The Lady Vols practiced Saturday evening at the gym because with seven players who have never been on the court at Vandy – in addition to the displacement of the coaches from the sideline the floor is elevated above ground level – Summitt wanted the youngsters to get used to the trappings.
The Lady Vols have a challenge to start the SEC – after opening at home and getting a hard-fought 69-64 win over Kentucky – they play four of their next five games on the road at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State (Jan. 15), Arkansas (Jan. 22) and Auburn (Jan. 25). The sole home game in the stretch slips in on Jan. 18 when Tennessee hosts South Carolina.
The Lady Vols should be welcomed Sunday by a significant amount of orange-clad fans since the game is in Nashville. But it's still an away game and a new experience for the freshmen.
"They're loud, and I think we're getting used to it," freshman guard/forward Shekinna Stricklen said of environments on the road. "A lot of teams try to scare us because they know we're very young, but we just go in there and we listen to our upperclassmen. Alex has been in many of those and the sophomores, they have been in quite a few, and they're telling us, ‘Just relax.' "
Those words of wisdom come from elder stateswoman Alex Fuller, who is in her fifth year, and sophomore Angie Bjorklund, who despite her youth has a wealth of big-game experience at Tennessee and a national championship in her first year.
Stricklen said the presence of so much orange on the road was initially a surprise.
"At first I was but then I realized we have a lot of Tennessee fans, and they love us," Stricklen said with a big smile.
Bjorklund also was surprised as a freshman to see so much orange when the team was in orange, instead of their home whites, but now she's accustomed to it.
"Our fans are great, especially on the road," Bjorklund said. "Whenever we see orange in the stands … I've gotten to the point where I expect it. Our fans are great here. As a freshman I was kind of surprised at away games having that much orange in the stands. That was one thing I noticed and I'm really appreciative of."
Bjorklund, although just in her second year, has been asked by Summitt to become a vocal leader on a very young team. When Bjorklund was a freshman, the team was led by Candace Parker, Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle – three strong personalities that were known as "The Big Three." Add chatterbox Shannon Bobbitt, and the freshmen couldn't get a word in edgewise.
But this year six true freshmen look to the sophomores and Fuller for guidance. So Summitt told Bjorklund to raise her volume on the court and in the locker room.
"It was a bit of a challenge," Bjorklund said. "Initially I wanted to lead by example because for me personally Strick is not going to take what I'm saying seriously if I'm not doing the same thing. So I was trying to be a hard worker every day, lead by example and then Coach really starting mentioning, ‘Hey, you're not talking at all. You need to step up as a verbal leader.'
"She really challenged me at that. Definitely got me out of my comfort zone a little bit. That's how I was in high school. I think it was just getting used to it in the college scene, and now that I'm there I think it's a lot easier."
Fuller's voice also will need to be heard Sunday, and she will likely be in the starting lineup in place of sophomore forward Vicki Baugh, who is still recovering from a knee sprain on Jan. 1. Baugh was able to do some shooting Saturday but did not participate in practice. Fuller has a calming influence on the team and has readily accepted the role of team leader this season, whether or not she starts or comes off the bench.
"She's really invested in this team and taking that leadership role and trying to keep them focused," Summitt said. "She's like the mother hen. She's been very dependable."
The freshmen got a lesson in SEC play on Thursday when a solid Kentucky team led them with less than five minutes to play on the Lady Vols' home court. The newcomers had been told to expect everyone's best shot in league play – especially given Tennessee's domination in the league, along with LSU, of late in the regular season – but sometimes they have to just see it for themselves.
"It is," freshman Glory Johnson said when asked if Thursday's game is a good lesson prior to Sunday's matchup. "All the games are going to be tough. Every team plays their best when we play against them, so it's always going to be hard. We just have to bring our game.
"Teams want to get higher rankings and get seeded higher. It doesn't matter what game you're playing, you've got to bring your ‘A' game. It doesn't matter what team you're playing."
The freshmen will have the additional challenge Sunday of playing in a gym in which they can't hear the coaches for half the game.
"They're not used to that at all," Bjorklund said. "I remember when I played there last year. That is a little different. I think instead of looking on the side you've got to get used to looking back and just making eye contact and using signals."
"It reminds me more like a concert hall," Johnson said.
"It's like we're on a big stage," freshman Alicia Manning said. "I've never played there so I've never experienced that."
Manning did display a sense of humor when asked about not being able to hear Summitt when the team is on the opposite end.
"That may be good or bad," Manning said.
The coaches, who like to be in control at all times as much as possible, don't like it at all.
"As coaches as much we say that we don't have any control over the game, sometimes when we're sitting there on the sidelines it feels safer for us," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "But when we're at the ends on the bench, we're totally out of it. If you're not used to that, which these seven freshmen aren't … "
Might the freshmen like it?
"They may like it where they can't hear us," Warlick said with a laugh.
So the coaches will script the plays to start the game and will use hand signals and flash cards to communicate.
"We're going to," Warlick said. "You've got seven freshmen who haven't played in that environment. That's a tough place to play."
