"Very well, very focused," coach Pat Summitt said of her team's response after Friday's session ended. "They know today and tomorrow are our two days that we have to go up and down and really prepare."
The Lady Vols worked on specific scouting, half and full-court sets, rebounding and shooting. Summitt was thrilled to have nearly a full team to prepare with and credited Jenny Moshak, the assistant athletics director for sports medicine.
"Absolutely," she said. "I thought going into practice Candace won't practice. Alex won't practice. I knew Cait wasn't going to be able to practice. I told my staff regardless of how many players we have available we've got to go on with preparation."
Freshman point guard Cait McMahan was held out because of some knee swelling – she had reconstructive surgery a year ago – and did rehab on the sideline. Candace Parker missed Thursday's game because of a respiratory illness, but she was better and back on the floor Friday. Alex Fuller took a hard fall in the waning minutes of Thursday's game and had to be assisted off the court. But she also returned to the floor, and both players had no problems finishing the up-tempo session.
Summitt also had an extra practice player. Former Lady Vol Ashley Robinson took the floor to help the scout team simulate the size of Duke's interior force in 6'7 center Alison Bales. Robinson, who is 6'5 and now plays for the WNBA's Seattle Storm, played for Tennessee from 2000 to 2004. Former Lady Vol Tasha Butts, who also played from 2000 to 2004, was courtside Friday. Both players plan to attend the Duke game.
Summitt enjoys having former players return to campus.
"Absolutely," she said. "It was good to see them. I think they actually missed us."
Summitt took two of her currents players, Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding, to the university's student center and several dining halls on Thursday to round up student support for the home games against Mississippi State and Duke.
"I just went in and screamed as loud as I could, ‘May I have your attention please?' " Summitt said. "Sid was mimicking me last night before the game. I just told them about the two games coming up. Wanted them to come out last night and come back again for the Duke game. I was really pleased with the response we had. Our players have talked about getting more students. That means a lot to them."
Thompson-Boling Arena is expected to be packed Monday. The students asked Summitt to remove the chairs from their lower section – as is done for the men's games – so that more of them could be closer to the floor. A possible sell-out, or close to it, has the players excited.
"It's incredible," Spencer said. "Thompson-Boling is so big and to have that kind of fan support it just says a lot for women's basketball. As a player that's why you want to come to Tennessee because of the fan support. I'm excited. Coach and I and Dominique went around yesterday just talking to students and getting them excited about the game. So I can't wait to see the turnout."
For now Summitt was just pleased with the turnout at practice. McMahan's status is day to day because of the swelling in her right knee.
"That's why we're focusing on strengthening in the weight room and get her stronger and hopefully the knee doesn't take as much," Moshak said. "We've been dealing with it off and on most of the season."
Junior Alberta Auguste also needed some treatment and rode a stationary bicycle to warm up before joining her teammates.
"Alberta's just got some patellar tendonitis," Moshak said. "It took her a little while to warm up so we'll do some aggressive treatment after."
Parker's condition is much improved from rest and medication.
"She's getting better every day," Moshak said.
Freshman forward Nicci Moats remains out of practice for personal reasons and illness.
"Same status," Moshak said.
Fuller had a busy evening and morning so that she could take the practice floor Friday. She is expected to be able to practice Saturday also.
"We worked a lot last night, worked a lot this morning, and she's much, much better," Moshak said. "She's very tough. She's a good patient, too, because she listens to what I say. It obviously worked. She practiced full. She's lifting now."
Moshak lauded Fuller's determination to mix it up inside, but the offshoot is that she can get banged up. She was injured after getting knocked to the floor while going for a defensive rebound.
"I think it's the position and the way she plays," Moshak said. "She bangs in there. She is boxing out. And then when she goes up for rebounds, she can get into big twisting situations. And when she took that fall that just set the whole thing off. When she hit the floor, the pelvis went up and the back went into spasms."
Fuller tried to get down court but ended up needing assistance to get to the locker room.
"I saw her get hit. I was like, ‘Man, she took a big hit.' I guess she fell kind of awkwardly," Spencer said. "I think of January and February as a lot of time when injuries do happen on a team so I'm just glad that everything is OK."
Fuller started Thursday in place of Parker – it was Fuller's first career start and she found out minutes before tipoff – and responded with 12 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block.
She also provided the humorous highlight of the game when she in-bounded the ball before halftime from in front of Tennessee's bench with the instruction to throw it towards the rim down court for a teammate to try to make a play and get fouled. Most players would come up short, but Fuller, a former softball player, threw a fastball, and it hit the backboard and the rim.
"They didn't play slow-pitch did they?" Summitt said.
Spencer said she knows to be ready when Fuller sends a ball her way.
"Anytime Alex throws the ball it's going to have something behind it," Spencer said. "She's just strong like that. It doesn't matter if she's on the opposite end of the court or she's next to you. You just have to know with Alex that it's going to be coming hard. She's very efficient. Not too many people steal her passes because they'd probably jam their fingers if they tried. She's just a very strong kid, strong-minded, plays strong. Overall it's just her personality.
"Something that I love about Alex is she's tough. I know I've said that, but she is tough. She will play whatever position you want her to play at. She's very composed. She plays hard. Her stepping up like that and jumping into the starting lineup right before game time that just shows how mature of a player she is, and nothing rattles her. So she's going to do great."
Fuller's presence at practice was important because her play off the bench will be vital against Duke. Fuller can guard inside on defense and step behind the arc on offense and stroke a three. Summitt is aware of how valuable Moshak and Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach, are to her program.
"You can ask these two back visiting," Summitt said of Robinson and Butts. "Once you leave here you've been spoiled because you've had the best. Jenny's the best. Heather's the best. We've got the best facilities and support. The players respect Jenny. They trust Jenny. She gets results. Now she'll rehab you to death, but that's what it takes."
The players have declared themselves ready to get ready.
"Are we going to be ready to go? Oh, yeah, we're going to be ready to go," Spencer said. "There's no question about that. I think every game is important. We couldn't look past Mississippi State because that's a conference game. That has a lot to do with our season in March. So we were very concerned about that and now that we've beaten them, we'll focus on Duke."
The likelihood of an arena brimming with fans – Thompson-Boling officially holds 24,535 – has given the players an extra dose of motivation.
"Man, I get hyped up. I come out ready," junior Alexis Hornbuckle said about a full house. "I feel already warmed up. I want the whistle to blow and the ball to be thrown up. It plays a big part as far as being ready to play, staying up. You don't have to produce your own energy. The fans are feeding you; you're feeding off the fans. You've got to love things like that."