Baugh had a smile on her face and a bounce in her step Sunday before practice started and the reason became readily apparent when she took the floor during a full-court scrimmage – the coaches used officials and five 8-minute segments to simulate a game – for the first time since practice officially began in mid-October.
"Jenny wanted her to go," Coach Pat Summitt said. "I was a little cautious about it, and Jenny said, ‘She's good to go.' Jenny, I trust her. Whatever she tells me I'm good with it."
Baugh would have been cleared to play this Thursday and next Sunday in the two exhibition games, but she missed two summer school classes, so she has to sit for two games by Summitt's longstanding rules. Sophomore guard Angie Bjorklund will miss Thursday's game for missing one summer school class.
Bjorklund did start with the first group Sunday – Summitt went with a veteran lineup Sunday but said she still has not finalized the starters for Thursday – and should be a lock to start when the season begins based on her improved play on both sides of the ball.
Alex Fuller and Cait McMahan also were in the lineup to open the scrimmage and both had a calming effect on the team – Fuller gets the team into tight huddles in a hurry, and McMahan is composed with the ball in her hand.
"The experience and being familiar with how we want to play and understanding our sets," Summitt said of McMahan. "She's a little more vocal than Bri (Bass), but Bri looks good."
The freshmen had moments in which they looked young, but they also showed glimpses of what made them so highly ranked in high school.
Alyssia Brewer battled in the paint and hit two three pointers, including one to tie the game off an in-bounds play at the end of the fourth segment with the shot clock expiring. She was swarmed by her teammates after swishing the shot.
"To Lyssi's credit when she's feeling good about herself and when she is not fatigued or doesn't give in to fatigue she's a very skilled player," Summitt said. "She's got size and great skill."
Baugh entered the game for the fourth segment and was tentative as she tested her knee. She reentered midway through the fifth segment and lit up Pratt Pavilion.
In about three minutes of court time she blocked a shot – essentially snatched it out of the air – of a taller practice player, scored on a breakaway layup, drove from the free throw line and finished with her left hand and drew a charge in the open court. The series of events was beneficial for Baugh's confidence. The freshmen also got a firsthand look at what level of energy Summitt expects.
"The speed, the quickness, just her presence," Summitt said with a huge smile. "It elevated everyone's play. When someone is playing that hard (others play) a little harder."
Baugh, a native of Sacramento, Calif., remained in Knoxville over the summer to devote her days to rehab after she had ACL surgery in May. She tore the ligament in the national title game in Tampa.
"She realized she had to get that quad stronger," Summitt said. "I know from having had an ACL myself. You're the only one who can really do it. You're the one that's got to get in the weight room and fire the quad. She realized, ‘I've got to get this done.' "
Baugh had been released for half-court drills and in what had been a positive sign all preseason, she was able to make lateral moves on defense and slice to the basket on offense. She also didn't hesitate to leave her feet or land on her left leg.
"We're getting her stronger," Moshak said. "We're taking the volume up (on the court) on a consistent basis to where her knee is tolerating it, so she hasn't been swelling, she's being due diligent with her rehab, and we're getting her stronger."
Baugh remains in what Moshak calls "rehab mode," and her work in the weight room doesn't diminish.
"The strength phase will continue," Moshak said. "If we don't lift (as a team) three days a week, Vicki Baugh will lift three days a week. She is still in the rehab mode. It's (swelling) to be expected a little bit, but if it doesn't swell much or it swells and goes down, then that's all doable."
Baugh also is not alone. Half of the players on the 12-woman roster are coming back from either knee surgery or have knee issues that must be monitored. Because the team is so young and inexperienced the pace and intensity of practice is noticeably more demanding this season than last year when a veteran group didn't need an abundance of basic instruction and drill work.
"It's a constant battle each day because we're working so hard," Moshak said. "These are long, hard, intense practices, but Pat's not going to let up because we're young, and she needs to keep the emphasis going so we've just got to do a little more care and treatment."
Summitt's volume was also up this weekend – the calendar flips to November and her intensity levels ratchets up another level – as the start of the season draws closer. Players who have had her in teaching mode since late August are now hearing her in coaching mode. Nearly everyone got an earful over the last two days.
"We've got a long way to go, a long way to go," Summitt said.