Lady Vols get ready for tourney

The first sign of spring isn't the bulbs blooming or the grass growing or the birds chirping. It's the Lady Vol managers rolling out a rack of Wilson basketballs before practice. That means it's officially March – time for postseason – in Tennessee.

The SEC and NCAA tournaments use the Wilson brand of basketballs so Tennessee will store its Baden balls and switch in order to be game ready. It's part of the attention to detail that Pat Summitt is known for when the calendar flips to March.

Summitt had to make one other practice change Tuesday when another indication of the coming change in season swept across Knoxville in the form of an afternoon monsoon and forced the Lady Vols to move midstream because of a leaky roof.

The team scooted over to Pratt Pavilion after rainwater began dripping onto the floor near center court at Thompson-Boling Arena. The managers brought out towels and a large trashcan, but Summitt – fearful of injury risk – quickly pulled the team off the court and moved practice operations to Pratt. New roof tiles are part of phase two in the arena renovations, and the roof has leaked before during heavy rainstorms.

The team didn't miss a beat and picked up where they left off in the arena with an upbeat practice that left even Summitt pleased with their effort.

"It was a great practice, a lot of energy," Summitt said. "We got to really work on our defense."

Summitt intends to use this week for drill work, especially transition defense and rebounding, and to tweak the offensive and defensive systems. The Lady Vols will play Friday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern (TV: Fox Sports Net) at the Sommet Center in Nashville against the winner of Thursday's Florida-South Carolina game.

"We'll throw in a couple of things for SEC play in case we need them," said Summitt, who noted that Tennessee is on TV so much that a lot of scout film is available. "We played Florida recently. It's been awhile since we've seen South Carolina. But right now it's more about us. We have to get ready. Our practice preparation they (the assistants) want to throw in a couple of new wrinkles. This is a time we can do it."

The two weeks between the SEC tourney and the start of the NCAA Tournament also will allow the coaches to modify some schemes.

"We'll have an opportunity to put in some new looks both offensively and defensively before we go into the NCAAs," Summitt said.

Tennessee (27-2, 13-1) is headed to Nashville as the No. 2 seed in the tourney and will leave Knoxville with a chip on its shoulder. The coaches' postseason awards were announced Tuesday afternoon and Candace Parker wasn't the player of the year in the SEC. That award went to LSU's Sylvia Fowles, who also was voted defensive player of the year.

"I think when they recognize that they haven't been given maybe the amount of respect in some of the voting as far as some of our players and as far as our team I think they'll be ready," Summitt said.

Tennessee lost to LSU, 78-62, on Feb. 14 after losing a 19-point first-half lead. Parker's numbers were sensational in that game – 26 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, six steals and two blocks – but the guards struggled to score and the Lady Vols collapsed over the final five minutes. Fowles finished the game with 17 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks and two assists.

"I'm assuming the LSU game was very costly with that award, not that individual honors are most important to us, it's what we do as a team," Summitt said. "Obviously LSU took it to us, and the wheels came off."

Will Summitt use the coaches' vote as motivation for Parker?

"I don't think I'll have to," Summitt said. "I gave them a sheet of paper on who got what. Just knowing Candace and her competitive drive Candace is more about winning than anything, than individual awards. I think right now that's where our team's focus will be."

Tennessee's Angie Bjorklund won Freshman of the Year in the SEC. The wing player from Spokane Valley, Wash., started in her first year and averaged 9.9 points per game and 3.6 rebounds per game.

"To be able to come into a very talented team and step in and start and make an impact that's hard to do, particularly here," Summitt said. "I was really pleased for her. I thought she should have won the award."

Bjorklund also was named the SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday – the season's final weekly awards – after averaging 8.0 ppg and 6.5 rpg in the last two games. She came off the bench on senior night against Florida – the only game this season that she did not start – and tallied 14 points and seven rebounds. With four treys vs. the Gators, she moved into sixth place in the Lady Vol record book for single-season three-pointers made with 62.

Bjorklund earned the award for the fifth time this season and tied Parker for the most SEC Freshman of the Week awards for a Tennessee freshman.

