"It's absolutely wonderful," said Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss, who used a day at home to get her cast removed and replace it with a brace for her right arm. "It's good to be at your house."
The coaches and players are happy to be at home and even happier to finally being close to full strength. Taber Spani practiced Wednesday and is expected to be available for tonight's game.
"Just her presence on the floor, her ability to score, her ability to shoot the three opens up the inside, it makes us a better offensive team," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said.
Spani declared that she was feeling "pretty good" – she always answers honestly when asked about her health status – and "definitely" relieved to be back on the court.
Vicki Baugh was moving well Wednesday in practice and wasn't wearing the brace on her right knee that she has been seen using in games. Her left knee – the one that had three surgeries – is fine, but she felt some pain in her right knee last week in the Notre Dame game.
She had the knee examined and diagnostic tests revealed it to be OK, but she donned a modified brace that is secured to her lower leg with wrap, as a source of security.
"The other knee (non-surgical one) started hurting during the Notre Dame game," Baugh said. "I went and had it checked, and it's fine. To make me feel better I think JMo (Jenny Moshak) lets me wear it on my knee."
The device helps to protect the knee if it were to get hit on the outside.
"I have been wearing tape around it, because it keeps falling with the straps when I sweat," Baugh said. "So it's not pretty, but it's just protection and cushion. It makes me feel better.
"I feel great. I am getting in better shape, and I just feel great, mentally and physically."
Spani also is feeling better. While she is not 100 percent yet – Pat Summitt noted a little Spani goes a long way – she has returned to practice.
"As a competitor, it's the hardest thing to do is to sit out," Spani said. "It's a joy to be on the floor. You get the perspective on just how really lucky you are when you are not able to do it and then you are able to come back."
It was a rather open-ended recovery time, too, so Spani didn't know for sure how long she would be sidelined. She sustained the bone bruise Nov. 20 after being knocked to the floor by a Virginia player celebrating an and-one play. Spani never saw the collision coming, and she got hit in the knee and then slammed her knee on the court.
"I think this is the most frustrating injury I have ever had to deal with in my life just because the athlete in you is always A to B to C, and do this and this and I know I am going to get back by (a certain date)," said Spani, who had a painful foot condition as a freshman and an elbow injury as a sophomore. "But it is just so indefinite with this type of injury and the nature of it.
"That made it frustrating, but I learned how truly blessed you are. This could have been a lot worse. Look at people like Vicki or my sister (Shalin, who also has had serious knee issues). When you look at it like that, you really have nothing to complain about.
"My faith is what I leaned on every day, because I would have broken down mentally. I was really having to focus constantly on staying positive and knowing that there was a bigger picture."
Spani is being eased back and is not allowed to do any extra work outside of practice, and parameters have been set there, too. That is tough for a shooter to be told to limit repetition.
"It's going to be a challenge to find that balance," Spani said. "As a shooter that is frustrating, but I had to deal with that earlier this season with my elbow.
"I really have to focus on the mental aspect of the game and lot of visualization stuff. I think we'll find a way to figure it out."
Opponents defend Spani as if every shot could go in, so just her presence on the court helps her teammates.
Ariel Massengale realized it against Georgia on one possession and drove to the basket. She faked a pass to Spani, whose defender stayed put instead of rotating to help on Massengale, and she had a clear path to the rim.
"The girl stayed on me, and she got a wide-open layup, because they've got to respect shooters in the corners," Spani said. "If I can open it up for everybody with my shot or without my shot, I think that will hopefully help our team."
Tennessee's three-point field goal percentage has been in steady decline in Spani's absence. Her ability to drill some treys will be a late season boost.
"I think it's huge for us," Warlick said. "Three-point shots get our team pretty pumped up. I'd love it if we got back and were more consistent from the three-point line."
Spani knows that a balanced attack makes Tennessee a better team.
"We want to be clicking on all cylinders," Spani said. "I think early in the season we didn't go inside enough, and we relied too much on the outside game.
"We've been going inside more and now we're going to have to balance it out. If we can find that perfect balance of us shooting the ball well outside and getting one-on-ones in the post, then it is hard for teams to defend that."
Baugh, a very effective one-on-one player in the paint, was particularly happy to see Spani back on the floor.
Baugh tends to get double-teamed on the low block and she will scan the court for an open shooter. Spani also had two assists Sunday against Georgia by driving and then finding Baugh inside.
"The inside-out is about to be a threat again," Baugh said. "That's all I've got to say with Taber Spani. I love giving her the ball.
"If they double and she's wide open, it's like automatic points. That is how I look at Taber. I know the three is going in. And if they (the defense) go back out, she kicks it back in, and I love playing the one-on-one game.
"It is just great having Taber back out on the floor."
The Lady Vols have waited all season to be at full strength.
"The chemistry factor is the good thing," Spani said. "Because when we are all on the floor together we can finally jell and become one."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5'6 freshman guard, No. 5 (7.9 points per game, 2.6 rebounds per game, 5.4 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 10 (10.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg); Cierra Burdick, 6'2 freshman forward, No. 11 (4.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 ( 15.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg); and Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (13.5 ppg, 9.4 rpg).
Probable remains the keyword for Tennessee's starting lineup, as the coaches could make changes depending on what they see at shoot-around on game day.
The five on the floor will need to follow closely the scouting report for both ends.
"Dawn Staley, first of all, she was a great player, and she's become a great coach," Summitt said. "I know that she will have her team ready. They are hard-nosed. They are aggressive. They are going to come after us."
