Coach Pat Summitt was happy to be home, especially after her team emerged from the loss of point guard Alexis Hornbuckle with two road wins. Now the players can sleep in their own beds and not miss any classes before hitting the road again next week for the SEC Tournament in Little Rock, Ark., which begins March 2.
"Oh yes," said Summitt when asked if she was glad to be home. "For a number of reasons – wear and tear of travel on our bodies and being home the week before we have to travel to SEC Tournament play. Give our players a chance to get back in a normal routine and go to Thursday class." The players have missed Thursday classes twice this month because of road games.
Monday's practice was thorough as Tennessee prepared to play two teams that Summitt described as athletic and likely to press. Auburn is also one of the few teams in the country that can match the size of Tennessee's frontline with Keke Carrier, a 6'7 freshman; Marita Payne, a 6'5 senior (101 blocks so far this season, 61 in SEC play); and DeWanna Bonner, a 6'4 freshman.
"It's almost a mirror image of our size and arm span," Summitt said. "Watching them on tape they are long and rangy. It's going to be interesting to see two teams who are very similar match up. They mix up; they set their defenses, mix up full court and half court. They extend their defense quite a bit."
Tennessee spent part of Monday's practice getting ready for different defensive looks.
"I thought we had a good day today," Summitt said. "If we can go against these practice guys and take care of the ball … . We work on it (full court presses), but it's not like it's had to be a priority, but these next two teams they're both pressing teams.
"I thought today was one of our more productive practices in a while. Our intensity level was better."
Fluker will be counted on inside to help counter the size of Auburn. She has moved into the starting lineup and had a good showing Sunday in the 82-65 win over Alabama with 12 points, eight rebounds, two assists and a block.
"We're going to do a good job of preparing for it, just like we did playing against LSU," Fluker said. "They didn't have all the size that Auburn has, but they still had Sylvia (Fowles). She's obviously a great shot-blocker. We had to prepare in how to do certain post moves and shot fakes and going around people. It's just a matter of getting in the gym and working on certain moves to do against shot blockers and stuff like that."
Tennessee also has some shot blockers, though none with the gaudy numbers of Payne. Candace Parker has 62 blocks this season with Nicky Anosike rejecting 33; Fluker, 16; Sybil Dosty, 10; Sidney Spencer, seven; and Alex Fuller, six. Hornbuckle, who is out for the season with a broken wrist, had 13.
Tennessee had eight blocks against Alabama with Parker leading the way with four. Fuller added two, and Dosty and Fluker had one each.
There was one scary moment in practice Monday because the team is so depleted numbers-wise. Fluker re-injured a finger on her left hand and left the court in pain. She was re-taped and returned to practice.
"I keep jamming it – just (apply) some ice and keep on playing," Fluker said.
Summitt's eyes followed Fluker off the court to see where she was hurting.
"I always want to know which hand it is," Summitt said. "I told (the team), ‘She'll be alright. Don't worry. It's her left hand.' That's the first thing I look to see."
Fluker provides a big target and a steady scoring presence in the paint. She is one of the best finishers around the basket among the bigs. Fluker said the key for her is to "have confidence that I can score inside."
"I didn't do a good job last two games of finishing as I had been doing, but I still got some points on the board," Fluker said. "Just try to focus for my team and take the shots that I get outside with them passing the ball in to me or offensive boarding. I made a commitment to my team that I would get eight boards a game. Be more focused on getting rebounds because it's something I did last year easily, and this year they haven't come as easy as they have in previous years. Be more focused and grabbing rebounds."
The one concern after Sunday's game was the free throw shooting. All 10 misses came from the post players. Summitt added a drill Monday in which the entire team runs if someone misses a free throw.
"I think what we're going to have to do from here on out is put a lot of pressure on them in practice," Summitt said. "We started out the year shooting very well, and now we've got three frontline players that are not shooting that well."
"That's mental. Get in here and shoot it. How did Zolman get out of her slump? Shoot it. There's no other cure."
Zolman broke out of her slump in a big way in the past two games. She scored 18 points against Georgia and 28 against Alabama.
"She seems to be settling down offensively I believe because she's running the point," Summitt said.
The commitment to the inside-out game has also helped. The post players getting the ball and scoring means the perimeter will open up as the game unfolds.
"I think when we took our three losses and looked at how our perimeter people were shooting the basketball then all of sudden the bell went off, Summitt said. "We heard the sirens."
"Coach emphasized that before every game, at halftime of every game," Zolman said. "That's our best offense, the most efficient game in and game out. In my opinion, we've got the best post positions in the country – very big, very versatile, very strong. Feeding the ball into them they're going to make it 50, 60 percent of the time. That's pretty efficient in any offense."
Tennessee also has found some answers on defense. They used a zone against Georgia and then mixed the man and zone looks against Alabama.
"We did some good things out of our man early," Summitt said of the Alabama game. "We went to our zone, and we were not as inspired and committed to defending one-on-one and they got inside of our zone, which allowed them to get inside and kick outside. We saw it today (on film before practice). We watched a series of breakdowns out of our zone."
Summitt is sold on the effectiveness of the zone and intends to keep the different looks in Tennessee's arsenal.
"I think because of our size as long as they (opponent) don't break the front line of our defense frequently" the zone works, Summitt said. "Like Candace and Sid, if they can contain that's tough for guards to shoot over the two of them."
Tennessee also has plugged in Zolman at point guard, and she has responded. She got off to a shaky start against the quicksilver Georgia guards, but she settled down and earned the confidence of her coach.
"She was totally exposed in the first half, knocked down, I'm thinking she's being fouled but regardless she's got to stay on her feet because that leaves her in terrible transition defensive position," Summitt said. "But I just thought she continued to grow in that game and get a lot tougher. She took care of the basketball a lot better. She didn't let that break her confidence. That spoke volumes to what she took struggling in the first half into the second half. We had a good halftime. I didn't think anyone was rattled then. I thought everybody knew we were fortunate to be as close as we were. We had so many opportunities. Just take care of the ball. Really pleased with her leadership right now."
SEC HONORS: Shanna Zolman and Candace Parker picked up SEC Player and Freshman of the Week honors, respectively, this week, the third time this season that Tennessee has swept the conference's weekly honors. Zolman and Parker also were picked Dec. 5, and Parker was honored with both designations Jan. 16.
Zolman hit a school-record seven three-pointers against Alabama and tied her career high with 28 points. In the two games last week against Alabama and Georgia, Zolman averaged 23 points, four rebounds, 1.5 assists and two steals.
Parker earned rookie of the week honors for a league-best fifth time this season. In the two games last week she averaged 15.5 points and 11 rebounds. Her four blocks against Alabama put her in fifth place for most blocks in a Tennessee season with 62. The school's leading shot blocker in a single season is Teresa Geter (93) followed by Sheila Frost (78) and Ashley Robinson (70, 63). Tamika Catchings was in fifth place with 61.