Lady Vols begin NCAA tourney preparations

The Lady Vols basketball team returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since Tennessee won its second-consecutive SEC Tournament title. The team will practice this week – and get some rest – before finding out Monday who the first-round opponent will be in the NCAA Tournament.

The 2.5-hour practice was upbeat with a lot of full court work on offense and defense. Coach Pat Summitt gave her team Monday and Tuesday off before bringing them back to the practice court. They will practice Thursday evening and Friday afternoon before taking off this weekend. The rest should do the team good.

Senior Shanna Zolman was still hoarse, but said she feels a lot better, and freshman Candace Parker was still under the weather. Other than that the nine-member team emerged unscathed from Little Rock, Arkansas – uninjured and toting home the tournament trophy.

The 10th member, Alexis Hornbuckle, ran an assortment of drills with the team, including some full court work, despite the fiberglass cast on her right arm protecting a broken wrist. Hornbuckle returns to her doctor next Wednesday for another examination, and there remains an outside shot that she could play at some point in the NCAA tourney. On Wednesday, she broke the press one-handed and drove to the basket for a left-handed scoop layup.

"She's hilarious watching her play with one hand, basically how she's still able to handle and rebound," Zolman said. "Hopefully she'll be able to be back for us some time."

Even if she can't Tennessee, 28-4, has to feel good about its chances in the postseason after running a three-game table at the SEC tourney and beating LSU, 63-62, in the championship game.

"My initial thoughts were I am so proud of this team and really excited about how they played in Little Rock," Summitt said. "It was three games in which we were very focused and determined on the defensive end, played well together offensively, got on the boards.

"All the things that I've been moaning and groaning about finally they came out and they just decided, ‘Hey, we're going to do exactly what we need to do. We're going to play defense; we're going to board.' As a result they got great looks offensively for the most part. I thought our execution in tight game situations, late game situations, was as good as it's been."

There was one coaching move in a late-game situation that was a huge gamble. Zolman had just hit a three-pointer that found nothing but net to cut LSU's lead to 62-61, with 37 seconds left. She let go of the long shot well behind the arc but said she had no doubt that it would fall.

"I can always tell when I release my hand. Candace was driving in, they were trying to help off her for some reason," Zolman said with a mischievous grin. "I came up behind her, she was able to kick it out and I just drained it. As soon as it left my hand I knew it was going in. I didn't realize we only had 40-something seconds."

Timeout was called at the 35-second point, and a discussion ensued between Summitt and assistant coach Nikki Caldwell about whether or not to foul LSU immediately when the ball was in-bounded.

"We were in the huddle, and we're coming out of the huddle, and Nikki Caldwell said, ‘Pat, we need to foul,' " Summitt said. "I said, ‘We need to foul?' And she said, ‘Yeah.' And I said, ‘Are you sure?' And she goes, ‘Yeah.' And I looked at Shanna and I said, ‘Shanna, foul.' And Shanna looked at me and then I go, 'No, Shanna, don't foul.' I've got to think about this."

In the meantime the horn was sounding, and Zolman, who had three fouls, was taking the floor. She still needed to know if she was supposed to foul LSU's sophomore point guard, Erica White, who is an 87 percent free throw shooter but who had missed the front end of a one-and-one at the 4:03 mark of the second half. Coaches are loathe to foul in this situation, but LSU, which was up by one, could have run the 30-second shot clock way down before taking a last shot.

"In the huddle Pat was saying not to foul; Caldwell was saying to foul," Zolman said. "And I was thinking foul myself, just being a young player and pressure. We wanted a lot of time to be able to maneuver offensively if she didn't make both of them, just rebound and go with it."

Summitt said she then turned to Caldwell and said, "Why are we doing this?' And so then Nikki told me, ‘We'll get the ball back in time to make a play.' "

"At the last second, I was like, ‘Pat, what do I do?' " Zolman said. "They threw the ball in and (Summitt said), ‘Foul.' "

So Zolman did and only two seconds ran off the clock.

At that point, assistant coach Holly Warlick, who hadn't heard the last-second back and forth among Summitt, Caldwell and Zolman, exploded. "Why did we foul?" Summitt repeated Warlick as asking. "I looked at her and (pointing to Caldwell) said, ‘Because she told me to.' Just real calm. She looked at Nikki, and she goes, ‘We'll get the ball back. We'll have 30 seconds to score.' "

Exactly. And it worked. White missed the front end at the line, and Parker rebounded the ball. She hit a one-handed eight-footer in an isolation play to give Tennessee the lead, 63-62, and the ballgame.

