The team started off well, but the focus faded towards the end of practice, and Coach Pat Summitt dismissed the team a tad earlier than she had planned. Summitt had sent Dominique Redding to the locker room shortly before practice ended, but it wasn't just the senior she was upset with.
"It's unacceptable," Summitt said. "It's unacceptable for any player but for a senior not to come in here when we're preparing for postseason and bring intensity? That's unacceptable.
"I think we had a day in which we didn't have leadership. We need the leadership from our guards. Obviously Candace isn't on the floor. Was it obvious? Yes. It was very obvious."
This practice session, depending on how the team responds Thursday, should be seen as an aberration. The players have had excellent practice habits and with the two-week break between the SEC and NCAA tourneys, they might be reaching the saturation point of drills and conditioning.
"This would be the equivalent of the NBA season all of a sudden you've got the postseason and then you take a 10-day break," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "Those guys are so not accustomed to that. Right now we're getting itchy to play, and we need to play."
Summitt, who prefers results from her team rather than explanations, did throw the players a bone.
"In all fairness to them, we've had great practices, but we had a couple of kids today who weren't real inspired, weren't real receptive," she said.
Thursday's pace will be "medium," Summitt said, with some full-court work and then "we'll start tapering. We'll work up and down since obviously today we didn't get through everything we intended to get through."
Friday will be an off day and will be used to travel to Pittsburgh. No. 1 seed Tennessee opens play Sunday against No. 16 seed Drake, the winner of the Missouri Valley Conference. The game is scheduled to tip at 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2) at the Petersen Events Center.
The team practiced with Wilson basketballs – a new shipment arrived Tuesday – and senior Sidney Spencer spent the afternoon swishing shots.
"That's actually my favorite ball," Spencer said. "That's what I played with in high school. It's what I've always been accustomed to and always shot and done workouts with so I really like that ball. We did get new balls, and you could tell. Everybody was kind of fumbling them. They were brand new, a little bouncy, but they're going to be brand new in the tournament so I think it's very beneficial for us."
The surfaces were a little slick, but the basketballs were broken in fairly quickly. It would seem a point guard would be especially sensitive to ball surface, but Shannon Bobbitt said she doesn't have a preference. She just needs one with air in it.
"No, not really," Bobbitt said with a smile. "I just go out there and play."
Wednesday's session notwithstanding the team's practice of late had been productive. The sessions were lengthy and also included a lot of conditioning work.
"I actually think that we progressed, and we're getting better just for this short little span of time," Bobbitt said before practice started Wednesday. "I don't know why, but I just felt like we've gotten better, and we're understanding more about helping each other, trusting each other, taking out other strategies, the concepts that we run and the plays that we run, and we also know we're getting closer so we're going to be more focused and tuned in."
That is certainly what Summitt expects from this group.
"Tomorrow we hope to have the best practice we've had all week, and they have to take ownership of that," Summitt said. "I have a lot of confidence in this group."
Parker had sustained some minor swelling in her surgically repaired knee, but is expected to rejoin the team on the court Thursday. The day of rest seemed to take care of the swelling so if her knee stays calm as expected Parker will be cleared to play. She offered encouragement to her teammates from the baseline Wednesday and stayed after practice to shoot free throws with Alberta Auguste staying behind to rebound for her.
"It just goes to show we have to pay attention to details," said Jenny Moshak, the assistant athletics director for sports medicine. "This rest will allow her to practice tomorrow."
NO CAST, NO RESTRICTIONS, NO LIMITATIONS: One thing that is readily apparent in these postseason practice sessions compared to a year ago is the presence of Alexis Hornbuckle without a cast on her right arm. Hornbuckle was gamely trying to practice and stay in shape barely four weeks after surgery to repair a broken wrist.
"Last year was kind of discouraging because I didn't know how much I was going to play or even if I was going to play because of the cast, and it was still broken," Hornbuckle said. "It was kind of discouraging. We didn't have much confidence. In the tournament everybody steps their game up so you need to be 100 percent or as close to 100 percent as possible, and I wasn't there."
Hornbuckle did play, but she was hindered by the padded arm protection – she likened it to a "club."
"Very annoying," Hornbuckle said. "It was huge. That was the smallest we could get it though because I needed the protection, and I needed it padded. I couldn't bend my wrist.
"It had to be kind of hard by NCAA rules so there were not too many options. It was very frustrating. You saw the way I had to shoot my free throws, even though I shot my free throws better in the tournament. You know you have to concentrate a lot harder. I think it actually helped out because now I'm more comfortable going left. I was like that as a kid, but it kind of goes away when everything comes so easy with your natural hand and last year I was fortunate to get that left hand back so it's either or."
