Lady Vols return to practice Tuesday

The Lady Vols swept the Paradise Jam, took two days off and then returned to the basketball court Tuesday for a spirited late-evening practice to get ready for Texas.

For Tennessee fans, the best part of the holiday event in the Virgin Islands was the fact the team came back undefeated and beat two top teams in the process. For coach Pat Summitt and the coaching staff, the best part was all the film they accrued.

Summitt has viewed all three games – the 83-55 landslide over Michigan State; the 79-65 win over Gonzaga; and the 80-75 survival over Maryland. The tapes exposed a big Tennessee weakness – transition defense – but also showed the team that it can score in bunches when the inside-outside game is working (Michigan State) or struggle offensively when the only option seems to be long jump shots (Maryland).

"We're a team that's learning every game," Summitt said. "Playing against those three teams was very valuable for everyone, coaches included. You come from the tournament with a better awareness of what our strengths are and what our weaknesses are. We have a lot of work to do. Films don't lie."

Tuesday's practice at Thompson-Boling Arena, which didn't end until 10 p.m., featured a lot of drills on defense with the emphasis on stopping the opponent. Midway through practice the team returned to the locker room to watch film and then retook the court. The male practice players offer a stiff test defensively – they are fast and pass well – but Summitt was more or less pleased after practice.

"Oh yeah," Summitt said. "They had two great days off. It was good, really good."

Her extensive film viewing underscored the need to get better defensively, preferably before the Lady Longhorns arrive in Knoxville for a 7 p.m. game Thursday.

"I've watched them all," Summitt said. "Our transition defense has been very poor. We haven't had a sense of urgency to run back on defense and match up and talk. I think it's been a very poor effort, and the team's done a poor job at it. That's why we wanted to work on it here. We're getting ready to get really tested with this team with play on Thursday, the University of Texas. They love to run. We can't be lazy in transition, and we've been lazy. Not getting back, not a sense of urgency. Maryland probably all they had to do was watch film on us and know they can beat us in transition. They took advantage of it."

An opponent's ability to run is aided if the team can win the battle of the boards. In the Paradise Jam, Tennessee was out-rebounded twice – Maryland won 41-32 and Michigan State barely tipped the scale at 41-38. UT prevailed over Gonzaga, 37-34 in the rebound column. But Summitt is used to seeing her teams have a double-digit rebounding edge.

"If you don't control the boards, it's going to happen," Summitt said of transition baskets. "This is one of our weaker rebounding teams. I don't think our posts are rebounding well. I don't think we're rebounding well at all from the three spot."

With Candace Parker lately playing mostly at the four, or power forward spot, Summitt has been using a three-guard starting lineup. Against Maryland, the three spot was filled primarily by Alexis Hornbuckle, Dominique Redding and Sidney Spencer. Summitt also wants more rebounding from either Shanna Zolman or Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood. On too many occasions, they were both getting back on defense instead of having four players to the offensive glass and one back.

"Dom and Sid have got to be better rebounders," Summitt said. "When we play the three-guard lineup, it hurts our rebounding. Alexis has to rebound – she's doing the best job of the guards – but Sa'de has to get involved in the action. She and Shanna invariably are both running back. That's my fault because we haven't done enough repetitive drills like we did tonight."

The Lady Vols return to the practice court Wednesday afternoon to continue game preparation for Texas. On Tuesday, Summitt wasn't sure yet if she would stick with the three-guard lineup against Texas or move Parker to the perimeter and put two posts inside.

"I haven't gotten that far. I've watched two games on them," Summitt said of Texas. "I really just have to look at personnel and see how we want to match up. They push hard. They've beaten us four in a row and invariably it's transition."

Texas also spent the Thanksgiving holidays on the islands. In the Lady Longhorns case it was the Bahamas where they won their division of the Junkanoo Jam by beating South Carolina and George Washington in low-scoring games, 59-55, and 59-54, respectively. So far this season, Texas, 3-1, has cracked 80 once, an 83-33 win over Sam Houston State. Tennessee, 5-0, has cracked 80 three times and 90 once.

So why is Texas struggling at times to score?

"I would say because of their youth," Summitt said. "Why aren't we shooting better? We have experience, but we have some players that are not shooting the ball well."

Zolman, the team's best threat from long distance, shot poorly during the Paradise Jam and at times forced some shots. She was back in form Tuesday, and Summitt said the three games were a good learning experience for the senior guard.

"Yes, I think, overanxious," Summitt said when asked if Zolman forced some of her action. "But that's good for her because she'll learn from that. I think that she understands we need to get more inside touches. Going into the year she probably thought she had to do more than she has to do. She had a great off-season, and there're going to be nights she'll have to do more. In the tournament I thought if we had gotten the ball inside more, we'd have been a lot more productive, and we'd have rebounded better. We discussed it. She knows. She's our leader, and she can really help these young players. Her leadership is, I think, going to have a major impact or her lack of leadership will have a major impact. They look to her; they have so much respect for her. It's typical when you're a senior, and you've played a go-to role that you continue to do so and you may feel like you have to do more. I think she understands she doesn't."

The post play has been uneven over the first five games and was especially lacking in production against Maryland. Summitt said Tennessee has to get the ball inside more if they expect to continue the winning streak. The post feeds also need to be quicker and delivered when the players are closer to the basket. But Maryland's and Michigan State's style of play had a lot to do with that.

"We took them out of their stance some, but we played against physical teams, two of the three were really physical," Summitt said. "I thought they really pushed from behind; they didn't front us, they played behind and pushed us off the block. I think for that reason we weren't as efficient on the low block. We didn't get the ball inside enough. If I'd been a post player, I'd probably been chasing me the guards. I'd have been chasing them down."

The guards got the message, and post feeds were a key part of practice Tuesday. The team also was at full strength Tuesday. Alex Fuller, who has been bothered by a strained hip flexor, practiced the entire time.

"She seems to be moving better today," Summitt said.

SHORTER BENCH: The Maryland game was Tennessee's toughest test to date in the young season, and Summitt responded by tightening her player rotation. Sybil Dosty played fewer minutes than earlier games and Lindsey Moss didn't play at all. Fuller also was limited in that game.

"I shortened the bench. I didn't play Alex or Sybil much, and I didn't put Lindsey in. I went with a veteran group," Summitt said.

ALL-PARADISE TEAM: The omission of Alexis Hornbuckle from the team – Tennessee's representatives were Candace Parker and Shanna Zolman – was baffling. Hornbuckle's play against Maryland was one of the main reasons that Tennessee won the game. She matched Parker in the scoring category with 19 points and also had four steals, two blocks and five rebounds.

"I don't know who selected them," Summitt said. "In my opinion, if I'm voting she's on the team, but that's just part of it."

CAIT McMAHAN: Lady Vol signee Cait McMahan tore her ACL in a high school game over the holiday weekend and is out for the season. McMahan, a 5'5 point guard from Heritage High School in Maryville, will have surgery on her right knee in three weeks.

"I hate for any kid to get hurt, but seniors …. ," Summitt said, her voice trailing off. "Especially at the high school level because you don't redshirt them there."

McMahan should get plenty of moral support from her eventual new teammates. The Lady Vols have several players, including Candace Parker, Alex Fuller, Sybil Dosty and Lindsey Moss, who came back from high school knee injuries to the ACL.

Inside Tennessee Top Stories