The practice players allow the Lady Vols to go against bigger and stronger athletes, especially when they simulate a particular team or scheme. It also protects against injury – the guys know when to pull up and back off – and allows for rest breaks as the Lady Vols sub in and out. With practice time limited by NCAA rules when school is in session, it also allows for more repetitions as the guards and posts can split up and go against the males in half-court drills to maximize court time.
With school out, the coaches have fewer options but more time. So after two hours of specific work on offensive and defensive facets of the game – and some emphatic words from Summitt about committing to the Lady Vol system – the coaches donned whistles and let the ladies go at each other.
The officiating was, to be charitable, sub-par and perhaps that was an intended consequence. The players, split among an orange and a white squad, had to play through bad calls and no calls. The losing team ran wind sprints – and they switched up teams every five minutes to get different combos on the floor – but it was pretty clear from the chatter and swagger during the simulated games that bragging rights meant quite a bit more than having to sprint.
They didn't hesitate to crash into each other under the boards or fight to the floor over loose balls. However, the players still helped each other up – whether teammate or opponent – and high-fived when it was all over. The winners even did a little jersey popping.
"I think it brings out a little more fire in their personality and that's not a bad thing," Summitt said.
All of the players made it to practice Friday. Senior guard Alberta Auguste was one of the last to arrive because of flight changes but made it late Thursday night. Alexis Hornbuckle, who attended the funeral service for her paternal grandmother on Wednesday in West Virginia, also arrived in Knoxville on Thursday night. Lucille Stephens Hornbuckle will be buried Saturday in her hometown of Uniontown, Ala.
The senior guard was somewhat subdued Friday – Hornbuckle is usually a very vocal presence – but still had a solid practice. She opted to return to the Tennessee team after talking with her father, the Rev. Jerome Hornbuckle.
"She seems to be doing a lot better," Summitt said. "I talked to her a little bit before practice. You can't fast-forward the emotions. Considering what she's been through I thought she did a great job."
Another standout was freshman forward Vicki Baugh, whose play elevates when paired with Parker.
"I think they play well together," Summitt said. "Vicki, she brings energy to the court at both ends."
The junior forward helps direct traffic for the youngster, and Baugh has an instinctive ability to get to the right spot in the paint.
"I think that she has benefited from repetitive drill work," Summitt said. "She's such a great athlete, but she now is starting to put it all together. When you combine skill and athleticism you've got something special. There's such a great upside to where she can take her game. But I think it's just repetition for her all the time."
Summitt wants the three freshmen – Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone are the other two – to all be ready to contribute in crunch time and that means especially in the postseason. In particular, she wants to get Baugh more playing time.
When you look at the freshmen, they will all three contribute," Summitt said in her media teleconference Friday. "With freshmen, you're always striving for more consistency. We are trying to emphasize the importance of bringing intensity every night and working hard to be effective at both ends.
"Angie adjusted well and is in the starting lineup. She did not have a good offensive night at Stanford and that was the toughest environment she's been in. She will grow from it. Sydney is challenged on the defensive end, but I like what I've seen with her offensive range. She does a nice job of feeding the post, and I am excited about what the development of her game could mean to our team.
"Baugh needs more minutes. We'll need her on the floor. She is gaining a lot of momentum and confidence. She can defend, rebound, score, and she is refining her basketball skills. You don't have to coach effort. She brings a lot of intensity to the court."
Baugh's development could have the added benefit of allowing Parker to sometimes move to the perimeter, where Parker could play away from the basket or drive the lane. Considering the pounding that Parker is taking on the blocks, starting her on the wing could alleviate some of that by forcing her defender out of the paint and using more of the court to create a mismatch.
"It allows her obviously to face up a little bit more," Summitt said. "Candace and Nicky have played a lot together and obviously Alex has played a lot with them. To me, Vicki's got to get comfortable just playing."
Summitt said she would consider deploying at times a big lineup of some combo of Nicky Anosike, Alex Fuller and Baugh inside and Parker outside. She also liked what she saw Friday of Parker and Baugh together inside.
"I think playing with Candace that's a pretty tough tandem inside," Summitt said.
The Lady Vols will return to practice Saturday afternoon. They also intend to practice Sunday before taking off Monday to travel to Chicago for the Jan. 2 matchup with DePaul. McGrath Arena holds only 3,000 people, and some 60 of them in attendance will represent both the paternal and maternal sides of Parker's family.
"This will be the first time both of my grandmothers will see me play, so I am really excited," Parker said.