Lady Vols get much-needed practice time

Three games in one week meant the Lady Vols haven't been on the practice court a whole lot of late. Combine that with a short roster and the need to rest players and the time for teaching and reviewing has been at a minimum.

So Pat Summitt held a lengthy practice Monday – prior to a day off – to drill some fundamentals principles again.

She watched the Alabama game tape Sunday evening after returning from the game in Tuscaloosa – an 80-51 Lady Vol victory to keep Tennessee undefeated in SEC play – and saw "what I expected."

"I think we have too many players taking possessions off," coach Pat Summitt said Monday after practice. "We need to be a team and play five on five offensively and defensively. It's not like there's one person. It just filters throughout our team. We're only as good as the weakest player on the floor, and at times we've just got people who aren't as inspired as their other teammates."

Could the play have been partly attributed to fatigue given last Monday's game against Duke and then a road game at Vanderbilt – followed by a delayed bus trip home because of an Interstate 40 truck wreck in Smith County that snarled traffic for an hour – before traveling to Alabama?

"Perhaps mental fatigue," Summitt said, though clearly not pleased with that thought. "Think about how much time we didn't spend on the court."

That's a good point. Summitt gave the team off last Friday following the physical brawl with Vandy – one player sprained her ankle, another got stitches and a third had a nasty gash on her face – and then held a short practice Saturday in Tuscaloosa. She has sprinkled in additional days off all month and shortened practices to save her players' legs for games.

On Monday the team was fully engaged in practice and had a productive session with half-court and full-court work. They worked on defensive schemes in the full and half court, one-on-one defensive drills – getting stops were required to get off the floor – team defense and also found time to sprinkle in a lot of free throws and game-tempo shooting drills in addition to specific offensive sets.

"Just remember this: Coaches control practice; players control games," Summitt said. "So they were going to look better today."

The team will return to practice Wednesday afternoon for specific game preparations for South Carolina, the next SEC game scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m. Eastern at Thompson-Boling Arena (no television, Lady Vol Radio Network). After that it's three days before Georgia comes to Knoxville for a rematch next Monday (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2) as part of the sports cable network's "Rivalry Week" promotion.

To keep her players relatively rested Summitt has shortened practices this month. Monday allowed her an opportunity to keep them occupied on the court.

"Today was one of our longest practices of the year," Summitt said. "I just feel like all we've been doing is scouting report defense or scouting report offense and playing games. So when we have a day of really teaching and breaking down and redefining the specifics of what we want to be offensively and defensively, it makes a lot of difference. I thought today was a very healthy, good learning day for us. Good review and some good learning as well."

The team was relatively healthy. Candace Parker, who has been battling a respiratory infection, seemed much better. Alex Fuller showed no ill effects from the blow to her forehead in the Vandy game that left her with four stitches. Cait McMahan has bruising on her right cheek from a shot she took to the face in the Vandy game, but was none the worse for the wear Monday. Nicky Anosike was still limited somewhat by a sprained left ankle, also suffered in the Vandy game.

"It was physical. Typical Vandy-Tennessee," Summitt said.

Anosike's condition will be the one to watch. She was limited to 10 minutes in the Alabama game because of the gimpy ankle. Flying home doesn't help any swelling issues.

"I probably should not have put her back in in yesterday's game, but I didn't like what I was looking at, some ugly basketball being played," Summitt said.

Alabama got within four of Tennessee early in the second half before the Lady Vols went on a run – led by Shannon Bobbitt's three-point shooting – and put the game away. The effect of Anosike on defense was never more evident than in this game. She guarded Alabama's Navonda Moore in Knoxville in the Jan. 3 game and essentially shut her down with five points on 2-8 shooting. On Sunday with Anosike unable to hound perimeter players on defense Moore went for 25 points.

Jenny Moshak, the assistant athletics director for sports medicine, got Anosike ready for practice, but a wait-and-see approach will be needed as far as her status Wednesday for practice and Thursday's game. It will depend on how her ankle responds to more treatment and a day off.

