"I think Lyssi did a great job in the Vanderbilt game, and that's why I wanted to give her quality minutes," Coach Pat Summitt said. "I thought she made the most of it. She was very mobile and defensively did a good job for us."
Lauren Avant, who was an offensive and defensive spark Sunday, has some conditioning expectations to meet – thus she is not starting just yet – but the freshman point guard will likely see early action.
"Lauren did a tremendous job at Vanderbilt," Summitt said. "She has great court vision. How she distributed the ball and got other people touches was really a key in that second half."
No. 4 Tennessee (24-2, 12-0) takes on South Carolina (15-10, 7-5) tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern (CSS, Lady Vols Radio Network) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Gamecocks got off to a 1-3 start in SEC play but have won four of their last five – including victories against ranked teams Georgia and Kentucky – and have made a late-season push for inclusion in the NCAA tourney.
"We certainly respect them and they have been on a roll," Summitt said during her Wednesday teleconference. "We have to match that intensity."
Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss, who had the scout for the South Carolina game, said, "To me they're one of the hottest teams if not the hottest team in the league right now. We definitely have to come ready to play and take care of the basketball."
Since individual workouts began last August, Avant has been beset by allergies, injuries – shoulder, hand, ankle – and concussion and illness. She has missed a significant number of practice sessions and has been in catch-up mode all season.
Brewer sliced her left Achilles tendon last August in a household accident, had surgery in September, made it back to the court in December and spent the next several weeks trying to capture lost conditioning time.
Both players have made limited appearances this season but were game-changers for Tennessee off the bench against Vanderbilt.
"You definitely have to be mentally prepared for anything in this program no matter the circumstances," Avant said.
Brewer and Avant have bonded this season off the court as both were sidelined for long stretches of time.
"We have been the relating companions these past couple of months," Brewer said. "Just to see both of us be able to do well like that and to bring what we did (Sunday) night … you never know what the situation is going to be, you never know when you're going to be needed, and both of us were prepared, and she just did awesome."
Avant played in just her 10th game against Vanderbilt and has logged a total of 78 minutes this season. By comparison fellow freshman guard Meighan Simmons has played in all 26 games and logged 670 minutes, second on the team behind the 764 minutes tallied by junior guard/forward Shekinna Stricklen.
Avant played 20 minutes against Vanderbilt, by far her longest stint of the season with the majority of her time logged in the second half.
"I had it in mind that it was going to be a really tough game and I mentally prepared myself to just be ready and try to provide a defensive spark, but I never thought I would play that amount of minutes," Avant said.
Going forward, Avant's role could expand significantly, as the Lady want to move Simmons off the ball more and let her play where she is most comfortable as a scoring guard on the wing.
"I am just excited," Avant said. "I think I am mentally prepared for it. I'm physically prepared for it. I'm in shape. I've been doing a lot of extra conditioning, and I'm ready to help my team in any way I can."
Avant has additional conditioning commitments to meet but could move into the starting lineup relatively soon.
"I am still conditioning," said Avant, who missed weeks of practice and workouts because of her assorted ailments. "I don't think conditioning will ever stop in my career."
In the meantime, Avant has prepared as if she would play at any time by learning the offensive sets. That was especially fortuitous in the odd configuration of Vandy's Memorial Gym where the benches are on the baselines instead of the sidelines.
"The coaches trusted me to make the calls out there on the floor," Avant said. "With Vandy's setup you can't really see anything (to get the signals from the bench). They just had a lot of trust in me."
Defensive schemes and principles are another challenge for freshmen, and Avant said she has studied those, too.
"I think I finally got it once we got back from Christmas break," Avant said. "It takes a while to click, but it's finally making sense. You think you're just going to learn offensive philosophy, but no, we have different defensive schemes that I had to learn and I am finally getting accustomed to it.
"I think I learned a few minor touches in the Vanderbilt game."
It might not be long before Avant appears Thursday to relieve Simmons at the point spot. It's not so much the ball pressure – Simmons has gotten somewhat better at breaking that – but it's her wing passes, especially overhead attempts, that are getting deflected or picked by a defender playing just off of her.
At practice Wednesday any player who attempted an overhead pass and got it deflected or stolen was immediately replaced in the drill. Several players headed to the sideline to await another chance to return to the court.
"Meighan doesn't have great ball security, and I've been on her and on her and on her," Summitt said. "It's going to cost us, and it's going to cost her. So hopefully she'll get focused and watch some tape, and we'll move forward."
