Vicki Baugh back to basketball

The sight of Vicki Baugh sprinting the floor, hitting layups in transition, blocking shots and directing traffic in the paint brings smiles to the faces of the coaches not just because her absence was one of the single biggest factors in the Lady Vols' struggles but also because they admire so much what the fifth-year player has overcome.

Vicki Baugh was a major factor off the bench in the 2008 postseason – Candace Parker and Nicky Anosike anchored the inside – and was poised for a breakout season as a sophomore, especially with the wholesale departure of Tennessee's starting lineup. But a drive to the basket in the second half of the national championship game ended with Baugh hitting the layup and then collapsing on the baseline with a torn ACL.

The forward from Sacramento, Calif. – she had family in the stands watching Tennessee win the title in Tampa, Fla. – got to her feet with considerable assistance and despite her pain and fear about what had just happened, Baugh, with tears flowing down her face, pointed to the Tennessee bench and yelled, "Let's go y'all! Win this!," a moment that galvanized the Lady Vols.

"When you squeeze an orange, you get orange juice, because you get what's inside," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said a month after that game. "When you squeeze a human being, you get what's inside.

"At that moment, life and basketball were both squeezing Vicki. She was playing very well in that game and then all of a sudden she suffers a devastating injury and yet in the midst of all that she's concerned with not herself, not her injury, not get me to the locker room, she's concerned about our team.

"It just speaks volumes about Vicki Baugh and her heart and her level of commitment."

Baugh had surgery, stayed in Tennessee that summer to rehab and was back for her second year. But she tore the ACL again in February of 2009 and reentered the grueling rehab process. Baugh missed all of the 2009-10 season to redshirt and then returned for the 2010-11 season with her knee still in recovery mode – she had needed a third surgery during her redshirt year to address a meniscus tear – and spent the year dealing with pain and medical limitations.

This summer, for the first time since her freshman year, Baugh was cleared for basketball workouts and able to move on the court without discomfort.

"This is the first fall that she's had to work on basketball," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "She stayed here all summer and worked on her game, too. It's a tribute to her. She had a great summer, and it shows. She's reaping the benefits right now."

Baugh has been noticeably agile and mobile in preseason practice.

"My knee hasn't been a problem," Baugh said. "I am feeling great with my knee. I don't even recognize that I've been hurt before. Obviously I know it, but I wouldn't know it from just by how I physically feel.

"Now, it's just getting back to being comfortable mentally and physically. The knee is not a problem. It's more so getting back in (basketball) shape and learning my teammates and them getting used to playing with me."

Baugh's teammates would be well served to follow her lead. In a Friday session that Warlick noted was good but not great Baugh was an exception.

"She practiced like it was a game situation through every drill," Warlick said. "When she does that then you know you're getting there and she's done something special. She didn't take a possession off."

That expression at Tennessee has usually been reserved for a player like Tamika Catchings, who gave outstanding effort every time she took the court for the Lady Vols.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Tennessee will go this season as Baugh goes.

"Absolutely," Warlick said.

"She has actually shown in five practices where she can score for us, which would be huge," Lockwood said.

With the departure of the 6'6 Kelley Cain, who had to forego a fifth year because of chronic hip and knee pain, and the 6'3 Alyssia Brewer, who has transferred to UCLA – Tennessee will play the Bruins in December but Brewer will sit out this upcoming season – the skyline in the paint has shrunk.

But Baugh, who is every inch of 6'4, will provide some height. What the power forward must get used to is turning her back to the basket. Baugh has mostly played a face-up game in her limited court appearances over the past three years.

"It's been different," Baugh said. "That's been my toughest challenge is adjusting to that five position where my back is always to the basket. I am usually a face-up player.

"That has been the most challenging for me, but I have been in the gym getting extra shots in with Dean and working with my coaches. Obviously, if they see and believe in me then it's something that I can do. I have been applying a lot of back-to-the-basket to my game. I feel like I am doing all right but I can get better."

