Back to practice

The Lady Vols returned to practice Tuesday after a day of rest following a bruising battle in the weekend win over Georgia. An SEC matchup with Mississippi State is next Thursday and then a showdown Monday with top-ranked Duke.

The team's schedule is slightly different than a typical SEC week. Instead of two conference opponents on Thursday and Sunday, Tennessee (16-1, 3-0) takes on the Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs on Thursday and then must wait an extra day for the game against the ACC power Duke Blue Devils.

With that in mind Tuesday's practice was structured to get work in for both opponents. Wednesday's practice will be lighter since it's the day before a game and then Friday the pace will pick up again. Saturday and Sunday will be taper-down days. With a short roster, coach Pat Summitt is cognizant of saving her players' legs.

"We'll practice tomorrow and then we'll play on Thursday," Summitt said after the two-hour practice ended Tuesday evening. "Come in Friday and then just kind of look at what we do Saturday, Sunday. Sunday would obviously be very light, if anything."

It is rare for Summitt to give her team a day off after a game but she felt it was necessary after the Georgia brawl. The players were appreciative.

"It felt great, especially for my body, very thankful for that," junior guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. "So far this year, besides North Carolina, definitely one of the most physical games that I've played in."

Perhaps nobody was more keenly aware of the physicality of the game than sophomore forward Candace Parker, who spent last Sunday being pounded in double and triple teams.

"Honestly, I feel like it was well-needed obviously," Parker said of the day off Monday. "I enjoyed it. Hopefully we can come back and practice well today and hopefully she'll do it more often."

Summitt smiled when told of Parker's wish. But if there were a season for it to be granted it would be this one. This team needs the rest – there are nine basketball scholarship players available plus walk-on Elizabeth Curry – and so far they haven't developed the bad habit of following a day off with a sluggish practice performance.

"We need our legs," Summitt said. "We're all about gotta have our legs. With our numbers we're going a lot less time than we did, say, a year ago and because of how this team has responded. They've been a good practice team for the most part. So I think we can get in and out. I think they're starting to figure it out."

The 52-41 win over Georgia at times resembled football and wrestling by Summitt's assessment.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "I think it was good for the team in a lot of ways being in a gym obviously on the road where we had a little adversity. Our team really did a good job in the second half of keeping their composure. We had different people step up."

Parker was held to 10 points. Hornbuckle and Nicky Anosike picked up the scoring slack with 14 points each. Alex Fuller came off the bench when Anosike got in foul trouble and pulled down eight rebounds.

"I thought Alexis had a really good floor game overall," Summitt said. "Nicky gets in foul trouble; Alex comes in and rebounds the ball for us. Candace is obviously drawing a crowd on the defensive end. She had three, four defenders on her at times.

"It was very physical. They roughed her up a little bit. I thought when Nicky came back in Candace did a good job in our high-low action of recognizing double teams. She got Nicky a lot of good looks at that time. Didn't shoot the ball well, didn't affect our defense. I think that shows some maturity on the part of our team and obviously some competitive spirit. There have been teams and times that we have let our defense affect our offense. So I think we're getting a little stronger mentally."

Georgia's game plan was to not let Parker win the game. She was 4-13 from the field but tied a season high with four assists. Hornbuckle played 39 minutes and added five rebounds to her points. Anosike capitalized on the open looks she got with Parker surrounded and also accumulated seven boards in just 22 minutes of play because of first half foul trouble.

"I don't think we've had anyone just physically rough her up," Summitt said of how Parker was defended in the game compared to other games. "It was obvious what they set out to do. Fortunately we had a great crew (Dee Kantner, Lisa Mattingly and Wesley Dean) in the game. That's where the game has improved, too, is the officiating. If you look at the games we've had the one thing I've noticed this year we've got strong officials in our game.

"That's not all bad for her (Parker) to have adversity and have to play through it, keep her composure. I'd rather it happen now than postseason. Good lesson for her, and I thought for the most part we handled it. We talked about that at halftime, not giving in, keeping our composure."

Hornbuckle got to match up again against her best friend, Georgia forward Tasha Humphrey. Hornbuckle got the win and a block against Humphrey.

"It's fun. We're friends before, and we're friends after the game," Hornbuckle said. "No hard feelings about anything that happens in the game. There's some mouthing, a little bit of talking going on within the game. But it's just like anything, you grow up playing with someone or you get close to somebody you kind of look forward to playing against them to see how it is to play against them every year. It was fun."

Hornbuckle didn't mention the block during or after the game.

"No words, didn't even bring it up," she said. "I think if it would've been a better block I might have said something, but it was like a tip."

Tennessee's offense left much to be desired, but the team did come away from the game feeling better about its defense. Georgia shot 31.9 percent for the game and despite having one of the SEC's best three-point shooters in Cori Chambers, 7.1 percent from behind the arc.

"It kind of let us know that we are starting to establish ourselves defensively," Hornbuckle said. "Our offense was struggling; at times we had spurts where they just took us out of our offense completely, and our defense is what held us up and helped us maintain our lead.

"It was so up and down … but it gave us a sense of comfort to know that we were able to stop their run when they were coming at us hard and to be able to say, ‘OK, calm down; run this play. We'll get good looks and crash the offensive boards.' It gave us a sense of security."

The game also produced a SportsCenter highlight of junior guard Shannon Bobbitt's between the legs pass in full stride on a fast break to a trailing Hornbuckle, who finished the bucket.

"I figured the one she threw between her legs was definitely going to be on SportsCenter," Hornbuckle said.

It was, and Summitt added, "That's good publicity for us."

But by the time Tuesday's practice started the win over longtime rival Georgia was forgotten and the focus was getting ready for Mississippi State (7 p.m. Thursday, Lady Vol Radio Network) and Duke (7 p.m. Monday, ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network).

