Angie Bjorklund returns to practice

Tennessee hasn't been at full strength since the season opened earlier this month but with "Rehab Row" on the mend the Lady Vols might have all 12 players activated for Sunday's game with DePaul. With the Blue Demons in mind the coaching staff spent the bulk of Friday's practice working on defense.

The Lady Vols practiced for about two hours on the day after Thanksgiving with an emphasis on defense. However, in the absence of male practice players – school was out Thursday and Friday – the team played five on five against each other, so they ended up being able to work on both sides of the ball.

"They'll compete with each other," Pat Summitt said.

And unlike last season the staff didn't have to cut it short because it got too competitive.

"They like each other," Summitt said with a smile.

The remark was tongue in cheek, but last year's team would challenge each other because of the strong personalities who also didn't hesitate to let loose some chatter on occasion. They were competitors – most especially when the score was being kept – and it was part of the reason that group won back-to-back national titles.

The Lady Vols this season are young and still learning how to compete, especially with a floor full of freshmen trying to absorb the system.

"I think it's mental, because the physical ability we all know we have and we can be strong as heck, but I think we're over-thinking sometimes and that's when we start to struggle," said sophomore forward Vicki Baugh, who has now practiced and played for a week without swelling of her surgically reconstructed left knee.

The team was aided Friday by the return of sophomore Angie Bjorklund, who returned to practice for the first time in nearly three weeks. She has been out for treatment of a bulging disk in her lower back that sidelined her for most of November.

"It almost makes my stomach hurt to watch her out there since she hasn't been able to play," Summitt said.

That wasn't commentary on her practice. It was a compliment because Summitt knows how much Bjorklund has been missed because of her long-range shot and knowledge of the system. Bjorklund also is a better defender as she has improved her foot speed and positioning.

"She's a lot quicker," Summitt said. "Angie takes a little pressure off our inside game. People have to guard her. We space better when she's on the floor because of her range. I thought our perimeter game would be more consistent than it has been, but I understand we're dealing with a lot of youth. I think she'll give us the three-point range and also take pressure off the other shooters, who then might shoot better.

"It's just like Vicki Baugh steps out on the floor and all of sudden Glory Johnson's got more energy. You can't watch her if you're a player and not dial it up."

With Bjorklund back the Lady Vols had 10 players available – enough for five on five.

If Bjorklund's back is OK on Saturday, she could make her season debut on Sunday.

"We're progressing her daily," said Jenny Moshak, the Lady Vols chief of sports medicine. "She knows what she is supposed to feel pain-wise, what she's allowed to live with, what she isn't allowed to live with, so then she just backs off after that. The program is working. Her core is getting stronger, she's getting more stable, she's getting more flexible, so we're able to progress her.

"We'll see how she feels (Saturday) from what she did (Friday). We saw how she felt (Friday) with what she did Wednesday, but she had a day off. So now we'll see how she feels going back to back. It's all playing into the scheme. We get more information; we know what we need to do."

Two players, Kelley Cain and Alicia Manning, remained out of practice Friday because of the protocol for treatment of concussions. But they could be cleared to practice Saturday.

"They passed their exercise challenge today – 45 minutes on the elliptical and the bike," Moshak said. "So (Saturday) they'll go through practice, as long as they don't have any signs or symptoms of anything before practice. If they don't have any signs or symptoms after practice (Saturday) Dr. (Rebecca) Morgan will look at them before the game and make game day decisions."

If all three players are released Sunday it would be the first time this season that Tennessee had all 12 players on the roster cleared to play.

One player who hasn't missed any time is senior forward Alex Fuller, but she is playing with some padding and tape on her left wrist and forearm.

"It's just some padding because it hurts when it gets hit," Moshak said. "She has no idea when it happened. It was bothering her for awhile, we treated her, it went away, it started bothering her again. So we're back to treating it again. It's just some padding to protect that. She may have fallen on the arm."

With a defensively oriented practice after a scheduled day off Summitt was asked to rate the session on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the best.

"About a seven," Summitt said. "I think we gave them a lot of different looks and for some reason they haven't committed to the communication that we need, and we need a lot of it because of how we play, particularly defensively to make sure everyone is in the right spots and everyone has the awareness that they need, whether they're in the traps or covering out of the traps."

Freshman forward Alyssia Brewer was particularly vocal Friday, an indication that she is getting more comfortable on defense.

"She's getting better," Summitt said.

Most of practice was spent working on beating pressure defense and applying some of it.

"With DePaul coming in they're going to give us a lot of defensive looks, and I just wanted us to be aware as to how we wanted to attack their different full court schemes, in particular," Summitt said.

"They vary their point of pickup like we do. There're a lot of similarities in the full, half, three-quarter (court pressure), and we've seen some but I think this will be more."

DePaul has never beaten Tennessee in 17 matchups and after last year's 102-68 wipeout in Chicago, Summitt expects the Blue Demons to be looking for some revenge. Saturday's practice will be used for specific scouting work.

"I think everyone in the country thinks it's time," Summitt said. "You're going against a lot of young players, predominantly freshmen. So, again, it depends on how we show up to play."

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