Lady Vols prepare for SEC showdown with LSU

Cait McMahan and Alex Fuller, the two Tennessee players injured in this week's game against Ole Miss, returned to practice Saturday – though one was very limited – in the Lady Vols' tune-up before Monday's SEC showdown with LSU.

The SEC championship is on the line – Tennessee (24-2, 11-0) can clinch it with a win – and so is Tennessee's unblemished mark in conference play. The Lady Vols have lost the last two regular season matchups with LSU (23-4, 9-2). Coach Pat Summitt has said that a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament is also on the line, and her goal is for the Lady Vols to win out in the regular season to help secure a top spot.

"I'd feel a whole lot better if Alex was with us," Summitt said after practice Saturday. "She'll travel with us. I just don't know how she's going to respond. It is swollen. It's lifted a little bit, but I think with the type of hit that she took it may take a few days. From everything Jenny has indicated it's a wait and see."

Jenny Moshak, the team's head of sports medicine, has cleared freshman Cait McMahan to practice and she is likely to play Monday, but Alex Fuller, a sophomore forward and Tennessee's post depth, was restricted Saturday because of swelling that has kept her right eyelid nearly sealed shut.

Fuller, however, laced up her shoes and participated in some drills. She drilled her free throws, took some outside shots, made passes and sprinted with the team, but she was held out of any activity that could have resulted in contact to her face.

"They're two tough kids," Assistant Coach Nikki Caldwell said. "You're glad that they're out here. They're Tennessee kids. There's something to be said about that. We're glad that they're out here, and we just want them to have a speedy recovery."

By mentioning they were "Tennessee kids," Caldwell, an Oak Ridge native, is referring both to the school they play for and where they're from. McMahan, a point guard, is from nearby Maryville. Fuller, a forward, is from Shelbyville in Middle Tennessee.

Fuller was hit in the eye during Thursday's win over Ole Miss. McMahan was hurt trying to corral the ball on her missed free throw. She fell to the floor in the ensuing scramble.

"I was just catching my fall, and the floor met my elbow," McMahan said. "I jammed it."

McMahan's injury was diagnosed as a sprain without structural damage to the left elbow. She completed practice Saturday and then had a bag of ice applied to the sore area.

This is the second injury for Fuller to the area of her right eye. She needed stitches last month after her eyebrow was gashed open when she collided with another player during the Vandy game.

"We know Cait is tough," Summitt said. "She took a tough fall. Fortunately she is back out here. Alex, just as tough. Look at what happened at Vanderbilt. She has three stitches, she comes back, she's right back out on the court. To have this kind of hit to the same side – more to the eye and the cheekbone – she is tough and hopefully she'll be ready to play."

McMahan expressed sympathy for "Alex's face," which is noticeably swollen.

"That's hard," McMahan said of her teammate.

But McMahan, who usually dismisses pain, acknowledged that the blow to her elbow had her fearing the worst.

"I'm going to be honest," McMahan said. "When I went down it was one of the worse pains I've ever had. I thought I was done. It caused a lot of pain, but if I can play through it I'm going to play through it. If I can play through the pain in my knee right now I can play through anything."

McMahan sustained a bone bruise to her knee in the preseason and needed arthroscopic surgery last October. She will be evaluated after the season, but for now her activity is restricted to scheduled practice sessions and games. She is not permitted to work out or shoot on her own.

"I really don't stress over it," McMahan said. "Whatever happens happens, and I'm just going to do what I can on the floor."

What keeps her going and her spirits up?

"April. National championship," McMahan said. "I've got to bring it every day. This opportunity comes once."

McMahan's teammates call her "Crazy Cait" as much for her disregard for the laws of physics on the court and her antics off of it.

"I make them laugh," McMahan said. "I'll do any dare they want me to. I'm just crazy. I just like to have a good time, bring positives out of a negative, and I'm just out of control wild."

McMahan has had some highlight moves to the basket where she takes off without worrying about sticking the landing or even seeming to grasp that whatever leaves the ground must return to it because of the law of gravity.

"We don't worry about Crazy Cait," sophomore forward Candace Parker said. "She'll get up. That's what so great about her."