Summitt does have a starter ready in the wings if Anosike can't go.

"Alex is playing really well," Summitt said. "Could she start? Absolutely. Is she playing well enough to start? Does she deserve to start? Absolutely. But she is such a great player to bring off the bench. If you don't have that, that's a different scenario for us. Having Alberta play better and come off the bench helps us. You need that. You really do."

Tennessee got some of its best play Sunday from Alberta Auguste, who scored 12 points and hit all three 3-pointers that she attempted.

Tennessee's three-point shooting as a team is becoming more effective. Sidney Spencer was already a threat – her 0-6 performance behind the arc Sunday was an aberration – and she is being joined by Alexis Hornbuckle, Bobbitt and Auguste, whose nickname is Bird. McMahan also can hit from long range and Dominique Redding has in the past but hasn't of late. The senior likely will regain her shooting touch sooner rather than later.

"Hornbuckle is shooting better. The addition of Bobbitt. You've got to guard McMahan. She can knock down shots," Summitt said of the overall long-range shooting. "If Bird could really get her offensive game to a different level it makes all the difference in the world for us. Dom's not shooting the ball well. She's the one that hasn't made shots. She's the one we knew we could count on bringing in the game to make big shots. We've got to get her back on track."

Spencer was playing in front of a large hometown crowd from Hoover – Summitt joked on her post-game radio show that Spencer was trying to score a point for each one – for the last time at Coleman Coliseum. Spencer has mentioned in the past that road games at Alabama can be difficult, and she had struggled shooting from long range previously. She was 1-4 from behind the arc last season at Bama. She was injured late in the season as a sophomore and didn't play in that game. During her freshman year the matchup with Bama was in Knoxville.

"That's coming out of Sidville," Summitt said. "This is coming out of Summittville. She was rushing. She had people there. You understand it. I don't think anybody made her rush. She just rushed."

Summitt made it clear that she viewed the Bama game as Spencer wanting to do well for all the people who made the trip to see her and there was nothing to be agitated about. Spencer was back to swishing shots in practice Monday – she arrived early to get in extra shooting – and Summitt said Spencer's stellar numbers to date are exactly what she expected from the senior sharpshooter.

"I was very confident that Sid would be able to put those numbers up because of her size," Summitt said. "For a lot of teams that's a tough mismatch. She doesn't have many people that are guarding her that can defend with the same size. Just watching her shoot the ball early in our workouts, she was good in the spring, but by the time we got back in the fall there was a significant improvement in her release time on her three."

Spencer now has 932 career points – the same number of career wins Summitt has to date – and is on track to become the school's 31st member of the 1,000-point club.

Parker joined the group Sunday with a pair of free throws and became the fastest Lady Vol to hit the mark, besting Chamique Holdsclaw by one game and Tamika Catchings by two. That is some elite company.

"It is and the schedule we play has been pretty tough," Summitt said. "Candace established herself early on as someone that could make plays and score for us. She's been terrific in that area. Right now we're expanding the other aspects of her game. I think she's scoring better off of offensive rebounds. She's becoming a better defensive rebounder. If we can get the same intensity on the defensive end consistently … there're possessions where she's just so imposing in the paint. So just getting her to not take any defensive possessions off."

That's a textbook Summitt answer. Praise the player but point out what needs to improve, too.

One player that benefited from a recent sit-down session with Summitt was Hornbuckle, who has gone from playing off balance with the ball to becoming a consistent offensive threat and outside shooter.

"I think the place I've really tried to get Lex to improve is shot selection and being on balance," Summitt said. "I think it went back to the Connecticut game when I saw her shot selection and I was like, ‘I don't know of many NBA guys that can finish what you're trying to finish. If you will tighten up your offensive package then you can be one of the best guards to ever play in this program.'

