Forward Candace Parker returns to practice

Sophomore forward Candace Parker returned to practice Thursday – the last one in Knoxville before the team leaves for first round NCAA action – in a team session described by the head coach as "high energy." The Lady Vols will fly to Pittsburgh on Friday and practice on site Saturday at the Petersen Events Center.

No. 1 seed Tennessee, 28-3, will take on No. 16 seed Drake, 14-18, on Sunday at 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network). The winner will play Tuesday evening against the winner of Sunday's second game between Pittsburgh and James Madison, which also will be shown on ESPN2.

Coach Pat Summitt was happy to have Candace Parker back on the floor –"obviously her presence on the floor elevates everything we do" – and was pleased overall with the team.

"Very good, very good," Summitt said. "High energy. Everybody made it through."

That last remark came with a smile. Near the end of a lengthy session on Wednesday with the team down to eight players practice sort of fizzled. The team ended up with seven after one player was sent to the locker room, and Summitt wasn't happy afterwards.

On Thursday she smiled when asked if the team was ready to go.

"As long as I can get packed between now and tomorrow when we leave," Summitt said. "It's my biggest concern now that we've got the team ready."

The practice session at Stokely Athletics Center began with the team sitting in a circle at center court – place it outdoors and add a fire and they could have been camping – and listening to the coaches share some insight about what was about to happen in the NCAA tourney and what it meant to still be playing at this time of year.

"It was to zero in on what we wanted to do, to re-cover yesterday," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "Sometimes when there is a negative ending to practice or when you have something negative even if it's a 20-second exchange, that can kind of stick in your craw a little bit and now people are thinking about it. I think it was just here's why we did what we did, here's what happened and then let's also focus on what does this team need to do and what are our goals coming into NCAA tournament play.

"More or less we reiterated to them how special this is. You get one shot, and there are a lot of teams right now they're on spring break. This is really a phenomenal opportunity. Pat was talking about in general this team this year how overall how good the chemistry has been and how fun they have been for us to be around and to coach. We've got one objective: We want to play six games, and we want to win them all."

The sit-down session seemed to work – though Lockwood said the coaches never know for sure until the game gets underway. The team had a productive practice with a lot of shouts of encouragement. Dominique Redding, who didn't finish practice Wednesday, was one of the most vocal ones and uncorked some nifty passes inside to the post players.

The team had three long sessions this week on three consecutive days, and the coaches were ready to pass out high grades when it was completed.

"Overall the three days of really concentrating – it's almost like back to training camp, which is good – we thought was very good," Lockwood said.

The coaching philosophy during such a lengthy break between the conference and NCAA tourneys is to go back to basics and then dovetail that teaching to specifics by the end of the week.

"They were pretty similar overall," Lockwood said of the practice days this week. "Yesterday (Wednesday) we did a little more hardcore up and down. Today (Thursday) we started to taper back a little more. We focused more specifically on how to defend Drake and some of their sets, both half-court offense and out-of-bounds stuff

"Yesterday we wanted more live action. Today was less live action but more focusing mentally on how we're going to defend stuff. Overall we thought the energy of our team was very good. Early we did a lot of our work. We call it our stuff (as in the coaches) where we work on cleaning up our half-court offenses, getting some shots in, timing, working on things we think we're going to see again like when we had practice guys doubling Candace. We started working specifically on things we might see, but the focus was on us.

"At the end we turned it to Drake. I think today was a little less live combat and more mental preparation for Drake. But still the three days were very similar to each other in how they were structured, because here on Thursday we're still three days away from a game so we don't have to taper completely off."

The presence of Parker on the floor certainly helps in terms of overall production because of her play and because it means another body to rotate in on drills so one other post player can catch her breath. Her presence also brought a sigh of relief from the coaches.

"That's your one understatement for the month right there," Lockwood said. "Yeah, we're relieved. That always makes you nervous when you see a player the caliber of Candace Parker sitting over there with her knee iced and propped up. That's always not a good feeling at practice the week of your first NCAA Tournament game. We're very happy.

"She's going to have to play some very tough minutes for us. Hopefully early on we can get a little bit of rest for her but as we go into this thing I think she's going to be taxed physically like all of our players will. We want to be careful. Today it was good to see her moving around."

The coaches feel like the players are ready to tip off the tournament – or at least are well prepared to do so – but they won't know for sure until the action really is live. They will take off Friday to travel and practice Saturday.

"You'll never completely know until you're a game in," Lockwood said. "With young people because they've got so much going on in their lives, and they are very resilient and sometimes things don't impact them … . You don't realize how special it was until sometimes you look back, and we don't want this group to say, ‘hey, this was a neat group,' we want them to seize the day so to speak and realize not every team is special like this team and gets along well and has what we have and in a place like this.

"You know what? No matter what happens make every day a masterpiece. Go for it."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories