Lady Vols 'Rehab Row' doing just fine in Indy

INDIANAPOLIS – Tennessee held its public practice Saturday at the RCA Dome, but for four players it meant rehab exercises on the sidelines. <p> They did participate in a team autograph session that saw a line snake around the concourse of the dome. After signing their names to a team poster, the four took the court with their teammates for Tennessee's open practice session. <p>

Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, who is now off of her crutches, and Sidney Spencer had knee surgeries in March after having their seasons cut short by injury. Alex Fuller and Candace Parker had pre-season knee surgeries and were never able to play this year.

While the rest of the Lady Vols got ready for Sunday's game against Michigan State, the four injured players worked with trainers.

Wiley-Gatewood and Spencer did some balancing work and bending exercises to strengthen their knees. Fuller and Parker shot some on one basket and also did some balance work.

Wiley-Gatewood had surgery to debride her patella tendon; Spencer is recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL. Neither is ready for a return to the court anytime soon, but they both say they're doing great.

"Overall I'm right where they want me to be," said Spencer of her rehab. "We're playing great. We're winning and advancing so I'm happy."

Spencer is in good spirits but said the pain post-surgery was considerable. Initially she was still medicated and was "coherent and fine," Spencer said.

"I acted like I didn't have surgery, because I couldn't feel any pain," Spencer said.

Then the pain set in.

"I don't wish it upon anybody, but you do survive and move on and it makes you stronger," Spencer said. "But it was painful. After I left the hospital it was really bad."

Spencer's mother, Janice Spencer, traveled to Knoxville from Hoover, Ala., to help her daughter.

"My mom took care of me," Spencer said.

Spencer is wearing Shanna Zolman's No. 5 practice jersey during the open sessions because Zolman is wearing her No. 1 jersey in tribute to her friend.

"Shanna is doing great," Spencer said.

Wiley-Gatewood recently shed her crutches and is walking without any noticeable limp.

"It was hard," Wiley-Gatewood said of the surgery, which left her fatigued, but "I think I'm going to come back better than what I was."

Wiley-Gatewood pushed through a lot of pain during her initial rehab, but said she focuses on a return to the court, and that keeps her motivated. She was able to play in 15 games this season before being shut down because of persistent pain.

"I can't wait," Wiley-Gatewood said. "We'll get Candace and Alex back and all the players back healthy again."

Spencer, a sophomore, was playing some of her best basketball of the season when she got hurt in practice. Parker and Fuller are redshirt freshmen and will have four years of eligibility remaining. Wiley-Gatewood will be a sophomore next season and will come in with game seasoning after performing well at point guard.

Wiley-Gatewood also was helped by her mother, Denise Gatewood, who traveled by car from California to Knoxville to be with her daughter post-surgery and also will be in Indianapolis.

"I can do a lot of bending," Wiley-Gatewood said. "I just can't run on it yet or jump on it. It's going well."

Fuller expects a complete return to the court within six weeks and should be able to participate in individual workouts before the spring semester ends.

"I'm real excited to get back on the court," Fuller said.

At practice Thursday, Fuller jumped up and hit the backboard.

"It's not that far up," Fuller said. "I can reach the net."

Parker said she's ready to go any day. It seems she is rarely without a basketball in hand or inside Thompson-Boling Arena back home. Parker shoots before practice, during practice and after practice.

"I'm back on the court," Parker said.

Her knee is fine, but she was nursing a sore ankle Saturday after rolling it "a little bit" on Friday," Parker said. "It's fine."

All four players are making good use of their sideline time. Fuller and Parker have watched every practice this season, except for when they are in the weight room for rehab work. The injured players also travel with the team.

"I think anytime players are in practice everyday, and they're watching and hopefully they're listening – I'm sure they tune me out and tune out practice some – it's been real difficult for us to have one thing after another occur, but at the same time I think the maturity that the players have had that have been injured, and they've been on the bench and been very involved, particularly during games they're watching, they're interacting with our team," coach Pat Summitt said. "From that standpoint I think they've helped us. They haven't just been sitting there; they've been involved. As we move forward next year and get them healthy that that could be a plus for our team."

Summitt hasn't allowed herself to think about the what ifs of this season and has gotten her team to the Final Four with only nine scholarship players after starting the year with a roster full of talent. Parker and Wiley-Gatewood were national players of the year. Fuller was a high school All-American and the Gatorade Player of the Year in Tennessee. She will add another dimension to the post game next season as she is an excellent outside shooter and has range behind the arc.

"You try not to go there," Summitt said. "I think if we're healthy we're the deepest team in the country. Right now our depth is good, but it's not where it could have been. You just have to accept what happens, and you have to move on and try to turn a negative into a positive and keep everyone focused and convinced that we can get it done. And right now we have nine players that have to get the job done."

The injured players aren't left out of anything, even cutting down the nets at the SEC Tournament and the regional final win in Philadelphia. If they can't scale the ladder because of crutches, a snippet of net was clipped for them. All except for one player. Parker said she is superstitious about cutting down nets.

"In high school I didn't cut it down until the big one," Parker said. "I think that there's only one net."

That would be the one after the national title game. If Tennessee wins it all in Indianapolis, Parker said she will climb the ladder and claim a piece of net for her own.

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