Tennessee, 31-2, gets the sub-regional started against Stetson, 20-12, followed by Marquette, 23-8, and Texas, 19-13. Both games are on ESPN2.
The Lady Vols practiced Thursday in Pratt Pavilion while finishing touches were made to the court and sidelines in the arena. The session lasted under two hours with limited full court work as the coaches will taper the closer it gets to game time. Kelley Cain, who took a hard tumble Wednesday, was back on the court, and Vicki Baugh moved very well Thursday in the paint.
It's been nearly two weeks since Tennessee played a game, and the Lady Vols are ready, even if it means rising early on Saturday.
"We've had breakfast several times during pre-game," Shekinna Stricklen said. "But it's tournament time. We could play at 7 in the morning, and I think we could still be excited and ready to play. We know it's do-or-die now. You have to focus and be ready to play.
"We haven't talked about (the tip time). It hasn't crossed our mind. We're just thinking about playing Stetson. I think we'll get each other pumped before we walk out on that court."
The last time the Lady Vols were on the court for a competitive game – not including the physical battles they've waged against each other this week at practice – was March 6 in the SEC title game.
Tennessee put up some incredible numbers in that game, including a 16-21 mark from behind the arc as part of a 56.4 percent overall shooting performance in the 90-65 win to claim back-to-back tourney crowns on top of the regular season championships.
But the Wildcats won the battle of the boards, 46-41, and it wasn't because of the Lady Vols' fewer opportunities for offensive rebounds because of their scorching performance from the field. Kentucky got the glasswork done on its offensive end with 31 rebounds. Just 15 of Kentucky's 46 boards were on its defensive end.
The number was so off-putting to the Lady Vol staff that Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood likened it to rat scat.
"You just want people to embrace the responsibility," Lockwood said. "I don't question this team's desire. They've shown they have the desire, but now they have to connect the dots. You've got to equate giving someone 31 offensive rebounds as a big red flag for you to do something about.
"If I walk in and see rat droppings on the kitchen counter and ignore that, shame one me, because guess what? In a couple of days I'll probably have rats in my food. I've got to address it if I've got to rip that kitchen (apart), we're going to kill every rat in the place."
The slaying of rodents, figuratively speaking, occurred in the last two weeks of practice with an emphasis on boxing out and new drills to encourage crashing the glass on both ends.
"My theory is we're not just hitting enough," Lockwood said. "We've got people who can jump, people who are strong, big. They (Kentucky) were scrappy and aggressive and we have to be a physical rebounding team. We did not box out and that's a concern. That makes me fearful going down the road. We've got to really address that and get better.
"That could come back and hurt us and I would hate like heck for that to happen. Somebody is making great plays, I hate it, but I can live with it. But if you're not doing something that is effort-related I really get upset."
Defense and board play were repeatedly addressed at practice during the interim time between tournaments. It's a postseason tenet of Pat Summitt that has lasted four decades and led to eight national championships, the reminders of which hang above the players every time they take the court at the arena.
"Rebounding is non-negotiable," Lockwood said. "For Tennessee to win, Tennessee has to rebound the ball. … It's position and desire. That's what rebounding is."
Tennessee will practice again Friday – only the first 15 minutes is open to the media by NCAA rules – and then take pre-game shots Saturday in the allotted time directly before tipoff. The Lady Vols assigned shoot-around time is 6:40 a.m. Saturday, but Tennessee is likely to let its players get a wee bit of extra sleep instead and report for the pre-game meal at 8 a.m.
"We're going to pass on that," Lockwood said.
He does like the 11 a.m. tip – Tennessee played an SEC quarterfinal game in Nashville at noon local time so it's something they are familiar with this month – because it gets the day started.
"We're OK," Lockwood said. "We really are OK. I think the players said it well. I think they are just so ready for the next game. It's a long time to be without a game at this point in the season. It's a little bit like preseason. There is a point where you are just ready to play a game.
"It's nice because (if you win), you get to watch the next game and you still go home and have a little bit of day left. It's nice. I like that."
Thursday practice clips