Cierra Burdick eager for NCAA

Cierra Burdick took a break from jumping rope, wiped the sweat off her face and smiled. Practice was already over, but the freshman figured that she still had time to get better. Go inside with Inside Tennessee for the latest as the team prepares for postseason.

The team got in one more practice session in Knoxville on Thursday and then departed for Chicago, where the Lady Vols will open sub-regional play on Saturday.

No. 2 seed Tennessee (24-8) faces No. 14 seed Tennessee-Martin (23-8), the champions of the Ohio Valley Conference and Pat Summitt's alma mater, at 4:10 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2) at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill.

No. 7 seed and host school DePaul (22-10) and No. 10 seed BYU (26-6) match up in game two (6:40 p.m. Eastern tip approximately).

The winners meet Monday at 9:30 p.m. Eastern for the right to move to the Des Moines Regional.

The Lady Vols met Wednesday with local media in Knoxville - they will also have a media session Friday in Chicago - and Cierra Burdick was jumping rope when she was summoned for an interview.

The freshman forward asked if video would be taken - no, so it was safe to pour sweat throughout the interview, which she did.

"Just trying to get the feet quicker," Burdick said of her jump-rope sessions after practice. "Just trying to be able to slide with these quicker guards."

It is that dedication to the game that has the coaches comfortable with bringing the freshman off the bench in postseason, even in crunch time, which is the staff's ultimate sign of trust.

Burdick's extra workouts are intended to help her on defense. The coaches won't hesitate to put her in a game for offensive reasons.

"We have a lot of faith in her right now, especially if they're playing zone," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood.

Burdick's ability to hit perimeter jumpers makes her a vital weapon to loosen a zone. It is not a coincidence that her shooting percentage has gone up as the season has gone on.

Tuesday was the team's off day - spring break starts next week and the players have midterm exams this week - but Burdick was in Pratt Pavilion anyway and summoned Lockwood to help her.

"Dean and I got a great workout in," Burdick said. "We got 313 makes up (jump shots), 116 made free throws. It was hard-core, a little conditioning in as well."

Burdick is looking forward to spring break, along with her "freshmates," as she calls them, Ariel Massengale and Isabelle Harrison.

"It's really nice because we'll be able to focus strictly on ball, and we'll be able to get our sleep," said Burdick, who added her academics were in order and she had one paper to complete. "The froshies have been struggling with sleep lately because of so many tests and midterms.

"The teachers pile you up right before you leave for spring break. I'll be excited to sleep in."

Burdick also is eager to experience her first NCAA postseason.

"I am excited," Burdick said. "I am excited to see what's ahead of us. I am excited to just get out on the floor and know it's one and done if we don't come out and produce. I am excited to see how far we go.

"I believe this team could go all the way. We have the talent. It's just a matter of bringing it every game."

Burdick had already gotten a look at Tennessee-Martin, and knew the defensive priority was to find the shooters. The Skyhawks rely on the long ball to score and lead the nation in scoring at 81.1 points per game.

"They are firing away from the arc," said Burdick, who noted her responsibilities in basketball scouting language. "We've been focusing on that."

Burdick wants to see Tennessee set the postseason tone from the opening tip.

"Definitely," Burdick said. "We want to set the tone every game. We don't want to come out sloppy at all. We want to build our momentum and take it as far as we can throughout the tournament.

"It's just a matter of bringing intensity every game."

SENIOR STARTERS: The coaching staff is likely to stick with the all-senior starters, which began on Senior Day on the last game of the regular season and continued through the SEC tourney.

The decision should end the day-before-a-game exchange between coaches and media, who wanted to list starters, that wasn't intended to be evasive but was never specific.

The truth is the coaches made game day decisions, sometimes based on health, and often because of practice performance and matchups.

"In this program you still have to bring it in practice," Dean Lockwood said. "If you have a toad practice, you're going to find yourself on a toadstool."

The five seniors have a synergy forged by familiarity and fortitude after what they have endured over the course of their careers. They know how to get it done in practice, because, after four seasons, they've had so much practice.