The team got in a lot of full-court work – especially on transition defense – and drilled repeatedly on half-court offensive and defensive sets and rebounding.

"We told our team we're preparing for both (teams)," Summitt said. "So when they guard half-court sets they're guarding Mississippi State sets and they're guarding Duke sets, because we just want to have as much repetition as we can with our defense.

"When you've got a lot of information, you try to break it down so it's not overwhelming. You give them a little bit each day, a little bit of Mississippi State, a little bit of Duke. They don't necessarily know when they're guarding certain sets – there're only so many things you can run – as long as they know this is how we want to defend the one-four (one in the paint, four out) action and this is how we want to defend the motion action, regardless of who's running it."

Hornbuckle said the team won't lessen its practice intensity – and the players didn't – just because Mississippi State isn't a big challenge on paper.

"We prepare just like they're the number one team in the nation," Hornbuckle said. "You get out and you go through the scouting report, and you bust your tail in practice. You've got to work on Tennessee. It's not about Mississippi State. It's about us and what we're trying to get and the end results. … I think with this game it's a huge game on Monday, but I can't overlook the Mississippi State game."

The approach was what Summitt asked for – use the limited practice time to get ready for both teams.

"You have to prepare so you've got to look at the Mississippi State game, ‘OK, what do we need to do against Duke?' " Hornbuckle said. "Because there's not much preparation time.

"We're going to work on getting ready for Mississippi State and working on defense and rebounding and transition defense – every team that we needed to get better for since the Georgia win and then we go back and watch on film the things we need to improve on. Improve on that and then work on specific scouting for Mississippi State and then after that we go back to the gym the next day and work on scouting and what-not for Duke."

Parker distilled it slightly more succinctly: "Preparation, work hard and come out and prepare for Mississippi State. That's all we can do."

PLAYER STATUS: For the first time since freshman forward Nicci Moats returned to campus in January for spring semester she was courtside for the Lady Vols' practice. Moats, however, has still not been cleared to practice by team physician Dr. Rebecca Morgan, because of illness.

"She wanted to come down today, but right now Dr. Morgan has not released her to get back out and play," Pat Summitt said. "I really haven't pushed for (a timetable)."

There has not been any discussion of a redshirt year, and Moats likely has played in too many games at this point.

"I think she'll get back (to play)," Summitt said.

COMMON FOES: Two teams that Tennessee has already played – North Carolina and UConn – squared off Monday evening in a game that the players and coaches tuned into on television with interest. The Lady Vols lost to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill last month and beat the Huskies in Hartford earlier this month.

"I thought Connecticut did what I thought they would do," said Pat Summitt, who was recruiting Monday and watched the game on tape after returning to Knoxville. "They made their run in the second half. Obviously North Carolina's athleticism, they're a team that's going to turn you over some. I thought it was a great game. I enjoyed watching it. You don't root for anybody; you just watch the game. I saw it after the fact. I knew the end result. I still just wanted to watch."

A North Carolina student held up a sign called "Sylvia's Hit List" in reference to UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell that had boxes by the first names of four coaches – Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, Brenda Frese and Gail Goestenkors. The box by Pat's name was checked as was Geno's right before the game ended with UNC beating UConn, 82-76. North Carolina will play Frese's Maryland team and Goestenkors' Duke team later this season.

"That was cute," Summitt said of the student's sign.

Alexis Hornbuckle's high school teammate, Renee Montgomery, plays for UConn so she found herself pulling for a friend Monday.

"One of the rare times I was cheering for UConn. I was cheering for Renee to be honest, not necessarily UConn," Hornbuckle said. "It was a great game to watch, to see UNC go up on a run by about 15 and then see UConn come back and tie it and take the lead at one point and ending up only losing by six. That said a lot about UConn. You know they're a fighting team and to see them go to North Carolina and be able to do that says a lot."

For Hornbuckle the game turned into a scouting opportunity to figure out what Tennessee did wrong at Chapel Hill – UNC won that game, 70-57, on Dec. 3 – and should have done better in the 70-64 win over UConn on Jan. 6 in a game in which Tennessee surrendered an 18-point second half lead. Tennessee could get a rematch with either or both teams in the NCAA Tournament depending on how the brackets shape up.

"I think, for me, it just got me excited," Hornbuckle said. "I don't want to look too far ahead, but just saying if we come across either one of these teams, the outcome could be a lot better on our end" if Tennessee corrects what it did wrong in the previous games.

Candace Parker noted the Huskies' ability to once again wipe out an opponent's substantial lead.

"It was a very good game," Parker said. "UConn showed a lot of resilience coming back from an 18-point deficit for us, and I think a 15-point deficit for Carolina. It was kind of similar to our game. It was a lot of turnovers, not very good shooting, but I feel like they competed hard, and North Carolina won."

STUDENT STAND: The chairs in the student section behind the west basket in Thompson-Boling Arena will be removed for the Duke game at the students' request, as they are for men's games. This will allow more students to get into the section, and they will stand for the game, which creates a more festive environment.

Hornbuckle endorsed the measure and said the team needs its fans to turn out for the game against the Blue Devils, which beat Tennessee last season in Durham. Duke is currently ranked No. 1 in the nation after defeating Maryland, the defending national champion.

"It's huge," Hornbuckle said of the fans. "We need every fan support we can get from people standing, kind of like the guys' game where they clear out the seats. We need all the support that we can get because it means a lot to be in a game as a player to hear the roar and the loudness and it's not negative.

"That means a lot, and it gets you pumped up. And no matter what when things are going wrong your fans are able to affect you. If they're in it and they're not down on the team and they have hope it just brings back hope for you."

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