It was a huge decision and a huge shot. Tennessee came home with the trophy, the MVP in Parker and an all-tournament selection in Sidney Spencer, who scored 21 points in the title game.

"It reassures us that they have it in them," Summitt said. "I mean they've got it. It's just a matter of coming together and playing together and committing. That's what they did. They clearly wanted to win that tournament. From the first game I could tell that they were very focused.

"Against Georgia, a team that's exceptionally quick, we handled everything they threw at us. Then to play LSU with their team, their quickness – they're a team that plays in spurts, and I think the one thing that we did a very good job of is we didn't let them get on a roll. We managed to stop that action. That was key for us."

Summitt welcomed the nearly two-week break between the SEC tourney and when her team will play in the NCAA postseason event. The brackets will be unveiled Monday at 7 p.m., and Summitt will host the team at her house for the announcement.

"I've always liked it," Summitt said. "A lot of coaches are like, ‘What do you do in that time?' I think it's where you give them time off, and you bring them back in, and you challenge them, you put in a few new wrinkles if you want, give them more rest time. And then I think they'll be excited come Monday night, because they'll have a clear-cut opponent. They'll be going, ‘OK, this is who we play.' When they know that, then we can start game preparation."

Zolman likes practice following a conference championship.

"The next two weeks of my career here at Tennessee have been made easier because of that win," said Zolman, whose voice was still fading after a weeklong illness. "Anytime that you lose, the next however many practices are going to be pure torture. Knowing we had almost two weeks before we play again … We're in Pat's hands so it was very crucial for us to be able to pull it off."

Fellow senior Tye'sha Fluker said the team heard the doubters who didn't think they could defend the tournament title, but the players didn't listen.

"I think as a team we were excited," Fluker said. "Our minds weren't on what people thought about us. We were celebrating with each other. It didn't matter what people said about us. We knew what we could come in the gym and do. I was just excited for the team that we were able to go in and win in an environment like that."

Fluker, who played 40 minutes in the semifinal win over Georgia and 35 minutes in the final, also welcomed the break.

"It gives us some time to recuperate," she said. "It gives us some time off on our legs. I wish it didn't take so long to find out where you played. I wish they did selections (now), but I don't mind the break in between our tournament and the NCAA because you get enough time to prepare and get your mind right.

"I don't know who's going to name the underdogs, but I'm glad that we're going into this tournament with the win. We went in the SEC Tournament coming off a loss to Florida, and that wasn't good. I think we've bounced back and it's good to be going with the momentum of having such a big victory as we had over LSU. Nobody expected us to win that game so we kind of had nothing to lose. We were the defending champs from last year and even though nobody expected us to win they had to come in there and take it from us. We did a good job of defending what we started last year."

Fluker's minutes logged were rather mind-boggling for one of the bigs. They also were in stark contrast to what she was capable of doing earlier in her career.

"I realized that I hadn't had a sub the whole first half, and I was like, ‘OK, this is different,' " Fluker said of the Georgia game, in which she drew the defensive assignment of Lady Bulldogs go-to player Tasha Humphrey.

At halftime, Jenny Moshak, the head of sports medicine, was waiting. Fluker also credited Heather Mason, who heads the conditioning program.

"Jenny sat me down, I got some Gatorade, I got a Power Bar, made sure I got some calories in me so I could go," Fluker said. "I wasn't tired, and I had to guard Tasha. That's what my team needed me to do so I went in there and did it.

"I'm happy that I'm able to play and not get tired. It's not fun running out there when you can't breathe. Heather has definitely done a good job this year. You just break the game down in four-minute segments. It's not that hard."

Summitt is hoping that Tennessee is one of the four No. 1 seeds. She emphasized again Wednesday that she thinks her team has done enough to deserve the nod. But she also acknowledged that there's not a lot of difference this year between a No. 1 and a No. 2 seed.

"This year it's probably not as big as some other years just because of the parity among the top, I'd say, at least 12 teams," Summitt said. "It's close. But at the same time I do think that we've earned that right with the schedule we've played and the RPI and being able to go down and win that tournament, because the SEC Tournament is as challenging as postseason play.

"It prepares us but it also, to me, should be indicative of where this team is right now for those who are looking at seeding, and I think we deserve a number one seed. Now will we get it? Who knows, but I think we've earned it."

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