Tennessee to hold open practice Saturday

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Lady Vols will hold an open practice at Quicken Loans Arena – or "The Q" as it's called locally – at 1 p.m. Saturday as part of their preparations for play in the Sweet Sixteen. Tennessee's opponent, Rutgers will hold its open session at noon.

Tennessee, 30-4, held two practice sessions at home Wednesday and Thursday – a good portion of which were used to get ready for a pressing and defensive-minded team in Rutgers – before taking off Friday to travel to Cleveland. The Lady Vols and the Scarlet Knights play at noon Sunday (ESPN, Lady Vol Radio Network).

"We're ready, and we're going there to win," coach Pat Summitt said. "I think Rutgers would probably tell you the same thing. It's two great teams, two teams that know how to win and particularly know how to win in postseason. Our goal is to take it one game at a time, and we have tremendous respect obviously for our next opponent, and that's always important."

Thursday's practice was used to run specific drills to get Tennessee ready for the attack of Rutgers, 27-4.

"I think with some of the schemes we're looking at offensively and defensively we think that can help us be more efficient and more effective on the court," Summitt said. "You've just got to make sure that they have clarity and understand what they have to do. I think (Thursday) really allowed us to arrive at that point. They're very comfortable with what we want to do."

The Scarlet Knights are expected to bring full-court pressure to Tennessee with their strong guard play.

Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer lauded the play of senior guard Cappie Pondexter this season and said she was "like a mother hen looking over everything."

Pondexter, who scored 25 points against Tennessee in last year's regional final loss to the Lady Vols in Philadelphia, is "breathing life and confidence into each of the players playing with her," Stringer said. "She's just a complete player."

Tennessee will counter with Shanna Zolman, who was plugged in at point when Alexis Hornbuckle went out Feb. 12 with a broken wrist, and Hornbuckle, who returned March 19 in the first round of the NCAA tourney. Forward Candace Parker also can handle the ball at a guard spot.

"I think Shanna has really stepped up since Alexis went out, really the whole team has taken on a little bit more responsibility for how we handle and get into our offenses and work against the pressure," Summitt said. "It's made us all better and now that we have Shanna and Alexis certainly that's a great benefit for us, because we're better now and she's back. I do think that eliminates some of the problems we had when she first went out."

Hornbuckle missed one practice session this week to recover from a concussion she suffered in Tuesday's second round win over George Washington, but she has been cleared and said she is ready. Despite the still-healing right wrist, Hornbuckle has thrown herself back into game action by hitting the floor whenever necessary.

"I like to scare people, and I make it a little more exciting," said Hornbuckle, who will have a large family contingent from West Virginia at Sunday's game. "No, that's just the type of player I am. I don't think about I just came back from injury so I'm playing a little more cautious, a little more mindful of how I play. That's not how I play. When I hit the court I'm going to play 110 percent so if it calls for my body to be on the ground then that's what's going to happen."

She was happy to get one full day of practice on the floor Thursday.

"We're basically just perfecting certain things and maybe tweaking a little bit but staying with the same system and the same idea," Hornbuckle said.

The regional in Cleveland has been called a Final Four in its own right because of the presence of Tennessee, Rutgers, North Carolina and Purdue.

"We know that going to regionals is kind of like a mini Final Four because there are so many great teams there," said Parker, who stayed after practice Thursday to work on her jumpshot with assistant coaches Nikki Caldwell and Dean Lockwood. "We're confident about how we're playing right now, and I just hope that we bring it when we get to Cleveland. Just trying to stay focused and continue to do what got us here. … I feel we're clicking on all cylinders right now. I think we are able to put the ball in the hoop and we are buying into our system – rebounding and defense. I just think that we are hungry. We are hungry for a national championship."

To have a shot at a national championship in Boston, the Lady Vols first have to survive Cleveland. Ironically Tennessee has been down this path before. In 1998 Tennessee defeated Rutgers, 92-60, in Nashville to set up a regional final with North Carolina, which had beaten Big 10 foe Illinois. The Lady Vols came from behind to beat the Tar Heels, 76-70, and went on to win a national title in Kansas City, Mo.

The players are expecting a battle in Cleveland and would be no matter who was in their bracket.

"I think, no matter who we play, teams in general are going to be fired up to play against us," Zolman said.

The presence of Parker after her two dunks in the first round could provide additional fire, but Stringer already made it clear that her players were mature enough to be impressed by Parker's feats and had no intention of vowing she wouldn't do it against them.

"You know what?" Stringer said. "It's still just two points. We're not focusing on that, like, ‘Whoa, let's not get embarrassed and let her dunk on us.' That's not the issue. We're trying to win a game."

Stringer said a dunk was no different – in terms of points – than a layup or a finger roll.

"The bottom line is that you get it," she said.

Stringer said Rutgers has two players on the roster that have dunked in practice in Essence Carson, a 6'0 guard, and Charese "Tudy" Reed, a 5'11 guard.

"I think more players will be encouraged now that Candace has done her thing," Stringer said. "You've got some serious athletes, and it's good to see for women's basketball."

For her part, Parker was talking about the other end of the floor before she left for Cleveland, and how Tennessee has gotten better.

"I definitely think that we're a whole different team than we were at the beginning of the year," Parker said. "Our defense and rebounding have really improved a lot. I think that's where we're getting to know each other and buying into the system, but it's also knowing that we have to do that to win games. I think definitely we have to play together and be comfortable in our roles on the team."

HOMETOWN GIRL: Friday's Cleveland Plain Dealer listed 16 things for fans to know about the Sweet 16, which included some nuggets of women's basketball history and also things for fans to do while in town. Former Lady Vol Semeka Randall, a native of Cleveland, was called the "LeBron-ness of local hoops" and the article noted her exploits at Trinity High School and Tennessee. Randall is busy this weekend as an assistant coach for Michigan State, which is playing Duke in the Bridgeport, Conn., Regional.


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