Tennessee stresses defense

The Lady Vols practiced for nearly three hours Saturday in the second session of the young season, and an early emphasis on defense could be a harbinger of what is to come from what is a smaller but vastly quicker team.

Tennessee had its first injury scare when junior college transfer Shannon Bobbitt went down hard on the baseline during a defensive drill.

"I didn't see her go down," coach Pat Summitt said. "I just went down and asked her what happened. She said, ‘I got kneed in my hamstring.' "

Bobbitt got some sideline treatment – she made contact with a male practice – and then popped up and finished out the session.

"We're fine," said Summitt, when asked if the incident rattled her.

Summitt has a reason to be relieved. Although she was down to eight scholarship players Saturday afternoon – senior Sidney Spencer was in Indiana for the wedding of former Lady Vol Shanna Zolman and freshman Nicci Moats was under the weather and sat out – Summitt still has the core of a solid team that is seeking to reassert itself on the national scene.

The Lady Vols preseason ranking has been lower than usual – they are out of the top four, and there are teams ranked ahead of them that they lost to and beat last year – but the players take it as a challenge.

"It's a different position, but it's a great position to be at," junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. "When you're on top, it's hard to fight to stay on top. You've got to fight regardless in the NCAA, but it's a lot harder to get on top and stay on top. I think it really was a reality check for us. We've got to humble ourselves and say, ‘Listen, people don't expect us barely even to make it past the first, second rounds if we get to the postseason.' So we've got to come and play every game like it's our last."

A key to Tennessee's success is the offensive output of Hornbuckle. She is basically regarded as a slasher and creator who can be left open on the perimeter. With that in mind, Hornbuckle spent the summer shooting baskets.

"Her stroke looks so much better," Summitt said. "There is no substitute for getting in the gym and working on your game, and Lex hadn't been devoted to doing that. I told her, ‘You're like a number of other players in the pros. Great athlete and no efficiency offensively. You've got to change that. Nobody can change it for you.' So you've got to credit her. She got in the gym and worked on her game."

Although Tennessee has only had two full practices – the team will gather again Sunday at 2 p.m. at Thompson-Boling Arena – the coaching staff is already drilling defense. Last season the early emphasis was on the offensive end. With a revamped team of quicker players – aided by jucos Bobbitt and Alberta "Bird" Auguste and freshman Cait McMahan – the Lady Vols hope to bring the heat for 94 feet.

"We brought in some key defenders," Summitt said. "If you look at Bird and Bobbitt in particular, their quickness and obviously the two of them and Cait are going to play quality minutes for us."

Summitt said her preseason philosophy is to make sure her team is ready to stop someone. Last year's team got out of the gate early by outscoring their opponents, but the defensive deficiencies were its ultimate undoing. Some of that was beyond the team's control such as the midseason transfer of Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood and the late season injury to Hornbuckle.

"Just to make sure we start early our defense and how we defend screens and just getting them aware we're going to play 94 feet of defense," Summitt said after Saturday's practice about her areas of focus. "We couldn't do that a year ago once we had the transfer situation, and we had Lex hurt. I'm not sure what our defense looked like. I didn't even recognize it at times. And I was over there praying."

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