Break between games beneficial

The Lady Vols will take off Saturday to buy some healing time and then reassemble Sunday – when more players should be cleared to practice – as Pat Summitt and her staff use the break between games to get better on both sides of the ball.

Pat Summitt intended to give the team one day off this weekend anyway – they are in exams through next Thursday – and the injury list dictated that a day of rest sooner rather than later would be beneficial.

The latest player to suffer a concussion was Amber Gray, a freshman forward who hit head to head with former Lady Vol Alberta Auguste, who practiced with the team Thursday as she has done occasionally this season. Auguste was OK after the blow, but it sent Gray to the sideline early in Thursday's session, and she was held out of practice Friday under the team's concussion protocol. Her status remains day to day.

Kelley Cain and Alicia Manning also have missed time this season with concussions.

Freshman guard/forward Shekinna Stricklen participated in most of practice Friday but was pulled before it was over as she continues to recover from a wound in her cheek. She suffered the injury in Tuesday's game at George Washington after colliding head to head with a Colonial player. Stricklen bit the inside of her cheek, and the gash got infected.

Sophomore guard Angie Bjorklund practiced Thursday and Friday but her back – she is coming back from a bulging disc – could use a day of rest. Sophomore guard Cait McMahan, who is nursing sore knees, also could use a day off the court.

Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, met with Summitt after practice, and they decided Saturday would be the designated day off this weekend.

"That way they can sleep in," Summitt said.

Sunday's session will be in the afternoon because many team members attend church on a regular basis, and a later practice won't interfere with worship services.

"I probably need to go pray," Summitt said.

The remark was tongue in cheek, but Summitt and her staff are trying different tactics to get a young team ready for a rugged month of basketball with Middle Tennessee, Texas, Old Dominion and Stanford on the schedule before the Christmas break.

"I just told them we're trying to get ready for three important games – one at home and two on the road – and first and foremost MTSU," Summitt said. "And then you take into consideration you've got two tough road games."

Summitt didn't even want to think yet about Stanford's arrival in a rematch of the national title game. She was preoccupied with guarding Middle Tennessee – the Blue Raiders lead the country with 10 made three-pointers a game – and going on the road.

"I think right now with this group if you think about our two road games we weren't ready to defend in either one of those," Summitt said. "We weren't passionate about sprinting the floor."

It has been in such sharp contrast to the home games that perhaps it comes down to needing to establish a better pre-game road routine.

"I think it is," Summitt said.

With that in mind, Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach, will travel more now during the regular season. If Mason isn't available because of commitments with other Lady Vol teams, the assistant coaches will be on the floor when the players warm up.

"I've asked Heather to go on these road trips with us, just because we've got to get a good routine down," Summitt said. "A lot of that comes from Heather just being out there and her intensity."

Friday's session began with an hour of team-building exercises, and it seemed to have a positive effect as the players took the court to an abundance of chatter.

"Just talking about our huddles and trying to bring them together as a team, get the communication where it needs to be in the huddles," Summitt said. "I think it's like touching feet out here (when the team gathers in a circle before and after practice) and reiterating touching feet in huddles, making sure that everybody is together.

"I think it's important, talking to them about how they can communicate better. Huddle up and call their offenses and defenses instead of shouting them out all over the floor."

The next hour was devoted to defense – one-on-one technique and then transition defense in a drill that was exhausting to watch, but one the coaches hope will pay dividends in upcoming games. In the transition drill, the five on the floor stayed on defense the entire time in a full-court setting and had to get back and match up without a break in the action. Even the players in excellent condition were challenged in that drill.

"I think that's the two biggest areas for improvement," Summitt said. "We're trying to keep the ball out of the paint off the dribble drive. We'd rather force baseline than middle, and we can sprint to our help. … I think our defense, by the time we play Middle (Tennessee), we should be better. I'd be disappointed if we're not."

The latter part of practice was used to work on the offensive side of the ball, especially ball rotation and post feeds, and the staff also tried variations of its big lineup by moving freshman Glory Johnson to the perimeter in some schemes.

"I think she's been in the gym," Summitt said. "Now, I can look at her playing the three. The thing about Glory is she gives you a great rebounding perimeter player because she's going to go to the boards. She's got a nose for the ball."

The 6'3 Johnson would not be a traditional shooting wing – she won't be lofting threes – but more of a slashing small forward. Johnson has worked to improve her midrange shot, and she has developed a turn-around baseline jumper and can hit from the elbows, the corners at the free throw line.

"She's got good 15-foot range," Summitt said.

Johnson also can get to the rim. She set up a play Friday from the wing that she didn't have in her offensive repertoire in October and finished at the basket.

It was an experiment that Summitt wanted to use the past two years with Candace Parker, but post depth and injuries torpedoed it. Had the 6'6 Kelley Cain been able to play last season Parker would have moved to the perimeter more often, since the three (small forward) and four (power forward) positions can blend together in some of Tennessee's offensive schemes.

If Johnson can play a modified small forward, Summitt can sometimes deploy a monstrously big lineup with Cain, Johnson and the 6'4 Vicki Baugh across the frontline, with Alex Fuller, a 6'3 senior forward, and Alyssia Brewer, a 6'3 freshman center/forward, also in that mix. It would make Tennessee difficult to scout and could create instant mismatches.

"I want to try it," Summitt said. "I think it's worth trying. She'll prove it right or wrong."

The plan has a better chance of succeeding, too, if the backcourt players start hitting shots consistently. The back injury robbed Bjorklund of nearly three weeks of practice time, but she is getting back in shape. The coaches also can rotate Stricklen, Sydney Smallbone and Manning on the wing. Fuller and Gray can both hit from the perimeter and also can play inside when needed there.

A player working to stay in the post rotation is Brewer. She has been steadily improving, and Friday may have been one of her best practices to date.

"Lyssi improved her minutes today," Summitt said.

That bodes well for Brewer since Friday's session was so specific to defense, the toughest transition for a freshman. The focus shifts to the other side of the ball Sunday.

"(Sunday's practice) is going to be a lot of offense," Summitt said. "At this time we can have a longer practice, especially when they get out of exams. It's not like they're going to have a whole lot going on. We need to get some of them on the Gun."

Exams end Dec. 11 – though some of the players are finished by next Wednesday – and then the coaches are not limited by NCAA rules as to how long they can practice because school is out. But the team also has various players coming back from assorted injuries and knee surgeries, so the coaches have to weigh long-term health this season with the need for repetition. For that reason Summitt wants the players shooting in the gym on their own with the Gun, an automatic ball feeder.

"I told them I know I'm being demanding," Summitt said. "There's a reason I'm being demanding. These next three ball games we've got to be at a different level. We've got to be at a different level if we want to be successful."

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