Lady Vols wrap up week of tough practices

After five days of practice Pat Summitt's message of physical play has gotten through to her team. She was pleased with the response, and the players clearly understand what is expected. With the class work put into place, the test will come Sunday against Texas.

When asked about the last week of practice, junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle shook her head and said, "Man, she's come out here and she's definitely letting us know what level she wants us at. I think it's important for us to carry that over, because if not we're going to go in and still be the same ‘physical for five minutes and soft for two minutes.' She told us for two and an half hours of practice you've got to be physical. That way forty minutes in a game is nothing."

Thursday's practice lasted more than two hours and reiterated what Pat Summitt has reinforced all week: A team of physically strong players must show it on the court.

"She wants us to be more aggressive, more physical and everything like that," Hornbuckle said. "Because, I mean, we have to be. Otherwise you can't be known as a soft team. People are going to take advantage of that. She harps on that every day – more physical, tougher defense and give more energy."

The team was finally at full strength Thursday during a week in which academic commitments - it was exam week - cut into a few players' practice time. Freshman forward Nicci Moats returned after tweaking her knee earlier in the week, and Hornbuckle was back after missing a day due to illness.

It is not unusual for something to happen during the season that shifts the tone of practice. Last season it didn't happen until January when Tennessee lost back-to-back games to Duke and Kentucky. The season before that the team's temperature was taken in December after Tennessee lost at home to Duke and barely beat Stanford.

"It kind of took me back to my freshman year," Hornbuckle said of this past week of practice. "You've got to appreciate practices like that. You've got to appreciate the fact that coach sees what we could be, and she pushes us to get to that level."

The last five days keyed on three major areas: "Transition defense, boxing out and efficiency on the offensive end. We've put a lot of emphasis on that," Summitt said.

And to the team's credit, they responded. The tone was set in last Friday's practice after the win over George Washington – the game film of which Summitt said disgusted her because of lapses in play – and didn't let up. The team gets the day off this Friday to recuperate and then will travel to Texas on Saturday – and get in some court time later that day – for Sunday's matchup with the Longhorns.

"Well, I feel better," Summitt said after practice Thursday. "I'm just not sure how they're going to respond (in a game). They responded well in practice – good leadership, good energy, they were vocal, they were focused. From that standpoint I think they had a challenge in front of them, and I thought they met the challenge very well."

But the proof comes Sunday when the team must transfer practice performance to game ownership, and the players won't have the benefit of Summitt and the coaching staff walking the sidelines and stopping action whenever necessary.

"I can stop practice," Summitt said. "I've got a whistle. Come game time, I can't stop it. I've got five timeouts. That's it, and I have to use those wisely. I can't blow the whistle when somebody doesn't go to the offensive boards. I can blow a gasket, but I can't blow a whistle."

Hornbuckle indicated the team is ready and knows exactly what to do.

"She's on the warpath, but she knows that we can handle it, and she knows that that drives us to get better," Hornbuckle said. "Because when we play better, when we play hard, when we play well together there's not too much for the coach to complain about."

Friday will be a complete day off for the team because exams are now finished, and Christmas break has started for the students.

"It is a relief," Hornbuckle said. "School takes it toll but basketball does, too. Now you have a little more rest time after practice. You don't have to worry about rushing to tutors, class meetings, classes. I think it helps you because now you're just focusing on: What did I go over in practice, go back and watch tape and now I have time to rest my body a little more. Even though you're still playing the tough games now you can go in there and just relax."

Hornbuckle said she likes the Lady Vols' schedule, even though it means a table full of ranked teams and not a feast on cupcakes.

"I like it because as a player it's so hard to get up for the quote, unquote, cupcake games," she said. "You like the challenge that's presented to you individually and collectively as a team.

"Another thing, I feel like going through a schedule like this it puts us at a slightly better advantage going into the postseason because we've played the majority of the top teams. Now it's just a matter of refocusing and reevaluating why we might have lost to that team or why that game was close or what we could have done better to increase the lead. So I think it helps us."

PUP UPDATE: Everything is falling into place for Sally Sue Summitt, too. The yellow Lab had seven puppies Monday, and her offspring are settling into their world, albeit with eyes still closed.

"They're great," Pat Summitt said. " It's interesting. When they go for their feeding, the three males go to the end and the four females go up front. They line up. Two of the yellow ones – I was telling Holly (Warlick) – they are always together, but they can't see. If you see one going to nurse the other one goes right there."

Sally Sue, a first-time mother, is also doing well.

"She's a great mother," said Summitt, who has a 16-year-old son. "How these dogs have all these instincts and know exactly what to do is amazing. They're a lot smarter than I was. I had to call my mother and ask her what to do."

All of the puppies are spoken for, but one will stay with Sally Sue and remain in the Summitt household.

"Absolutely," said Summitt, who already has her eye on one of the females. "It's Tyler's choice … but the firstborn she's more of a golden. I called her Sadie."

Sounds like Sadie, who like all fine Southern dogs will eventually be given a middle name, could be the newest member of the family.

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