Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood was shut down as soon as practice started in mid-October because of a severe case of patellar tendonitis – there were micro-tears in the tendon – that caused considerable pain. She also missed a lot of conditioning work in September because of knee pain. After eight weeks of rest and rehab, she was cleared to come back, a decision that surprised and excited her.
"I'm just trying to get in shape," Wiley-Gatewood said. "My knee is doing well. I ice it everyday, at least three times a day."
"I think practice is affecting her lungs more than her knee," coach Pat Summitt said.
She must survive another practice Saturday and get a final OK from Jenny Moshak, assistant athletics director for sports medicine, before she can officially play. But Summitt did say Wiley-Gatewood would dress out in uniform for the first time this season, and she expects to get the guard some game action.
"I'm not going to play a lot of minutes, but I'm going to try to get the feel for the game," Wiley-Gatewood said.
Tip-off between Tennessee and TCU is set for 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena. The earlier tip time was set to accommodate travel arrangements for the Lady Frogs to return home to Fort Worth, Texas.
"I think she can play some short minutes," Summitt said. "The pace of the game would probably limit her to shorter minutes. But I think she's getting the feel for things."
Wiley-Gatewood, 5'9, is getting some of her stiffest tests in practice. During scrimmages and drills, she is often matched against fellow freshman guard Alexis Hornbuckle, 5'11, of Dunbar, W.Va. The two faced off numerous times in high school – Wiley-Gatewood for Lynwood and Hornbuckle for South Charleston – and are also roommates and close friends off the court.
"It feels good. I played against her in my high school career so much. It was always ‘Alexis vs. Sa'de.' She's very good. That was very competitive," Wiley-Gatewood said of Friday's practice. "She's going to get me better, and hopefully I'll get her better, too."
"Playing against her she's a quick guard, she attacks, she's a smart guard," Hornbuckle said. "So going against her in practice is actually helping me. It's teaching me not to have a lot of fear when I'm playing the point. I feel like I can pressure other guards if I'm able to pressure her. And when Loree comes back pressuring Loree helps my game out a lot."
Hornbuckle is now the starting point guard while senior Loree Moore recovers from a tonsillectomy Dec. 10. Moore sat courtside at practice for a little while Friday. Moore is out for up to a month but could make it back in time for a road game against UConn on Jan. 8. If not, her return would likely be timed with the SEC home opener against Arkansas on Jan. 13.
In her absence, Hornbuckle has scored 32 points in her past two games. Summitt has so much confidence in Hornbuckle that she made sure the ball was in her hands on several key possessions in the second half in the 70-59 win over Louisiana Tech on Wednesday.
"In practice I want the ball," Hornbuckle said. "I feel like I can break any defense down at any given point in time. With that confidence that I have in myself it allows her to have confidence in me. She just trusts me with the ball. At LaTech I got to show her that I deserve that trust."
She will start Sunday against TCU. Stanford comes to town on Dec. 21, and then the team takes a Christmas break followed by three road games against Rutgers, Old Dominion and UConn.
"It's really one game at a time," Hornbuckle said. "I'm just going to take it as it comes. I'm just going to go out there and do what coach asks me to do, and every game is a learning experience. It's just teaching you the game and to mature at the collegiate level."
Hornbuckle will ask Wiley-Gatewood for her assessment of her performance after the game.
"After the game, she'll say, ‘Hey what did you see?' and I'll tell her what she was missing, what she did wrong," Wiley-Gatewood said. "So we do communicate a lot. Hopefully she'll do the same thing when I get on the court."
In Wiley-Gatewood, Summitt has another point guard. Her passes have been pinpoint in practice, and players are learning to be ready.
"My vision was always something I had," Wiley-Gatewood said. "But that's what I got recruited for, passing, great vision and shooting. But I've got to get my shot back."
"I don't know how she gets it through sometimes," said junior guard Shanna Zolman, who noted some players were getting hit in the head and chest because they weren't expecting Wiley-Gatewood to be able to get them the ball. "I don't know how she gets it through the defenders. I don't know how she gets it where she gets it. But as long as it gets there that's all that matters."
It's not just her passes that are turning heads in practice.
"She's got the ability to penetrate a defense, whether it's zone or man," Zolman said. "She's the best I've ever seen out of anybody I've played against. She's able to penetrate; she's able to dish out. She's open on the outside, she can knock down the three. She'll bring a lot to the team."
Wiley-Gatewood stayed behind when the team traveled to Ruston, La., this week so that she could work with Mason. Part of that training included shooting drills with former Lady Vol Nikki McCray, who played from 1991 through 1995.
"I was excited working out with Nikki McCray because she was one of my favorite players," Wiley-Gatewood said. "We did a lot of shooting, conditioning, running, bike, lifting." She also has increased her leg raises from 150 a day with 7.5 pounds to 300 a day with 10 pounds.
As far as getting into basketball shape, Wiley-Gatewood said she needs about two more weeks. She originally thought she wouldn't be cleared to play until the Rutgers game on Dec. 29, so the early release was like a Christmas present. Prior to that, Wiley-Gatewood was afraid she would lose the entire season, because her knee was still hurting in November.
"I was expecting to miss the year," Wiley-Gatewood said.
Wiley-Gatewood has a small knee brace that she can wear if she wants to, Summitt said. Wiley-Gatewood indicated Friday that it caused discomfort to her thigh so she may go without it. During Friday's practice, the brace dangled loose off of her knee and eventually settled around her ankle.
When Moore returns the Lady Vols will be blessed with a bench-full of guards. Wiley-Gatewood said there could be just as much benefit from watching as playing.
"It makes you see what's open," Wiley-Gatewood said. "It's helps sitting on the bench knowing what you can do when you get out there. When I was watching the (DePaul) game Sunday – I was sitting up there where the film room was because I couldn't sit on the bench because of my punishment – I saw so much."
The bird's eye view gave Wiley-Gatewood a good idea of what to look for from the bench in this Sunday's game. (Wiley-Gatewood didn't dress last Sunday because she was suspended for taking an unauthorized trip home for personal reasons earlier in the week.)
It's a given that Wiley-Gatewood and Hornbuckle will be watching, playing and sharing information Sunday. The roommates and friends are just as close off the court as they are competitors on it.
"That girl is so silly," Hornbuckle said. "She's always smiling. You watch her in practice, except when she's tired, she always has a smile on her face, no matter what she's doing, no matter who she's around. It just causes you to be in an up mood."