There were several good signs during this week of practice, not the least of which was the swishing shots of senior Loree Moore and the smile of junior Tye'sha Fluker. Both players had a lot to endure this season, though Moore's were of the basketball and medical variety, and Fluker's was personal grief.
Fluker had to leave the team Feb. 1 to return to Pasadena, Calif., because her grandmother, Charlotte Creamer, was gravely ill. Fluker was able to spend the evening of Feb. 1 with her grandmother and also the next day. Creamer died later that evening Feb. 2. Fluker was extremely close to her grandmother, who helped raise her, and the death weighed heavily on her heart. She returned to the team for the LSU game on Feb. 10, but needed an adjustment period, both physically and emotionally.
Fluker has been helped this week by a visit from her mother, Renee Creamer, who traveled to Knoxville from California.
"I think she's getting back to herself," Pat Summitt said. "I think with her mom here it's very comforting for her. They're very close. They've had a great relationship throughout the years. I just think that the fact her mom's here, she's excited, no worries, just go and play."
Fluker has had some excellent practices this week with several courtside observers noting that she seemed more like her old self.
"I told her mother she needed to buy a house in Knoxville," Summitt joked.
"She's my best friend in the whole world basically," Fluker said Friday after practice about her mother.
Fluker said the pain of her grandmother's death hasn't eased, but she's able to focus more now on basketball than when she initially came back five weeks ago.
"It's just an everyday process," Fluker said. "Some days are better than others. It's easier to separate it from basketball now. It's not consistently on my mind (on the court), but not a day goes by – not a minute really goes by – that I don't think about it. It's not constant (on the court). It's not as hard, but it's not easy. And I don't think it's ever going to be easy."
Fluker is able to smile more now, no doubt aided by having her mother nearby.
"Just having her here with me when we're both hurting it's not so bad as by ourselves," Fluker said. "We have our good times together. It's been a good thing that she's been here."
Moore is smiling more lately, too. After a year of surgeries, she is finally up to speed. A year ago, Moore tore up her knee and missed half the season. In December of this season she had to have her tonsils removed because of persistent infections. On Jan. 31 her nose was broken during a game, and she landed on the operating table again.
"All these surgeries may be paying off," Summitt said with a smile.
These past two weeks for the first time this season Moore said she felt completely healed and healthy. She missed several weeks after her tonsillectomy and although she didn't miss any time with the broken nose, it was one more surgery to contend with.
But this week she was stroking her shots and on Wednesday she led the team during a conditioning drill.
"Last week I started finally getting back my speed and getting back into the shape that I'm used to," Moore said.
As far as the sprint, Moore said she was motivated by wanting to make time and be done for the day.
"I was getting it over with," Moore said. "That was the last sprint, and I didn't want to run anymore. I said I'm going to bust it and get it out of the way. I've finally got my speed back, and I finally feel good about my conditioning. I feel like I'm back up to 100 percent, and where I need to be as far as what we're facing. I'm glad it came back when it did."
Teams have sometimes sagged off of Moore and dared her to shoot – she is averaging 4.6 points per game – but she wants to be an offensive threat in the postseason and take some of the pressure off of Brittany Jackson, Shyra Ely, Alexis Hornbuckle and Shanna Zolman.
"I think that's big," Moore said. "That's something I focused on because I know a lot of teams played me like that. That's something I still have on my mind plus knowing that I need to step up a little more and add more points to the game and not leave it to Zo and Shyra. And even Alexis is stepping up know. I just feel I need to step up as well and help us so we can have full balance on the floor."
Moore has some additional motivation to playing well in the NCAA Tournament. Her mother, Paulette Marlowe, can't make the trip to Knoxville this weekend from Lakewood, Calif., but she has faith that Tennessee will reach Indianapolis for the Final Four on April 3-5.
"She already got tickets for the Final Four so hopefully I can get there," Moore said.
Moore also knows her time at Thompson-Boling Arena is drawing to a close.
"Actually that has entered my head," Moore said. "This is it, the last two games playing in Thompson-Boling, the memories that I have here, it's coming to an end. This is it. I want to keep it going as the point guard for the team keeping us consistent and keeping us focused on what we need to do."
With only nine scholarship players heading into the postseason – three freshmen and one sophomore are out with knee injuries – Summitt is counting on having balance from the five players on the floor. She also doesn't want a drop-off when reserves, such as Sybil Dosty and Dominique Redding, enter the game.
