Lady Vols get ready for Rutgers

Alexis Hornbuckle cradled a deep pass on a press break, broke for the basket and finished the play with a layup. Her primary cheerleader was a sidelined Candace Parker, who also called a technical for excessive dancing as Hornbuckle celebrated the athletic play on her way down court. The Lady Vols had a right to be happy at practice one day after three players had to leave a game with injuries.

"As far as the injuries go, we actually came out real blessed because everything could have been a lot worse than what it was," Alexis Hornbuckle told a pack of press before practice began.

That might be the understatement of the season. In the second half of Thursday's 87-69 win over Mississippi State, Angie Bjorklund broke her nose, Alberta Auguste re-injured her left shoulder and Candace Parker went to the floor grabbing her surgically repaired left knee.

"I didn't see her go down," Coach Pat Summitt said. "I was turning around to make a substitution for Candace and Alexis and then when I turned back and I saw her on the floor and I saw her holding her knee I was thinking, ‘Oh, please, no.' "

Those words were likely echoed by every Lady Vol fan sitting in the Starkville coliseum, watching on television or listening on the radio. Summitt didn't think of the impact on the season. She thought about the effect on her player.

"She's gone through enough with knee injuries and surgeries," Summitt said.

Parker tore the ACL in her left knee in high school and missed part of her senior season for surgery and rehab. She needed an operation to repair the femoral condyle in the same knee – she essentially had a pothole in her knee – after arriving on campus in 2004 and had to take a redshirt year to recover.

"You hate it for any player, but you certainly hate to see anyone go down that's been through it before," Summitt said. "I felt a lot better after Jenny and the orthopedic surgeon that was at the game examined her. I came home feeling a lot better, but you never know until you get all the evaluation done. Right now I'm very optimistic and very thankful that things are where they are at this point."

Jenny Moshak, the assistant athletics director for sports medicine, had to hold her own press conference Friday as media packed the arena before practice for official word on the three injured players.

Moshak said all three were not ruled in for Monday's game against Rutgers, but nor were all three ruled out.

"I'm hoping we can get a little bit out of them on Sunday at practice," Moshak said.

For that to happen the healing process must continue. Parker's injury initially seemed to be the most serious, but the news kept getting better Friday. An orthopedic doctor had examined Parker in Starkville and noted the ligaments were intact. An X-ray Friday indicated there was no structural damage.

"Her knee is very stable," Moshak said. "The X-rays didn't show any additional damage. We're going to treat the knee as a bruise to the knee and then take her day-by-day. She's shown progress since this morning. She's on the Rehab Team right now. She has no swelling, which is obviously a great sign as well. She's on crutches just from a comfort standpoint so we're going to practice some gait training and get some strengthening going and take it day by day."

Auguste aggravated an existing injury to her left shoulder and biceps muscle. She also spent Friday on Moshak's team with her arm in a sling.

"We're taking her day-by-day, getting very aggressive with her treatment," Moshak said. "If she gets full range of motion and she gets a decent level of strength back we'll play her Monday. We'll probably put her into a more protective bracing just to limit the incidence of anything happening again."

Auguste got hurt a week ago in practice when her arm was hit underneath while on defense. This time, she got her hand on the ball while on defense, and her arm was taken backwards by the ball.

"When she came here she had some bilateral instability so she's been on a shoulder rehab program since the day she stepped in the door a year and a half ago, which I think has helped her over time," Moshak said. "But when you've got loose shoulders to begin with your chances of incidents are greater. We're wrapping up everything and going to protect her a little more."

Bjorklund was allowed to participate in shooting and other non-contact drills Friday. She will see a specialist Monday to decide if surgery is needed. The swelling must go down before that determination can be made. If surgery was needed, it might be done soon or it could wait until after the season.

"We'll get the swelling down and see if she can go a little harder on Sunday and then check out things on Monday," Moshak said. "Monday will determine a lot of things … but it just depends on function and breathing and things of that nature. Loree Moore, we needed to fix sooner than later. It depends on the break and what functioning she has."

Moore broke her nose in 2005 in an SEC game and underwent surgery within days. She was back on the court that same week. If a player is not having breathing issues, it is often best to wait until after the season because of the risk of another break in a contact sport and thus the need for a second surgery.

Moshak was optimistic that Bjorklund would be able to play Monday. She wore a small splint on the nose Friday and will continue to do so.

"We've gone away from the full facemask," Moshak said. "We'll only use those now from a philosophical standpoint for facial fractures or orbital fractures. With a nose our doctors feel it hinders the peripheral vision to the extent where you're probably taking more of a chance of injuring something else than the nose."