Hornbuckle was clearly at a disadvantage last March especially when trying to bring the ball up the court against pressure or secure the ball for a quick pass or an outside shot. The "club" didn't help her confidence either.
"I think this game, especially when you get to postseason, has to do with confidence and desire to win," she said. "My desire never went away but when you know you're limited it kind of messes up your game a little bit. You drive, and they're forcing you left, you cross over but you've got to cross right back to the same side you came from."
Hornbuckle is a different player this postseason. She erupted for 46 points in two games in the SEC Tournament and made the All-Tournament team. With Shannon Bobbitt in the backcourt, Hornbuckle has been free to play more on the wing, where she was dangerous as a slasher and has now developed an outside shot.
"This year obviously no cast, no restrictions, no limitations so I'm a lot more confident going into the tournament," Hornbuckle said.
NAISMITH FINALISTS: Pat Summitt is one of four finalists for the Naismith Award, the Atlanta Tipoff Club announced Wednesday.
Summitt is joined on the elite list by Geno Auriemma of Connecticut, Gary Blair of Texas A&M, and Gail Goestenkors of Duke. The Naismith is the most prestigious national award presented annually to the men's and women's college basketball coaches of the year. The winner will be announced at the Naismith Awards banquet April 5 in Atlanta.
The four finalists were chosen through a vote by the Atlanta Tipoff Club's Board of Selectors, who narrowed the mid-season list of 25 candidates. The board, which comprises leading basketball journalists, coaches and administrators from around the country, based its criteria on coaching performances this season.
"This year's finalists are all the more impressive because of the success they have achieved over time," said Gary Stokan, Atlanta Tipoff Club president. "To win consistently and with class is all the more impressive, and each one is deserving of the Naismith Award."
Geno Auriemma: The Huskies, 29-3, claimed their 15th Big East championship under Auriemma and their sixth overall undefeated conference season – first since 2002-03. Connecticut earned its 19th consecutive invitation to the NCAA Championship and returns as the No. 1 seed for the 10th time overall and the first time since 2003. Connecticut was ranked as high as No. 2 nationally and has been in the top 10 all season long. In 22 seasons, Auriemma has a 618-119 record, becoming the fastest coach to earn 600 wins, and has guided the Huskies to five national championships, including 1995, 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2004. He has also won the prestigious Naismith Women's College Coach of the Year award four times (1995, 1997, 2000 and 2002).
Gary Blair: Named Big 12 Coach of the Year while leading the Aggies to their first-ever Big 12 Conference championship crown and posted their first undefeated season at home in the 33-year history of the program. Texas A&M, 24-5, posted back-to-back 20-win campaigns for the first time since the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons. A Dallas native, Blair previously was named Southland Conference Coach of the Year five times (1988, 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1993) while the head coach at Stephen F. Austin (1985-93).
Gail Goestenkors: Now in her 15th season in Durham, she led the top-ranked Blue Devils to a 30-1 record while claiming ACC Coach of the Year honors for the seventh time. Goestenkors guided Duke to a school-best start for wins (30), as the Blue Devils became the 14th team in NCAA history to go undefeated in the regular season. The mark set a new NCAA record for consecutive 30-win seasons with seven. Goestenkors looks to lead Duke to its fifth NCAA Final Four appearance and third title game. She is a 2003 winner of the Naismith Women's College Coach of the Year award.
Pat Summitt: For the seventh time in her career, Summitt was named SEC Coach of the Year. In her 33rd season as Lady Vols head coach, Summitt has amassed 941 wins – more than any other Division I coach in the history of men's or women's college basketball. She also has six NCAA titles, seven NCAA Coach of the Year Awards and 16 NCAA Final Four appearances. Summitt won the inaugural Naismith Women's College Coach of the Year award in 1987 then went on to claim four more honors (1989, 1994, 1998 and 2004) – the most among all women's college coaches.
BIG ORANGE TAILGATE: The University of Tennessee National Alumni Association will hold a Big Orange Tailgate Tour, Lady Vols Edition, when it arrives Sunday in Pittsburgh for the NCAA Tournament.
The Holiday Inn @ University Center (within walking distance from the Petersen Center) at 100 Lytton Ave., will host the tour from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday. If the Lady Vols advance to the second round Tuesday, the tailgate tour will return to the Holiday Inn for another 4 to 6 p.m. event.
Admission is free and open to all UT alumni and fans. Reservations are not required. The UT pep/alumni band and cheerleaders will perform, and there will be door prizes awarded. Special commemorative "I LOVE Lady Vols" spirit buttons will be available, along with light snacks and a cash bar.
For more information, please contact Kris Phillips at the Tennessee Alumni Association, 865-974-3011.