Alex Fuller fills box score in Lady Vol debut

Lady Vol redshirt freshman Alex Fuller waited nearly two years to get back onto the basketball court. The wait was worthwhile – for her, her family and Tennessee fans. She posted a double-double – 18 points, 10 rebounds – in 21 minutes of play and earned something that won't show up in the box score: praise from coach Pat Summitt.

Alex Fuller, a 6'3 forward from Shelbyville, Tenn., missed last season to recover from reconstructive surgery after the anterior cruciate ligament needed to be repaired in her left knee. The injury was diagnosed in the preseason, and she spent her first year on campus as a basketball player watching practice and rehabbing her knee.

On Sunday, she finally suited up in her No. 44 jersey and took the court on "The Summitt" floor in its inaugural season in an exhibition game against Dalhousie University of Nova Scotia, Canada.

"I was really excited," Fuller said Monday after practice. "I hadn't played a game in a year and a half, two years. Just to be able to be on the court with the team – an organized game – it was fun. My knee is fine. I haven't had any trouble at all with it."

The Lady Vols ran away with a 131-40 victory – they shot 69.7 percent for the game while holding Dalhousie to 19.6 percent – and Summitt ended up with plenty of film with which to evaluate the performance.

If there is a given in the Lady Vols program, it's that a freshman won't play defense on par with Summitt's standards. And Fuller didn't. But Summitt did see a lot that she liked – and even more telling – she was pleased with Fuller after Monday's practice.

"She just didn't guard anybody," Summitt said of Fuller's play on defense. "But I had told Alex early in the week don't let your defense keep you off the court. I let her play because I wanted to have some good footage. We got some good footage of her defensive breakdowns. And Alex? She's a smart player. She was so much better today in practice. That's what you want. … She'll be a lot better Thursday.

On Thursday, Tennessee will play Carson-Newman at 7 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena in the second, and final, exhibition game of the season.

On Monday, Summitt watched tape with Fuller. She pointed out deficiencies, and Fuller corrected them in practice.

"I was trying to focus on my defense – maybe a little bit too much – because I was a little rusty," said Fuller of her game focus Sunday. After watching the film, Fuller said Summitt told her to "basically, stay low on defense; stay low the whole time. I'm so used to playing post defense and now I'm stepping out on the perimeter playing defense. These people can step out that I'm guarding so I have to stay low – high hands and quick feet."

Fuller's ability to score is not in question. And her performance against Dalhousie may have introduced her to Lady Vol fans who didn't know her game, but Summitt knew she could fill up a box score. Besides the points and boards, Fuller also tallied three steals and a block.

"Alex is a very efficient offensive player," Summitt said in her post-game press conference after Sunday's game. "She can't continue to allow us to question her defensive play, because we need players like that to play both ends. That's where she's got to get better on defense. From an offensive standpoint there's no question we knew coming out of high school that she's a scorer. She has a scorer's mentality. She's got great composure inside, good shooting touch and range to go with it. That's a great package to have offensively. The defense will come, because she's a worker, and she'll work at it."

She worked at it Monday and, in doing so, earned Summitt's respect.

"You want someone like Alex that sees it on tape, hears what you say and goes out there and corrects it," Summitt said. "She'll be more than adequate on the defensive end."

It's Fuller's attitude that Summitt appreciates, and Fuller had to summon that mindset to survive last season.

"I had to stay as positive as possible just so I wouldn't bring the team aura down," Fuller said. "I had to be positive about the situation and just think about the future."

Fuller's emotional state was helped by her family – parents Debra and Troy Price, sister Aliah, 9, and brother Alandon, 5 – who often traveled last season to Knoxville from Charlotte, N.C., where they moved from Shelbyville to watch Tennessee, even though Fuller couldn't play. They were all in the stands Sunday for her Lady Vol debut.

"They came to games last year. It means a lot, especially because I didn't play last year," Fuller said Monday. "They still came to support the rest of the team. That meant a lot last night, just to know that my family was up in the stands watching, and I was actually on the court this year."

Fuller was part of the much-ballyhooed Super Six recruiting class that included Candace Parker, Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood and Alexis Hornbuckle, but pretty much slipped under the radar in terms of hype and preseason expectations. Since she has practiced with the team this fall, she has earned raves from the coaching staff for her footwork and the ability to get open by sealing off her defender.

"I worked when I was in the eighth grade with my high school team in Shelbyville and so they taught me how to post, how to post correctly and how to move my feet," said Fuller, adding she learned her skills "mainly in high school because we put a lot of emphasis on footwork and in the post and post defense at Shelbyville."

She didn't pay much attention to her accumulating statistics Sunday – "Truthfully I don't think about points. I try to focus on the overall game," she said – but Fuller definitely summoned attention.

"I'd never seen her play," said Dr. Carolyn Savoy, the coach of Dalhousie. "I think she just showed tremendous determination, and it appears to me she wanted to prove that she belonged, and that she could play at this level. She left it on the court. She put it out there. Pat rewards performance. She performed well so I'm sure Pat will remember that and reward that. She gave tremendous effort today."

Summitt watched the game tape before Monday's practice, and it was apparent from both her tone and the tempo of practice. For the first 60 minutes, the only time the players shot the ball was to hit free throws. The rest of the time was devoted to defensive drills and instilling Summitt's principles. Summitt was extremely pleased with the offense, but the defense was in her crosshairs Monday.

"I was happy offensively with our ball movement, our shot selection," Summitt said. "I thought our defense, we were very undisciplined and at times uninspired. There are a number of things we did not do. We did not box out. Everyone decided to go fetch it. The good thing is we could watch tape and use it as a good teaching tool and a reminder of how important the defense is going to be. We're not going to be shooting the ball like that every night; I wish we could, but I think that's unrealistic. We're going to have to find ways to create easy scoring opportunities, let our defense start our offense."

That's the advantage of the exhibition season. Summitt has live action and a game tape. Before practice Monday, the players watched the game. They saw the defensive lapses.

"Absolutely. They saw it. They watched tape. They got their eyes full and their ears full," Summitt said. "Regardless (of the nature of opponent), it's a good lesson. It's a good lesson because I think when things are easy for you on the court, you can get a little complacent. You can get into some real bad habits. I wanted to bring attention to it right away. This team has to take ownership of their defense."

So did the team respond?

"I thought they worked hard," Summitt said. "We still have some players that have to develop better habits defensively. Most of the people we recruit are go-to players; they're not defensive specialists."

She smiled as she talked. She also left no doubt that the players, all of them, would be defensively oriented to complement their offensive talents. It might not be by Thursday, but it will happen.

"I thought offensively it was a very good performance; I thought defensively very poor," Summitt said. "We haven't spent as much time on defense. If you look at that – the amount of time spent – it was probably where it should have been. But we will definitely change our priorities now. Definitely."

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