During one of those sessions with Lockwood, Baugh worked on a repertoire of shots.

"We had a workout the other day and worked on a variety of scoring moves in different places," Lockwood said.

Of course, one way to lessen the times that Baugh has to set up is for Tennessee to ratchet up the running game and score in transition.

"I hope so," Baugh said. "That has always been Tennessee's style of play. We've kind of strayed away from it. I think we are getting it back. We've got to stick to what we are best at and that's how we are going to be successful. That is definitely transition, defense and rebounding."

But Baugh can also be effective in the half-court because of her quickness inside – the play that injured her knee the first time came after a cat-quick high post drive – and ability to seal position in the paint.

When Tennessee didn't have a good look in transition in a recent scrimmage, but a shot got launched before Baugh could get in rebounding position, she made it clear that was not the right decision on that possession. The next time down the floor, the ball was reversed and reached Baugh inside for an easy layup.

It is that willingness to call out the team and set the example with her daily work that so endears Baugh to the staff. But the players also are willing to listen to their teammate.

"She has been a team player," Warlick said. "The kids look up to her. They love her. Vicki has a maturity about her probably more than any of the other kids on our team.

"It is difficult to sit out and watch when you've always been playing. I think Vicki has handled it really, really well. The kids get excited when she does something great."

The best news for Baugh is that it's all basketball now.

"Oh, so nice," Baugh said. "I have no setbacks right now. I can come in and work on my game and not have to worry about, ‘Oh, don't want to push too much,' or ‘I need to rest.'

"It's just nice to be back on the court and not have to worry about my knee. I literally don't think about it. I don't mind jumping off my left leg anymore so the confidence is there with my knee and hopefully it will show on the court."

Mention Baugh's name right now, and the coaches just smile.

"Vicki is getting more comfortable with her knee," Warlick said. "She doesn't even think about it anymore. She's 100 percent. I think when you see Vicki Baugh get the rebound, drive the whole length of the floor and shoot a layup, that's the Vicki Baugh that we missed.

"Everybody asks, ‘The last three years what have you missed?' We've missed Vicki Baugh. We've missed her leadership and her athletic ability on the floor. That is God-given talent and athletic ability."

Lockwood added, "I call it being free. Being liberated from being a rehab patient and being liberated from doing exercises. She is a basketball player. My heart leapt for joy when I saw her on the court (this fall) and to see her jump and move and to be free.

"Inwardly my heart is smiling because it's great to see her be a basketball player again and focused on doing basketball things, not, ‘Is my knee going to buckle on me? How high can I jump? How hard can I push? Should I jump off the one?' She is playing with abandonment. She is playing like an athlete. I am absolutely thrilled for that kid.

"If there is ever a kid that deserves to be healthy, to have one season of health and just being full throttle as an athlete, that kid is it. She deserves it. I love seeing her out there."

PRACTICE NOTES: The Lady Vols were in the arena for the first time this preseason. Previous sessions had been held in Pratt Pavilion, but the volleyball team plays on the road this week so the arena was available. … Senior forward Alicia Manning sprained her left thumb last week and is wearing a soft cast for the next two weeks. She has been cleared to practice and participated in Monday's session. … Seniors Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen have been named to the Women's Preseason Top 30 for consideration of the Wooden Award. "Glory and Shekinna are both coming off solid junior seasons and a great summer experience with the World University Games gold medalist USA team," Coach Pat Summitt said. "In their last go-round as Lady Vols, I anticipate they will both have outstanding senior campaigns." … Allisha Gray, a 5'11 guard from Sandersville, Ga., made an unofficial visit to Tennessee on Monday. Gray is in the class of 2013 and ranked No. 8 by Hoopgurlz. The No. 1 ranked player in the class, Mercedes Russell, a 6'5 center from Springfield, Ore., and No. 15 Stephanie Mavunga, a 6'2 forward from Brownsburg, Ind., are expected to make unofficial visits to Tennessee this weekend.


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