"They've been good. They've been a better practice team than they have come game day a lot," Pat Summitt said with a smile. "They have good habits in practice."
Summitt's season-long theme was to have her team play 40 minutes and the results were mixed – a combination of players anticipating the postseason and a short bench to handle the daily rigors or the regular season – but the coach said they seem to be rounding into form just in time.
"We were very pleased," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said.
The coaching staff divided the time between the SEC and NCAA tourneys into three-day practice segments – three days last week and three days this week with consecutive days off to restore the players' legs and minds.
"Last week was a little more grind it; those were training camp practices," Lockwood said. "We really got a lot of work on specific stuff that we do. We were trying to stay in game shape. What we've done the last three days is make our system cleaned up and razor sharp. We were very pleased with both segments – three days before and then the three days after the break."
The team will use its hour of open practice at Mackey Arena at 5 p.m. Saturday as its final preparation time before Sunday's 9:30 p.m. game (ESPN2) against Oral Roberts in West Lafayette. Summitt said with a veteran squad – and the way practice went this week – that short time on Saturday would be sufficient and it also helps save their legs for when it counts.
Thursday in Knoxville was also used to simulate game situations on both sides of the ball from defensive stops to scoring with a few seconds on the shot clock. The players went five on five – Cait McMahan, who is taking a redshirt this season, was good to go so 10 were available – because the practice squad has retired. Several former players – ones who had played in the 1970s and 80s – came to campus earlier this week to help the current team get ready for postseason.
"It just shows the loyalty and the commitment to this program," Lockwood said. "Obviously you don't move at age 40 like you did at 20. Our players appreciated it, and they sensed the support. I think that's what's really neat. Our kids got a look that there's enough former players around here that think enough of this place and what their experience was to come back."
Two current players, Angie Bjorklund, a freshman wing, and Alberta Auguste, a senior wing, continued to impress the coaching staff with their practice performances. Auguste is brimming with confidence, and Bjorklund's shot has returned.
Summitt has decided to start the senior in postseason – Bjorklund started 30 games this season, Auguste, three – because of Auguste's overall game and experience in March.
The lineup change was a non-issue with both players and the team.
"I think it would be different if you had people who didn't get along and there wasn't a good relationship and if you had more selfish, self-oriented, self-centered people," Lockwood said. "Both of them, being the beautiful people that they are, they're both team-oriented. They're so supportive.
"When Angie starts, I've never seen Bird have that pouty look and vice versa. When Bird started in the SEC Tournament, I never saw Angie get in that fog and say, ‘I should be out there.' She's up cheering for Bird. You've got two people who are pretty selfless and pretty team-oriented."
Lockwood said the seniors also have imparted a now-or-never attitude to the rest of the team.
"The other thing it plays to this is not November, December," he said. "We've got a maximum of six games and I think there's a sense of urgency that the seniors have put into this team that, ‘Hey, they're ain't no tomorrows for any of us. Y'all are coming back; returners have tomorrow but none of us do'. So I think there's a sense on our team that we want to do whatever we need to do to help the team.
"It speaks to both of them how good of people they are and how team oriented that they are. They have basically embraced whatever this team needs me to do."
Auguste provides defensive punch and can penetrate to the rim. Bjorklund can light up opponents from long range and must be guarded well away from the basket. The coaching staff has plans for both of them.
"No matter who starts, those two players are going to get minutes," Lockwood said.
The time between games also allowed the Lady Vols to install some new looks on offense. Summitt borrowed one play from Vols Coach Bruce Pearl and named it for him. The men play Friday in the NCAA tourney against American, and the two programs have enjoyed a synergistic relationship throughout the season.
"Our players go to their games; they come to our games," Summitt said. "Our staff interacts with the men's staff. We share philosophy. I like to come and watch Bruce in practice. You pick up maybe a new language, terminology, different schemes.
"We put in one of their set plays last week in practice. We've got the ‘Pearl' play that he taught us."
A warm relationship between the men's and women's coaches is not that common in big-time basketball.
"That's sad that so many of the men's basketball coaches and the women's basketball coaches don't get along," Summitt said. "I could tell you a long list and it's like, ‘Why?' I love watching them play. There have been so many times I've talked about how tough they are defensively. They're just relentless in getting after the ball. I've told our team this is the first time since I've coached here that I felt like we're getting out-worked in how hard they work versus how hard we work."
That resonated with the players, who have picked up their focus and level of energy in March. That process began in Nashville, where the Lady Vols won three consecutive games to claim the SEC tourney trophy. This senior class has won either the regular season (2007) or the conference tourney (2005, 2006, 2008) every year of its career.
"You have to set your mind in order to play like that," said senior center Nicky Anosike. "And I think we set our mind in the SEC Tournament, and I think we still have improvement to do, but I think if we set our mind in the NCAA no one can stop us."
Candace Parker sought out her coach to chat on one of the off days this week. They talked about Parker's career in orange – the redshirt junior forward will leave with her class of 2008 – and how quickly the calendar flips.
"We visited a couple of days ago about an hour and a half and talked about going into the tournament and how fast it goes," Summitt said. "I think she really wants to leave her mark on this program. I think this senior class feels that.
"I told her not to even think about it. Just go play. If anything, as a group collectively, if they come together and they make up their minds what they want to do, they've got a great shot. They've got a great shot at winning the championship if they're all on the same page.
"They seem right now like they've got great team chemistry. I think winning the SEC was good for them. Sometimes I think a team needs a loss. In that case I thought they needed a win. I think they need to feel really good about themselves as they go in knowing they're the defending national champions."