InsideTennessee reporter's notebook

The Lady Vols will meet with the media and practice Friday as part of the preparations for the NCAA tourney. Go inside with InsideTennessee for a reporter's postseason notebook.

Tennessee (24-7) opens the NCAA Tournament at home on Saturday against Oral Roberts (18-12) at 1:30 p.m. (TV: ESPN2).

The other two teams in the Knoxville sub-regional, Creighton (24-7) and Syracuse (24-7), get the event started with an 11:20 a.m. tipoff.

The Lady Vol tip times this season have ranged from 11:30 a.m. to 9:05 p.m., so they would have been prepared for the early start, but assistant coach Dean Lockwood said the later time was preferable for this squad.

Tennessee tipped off early at Florida and needed overtime to tame the Gators.

"Honestly, I think we like the 1:30 with our team. We'll play whenever, but I think that's a little bit better," Lockwood said.

SENIOR STAND: Taber Spani has a tremendous sense of what each game means right now – every tip could be her last.

With that in mind the senior from Lee's Summit, Mo., spoke from the heart when talking to teammates last week.

"You only get to do this a certain amount of time," Spani said. "The hunger and the passion that I have to get to this team to a Final Four and to cement and solidify that transition from Pat (Summitt) to Holly (Warlick) and hopefully restore Tennessee to where we want to be, I think that is weighing a lot. And not in a bad way.

"It is at the very forefront of my mind. That's what I want to focus on. I want to take advantage of every moment to do that."

Fellow senior Kamiko Williams isn't the type to consider the big picture while she is still painting it. But Williams understands Spani's point of view.

"This is our last go-around," Williams said. "We don't want it to end. This is the freshmen's first time, and we don't want them to experience what we experienced our freshman year. You want to play all six games.

"People don't think we can do it, but we're here."

The pressure is not on Tennessee, except at home. The Lady Vols have never lost an NCAA tourney game in Knoxville. If they can safely get out of town to Oklahoma City, the expectations cease, and the pressure gauge releases.

"It is really not," Williams said. "We just have to take it a game at a time. Keep these babies focused."

"You have to have fun and understand that anything can happen," Spani said. "It is 40 minutes … ."

" .. there are so many upsets. It's March," said Williams, as the seniors, once again, finished each other's sentences.

"You can't even look too far ahead," Spani said. "Because you never know what is going to happen in those other brackets. They still have to take care of business. And we have to take care of, most importantly, our business."

Williams interjected, "If we can just keep the focus on us rather than what everybody else is doing, who won, who lost … "

"Right, exactly," Spani said.

"We'll be fine," Williams concluded.

Williams also knows that if Spani is scorching hot from the field as she was in Duluth, Ga., when she went 11-13 from the field but barely got the ball in the final 14 minutes, she will see to it that her fellow senior gets shots.

"Most definitely," Williams said. "I kept telling everybody to pass her the ball."

Sophomore Ariel Massengale is of the same mind-set.

"Most definitely," Massengale said, using the same words as Williams. "She was unconscious. A player like that you definitely had to ride them until the end.

"Hopefully she can keep that going once we start the NCAA Tournament, and the rest of us will be able to step up and help her out."

WHISTLE BLOWS: Tennessee had players in foul trouble in Duluth, but the coaches can accept it, to a point, given the defense being taught.

"It's going to happen. We accept it because of how we play," Dean Lockwood said. "We are playing a pretty aggressive style defensively so we don't dwell on that.

"What we really look at is the kind of fouls you get. If you get an over-the-back call or if you go in and try to drive and get a charge, those are aggressive fouls. We don't really say a whole lot about those, but the dumb fouls, 45 feet away from the basket trying to reach and swipe the ball and you foul somebody … we've got to play smart basketball. Eliminate the needless fouls and the silly fouls."

Tennessee had a couple of over-the-back calls that may have fallen in that category.

"You pick your spots," Lockwood said. "We don't mind an occasional over the back. That's going for the ball. We can live with it. But if three of yours are like that, we'll show that and say, ‘Hey, you had no shot at that ball. Let that one go.'

"You are going to foul if you are an aggressive defensive team, but you can eliminate being in excessive foul trouble by being smart and being in position. We have to be in good position."

IZZY READY: Isabelle Harrison has dealt with her share of injury frustration this season.

She got over a meniscus tear in her left knee, just to injure the MCL in her right one after an awkward fall. She was nearly back from that mishap when a teammate collided with her at practice the day before the SEC tourney and it aggravated the bone bruise in her right knee.

"I am feeling great," Harrison said. "I am not back at 100 percent, but it is pretty close. I am excited. My energy and excitement surpasses the pain, if anything. I am really progressing well."

Dean Lockwood was thrilled to see her on the practice court.

"Yes," said Lockwood, who noted Harrison was doing well in terms of "movement, freedom of movement, fluidity. … She is a lot closer to 100 percent than she was last week."

POST FATIGUE: In the locker room in Duluth, Ga., freshman Bashaara Graves leaned against the wall and stared into the middle distance.

It wasn't just the loss to Texas A&M in the semifinal that affected the newcomer. Graves was exhausted. She had logged extended minutes as a freshman, even more so to end the season without help from the injured Isabelle Harrison.

"Our freshmen have never been this long in a season," Dean Lockwood said.

High school workouts start later, and the season ends sooner. State titles for high schoolers have already been decided. At this time a year ago, Graves was done with basketball and finishing her senior year before reporting to USA basketball in the summer.

"The rest has helped her," Lockwood said. "As deep as her teams have gone in the state tournament she has never played basketball for this extended time. We were in workouts in August, third week of August, we were in workouts right here, to the (third) week of March."

With that in mind, the coaches eased up last week with built-in days of rest. Practice resumed this week with a day off Wednesday. Spring break is next week so the players won't have to go to class.

"One of the things is keeping them mentally fresh," Lockwood said. "I really think that kid will have a refreshed, renewed outlook."

Graves was the SEC freshman of the year and held up well, especially considering she plays inside and absorbs a pounding every single game. When inside-out player Cierra Burdick noted via social media that her shoulders hurt after a recent game, Graves replied it was because she played in the paint, and defenders were hanging on her.

Help is on the way in 6-6 center Mercedes Russell, an All-American who was just named Gatorade Player of the Year. Russell will arrive in June for summer school. Tennessee has plenty of basketball to play right now, but it's hard for the staff not to think about the incoming class, especially the size of Russell.

"I think about that," said Lockwood, who coaches the post players. "I am not going to lie. Yes, I do. I think about that. I am very excited about it."

A frontline of Russell, Graves and Harrison is imposing because of the skill set and athleticism. The coaches intend to deploy all three in an up-tempo attack. That means Graves won't stagger to the finish line, as her minutes can come down as a sophomore.

"Those three being healthy, all three will be the better for that," Lockwood said. "The minutes they get, they can be quality minutes. We bleed into non-productivity at times. Sometimes we have to do it."

Add Burdick to the mix, too, a versatile player with a midrange game who will also post up and crash the boards.

"They can be highly productive minutes," Lockwood said. "They are going to be better for it and the team is going to be better for it. You're not going to have resting possessions."


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