Lady Vols get back to practice

Tennessee returned to practice Friday after a one-point loss at Kentucky in a bitter defeat for the players and coaches. Go inside with Inside Tennessee for the latest on the Lady Vols.

Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss leaned against the stands just off the court at the arena and listed everything that went amiss in Tennessee's 61-60 loss at Kentucky on Thursday from blown layups to lack of box-outs.

She also couldn't help but let loose with a smile when asked if one shot had not fallen – A'dia Mathies' with less than five seconds left – and one shot had – Kamiko Williams' as time expired – would the remarks have been how resilient the team had been in a hostile road environment and how the players had overcome adversity after falling behind by 12 points late in the first half.

"Sure," DeMoss said with a smile breaking free on her face.

But DeMoss also had reasons to be concerned. The consistent thing about Tennessee overall has been its inconsistency.

Before practice Friday, the coaches and players spoke, but it was not anything that hasn't been said before. The team knows what went wrong and what matters is on the scoreboard, not what is said in the locker room.

"It's nothing new," DeMoss said. "There is a certain lack of consistency, and we just can't quite figure out why it happens sometimes. A lack of passion on the floor, a lack of a sense of urgency until we got down 12 and thought, ‘Oh, we may lose this game.' "

That state of mind didn't infect the entire team against Kentucky, but it emerges in different games among various players. That is the vexing thing for the coaches. They don't know who it will affect or when.

Against the Wildcats, it afflicted senior Shekinna Stricklen, who seemed sluggish to start the game and was ineffective until the final seven minutes.

It wasn't fatigue. The team had conditioning testing Friday morning with Heather Mason, and Stricklen tested at her highest level of the season. That comes hours after logging 31 minutes against Kentucky and getting home late after a bus ride from Lexington to Knoxville.

To say that the coaching staff is perplexed with the team as a whole is an understatement.

"I just think it's kind of the nature of this team," DeMoss said, referring to the veterans. "The core group, they know that time is running out. We've got to figure out the right buttons to push or they've got to figure out how they have got to get themselves motivated and ready to play every game."

The coaches have tried everything from motivational pep talks to a preseason book club to sports psychologists to mental training. Over the past three-and-a-half years former Lady Vols such as Tamika Catchings and Nicky Anosike have spoken to the players. Nothing has permanently stuck, and while DeMoss knows that the narrative of the game would have changed with one made shot, she also is concerned about bad habits that keep being repeated.

Tennessee didn't look comfortable from the get-go on Thursday, but DeMoss, who knows Kentucky well – she was the head coach there as late as 2007 – was inclined to credit the Wildcats for that effect.

"They looked a little uncertain at times I thought," DeMoss said. "But I think Kentucky makes you play a little bit uncomfortable because of the way that they press and they trap.

"So you never settle into a rhythm. But we've been pretty good at playing out of rhythm at times because our shots have fallen in the past."

DeMoss cited the SEC tourney final in 2011 when Kentucky wanted to unleash the same style, but Stricklen and now-departed Angie Bjorklund rained threes on the Wildcats.

"That destroyed their philosophy that particular night," DeMoss said.

On Thursday the shots didn't fall – Stricklen and Meighan Simmons combined to shoot 1-10 in the first half. The Lady Vols trailed by just four points at halftime because, outside of Mathies, the Wildcats couldn't find the net either.

Stricklen and Simmons never got in gear until the final seven minutes – Simmons was parked on the bench early in the second half and Stricklen joined her midway through – and the Lady Vols stayed in catch-up mode.

"The guards have to bring something," DeMoss said. "If you're not scoring, you've got to guard somebody, and you've got to rebound."

DeMoss is confident that the guards will bounce back.

"Meighan brings the energy," DeMoss said. "You can count on her for energy on offense. She is going to run the floor."

Right now, the staff still has to scramble at times from game to game to find a combination of five players who will play both ends of the floor with energy.

"They weren't up there competing on both ends of the floor at all five spots," DeMoss said of the team as a whole. "You can't beat good teams with (a few) people competing."