"We know now who's starting," Lockwood said. "So much of what you do is based on practice productivity and game productivity.

"We're in a rhythm and everybody knows the rhythm."

The seniors are seeking their first Final Four and since they will own the outcome of the 2012 postseason, the coaches liked the idea of giving them control of the starts.

Regular starters Ariel Massengale, Taber Spani, Meighan Simmons and, on occasion, Cierra Burdick, had to adjust to roles off the bench.

"Winning is a great cure-all," Lockwood said. "The buy-in in Nashville was great. The buy-in was outstanding. One of things that excited us is we saw some maturing, some growing up in front of our eyes.

"There was some competitive maturity and one of the ways you define that is how people accept roles and moments like that. When people are happy for other people, even when things might not be perfect for themselves, that's a sign of maturity.

"I say this with more wishful-ness than assurance but hopefully that is taking place. We saw some of that. We saw people being all-in for the team. It's all about what that scoreboard says when we walk off."

Massengale plays at a position of high need at point guard, so she has continued to log what could be called starter minutes, even though she comes off the bench.

Spani can be limited by health and remains status quo with her bruised knee. The coaches want to get her on the floor, but they also have to watch her closely.

"Her issue is more mobility than performance," Lockwood said. "We watch how she is moving. We watch how she is running the floor. If she is not able to get acceleration, we tend to get her out quicker.

"If she is moving well, because she is such a smart player, and she is a kid who can knock down shots, we're more inclined when we see her move well to trust her more."

The coaches have used the entire roster of 11 this season at various times, including all three freshmen. It can be a challenge for the coaches to spread out minutes and for players to accept roles.

"One of the hardest things for coaches to communicate and for players to hear and embrace is (minutes played)," Lockwood said. "We have 11 players. Rarely are 11 players going to get 15 minutes or more. It's just not going to happen.

"You tell players we need everybody to be ready but at the same time we're going to make battlefield decisions. We'll see who's producing and that player or that group of players will get more minutes. There is no lock or guarantee."

The senior lineup has hit its stride and so has the staff on the sideline.

"As the season has gone on, our communication in that area has improved," Lockwood said.

For the coaches it was getting their timing and getting used to making decisions together.

"On the bench in the game it's rare you've got a whole lot of time," Lockwood said. "You've got seconds to make it."

Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick has taken more of the in-game coaching duties, and she is often on her feet shouting instructions to the team.

Lockwood and Mickie DeMoss confer about rotations and seek Pat Summitt's input. Summitt has immediately endorsed some changes and said to wait on others.

Needless to say, the coaches needed to find a rhythm, too, and substitutions have to stay flexible but also with a recognition that if a combination is working, leave it on the court.

"What we've emphasized to our team if there's any choice between a certain individual and the team's performance, that decision has been made a long time ago," Lockwood said. "It is about team performance. We love them all, but it is about team performance."

One example would be the last game Tennessee played against LSU in the SEC tourney title matchup. The five on the floor, with reserve Kamiko Williams playing a major role on the perimeter, seized control of the game.

"At that point we weren't considering anyone else," Lockwood said. "That's going to happen. Those are game moments."

That is where the coaches hope the bench players buy in and also realize their time is coming.

It helps that the seniors are a close-knit group, with the underclassmen wanting to win for them. The youngsters also know those seniors will leave a huge void and they have to get ready for the future.

"Being visual learners, which I think a lot of us are, and watching our seniors get out there and do their job and be the leaders on the floor, I think that's why we learned," Simmons said. "You visualize what your teammates are doing and not making the same mistakes when you get out there. It's a learning experience rather than worrying about playing time, because next year we are going to be playing.

"We shouldn't have any worries, any doubts, nothing."

When Shekinna Stricklen drained a three late against LSU to nearly seal the outcome in Nashville, Simmons danced along the sideline.

"It just comes out," Simmons said. "The coaches expect us to be excited and into the game. But I think that kind of emotion that is going to help us. We need to make sure we feed off of each other's energy."

Lockwood would approve - the buying-in, and the spontaneous sideline celebration.

"It's our job," Lockwood said. "It's their game."

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