Lady Vols start practice at top of arena

Practice for the Lady Vols started Monday with a quick trip along the concourse to view the program's history and then a long climb to the top of the arena to the last row of seats to see the vantage point of dedicated fans.

It was a late night for Pat Summitt, who stayed up until 1:30 a.m. Monday so she could watch the game tape twice from the 72-46 win on Sunday over Mississippi State. Summitt is one to turn in early, but she wanted some extra looks at the film.

"It confirmed what I already thought," Summitt said.

After the game Summitt sounded exasperated and nearly resigned to her team's reluctance to play for 40 minutes. By Monday she was back in fighting spirit, and she spent one hour with the team on the tour of Thompson-Boling Arena and watching film.

She let them hear the caustic commentary of Teresa Edwards, because Summitt agreed with every word said by the five-time Olympian and former standout at Georgia about the Lady Vols' lack of energy.

"We just listened to what the announcers had to say," Summitt said. "They were very critical, but they were right on. Teresa Edwards I've coached her. I know her. Criticized our effort. I thought she was right on."

The film session followed the pilgrimage to the highest point of the arena – the players journeyed there alone – that Summitt hoped gave them some perspective.

"We went up to 322, because (Sunday) I'm sitting on the bench and I'm looking up and those top row seats were full," Summitt said. "And I'm thinking, ‘What an awesome crowd.' "

The largest crowd of the season, 20,249, saw No. 3 Tennessee (25-2, 11-1) get the win in the penultimate home game, and Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick suggested to Summitt that the players look at the court from the point of view of a fan willing to sit at the top of Thompson-Boling just to see the 2007-08 team.

"Obviously they know, like all of us know, that we're getting ready to lose a group of seniors that have had an impact on the program and won a championship," Summitt said. "I'm always touched by that when we have great crowds. I never want to take it for granted.

"We were sitting on the bench, and we were talking about it and I said, ‘Look up there. All the way to the top.' And stayed late. They must have been serving good hotdogs or something up there because we didn't give them a lot to cheer about, especially in the first half."

The players walked down the steps carrying notes that they had jotted down while perched at the top. The coaches were to read the players' thoughts about the team later. Summitt hopes they came away from the section with an appreciation for the fans and "just not to take for granted how wonderful our fans are."

Some of the players had not yet toured the concourse with its photos of Lady Vols of lore, Olympians, professionals and national title teams.

"That's really a history lesson on Lady Vol basketball," Summitt said.

Summitt didn't have anything to say during the film session, but she had plenty to say at practice.

"I'm going to do my work right here," Summitt said.

Practice was up-tempo at a rather relentless pace. It ended with sets of sprints that left most players gasping for air and then a full-court offensive drill for four minutes without a break. The players turned in their best practice performance of the year in that drill and huddled up with cheers and high fives.

The season-long question is will that transfer to a game?

"Who knows?" Summitt said. "Your guess is as good as mine. I think every time you play this game you should play the game with great passion if you love the game, if you're competitive. You don't disrespect the game. And when you don't play hard, what are you bringing? What are you saying?

"I really felt like after LSU we came back and had a couple of good games. We have to understand a 40-minute game, playing hard for 40 minutes. Probably the closest game for a 40-minute game was the Vanderbilt game."

Tennessee takes every team's best shot – and so far that has resulted in only two losses, at Stanford in December and against LSU at home in February – but it's not a new notion, and this program is used to it, especially with veterans on the roster. The 2007 banner hanging in the arena and the No. 1 ranking at the time of the losses also give other teams motivation.

"Everybody is going to get up to play Tennessee," Summitt said. "We're the defending national champs."

The goal, of course, is to repeat that performance, but it's not a topic Summitt has brought up to the players yet.

"At this point I just see them focused on finishing up the regular season and getting ready for SEC (tourney) play," Summitt said. "We haven't really talked about the big picture."

Summitt has told the team for months that it needs to develop good game habits during the season. "I don't think you can just flip the switch," Summitt said. "I think flipping the switch you really are living on the edge, and you're just hoping that it all comes together."

Summitt is also fighting the past. Last year's team paced itself in the regular season, went undefeated in the SEC regular season, wasn't particularly interested in battling LSU in the postseason tourney, bowed out early and then put all the pieces together for a title run in Cleveland. That team flipped a switch in NCAA postseason play.

"Coach isn't going to be wrong two years in a row," All-American forward Candace Parker said with a soft smile. "We definitely need to get it together."

Summitt showed Monday that she has a lot of fight left in her – she sees this team as a challenge and made it a point to say how much she actually enjoys them as a group – and intends to get them ready for March. Her intensity in practice was March-like a few days ahead of the calendar.

"She's not going to give up," Parker said. "We know that we can't just turn it on in postseason. We're not looking ahead. We're taking it one game at a time."

That would sound like a sports cliché coming from anybody but Parker, but this team has lived in the moment all season, and Parker said it wasn't hard to not look ahead.

"Honestly, no, especially when you realize how fast things go," Parker said with a nod to Thursday's "Senior Night" home finale against Florida.

Summitt also knows that she has an extremely talented team that has been through the postseason pressure cooker. She has seen enough performances to know what they are capable of doing on the court.

"This team has shown they can be dominant, and they've shown they can be average," Summitt said. "There are times they challenge me, but that's what happens."

SEC HONORS: Forward Vicki Baugh has been picked as the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week, the league office announced Monday. It is the first such honor for the Lady Vol rookie, who is averaging 5.2 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.

In two games last week, the Sacramento, Calif., native connected on 100 percent of her shots from both the field (7-7) and the charity stripe (6-6). She averaged 10.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 14.0 minutes in victories at Alabama and against Mississippi State.

In the Lady Vols' 85-58 rout at Alabama, Baugh scored a career-high 12 points, grabbed four rebounds and rejected two shots. Against Mississippi State, she tallied eight points in eight minutes and added three rebounds and an assist.

Baugh joins fellow Lady Vol rookie Angie Bjorklund and junior Candace Parker as the only Tennessee players to earn weekly conference honors in their first year.

Summitt's praise of Baugh all season has been as eye-popping as the forward's athletic ability.

"Her size, her athleticism, her competitiveness, how hard she played," Summitt said when asked earlier this season why she recruited Baugh. "She didn't take possessions off. I said there's such an incredible upside here because she's got good skills, but she's developing great skills. She's special. She is really special.

"The best thing I can say is I expect her to be a difference-maker in this program from now until her senior year, but the sooner the better for our team. She can do things athletically that no one else on our team can do other than Parker. That (explosiveness) allows Vicki to get up and rebound the basketball and start the break. She's got the skills to push tempo. Just sheer speed."

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