Pat Summitt pleased with postseason practices

Lady Vols basketball coach Pat Summitt cut practice short Wednesday and told the team to take Thursday off. She wasn't mad; she was pleased. Tennessee will conduct a short practice Friday afternoon and then leave for the state of Virginia to tip off the NCAA tourney.

The team should find out today if 10 players, instead of the usual nine, will be available to play in Norfolk, where Tennessee opens first round play Sunday against Army (noon, ESPN2, Lady Vols Radio Network) at the Ted Constant Convocation Center. Sophomore point guard Alexis Hornbuckle has been out since Feb. 12, when she broke her right wrist while diving out of bounds on a loose-ball play against Vanderbilt. She was expected to be done for the season but has made steady healing progress.

A bone scan was done Wednesday morning, but Hornbuckle's doctor was in surgery all day so she was not able to meet with him for the results. Hornbuckle and Jenny Moshak, the Lady Vols assistant athletics director for sports medicine, will meet today with Dr. Robert Ivy to discuss the scan and the next step. If Hornbuckle is healed she could be cleared to play in the tournament.

"I'm anxious to know," said coach Pat Summitt, echoing the sentiment of Lady Vol fans nationwide. "We're all hopeful, still optimistic that we can have her. She's been in a hard cast in practice and developed her left hand a whole lot better. Maybe this could be a good thing. If the bone is healed we have to be concerned about the stiffness and how mobile she will be with her right hand, but Alexis is really tough. Certainly we're not going to push the issue. She's either ready, or she's not ready.

"But if she is ready, we have some time and if we can possibly get past these two games – it will be a challenge – but if we can do that, then we have ample time to get her a little more mobile. I'm optimistic. I usually am not that way, but I have a lot of confidence in Jenny and the rehab. If she gets the green light Jenny will do her best to get her ready, and Jenny's the best I've ever worked with."

Hornbuckle has practiced with the team for the past two weeks without the use of her right arm. She has participated in pretty much everything but shooting drills. On Wednesday Hornbuckle, who was without a cast since it was cut off for the bone scan, stayed on the sidelines for rehab. If the bone hasn't healed she likely would have to be fitted for another hard cast. If it is healed, she could use a soft temporary cast and play with either a splint or special tape job.

Senior guard Shanna Zolman, who had to take over the point guard duties with help from freshman post player Candace Parker, said she would welcome Hornbuckle back. But she also knows the team has to be prepared to keep playing without her.

"Right now we're looking that hopefully that will be the case that she will be coming back," Zolman said. "But we're looking right now that the team we have is the SEC Tournament champion team, we're playing so well together right now, and we've improved so much. If we have her that'd be tremendous because she will help us down the road, especially with very athletic teams we'll be going against. But if not, we can't hang our heads. We're not going to get our hopes up."

Zolman is experiencing her fourth postseason practice period, and she likes what she has seen from the team.

"We're very, very focused right now," she said. "We've had ups and downs but for the most part the way we've been practicing the last two weeks our preparation has been great. We've been working extremely hard. We're extremely focused, and we're improving. When we look back even on the last part of the regular season, even in the tournament, we've improved so much, not only in our confidence and our execution, but just being able to handle pressure, being able to execute both offensively and defensively. We know what the tournament is like, I know what the tournament is like and definitely know that the coaches know what the tournament is like so having a lot of that experience is going to help us into the tournament."

Summitt was pleased enough with the team's performance – one highlight was Parker's baseline drive and dunk and the team's drill work during last-second game situations – to stop practice in less than two hours. The players lifted weights, conducted some media interviews and then scattered with the directive to enjoy a day off.

Summitt was smiling after practice and had seemingly put behind her the stench of the No. 2 seed in the overall No. 1 seed's bracket despite the team's performance in the conference tournament and its RPI and strength of schedule.

"I think we've accepted the reality of our seed and our bracket, and now it's survive and advance," Summitt said. "They have had great focus in practice. I'm really proud. They've had the leadership, but we really haven't had to have people called out by our leaders because you can tell it's business. I like what I've seen. We'll have (Thursday) off and just have a light workout Friday before we travel, just to go over a few last-minute details, get some shooting in."

Army, 20-10, is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance. Tennessee, 28-4, is 36-0 in the first two rounds of the tourney and has never failed to make the Sweet 16 since the tournament began in 1982. Still, Summitt won't take anything for granted, especially after a season in which her first starting point guard transferred in December and the second one broke her wrist in February.

"I've only watched a little tape on them right now – I'm focused so much on us – but just watching their conference championship they were very disciplined, share the ball very well, play a lot of two-three zone, some man to man, but they play well as a team," Summitt said. "I think they just play well together."

Zolman knows she has a maximum of six games left in her collegiate career, but her focus is both narrow – the next game – and broad – the entire team and its quest for the Final Four in Boston.

"I'm taking this no differently than any other year," Zolman said. "It's not about my career. It's not about me having no time left here at the University of Tennessee. It's more so of not wanting to get out of the tournament early, not wanting to have the disappointment of going home without a ring again. Especially with the disrespect that we've been shown, a lot of the anger that is still in us because of that, that weighs more on our mind more so than anything else and to make sure this team gets to Boston and leaves with a ring so that we can stand up and say through all this adversity this year, through everybody hating against us, hating on us, we're still able to prevail. That's something I want more than anything."

The team has had nearly two weeks off since its last game – the March 5 win over LSU in Little Rock, Arkansas, to win the SEC tournament title – and although the brackets finally revealed an opponent, the players are ready to look at somebody on the court besides each other.

"This time right now and Christmas break are two of the longest breaks that you have in basketball just because obviously you're not playing games, you have Pat's free rein on practice time," Zolman said. "That can be difficult in some instances, but we have been very, very focused, and they have been very good practices. But we're definitely ready to get rolling in the tournament."


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