"The first thing we need to talk about is how important the communication will be and how important the huddle, all huddles, they've got to talk their action," Summitt said. "I think we've got to script what we start off running. We did initially (Thursday). The communication here (in Thompson-Boling Arena) is so much better. It's a lot easier. I can communicate a lot better with my guards. Alex was really good (in communicating on the floor)."
"I think all five have to be on the same page," Warlick said. "Communication is going to be huge for us, whether it comes from Angie or Alex, it's got to be all together. Angie can say it, but we've got to be able to listen as well. We've all got to be communicating and talking. That is key."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Briana Bass, 5'2 freshman guard, No. 1 (5.1 points per game, 1.9 rebounds per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 sophomore guard, No. 5 (13.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 freshman forward/guard, No. 40 (14.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 freshman forward, No. 25 (13.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg); and Alex Fuller, 6'3 senior forward/center, No. 44 (5.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg).
Bass has seen her minutes drop of late, but her role expands with the Saturday news that redshirt sophomore point guard Cait McMahan will become a student assistant coach because of a chronically sore right knee. Bass has been pulled early in games for performance on defense, but they are correctable errors.
"(We) need Bree to force people to their weak hand," Summitt said. "Right now people are taking her off the dribble a lot. And limit touches."
Summitt has used the bigger Stricklen at point – with backup from 6'1 guard/forward Alicia Manning – but it hasn't been because of offense since Bass can get to the paint and kick out and hit from long range.
"She's got to keep people in front of her," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "She's letting people get by her. She's taking a lot of risks and gambling. She's got to get down in a stance and keep people in front of her. She's taking too many chances."
Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb is expected to start: Jessica Mooney, 5'8 junior guard, No. 20 (9.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg), the Nashville native was a standout at Hillsboro High School, was the SEC Co-Sixth Woman of the Year last season; Merideth Marsh, 5'6 junior guard, No. 23 (8.7 ppg, 1.8 rpg), hails from Louisville, Ky., played the full 40 minutes against Tennessee last year in the SEC tourney, had five points, three assists, hit 5-5 behind the arc last season against South Florida; Jennifer Risper, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 2 (6.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg), hails from Moreno Valley, Calif., had 17 points in Vandy's SEC opening win over Alabama, was All-SEC Second Team and All-Defensive Team honoree last season; Christina Wirth, 6'1 senior forward, No. 34 (14.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg), hails from Mesa, Ariz., had 15 points, 10 boards, in the Crimson Tide win, All-SEC First Team honors last season; and Hannah Tuomi, 6'0 sophomore forward, No. 15 (12.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg), hails from Thornton, Colo., named to the All-SEC Freshman team last season, posted her first career double-double last season against Tennessee with 10 points, 11 boards.
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game. Here is her assessment.
When Vanderbilt has the ball: "What Vandy does right now is they look to run the ball more," Warlick said. "They run off their steals. They're relying a lot on their defense, which is very good right now, and they like to turn the ball over and get points. Their point guards really get to the paint, layups, and then (Christina) Wirth is trailing. I think they do a great job of attacking the basket from steals and rebounds. To me, more so than in the past, they're really scoring in transition.
"They're taking advantage of Wirth, who is a great post player and has extended three-point range. (Jessica) Mooney, she handles the ball, and she's taken it to the basket quite a bit. They're running more off of things that they get. They're getting a lot of transition points."
Warlick said the challenge of guarding the Commodores is how well they react to the defense.
"Melanie, I think she's an outstanding offensive coach," Warlick said. "They're good, they're very disciplined, they read defenses and adjust and play accordingly. Within one set play they'll run five different concepts so we're going to try to not so much focus on memorizing a play but how we're going to guard certain things. It isolates the play more for us. They're just good at reading. We do this; they're going to read. It's a difficult guard."
Warlick expects to see Vanderbilt show different looks in the half-court defense.
"They mix it up," she said. "I think they've played more man than they have their matchup. I think she's going to play both against us and see which one works the best, because they do both of them. Their matchup has always been very good, but they're playing more man to man.
"We're going to go in expecting both because that's what they do. And they do a lot of pressing on defense. They're doing a lot of 2-2-1 (zone press), and they're trying to contain and slow up the ball. They're trying to get aggressive. She's doing a lot of things on the defensive end to give them more opportunities for steals."
When Tennessee has the ball: "Same thing," Warlick said. "We want to establish a running game, and we're going to get the ball inside. We've got to do a lot more things as far as our perimeter – we stood a lot (Thursday) night. We haven't really narrowed down what we're going to do offensively yet, as far as specifics."
As previously stated, the Lady Vols intend to script the opening plays on offense. Defensively, the Lady Vols generally open in a man, but the matchup zone is available.
"We're going to do both," Warlick said. "We're going to be ready to use both but we're primarily a man team so that's our bread and butter."
Tennessee hasn't pressed much this season in a bit of a surprise because of the athleticism and length of the players.
"Well, we haven't been very motivated to press," Warlick said. "Teams have just gone through us like we're not there. We'd like to press, we'd like to speed up the tempo, we'd like to get steals and turnovers, but we haven't been very committed to it as a team during the games."