"And that was my feeling for Alexis coming in that she'd be one of the best guards to ever suit up here, and I think she has a chance to do that. She's just gotten better and better. She's very coachable. She's very committed to playing her game within herself. The only time that she left us defensively was in the beginning of the second half against Vanderbilt. That was when they started making their run and I was like, ‘Whoa, the best motor here is not running right now.' "

What is apparent from listening to Summitt is that No. 3 Tennessee (19-2, 6-0) is not a one-woman team by any means as has been suggested on occasion throughout the season by pundits and other coaches. The latest was Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who was asked to compare Tennessee and Connecticut after a Big East game. Her answer: "Tennessee really revolves around Candace Parker. With Connecticut, it's more of a team. They have five starters in double figures. We didn't even think about a box and one because you can't leave somebody open when you have a team like that. Then you have Brittany Hunter and Ketia Swanier coming off the bench. Connecticut is a much better team. Their bench is better. I was actually very surprised at the outcome of that game. We watched as a team and were cheering for UConn. Parker is outstanding, but without her, you have a whole different story."

Notwithstanding the fact that asking McGraw to compare Tennessee, well into its SEC season, and UConn, well into its Big East season, is rather odd – reporters covering the SEC aren't asking coaches about out of conference foes at this point – her answer seems to skip over the box score when Notre Dame and Tennessee played on Dec. 30, a 78-54 win for the Lady Vols.

Parker scored 22 points, but two other players were in double figures. Spencer and Bobbitt scored 17 points each against the Irish. Three of Tennessee's players scored more than the entire Notre Dame team.

In addition when Tennessee beat UConn, only one Husky player scored in double figures. Two starters were held to four points each. In fact UConn coach Geno Auriemma's strategy was to let Parker score and hope Tennessee's other players didn't step up. That plan backfired when Spencer had 14 points, and Bobbitt hit three 3-pointers.

The notion of a one-woman show at Tennessee is puzzling to locals and those who follow the Lady Vols. It would be a waste of time to ask the question of the player in question, Parker, who would immediately scoff at the notion. So Bobbitt, the point guard on this team, was asked to handle the question.

"I would just say we're a team and as long as everybody on our team knows it's not a one-man show, we don't have no problems with outsiders," said Bobbitt, who noted this team is "more mature (compared to others she has played on), and everybody knows their roles and doing their jobs to help the team. We can't have that or else we won't go far."

The notion certainly perplexes Summitt. It goes without saying that the suggestion is insulting to the other Tennessee players. So what would she say to anyone who proffered the thought?

"I mean I'd just ask them what have they seen that I haven't seen? Candace Parker is a go-to player for us. That's just clear as it can be. But she needs help from the rest of the folks that have made a big difference," said Summitt, who rattled off half her roster and included starters and substitutes. "We've had some games in which we've had people step up in a big way for us."

Summitt's next concern isn't the perception of pundits but the next opponent. She intended to spend Monday night watching film of South Carolina. It's much quieter in the Summitt household. Six of Sally Sue's puppies have gone to new homes with Sadie, a golden lab, remaining behind to live with Summitt and the mama dog.

"Oh it is, except Sadie chews a lot," Summitt said. "I got home, and she had chewed up a piece of furniture."

Summitt shook her head and laughed. She's got a young pup at home and some young players on the court that she's trying to get ready to finish out the final month of SEC regular season play, starting Feb. 1 with the South Carolina game, before the crucible of the postseason begins.

One of those newcomers has opted for a straightforward approach.

"Just play hard for 40 minutes straight," Bobbitt said. "My personal goal is to win the national championship and the SEC Tournament and just to bring it every day and learn every day."

Bobbitt is getting her first swing through the SEC and declared it "the best conference in America."

"We've got the best coach; we've got great players here," she said. "It's definitely competitive. … I just take it day by day. I just learn. I just take whatever the scouting report says, from my coaching staff and the past experiences with our players who have played against these teams – they tell us who's good and who to look out for. I'm being helped along as I go. … We listen to each other, and we believe in each other."

Doesn't sound like a one-woman show at all.


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