Lady Vols get back to basics

Dean Lockwood is the perfect basketball interview while waiting for hoops to begin again between postseason tournaments. Go inside with InsideTennessee for the latest on the Lady Vols.

While two of Tennessee's regular season losses are not a point of contention with the coaches, nor a source of motivation, they are on their mind in terms of getting ready for the NCAA Tournament and its lose-and-the-season-is-over reality.

The Lady Vols went 24-7, won the SEC in the regular season and were ranked No. 10 by AP and No. 9 by the coaches after the conference tourney in Duluth, Ga.

Four losses were to top 10 teams in Baylor, Stanford, Notre Dame and Kentucky. A fifth loss was to Texas A&M in the semifinals of the SEC tourney, with the Aggies now ranked No. 9/12.

It's the other two losses that tell the coaches a lot about what the team needs to work on, the ones to Chattanooga and Missouri. The teams played a similar offensive style – spacing, cuts and lots of screens.

"They play offense for pretty much 20 to 30 seconds," Assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "They are not going to quick shoot it. They are going to make you guard stuff."

So, recognition and reacting on defense was a major focus of practice this past week, a process done as much in the film room as on the court.

"That is one of the things that we are emphasizing to our team now is you have to play a full 30 seconds of great defense and be able to guard multiple actions," Lockwood said.

There were times the Lady Vols did exactly that – and then gave up an offensive rebound, thus negating a great defensive stand with slippage on the glass. So rebounding, specifically boxing out, also got plenty of attention.

The coaches split the team in small groups for a better learning situation and reemphasized fundamentals on the defensive side of the ball.

By Saturday, the coaches even had 10 players on the practice court as Isabelle Harrison returned after re-aggravating a right knee injury the day before Tennessee's first SEC Tournament game.

"All Lady Vols on the practice floor today! Love it when I'm bored at practice," Jenny Moshak said Saturday via Twitter.

Moshak hasn't been bored all season as she has dealt with serious injuries to Andraya Carter, Cierra Burdick, Taber Spani, Kamiko Williams and Harrison.

Several others also have had to be treated after mishaps, such as Jasmine Phillips (quad and hip), Nia Moore (thumb), Jasmine Jones (knee and head) and Ariel Massengale (knee).

Carter was done for the season in December because of right shoulder surgery – she was released this week to shoot right-handed – but everyone else was restored to playing status over the course of the season.

Two stalwarts have been Meighan Simmons and Bashaara Graves. Simmons has started every game this season. Graves moved into the starting lineup in the second game of the season and never left it.

The team worked on fundamentals this past week because the Lady Vols don't yet have an opponent. The brackets will be announced Monday at 7 p.m. on ESPN, and the players and coaches will gather at the football stadium for the show.

Tennessee hosts the early rounds with play set to begin at the arena at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 23. The Lady Vols should be prepared for any start time as the regular season brought tips from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The Lady Vols' focus will shift to game preparation once the other three teams headed to Knoxville are unveiled. The Lady Vols could be a three seed so the other teams will be seeded No. 6, 11 and 14. If Tennessee is a two seed, they will be No. 7, 10 and 15.

Chattanooga, which earned an automatic bid by winning the Southern Conference tourney, could make the short trip to Knoxville for a rematch.

Tennessee's loss against the Lady Mocs came in the season opener on Nov. 9.

"Big dose of reality right out of the gate," Lockwood said.

The Lady Vols quickly regrouped and beat Georgia Tech on the road less than 48 hours later and won six more games before losing to Baylor in Waco on Dec. 18.

Chattanooga coach Wes Moore, who has been a longtime friend of Pat Summitt and Holly Warlick, spoke to Lockwood about the first game.

"He said, ‘We caught you on the perfect night, the perfect time,' " Lockwood said. "He has been very gracious. He is not at all one to gloat. He said we had a small window and that was the perfect time to play you guys.

"I said, ‘You gave us a dose of what we needed at that time.' "

Chattanooga was a tough opener as the Lady Vols were on the road with a team of neophytes who didn't understand a basic tenet of women's basketball. When opponents see orange, they elevate their play.

Tennessee also had dominated the series and the Lady Mocs weren't physically imposing in terms of size and strength. The Lady Vols were lulled into a false sense of security, and Chattanooga seized the moment and sprung the upset.

"Our kids probably looked down at the other end of the floor and weren't overly impressed but all of a sudden you guys are spacing out and the ball is moving and you're cutting and kids are getting open shots," Lockwood said.

"And our kids are probably scratching their heads and thinking, ‘How on earth is this happening? Because they don't look a whole lot like us, but they are sure getting great shots and great looks.'

"It's like getting beat up in gym class by the kid in the glasses. All of a sudden you get on a wrestling match and that kid has got you in three holds and you are like, ‘What just happened?' And that is what happened.

"Our kids really understood a little more after that that you have to play great team defense. It's not enough to be quicker than someone or be stronger or jump higher. You have to guard actions. You have to move with the ball, and you have to anticipate. Chattanooga was great. That helped us. Perfect game for us."

The situation did repeat itself on Feb. 3 when Tennessee lost to Missouri. The Lady Vols had pounded the Tigers and won by 45 points on Jan. 10, a game in which they had shown they could guard multiple actions.

But they overlooked the Tigers in the rematch, precisely because of that wipeout, in what Lockwood calls a lack of competitive maturity. Veteran teams develop it; young teams absorb tough lessons before they do.

That game was also part of Lockwood's recent chat with Moore.

"I told him this, ‘I thought about our game with you when we were playing Missouri,' " Lockwood said. "Because Missouri is very comparable to Chattanooga in terms of running great motion, and they set back screens and flare screens and multiple action.

"In that game, in fairness to our team, we were very underhanded without Izzy and Cierra had just come back and Kamiko got hurt early in the second half.

"We didn't have a full squad, but they did what we're not good at. They made us guard multiple actions."

Lady Vol fans shouldn't panic and think it's the formula to beat Tennessee in postseason. Teams don't reinvent themselves in March on offense. A team that lands in the Knoxville sub-regional isn't going to spend next week copying the offenses of Chattanooga and Missouri to get ready, unless it's already in the repertoire.

But the bracket could get interesting, depending on who is sent to Thompson-Boling Arena. One projection has Iowa State coming to Knoxville. That is a team that spaces well, cuts, set screens and can hit three-pointers.

So, the Lady Vols used this past week to get better on defense. Next week they will get ready for specific teams.

"We are going to talk about things that we have to become better and better at in order to advance deeper into the tournament," Lockwood said.

The coaches also made sure to give the players some rest. They had three consecutive days off and lighter sessions on the court. Sunday will be used for a team-building session.

"Less is more," Lockwood said. "Recovery and being fresh, as much mentally and physically."

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