"Very good. Intensity overall was good," Pat Summitt said Saturday after practice. "We got in a lot of reps, a lot of offensive work, good amount of defensive work. I think our defense has pretty much been ahead of our offense. I think our offense is getting a lot better."
On Thursday before practice assistant coach Dean Lockwood said the three days would be devoted to fundamentals and fine-tuning their offensive and defensive packages. He also was pleased at the end of the three days Saturday.
Eight scholarship players were available for the sessions – freshman center Sybil Dosty missed all three days due to illness – and most importantly, everyone emerged healthy. The practice team provided excellent competition as the regular male players were available and were supplemented by former Lady Vol and WNBA player Kara Lawson.
"Obviously with eight players you get a lot of reps," Lockwood said. "I thought it was very good. We got work against pressure; we did our half-court work. We got some breakdown work where we really got back to doing our fundamentals. I thought each of those areas were very good, and I thought today was probably the best in terms of our whole package came together, and the kids really put the juice to it. I think the energy was good."
Senior guard Loree Moore noted this season the team has had a letdown at practice after taking days off. Not this week. After last Sunday's 67-65 win over LSU to win the SEC tourney, Summitt gave her players three days off with only a weightlifting session Wednesday.
"I think that win motivates us," Moore said. "I think that's why we've been having good practices – three strong days after having three days off. Usually when we have days off we don't come back as intense. Everything is just changing. We've got a better mindset. It's important. We want to continue that on, and we're getting better every single day. We're starting to understand what coach wants on the offensive end and the defensive end. We're starting to really pull together as a team."
Moore, displaying the calmness of her Southern California roots, is excited about watching the announcement of the brackets and isn't sweating anything.
"We feel good about it. I know I do," Moore said. "I'm not too much worried about where we're going to go, the seeds and things like that. I'm really excited to see what happens and where we go."
Her coaches aren't as calm. For Summitt it's a long day of waiting. For Lockwood, it sort of feels like Christmas Eve, but with added anxiety.
"You know there's a box under there with your name on it, but you don't know what's inside," Lockwood said. "You're in this limbo right now of not knowing and who you're playing. Obviously we want to see our first opponent and then we want to take a look at our bracket and go from there."
Summitt's coaching mentor and close friend, Billie Moore, called to see how Summitt was holding up.
"Coach Moore called me this morning and asked me how I was doing," Summitt said. "I said it's the longest day of the year. When I was a kid growing up (a Kentucky and North Carolina fan), it was Christmas Eve. Now as a coach, it's the eve before the brackets come out. It's such an unknown, and you can't predict. I try to stay busy and not think about it. It's a tradition to have the team over and feed them. I'll be in the kitchen a lot."
At least her Lady Vols already know what it's like to win in March after coming home with a championship trophy and a net from the 2005 SEC Women's Basketball Tournament in Greenville, S.C. Tennessee had to hold off Auburn, survive Vandy and come back on LSU to win the tourney. They believe that concentration and desire will cross over into the NCAA Tournament.
"It was so much excitement and knowing that's just a little bit of a taste of knowing what it will be like to win a national championship," said junior Shanna Zolman, who is from Syracuse, Indiana, and savors the thought of playing for an NCAA title in her home state. "I think it's an opportune time that this happened just because of the taste for the team. Just being able to see the team together, being able to see us with the attitude that we have, the mindset, the look in everybody's eyes that we were all ready to play on that one night. And that's what we can do when all of us come to play on a certain night."
Senior Shyra Ely won most valuable player honors after scoring 25 points and hitting the go-ahead layup with 32 seconds left off a Loree Moore feed. The play started with a deflection under LSU's basket by Tye'sha Fluker. Dominique Redding came off the bench to score seven points on 3-3 shooting. Alexis Hornbuckle hit the front end of a one-and-one to push the final margin to 67-65. Despite the breakout game from Ely, the title wouldn't have been possible without a total team effort.
"Absolutely the biggest difference," Zolman said of the team's play as a whole. "I've never been on a team where everybody did their part, everybody was completely focused on the task at hand. Before we had people here and there, but this game I told them from the very get-go, from the first time that we stepped foot on the floor in Greenville, South Carolina, there's something different. We were there for a specific purpose. It was something different. We had that fire in our eyes, that focus. That's what's going to carry over, hopefully, to the NCAA Tournament. … I don't know what it's like not to get to the Final Four. And I don't want to know. That's all we know how to do."
Moore said Ely's performance was both timely and opened a lot of eyes.
"Shyra came through for us," Moore said. "Seeing that made us all get into even more. She showed up, and she did the things that helped us out. I was really excited for her. She was ready that game. She stepped it up big time. We told her you showed us what you can do. Now you've got to stick with it and just keep improving and getting better. I'm very proud of her."
The win was a relief for Moore and her fellow seniors in Ely and Brittany Jackson. It's also an impetus to practice harder, they said.
"Just keep doing what we've been doing," Jackson said. "As seniors we've really stepped up and tried to lead the team. We're playing good right now. I think that's important to go into the tournament feeling good about the way we're playing. We're playing as a team, Tennessee basketball."
"We've just got to get focused and switch gears and get ready for the NCAA Tournament," Ely said. "These days of practice are going to be pretty tough. It's just important that we stay positive and get the job done."
Like Zolman, Ely wants to play for a national title in her home state. For Ely it would also be her hometown since the Final Four is in Indianapolis.
But Tennessee has to first win two games at home in Thompson-Boling Arena on March 20 and 22 – two games that would happen to tie their coach with the legendary Dean Smith in the career win column with 879 and then pass him for all-time wins with 880 – and then head to a regional that should be stocked with talent.
