Even the bad day – Tuesday – wasn't that bad. The intensity was there, but the execution was lacking at times.
"The season comes down to March for us, the players know that and that will be our focus," Pat Summitt said. "They appear, from their practice mode – though (Tuesday) night I wasn't too happy with our execution, though the intensity was there – the players understand the importance of preparation and keeping that narrow focus. That will be our emphasis."
Oddly enough the word "bad" leads to a question about freshman guard Alexis Hornbuckle, but in a good way.
Hornbuckle has distinguished herself in practice by the way she reacts to a bad play. A missed shot means a relentless approach for the rebound; a turnover means a tenacious attempt to get the ball back.
"I think that's what players do who are competitive and take pride in their performance," Summitt said. "Alexis is very competitive, and she's hard on herself if she makes a mistake. From that standpoint obviously that's something that is very positive about her game. You want to see that in players. A lot of players make mistakes, drop their heads, go to the other end, have another bad possession. But she takes something bad and turns it into something good."
Hornbuckle demonstrated that attitude in practice this week. She explained it after Wednesday's session.
"I don't like turning over the ball," she said. "As a point guard I always want the ball in my hands and I want to take care of it. You're going to have times when you turn it over, you make a bad pass, you miss a shot and to me it's get it back as soon as possible. Nine times out of 10 that's right there in the same place. So I just try to make the play. I just want it back, especially on rebounds.
"The other day I went in and spun, lost the ball, (the practice player) went to pick it up, and I was already on the ground before he could come up with it. All I want is the ball. I just do whatever it takes to get it."
On that particular play, Hornbuckle dove to the floor to get the ball, rotated in one motion to a sitting position and passed it to an open post player for a bucket. Her hustle drew scattered applause from the few practice observers and praise from her coaches.
The three-day stretch of practice made it clear the real post-season – win or go home for good – has arrived. Summitt demanded a lot, offered praise where it was due and put her team through specific and lengthy drills to simulate game situations. At the end of each practice, the players did conditioning sprints. They also had two weight-lifting sessions this week.
Despite a lot of full-court work and an end-of-practice drill Wednesday that consisted of a fast-paced full-court shooting workout, the players made their times during the sprints.
"It's definitely a test just to see where we're at," Hornbuckle said. "We've been up and down three days straight, hard, running at the end of practice. We've got to be ready. We're mentally prepared. The runs we did today just proved it. We have a mission. And nobody's going to fade out; nobody's going to quit on each other. This practice got us prepared for it. We're in good shape. It's a mental thing. You've been going full-court for (nearly) three hours, you go through your shooting drill full court, and you know we've still got to run. You get your mind right."
Getting the players' minds right is key for Summitt, who wants them focused on the next game and not the accompanying hoopla. That is considerable this postseason since Summitt will tie Dean Smith's all-time wins record with her next victory and pass him with her next one. The historic games coincide with the first two rounds of the NCAA tourney. Summitt has 878 wins; the now-retired Smith had 879. Smith passed Adolph Rupp in the NCAA tourney while coaching North Carolina, so Summitt sought his advice on how to handle it with the team.
"I had an opportunity to talk with Coach Smith yesterday, and I knew they were in the tournament when he was going through this," Summitt said. "He said that it was not much of a distraction for his team, and he did not think that much about it until it happened. Maybe when it happens I'll feel differently about it. I think the thing that I'm amazed with is the number of wins for this program, with all the tough schedules we have put together year-in and year-out.
"It's not like we schedule a bunch of patsies. It hasn't been easy, and I never thought I would be coaching this long. Thirty-one years seems like a long time. Maybe when it happens I'll have a different feeling. Right now, I'm feeling that it is March, and we really just have to focus on our opponent and not on any record. It is all about the team at this time."
Summitt also talked Tuesday to Sunday's opposing coach. In this case, that's Kellie Harper, better known to Lady Vol fans as former Tennessee point guard Kellie Jolly. Harper has Western Carolina in the Big Dance in just her first year of coaching the Lady Catamounts.
"I'm proud for Kellie and for her program," Summitt said. "We talked, and I know she'll have her team ready to play. There's no doubt. They're not just coming here to show up. They'll come here eager to prove that they're worthy of being here. At the same time once the game starts we just keep our focus on it's another opponent."
