Lady Vols eager to tip off postseason

The offense struggled, but the defense was outstanding so the coaches flipped back and forth from happy to mad, often on the same possession, since the Lady Vols squared off against each other Wednesday during practice. Tennessee opens NCAA play Saturday, and the team seems ready to see a new opposing uniform on the court.

The nearly two weeks between postseason tournaments – the Lady Vols last played March 6 in Nashville – is a good time for a team to heal and get some rest. It also can make players restless for competition,

No. 1 seed Tennessee, 31-2, will be back in action Saturday at 11:05 a.m. Eastern (ESPN2) to open NCAA play against No. 16 seed Stetson (20-12). No. 8 seed Marquette (23-8) faces No. 9 seed Texas (19-13) in the second game at 1:30 p.m. (ESPN2). The winners play Monday at 7 p.m. for the right to advance to the Dayton Regional.

The university is on spring break – freshman Meighan Simmons said she slept and ate on Tuesday, the team's off day – so the Lady Vols don't have classes this week and have additional free time after practice, weights and meetings.

Ironically, the player noticeably more focused in the past week of practice has been Kamiko Williams, who can get in Pat Summitt's crosshairs at times for inattentiveness. The sophomore guard has had solid workouts in succession and with the Lady Vols considering unleashing more pressing action at some point in postseason, that would suit Williams' skill set and natural athleticism on defense.

"I thought Kamiko was very, very focused," Summitt said. "Guard play was OK. We've got to get the post game better."

Wednesday's practice lasted a little over two hours with some full court work, especially on both setting a press and beating it, and scrimmages against each other, leading two media observers to note the two best teams in the SEC – Tennessee's first and second squads – were playing on the court.

Senior sharpshooter Angie Bjorklund will return to the starting lineup for Saturday's game with Simmons and Shekinna Stricklen on the perimeter.

"She has a calmness effect on our team," Summitt said in her Wednesday media teleconference. "A lot of times that's been good for Shekinna, Meighan and Kamiko – the people on the perimeter – because of how she goes about getting open and how she doesn't get into that panic mode very frequently. That's good for us."

Glory Johnson will be in the paint and Kelley Cain had been making a push to join her there with her practice and mobility of late.

But Cain got knocked to the floor fairly hard Wednesday and Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, opted to pull her off the court for the latter half of practice. Cain, who has had hip and lower back issues for months, was expected to be cleared to practice Thursday.

Injuries to the post players have forced lineup changes all season – Stricklen, who has been selected as a Wooden Award finalist and made the WBCA All-Region team, thus making her eligible for All-American honors, has played every position from point to center.

Johnson, who also made the WBCA All-Region Team, has been a stalwart in the paint all season. She was joined Wednesday in paint drills by posts Alyssia Brewer and Vicki Baugh, and also guards/forwards Alicia Manning and Stricklen, who rotate among the post and wing players.

Generally speaking, officials tend to swallow more whistles in postseason, and the pounding, especially in the paint, gets more physical than in the regular season.

"You've got to go out there and play your game and prepare for anything," Simmons said. "Prepare to get bumped and beat up out there."

Workouts for the Lady Vols began last August, and it's this time of year when freshmen feel the effects of a long season, especially the extended travel, collegiate conditioning sessions and demanding practices.

"It seems long but at the same time it's just getting me prepared for the next level," Simmons said. "My mind is totally changing. My body is saying I'm tired, but my mind is like, ‘No, no, no. You've got to work through it, and you have to push through it.'

"My body is fine right now, but I think once we start playing I think I will be more in rhythm because I am a gamer. When the game comes around I want to go out there and play."

Simmons, despite a small frame and thin body, has proven to be durable this season. She has sprained an ankle, and tweaked it several times since the initial injury, but hasn't missed a game.

She has been diligent about taking vitamins and iron, staying hydrated and trying to make good food decisions. Simmons seemed to lose a little steam last month, but there has been a noticeable uptick in her speed at practice since the SEC tourney ended and NCAA preparation practices began.

"Our defense, our board play, our ball security," Summitt said when asked about her postseason keys. "We had too many turnovers today, and we addressed that. I think that we have to understand that we have to take care of the basketball, and we've got to dominate the boards.

"Because you never know. You can have an off shooting night at any point in time. We know that. We've been there. We've done that. But you've got to have something to cover it up with and that's going to be our defense and our board play."

One male practice player was available Wednesday – he has come every day, even on spring break – so the players had to go against each other in drills and scrimmages.

"When we go against each other, we get mad at the offense – they were turning it over – but then we would get mad at the defense if they weren't making stops," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "It's almost a double-edge sword at times."

The arena is being prepared to host the tourney – the Lady Vols will use Pratt Pavilion for practice on Thursday – with black carpet, not the ubiquitous blue of past years, being placed around the court and in the back hallways and interview and media areas. Black curtains are being used to cordon off the upper deck so seating capacity for the event is 12,618.

Advertising on the corner scoreboards was covered because only official NCAA sponsors can be visible, and arena workers drilled tables into place Wednesday behind the benches and on the opposite sideline for NCAA staffers and media members.

The bustle of activity took place during player interviews and while practice was conducted, a clear indication that postseason is about to tip off.

"I really am looking forward to this," Simmons said. "I am excited. When I was younger I was like, ‘I wish I was out there.' Now that I get the opportunity I am excited. I am really, really excited.

"It is fun. I don't want to get excited to where my mind is just like, ‘I don't want to make a mistake,' or ‘I don't want to do this in the game.' I've just got to go out there and play hard like I always have been."

CHANCELLOR OUT: LSU, a bubble team to make the NCAA tourney, was left out of the field of 64 and on Wednesday the university announced that Coach Van Chancellor was stepping down as head coach.

Chancellor, who took over the team beginning with the 2007-08 season after the resignation of Pokey Chatman, will serve as special assistant to Athletic Director Joe Alleva.

Chancellor enjoyed considerable success at Ole Miss and later in the WNBA with the multi-champions Houston Comets. In his first season, LSU won the SEC and made it to the Final Four, where the Lady Tigers lost in the semifinal to Tennessee on a last-second shot by Alexis Hornbuckle.

"I came in here with class and pride," Chancellor said. "I am going to take the new position in the same way. I am proud of how we ran this program. We never had a NCAA inquiry or a compliance issue. We graduated every player who was here."

Pat Summitt said Chancellor wanted one more season on the sideline.

"He called me this morning when we were in a meeting, and I took his call," Summitt said. "All he wanted was one more year, and I wish he could have had that one more year. But I think they're going to have a spot for him, and that's a good thing.

"Van has been a longtime friend. I've known him and Betty (Chancellor's wife) for a number of years, and we've just had a great relationship and friendship as well as competing on the floor. I really felt for him today. He'll find a spot, but I know he really wanted to coach another year, and I wish he could."

VIDEO COVERAGE

Friday practice clips

Meighan Simmons

Pat Summitt


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