"Pretty consistent," Summitt said.

Bjorklund is the sixth Lady Vol all-time to be named the SEC rookie of the year. The others were Bridgette Gordon (1986); Dena Head (1989); Chamique Holdsclaw (1996); Tamika Catchings (1998); and Parker (2006).

"She did a great job as a freshman and came in here and handled her responsibilities to the best of her abilities," senior guard Alexis Hornbuckle said.

Hornbuckle and Parker were selected to the All-SEC First Team and Hornbuckle also got a nod for the All-SEC Defensive Team. Hornbuckle set the all-time steals record at Tennessee this season – passing Gordon, who had 333 – and had a strong resume for defensive player of the year consideration with 75 steals this season and 29 blocks.

Senior guard Shannon Bobbitt was picked for the All-SEC Second Team.

Summitt said Fowles is the equivalent of Parker for LSU.

"She does for LSU what Candace does for us as far as giving that great go-to player that carries a heavy load at both ends," Summitt said. "I think it just comes down to what happened in head-to-head competition.

"This is great motivation. If that doesn't ruffle our feathers, what will? I was probably the maddest of the whole year I was so mad after the LSU game. We quit and now this is the price tag for it. This is what happens.

"You get beat and then a lot of people don't respect your team or players. I was so mad that night I couldn't even hardly breathe after the game was over."

If the seeds hold at the SEC tourney, the two teams will meet again Sunday.

"I think they'd love to have another shot at LSU and we've got to take care of business as we go into the SEC," Summitt said.

Joining Fowles, Parker and Hornbuckle on the first team were: Tasha Humphrey, Georgia; Christina Wirth, Vanderbilt; DeWanna Bonner, Auburn; Quianna Chaney, LSU; and Marshae Dotson, Florida. Fowles and Parker were unanimous selections.

Joining Bobbitt on the second team were: Samantha Mahoney, Kentucky; Sarah Elliott, Kentucky; Shawn Goff, Ole Miss; Ashley Houts, Georgia; Jennifer Risper, Vanderbilt; Erica White, LSU; and Demetress Adams, South Carolina.

Joining Bjorklund, who was a unanimous selection, on the freshman team were: Vicki Dunlap, Kentucky; Angela Puleo, Georgia; Amber Smith, Kentucky; Alli Smalley, Auburn; Jence Rhoads, Vanderbilt; Mary Kathryn Govero; Mississippi State; and Hannah Tuomi, Vanderbilt.

Joining Fowles and Hornbuckle on the defensive team were: Brittney Vaughn, Arkansas; Jennifer Risper, Vanderbilt; and Demetress Adams, South Carolina.

LSU's Van Chancellor was the Coach of the Year. The 6th Woman of the Year was a tie between Jessica Mooney of Vanderbilt and Allison Hightower of LSU. The Scholar-Athlete of the Year was Chelsea Chowning of Kentucky.

Summitt had quite a bit to make her bristle Tuesday. During an ESPN women's basketball telecast Monday evening, the seeding in the NCAA tourney was discussed, and it was suggested that Tennessee could be a No. 2 seed.

"No respect," Summitt said during her television interviews before practice. "No respect. And there's one way to get it. I don't know how much our team has heard but before we play in Nashville they'll get an earful because I think we have not played at the top of our game every game and a lot of us is dealing with coming off a national championship.

"I've been there before. I've seen it. It's kind of hard to keep that edge where you want it to be. If they're just half as excited as I am about going to Nashville and playing then we'll be all right.

"There's some so-called ‘experts' in the game that aren't very impressed with our team."

Summitt's intensity always ratchets up in March, and the "experts" are just adding fuel to her already raging fire.

"It's true," Summitt said with a smile. "I think my whole staff (changes). You know you've got to win to keep playing and so every possession matters. I think there's just a greater sense of urgency, and it should be. We dial up our intensity, but we also ask the players to really dial theirs up."

Parker said it's a source of amusement for the veterans to watch the freshmen react to Summitt in March.

"Coach Summitt is a whole different person in practice," Parker said. "We need it. That's nothing new to us, but it's funny the first time the freshmen see what we're talking about."

