Lady Vols get ready for gauntlet

The Lady Vols were back at practice Thursday. Go inside to read the latest on the Tennessee women's basketball team.

The first day of December brought the start of the exam period for Tennessee off the court and zone emphasis on both sides of the ball on the court as the Lady Vols enter a month with five games before Christmas, four of which are on the road.

Tennessee got back in the win column Tuesday with an 82-43 victory over Middle Tennessee that allowed the coaches to spread minutes among all 10 available players.

"First, we got to play our bench, they got some quality minutes, and that was badly needed," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said Thursday. "We needed to get some of our bench people more minutes in a quality situation.

"And then I thought our energy was good. We started out I thought a little sluggish and then we played out of it. Our energy on defense was good, getting out in those passing lanes. I thought we played well together and executed fairly well on the offensive end."

If Meighan Simmons has a Christmas wish list, making some jump shots likely tops it. The sophomore has struggled in the past three games, though, to her credit, it has not affected her play on the defensive end.

The coaching staff pulled some tape from last season when Simmons led the team in scoring as a freshman, and showed her the clips.

"She didn't really get in a slump last year," DeMoss said. "She stayed pretty steady. This is the first time I've seen her drop. We've been showing her tapes of last year when she was really playing well and just trying to get her to visualize positive things and not beat herself up over stuff."

Simmons is competitive and passionate about basketball. She will be her own worst critic while she struggles, and the coaches want to halt that train of thought. That begins to address the mental aspect of the game. The physical place to bust a shooting slide is the interior of a gym and lofting extra shots.

Tennessee's five games before the Christmas break are Texas, DePaul, Rutgers, UCLA and Stanford. All but UCLA are ranked. All but Texas are away from Knoxville.

The Lady Vols' upcoming schedule doesn't offer a player a shot against a wholly overmatched opponent to play extended minutes to work through shooting woes. The previous five games were against Pepperdine and Virginia, both of which played in the postseason in the WNIT, top 10 programs in Miami and Baylor, and NCAA tourney regular Middle Tennessee.

"Exactly," DeMoss said. "We've got Texas coming in. We go play Rutgers and DePaul."

Tennessee did get the chance to run some plays Simmons' ways against Middle Tennessee to try to help her, because the game was essentially won by halftime. But Simmons continued to misfire and went 0-7 for the game.

The good news is exams have started and after next week, Simmons and her teammates will be through with academic commitments for a month. Of course, the Lady Vols also will be on the road for essentially 12 days and gym access is more limited because of travel days and the need to pre-arrange court time.

Simmons' first priority needs to be final exams. After that, the sophomore guard needs repetitions on the hardwood whenever she can get them.

"When do you try and gain confidence?" DeMoss said. "She's got to do it in practice. She's got to get in the gym and try to get a lot of shots up and get that confidence back.

"I wish I could say a magical word to her and it snaps her out of it. She looked better (Thursday at practice). She is trying too hard right now."

The Lady Vols were off Wednesday and then back at practice Thursday in Pratt Pavilion.

"We did a lot of zone stuff today," DeMoss said. "We did a lot of zone offense, because I think people are going to start zoning us more. We haven't spent the time with our zone offenses as we have with our man offenses.

"We really worked a lot of zone today, both offense and defense. Today was pretty much a zone day."

The Lady Vols have gotten better in their man defense, especially compared to the past three seasons, but the coaches want the zone schemes ready to go, too.

Tennessee's size is suited to zone because of the 6'4 Vicki Baugh and the 6'3 Glory Johnson. Both also are rangy and lengthy, move well laterally and can cover ground from the corners to the paint.

Taber Spani, who is 6'1, and Shekinna Stricklen, who is 6'2, add size to the top of the zone, and both are much improved this season in terms of lateral movement and getting in passing lanes.

"The bigger our lineup the more area we can cover and that zone can look a little imposing at times," DeMoss said. "I thought our 2-3 against Middle Tennessee was very effective.

"I think nowadays teams and coaches are better. It's hard to just play one defense against a really, really good team because they are going to find a way to pick up your weaknesses. They're going to pick it apart and pick it apart. You've got to be able to change.

"Back in the day we could play man for 40 minutes and usually be fine with it. But nowadays coaches are better, schemes are better, players are better."

Tennessee used zones looks quite a bit the past three seasons to stop dribble penetration. Now, the Lady Vols have players on the perimeter who will put the ball on the floor – freshman Ariel Massengale had success against Middle Tennessee and junior Taber Spani did so against Baylor – and are starting to see more zone defenses.

Virginia disrupted Tennessee with its trapping zone – though Massengale penetrated it in the second half – and Baylor stopped the forays and clogged the paint by shifting to a zone in later the second half, despite Coach Kim Mulkey's aversion to them.

It worked well for Baylor because Tennessee went 4-15 from the arc after the break compared to 4-9 in the first half. Massengale had open looks behind the arc in that game but misfired five times. She broke out of her mini-slump by getting to the rim against Middle Tennessee.

"She was able to get to the basket," DeMoss said. "Let's hope that gets her back. Getting your shooting rhythm down takes time. You've got to get in the gym and work on it.

"She has got to be a scorer for us as well. Nowadays you can't have a point guard that can't score. People are not going to guard you, and you've got to play five on four."

The upcoming schedule is loaded for the Lady Vols. It may just be December but what happens in the last month of 2011 could resonate in March of 2012. The coaches will narrow the players' focus to the next opponent.

"You have to," DeMoss said. "If not, what happened at Virginia will happen. We are not good enough to look three games ahead. We've got to lock down and take it not one game at a time (but) one possession at a time.

"That is how narrow our focus has to be."

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