"Overall very pleased," Summitt said after practice Monday. "We had some breakdowns in our transition defense when we were going into our three-quarter presses – more miscommunication than anything. But we did a lot of good things."
Monday was spent reinforcing those things in a nearly three-hour session at the arena. The team will practice Tuesday afternoon to cover specific game preparation for the Mountaineers, who will be in town Wednesday for a 7 p.m. tipoff.
Summitt and her staff used Monday to work both full-court and half-court on both sides of the ball. The team also got in some extensive shooting work in the paint and on the perimeter.
The schedule this year, though daunting in terms of opponents, hasn't been strenuous in terms of long road trips – last year the team went to the Virgin Islands and then flew across the country to California in the span of a few days before having to fly back to the East Coast for a game – and has allowed a lot more time for practice sessions at home.
"It just worked out this way. I'd like to tell you I'm so smart, but I'm not," a smiling Summitt said of the spacing between games and long distances traveled. "It was crazy (last year). It's (this year's travel itinerary) helped us. It's been significant in the development of our team. I feel like just the quality repetition that we've had for our offense, our defense, our transition – it's been very valuable. It got us ready to play Texas. There's no doubt about it."
Tennessee, 9-1, needed a week of intense practice to right itself – Summitt was dismayed by the poor efforts on the boards in previous games and a tendency to play with finesse instead of power – between the wins over George Washington and Texas.
Texas coach Jody Conradt noted Tennessee's smothering defense and physical play in her post-game remarks.
"If we had played her a week before she would have said I can't believe this is Tennessee," Summitt said.
The Lady Vols got on the glass against the Longhorns, led by Candace Parker with 12; Sidney Spencer and Nicky Anosike, who had eight apiece; and Alex Fuller, who had five. Overall Tennessee grabbed 48 rebounds – they had averaged 36.6 (+5.9) coming into the game and upped that to 37.7 (+7.1) after the game – to 30 for Texas, 7-3.
The players also made the transfer from practice habits to game results and, as Summitt has wanted, took control of the game themselves.
"I think that was obvious throughout the game that they transferred," Summitt said. "We're in control in practice. They're in control in a game. And they took control of their defense and what they wanted to do, they were more physical, they rebounded better – really the three points of emphasis that we had made."
Spencer led the team with 15 points and was hunting shots and putting up points while the rest of the team struggled in the first half.
"We just didn't shoot well that first half," Summitt said. "We missed so many easy shots. We got some really good looks, too."
Summitt had to intentionally slow the pace in the first half – Tennessee looked to score more off of transition in the second half – to try to settle down her team.
"A little bit slower action just because we were trying to get into certain sets to try to calm us down a little bit offensively because I thought we were rushing," Summitt said. "We did call some secondary options and some quick hits. We got good looks. We just weren't knocking shots down. Second half I thought we had some good spurts in transition."
Some of the adjustments made in the Texas game stem from wrinkles in the offense and defense that have been added in practice sessions. But Summitt doesn't just point to practice time for the continued progress of her team – she noted its chemistry and the players' work ethic over the summer.
"I think a couple of things in regard to the development of this team: This team has been a much closer team. I just think the chemistry of this team has been better for whatever reason," Summitt said. "I think the scheduling has in fact allowed us more opportunities to work on our game. I also think that the off-season a lot of players got better. Part of it is our practice time, but look at the people that are significantly better this year as opposed to last year."
Spencer, in particular, stands out. The senior sharpshooter had to replace the long-range prowess of Shanna Zolman, who shattered the school's single-season record for made three-pointers (103) and also claimed the career one (266). The previous records for single season and career were 79 (Kara Lawson, 1999-2000) and 256 (Lawson, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003), respectively.
Spencer made 53 three-pointers last season – good for eighth place on the single-season record list – and entered this season as Tennessee's primary long distance threat. So far she has made 26-41 (63.4 percent) despite the fact defenses are keying on her.
She spent the summer in Knoxville and in the arena with fellow senior Dominique Redding. They worked on footwork, mechanics and release.
"The thing that she did in the summer she got in a lot of shots – repetition, repetition," Summitt said.
Spencer, who has been called "Big Show," focused on getting her shot off quicker, and she added a step-back move to help create space between her and a defender and to give her a change of pace from spot-up shooting.
"Step-back move is good, quicker into her shot," Summitt said.
The early results have been nothing short of staggering, and Spencer leads the nation in three-point field goal percentage. Spencer had a poor shooting game against North Carolina, but she watched the film and realized she was rushing her shots when a moment's pause would have made a difference.
"The only time she rushed her shots I felt like was against North Carolina, and I think they had a lot to do with that," Summitt said. "I told her you've got to practice everyday like you're going against a North Carolina. You've got to get in to your shots quicker; it doesn't matter who the competition is. She's picked it up. She made a couple of really tough shots at Texas."
Against Texas Spencer hit 3-4 from long range and used her step-back move to bury a shot just inside the arc with a Texas defender in her face.
"She's added that to her game," Summitt said of the step-back move that she creates off the dribble. "That's been huge for Sidney's game; that's been huge for our team. It allows us to have so much better spacing offensively when we've got a player like that, because she stretches the defense. I was just thinking about her as a freshman and now looking at her as a senior."
Spencer, who played in the post in high school, has learned to play on the perimeter in college. She has always been a good shooter, but she has also been a reluctant shooter at times. She has fixed that. She also has learned how to position herself on defense and to trust the team's help principles instead of reaching in and fouling. When Summitt told her she needed to rebound for the team to be successful, Spencer stepped up that part of her game, beginning with George Washington and continuing at Texas.
"She's accepted her role bottom line," Summitt said. "I told her you've got to be like Zolman. You've got to come every night and get open and make shots and stretch the defense. I was on her about her boards. She's going to the boards harder than she ever has. She's very coachable.
"And then you look at her defense. She's not going to be the best defender on the team, but right now she's been solid. She's kept people in front of her. Good position. The impact she has had on this team has been tremendous. That's a weapon that really challenges teams defensively."