The win against Georgia on Sunday helped Tennessee close out the regular season with some momentum. Summitt sees her team on the right path as postseason starts but by no means has it arrived.

"I think they're getting there," Summitt said. "I'll find out a lot more in Nashville. They've been waiting all year for postseason. I know that. It's been a struggle at times for the coaches because we have a certain way that we expect them to play every game, and we haven't seen that consistently.

"I'm optimistic we'll see it in Nashville, and we've got to see it there. I don't want to put a number one seed on the line. Obviously people think we're a number two seed, some of the ‘experts.' "

Parker had 30 points in the 72-63 win over Georgia, but she got help in the second half from Bobbitt, who had 15, and Hornbuckle and Alberta Auguste, who both got to the rim.

"We do run a lot of looks to Candace, but at the same time I never want to take away our guard play and getting to the paint," Summitt said. "Shannon and Alexis and Alberta they've got to be very mindful of their role on this team as well. I went back and looked at it. I kind of blame myself for going inside consecutive possessions and maybe we can look at varying our options and keeping everyone a little bit more involved. But everyone knows that Candace is a great go-to player, and we certainly are going to go to her at times at well."

Parker made it a point Tuesday to laud Auguste's play in the Georgia game and to note how effective she was last year in the postseason.

"Bird comes to play in big games," Parker said. "The way she played against Georgia I think she was the quiet assassin in that game."

The loss to LSU cost Tennessee some postseason awards, and it also left the Lady Vols with something to prove in the conference.

"I think there's going to be some motivation for this team," Summitt said. "I think sometimes when they have a goal of wanting to win the SEC regular season and then don't the only way they can get a piece of that is be recognized as the SEC Tournament champs."

The LSU game ended up as the embodiment of what Summitt had been warning the team about all season – surrendering leads and not playing for 40 minutes.

"Our basketball team went through a lull," Summitt said. "They get up and get a lead. Play the scoreboard instead of the game, and you can't do that because those will become bad habits. Bad habits are as hard to break as the good habits. We want to try and form a lot of good habits and particularly playing every possession as if it matters because it may very well matter."

Tennessee will go to Nashville with players who have won the tourney title before in 2005 and 2006.

"They're a senior-dominated team," Summitt said. "I expect them to be ready to play and provide leadership by example, hold each other accountable, take ownership for how we're going to play and if we don't play the way we need to play, pull together and try to work through it together."

The team certainly stuck together in terms of free throw shooting against Georgia and put up an abysmal 8-20 stat line from the stripe. Parker was 4-9.

"We want to do everything as a team," Parker joked. "They saw I was missing so they were like, ‘Let's make her feel better.' "

It's that type of camaraderie that has carried this team all season. The players genuinely get along with each other so Summitt is grateful for the team chemistry and the shared goal of winning in the postseason.

"This team is special," Parker said. "We're going to take it one game at a time."

That philosophy starts in practice, and the team answered the coach's call Tuesday to dial up the intensity. The session was used for full-court work – particularly transition defense and offense – and Parker tested the Wilson basketball by dunking one to finish practice. She took one step under the basket and rattled the rim.

"I love Wilson balls, the bounce, the grip," Parker said. "I really like it."

Cait McMahan, who ran the scout team at practice Tuesday, was impressive, especially in transition when she either got to the rim or hit the open player. McMahan is coming back from knee surgery and will play next season.

"She did a nice job, and she knows the plays now," Summitt said. "Cait is much more focused than she's ever been. I think she understands in order to play the point position here she's got to know how to run the team. She's got a lot of different options that she has to run and she has to know what everybody on the floor is supposed to do.

"If somebody messes up she has to be able to say, ‘Well, in that situation, you run a flare screen.' It's encouraging to see how she's playing because as we look at the youth we'll have coming in we'll be really talented, but we'll be very young so we need Cait's leadership."

The Lady Vols will practice Wednesday at home and then use Thursday to travel to Nashville. They will shoot Friday morning at the Sommet Center and then play that afternoon.

"I want our legs," Summitt said.


Inside Tennessee Top Stories