Pat Summitt ratchets up pace

Coach Pat Summitt called Monday's practice "high energy, great intensity." It was the kind of session she was seeking after Sunday's win over Kentucky and will be wanting for the rest of the month as the regular season rolls into its final four weeks.

The session lasted a little more than two hours and incorporated offense, defense, shooting and conditioning in a fast-paced practice that clearly signaled to the team that crunch time is around the corner.

Tennessee (20-1, 7-0) has just one game this week with a road trip to Starkville, Miss., for a Thursday matchup with Mississippi State (8 p.m. Eastern, CSS). The Lady Vols remain undefeated in conference play with the 79-51 win over Kentucky in what was an up-tempo and physical game.

"I like the fact we come off of a tough game and have a challenging practice," Pat Summitt said after practice Monday. "They'll be off (Tuesday). Wednesday will be a light workday. We'll play Thursday. Come back and work hard Friday."

The tentative plans are to take Saturday off and then use Sunday as the scouting session for Rutgers, which comes to Knoxville for a "Big Monday" game on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. Eastern.

"This is all about this week," Summitt said. "I'll deal with next week after I see what happens Thursday, what happens Monday, but it's tough for us. It's great exposure for us but moving the game from Sunday to Monday it can really tax your team mentally and physically."

Tennessee will end up playing three games next week – LSU comes in on Feb. 14 and the Lady Vols travel to Vanderbilt on Feb. 17.

Monday was about getting better, Summitt's theme for the month leading into postseason.

One immediate area to work on is consistent board play. The Lady Vols tied Kentucky on the boards, 35-35, but the Wildcats got 31 on the defensive end. Summitt wants to see those become offensive boards for her team.

"You can look at Alexis' boards (four on offense for Alexis Hornbuckle), and it's a little misleading because she didn't have an offensive board or a defensive board at halftime, and she's one of the best rebounding guards in the country and for whatever reason she just wasn't inspired to rebound, and that hurt us," Summitt said.

"Sydney (Smallbone) plays for 10 minutes and didn't get a rebound. Alex (Fuller), she did not have a defensive board and only one offensive board in 18 minutes. Also, you can look at Candace (Parker) and say she didn't have enough rebounds (seven, all defensive), and I know they tried to box her out, but we had so many opportunities. Candace has been very strong on the defensive boards and typically solid on the offensive boards but for whatever reason I guess they thought they were shooting the ball a lot better than I did."

Summitt methodically went over the box score, and one bright spot was the six rebounds by Angie Bjorklund. Summitt previously wanted the freshman guard to get four a game. She has now upped the bar.

"I think four to six boards would be very pleasing to my eye if I looked at a stat sheet after a game," Summitt said. "And a lot depends on how many shots she's making. I think the fact she didn't shoot the ball particularly well made her more mindful of rebounding the ball, which is a good sign."

Bjorklund just smiles when she hears of the new target number.

"It's like that day I got eight boards and the next game I got one," Bjorklund said. "She was on me the next day at practice. Once I show her I can do something she's going to expect it."

Fellow freshman Vicki Baugh led the team with 10 rebounds. Her play has improved significantly since preseason as she has gotten more repetitions at post spots in practice and in games.

"She's made great strides," Summitt said. "Probably on a scale of one to 10 she went from a one to a six. She's got to be eight, nine – but I would take 10 – in postseason."

Summitt wants Bjorklund to use this month to fine-tune what she has learned so far and perform at a steady level on both ends of the floor.

"I think the thing with Angie is consistency now," Summitt said. "A lot of that comes from how she works without the basketball, how she works offensively to get open, how she works to get into her shots and how she does on the defensive end, how hard she's willing to work."

The three freshmen, Baugh, Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone share a trait: They all listen in practice and take instruction well.

"They want to learn," Summitt said.

Summitt has another learner on the court in sophomore Cait McMahan, who is taking a redshirt year this season to completely rehab her knee.

McMahan has been cleared to practice and on Monday she ran sets with the team. The benefits are twofold: It allows the Lady Vols to sub five for five on practice drills, which is especially beneficial when they are going hard and full court, and it lets McMahan get repetitions running the team.

"Cait struggled last year with our sets," Summitt said. "Cait had a challenging year, aside from basketball. She's learning plays now. I couldn't play her in postseason a lot because she couldn't remember the plays."

McMahan's mother, Teresa McMahan, was dying from cancer last season – she passed away last May – and Cait McMahan endured a heart-wrenching ordeal with a stoic demeanor. McMahan also was playing hurt, thus the need for season-ending surgery last June, just so her mother could see her play. Summitt had no doubt that McMahan's private pain affected the young point guard.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "I can't imagine what she went through with her mom emotionally. It took such a toll on her and rightfully so. I'm not faulting Cait."

Summitt has seen a different McMahan on the practice floor this season. She noted that McMahan had a high basketball IQ and can pick up the offensive systems at Tennessee. It's a complicated system that relies on the point guard first and foremost.

"I am pleased to see her showing signs of maturity and wanting to learn the offenses," Summitt said. "They've (point guards) got to, particularly offensively, know what to run and when and getting us in with strong leadership to what it is we want to run.

"I've really been pleased with watching her at practice. I think this is going to be great for her."

McMahan showed a glimpse of the future when she found a cutting Baugh with a pinpoint pass that spun the defenders' heads. Baugh caught the ball and gently laid it in off the glass in one fluid motion. The play brought a shout of approval from current point guard Shannon Bobbitt.

The practice pace has not only increased, but Summitt's sense of urgency is on the rise. It's the transition she makes at this time of year, and the newcomers noticed.

"The intensity, quicker pace," Bjorklund said. "They're going through things way fast. There's less time explaining things, more on the court you're doing things. It's one drill to the other."

Players can also do 10 things correctly and the 11th rep wrong or without enough effort, and that's the one Summitt will stop practice for and point out.

"Exactly," Bjorklund said. "If I don't get in one time or if I half go in to rebound, then she will call me out on it. Every little thing. I don't know how she sees everyone. I don't know how she does it."

Bjorklund noted that teammates are also setting the tone every day, a radical change from the lower key nature of a high school practice session.

"Having teammates that are sprinting the court and working hard on defense every possession, that keeps you accountable," Bjorklund said. "My teammates keep me accountable. I love that. We're all working hard.

"It's different, but I love it. It's a good different."


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