Simmons is likely as happy with Avant's play as Avant was. If Avant can get even more up to speed and log more minutes, Simmons will play less and less at the point. The two roommates couldn't sleep after the win over Vanderbilt, and Simmons was elated with Avant's performance.
"She was really excited," Avant said. "She's so happy. We talked about it all night. We probably went to sleep that night at four in the morning. We were so excited just about the win and everything."
Avant also has multiple contacts in women's basketball – she is friends with dozens of players across the country – and heard from them, too.
"I got at least 100 text messages from old AAU teammates, everyone from LaSondra Barrett from LSU to my friend from UNC," Avant said. "It was great. They were all really happy for me."
Avant has had a tough season with the injuries, missed road trips – she didn't go to the Virgin Islands because of a severe ankle sprain, and she was still on crutches with the team flying commercial – and extended stints on the sideline rehabbing and watching. Players in that position are a part of the team but sometimes don't feel like it.
"No, they never let me get to that point fortunately," Avant said. "This is the most supportive team ever. I don't think I would have made it at any other program. It's not just my teammates but everyone from our managers to our coaching staff to our athletic trainers, everyone has been behind me 100 percent of the way."
The good news for Avant is that the injuries appear to be in her rear-view mirror, though her shoulder, which was injured in a car wreck in high school, will always have to be monitored and is responsible for her rather unorthodox outside shot. Still, she is shooting 50 percent (11-22) on the season and has made both of her trey attempts.
"I feel great," Avant said. "I am just looking forward to the next game. All that stuff is in the past and just moving forward."
Avant hasn't been inserted into games for immediate offense – though she did score 11 points against Vandy, second behind Stricklen's 14 points – as she is a pass-first-minded point guard. It's her play on the other side of the ball that has really caught the staff's attention.
"I think defense is probably my specialty," Avant said. "If I don't bring anything else to the court I know I am going to bring that defensive energy and hopefully pass it along to my teammates and I think they responded exceptionally well (Sunday) because everyone was down in a stance. Everyone was in the passing lanes."
Getting in a defensive stance means getting low to the court, and Avant's legs felt the effects Monday, prompting her to seek Jenny Moshak for some maintenance work.
"I was definitely sore from being in a stance," Avant said with a smile. "My quads were inflamed. JMo got me in an ice bath, and we got some treatment so I am refreshed."
Avant also knows Sunday was one game. It's what she does in the next one and the games afterwards that will matter.
"Just move forward and try to build on that most definitely," Avant said. "Just try to being that intensity every day."
South Carolina and its ability to harass the ball handlers will be a challenge for Tennessee. The Gamecocks also want an accelerated game pace.
"They push tempo," Summitt said. "They just get after you. I think our ball security is a top priority but also our defense and our board play."
South Carolina has improved over the last three weeks and its 7-5 SEC record and wins over presumed NCAA tourney teams Georgia and Kentucky has the Gamecocks poised for a postseason nod with a strong regular season finish.
"I think they're just so invested, and I think Dawn Staley is a great coach," Summitt said. "I think she has really motivated her team and in close games they've pulled out some really good wins. I think they're starting to believe that they can make a big run."
Stricklen said the Gamecocks had the attention of the Lady Vols.
"We know they've been playing good ball … and we know they're going to want to come in here and beat us on our home court," Stricklen said. "They are a fast-paced team. They're very quick. We're going to have to take care of the ball.
"That's a team that is never going to give up. We're going to have to get low and play one-on-one defense and help-side defense. We're going to have to know personnel."
Tennessee's perfect record in conference play also has the eye of every upcoming opponent.
"They want to be the team to knock us off and say they're the one that beat us in conference," Stricklen said. "We have to have that mindset that teams are going to play their best game against us no matter what. We can watch them play another team and they can have a bad game, but when they play us every team has their best."
An undefeated slate in conference play with eight road games – Vanderbilt was 12-0 at home on the season prior to Tennessee's arrival – is quite a feat in any season. The Lady Vols have four remaining games – South Carolina and Georgia, a road trip to Ole Miss and then the final regular season game at home against LSU.
"Trust me, they've been talking about it," Summitt said. "If they haven't been talking about it they should have been talking about it. I think they're very focused and obviously being at home we don't want to lose at home. That's for sure."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Meighan Simmons, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 10 (14.2 points per game overall/14.3 SEC, 2.8 rpg/2.5, 2.8 assists per game/3.9); Taber Spani, 6'1 sophomore guard/forward, No. 13 (8.5 ppg/7.9, 4.3 rpg/3.7); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 junior guard/forward, No. 40 (12.2 ppg/14.3, 7.6 rpg/8.5); Glory Johnson, 6'3 junior forward, No. 25 (11.3 ppg/14.0, 9.5 rpg/10.2); and Alyssia Brewer, 6'3 junior center/forward, No. 33 (1.0 ppg/1.4, 1.7 rpg/2.1).
South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley is expected to start: Valerie Nainima, 5'5 senior guard, No. 31 (6.2 ppg/6.6, 1.6 rpg/1.8), connected on four 3-pointers in overtime win against Arkansas; Ieasia Walker, 5'8 sophomore guard, No. 3 (12.8 ppg/14.3, 3.9 rpg/4.5, 4.2 steals per game/2.8), has scored 10 or more points in 11 of 12 SEC games, led all scorers with 24 points in the first game this season against the Lady Vols; La'Keisha Sutton, 5'9 junior guard, No. 11 (10.0 ppg/10.2, 2.9 rpg/2.8, 3.8 apg/3.8), responsible for one-third of her team's points in SEC play through scoring and assists, tallied 11 points against Tennessee; Courtney Newton, 5'10 junior guard, No. 22 (2.0 ppg/3.5, 1.9 rpg/2.9), has started the last eight games, including the first game against Tennessee, scored season-high 16 points in win over Georgia and went 5-5 from behind the arc; and Jewel May, 6'1 senior forward, No. 52 (4.1 ppg/3.8, 5.0 rpg/5.4), grabbed six boards against Tennessee in first matchup.
The South Carolina women's basketball website has a video interview with Staley about her team and the upcoming Tennessee game.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-South Carolina game. Here is her assessment.
When South Carolina has the ball: DeMoss expects the same type of attack from the Gamecocks as in the first game – aggressive play to get points off turnovers and get to the paint via the dribble. Tennessee prevailed 71-56 in Columbia on Jan. 20 after overcoming a first-half deficit. The margin for the Lady Vols was just five points with five minutes to play in the game.
"They're not going to change a whole lot," DeMoss said. "They're just playing better. They are shooting the ball better than they did when they played us, so they're finishing their shots. (Valerie) Nainima is playing better as well, so she's adding that three-point shooting position that they need.
"I think they put in a couple of new sets. They do that almost before they play anybody. So we'll see some new wrinkles in their half court."
Defensively, the Gamecocks will bring intense pressure on the ball.
"South Carolina is going to get after you defensively," DeMoss said. "They're going to try to create turnovers and get in a transition game. That's what they want to do."
The ball handlers for the Lady Vols should expect to be harassed.
"That's who they are," DeMoss said. "That's what they've done all year. They've had success with it. They're going to get after us. They're going to try to get tips and deflections and pick our pocket. Same thing they did (in the game) at South Carolina."
"We had 24 turnovers down there," DeMoss added. "Fortunately they were missing some of those easy shots early, but you can't bank on them missing those shots. We've got to keep our turnovers 15 or less against them."
When Tennessee has the ball: First and foremost, the Lady Vols have to keep it.
"We've got to take care of the basketball," DeMoss said. "We've got to make good decisions with the ball, we've got to be strong with the ball, and we've got to execute our offenses a little bit better and be able to set screens, use screens.
"We've got to be able to help each other get better shots. Right now we're not helping each other get good looks. It's all about one-on-one, getting my shot. So we've got to help each other get better looks, and we've got to execute better in the half court. We've got to be more disciplined to run the play and set and use screens. Do the fundamentals right."
Defensively, the coaches want to see the tenacity they saw in the second half last Sunday from the opening tip.
"We've challenged this team to play for 40 minutes," DeMoss said. "The past few ball games it's been close at the half or we've been down at the half. If you've got to choose between first half or second half I guess you take the second half as long as you come out ahead, but this is a team that's very capable of putting 40 minutes together.
"So that is what we're really, really trying to challenge them to do is to put 40 minutes together and our bench is going to have to help us do that."
SLOW STARTS: Tennessee has been plagued by lackadaisical starts of late – though the Lady Vols turn it around after Pat Summitt goes ballistic in the locker room at halftime.
Shekinna Stricklen suggested a new approach.
"Maybe Coach needs to start yelling at us before the game," Stricklen said with a smile.
The junior forward was teasing. She knows the burden of responsibility to start the game better starts with the players.
"Just mindset," Stricklen said. "I feel like these last few games going into the first half we haven't had our mindset. We haven't been focused. We're not starting the game out with energy. We're just thinking about starting out with offense like we have to feed off our offense.
"But how we've been coming back is we've been feeding off defense. Our defense has been stepping up in the second half."
Alyssia Brewer said the way to flip the script would be to play better defense at the start.
"I don't think anybody is physically disabled from playing good defense," Brewer said. "It's definitely a mindset and putting your mind to it and wanting to be able to get down and play the defense that needs to be played."
The importance of that remark from Brewer is that she is one of the players who has resided on the rehab list for considerable time this season because of her Achilles tendon, but she is not using that a reason for substandard performance.
"I told the team that we need to be a team that thrives off of defense and not offense and that's what we've been doing these past couple of games," Brewer said. "We were winning by significant margins before that because our offense were flowing and the past couple of games if our offense hasn't then we let that affect our defense, and we can't be a team that is like that.
"We took that into consideration in the second half (Sunday), and it was our defense that won that game. We have to do that. It's not a maybe or a most likely. We have to be able to do that to be able to get to where we want to go."
Brewer got the nod to start Thursday based on her play down the stretch Sunday on defense. Brewer has logged time in just 10 games this season for a total of 68 minutes. She was 2-3 from the field, her first game with more than one made field goal.
"That's a first this season," Brewer said with a smile.
Sunday's game gave Brewer some much-needed traction in a truncated season for the junior, who had five points, two rebounds, a steal and an assist in nine minutes of play.
"It definitely was a booster for myself and a kind of showing of how far I've been able to come since all this has happened," Brewer said. "I know I can do even better than what I did (Sunday) night.
"It was kind of like the first step and the miles that are going to be taken to get to where I need to be. I am just going to build on that."
One place to start is the free throw line. Brewer was 1-4 from the stripe against Vandy and missed late in a close game when free throws are critical.
"That was the first game that was that intense and of that measure that I've played in the whole entire year," Brewer said. "I don't know what happened when I got to the free throw line. I know whenever I got there it was so fast-paced my hands were kind of shaking there for a second.
"The adrenalin was definitely rushing. But that's no excuse. I should make them no matter what. I've been getting my reps."
Brewer will have help at the center position from 6'6 Kelley Cain and 6'4 Vicki Baugh, who started against Vanderbilt. But Cain hasn't been moving well of late – she has chronic pain in her lower back and hip – and Baugh is still limited by her left knee issues and didn't practice Wednesday.
Center, like point guard, is being played by committee with the slender Glory Johnson also getting reps on the low block.
The Lady Vols are big but health issues have kept them from being able to deploy a lot of size at the same time.
"Somebody that can dominate on both ends of the floor, defense and offense," Brewer said when asked what was needed at the center spot right now. "Somebody that can … that's just point blank – dominate both ends of the floor.
"Kelley, Glory, Vick, me, we're all capable of doing that and whenever we all four do it every single game that's going to be a big difference in the team as well."
In the meantime, Brewer said the team's focus has to be on defense and boards.
"If we don't make a shot we're either going to bust our butts to get that rebound or get another stop on defense," Brewer said. "We could be so, so, so much better if we start from the 20-minute mark of the first half with our defense and not worrying about what we're going to do on offense.
"I think if everybody puts that into their character on the court I think the stuff that you see will amaze you like it did (Sunday) night in the second half (when Tennessee scored 50 points after opening the game with just 15)."
The Lady Vols certainly have gotten an earful from Pat Summitt for the shortcomings.
"We should be tired of it, but it's happened," Stricklen said. "In the beginning of the game we all should have energy. We ought to start the game with energy.
"We're not talking enough. It seems like after halftime after she yells at us we come out with a different intensity. We all have different energy."
MIKA MOMENT: Former Lady Vol Tamika Catchings left quite an impression on the team when she spoke to the players Monday and then practiced with them.
"It meant a lot," Lauren Avant said. "Everyone was very excited. Personally I was stoked because she was the player I looked up to. I even had my high school number (the same as Catchings') and every single number I had was 24."
Had Catchings' number not been retired at Tennessee, Avant would have asked for it.
"Oh, for sure, for sure," Avant said.
Catchings' speech to the team resonated with the players.
"She was honest with us," Avant said. "She spoke to us on our level. She didn't talk down to us. She really made an effort to relate to us. It really meant a lot."
Catchings played pro basketball last weekend in Turkey, flew home to Indianapolis on Sunday, arrived in Knoxville on Monday for an announcement involving her Catch the Stars Foundation Inc., practiced with the team and flew back home to prepare for other events for her foundation, including a trip to Los Angeles. She will return this coming weekend to Turkey.
