Carmichael is a bandbox of a gym that holds 8,010 spectators. The noise inside the antiquated facility can be deafening. Coach Pat Summitt used the PA system at the arena Friday to pipe in crowd noise while the players ran the offenses and called out defenses. They also used Nike basketballs, instead of the usual Baden ones, because North Carolina is a Nike school. The Lady Vols seemed to practice better the louder it got. Summitt would like to see them mimic that Sunday.
"I've done that in the past a few times, probably could count that on one hand," Summitt said of using manufactured crowd sounds at practice.
She wanted the team to be ready to have to talk to each other over the noise, but she also knows four players – point guards Shannon Bobbitt and Cait McMahan and forwards Alberta Auguste and Nicci Moats – "haven't been in that environment," Summitt said.
Summitt was pleased with her team's performance at practice Friday. They clicked on both ends of the floor and communicated with each other. That was in stark contrast to Wednesday when the players seemed to carry over the listless second half of the 71-50 Tuesday night win over Louisiana Tech in Ruston to the next day's practice session.
Bobbitt, who missed the Tuesday game and Wednesday practice to attend to academic priorities, ran the offense Friday, along with McMahan. Summitt left the floor before Wednesday's practice ended because of lack of effort and communication. She had no reason to exit early Friday, as the team bounced back in fine fashion.
We just try to fix it today," McMahan said a few minutes before practice started Friday. "Figure out why she left and then put it in perspective. We did (talk) right after it happened and then today coming into the locker room."
McMahan said the team believed Summitt was trying to send a message that despite the fact Tennessee was undefeated at 6-0, the halfhearted effort in the second half against Louisiana Tech – a game in which the Lady Vols led 42-15 at halftime – would bury them against the Tar Heels.
"That's probably one of the reasons she did do it, big game coming up," McMahan said. "She just wants us to be focused. That's one of the ways she thinks we'll get focused."
It worked. The Lady Vols talked at each position on both ends of the floor and managed to kept Summitt's whistle blowing at a bare minimum.
"We just come in today focused and get done what we need to do today," sophomore forward Alex Fuller said of the team's approach to practice. "We couldn't really do anything about it then (Wednesday), but today we can respond. We can show her that we can come back from something like that."
The players had wanted to continue on alone – without the coaches – on Wednesday but Summitt sent them to the weight room instead.
"We went to go lift," Fuller said. "We talked about it among ourselves in the weight room as we could. We all know that we need to come in here focused and ready to practice and do whatever the coaches ask us to do and work hard."
It's early in the season – a game played on December 3 won't break or make either team taking part – but there are underlying storylines in this game. North Carolina ended Tennessee's season last March – and kept the Lady Vols out of the Final Four – with a 75-63 win in the regional final in Cleveland, Ohio. Tennessee also wants to see how it measures up now – with a revamped backcourt – against a still potent Tar Heel team.
"It's a big game because they beat us last time we played them," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. " It's two very strong teams going at each other. It tells you where you are because they're a veteran team playing at home. We have to have our A game if we're going to win."
Tennessee went through its scouting report work on Friday. The rest will be reinforced on Saturday. Summitt had no reason to show the team the game film from last March. Instead the focus was on what the two teams have accomplished in November.
"No. I wouldn't punish them that way," Summitt said with a smile of the game tape. "I punished myself, but I wasn't going to punish them."
In a game such as this – ESPN will provide the national broadcast at 8 p.m. Sunday – it is the media's tendency to hype it as a big game. In this case, it's not just the press.
"I think it's a big game," Summitt said. "Obviously they're a team that kept us from going to a Final Four, but I think more than anything it's about this team and what this team wants to do. We're just a different team. I'm very anxious to go into this game and learn."
North Carolina and Tennessee have played in the past, and UT leads the series 12-2. North Carolina won last March but other than that the Tar Heels' only win was in 1986. Coach Sylvia Hatchell, a former graduate assistant under Summitt in 1974-75, had opted not to continue the regular season series in the 1990s but approached Summitt about it in 2005 after the Tar Heels had established themselves as a national power.
Summitt, who has a national reputation of not ducking any team, agreed to restart the home-and-home series of natural state border rivals.
On Friday Summitt cited the learning opportunity for her team as a good reason to take on the Tar Heels.
"That's one reason when Sylvia mentioned playing I thought it'd probably be – first of all it's a great matchup between two great teams, two great programs – preparation and a learning opportunity when you play a team that is one of the quickest and most athletic teams in the country, that's skilled," Summitt said. "They disrupt people. All the more reason why to play them – see what we learn."