Lady Vols get back to practice

The Lady Vols got back to practice Tuesday – and all 11 players were on the court – and were happy to be on their home floor. Go inside with Inside Tennessee for the latest on the Lady Vols.

Tennessee spent nearly every day last week on the road with games in South Bend, Ind., Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Athens, Ga. After a wipeout against Notre Dame, the Lady Vols regrouped and got SEC wins over Alabama and Georgia.

"I don't care who you play or what you do, the three road games in seven days is tough," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said Tuesday. "It's just wear and tear on your body."

The Lady Vols are home all week. They host South Carolina on Thursday evening at Thompson-Boling Arena followed by Auburn on Sunday afternoon.

"It's going to be nice to be home for a couple of games," Warlick said.

It was also nice for the coaches to have all 11 players on the court Tuesday.

"Everybody was in practice today," Warlick said. "Everybody was full speed."

Tuesday was the last day of January. The Lady Vols now enter February, the last month of the regular season.

Warlick had one thing atop her wish list.

"I want to stay healthy," Warlick said. "We want all options available for the game."

One of those options is junior sharpshooter Taber Spani, who missed the end of December and nearly all of January to rest a bone bruise in her left knee. Tennessee's three-point field goal percentage has been in a tailspin in Spani's absence.

"The first shot she took in Georgia she made a three," Warlick said. "She stretches the D out. I don't care if she hasn't played for (a month). She's still a threat.

"She is a scoring threat we haven't had. She makes us a better offensive team, and she's not a liability on defense. It spreads the floor out for us."

Defense has been a major part of the practice itinerary – and the Lady Vols kept Georgia off-balance as they switched into and out of two types of man looks and two zone schemes – and that also has affected shooting percentages.

The cure for that is repetition and senior Shekinna Stricklen lofted 700 shots – the Gun, an automatic ball-feeding machine to the shooter also will keep count – on Monday, the team's day off.

Warlick said all of the players now seem to fully realize that they have to get extra shots on their own outside of practice to maintain shooting form and consistency.

"I think we challenged everybody," Warlick said. "We've been encouraging them to get up shots because we're not getting as many in practice."

Another area of concentration is rebounding. Tennessee nipped Georgia on the boards, 37-34, and the Lady Bulldogs had 18 offensive rebounds – two more than on the defensive end – that they converted into 15 second-chance points.

Missed box-outs were an issue for the Lady Vols. Spani had just one board in 21 minutes of play. Meighan Simmons had zero boards in 38 minutes on the floor. By comparison, Cierra Burdick, who also played on the perimeter, had six rebounds in just 14 minutes of play, and Ariel Massengale, a point guard, had four rebounds in 35 minutes.

"We gave up too many offensive rebounds," Warlick said. "That was a concern of ours."

Stricklen moved to the power forward spot for much of the game and that allowed Burdick, Simmons and Spani to share minutes at the wing spots. Ariel Massengale primarily handled the point position with four minutes of relief from Briana Bass.

Going forward the coaches would like to find additional minutes for Alicia Manning and Kamiko Williams. They also will consider leaving Stricklen at the four spot, but that also depends on matchups.

"I love her at the four," Warlick said. "She is a difficult guard for a four player to defend because she can post up, drive from the high post, the top of the key, she shoots the three.

"So, she's a difficult guard for another four player to defend."

If Stricklen is lined up inside – and she rebounds well whether inside or out and had seven boards against Georgia – that means Burdick can log minutes on the perimeter. She has been an offensive boost while working to improve her defense.

"I am a lot more comfortable," Warlick said. "I think she's worked on it extra, and I think she's taking defense a little bit more seriously. And her knowledge of our system has gotten better.

"I think what helped Cierra was playing time. At times when you're a freshman and you're used to playing and then you're sitting there, I think she questioned (matters) a little bit (and got frustrated).

"That's OK because she's a competitor. I think defense was important enough to her to do extra work on it."

That means agility and footwork drills, film study and fully understanding the terminology and where to be on the floor in all of Tennessee's schemes from full court to half court and man and zone looks.

As the program enters February the best news so far is that the players are getting healthy finally.

If Spani becomes full go and always available on game day, it seems likely that she would return to the starting lineup. That gives the coaches options on the perimeter and also means players will be pushed in practice to hold onto the slots.

"I love the options," Warlick said.

Besides good health in the month of February, the coaches also want to shore up a few areas.

"Keep getting better," Warlick said. "We've got to be a better defensive team overall and we've got to be a better rebounding team.

"It seems like we're valuing the ball a little better on the offensive end, which is good."

Warlick said the players performed fairly well Tuesday after an off day. They likely spent part of the day catching up on schoolwork since three road games last week meant missing several classes, including two full days on Monday and Thursday.

"We have to make sure we keep our focus for the extent of practice, but I think, for the most part, we were good," Warlick said.

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