Lady Vols 'getting better' in practice

The Lady Vols were a tad tuckered on the third consecutive day of practice – and a fourth one will be held today before taking an off day – but they still managed to get in a lot of work on both sides of the ball in an efficient session that clocked in at just under two hours.

It is a busy weekend for the program and players – who also had a weight-lifting session immediately after Friday's practice – as six recruits are in town. The team will practice Saturday and then attend the Tennessee-Georgia football game that evening. Sunday will be an off day.

The recruits include three players on official visits from the class of 2012 who have already committed in guard Andraya Carter of Flowery Branch, Ga., forward Bashaara Graves of Clarksville, Tenn., and forward Jasmine Jones of Madison, Ala. A fourth member of the class, center Rachel Hollivay of Columbus, Miss., is also making an official visit.

Two players from the class of 2013 are on unofficial visits in shooting guard Kaela Davis of Atlanta, Ga., who has already committed, and guard/forward Diamond DeShields of Norcross, Ga. The three players from the state of Georgia made the trip together.

The coaches have been pleased with the Lady Vols' approach to practice and have been able to use the early October sessions for detail-oriented drills in addition to the fundamentals.

One of those basics is passing, and the Lady Vols did several drills to emphasize crisp ball movement and good decision making.

"We are trying to become a better passing team and playing with each other and cutting off the ball and ball movement," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "I think it is making us better.

"We are committed to doing passing drills every practice and a lot of it is at the beginning of practice to get them focused early. We have to become a better passing team. That's our goal as coaches to get our kids to (decrease turnovers with better passes.) We weren't great passers last year, and we're trying to change that."

Practice officially started Wednesday and the Lady Vols are still in tough conditioning sessions with Heather Mason. Those will taper off this month. Warlick said the first two sessions of the week were great ones.

"It wasn't a great practice," Warlick said after Friday's session ended. "It wasn't a bad practice. It was just a good practice. I don't think they're in form yet to go three days, and tomorrow is going to be tough, too. But they don't have class, which is good."

Overall, this has been a low maintenance team in terms of oversight by the coaches. They are policing themselves on and off the court – with Vicki Baugh's leadership qualities emerging daily – so that means the coaches' role as watchdogs diminishes. If any of the recruits on hand Friday had been wondering about Pat Summitt's presence on the practice court, those questions would have been answered for them as the head coach was her usual self, engaging with her players one-on-one and as a team.

The theme for preseason is a basic one.

"Getting better," Warlick said.

The team's maturity – five are seniors – and the freshmen's willingness to work have allowed the coaches to install specific looks on offense and defense. That trend should continue Saturday.

"I think we are going to put in our press," Warlick said. "We have got to get this group playing well together and getting better."

The defensive side of the court has been an issue for Tennessee the past three seasons, especially pressure on the ball. A foundation cornerstone of the program has been shaky at times and was particularly porous in last March's regional final against Notre Dame.

The healthy presence of the mobile Baugh improves the defense, and while the Lady Vols have a smaller roster in terms of numbers and size than in years past – just nine are cleared to practice with juniors Taber Spani (elbow, three to four weeks) and Kamiko Williams (knee, indefinite) out because of injury – the 2011-12 players are rangy and athletic.

"We should be running and pressing," Warlick said. "That's our game. That's what we need to be take advantage of, so we're trying to do a lot of drills that convert from offense to immediately jump on them on defense. We're trying to get them in the habit of when we score let's get after them."

Senior guard/forward Shekinna Stricklen has been impressive on both sides of the ball in preseason with her defense noticeably improved. She also has been off the ball with the arrival of freshman point guard Ariel Massengale and playing on the wing and posting up at times.

"She's getting more aggressive to the basket and I think that's a great sign for her," Warlick said.

The Lady Vols do several drills where players have to finish layups through contact. The assistant coaches use pads to pound the players on the way to the basket. Stricklen converted every time Friday.

"Last year she would take the hit and be thrown out of bounds," Warlick said. "This year she is taking the hit, and she is shooting through the contact. That is what we've been trying to teach her to do.

"I thought she and Vicki Baugh had a great practice today. Vicki was more aggressive than I've seen her this year through individuals (and start of practice). Vicki had a great practice and Shekinna did as well."

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