"Numbers speak to accountability, and they all understand one through nine that their teammates have to depend on their play whether it's starting or coming off the bench," Summitt said. "We were in that situation at the SECs, and I think our bench played well for us. I just think that speaks to the accountability and the commitment to do what the team needs them to do. I just see a difference in their focus. You take Sybil for example. Her maturity in the last month is evident in how she's practicing better. Unfortunately she's been sick and missed some practices. You look at Dominique. She really wants to get it right. You can see that even in our drills."
The play of Moore in shooting drills this week also was worth noting.
"I think the repetition that we've been able to get in in our practices has helped her and her slowing down," Summitt said. "As I told her you're a player that doesn't even have to think about being quick, you've got to think about having the composure and slowing down. She is shooting the ball well. She needs to be aggressive in transition and look to get to the rim more, get to the free throw line more. Keep an aggressive mindset in transition and obviously take what the defense gives her in the half-court game.
"Don't get impatient, but if people aren't going to guard you, once the ball comes back to you, you've got the green light. Be a weapon offensively. We're not going to play four on five. We played three on five last year, two on five sometimes. We're playing five on five. I think that our offense allows us to do that. If you look at all nine players, I think you've got to guard them. Obviously some people let her take shots. She made a couple of big ones."
Summitt also is counting on the play of Fluker in the paint during the postseason. She saw very good signs from her game during the SEC Tournament in Greenville, S.C., earlier this month.
"Oh absolutely. I think she has the ability to be a great go-to player for us and dominate in a lot of ways," Summitt said. "I thought in the SEC Tournament her defensive plays were as big or bigger than her offensive plays. She's playing with a lot more aggressiveness. Good decisions. If you go back to the first of the year she was getting in foul trouble more. Shot selection – putting the ball on the floor all the time – has improved alongside of her defense."
Fluker said the play in the post has been aided by the return of Shyra Ely to the power forward position.
"It's a place where Shyra is comfortable, and she's able to score easier and quicker," Fluker said. "Her presence down there, she's able to give us another threat in the post. Her being in there and being able to finish and score and get easier looks, it helps our team. It's what we need. (Defenders) have to make a choice. If they're going to double Shy, they're going to leave me open. It takes a lot of focus off of certain players at certain times. It's just what's working for us right now."
Ely's shift from the perimeter to the paint also meant freshman Nicky Anosike will start at center, and Fluker will come off of the bench. It's an adjustment that Fluker, like several of her teammates before her, handled well.
"Being supportive – she has that starting role – telling her you start it off, and I'll finish," Fluker said of her role as a reserve. "You do what you can do and I'm coming in and I have your back. We're looking to dominate anybody we play. Come in and be strong and bring that physical play. We've worked so hard for the bodies that we have. That's why we bang in practice so that we can bang in these games. I don't know too many teams that can bang with three post players for 40 minutes. So that's what we have to bring."
Those words are sweet for any coach to hear, because it means her team has bought into the system.
"While we don't place a lot of emphasis on starting or coming off the bench – it's all about team – you know it's important to players," Summitt said. "And when they handle it like this team has – whether it's Tye or whether it's Brittany, whether it's Alexis, Loree, Shanna, they've all gone through that situation – it's really speaks to their focus on the team and their commitment to we want to win. Look at Shyra. They've all been through it. I just think that they're really a very focused group … and doing what's best for the team."
UPON FURTHER REVIEW: Summitt characterized the first three days of practice this week as good, bad and good. After watching Tuesday's practice film, she reassessed.
"We've had some healthy practices," Summitt said referring to the spirit of the sessions and not the health of her players. "I thought before we left here Wednesday we had a really good, intense workout. Monday was good. Tuesday was a waste."
Was it that bad?
"It was in my eyes," Summitt said with a laugh. "I need to quit filming and watching practice. I just go relive it. Why do I do that?"
The effort was there Tuesday evening, but the execution was lacking. There also were a few too many turnovers of the bad pass variety.
"They turned the ball over," Summitt said. "Turnovers drive me crazy at this time of the year."
But Summitt knows she'll never stop watching practice film.
"I see things from people that give me information about watching them and helping them," she said. "They can get one possession better. That may make the difference."
SPRING CLEANING: Thompson-Boling Arena has been spiffed up for the early round games. There is blue carpet spread around the court and into the tunnel areas, the floor in the fans' seating area has been scrubbed, some fresh paint has been applied in places, and the walls have been decorated with basketball banners.
"I like it," Summitt said. "It looks good."
Summitt also likes the timing of the games. Spring break starts Monday, so the team doesn't have to worry about classroom commitments.
"I think it's good for them to be going into this with spring break and not having academics on their mind," Summitt said."
OPEN PRACTICES: Eight teams will open play Sunday in the NCAA tournament at Thompson-Arena. Each team will hold a 50-minute practice Saturday that is open to the public.
The teams and 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.