"We wanted to make it a little bit uneasy for her," senior guard Shanna Zolman said with a smile that conveyed she was kidding. "It's a tremendous honor not only for her but as a player to play for her. She's an amazing coach, does an amazing job. Anybody with 900 wins that's ridiculous."
Getting No. 901 at the next game vs. Duke won't be easy at all. The Blue Devils are deep and playing on their home floor at Cameron Indoor Stadium. They have scorers at all positions and like to run high-low action and spot-up threes, two areas where Tennessee has been breaking down defensively.
The last two practice sessions Friday and Saturday – the team will take off Sunday and travel to North Carolina – were devoted to game preparation. Tennessee put in its packages Friday and used two hours Saturday to work on defense in some exhaustive full-court action with a speedy male practice team.
"They were good today," Pat Summitt said of her players on defense.
The words may be few but just the fact Summitt thinks they were warranted is a sign that perhaps Tennessee will finally turn the corner on defense. One of the standouts defensively in practice was redshirt freshman Alex Fuller, who struggled in the beginning of the season with a hip injury and now is making the move from playing in the paint to having to guard on the perimeter.
"My hip's good," said Fuller, who wears a protective wrap for precautionary reasons. "I really don't have any problems out of it anymore."
Last August, Fuller was learning Tennessee's systems. She's assimilated that information, but now Fuller is adjusting to her role at small forward instead of power forward.
"I just come to practice every day and work as hard as I can," Fuller said. "I guess my main focus is defense in practice."
The shift means Fuller must develop perimeter skills instead of pivoting in the paint to receive the ball.
"You have to handle the ball on the wing, shoot the three, and I'm used to posting up," Fuller said. "It's coming. I just have to work hard in practice handling the ball."
Against Duke on Monday night (7:30 p.m. ESPN2), Fuller said she's ready to play inside or outside.
"I just go in and play wherever I have to play for the team – where Pat feels she needs me," Fuller said.
To succeed outside Fuller repeated her approach to getting better: "In practice basically. Work harder," she said.
That approach got Summitt's attention on Saturday.
"I think with Alex where she's got to get better is her commitment to defense," Summitt said. "I think Alex can help us but she's never really defended on the perimeter. But today I think she played the best defense since she stepped on the floor for practice. It looked to be much more important today."
Tennessee had to make a significant change in its defense against Vanderbilt. With sophomore guard Alexis Hornbuckle in foul trouble, there wasn't ball pressure on Commodore point guard Dee Davis. So Summitt sent 6'4 center Nicky Anosike to the perimeter in the second half to guard the 5'7 Davis.
"I thought it was key," Summitt said. "If there was one part of our defense that got us going it was the play of Nicky on the ball because they just weren't quite as fluid in their sets. It was hard for Davis to get around Anosike."
When Summitt was asked if Tennessee had ever had a center that could pick up a point guard, she cited the play of former Lady Vol Ashley Robinson, who defended former Stanford standout Nicole Powell on the perimeter.
"We wouldn't necessarily put her on the point guard but put her on a wing player, let her guard outside the paint just because of her size and reach and mobility," Summitt said.
Summitt also said she won't hesitate to deploy Anosike outside again. It had been a backup game plan she hatched when Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood decided to leave the team in December.
"Obviously when our roster went to ten I started thinking about how we were going to make up for the athleticism at the point," Summitt said. "If Lex is out and Shanna comes to that position, how are we going to defend on the wings? I thought, ‘We're going to have to put Anosike on the ball.'
"She's so mobile and can take up so much space. That's kind of been in the back pocket for quite awhile. I thought before that game that if need be that's what we would do. Her stance is so wide and covers so much ground. I do feel that we could benefit by having her on the ball, and she could make a difference for us."
She can, and she did, but Summitt found the defensive lapses bothersome because a lot of the breakdowns were because of the upperclassmen.
