New Year's Day brings sharp practice session

Another short practice. Another sharp performance. Coach Pat Summitt and her staff are taking advantage of school being out by bringing the players into practice every day since they returned from the holiday break.

But to avoid wearing them down, the coaches are cutting sessions shorter than usual, and the tactic has paid off so far.

The Lady Vols practiced for about 90 minutes on Monday – the first day of 2007 – and will go short again early Tuesday afternoon, the day before Wednesday's home matchup with Alabama. On Thursday the Lady Vols could either take a day off or hold a short session on their home floor before leaving later that afternoon for Connecticut. That allows a practice session Friday on UConn's floor in Hartford and then Saturday is game day.

Monday was the sixth consecutive day of practices/game, which can usually lead to a drop in performance at this point in such a stretch. But the team has looked exceptionally sharp in practice for two consecutive days.

The sessions have included full- and half-court work on assorted offensive sets and defensive schemes with the players rotating in sets of five – nine scholarship players plus walk-on Elizabeth Curry, who has excellent practice habits. It also didn't take long for the team to adjust in practice last week coming out of the four-day break for Christmas.

"I wish I had an exact answer and could tell you with any real degree of certainty," Assistant Dean Coach Dean Lockwood said of the players' practice performance of late. "Break is always nice. I think time at home and a few days off help. And now we've come back, and we've gotten back into a rhythm of practice.

"I think obviously there's a very big game on the horizon. That certainly fuels the juices a little bit, and then I also think, too, we've gone shorter, and we've gotten a lot more done in a shorter, condensed time. So our hour and an half that we've been going has been as productive, if not more so, than the hour and an half of a two-hour practice. The time that we're here we're getting more energy from them because they know they're not going to be here long; they're not saving it. So I think that has a lot to do with it. When you've got small numbers I think there's a point of diminishing returns. With our practices now I just like how we're not keeping them too long, but we're getting a lot out of them while they're here."

Some players stayed after practice to get in some extra shooting on their own, including freshman Cait McMahan who missed three of last week's sessions because of the flu, and senior Dominique Redding. The players also were already on the floor taking shots before practice started.

"We've had an hour and a half the last two days," coach Pat Summitt said. "I think it's good to get them in the gym. It's a time where they don't have school so going an hour and a half, to me, it's good if they understand we're going all out and we go hard, we keep everything sharp, then I think it's beneficial. And that's what I've seen."

Tennessee has two important games this week in the SEC opener and then the annual showdown with Connecticut. A month ago, in the days leading up to the North Carolina game, the players had one practice session that was so uninspired that Summitt stopped it early and sent the players to the weight room because she had seen enough. There's no sign of that lack of energy right now.

Does that help settle the coaching staff at least a little?

"It does," Lockwood said. "I think certainly your practices are a gauge for all coaches to kind of know where your team is and a competitively mature team – you're always going to have some down days, we all know that – but a competitively mature team won't let that happen often, and they won't follow one up with another one.

"They bounce back. They know that there's a need to put forth effort. They know their coaches. A competitively mature team knows what unsettles coaches, and they're going to say, ‘You know what? We want to make sure that they feel good, and we want the ship right and certainly in turn that makes them feel good.' So I think that just speaks to hopefully we're growing up a little bit."

Added Summitt, "I think they've taken more ownership for their play, and that's what you want. I think they know the SEC is getting ready to open up and obviously we've got two big games coming up this week."

PUPPY UPDATE: Sally Sue Summitt's seven lab puppies are now three weeks old and are starting to eat on their own a little bit with some puppy food turned into gruel.

"I put skim milk and a little water in there and let it get really soft," Pat Summitt said. "I got a big bowl and all you could see was little butts. The heads are down; the butts are up. It was great. Tyler took a picture of all seven of them."

Summitt and her son Tyler still plan to keep one puppy from the litter, and the other six will go to new homes once they are old enough to leave the mother.

"I think Sadie is still in the lead," Pat Summitt said. "Sadie was the firstborn. The lastborn is the spitting image of Sally. That would be my second choice."

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