When Smith broke the record of Adolph Rupp (876), whom Summitt tied and passed in Greenville – it also occurred during the NCAA Tournament. For a coach that's tough since the media scrutiny and interview requests spike at a time the coach wants to focus on the team.
"He's a special man and meant a lot to this game," Summitt said of Smith. "I'm definitely going to talk to him this week. He went through this."
Summitt's players are of course aware of the record, but they refuse to dwell on it right now and have made it clear that the goal lies way beyond two wins.
"We're taking it one game at a time," Redding said. "She's going to get it one way or another. It's something that's going to happen if we just go in the game and play hard. I don't think any of us are focused on it. I'm pretty sure she's not either. We're just coming in here to practice every day trying to get better, and when the game comes leave it all out there. Follow our game plan and with that we'll get it."
"It's time for business; time to get back to work," Hornbuckle said. "The NCAAs, everybody's coming with a new attitude. The conference is over. It's time to work. Get your mind ready. We're waiting to see who we play, where we're going to be at. We're ready to do anything. I can tell everybody's fired up. We want two championships. We already got the SEC. Everybody's like, ‘We want the big one.' I can see it as long as everybody's willing to work hard, and we can all stay healthy, we'll be OK."
Tennessee has weathered major blows this season because of injuries. Three of the highly touted freshmen are out – Candace Parker and Alex Fuller took redshirt years after preseason knee surgeries, and Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood played 15 games but now needs knee surgery – and then sophomore Sidney Spencer tore the ACL in her right knee in practice last month. She also is lost for the season and will have knee surgery.
The loss of Spencer meant sophomore Dominique Redding has to assume a larger role in the post-season. She stepped up in the SEC tourney – especially on offense - but Summitt is looking for more consistency on the defensive end, and she wants Redding to rebound.
"She's hit big shots since she got here. It's just a matter of her getting her tempo up and understanding how to play the other aspects of the game," Summitt said. "She's the kind of person who liked to go play H-O-R-S-E all day as opposed to go play pickup. She likes to shoot it, but she's got to learn to do the other things. She's been terrific. I thought she was the real key in our championship game. Those seven points were so timely.
"She needs to bring it every day. I know what she could do, if she was inspired to do it all the time, it would be tremendous. We wouldn't be looking at short minutes; we'd be looking at long minutes. She'd be pulling herself. Will she get there? Maybe not this year, but she should next year. But I think she can play enough quality minutes for us this year to be a difference maker. She's a great kid. I just think she doesn't have consistent work habits. You've got to develop those habits. She's got a great disposition game day."
The message has gotten through to Redding.
"My whole level of intensity has to go up another notch," Redding said. "My whole commitment has to go up another notch. I've got to really commit to defense now. I can't afford to get beat off the dribble, not once. I have to be in a stance."
Summitt's words of praise resonated with her after Redding's performance against LSU in the tournament, but she also knows it raises the bar.
"Whenever you make her proud or she gives you any kind of good report, it makes everybody happy," Redding said. "You've got to know she's not satisfied either. She's always looking for a little bit more."
Redding's teammates recognized her contributions – and like Summitt – they want more of it and know they need it.
"Dom came in ready to play," Zolman said. "She's been practicing very well for us and then in the games she gets and rushes things. That night she played within herself. She got down and played defense. She came up with a huge offensive rebound for us. She came down and hit a three on the left-side corner as well. Those were two huge shots for us. They kept us going, they kept our momentum. Being able to have that production off the bench is so key for us and being able to have every single person on the team produce and be productive in some sort of way. That's what we need from our team. Having three games back-to-back-to-back, everybody's tired, the other team's tired but it's just a matter of who wants it more and having every single person – whoever was playing – being productive, that's what the team's all about. It's not just one person."
Tennessee will need every player to survive March Madness and avoid agony in April, when the Final Four is played April 3 and 5.
Summitt used different guard combinations in Greenville depending on what she needed. At times both three-point sharpshooters – Jackson and Zolman – were in the game. That's a difficult look for the opposing team since neither player can be left alone.
"We can't be players that are easy to guard," Summitt said. "It's their job to set screens, use screens and read to get themselves open. I thought they were (also) better on defense this weekend."
Summitt also can play Moore and Hornbuckle at the same time and either one can run the point position. Hornbuckle came of age in the post-season – and had an excellent three days of practice – after hitting big shots and buckling down on defense.
"Tremendous," Moore said of her protégé's play. "She's big. She's key for us. She's making big plays. She's been stepping up when she needed to. I'm really proud how she's handling herself and how she can take the role of playing the point guard and also playing off wing. It gives us a good changeup. With us both in at the same time, she can run some point, and I go play wing so we can mix it up. They have to guard everybody. I'm just proud of her. Even in practice she's improving every day. I'm excited for her."
Tennessee will need that versatility and performance from both its freshmen and veterans. There are at least a dozen teams with a legitimate shot at the Final Four. The second round games should be the stiffest ever. Regional play will be a dogfight.
"It's up for grabs this year," Redding said of the NCAA title. "That's a compliment to the women's game how everybody's trying to get a piece of it. It's not just one or two teams that are going to be there. Now you know every night you've got to bring it. Whoever makes the most plays at the end of the game wins."
But on Sunday there're are no plays to be made, no strategy to sift through. It's just a matter of sitting and waiting for the brackets. It's the last time anyone will sit still for awhile.
"The factory horn blows, and it doesn't shut down – edit tapes, planning," Lockwood said. "Optimistically thinking should we get past another one, we've got to be prepared for a game or two beyond that. How many people would love to be playing basketball right now? How many teams? How many coaches? How many players? Everybody wants to play in March, and this is what you do this for. I'll sleep when it's all over. Right now we're ready to roll."