Summitt was ready for the game to end when the final second ticked off the clock Thursday night in Starkville.

"I can't recall a game in which we had someone break their nose, hurt their shoulder and hurt their knee," Summitt said.

Moshak spent the second half treating players. First, she had to get Bjorklund's nose to stop bleeding and then Auguste got hurt, and Bjorklund had to re-enter the game. Then Parker crashed to the floor after reaching for a rebound and landing awkwardly.

"I missed the second half," Moshak said. "It was a long game. … . In this profession the first thing you think of is worst-case scenario, and then you work your way backwards. With each passing moment it got to be a better and better feeling."

In terms of basketball, Moshak missed the best part. The first half started off well and then Summitt went to the bench, and the game unraveled. Mississippi State led at halftime, 40-33.

"They've got to flip the switch," Summitt said of the bench's intensity. "I flipped mine last night. I wasn't happy."

Summitt was pleased to get back on the practice floor Friday.

"I love practices the day after a game because they come right back in, they traveled, they get up early and go to class and I think it's really good discipline for them," Summitt said. "They have to come back in and refocus. I like giving them a day off just because I want them to have their legs."

The team will take off Saturday and then reassemble Sunday for a scouting session and practice drills. Although the players won't be on the court it will be a busy Saturday for some.

"I'm going to be rehabbing like crazy," Parker said. "Jenny and I are going to be buddies for the next 48 hours."

Summitt noted she had the best training staff in terms of getting players back on their feet.

"I think Angie will be good to go," Summitt said. "I think with Candace and Alberta it's day to day. We've got to wait and see how they respond. Jenny Moshak is the best in the business at rehabbing. I told her she's going to earn her money. She's going to be spending a lot of time with all of them trying to get them back and healthy and ready to play."

Summitt did, however, make it clear that if Moshak doesn't release a player medically, she won't play.

"Certainly I'm not going to push anyone to play," Summitt said. "As big a game as it is to play Rutgers here at home I'm hopeful they'll be able to play, but if they're not ready they're not ready.

"Other people have to step up and last night we didn't have a very good response off the bench. I think we have people that can step up and play bigger roles. They've had to do it at times and they may have to do it on Monday. We would not risk anything. They're either ready to play or they're not ready."

The smile on Parker's face at practice and her sideline encouragement to her teammates indicated both her state of mind and the relief she felt at the news about her knee.

"I'm feeling pretty good," Parker said. "My prognosis was good. It's nothing that is going to be months or weeks or anything like that. It's day to day. I was really relieved.

"I told the doctor that was doing my ACL test I feel like I pro. I know exactly what you're doing. You're doing the ACL test. The MCL test. You're testing my meniscus. I knew everything. It's kind of scary to sometimes be knowledgeable about things that are going on. I was just really relieved that it was not anything structurally wrong."

That knowledge can also be beneficial since all three players are trying to recover from injuries they have familiarity with, and that can help psychologically.

"I think it plays a huge advantage," Moshak said. "In Candace and Alberta's situation, they've been through the exercises before so that learning curve is already there. That makes my job a whole lot easier. The known entity is a big help and the fact that they know how to get better."

Parker wants to play Monday and has already said not to count her out. But she will take a sensible approach to a regular season game, even if it is the rematch of last season's national title game.

"I think it's very important, but it's not important enough to risk not being able to play in March so I think that's what we're looking at right now," Parker said. "Jenny said she is going to give me the benefit of the doubt. She knows I know my body.

"What's important is to look past Monday. We have seven regular season games left and SEC and NCAA. It's about getting through the season and not just one game."

Summitt considered the team to be fortunate considering what could have happened with all three players.

"We're lucky to come out of the game that we had with three injuries and have everyone hopefully headed in a healthy direction," Summitt said. "Fortunately we've got a couple of days before we have to play and just hope that everyone will heal up and be ready."

Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood spoke for all of Lady Vol Nation when he described the sight of Parker falling to the floor. Lockwood helped Parker leave the court after the game when she could not walk under her own power.

"Thousands and thousands and thousands of Tennessee fans, including our staff and players, holding a collective breath, when you see something like that occur," Lockwood said. "She goes down, she's holding a knee, she's writhing in pain on the baseline. There's a dozen thoughts running through your mind, but you're trying to take care of the immediacy of the situation helping her get to a safe spot.

"We talked about it on the bench for a second in a timeout: ‘Let's take care of now. Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.' "

Tennessee closed out the game in solid fashion – first by getting the lead back quickly in the second half and then by out-scoring Mississippi State, 54-29, in the second half. Although the bench bore the brunt of Summitt's ire, Auguste was the exception. But she still needed a pep talk on the sideline.

