Male practice squad sets pace for Lady Vols

The male practice squad for the Lady Vols basketball team did all but don Carolina blue uniforms Friday as they set the pace for what is expected to be an up-tempo game Sunday.

"These guys are awesome," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said after practice Friday. "They simulated. They were better than North Carolina today. They were quick. I can't imagine anybody being quicker than these guys that were on the floor today."

The Lady Vols practiced for slightly more than two hours and used most of that time to run – either in transition to score or to get back to stop a fast-break basket.

Eight players were available because senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle spent most of the session sitting in a chair with ice on her chronically fussy knee. But it was precautionary only, and Hornbuckle is cleared to play this weekend.

The loss of Hornbuckle had an immediate effect on the ability of the Lady Vols to both pressure the ball and take pressure off when Tennessee had possession, but Coach Pat Summitt found a silver lining.

"We definitely miss her, but it was good today because we got our young players more reps," Summitt said.

Hornbuckle knows the system inside and out and can soak up the game strategy from the sidelines. With five players needed on the floor at all times to match up with the practice guys, the three freshmen played in double shifts. Senior guard Alberta Auguste also had to take on a bigger role, and she responded with one of her most vocal practice sessions since she came to Tennessee.

"Bird needs to dial it up," Summitt said.

The repetitions at the guard spot were also divvied up by freshmen Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone.

Bjorklund is a starter this season and has filled the three spot formerly occupied by Sidney Spencer. Bjorklund brings size – she is 6'0 – and an ability to shoot from behind the arc.

Smallbone also can shoot the ball and is trying to make the adjustment from go-to player in high school to a five-player system.

"It's just time and repetition," Summitt said. "In Sydney's situation, she shot the ball, shot the ball, shot the ball. She was the go-to. And she shot it well. Now she's having to set screens and do other things. It's multiple-action things as opposed to catch and shoot, dribble down, shoot. She'll get there."

Smallbone has played in all five games this season and is averaging 13.2 minutes per game. With backup point guard Cait McMahan out this season to rehab her surgically repaired right knee and with Hornbuckle's creaky knees, Tennessee needs all the depth at guard that it can muster.

Like most freshmen, Smallbone is playing catch up to the upperclassmen when it comes to defense.

"She's in the learning process," Warlick said. "She's a great shooter, but she's having to learn to play on the other end. In high school the ball found her quite a bit, and rightfully so. Now she's having to learn to play with four other people, and she's doing a great job. It's a complicated system. She'll get it. She's a hard-nosed kid, and she's going to do what she needs to do to get better."

Getting better is all that is on Summitt's mind right now across the board. That is why she likes having guys on the practice court – she knows they can simulate North Carolina's speed. They also are a reliable group and show up every day, weekends included, even early morning sessions.

"First of all they're great guys," Summitt said. "They check their egos before they get on the court. They're all about helping us. I just love their attitude, what they bring and the type of people they are."

Friday's session allowed the Lady Vol youngsters to get another workout. It was the third day of practice this week in which the team used all 94 feet of court for most of the allotted time.

"Angie Bjorklund has shown a lot of composure," Summitt said. "Sydney Smallbone, same way. Vicki Baugh, she's a terrific athlete, makes a lot of things happen on the floor because she has a nose for the ball."

Saturday's practice will start with film study and then the coaches will go over the game plan on the court with the players. The pace will be considerably slower than it has been this week to rest their legs.

Summitt is looking forward to another early season test for her team. Both teams are undefeated – this will be Carolina's first road game of the season – and ranked. The Lady Vols are No. 1 and the Tar Heels are No. 4. Tennessee took out North Carolina in the semifinal last season in the Final Four after dropping the regular season contest in Chapel Hill. The rematch in Knoxville is set to tip off at 7 p.m. Sunday (TV:ESPN2).

"There's a lot of excitement," Summitt said. "We're expecting this place to be rockin' and rollin' and hopefully have a sellout crowd. I think when people think about our Final Four last year I think they remember that North Carolina game as much as anything – the intensity of that game and how we got down and had to come from behind to win a game against a great basketball team."

Despite the loss of Ivory Latta and Camille Little, Summitt doesn't see a drop-off in the talent level of the Tar Heels.

"I think they're the same type of basketball team," Summitt said. "They're committed to baseline-to-baseline basketball. The difference is that they have a couple of new point guards. Just like Ivory was quick and explosive and could push tempo they haven't slowed down because of her graduation. I think if anything they're putting the pedal to the metal and say we're going up-tempo, push on everything. That is something that we will face early and probably for a long period of time throughout the game."

"We faced them at their place (last season), and we weren't ready for the physicality, the speed and the intensity. I felt like our basketball team from game one to game two in the Final Four we gathered a lot of knowledge about how they play this game and how we have to have great ball security and great ball movement.

"We have to be a team committed to setting and using screens and also handling the pressure that they bring both on the basketball and in the passing lanes. This is going to be a really great test for us and a learning experience in terms of we can take away from this game a lot of information about who we are and where we need to go from this point."


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