Tennessee played back-to-back games at home Nov. 20-21 to start the 2005-06 season and then kicked off its Caribbean to coast-to-coast tour. Three consecutive games were lined up in the Virgin Islands on Nov. 24-26, and then the Lady Vols returned home to play Texas on Dec. 1. The next day they left for California and the continuation of the survival series with Stanford, a 74-67 hard-fought win. The team got home late Monday night and then took to the practice floor early Tuesday morning. From there it was off to class and then an afternoon flight to Washington, D.C. They were to have a nice dinner and then retire to the hotel to rest before Wednedsday's game.
"That's why we came in today just to remind them that we have to get ready to go play," Pat Summitt said after practice ended Tuesday morning. "With this team in particular, they've had a number of days off so we haven't practiced. I just felt we either have to practice tonight or this morning. I thought if we practice this morning now we've got a window there to rest, go to dinner tonight and relax. We tried to move our flight to tomorrow, to give them just a little more time here, be in their own beds, but we couldn't work it out."
The rest days have been necessitated by the schedule and travel. Last week, the team took off two days in an attempt to get the players some rest and save their legs. It worked. The team is 7-0, but Summitt can see the effect of not practicing as much as she'd like.
"I'm pleased with it," Summitt said of the undefeated start. "Not totally surprised because I think that our depth has helped, because we've been able to play people. We had those three back-to-back-to-back games after the two back-to-back. I thought that was the hardest part. Obviously coming back here and playing Texas and then having to hit the road again, but they've handled it pretty well. I think the thing as a coach – it's probably been the biggest thing – is we haven't had any practice time."
Before Summitt can get her players on the practice court, she has to get them ready to play the Colonials of George Washington, a team with athletic posts and perimeter shooters.
George Washington, which plays in the Atlantic 10 Conference, has knocked off Purdue and Villanova and lost to Texas and Virginia. The Colonials played Texas to the wire – the game was tied with five minutes to go – but lost 59-54 in the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas. Their last game was Dec. 1, a 68-60 win over Villanova.
The Colonials are expected to start: Whitney Allen, No. 3, 5'11 junior forward; Kenan Cole, No. 20, 5'10 junior guard/forward; Jessica Simmonds, No. 41, 6'2 senior forward/center; Chantelle John, No. 15, 6'2 freshman forward; and Kimberly Beck, No. 5, 5'8 sophomore guard.
Against Villanova, Sarah-Jo Lawrence, a 5'11 sophomore guard, came off the bench, hit 6-8 shots and finished with 15 points. She had started the first three games of the season and has scored in double figures in all but Texas. Beck poured in a career-high 20 points against Villanova, and Simmonds added 10.
"They like to extend their defense," Summitt said. "Their posts are mobile, athletic and aggressive. Guard play, that's where we have to be concerned about defending on the perimeter and matching the intensity of the posts on the board. They are really aggressive."
Summitt said she plans to stick with her same five – Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, Shanna Zolman and Alexis Hornbuckle on the perimeter, and Candace Parker and Nicky Anosike inside – but she is not happy with the rebounding by the post players, besides Parker, and indicated she plans to use her bench, specifically Sybil Dosty. Summitt was happy with Tye'sha Fluker's play off the bench against Stanford, but she is looking for better board play.
"Tye did some good things in that game," Summitt said. "She's just not a dominant rebounder. We need a rebounder. Just watching and looking at stats, I think Sybil deserves more playing time. I'm disappointed in Nicky, just taking herself out of games with fouls. But she's a sophomore. She's a very intelligent player, and she's got to keep herself on the floor because she could be that other big rebounder. I think Sybil is coming and the fact that I only played three posts in that second half took away some playing time for her, but I told my staff we just have to get her some more minutes."
Freshman Alex Fuller also can help in the paint, but she has been limited by a strained hip flexor suffered in the UTC game and has struggled of late. Summitt didn't use her against Texas – the game was a runaway – but did play her eight minutes against Stanford.
"She hasn't been herself," Summitt said. "She started out obviously playing extremely well, and I think this has set her back a little bit. But time's on our side there. We need to really talk about how much rest (she needs) and how we're going to get her back healthy. She's not as mobile."
Tennessee will have Parker for the game. She injured her left index finger when she deflected a pass Sunday, but X-rays on Tuesday indicated a ligament sprain and not a break. The finger remains swollen – she missed practice for the medical exam and when she returned she iced it on the sideline – but she has been cleared to play and will wear a protective splint. Parker briefly walked through an offensive set at the very end of practice.