Ariel Massengale took a step forward this week. She struggled in her first road game of the season against Virginia with seven turnovers in 34 minutes. Against a Kentucky team with a much more aggressive man and trapping defense, the freshman had five assists and three turnovers in 36 minutes.

"She handled it well," DeMoss said. "She handled the ball and she handled their pressure well. She had to handle that pressure for so long."

DeMoss said that took a toll on Massengale, and her defensive pressure wasn't as good as it should have been.

"You can only ask so much," DeMoss said. "But defensively she still has to get a little better."

Junior Kamiko Williams, who is just back from ACL rehab, logged 17 minutes, and sprinkled in some very effective minutes, especially battling on the glass. But her reaction time is still a tad off, and she needs time to get back to form.

"Spurts," DeMoss said. "We know where she is right now so we are not expecting miracles from her. If we can get seven or eight good minutes, just solid, that would help us right now."

Williams was on Mathies for the final 12 seconds, and was supposed to get help from Johnson. But Kentucky dropped a player on the low block and Johnson had to make a split-decision about whether to leave the paint as planned or stay back and cover the post.

She hung back and then hesitated as Mathies drove right – Williams was supposed to overplay her to the right and push her left into Johnson or Vicki Baugh.

The result was Mathies got a great look at the basket against a rather passive defense.

"On that last play we were supposed to trap her," DeMoss said. "They lined up in that one-four low (one player with the ball up top and four players back) Glory would have had to have left the block to go trap, which I know was a scary thing for her (because she would have left her player wide open). She stayed."

Mathies finished with 34 points in what has become a pattern this season – an opposing player having a career game against Tennessee.

Mathies was initially guarded by Stricklen on the perimeter because she brought experience, more size and has played much better this season on the defensive end.

But Stricklen backed off of Mathies as opposed to taking an aggressive approach, and the coaches changed plans. Johnson then picked up Mathies, but "they were running her off of so many screens that we had to start switching those screens to get a body out on her."

That left Mathies with some favorable matchups, and she took advantage of it.

"They did some good things to get the ball in her hands," DeMoss said. "We started trapping her on those ball screens, which I thought was effective. It got the ball out of her hands."

Friday's practice addressed defense, both half and full court.

Rebounding was an issue against Kentucky because the guards, for the most part, didn't get on the boards or box out. Williams' insertion into the game was an attempt to remedy, or at least lessen, that issue.

"You can't just box and not do anything, because Kentucky is going to go right around you," DeMoss said. "You've got to box and go get it. They didn't box, and they didn't rebound. When their guards are rebounding like they are rebounding, that is ridiculous."

Kentucky's guards got to the paint and Tennessee's posts would be sandwiched between two players – the opposing post they had position on and a Kentucky guard crashing from the other side.

It showed up in the box score – Kentucky had 12 second-chance points to Tennessee's 10. In the final two minutes, the Wildcats got three offensive boards, and Mathies tipped in the final one to pull Kentucky to within one point, 60-59. Her final shot sealed the win.

Since the debacle at Stanford, the Lady Vols have devoted a lot of practice reps to defense. In the next five games, opponents scored 37, 52, 47, 51 and 38 points, so the defense definitely improved.

But that typically leads to offense taking a hit, a situation the coaches hope will ultimately be minimized by players lofting shots on their own time. The situation was made tougher by how much time Tennessee spent on the road, which reduces access to gyms.

"We have spent a lot of our time on defense," DeMoss said. "When that happens if they are not getting in the gym on their own, then the offense is going to suffer.

"Shooting is a skill. It's like putting. You've got to work on it. You've got to practice it. You can tell when a kid hasn't been in the gym. Their rhythm is off. Everything is off. It caught up with us."

In Massengale's case, she needs to hunt more shots in a game.

"I think she gets so focused on getting other people the ball," DeMoss said. "I had to pull her over in the Kentucky game and I said, ‘You have turned down a couple of threes. You have got to help us in the scoring.'

"There may be some games where we don't need her to score, but in the Kentucky game when you've got Stricklen and Simmons (struggling), we need her."

DeMoss knows a lot of basketball remains to be played, and Tennessee has time to get it together on both ends as a team.

"We have time to get better," DeMoss said. "It's got to stick, though. It's got to stick."

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