs to move through the posts, especially with the 6'6 Kelley Cain able to be on the floor for the opening tip.
"It just adds a new dimension to it," DeMoss said. "It really helps us establish early an inside game, because she is such a presence in there. Eventually it starts opening up outside shots for us, but it really establishes an inside presence early."
Those openings on the outside will benefit Angie Bjorklund, who twice in her career has beaten Ole Miss with a last-second three-pointer. Bjorklund missed Friday's practice because of illness but was back Saturday.
"We always want to get Angie involved," DeMoss said. "It depends, too, on how Ole Miss is playing her. LSU really locked her down. So it depends on how well Angie is moving off the ball and how well other people are penetrating and kicking to her. She is probably going to have to hit some contested shots, too."
Defensively, Tennessee will continue to be adaptable and adjust in-game with its man and zone schemes.
"Play whatever we have to to win," DeMoss said.
During DeMoss' previous 18-year stint with Tennessee the Lady Vols were predominantly a man-to-man team. Now, they are as likely to be in a matchup zone as man.
"We play whatever it takes for us to win ballgames," DeMoss said. "We usually like to throw the press out early and see how the opponents handle it. If they look a little nervous and they're not real comfortable then we'll stay with it. If we open up the floor too much and they get easy looks then we'll get out of it.
"So it just depends on the flow of the game."
Part of the DeMoss' scouting report to the team also included the fact that Ole Miss has come back from 14 points down against Gonzaga and Illinois and 18 points down against Vanderbilt to secure three wins, so the defense can't relax.
"Exactly," DeMoss said. "They also play better when they're behind, because they're more reckless. They get after it. They'll trap. They'll set random traps. They play harder out of their press. They play more aggressive when they're behind."
ON TAP: All 12 SEC teams are in action Sunday. The other matchups are: Alabama at LSU; Arkansas at Mississippi State; Auburn at Vanderbilt; Florida at South Carolina; and Georgia at Kentucky.
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee leads the series with Ole Miss, 36-7. The Lady Vols' record at home in the series is 16-2, with the last Rebel win in Knoxville coming on Jan. 31, 1987. Tennessee's last loss to Ole Miss was in Oxford, Miss., on Feb. 4, 1996. Since then Tennessee has won 20 consecutive games. The longest game in the series was a three-overtime 90-83 win by Tennessee in an NCAA regional semifinal game in 1983. The Lady Vols escaped Oxford last season, 61-58, after Angie Bjorklund hit a three-pointer in the waning seconds. … Tennessee is 8-2 in games played on January 9. The last win on this date was against Louisiana Tech, 62-56, in 1995. The first win on January 9 was against Chattanooga, 45-8, in 1926. The two losses on this date were to LSU, 72-62, in 1978, and Auburn, 71-68, in 1988. … Tennessee has had just one player from the state of Mississippi. Pashen Thompson, known as the Philly Pflash, was from Philadelphia, Miss. … An Ole Miss player holds the Tennessee school record for most points in a single game by an opponent. Peggy Gillom, an All-American for the Rebels, scored 45 points on the strength of 21 field goals on Feb. 4, 1978. The Lady Vols managed to win the game, 87-79, in Stokely Athletics Center. The most points scored in a single game by a Tennessee player is the 51 tallied by Patricia Roberts, with 24 field goals, against Kentucky, a 107-53 win on Nov. 13, 1976. … Ole Miss is 6-2 at home this season but 0-3 on the road and 2-5 in games away from Tad Smith Coliseum. The Rebels got two wins over Gonzaga and Illinois in Hawaii at the Waikiki Beach Marriott Rainbow Wahine Showdown. Ole Miss played before Christmas on Dec. 21 against Miami and then didn't take the court again in a game until Jan. 2 against Vanderbilt. Severe snowstorms in the Northeast forced the Rebels to cancel two games at the St. Peter's Holiday Classic in Jersey City, N.J. on Dec. 29-30.
BY THE NUMBERS:
Tennessee is averaging 81.9 points a game while allowing opponents to score 57.0. Ole Miss averages 65.3 points a game while allowing 64.5.
The Lady Vols are shooting 46.0 percent overall, 36.0 percent behind the arc and 66.9 percent from the free throw line. The Rebels are shooting 38.7 percent overall, 25.7 percent from long range and 66.0 percent from the line.
Tennessee makes an average of 6.8 three-pointers a game while allowing 5.1. Ole Miss makes 4.5 threes a game while allowing 7.2.
Tennessee averages 45.4 rebounds a game for a +10.4 margin. Ole Miss averages 43.7 boards for a +6.3 margin.
The Lady Vols average 14.8 assists and 15.6 turnovers a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 19.8 times a game. The Rebels average 13.8 assists and 18.5 turnovers with foes losing the ball 17.7 times a game.
Tennessee averages 9.3 steals and 5.0 blocks a game. Ole Miss averages 8.6 steals and 2.5 blocks.
OLE MISS AT MEDIA DAY: During SEC Media Days last October in Hoover, Ala., Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner talked about her young team of five freshmen and five upperclassmen plus three walk-ons, giving her eight newcomers at practice.
Ladner also discussed recruiting and the importance of keeping Mississippi talent within the state's borders.
"If I keep my in-state players, I will contend with anyone," Ladner said. "We recruit offense. We think we can teach defense. …If I am going to spend all my time coaching effort I am not going to take that kid."
Ladner said then that she intended to start the freshman Valencia McFarland at point guard with assistance from Kayla Melson, who would move to shooting guard.
"She will be the two guard, but the vocal floor leader," Ladner said.
Melson was ready in preseason to accept that role.
"It's a transition, but it's my job to mold them," Melson said. "I came ready to help them."
Part of that assignment meant getting McFarland to use her voice.
"She's a silent leader," Melson said of the early practice sessions. "She doesn't talk as much. I'm trying to get her out of that shell."
The game plan last October was to run and that has not changed during the season.
"Kayla has quickness and speed, and she likes to get to the basket," Ladner said.
Ladner said last October that Ole Miss must contend with Tennessee's size – "They're huge," she said – and she remembered a game last season in which she thought she had just sent four onto the court and then realized her post player was hidden behind the Lady Vols' 6'6 Kelley Cain.
Ladner, a graduate of Ole Miss and basketball player for the Rebels, joined the staff as an assistant coach in 2003. She was on the sideline in 2007 when Ole Miss helped wipe out a stacked bracket in the NCAA tourney – taking out defending national champion Maryland in the second round and then Oklahoma in the Sweet 16 – before being beaten by Tennessee in the regional final. The Lady Vols went on to win the national title in Cleveland in 2007.
"I think we play in the best conference in the country," Ladner said, before joking that Tennessee should have sent "a fruit basket at least" after the assist from the Rebels with what had been called the bracket of doom before the tournament started.
Tennessee was picked in preseason by the coaches and media to win the league.
"All of their freshman (high school) All-Americans are now juniors," Ladner said.
Ole Miss was picked to finish ninth by the coaches and 10th by the media.
"It gives us motivation to be a better team," Melson said.
Video clip of Renee Ladner at SEC Media Days: