Lady Vols' maturity apparent at practice

The Lady Vols earned Saturday off after a high-spirited practice that lasted over two hours and included "a toughness drill" in which players started on defense and finished on offense. The session ended with smiles and, despite the exhausting drills, some players even stayed afterwards to get extra work at the free throw line.

The smile that mattered the most Friday belonged to Pat Summitt, who liked what she saw on the practice court.

"I think our defense got a little better today," Summitt said after the session ended at Pratt Pavilion. "Obviously I was all over their butt about that. I think all around we're better, but I think the emphasis on defense and rebounding is going to be a constant."

Summitt missed Thursday's practice because she was on the road recruiting with Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick – media reports placed them in Georgia to watch 2013 recruiting target Diamond DeShields – and she heard excellent reports on how the session went under Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss, who handled it solo, because Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood also was out on the recruiting trail.

"They said she did a great job," Summitt said. "I had mixed feelings (about three other coaches being away), but Dean wanted to be out. Holly and I were together. So I was like, ‘I guess she can do it.' "

DeMoss got started early, too. Before practice began Thursday, she was on the court with Taber Spani for a shooting workout. The team session was used to add some offensive and defensive wrinkles.

On Friday, the emphasis returned to defense, and the session was lengthy and fast-paced. Practice began with "the toughness drill," in which players sprinted to defensive positions on the wings, got a steal in the paint while changing sidelines, dropped to the low block to take a charge, scrambled to their feet to dive for a loose ball at center court and then had to score three consecutive times in the paint through contact – quite a bit of it – while teammates and coaches battered them with pads.

The drill brought raucous cheers and smiles, and it set the tone for the entire practice with Summitt's volume level raised at various times. It was a physical and demanding session – precisely the type where junior forward/guard Alicia Manning thrives.

"We've worked all year for this and now it's getting down to the nitty gritty stuff so it's exciting," Manning said. "I think everyone has a really positive attitude, and we're having a lot of fun, and that's a good feeling."

Manning is a member of the junior class that is seeking its first Final Four and survived some of the worst lows in program history when they were freshmen. Manning smiled when she was reminded of a practice session in the fall of 2008 when Summitt was out of town for SEC Media Days in Alabama, and the freshmen took a cat-away-mice-will-play approach to practice. They mistook smiling and having fun – Friday's session had plenty of both – for not having to stay intense, too.

"We didn't have that focus as well," Manning said of that practice more than two years ago. "You can have fun, but we didn't have that focus element with it. It just was not pretty.

"And it was even more not pretty the next morning when we were running for the next two or three days at 6 o'clock in the morning. We definitely didn't want to do that."

Thursday's session with just one coach on the court in DeMoss was fast-paced and fluid with the players attentive and alert.

"I guess you could say we learned from our mistakes," Manning said. "We knew before practice that she was going to be the only one there so we came together as a team and said, ‘We've got to focus and stay on top of things. Get better today. Don't have it be a wasted day (as it was more than two years ago) because we've only got one coach here.'

"I think we did. I think we got better. The maturity of our team definitely showed (Thursday)."

A Saturday off during the season is a godsend for the Tennessee players, and Manning said it was well timed.

"It's very nice," Manning said. "I have my day planned out."

It included catching up on laundry and housecleaning, taking her dog to a park to play and later seeing a movie and going to a restaurant. Spring break starts next week so the players even have a break from their homework and papers this weekend.

It will be the third break this week – Monday and Tuesday were off days following the team's SEC tourney title in Nashville – and then the Lady Vols will return to practice Sunday.

"It's a totally different feeling," Manning said when asked about practice as a junior compared to freshman year. "We're on the court now, and we don't even have to open our mouth (to signal a teammate). We can just look at each other."

Manning showed that court sense with a steal and no-look flip pass to Angie Bjorklund, who buried the three-pointer.

"I just knew she was behind me," Manning said. "It's things like that. You get used to playing with each other and you know what to expect from each one of your teammates.

"You can just read each other so well. The chemistry is there."

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