The record is not a topic of conversation between Summitt and the players. When asked about it by the media, the players say they are aware of it, but it's six wins they're seeking, not just two.
"I haven't discussed it with our team; it has not been mentioned once," Summitt said. "The only thing we are talking about is Western Carolina and having a ‘survive and advance' approach to this tournament, taking it one day at a time. I am sure they are aware. For me it is not so much what happens personally, but what happens for this team. Records are made to be broken and I am sure if it happens this year, somebody else will come along and break that record eventually. The season comes down to March for us, the players know that and that will be our focus."
OPEN PRACTICES: Eight teams will open play Sunday in the NCAA tournament at Thompson-Boling Arena. Each team will hold a 50-minute practice Saturday that is open to the public.
The teams and practice times are: Oklahoma, 11 a.m.; Arizona, noon; LSU, 1 p.m.; Stetson, 2 p.m.; New Mexico, 3 p.m.; Purdue, 4 p.m.; Tennessee, 5 p.m.; and Western Carolina, 6 p.m.
Game times Sunday are: Oklahoma vs. Arizona, noon; and LSU vs. Stetson, 2:30 p.m. in the first session. The second game's tip time is an estimate as there are 30 minutes between games. If the first game doesn't end by 2 p.m., the tip time would be a little later. In the second session: New Mexico vs. Purdue, 7 p.m.; and Tennessee vs. Western Carolina, 9:30 p.m.
The four winners on Sunday will play Tuesday at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. with the two winners advancing to different regionals. No. 1 seed Tennessee is assigned to Philadelphia. No. 1 seed LSU is assigned to Chattanooga. Monday's practice sessions are closed to the public.
SPENCER UPDATE: Sidney Spencer was on the sidelines at practice Wednesday for rehab work. She also cheered the on-court action. Summitt said Spencer was a little taken aback by the pain post-surgery, but she is holding her own. When her team held its post-practice huddle, Spencer left the training table on crutches and joined the players and staff.
"She's had a couple of trying days, but that's the rehab," Summitt said. "She came out of surgery (Monday) and was just amazed that she was in such a good frame of mind, so alert, no pain. I think the last two days opened her eyes. This surgery is painful, and the rehab is painful. You have to push through the pain, and you have to listen to the trainer. She will. She'll do a great job, but she's in a lot of pain."
Summitt was asked during her teleconference with the media Wednesday if Tennessee had been particularly hard hit by knee injuries compared to other schools or was just getting more publicity. Two freshmen, Candace Parker and Alex Fuller, never played this season after needing knee surgeries in the preseason. A third freshman, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, missed six weeks because of patellar tendonitis, played in 15 games and then had to be shut down. Her surgery is scheduled for Monday to debride the tendon, a procedure that essentially means clearing out the wear and tear so the tendon can properly heal.
Parker had torn her ACL in high school, but her surgery last fall was to repair the articular cartilage and meniscus. Her ACL is fine. Fuller needed another ACL surgery. Freshman Sybil Dosty also had ACL surgery in high school, but has been OK this season.
"I think we have had more than our fair share and yet at the same time, it seems to be an ongoing concern and issue in the women's game, with the ACL injury in particular," Summitt said. "If you look at the players that we signed, we knew going in that we had three players who had experienced ACL injuries, and the question is, do you avoid recruiting those players? The answer is absolutely not, because it is not a career-ending injury, and in most cases, players come back stronger after having the surgery and going through the rehab. Sa'de was dealing with patella tendonitis and that is a situation that is fixable. Sometimes you can play with it, but she was experiencing too much pain to do so."
Summitt also knows she has a renowned trainer in Jenny Moshak, who is the assistant athletic director for sports medicine at Tennessee. She has been unusually busy this season, both treating and trying to prevent knee injuries.
"Right now what we do is a lot of balancing and work on our starts and stops and trying to teach players how to play the game on balance. It is a balance issue most of the time (that causes the knee injury). Programs throughout the country are working on these techniques; we have for many years. Jenny Moshak, our trainer here, is one of, if not, the top person in the business. When you attend seminars, this is a hot topic for everyone in the field. The strength and conditioning aspect of it is very important as well as doing the types of exercises that I mentioned."