Taber Spani returns to practice

Before practice started Wednesday, Taber Spani was lofting shots, which is not at all unusual. What was different this time is that she was doing so left-handed – the first time this month since she had elbow surgery to remove scar tissue.

Taber Spani missed the official start of practice in early October because she underwent surgery on her left elbow. The procedure removed scar tissue that had built up over a year after her bursa sac had partially popped out – it was put back in and the wound stitched closed – when she dove to catch a ball in a conditioning drill.

The junior forward had spent most of the past two weeks doing rehab exercises, riding a stationary bicycle and shooting with her right hand. On Wednesday she was cleared to return to practice and use both hands.

"She looks really good," Coach Pat Summitt said after Wednesday's session. "She is a great teammate. She obviously has great range. I am just really glad to have her back."

Freshman point guard Ariel Massengale once again watched practice from the sideline and appeared to be feeling better. Massengale collided with freshman Cierra Burdick at practice on Oct. 10 and has been held out since under the program's concussion protocol.

"I think she is feeling a lot better," Summitt said. "(But) we don't want to take any chances on that."

Burdick and fellow freshman Isabelle Harrison continue to get a lot of repetitions, and both are regulars in the gym for additional work, either on their own or with Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood.

"They are very serious about their game," Summitt said. "I am really pleased with both of them. Cierra is in the gym a lot. Izzy is in the gym a lot. And that makes a difference. We haven't always had that. It's a good thing that we have it now."

The freshmen, along with the rest of the team, are getting well versed in fundamentals, especially passing, which has been a point of emphasis in preseason.

"Early on we get the ball stuck in people's hands," Summitt said. "We want to be in the attack mode, and we want to get the ball moving. They have really bought into it.

"The reason we are doing all of our passing drills is because we are not a great passing team, and we've got to be a great passing team. We've got to get the ball inside-out, move it from sideline to sideline. With our drills I think we're getting better because of that."

The most pleasant part of preseason for the Lady Vols has been the performance of fifth-year player Vicki Baugh, who has completed every practice and has been pain-free. Baugh has been limited for the past three years because of two ACL surgeries on her left knee, but she has been mobile in preseason and a force on the boards.

"I am happy for her," Summitt said. "And I am obviously happy for this team that she is playing the way she is. Her leadership is very strong. I think this team looks to Vicki and rightfully so."

While Baugh was in rehab for her knee recovery, she was often very limited as to what she could do on the court. So she shot free throws, hundreds of them a day. The result is that Baugh has become an excellent free throw shooter and that will be a plus for the post game. Baugh shot 76 percent from the line last season – and she can do better – while the other posts struggled – two were below 50 percent – a puzzling stat since they often connected in practice.

"I think that's an advantage for her now," Summitt said. "She's invested in it. It turned out to be a great thing."

Tennessee has two more practices scheduled for this week before turning the players loose for a weekend off. They are two weeks into full practice sessions with the first exhibition game less than two weeks away against Carson-Newman on Nov. 1.

The challenge for the rest of the week is to keep the players fully engaged as they are antsy for a chance to go home and eager for the season to get underway when the focus will be less on drills and more on opponents. Summitt thinks the players, including the freshmen, are mature enough to focus on the task at hand.

"I think our leadership is really strong, and a lot of it starts with Vicki," Summitt said. "I think having Taber back is important. I am excited about our freshmen, and I will be glad when Ariel is released to be on the court."

All three newcomers have been self-starters. Summitt and her assistants spend their time coaching them, not motivating them.

"Breath of fresh air," Summitt said. "They are in the gym. They get in on their own."

Their attitude is noticeable, too. Burdick made two bad passes in a drill and was visibly annoyed with her performance.

"She is hard on herself," Summitt said.

The freshmen want to do well and be ready to contribute to the team this season, and they will be needed. Tennessee will start the season with a roster of 10. Junior guard Kamiko Williams is the 11th player, is undergoing rehab on her left knee and seems to be doing very well.

"I think they have good cohesion," Summitt said of the team as a whole. "I think that they are really committed to doing the things that we are asking them to do. A lot of times they get in extra shots when we're not there. You can tell the investment is there, and they want to win.

"But these freshmen I am impressed with them. They have picked it up, and they are doing a great job. I think it's going to bring a lot of influence having these young players playing the way they are. Ariel, when she's healthy, that's going to be even better for us."

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