"When I first got in the game I started off kind of slow," Auguste said. "I wasn't really active on defense and that's the thing that gets me going. She took me out and looked at me and told me I needed to pick it up. Second half I had the mindset that I'm going to go out there and do what I have to do."

Auguste had 12 points and four rebounds. She teamed with Hornbuckle to get key stops on defense as the Lady Vols extended the lead in the second half.

"First of all, she's instant defense and board play," Summitt said. "But last night she was very efficient offensively. When she brings that kind of game we can really separate ourselves out on the perimeter (by) having that third guard so you can keep bodies fresh or you can go with a very athletic lineup that can get to the paint. She got to the paint and got some great putbacks. I thought she had one of her better games."

The title game last year was also one of Auguste's better games as a Lady Vol, and Auguste indicated she wanted to be a part of the rematch Monday.

"I look forward to playing against them. Hopefully I will be playing," she said. "I don't know yet. It's possible. I'll be ready to perform as always."

Friday's session was about getting ready with the seven players who were on the practice court, plus Cait McMahan, who is taking a redshirt year to fully recover from knee surgery last June.

"The way we played in the first half I think we've got a lot of work to do today as well as shoot-around and pay attention to scouting report defense," Hornbuckle said before practice Friday. "I think we could have done a lot better in that last night and with Rutgers you don't really have much time or space for error so it's very important that we don't take any possessions off.

"We got off to a great start and obviously fell off throughout the game. Going into halftime seven down was not the position we wanted to be in. We came back and fought hard and everybody stepped up their game with a little help from coach's inspiration at halftime."

Summitt said her halftime speech was devoted to the bench. With the head coach providing the necessary volume the senior leader provided the gentle touch.

"You've kind of got to shy away from the yelling part and talk to them as far as player to player and make them understand that we need y'all every time you're on the court every second, every minute, every possession counts," Hornbuckle said. "And you can't take a possession off just like I can't take a possession off. I think they understood that in the second half and hopefully that will transfer over into Monday night."

Bjorklund clearly understands the notion of teamwork. Because the bench didn't play a lot of minutes, those players had to run extra conditioning sprints at practice Friday. Bjorklund left the sideline to join them.

"She showed some toughness and got back in and ran when she didn't have to," Summitt said.

The same players who annoyed their coach Thursday heard her encouragement Friday at practice. Some of them could play extended minutes, depending on the final status of the three injured players and if they can go or for how long.

"If the players that are out can't go all-out, they won't play," Summitt said. "We would look at some different tempo options and being strategic with your timeouts. Usually I take most of them home with me. That obviously wouldn't be the case."

Parker's possible absence is a primary concern because she leads the team in points, rebounds and blocks.

"If Candace can't play obviously we're going to have to step it up and get more from everyone else," Hornbuckle said. "Everybody is going to have to contribute the way they've been contributing but much more as far as scoring aspect because she's averaging close to 20 points. That's a big void you've got to fill."

Moshak noted how well Parker tackles rehab and how hard she will work to try to be able to play. That was boosted by the realization that her knee would be OK.

"I think a lot of it is first of all the realization that she didn't do anything major to the knee," Moshak said. "When you get that relief aspect involved now Candace is like, ‘Let's go. Let's work. Let's get back.' Once she realized her ACL is fine and the other major structures are all OK, let's get down to business.

"I was feeling a sense of relief and I was feeling a sense of she doesn't deserve this if anything was that bad. She's a pleasure to work with. She's gifted; she's a hard worker. If anybody can come back from this in a quick manner, she can."

Moshak has two other members of her rehab team in McMahan, who can practice some, and Kelley Cain, who had surgery last December to realign her kneecap. McMahan has handled several recent practices without any problems.

"I'm very encouraged," Moshak said. "We've put several good days of practice in a row. Her class schedule, her travel schedule (McMahan doesn't always travel to mid-week games because of class) has probably kept it limited, which in the long run is probably to her benefit. She's progressing very nicely, and I expect a full return for next year."

Cain had major surgery to stabilize her knee and won't return to basketball activity for several months. But she has done very well off the court.

"We can start Monday progressing her off the crutches and out of that brace," Moshak said. "She's basically a little bit ahead of schedule with her muscle strength for what I can do in rehab. She's a pleasure to work with and works very hard.

"This group makes my job easier because of their attitudes and their efforts."

Summitt has turned the three active players over to Moshak this weekend. Once it's determined who can play Monday, Summitt will hammer out a game plan.

"Without sitting around and driving myself crazy about all the what-ifs I'm going to wait until Sunday afternoon, and I'll have a much better idea," Summitt said.

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