Lady Vols earn weekend off, await next foe

The Lady Vols completed three consecutive days of tough practice sessions Friday and will be rewarded with two days off this weekend to rest and study before the NCAA Tournament starts next week. Coach Pat Summitt concluded practice Friday feeling good about what she got out of her basketball team.

"I do," Pat Summitt said. "This is a hard time of the year to practice when you don't have an opponent. You have to just get the practice guys in and work on what you think you need the most work on as a basketball team. Our priorities have obviously been our defense, press offense, free throw shooting – getting in a lot of shots, too – and just execution, getting them up and down. Transition defense is something we've really got to get better at and just make sure we keep our press break sharp and our half-court game sharp, both offensively and defensively. We added a few wrinkles but not many."

That sounds like a lot to work on, and it was. The practice sessions ran 2.5 hours each day – a routine the team hasn't faced since preseason, because the regular season is broken up with game days and lighter practice drills – but the team's focus didn't fade. That's not unusual when it comes to the coaching staff, but this year's team has displayed the same approach to March as Summitt takes.

"I think they, in comparison to last year in postseason practice, this team is practicing a lot better," Summitt said. "Now I don't know if that's good or bad. Last year's team didn't seem to suffer too much. But I like what I'm seeing from them. I think they understand we're going to practice hard, and now they get two days off."

Junior forward Sidney Spencer picked up in practice this week where she left off in Little Rock at the SEC Tournament – draining three-pointers and driving to the basket. She scored 21 points in the 63-62 title game win over LSU and has shown no signs of cooling off.

"I think we brought it at a great point in the season, not peaking too early," Spencer said. "Just coming off the win over LSU we've realized what we've got to do, what it takes to win. I think everyone is on the same page. Shanna and Tye, our leaders, have done a good job of making sure we know before practice: ‘We're coming in to work.' Postseason, your back's against the wall. You lose; you go home. We have that mentality. I think we're peaking at a good time.

"I think this team is so much fun offensively because everyone is a threat. Everyone is looking for a shot. I think we have that kind of confidence in each other, and it goes so much further when you have that confidence, so I think that's a big part of how good we are."

As Spencer talked she was in the Lady Vols training room with senior Tye'sha Fluker, as the players sought treatment and standard rehab care for various post-practice aches and pains. The jokes were continuous – Fluker told the team there would be no days off, only more "work, work, work" – and the camaraderie was apparent.

"We joke around about it every now and then, but I know it's the end, my last time through," Fluker said. "I've been through it three previous years. … I'm excited about what's going to come, but I'm going to miss everything here. I'm going to miss all my teammates, the coaches and everyone I've met through being here. Locker room talk after practice, hanging out, having fun, cracking jokes with them, the relationships and friendships I've made with my teammates."

But both Fluker and senior Shanna Zolman have some unfinished business before they leave Tennessee – a national title.

"It'd be a dream come true," Zolman said. "It's definitely an honor being able to go to the Final Four, and a lot of people don't even get to experience that. Tye and I have been able to experience that every single year we've been here. Shyra (Ely), and Loree (Moore) and Brittany (Jackson) got to experience that all of their four years as well.

"But I don't want to just experience it anymore. That's kind of getting old hat to me now. I want to go to that next level. I want to have a ring. Whether or not we're able to do that, I don't know. I can't foresee into the future. It would definitely be a dream come true to play my last game on a stage where you're going to end with a win. We definitely have the talent; we definitely have the capability to do that. It's just a matter of actually getting there and doing it this time."

This team has found its inside-outside combination with Spencer and Zolman hitting from the perimeter, Candace Parker scoring inside and out and Fluker anchoring the inside. Post player Nicky Anosike, who averages 7.1 points a game, is not as big an offensive presence but she takes away points for the other team with her defense. Zolman said this is the best offensive team in terms of balance that she's played on in her Lady Vol career.

"By far," Zolman said. "It's amazing. You can't guard both. I've never had an offensive team like we have now. Being able to play together as we are, being able to have the camaraderie, the chemistry that we have offensively, I've never experienced that on a Tennessee team. Being able to have the bigs play inside like they are, they're drawing so much attention, and they're attracting so much that it makes my job a heck of a lot easier from the outside because it's a one-on-one situation. If I make a good cut here, the kick-out at the right moment, it's a shot for me. And Candace and Tye and Nicky are doing a very good job from the outside kicking the ball out when they need to."