"She is a very good speaker," Kelley Cain said. "I know I was like, ‘Man, I wish we had a game right now.' We were pumped to go out there and practice. Her coming back and spending her valuable time with us, it means that much. She is so busy.
"She flies in the day before, and doing her work for her foundation and then she had time to talk to us and play with us. That just means so much to our team that a person of her caliber would come back and give us her time and show us she cares."
Pat Summitt said very little in the locker room before that practice. Instead, she let Catchings address the team.
"She pretty much gave Tamika the floor and let her talk to us," Avant said. "She gave us her two cents at the end, which was just agreeing with Tamika. It was great. Everyone felt a kind of a personal relationship with her. It was really what we needed."
Part of the time with Catchings was spent watching film clips of the Vandy game, and she stressed playing together and team unity.
"There were a couple of times when players would fall to the floor and our team didn't exactly rush over to help them," Avant said. "That's something we're building off of now. We're learning to come together, keep that energy going from person to person."
It's odd considering how close the players are off the court, yet that hasn't full transferred from social situations to games.
"I think that will be the final step," Avant said.
ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are in action Thursday in the following matchups: Alabama at Auburn; Arkansas at Ole Miss; Kentucky at Georgia; and Vanderbilt at Mississippi State.
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee leads the series with South Carolina, 43-2. The Lady Vols are 19-0 in Knoxville against the Gamecocks in a series that began in 1972. South Carolina's last win came Jan. 23, 1980 in Columbia. … Tennessee is 10-3 in games played on February 17. The last win on this date was against Vanderbilt, 81-68, in 2008. The first win on February 17 came against Chattanooga, 39-16, in 1925. The three losses on this date were to Maryville, 37-5, in 1906; Appalachian State, 67-57, in 1973; and Belmont, 79-71, in 1976. … Glory Johnson is just 16 points away from 1,000 for her career with 984 tallied to date. The junior forward would become the 36th member of the 1,000-point club for Tennessee. Current Lady Vols on the list are Shekinna Stricklen and Angie Bjorklund. … Angie Bjorklund remains out with a right foot injury and won't play Thursday, but Pat Summitt said during her Wednesday teleconference that the senior guard could possibly be back next week. She has missed the past five games and during that stretch the Lady Vols are averaging 10.1 fewer points per game, 80.5 to 70.4. Bjorklund was averaging 11.3 points per game and still leads the team with 51 made three-pointers despite the layoff. She has shed her walking boot but has not yet returned to practice. During Bjorklund's absence Shekinna Stricklen has increased her scoring output per game by 6.4 points to 17.4 ppg and Glory Johnson has jumped 3.3 points to 14.0 ppg. Meighan Simmons, who said the team missed "everything" about Bjorklund's presence, has dropped from 15.6 ppg to 8.0 ppg during the senior's absence. … South Carolina's 7-5 record in SEC play is the program's best 12-game performance since 2002-03. The Gamecocks were ranked in the Top 25 for most of that season and finished with a 9-5 league mark and NCAA Tournament bid.
Interview with Lauren Avant
BY THE NUMBERS: Overall stats with SEC figures in parentheses.
Tennessee is averaging 78.6 points a game (76.3 in the SEC) while allowing opponents to score 55.2 (52.7). South Carolina averages 59.2 points a game (58.1) while allowing 58.8 (59.0).
The Lady Vols are shooting 45.7 percent overall (46.2), 36.3 percent behind the arc (35.0) and 66.9 percent from the free throw line (71.0). The Gamecocks are shooting 38.4 percent overall (37.7), 27.3 percent from long range (29.5) and 63.0 percent from the line (63.0).
Tennessee makes an average of 6.5 three-pointers a game (5.8) while allowing 5.0 (4.8). South Carolina makes 4.9 threes a game (5.2) while allowing 4.9 (3.9).
Tennessee averages 46.5 rebounds a game (48.3) for a +12.4 margin (+14.3). South Carolina averages 36.0 boards (36.1) for a +1.9 margin (+1.3).
The Lady Vols average 13.9 assists (13.0) and 16.1 turnovers (16.3) a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 18.0 times a game (15.2). The Gamecocks average 9.6 assists (9.0) and 16.0 turnovers (15.8) with foes losing the ball 17.4 times a game (16.3).
Tennessee averages 8.2 steals (6.3) and 5.5 blocks a game (6.8). South Carolina averages 8.5 steals (7.3) and 2.9 blocks (2.1).