Attention turns to defense

Pat Summitt rearranged the schedule Tuesday afternoon and opted to hold a longer practice rather than go on a recruiting trip with two assistants. The head coach and one assistant stayed in Knoxville to oversee a defensive-oriented practice. It was the sixth consecutive day of work for the team so Summitt will stick to the Wednesday schedule and give the players an off day.

The Tennessee staff and the players watched game film from Monday's 83-82 loss to Virginia for about 30 minutes before the start of practice at Pratt Pavilion.

"I thought it was productive," Pat Summitt said. "We saw the things we needed to see."

Senior forward Alex Fuller met with her teammates before they went to practice and reminded them that effort could ease the process after a loss. Fuller and the Lady Vols haven't had much experience with loss. Tennessee's record over the past three years is 101-10.

"We didn't really talk after the game but today I just told them to come out here and practice hard no matter what, regardless of what yelling there might be," Fuller said with a smile and slight hesitation when she got to the word yelling. "Whatever happens just keep going hard."

There was some shouting but not as much as might have been expected. There was a lot of teaching and drills on defense. The effort was there, and as Fuller had promised, it can help erase the memory of mistakes. After practice Heather Mason oversaw a series of sprints and players who didn't have to run as much paired up with someone who did to pace their teammate.

Summitt's voice and that of Daedra Charles-Furlow were raised and both prowled the sidelines offering a mixture of encouragement and specific challenges.

Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick and Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood departed right after the film session for the scheduled recruiting trip, but Summitt decided the current team took precedence over her presence elsewhere.

"Dean and Holly and I were all three going," Summitt said. "We were going to have a short practice and go. (But after the loss) I knew we needed to watch film, and I knew I needed to be here with them. We had not planned to watch film. We had planned to get some work done on the court and head out."

Summitt had already watched the game tape three times – twice Monday night and once Tuesday – before the team assembled. She saw the same things at home that she saw from the sideline – a team that played sporadically on defense and didn't take care of the ball in crunch time.

"I just think we played hard at times, but we didn't consistently play well together," Summitt said. "We had a lot of people trying to do their own thing. We just didn't step up defensively. We didn't make the stops. I think we thought we were going to have a shootout."

Summitt and her staff had spent time in preseason teaching the offense to six true freshmen and incorporating redshirt freshman Kelley Cain onto the court. Tennessee's two most experienced players from last season, Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh, have yet to play this season because of injury and a return date for either one is not yet known.

Summitt had been fretting that the defense was lagging behind and it was going to be a matter of catch-up. It has been compounded by the fact that freshmen learning to play defense is a slow process.

"I've been worried the whole time because these young players they all got scholarships because of their offensive skills and then they get here and all of a sudden they get the shock of having to play defense," Summitt said. We had a lot of breakdowns in our defense, transition and half-court.

"We didn't identify the ball early. The ball got really deep. Obviously we didn't take care of the two best players. That's priority defense."

Virginia's Aisha Mohammed had 19 points, mostly via physical play inside, and Monica Wright scored a career-high 35 points from everywhere on the floor.

"Us letting her touch the ball period," Lady Vol freshman forward Glory Johnson said of where the defensive breakdowns started with Wright. "She would always drive middle and put the ball on the floor or she'd take the shot. You can't leave her open.

"Our help-side (defense) just needed to get there a little bit faster. We were trying, and she was hitting a lot of shots. Her shot was on this game. She had a nice game."

The last time a player torched Tennessee like that was, surprisingly – since departed players are sometimes deified – last season at Mississippi State. Sophomore guard Alexis Rack scored 32 points on 10-18 shooting, including seven 3-pointers. The Lady Vols trailed at halftime but blasted through the second half and won 87-69. When Rack came to Knoxville 17 days later she was 4-15 from the field and scored 13 points.

That was a veteran team that knew how to correct mistakes during a game and could play shutdown defense when inspired. This young team doesn't yet know how to do so, and one of the veterans from last season – the only one really – can best explain why.

"I think it's the help aspect of our defense that we need to improve on," Fuller said. "It's not that we don't know where to go, it's that we need to be more aware of where we need to go.

"It's knowing you have to be concerned with all five players on the floor and not just yours. You have to be aware of what your teammates are doing on defense, as well as yourself."

Wright took advantage of Tennessee's confusion and essentially either got the ball where she wanted it or dribbled to a desired spot.

"As I told my staff I thought we could have done a much better job designating and rotating people on her as opposed to matching up in transition," Summitt said. "That was part of our problem – they were getting the ball so deep so early that we were in a scramble a lot of times defensively.

"We just had so many lapses on defense. We didn't stop the ball, so the ball got deep and she got a lot of touches. She could bring it up if she wanted to or she could just go get it. Our defense is way, way, way behind our offense."

Still, Tennessee's players came out of the game realizing they let one slip away at home. The Lady Vols had a five-point lead with less than two minutes to go but two turnovers allowed Virginia to tie the game.

A technical foul against Johnson at the 3:38 mark of the second half with Tennessee ahead by two also came at a bad time, but Summitt wasn't inclined to blame Johnson for the incident. Johnson and Virginia's Whitny Edwards' got tangled under the basket after a foul, and Summitt said it seemed to be the aftermath of an earlier play.

"My staff believed it did," Summitt said when asked if the technical foul was warranted. "I wasn't sold on it. I think there had been a confrontation in the backcourt prior to that and I think they let that one go, so I think they were in a little scuffle.

"I've looked at it three times. I just thought she was frustrated and when she threw her hands up it made contact."

Summitt intends to watch the clip with her entire staff to get their input. Part of Johnson's game is predicated on her aggressiveness, and Summitt wants to strike a balance between toughness and composure.

"I don't want to take that away from her," Summitt said. "We're not the kind of team that's going to be a dirty team. We want to be an aggressive team but within the spirit of the rules. I'll look at it again with my staff."

By Tuesday afternoon the focus was on getting better. Fuller outlined the order for the underclassmen.

"First you're ready to come into practice and making sure we correct things that we did wrong and then getting ready for our game on Friday," Fuller said.

Wednesday will be the team's off day, and Thursday will be a travel day and practice on Chattanooga's home court. Friday's game will tip at 6:30 p.m. Eastern (TV:CSS) at McKenzie Arena.

After that it's pre-game practice Saturday, game Sunday (Louisiana Tech), pre-game practice Monday and game Tuesday (Western Carolina), so the Lady Vols don't have a lot of teaching time available over the next week.

"That's why we had a hard day today, take a day off and then scouting report is all we do," Summitt said.


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