"We just added a little wrinkle to our offense – just wanted to make sure she was comfortable with it," Summitt said.
Having Parker comfortable in the offense has been key to the unblemished start. The shooting of Shanna Zolman also has been a big factor. After some poor outings in the Virgin Islands, Zolman got her groove back. She scored 23 points against Texas and joined Parker with 21 against Stanford.
"I'm very pleased," Summitt said. "She plays the game with a lot of intelligence, a lot of poise. I think she was a little overanxious and now she has settled down. I think players at times when they are upperclassmen, particularly seniors, there's a sense of urgency. That can be good, and sometimes it can be detrimental. I think now she's at a good place."
Tennessee needed every point from the pair. The other guards, Hornbuckle and Wiley-Gatewood combined to shoot 4-20, though Hornbuckle had a three-point play in crunch time, and Wiley-Gatewood had five rebounds. For Wiley-Gatewood it was her first game back in California, and she had a lot of friends and family in the seats, including her biological father, Charles Wiley, a man she just got to really know this past summer.
"That was not one of her better games," Summitt said. "Our point guard situation out there with it being really loud, I think she has to learn game management when you're in an environment like that. But that's the first time this year she's really been in that situation. Her dad was there. She had a lot of family and friends there."
The guards' performance earned the pair a seat with Summitt on the team flight Tuesday afternoon so that they could watch film with their coach.
"Now we can watch tape," Summitt said. "We'll be on the road today. I'm going to watch tape with Sa'de and with Lex."
A bright spot of the Stanford game was the play of the bench. With the starters somewhat spent, Summitt turned to her reserves. The handled themselves well, particularly Lindsey Moss. The freshman guard tweaked her right knee in the closing minutes of practice Tuesday, and she was to be iced and reevaluated later.
"They hung in there," Summitt said. "I wasn't looking for them to extend our lead, but if we can maintain … ."
Against George Washington, Summitt has some specific areas she wants addressed before the team takes a break from game action.
"I want to see us continue to improve in our board play and transition defense," Summitt said. "Offensively, getting the ball inside and being a better screening team. We've got brush screens; we don't have solid hard screens. Again, we just need time to work on it, and I think we're going to really have to break that down during our break. Before we come back here in January we need to be fundamentally sound in our execution and right now we're still a work in progress. We're not there yet."
Tennessee will return to Knoxville late Wednesday night after the game. Summitt will give them Thursday off. Practice will resume Friday.
"We've had a lot of days off," Summitt said. "We look like a team that's had a lot of days off. We weren't sharp against Stanford. Stanford obviously is a fine basketball team, but we weren't as sharp as we typically are. What you don't want to do – and that's the one thing with this scheduling that I thought about for the future – is you don't want to put them in a position where they start to cut corners. And I think that's what we're doing, just playing well enough to get by.
"We're not cutting hard, we're not sharp with our passes, we're not setting and using screens, our transition defense – we gave up two layups. And when you're playing an opponent like Stanford and you're playing them at home, you'd better sprint back every time. You always have game slippage. We've had a lot of game slippage."
The team, with its injured fingers, knee history and travel miles, will likely welcome the day off. It might not hurt Summitt either. The coach was limping Tuesday, the result of a sore knee and long flights, which can cause swelling and discomfort.
"I'll be fine," Summitt said with a smile. "I can sit down and coach. I don't have to play."
SEC HONORS: Shanna Zolman was named SEC Player of the Week and Candace Parker picked up Freshman of the Week honors after their performances against Texas and Stanford.
Zolman, who is averaging 16.6 points per game, had career best back-to-back games after shooting 68 percent from the field (17-25) and 77.8 percent from three-point range (7-9). Her five three-pointers against Texas were the second most made in a game in Lady Vol history. She now has 180 career three-pointers; Kara Lawson is the school leader with 256.
Parker also is averaging 16.6 ppg and leads the team in rebounding with 10 boards per game. She had double-doubles in both games (17/14 and 21/12) along with six steals, four blocks and three assists. Through seven games, she has three double-doubles, which puts her in the company of Chamique Holdsclaw, Tiffani Johnson and Mary Ostrowski as the only three freshmen to tally three double-doubles in their first seven games as Lady Vols. Holdsclaw had 16 her freshman year and a program-best 57 for her career. During their time at Tennessee, Johnson had 17 and Ostrowski tallied 35.