South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley is expected to start: Ieasia Walker, 5'8 junior guard, No. 3 (7.4 ppg, 3.0 apg), hails from Amityville, N.Y., tallied career-high seven assists against Ole Miss; Markeshia Grant, 5'6 senior guard, No. 5 (10.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg), hails from Tampa, Fla., leads team in scoring, posted career-high 22 points against Furman, averaged 15.0 points in three-game SEC win streak; La'Keisha Sutton, 5'8 senior guard, No. 11 (9.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg), hails from Trenton, N.J., hitting 42.3 percent of treys in SEC play, averaged 18.0 points over last three games; Charenee Stephens, 6'0 senior forward, No. 12 (4.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg), hails from Decatur, Ga., 50 of 101 rebounds have come on offensive end; and Ashley Bruner, 6'0 junior forward, No. 21 (7.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg), hails from Norman, Okla., grabbed career-high 18 rebounds against Penn State this season.
Courtney Newton, a 5'9 senior guard from Flowery Branch, Ga., has been a regular starter this season, but she missed the last game against Mississippi State after sustaining a concussion Jan. 26 in the game against Ole Miss and is listed as day to day.
Another key player is Aleighsa Welch, a 6'0 freshman forward from Goose Creek, S.C., who is connecting on 60 percent of her shots and averages 8.7 points and a team-leading 6.1 rebounds per game.
"It's an easy game for our kids to be motivated to play," Staley said. "I like the level of play that we are playing at right now, and we have to feed off of that."
PENCILED IN: While the coaches have been more than willing to tinker with the starting lineup this season, Ariel Massengale seems to be a given at point guard.
Massengale has solidified the starting spot with her floor leadership and ability to distribute the ball.
The freshman has played in 18 games – 17, not counting the cameo appearance in the second half against Stanford after missing the three previous ones with a dislocated finger – and has 97 assists. The freshman record of 133 helpers is held by former Lady Vol Loree Moore.
Now-sophomore Meighan Simmons holds the No. 8 spot on that freshman list with 104 assists last season, while Candace Parker checked in at No. 9 with 103 in her first season.
Simmons, a shooting guard converted to point a year ago, also led the team in that category for the entire 2010-11 season with 104 assists. Massengale is just seven assists away from that – and should pass it this week – and still has three weeks of the regular season and postseason to add to it, underscoring her effect on the team's assist numbers in a season.
Massengale also seems to understand that she has to score for Tennessee to be successful. She was 4-6 from the field overall, 2-2 from the arc and 6-8 from the line to tally 16 points in the 67-50 win over Georgia.
"We talked about it quite a bit before the Georgia game, and she has put in some extra shooting," Holly Warlick said. "She has a great shot. I think she looks to pass before she shoots it."
With Simmons and Shekinna Stricklen on the floor, and now Taber Spani, defenders are tracking those three as long-ball threats.
Massengale will get open looks, and the coaches want her to fire away. Opponents also know Massengale gets to the rim, so she already has some space between her and her defender.
"They are concerned about her getting inside and getting plays," Warlick said. "When she looks for her shot and makes plays from outside, I think she's a difficult player to guard."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-South Carolina game. Here is her assessment.
Offensively, the Gamecocks want a fast pace and look to score in transition and via penetration.
"They really want to generate a lot of their points from their steals, and get you to take bad shots, and they're going to get out and run," DeMoss said. "A lot of penetration. They don't score a lot off of their sets. They put people in position to hit a three or penetrate.
"They put people in good spots. If you help too much on penetration, then they're kicking to shooters. We cannot afford to start helping a lot on penetration because once we start helping a lot, then they're going to find shooters open on the wings."
The Lady Vols will need to account for La'Keisha Sutton, who has been shooting the ball well of late, as has Markeshia Grant.
Sutton was 9-18 combined from long range in the wins over Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, while prior to those games she had connected on nine treys total for the season.
"She has gotten hot," DeMoss said.
Defensively, the Gamecocks are stingy when it comes to allowing opponents to score. They are ranked No. 2 in the country in scoring defense at just 47.5 points per game allowed and No. 1 in the country in three-point field goal percentage defense at 20.1 percent allowed.
"They are juniors and seniors," DeMoss said. "They know Dawn's system. They have bought into it, and they're extremely athletic. They have got very quick hands, and they are real aggressive."
DeMoss expects the Gamecocks to play man defense in both full and half-court looks.
A lot of teams have shown zone against Tennessee, so the Lady Vols are always prepared for it, but South Carolina hasn't shown it on game tape.
SEC PLAY All 12 SEC teams are in action Thursday. The other matchups are: Alabama at Arkansas; Vanderbilt at Auburn; Florida at LSU; Mississippi State at Georgia; and Ole Miss at Kentucky.
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee leads the series with South Carolina, 44-2. The Lady Vols are 20-0 in Knoxville against the Gamecocks. South Carolina's last win, 56-52, was in 1980. The Gamecocks came close in 2010 but fell 60-55, and the Lady Vols have now won 40 consecutive games against South Carolina. … Tennessee is 13-3-1 in games played on February 2. The last win on this date came against Ole Miss, 78-63, in 2006. The three losses on February 2 were to Georgia, 72-56, in 1985; Vanderbilt, 79-59, in 2002; and Oklahoma, 80-70, in 2009. The tie on this date was to East Tennessee, 25-25, in 1925. … A familiar face is on the bench for South Carolina. Former Lady Vol Nikki McCray (1991-95), a Kodak All-American and 1996 Olympian, is on the coaching staff for South Carolina.
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Coach Pat Summitt
Lady Vol practice clips
Inside Tennessee was at SEC Media Day last October and asked player representatives from the other 11 SEC schools some offbeat questions.
Here are the responses of South Carolina's Markeshia Grant.