Lady Vols practice, depart for Cleveland

Seniors Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding were the first two players to take the floor Thursday inside a sweltering Stokely Athletics Center. They got in extra jump shots before practice officially started. A few hours later the team departed for Cleveland. No matter what happens at the Final Four it was the last team practice of the season in Knoxville.

The practice began the same way it did right before the NCAA Tournament started two weeks ago. The players and staff gathered some chairs and formed a circle to sit at center court in what has become somewhat of a cleansing ceremony. The warm temperatures inside Stokely provided what felt like a virtual campfire for the circular arrangement.

They did it two weeks ago right before the tourney began. They did it again Thursday for the same reasons – address any team issues, chat with each other and get focused. With the renovation of Thompson-Boling Arena underway the team has been as nomadic on campus as it is on the road. The circle served as kind of a fill-in gathering place.

"It's just a time for us to sit at center court and get whatever we want to get out," Coach Pat Summitt said. "We don't have a locker room up here so that was our locker room. You get their attention if you're in a tight circle."

The team spent the next two hours getting ready for the athleticism of North Carolina and set an up-and-down tempo from start to finish that left the players drenched in sweat.

"Taking care of the ball and rebounding. Those are my two biggest concerns," Summitt said. "They run similar action (to the press used by Ole Miss press). They run mainly 1-3-1. They'll run some 2-2-1. But they're long and rangy. I think they've got more size. In terms of just speed and quickness there're some similarities there.

"I think it's just making good decisions and good reads. You've got to find the gaps. They're one of the most athletic teams in the country. There're a lot of athletic teams, but North Carolina's one of the most impressive."

Tennessee, 32-3, and North Carolina, 34-3, will meet in the second semifinal Sunday at approximately 9:30 p.m. (ESPN, Lady Vol Radio Network) at Quicken Loans Arena. Rutgers, 26-8, and LSU, 30-7, meet in the first game at 7 p.m. The winners play Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. for the national championship.

Thursday's session was productive and covered exactly what Tennessee wanted in terms of full-court work with pressure provided by the male practice players.

"It's great to have the practice guys here," Summitt said. "I thought we were able to simulate a lot of what North Carolina likes to do, and we needed that. Now we just have to get it done on the court."

Alexis Hornbuckle, who was under the weather with a stomach illness for the regional final in Dayton, was in fine form Thursday and had no trouble getting through the up-tempo practice in a gym that felt as hot as the one in Dayton did.

"I'm good," Hornbuckle said. "I just needed a little sleep, get a little food in my system. I'm good."

The players enjoyed the brief time back in Knoxville. They used the off day Wednesday to get caught up in school and to get ready to go right back out on the road again.

"It did feel good to come home, get a practice in with our practice guys," Hornbuckle said. "They do a great job of preparing us, especially for the type of play that North Carolina is going to present for us. Our practice guys are long, they're athletic, they can jump. Exactly what we're going to face for UNC so it was good to come home and get that."

BIG ORANGE TAILGATE TOUR: The University of Tennessee National Alumni Association will host the "Big Orange Tailgate Tour-Lady Vols Edition" on Sunday in Cleveland.

The Club Lounge at the Cleveland Indians' Jacobs Field (across the street from the Quicken Loans Arena), 2401 Ontario Street, will host the BOTT from 4 to 6 p.m. If the Lady Vols advance to Tuesday's game, the BOTT will return to the Club Lounge from 5 to 7:30 p.m. The national championship game is set for 8:30 p.m.

Admission is free and open to all Tennessee alumni and fans.

There will be an all-you-can-eat buffet available for $15 with meal tickets available for purchase at the door. Reservations are not required. The menu includes hamburgers, jumbo hot dogs, grilled chicken sandwiches, pizza, popcorn, peanuts and nonalcoholic beverages. A cash bar will be available.

The UT pep band and cheerleaders will perform, and there will be door prizes awarded throughout the event. Special commemorative "I LOVE Lady Vols" spirit buttons will be available, too.

EVERYBODY'S ALL-AMERICAN: Sophomore Candace Parker has been named a John R. Wooden All-American and is one of five finalists for the John R. Wooden Award that will be presented April 7.

On Wednesday, Parker was named a First Team Associated Press All-American. She is a finalist for the Naismith Award, the Wade Trophy and Kodak All-America honors.

Parker was joined on the Wooden team by Sylvia Fowles (LSU), Lindsey Harding (Duke), Ivory Latta (North Carolina) and Courtney Paris (Oklahoma). The five finalists will be invited to the Wooden Award presentation in Los Angeles. The Player of the Year will be announced Saturday, April 7, during a live national telecast on CBS from The Los Angeles Athletic Club at 2 p.m. EDT.

A panel consisting of more than 200 voters, including sports media and college basketball experts from across the country, had until last Monday afternoon to cast their votes for both the five-player All-American Team and the Player of the Year award. In addition to on-court performance, voters were asked to base their votes on the student-athlete's character and academic performance.

Parker also was named Player of the Year by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association on Thursday. She made that All-American team, too, along with Fowles, Harding, Latta and Paris. Joining them as All-America selections by the USWBA were Duke's Alison Bales, Ohio State's Jessica Davenport, Middle Tennessee's Chrissy Givens, Maryland's Crystal Langhorne and Stanford's Candice Wiggins.

Parker and her teammates practiced Thursday in Knoxville and then left – wearing orange-and-blue warmups – for Cleveland later that evening.

"We're confident," Parker said after practice. "We want to make sure to just leave it all out on the floor."

MASCOT REMEMBERED: The mascots participating in the Women's and Men's Final Four games in Cleveland and Atlanta will wear armbands displaying the name of Jason Ray, the student from North Carolina who was the university's mascot.

Ray was struck by a vehicle while walking back to his hotel in New Jersey. He died last Monday from severe head injuries. Ray was in New Jersey because the North Carolina men's team was playing in the regional in East Rutherford.

"Jason embodied what being a fan of college athletics was all about: energy, joy and passion," said Gary Walters, director of athletics at Princeton and chair of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee.

"Mascots are an integral part of the team and the spirit of the games," said Judy Southard, senior associate director of athletics at LSU and chair of the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Committee. "As a basketball community mourning this loss, it's only appropriate that we remember Jason this way."

"On behalf of the NCAA and its member institutions, we extend our condolences to the family and friends of Jason Ray," said Myles Brand, the president of the NCAA. "It is with great sorrow that we learned of Jason's passing."

Inside Tennessee Top Stories