Bass was expected to back up redshirt sophomore Cait McMahan this season, but McMahan had to stop playing this season because of an unstable right knee and will now be a student assistant coach with Bass as her protégé.
"I was hoping to work my way up to that eventually," Bass said. "It came quicker than I expected, but I'm grateful and I have to keep working hard for my position. Day in and day out just keep working hard."
With the loss of McMahan – the only point guard on the roster with collegiate experience when the season started – Bass' role with the Lady Vols this season became bigger.
"A lot bigger," Bass said. "Cait talks to me all the time telling me that ‘I need to do this. I need to do that. I need to be more vocal.' Different stuff like that. She was like that even when she was not able to play, but she's even more like that. I appreciate it."
Bass also has had her share of knee issues. She tore the ACL in both knees – the right one as a sophomore in high school and the left one just last February.
"I know when I hurt my knee I was really down," Bass said. "My parents had to keep talking to me and encouraging me. Cait is a strong person. She is a very strong person. She's very confident and strong and I admire her for that."
Seeing McMahan have to stop playing basketball this season also made Bass treasure being able to take the court.
"It makes me grateful and I praise God," Bass said. "Thank you for blessing my knees and keeping me healthy."
The knee injuries meant Bass flew under the recruiting radar – plus she committed to Tennessee early – and there wasn't a lot of chatter among the basketball cognoscenti prior to her arrival in Knoxville. But the Lady Vol coaching staff knew what kind of player they had recruited and with McMahan sidelined the decision became an especially smart one because Bass has become an important piece of the lineup.
"It's huge," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "I think it's huge because when we've had to put (Shekinna) Stricklen there – Stricklen is very good – but that's not her natural position. So Bree has got to get better. She's getting better. We don't want Bree to be a liability on defense. When she doesn't get down and defend and goes for steals and takes herself out of the play that's when it affects us.
"So she's just got to be smart and just be intelligent on the defensive end and limit her turnovers on the offensive end. She is a difficult player to trap; our tempo is always up with her in. In the last game she was excellent."
As Warlick is being interviewed Bass walks by and pantomimes punching her. Warlick just shakes her head and laughs. Bass made a remark to Warlick in a film session a week ago that resulted in Pat Summitt pulling her from the starting lineup against Vanderbilt. Bass only sat for eight minutes so the remark wasn't that egregious.
"She just had a little comeback," Summitt said with a smile. "It wasn't anything Earth-shattering."
"She's got spunk," said Warlick, a player who also had some attitude in her day. "As long as she realizes she's not always right we're in business."
Bass was properly chastened, but her spirit was clearly not broken.
"I can't tell you," Bass said with an infectious giggle when asked what she said.
Was it bad?
"I didn't think so," said Bass, barely suppressing a smile. "It's between me and Holly."
"And then Pat got involved in it, too," said Bass, her voice dropping and the smile disappearing. "I guess it's the way I said it, maybe the tone of voice. I will (laugh) eventually, and I learned my lesson. They (teammates) were laughing when I did it in the locker room."
That balance between correction and leniency has been something the staff has tried to strike with an exceptionally young team. During her press conference last Wednesday Summitt mentioned having to handle differently a veteran team than a young one that can be unaccustomed to criticism.
"That was more of a reminder to myself because I knew I had pushed them hard, but that's been pretty consistent this year," Summitt said. "But when you come off of that kind of a loss (to Vanderbilt) and you're pushing them you don't want them to then fear losing and going out there playing that way. I'm always saying, ‘OK, are we doing the right thing here?' and asking my staff. You don't want to break their spirit."
It doesn't mean Summitt is going soft, though, or eschewing discipline as evidenced by Bass' removal from the starting lineup on the eve of a game. She does bemoan young players' inability to focus sometimes.
"I think I've had to just be mindful of not letting my emotions interfere with my teaching and coaching," Summitt said. "We had some ridiculous passes and forced some shots and turned the ball over at times (vs. Mississippi State).
"It's all about them. My whole thought process is, ‘What can I do to help them?' If I get upset I'm going to pick and choose when I'm going to yell. I feel like I need a degree in sports psychology. But it is different with the youth and I find that these kids their attention spans are really short. I think it goes back to how they live. They don't call and talk to people. They text people."
Last Monday was a day to raise her voice. The Lady Vols had just lost to Vanderbilt after a demonstrable lack of effort on defense. A young team saw its coach at perhaps her angriest point of the season. After Thursday's win over Mississippi State the mood at practice could best be described as giddy, especially on Saturday when the players whooped and cheered while warming up.
Summitt may lose patience with the team on occasion, but she recognizes that the first-year players have taken much bigger roles than would have been expected before the season started because of the absence of veterans because of injury. Redshirt senior forward Alex Fuller and sophomore guard Sydney Smallbone are the only two returning players who have been available for all 16 games. The freshmen have had to step into the void and in the games since the loss to Virginia that they were close at the end they pulled out a win and came from behind without panicking against Rutgers, Kentucky and Mississippi State.
"They've got a lot of grit and when things get tight they seem to really get down and play their best defense," Summitt said. "They seem to be even more aggressive and determined offensively. That part I like."
The young are also resilient and often unflappable. Although an angry Summitt is unappealing for a young player it's not as if the demanding coach is a surprise. With the Internet and cable and satellite providers the freshmen grow up watching Tennessee. Summitt's philosophy and courtside demeanor is well documented.
"It's what I thought it would be and more," Bass said. "It's very tough to play on this level, and I am steadily each day making the progress of becoming a collegiate player. It's totally different from high school. I can tell you that – the energy, the speed, everything is different from high school. It's a big adjustment, but I think that I am working my way."
Bass acknowledged the toughest thing to learn has been how to play defense.
"I always get yelled at for my defense," she said. "Either the defender is taller than me and tries to post me up or sometimes they get the quick advantage on me and just take me real fast to the rack. Coach stresses that I need to put more pressure on the ball and try to force them to their weaker hand. Just keep working at it. Even when she's getting on me just keep working at it. That's all I can do is just give it 100 percent and try."
An Associated Press photo showed Summitt focusing her full stare and intensity towards Bass, whose back was to the camera. The rest of the players were attentive but also looked a little worried for their teammate.
"You've just got to take it and say, ‘Rebound.' That's something that we have to say if we make a mistake," Bass said. "We all know that she's a tough coach. You've just got to work hard all the time, no possessions off.
"I know they're doing it to make me a better person so I've just got to work through it. Every time they get on me I've just got to work through it and say, ‘OK, rebound. Two points,' and just keep working hard at it. It's easier said than done."
Bass smiles throughout the interview and takes the time to answer each question in-depth. It's apparent the experience of being a Lady Vol and all that comes with that is a cause for joie de vivre.
"I'm happy. It's still fun, especially the traveling part, going to different places that I've never been before," Bass said. "My dad always tells me that I'm doing the dream that he wished he could have done – all the traveling and playing collegiate basketball. He taught me how to play. He still plays to this day."
Bass is documenting her first year with a digital camera.
"I usually take pictures but right now my mom has my camera because I have too many pictures on it so she's making me a CD," Bass said. "I use Kelley Cain's. Kelley lets me use her camera."
Bass' parents, Tim and Gina Bass, are regulars at games and make the back-and-forth trip between Indianapolis and Knoxville.
"They'll be here Sunday, and it means a lot," Bass said. "A lot of people don't have their parents in their lives and I'm grateful to have my parents, both of them."
As the point guard Bass is guaranteed to get an earful from the coaching staff. Summitt has said she holds particularly high standards for her point guard because that's her extension on the court. Bass is also the target of teammates who tease her about her high-pitched voice and 5'2 height, but their approach is a friendly one. They mispronounce her name just to annoy her.
"My name is Briana," said Bass, sounding it out as Bree-ah-na. "Sometimes they make fun of me like, ‘Bree-anna,' over-exaggerating it. Everybody picks on me."
That might be a cause for concern, but her giggling fills the tape-recorded interview, especially when the topic turns to rival prankster Vicki Baugh.