McMahan added to her highlight collection against Kentucky by soaring to the basket around a player trying to draw a charge. The defender slid under McMahan, who released the ball and then started looking for a place to land. Alexis Hornbuckle had to tell her the shot went in.

"I don't think when I'm out there," McMahan said. "I just do what I do. I'm not going to think before I jump, ‘This is going to hurt.' It's for my team. I'll do anything for my team. If it hurts, it hurts."

McMahan proved that by joining her teammates on the floor Saturday. At this time of year all the players are battling nagging aches and pains. It can take a little while to get loose. Since there was a rodeo in Thompson-Boling Arena – the practice facility is scheduled to be ready in late fall 2007 – the team used the campus recreation center for Saturday's session.

The players' stuff was scattered about the bleachers, but they were taped and on the floor before the coaching staff arrived. The venue attracted some curious onlookers from students using the other basketball courts – the ladies had a ball screen across theirs – who wanted to get an up-close look at the team.

"I thought it was good. It was a good preparation day," Summitt said. "They've been a good practice team. We may start a little bit slow in practice, but once we get warmed up – we've got stiff knees and all kinds of things going on – but I think once they warm up they're pretty focused in terms of wanting to get it right and get it done."

The team will leave Sunday for Baton Rouge. Monday's game is scheduled for 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network).

A win gives Tennessee the outright regular season title and sole possession of the championship, because an LSU loss would be their third. Tennessee has two games left after the LSU trip – at Arkansas on Thursday and against Vanderbilt in Knoxville next Sunday for Senior Day. Every other SEC team already has at least three losses.

"I like where we are if we can get healthy," Summitt said. "We got a good report on Cait, and hopefully Alex will be ready to play as well."

ON TAP: The rest of the SEC plays Sunday with all 10 teams in action in the following matchups: Florida at Alabama (both teams are winless in the SEC so one will gets its first conference victory); Arkansas at Kentucky; Georgia at Auburn; Ole Miss at Mississippi State; and South Carolina at Vanderbilt.

WOW YOW: Unranked N.C. State beat No. 2 North Carolina on Friday in a big night for the Wolfpack. Six seniors were honored in their final home game, and the floor at Reynolds Coliseum was officially named for longtime Coach Kay Yow, who came back this season after battling breast cancer.

"There's been so many great coaches and great players that have played in this arena and I just hope with the court named after me that I would represent them in a class way," Yow said in the Raleigh News & Observer.

There's no doubt about that.

"We wanted to be sure that Kay knows how much she's appreciated and respected," said Nora Lynn Finch, N.C. State's senior associate athletics director. "We wanted to do it now after her 700th."

Yow got career win No. 700 on Feb. 5 in a win over Florida State in Raleigh.

Coach Pat Summitt, who has the floor at Thompson-Boling Arena named after her, counts Yow as a personal and professional friend. They also were colleagues in 1984 when Summitt coached the U.S. Olympic team and Yow was an assistant.

"It's a great honor for her. I have great respect for her personally and professionally," Summitt said. "She's done a tremendous job as a coach both at N.C. State and with the international teams that she coached. She truly deserves this. She just surpassed the 700 mark. She's respected by her peers and appreciated for how she has handled being in both those roles."

Summitt said Yow also taught her something 22 years ago about player relationships.

"Kay is a player's coach," Summitt said. "I learned a lot from her when I was coaching with her (in 1984). I remember we were walking out of practice one day, and I had been all over (former Lady Vols) Lea Henry and Cindy Noble and she in her own quiet way said, ‘You know, Pat, how much more do you think that Lea and Cindy can learn from you at this point?'

"I said, ‘I got you, Coach.' Because I was just all over them. It was kind of like back off and let them be who they are and let them play."

The 1984 USA team won the Gold Medal in Los Angeles, and the players carried Summitt off the court.

Friday's N.C. State-UNC game was instructive as well. North Carolina was considered a lock for a No. 1 seed, but a late season loss to an unranked team can torpedo that lofty spot, as Tennessee found out last March.

"We've just got to take care of what we can control and that's us," Summitt said of the three SEC games left in the regular season. "I think in life you just take care of what you can control and on the court take care of what you can control."

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