Lady Vols prepare for opener

Tennessee's four freshmen, after playing extended minutes in the exhibition game, had sufficient energy to make it through Wednesday's practice – though one tweaked a preexisting knee condition – as the Lady Vols began preparations for the season opener in earnest.

"They did a great job, had good energy in practice," Coach Pat Summitt said after practice Wednesday. "I thought across the board good leadership."

Summitt commenting on the leadership, a reference to the veterans, in complimentary fashion was a good sign. She has been frustrated at times during the first three weeks of practice because of some uneven sessions in terms of the upperclassmen taking charge.

"Fortunately we've picked it back up," Summitt said. "We had some bad practices. We had more good than bad. But with all the veterans we have I guess I go in every day thinking we should have great practices because there're the ones that provide the leadership and set the example and hold the freshmen accountable."

Tuesday's 90-31 win over Carson-Newman was a platform for the freshmen. Summitt wanted to get all four a lot of minutes to see what they could do. They put up some stats in the box score, which can put a bounce in their step.

"I think they all think they can play regardless," Summitt said with a smile. "I think they're more comfortable now than they were when they started. Each and every day it seems like they get a little bit more relaxed. Their awareness is better, and they don't have the mental lapses.

"Now, they still have a few. You call an offense and all of a sudden you see this look of panic, but it's pretty short-lived. We've thrown a lot at them. We've put in a lot of layers already."

Summitt left a veteran in with the freshmen on Tuesday in a supervisory capacity. Point guard Shannon Bobbitt was left on the floor with all four newcomers midway through the first half, and they struggled initially to get into a groove. Guard Alexis Hornbuckle got the next crack as chaperone and exchanged a smile with Bobbitt as they traded places.

"We didn't say anything," Hornbuckle said. "We just kind of smiled."

The freshmen eventually settled down and started hitting some shots in the half-court sets and running the floor.

"Just kind of get them into a groove and actually kind of sit back and see how they handled it," Hornbuckle said. "Obviously we're there to set up the play and all that but just to see how they handled it. They were all over the floor but one thing they did they gave all-out hustle. They did a great job. They were hustling. You could see fatigue was setting in, but it didn't bother them. That's big. That's mental preparation. You've got to attribute that to Heather Mason.

"You get a little nervous when they haven't really played like that. Even in practice you're doing five, six-minute segments and it's a new team out there, and it's never all four of them out there together. So it was fun to actually watch them play."

Guard Angie Bjorklund led all scorers with 26 points and was 6-10 from behind the arc.

"Fearlessness," Hornbuckle said. "And it's so consistent. I love the girl's game. I said that from the get-go. If I have an option, I'm driving and kicking to Angie and Shannon. That's my first two three-point threats. Angie does a great job of just knocking down the shot."

For the Lady Vols to repeat as champions they need for the freshmen, Bjorklund, Sydney Smallbone, Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain, to take it to the next level.

"I think they will," Hornbuckle said. "You don't really drop off too much substituting and that's hard to say across the board on any NCAA team. You've got Kelley Cain, 6'6, big, big presence. Once she kills those nerves and just plays basketball she's going to be such a big help for our team, as well as Vicki Baugh. You witnessed a little bit of it yesterday. She can push tempo. You never know what to expect from her. She's going to play hard."

Baugh scored 11 points and snared 10 rebounds, but it was her play in the open floor that really opened some eyes. She pushed the ball down the floor, pulled up at the top of the key and found a cutting Alex Fuller under the basket. On another play she whipped a behind-the-back pass to an open player on the wing. The player missed the shot; otherwise, Baugh would have finished with seven assists.

"She reminds me a lot of Carla McGhee," Summitt said. "It is like she has no fear. She is going to rebound and just bring the ball up. She plays a lot instinctively right now, which is not a bad thing. I like to have a player like a Vicki that has that size, athleticism and skill. She will get so much better and tighten her skills up as she goes along. The energy in her style of play is an aggressive style. You don't always see that out of an incoming freshman. She has played with no fear."

The two freshman guards are also playing without hesitation. Both can shoot the ball, and both will hoist an open shot.

