'Much better' practice session

Pat Summitt got a "much better" performance from her team Tuesday and the players will get a day off today, but she warned them if their day-after-a-game practice approach doesn't change they will start seeing her more often and much earlier in the day.

"Much better, much better," Pat Summitt said of the effort and focus in Tuesday's session compared to the uneven output Monday. "You just wonder with the youth that we have are we going to have to put up with it more than we want? I hope not. I told them if it happens again, it's two-a-days."

That would mean sessions that begin at 6 a.m. before class followed by afternoon workouts. As it were, the players responded to the pre-practice verbal challenge and, for the first time, each one hit a post-practice free throw, thus saving the team as a whole from having to run a series of sprints for each missed shot.

One player who had missed the first attempt quite a few times in the past made her first try Tuesday, raised her hands in celebration and relief and then took a bow to the sideline as her teammates cheered. As each player took her place at the line and swished the free throw the anticipation built until freshman Briana Bass was the last one left to shoot.

When her free throw settled through the net a huge roar went up from the players and the coaches as they ran to center court to end practice. Heather Mason, who was waiting on the baseline with her stopwatch, wasn't needed for once.

"Was that a blessing! It's great to see their spirit," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "We silently don't like it (watching them run sprint after sprint). It would be nice to make your free throw and let's end. We stand here and cheerlead while they run sprints."

The team will take off Wednesday and then reconvene Thursday afternoon. The first official game is this Saturday at 1 p.m. Eastern (TV: SportSouth) against San Francisco, which is coached by former Lady Vol Tanya Haave. The 2008 national championship banner will be raised in a pre-game ceremony.

"Take off (Wednesday) and then come back and have a good up-and-down day (Thursday) and then we'll just do game day shooting on Friday and not come in before the game and shoot, because it's early," Summitt said.

It's a tapering process as the coaches get the team ready for the first game that counts. It also starts the countdown to Summitt's 1,000th career win. With 983 already logged, Summitt needs just 17 more to reach the milestone.

The question mark going into this season was how would Tennessee rebound from the loss of five senior starters, four of whom now play in the WNBA. With seven freshmen, four sophomores and one senior on the roster the coaches made a conscious decision to ratchet up practice both in length and intensity. The tone was set in late August when individual workouts began and the demands picked up again when practice officially started in mid-October.

"They don't know what they don't know," Lockwood said. "They don't know what they don't know. Part of being young is you don't know what you don't know. You take a 22-year-old Marine who's been on two tours of duty versus some 18-year-old kid who's still green and wet behind his ears he has no idea what he's walking into, whereas that 22-year-old can sit that guy down and say, ‘Look, son, here's what life is like.'

"Right now they're still at times in this la la land of high school habits, but by and large because they were so talented they were allowed to have more of those moments. Now, that will get our team killed in two or three possessions and it could mean the basketball game. What we've tried to do is not let up on what our level of expectations are, the level of intensity that we demand and what the game demands.

"To play where we want to be playing in March and April demands a certain respect and a certain level of intensity and energy. So we're not letting up on that."

Practice sessions have been physical and fast-paced. Tuesday's session was boosted by the return of senior forward Alex Fuller, who took an upper body blow in Sunday's exhibition game and missed Monday's session. Freshman forward Alyssia Brewer, who sprained her left thumb (shooting hand) on Monday was taped and able to practice. Freshman center Kelley Cain was held out Tuesday after taking a hit to the jaw Monday. Sophomore forward Angie Bjorklund missed most of the session as she continues to be treated for back spasms.

The staff spent most of Tuesday working on defense, especially the principles of the matchup zone, and its presses. That layer of detailed instruction so soon indicates the confidence the coaches have in the players and the expectations for this season.

"No question," Lockwood said. "We told them you're freshmen in name only. Take a look around. We've got one senior and after that it's a mishmash of first- and second-year players. So you're a freshman in name only. You're going to be out there and a lot of y'all are going to be getting quality game minutes, and you're going to be playing against juniors and seniors.

"You're freshmen only because academically we've got to put something down, but in terms of how we expect you to perform, we expect you to perform like players that have been around here a year or two."

One of the second-year players, Sydney Smallbone, continues to show improvement in practice over last season on both sides of the ball. She has accepted the role of upperclassman bestowed by the coaches.

"It's something that I take pride in," Smallbone said. "I come out every day at practice and show leadership and be vocal and show the freshmen what it takes to get better. "I think we're all eager to learn. We're a young team so everyone takes to heart what Coach Pat Summitt says. We're trying to learn every day, learn the system. It is the Tennessee system so we're trying to play her game and do things the way she wants things done."

Smallbone has noticed the difference in practices this season compared to a year ago when a veteran team was already conditioned and knew the system.

"I think practices are a little bit longer," Smallbone said. "We run a lot more sprints. We condition after practices. It's different that way, but it's still the same coach. She does things the same. From that standpoint it's the same but the practices have picked up a little bit.

"The freshmen came in and they adapted real well. I thought we did, too. It helps to come in in the summer and do summer school, work out with Heather and get in the weight room. All that helps with the chemistry. They're doing a great job so far and we'll see how the season goes. We have a lot to prove, and I think the freshmen are going to be just fine with that."

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