"There might have been two good possessions (on defense)," Summitt said of the first half. "We weren't very inspired, and Spencer really hurt us early by not being inspired. Our awareness was very poor of the three-point shooters, our lack of picking up in transition early on threes as well as out of our matchup. We really did not do a very good job the first half. Second half I thought we did a much better job."
Summitt also noted that junior Sidney Spencer came back in the second half and recovered.
"Sid started the game very poorly on defense but then second half got to be a lot better," Summitt said. "This is a bigger adjustment for her, but she does a really good job out of our matchup. It's just a matter of making the commitment every day and just really working on her stance and her footwork."
Summitt did get some excellent play out of junior Dominique Redding against Vanderbilt, which was a far cry from how Redding had played against Mississippi State. Now Redding must keep her play consistent – she also performed well against UConn and Georgia – if she wants to keep her minutes up.
"She's got perimeter skills; she can defend," Summitt said. "She just has to make her up mind that that's a priority that she should have in her game. I'm not real good at coaching effort in a game; I just want to coach the game. What I saw from Dom was exactly what we saw in the Connecticut and Georgia games."
Summitt then explained her coaching philosophy and why she will continue to apply the pressure to a player to be better. She told a story involving a conversation she had with then-assistant coach Nancy Darsch about player Susan Foulds (1979-81) that Summitt was staying on in practice.
"I remember we had a walk-on, Susan Foulds, and Nancy Darsch came up to me at the end of practice and said, ‘You know if you would quit trying to make Foulds an All-American and focus on the people who are going to make a difference we'd be a better team in March,' " Summitt said. "That's so true, but I think in this program – just like I've been on Lindsey (Moss) – you never know when we may have to have Lindsey on the floor in post-season. I don't think I'm going to change. I'm not good at playing games. I'm just pretty straightforward about things. I've been very straightforward with Dom and told her, ‘You're cheating your teammates if you're not playing hard.'
"I'll always feel like I have to bring out the best in every player. And if not we're cheating ourselves; we're cheating the game."
That approach to the game has gotten Summitt into the record books with 900 wins and counting.
"That's going down in history forever," said sophomore center Sybil Dosty. "Just to know you were on the team that's pretty cool."
The hoopla was nothing like last postseason when Summitt hit No. 880 to break the record set by former North Carolina coach Dean Smith. After that game the floor at Thompson-Boling Arena was named for Summitt, and the media coverage before, during and after was extensive.
"I don't think there was a lot said about it (900). The 880 was let's put this thing to rest," said Summitt, because of all the hype the games generated in the buildup to the record. "I didn't really feel a lot until toward the end of the (900) game when all the fans started chanting. Our fans were loud – maybe that's because we were behind all of the first half. They were so loud it's almost felt like a home game at times."
Summitt did receive a lot of acknowledgement from the basketball community on Friday, including well wishes from point guard signee Cait McMahan, who stopped by practice to congratulate her soon-to-be college coach.
"Voice mail has been full – both cell and office," Summitt said. "I've heard from a lot of different people. To have friends in the profession is a good thing. It always means a lot of hear from your colleagues and your close friends."
It meant a lot to the team to play in the game.
"That's definitely tremendous – to win 900 anything," Hornbuckle said. "For her to still keep going and still be on top it's definitely great. It's amazing to be part of a team like that. We can look back, (and) the ten players here can say, ‘I played for Pat Summitt when she got her 900.' That's definitely something to be proud about."
INJURY UPDATE: Freshman guard Lindsey Moss had her nose examined by a specialist Friday after the CT scan and the X-ray gave conflicting results on whether or not her nose had been broken in a collision in the Mississippi State game. The bad news is it was broken; the good news is the nature of the break.
"It's a non-displaced fracture of her nose," said Jenny Moshak, assistant athletics director for sports medicine. "She'll have to wear the splint for one more week and no surgery."
In Saturday's practice, Hornbuckle briefly went to the sideline to have her left thumb taped. She had injured the thumb ligaments in the preseason and wore a cast for several weeks.
"She caught it on a jersey," Moshak said. "She's fine; she just wanted to protect it."