Spencer's long-range ability has added another weapon to an offensive arsenal that was anchored by Zolman and Parker and is also now being supplemented by Fluker.

"It's huge," Parker said of Spencer's accuracy from behind the arc. "Because you can't collapse in on the bigs. It's kind of like they don't know how to play (us) because they've got to respect the outside shot, but there again you've got to respect the inside game. I think it's huge for us to have inside-outside action, and I think we're doing a great job of that, especially in the SEC Tournament."

Tennessee also appears to have finally worked out a vexing issue – its defense. Even Summitt praised the players' effort after the title game, and she has been upset about the defense since preseason. Part of the reason for the shift in performance was a shift in philosophy. After Tennessee lost its best one-on-one defender, Alexis Hornbuckle, to a broken wrist in mid-February, the Lady Vols had to adjust. The next game was at Georgia against its super-quick guards, and Summitt pulled a shocker by keeping her team in a zone defense for all but the last Georgia possession when the Lady Bulldogs needed a three to tie it. Tennessee went to its man, switched off a screen and stole the ball to seal the 58-55 win.

Tennessee switched up defenses for the rest of the season – a decision that was made easier because of the familiarity with the SEC foes and their strengths and weaknesses. Summitt will keep the same approach in the NCAA tourney.

"It depends on who we're playing and what kind of sets they're running," Summitt said. "I would call it a little more scouting report defense as opposed to going with our man system the whole way. We're looking at our opponent and trying to take away their strengths and be able to play to our strengths."

Once the brackets are announced Monday at 7 p.m., the assistant coaches will track down film, break it down and prepare scouting reports.

"We'll become familiar with our opponent," Summitt said. "Scouting is critical in postseason to know not only teams but tendencies, to be able to take away their strengths. We've relied so much on our scouting and our scouting report defense over the years. I think these players understand that."

The different defensive looks allowed Summitt to not only blend in weaker defenders with stronger ones, but to also make sure everyone was held accountable.

"I think it was a combination (of personnel and performance)," she said. "Obviously we have some players that have been prone to breaking down one on one. I knew we had to become a better support team. Also, I just felt like switching defenses gives teams problems. It gives us problems at times, particularly with switching man and switching changeups.

"We could be in a zone that's chasing cutters; we could be a straight-up matchup zone. The one thing we want to do is force people to have to adjust. It's forced them to communicate. If you don't talk, and you don't check off cutters to let people know you're going with them or you're checking them off, then now you've got confusion and with that comes too many open looks. I think it's amazing that they talk more in their zone than they do in their man. And when they break down it's glaring who's breaking down, so accountability is there as well."

Summitt was happy enough with the effort and accountability to give the team two consecutive days off. She sweetened it by making it a Saturday and Sunday when the players don't have class so they can sleep in.

"I wanted to do it on a weekend," Summitt said. "I told them my only request is stay in town, get your rest, catch up on your studies – we're going to miss classes going on the road – and I trust them to do it."

Needless to say the players were appreciative.

"Sleep and study; it's huge just to have some personal time," Spencer said. "Catch up before we hit the road and get behind again."

"These two days off are huge," Parker said. "I think it gives our bodies a chance to heal. I definitely think that our legs are a little tired, and it gives us a chance to heal both physically and mentally."

In the meantime the coaches will do the same thing the fans and pundits are doing – NCAA bracketology.

"We've got a lot of idle time; we like to speculate," Summitt said. "I have no idea. You think they'll send us to Nashville if they want people in the stands or Chicago. But I don't have a clue."

Chicago would be a draw because of Parker, who is from nearby Naperville, Ill., a suburb of the Windy City.

"There's good and bad in that," Parker said. "I've never played at home before so that's a good point, but you don't want too many distractions. I'm just excited to be in this NCAA Tournament and we'll found out what seed we get and go from there. We're excited to figure out where we're going to be and where we're going to go, who we play."

"We have no idea where we are, what we're doing, where we're getting seeded," Spencer said. "We haven't thought about it. I think we've all been so busy just trying to catch up on everything. What happens happens, so we haven't been trying to predict anything."

Summitt doesn't mind waiting a day for the brackets to separate the women from the men's selection show. She will host the team for dinner at her house before the pairings are announced.

"I'm all about trying to create a bigger window of opportunity for our selection show," Summitt said. "That's what we're trying to do. We'll know. We'll have a much clearer understanding of Monday-Sunday (and whether one day draws more viewers than the other). You've got to try. If you don't try you'll never know. If you try you can learn something one way or the other, good or bad."

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