"Sydney, she's a scorer. She'll take it to the hole. She's looking for the three-ball," Hornbuckle said. "Angie, behind the arc, off the dribble. As long as we can get on the same page on defense it's about to be crazy."

Defense is the hardest aspect of the game for any freshman to learn so that will require some time, patience and practice repetitions, but Tennessee got a huge boost with the return of a healthy Alberta Auguste, who missed two weeks of practice because of a severe calf contusion and did not play in either exhibition game. Auguste is cleared to play this Sunday in the season opener against Tennessee-Chattanooga in Knoxville (3 p.m., SportSouth, Lady Vol Radio Network).

"Alberta back is a big difference," Summitt said. "Her athleticism. She's knocking down jumpers. She's strong off the dribble. It was glaring. It was like, ‘She's back.' She looks good. It will elevate our defense."

Junior forward Candace Parker is also cleared for Sunday. She was limited to eight minutes Tuesday because of a tender shoulder, and it was still a little fussy Wednesday at practice. But her minutes aren't restricted, as of now.

"Not unless there's a reason to monitor," Summitt said.

Tennessee did sustain a practice mishap Wednesday when Cain planted under the basket during shooting drills and felt her knee hyperextend. She left practice a little early with a limp and an ice bag on her right knee. Cain had to leave practice early anyway for an afternoon class and then was scheduled for some treatment, according to Debby Jennings, associate athletics director for media relations.

Cain had some issues over the summer with her patellar tendon and had to undergo some strength training, particularly with the quad muscle, before being cleared to take the court. Jennings said that Jenny Moshak, the Lady Vols assistant athletic director for sports medicine, would monitor Cain's condition, and she is officially listed as day to day.

The team is off Thursday so that will allow for some rest and rehab before the next scheduled practice. Cain's availability for Friday's practice will be determined that day.

Cain scored 11 points and led all rebounders with 12 against Carson-Newman. Her size and presence in the paint have been noticeable in the time she has been on the floor. She missed nearly two weeks of practice because of a concussion but has made the most of her minutes.

Summitt has enough confidence in the freshmen to want to play all four with the six veterans this season.

"I want to be able to play 10 deep," Summitt said. "There will be games where I'll shorten the bench but there're games where we can play everyone and get them that experience, because by postseason we want to be able to count on everyone, and you never know. We may need Kelley Cain for her size or we may need Vicki Baugh to come in and maybe even play some three by then. I think it's a team that we could go in many situations in a number of games 10 deep. I won't say in all games."

There is also the possibility that 11 players could be available this season. Sophomore guard Cait McMahan, who had knee surgery June 6, is officially listed as a redshirt, but she is ahead of her rehab schedule and is already participating in some shooting drills.

Her rehab will now include basketball-related activities such as jump training and strength work. The first step is to see if McMahan could practice this season. If so, then Summitt and McMahan would need to discuss a possible comeback.

The situation is similar to the protocol used with Parker in 2004 – integrate her into practice and see how the knee responds. Parker made it to practice but the knee had swelling issues so she ultimately had to abort her attempt to play.

The players had similar procedures, but Parker's was in the fall of that season, whereas McMahan underwent surgery five months ago in the summer. The key is how the knee responds with swelling being the primary indicator. So far, McMahan is passing the diagnostic tests.

"She's just doing great," Summitt said. "That will be Jenny and obviously the orthopedic people to make that decision and Cait. She's doing a great job at rehab."

If McMahan were to burn the redshirt Summitt would want her to be available by mid-season, perhaps the start of SEC play.

"It's not something you do late in the year," Summitt said. "We haven't arrived at any decision."

So, for now, it's just a tantalizing thought, and there are a number of variables: how McMahan's knee continues to heal, if she can practice this year without flare-ups and whether or not she is mentally and physically ready to make a mid-season debut.

One benefit would be that McMahan would get repetitions this season in preparation for next season. She also could contribute now because of her knowledge of the offenses and defenses.

"She can help us this year and it prepares us even more for next year, but we're not rushing into anything," Summitt said.

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