Lady Vols close out 2006 with crisp practice

Sunday's practice session was one of the shortest of the season; it was also one of the sharpest as the Lady Vols looked to close out the last day of 2006 and get ready to open SEC play and then square off against one of its biggest rivals in 2007.

"It was good. It was intense," coach Pat Summitt said after the session concluded in less than 90 minutes.

So what was the difference? A carryover from the dominating second half of the 78-54 win on Sunday over Notre Dame? Finally shaking off the effects of a holiday break?

"I think knowing we've got two games this week that are very important," Summitt said. "We open up the SEC, and we're on the road at Connecticut. I think they understand the importance of preparation."

SEC play starts Wednesday evening (7 p.m. CSS) when Alabama comes to Knoxville. An out of conference game with archrival Connecticut is Saturday afternoon (4 p.m., CBS) in Hartford.

Summitt has to feel a little bit better about going into the games this week after watching how her team responded in the second half against the Fighting Irish. In the first half the Lady Vols approached Notre Dame's pressure tentatively.

After halftime they attacked it. The result was 49 second-half points to 29 in the first 20 minutes. When the Fighting Irish had the ball, the Lady Vols attacked them, too. They accumulated 16 steals - six in the first, 10 in the second - and shared the ball when they got it. Tennessee had five assists at halftime. The Lady Vols ended the game with 17.

"I thought we just put on the brakes against their half-court trap," Summitt said Sunday after she had watched the tape of the game. "Once we got out of being more patient and turned that into being more aggressive then we managed to get inside and get past them. And Notre Dame played well the first half. I thought the second half was a big difference in our intensity."

Senior forward Sidney Spencer, who had five points at halftime and added 12 more in the second half, said the team basically thought too much in the first half instead of just reacting and playing.

"I think we responded well at halftime to what coach was asking us to do, and she definitely wanted us to get on the boards and just start everything off of our transition defense and our pressing," Spencer said. "That 1-3-1 (zone defense that Notre Dame deployed), it's similar to just running in transition. I think we were too caught up about running plays instead of just playing and playing our game, which is lots of transition."

Spencer's fellow senior, forward Dominique Redding, took advantage of her minutes in the game – four points, three rebounds, an assist and no turnovers – and on Sunday Summitt complimented Redding for how she responded to a mistake.

"She did well," Summitt said. "She goes in. She gets beat on a back-door cut, and I'm about ready to pull my hair out. Once I got on to her the important thing is how she responded. I pointed that out, and I thought her energy level went up. There are times when she may appear to be deflated. The mental part of her game is what's got to get a lot stronger and tougher."

Tennessee is down to nine scholarship players – with the spring semester not started yet freshman forward Nicci Moats, who is away from the team for personal reasons, has returned home with her family to Virginia – so contributions from Redding are vital.

"Absolutely," Summitt said.

The team will return to practice Monday afternoon after watching the UT men's football game on television (11 a.m. kickoff) in the Outback Bowl vs. Penn State in Tampa. Summitt intends to hold another short practice session to keep her team sharp but with fresh legs for the games this week.

Part of the reason for the team's sharp play in practice has been the development of junior Shannon Bobbitt at point guard. She responded to Summitt's criticism at halftime against Notre Dame and helped to guide the team in the transition attack and stepped up her defense considerably.

She can be the focal point of Summitt's attention in practice because she is the floor leader – freshman point guard Cait McMahan is under scrutiny for the same reason – and the instruction is received by Bobbitt with nods, vocal acknowledgements of "I've got you coach," and then execution on the court.

"I know she's trying to help me, and I know I'm doing something wrong," Bobbitt said. "If I take it in a negative way then something's wrong. I take it in a positive way. She's trying to teach me, and she knows my abilities so I listen to her and learn. It's all a part of learning."

From Summitt's vantage point Bobbitt's play will set the tone for how a game unfolds.

"I think it gives everyone else confidence," Summitt said. "Basically she drives the car. She's driving our offense. She's pushing the tempo. She's calling it. She's the one that has to be on all the time. She's got to be a better playmaker in the late seconds. She has to be a playmaker – either making a play for herself or obviously if she gets double teamed or in a tight situation making sure she makes a play for her teammate."

Bobbitt scored a career high of 17 points Saturday – she hit five three-pointers – and also added two assists, two rebounds and a steal.

"She's so creative; she's got to have that mindset (of shooting open looks)," Summitt said. "Sometimes point guards get into passing, passing, passing. We need a scoring point guard as well."

On Saturday, Tennessee had one. With SEC play about to get underway and UConn looming, the Lady Vols will need Bobbitt to keep attacking the basket or launching long-range jumpers. At least she has the unflappable personality to handle the pressure of the point position.

The largest crowd of the season so far – 15,652 turnstile – saw Saturday's game. The black curtains that fall midway down the upper deck were pulled up to accommodate the fans.

"When I walked out I looked and saw the curtains back and I was like, ‘Ohhhh … ' It was exciting," Bobbitt said. "I love the crowd when you score – real loud."

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