Lady Vols return to practice tonight

The Lady Vol basketball team will return to the practice court this evening after enjoying a few days off for Christmas. Presumably they got some rest and recharged for the next part of the season. Temple and Notre Dame are looming on the road this week, and conference play starts next week.

The players scattered from east to west for the holidays. Sophomore Alexis Hornbuckle slipped home to West Virginia, while senior Tye'sha Fluker made the cross-country trip to California. Before they left, both players said they were looking forward to the respite.

"It's important for everyone, even my teammates that live close to here that just have a drive home," said Fluker, whose hometown is Pasadena. "I think it's important for everyone to get some time with their families and go back home and be reminded where you came from. We're here with our extended families a whole lot, and you don't have too many opportunities to be with your families. You need every break you can get."

Hornbuckle likely spent part of the break thinking about her new role on the Tennessee team. She becomes the team's starting point guard permanently with the midseason transfer of Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood.

The announcement last week that Wiley-Gatewood was leaving took the team by surprise, but they regrouped the next day to roll past Princeton, 107-39, and go into the break undefeated and ranked No. 1 at 10-0.

After that game, coach Pat Summitt was asked to look ahead with her young team. She cited the emergence of post players Sybil Dosty and Alex Fuller, whose play will complement that of Fluker and Nicky Anosike.

"I think we have the personnel that can get it done," Summitt said. "We're ten deep. I think if our bench people will really focus on daily improvement, and everyone takes that responsibility and accountability (the team will succeed.) This team is young. I'm looking out there (against Princeton) and just thinking, you had Dosty and Fuller doing a great job. Dosty is a sophomore that did not play last year as much as Anosike and Fluker and then Fuller didn't play a game. I thought those two did a great job, but they're young.

"We talked about it on the bench and I said by the time we get finished with our schedule and head into postseason, they'll be a lot more mature, and that they're going to get a lot of good game experiences."

That daily improvement begins tonight when the Lady Vols reconvene on the floor at 7 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Hornbuckle should take the bulk of the practice reps at point guard, but a senior, Shanna Zolman, and a freshman, Lindsey Moss, also will take their turns at running the team. Summitt has said she also might use freshman forward Candace Parker at the point on occasion. But the position now clearly belongs to the West Virginia sophomore.

"I think Alexis thrives on pressure," Summitt said. "I expect that she will continue to run our team, push tempo and be our point of pickup on defense in most games. She needs to really focus on her being able to break down defenses, get to the paint and create for herself as well as her teammates. Rebounding is important as well. I don't want to take her off the boards. In our close games, both against Maryland and Stanford, she was a player that I put at the point position, and she made big plays for us."

It's not just the players who welcomed a break from the court. The coaching staff needed some time away, too. But with the Temple game set for this Wednesday, assistant coach Dean Lockwood – who has the scouting assignment – didn't plan on turning his focus away from basketball for too long.

"We don't have the luxury of as much time as our players have," Lockwood said. "I've got Temple so I'll be doing a lot of Temple videotape from the 21st through the 24th. Everybody needs that (break). I don't care how much you love something. You need that. So if I can have a full day and a half without any basketball-related activity, I'll be such a happy guy. It recharges your batteries. It plugs you back in. You can fill your tank. This time of year no matter what you're involved in I think this time of year is about family and about being thankful for blessings. If you can take a day or two to just step back and slow life down and reflect it's wonderful. Coaches will enjoy our time, too."

So what's the biggest benefit for players?

"Our legs back," Hornbuckle said. "We go hard. We're human. It wears on your body. When people go home, we'll be resting, eating good, that home-cooked meal we've been missing for awhile. I think just getting our bodies back to at least decent so that we come back we come back hard and not relaxed and not laidback. Because Pat will make sure we get our mentality back, our intensity back and quick."

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