With so many young players and limited practice time by NCAA rules, some aspects of the game fall by the wayside. For now, the Lady Vols have concentrated on incremental improvement overall. In that regard, the coaches have seen progress.
"I look at our game against UTC and this isn't anything against UTC (but) we're a lot better," Warlick said. "I look at what we've done, and we're so much better. If we can keep that ball rolling and we can continue to get better and improve … "
LOFTING SHOTS: Pat Summitt fired a shot across her team's bow this past week when she reminded the players that they have to shoot on their own. The notion was reinforced by Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick.
"We've got to get in more shots in practice, and they've got to get in the gym on their own and shoot," Warlick said. "We're shooting more free throws in practice, we're getting more shots, but it comes to the point where they've got to put in the hours without us because we've got a 20-hour rule. They've got to get in the gym on their own.
"It's all about repetition because we have great shooters on our team. A lot of these kids averaged 20, 25 points in high school. You can't be a lousy shooter and do that. So I think they've got to get confident and get in a rhythm."
"You tell them, ‘Get in here and shoot and record your shots. Look at your percentage,' " Summitt said.
"Right," Warlick added. "The only way you're going to get better is repetition."
"And they have to do it on their own; we're not coming in with them," Summitt said.
As a team the Lady Vols are shooting 40.9 percent overall from the field. Summitt wants that figure to climb.
"I'd love for us to be at 47," Summitt said. "Will we get there? I don't know. Definitely above 45."
One way to increase that percentage is to simply make layups. Also, free throw percentage (68.3 as a team) could stand for improvement.
"Make layups and free throws," Summitt said. "If you make layups and free throws you take a lot of pressure off your offense. And then just having great shot selection. We've had pretty good shot selection."
"I haven't come away from a game going, ‘Man, we're not getting open looks.' We're getting open looks," Warlick said. "We're just not making the play."
Freshman Shekinna Stricklen has improved her shooting of late. After struggling from long range to start the season she has connected at 46.2 percent overall (24-52) in the last four games and 8-18 (44.4 percent) from behind the arc. She also went 8-8 from the stripe against Kentucky.
"I'm very happy with where Shekinna is," Summitt said the day after the Kentucky game. "Obviously Alicia (Manning) got in the gym this week and did some extra shooting. Alex (Fuller) had one of her better games. Glory (Johnson) is really coming with her game. I think the thing about Glory is sometimes she gets in foul trouble, gets overanxious, but the things that she's doing are usually still hustle plays or trying to defend and deflect. It's effort stuff with her. You don't have to coach effort with her."
ON TAP: All 12 SEC teams are in action Sunday. The other matchups are: Alabama at LSU; Arkansas at Kentucky; Florida at Auburn; South Carolina at Georgia; and Ole Miss at Mississippi State.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series against Vanderbilt, 52-6. The Lady Vols have never lost at home at 23-0 and are 21-4 on the Commodores' home court. Tennessee is 8-2 at neutral sites. The most-recent win on a neutral court was the SEC tourney semifinal at the Sommet Center in Nashville on March 8, 2008. Vandy last won at home, 76-59, on Feb. 2, 2002. Since then Tennessee has won 16 games in a row. … Tennessee is 9-1 in games played on January 11. The last win on this date was against Florida, 80-58, in 2007. The lone loss on this date was to North Carolina, 82-68, in 1986. … Vanderbilt is the first opponent that Tennessee has faced more than 50 times, and the first opponent that the Lady Vols have defeated 50 times all-time. Coach Melanie Balcomb does have one win over Pat Summitt in 15 matchups. Balcomb was the head coach at Xavier when the Musketeers eliminated Tennessee from the 2001 NCAA Tournament in a Sweet 16 upset, 80-65. So far, Balcomb is 0-14 at Vanderbilt. … Tennessee's next SEC win will be No. 400 in program history. The Lady Vols currently have a 399-59 record all-time vs. the other 11 teams from the Southeastern Conference. Pat Summitt's record in the SEC is 397-58. A 2-1 mark against South Carolina pre-dates the coach, who is in her 35th year. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee averages 75.2 points per game while allowing 62.1. Vanderbilt scores 73.1 points a game while allowing 54.2. The Lady Vols are shooting 40.9 percent overall, 33.7 percent from behind the arc and 68.3 percent from the line. The Commodores shoot 47.0 percent overall, 32.5 percent from behind the arc and 71.5 percent from the line. Tennessee is making 4.9 threes per game while surrendering 5.1 from long range. Vandy makes 5.4 a game and also allows 5.1 a game. The Lady Vols average 46.4 rebounds per game with a +8.6 margin over opponents. The Commodores average 35.6 boards a game for a +3.6 margin. Tennessee averages 13.3 assists and 16.5 turnovers a game. Vandy averages 16.1 assists and 15.6 turnovers. The Lady Vols average 9.7 steals and 5.1 blocks a game. The Commodores average 12.1 steals and 1.8 blocks.