"Me and Vicki, we have a special relationship," Bass said. "No matter where we are somehow we find each other and start picking with each other and then Jenny (Moshak) always tells us that we need to be separated. I tell her, ‘Jenny, this is just our love for each other. If we weren't fighting then that means we hate each other.' "
Last September, Baugh was getting ready to land a blow with a pillow to Bass and Cain put an arm to defend Bass. Baugh's thumb crashed into Cain's wristwatch. Baugh's thumb split open, and the watch broke into pieces.
"Kelley was trying to protect me and Vicki hurt her hand," Bass said, clearly tickled over that incident. "It's always me and Vicki."
After shoot-around at Mississippi State this week, the two, who squabble like siblings, squared off again.
"We were messing around on the bench when we got done in practice and I was hitting her and stuff and she was trying to tell me what to do. I said, ‘I ain't worried about you,' " Bass said, exaggerating on purpose her incorrect English. "And then she walked in front of me and went out the door and I said, ‘Dean (Lockwood), I know she's about to be waiting for me outside the door.' So Dean had me go the back way and I looked at her and she saw me and I took off running and she chased me. I got away. I got her."
As Bass was telling the story Baugh walks by and pretends to flail away at Bass, landing a few soft shots, as Bass windmills her arm and laughs.
"See?" Bass said in mock indignation.
"We're a silly, goofy team," Bass added. "I like this team. We're a true family."
Bass is the first one in line when the team runs out to warm up before a game and the first time she shot onto the floor as if shot out of a cannon. Her teammates had to remind her to wait for them.
"I'm in the front so I can slow down," Bass said.
Bass should have the ball in her hands a lot now. The Lady Vols added a wrinkle to their offense Wednesday and the first time Bass called it out in her signature high-pitched voice the play came to a halt as the coaches and team laughed. Bass laughed, too, and raised her volume more on the next possession.
"It (high-pitched voice) makes it harder for my teammates to understand what I'm calling so I am glad that we have hand signals, but I am going to try to get my voice to really project so everybody can hear me," Bass said.
For Bass that will mean screaming during a game.
If she's doing her job afterwards "I should be hoarse," Bass said.
Bass said the toughest part of being a Lady Vol is not so much the demands but the fact Summitt and the staff expect it daily.
"Every day in and out," Bass said. "And defense, of course. Just the hard work that we had to put into it constantly. Just learning the system and getting it down pat."
Bass also realizes after 16 games that what the returning players said was true – the Lady Vols will give every opponent's best shot.
"It's a challenge because day in and day out teams are going to play us hard no matter what, so we can't ever have an off game and that's what happened in that Vandy game," Bass said. "We can never have an off game because teams are coming out to get us and that's something that we have to learn. We have a target on our back from over the past years of what Tennessee teams have done to them, and we've just got to carry on the tradition and keep working hard."
Bass recognized that this year's team carries the long orange line into every game.
"Yes, and it's really hard," she said. "(Thursday) night (before the game) we were 28-0 against Mississippi State, and Coach kept saying how they were going to be fired up. They're thinking that this is their chance to beat us because we just lost to Vandy. So it's really hard because we have so many records versus everybody else. So we've just got to keep working hard."
Summitt recognizes that her young team could become weighted down by history and their own expectations, so her strategy has been to remain as calm and flexible as possible.
"For me right now I just try to go into it and look for ways that I can help them and not predetermine how much I think we're going to run something or what I think is going to be the most effective," Summitt said. "It's kind of a just watch and see and then respond."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Briana Bass 5'2 freshman guard, No. 1 (4.8 points per game, 1.8 rebounds per game, 2.1 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 sophomore guard, No. 5 (12.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.0 apg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 freshman guard/forward, No. 40 (13.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 freshman forward, No. 25 (12.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg); and Alex Fuller, 6'3 senior forward/center, No. 44 (6.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg).
Sophomore forward Vicki Baugh has been activated for the game for the first time since she sprained her left knee in practice Jan. 1. She practiced Saturday and was moving well. Kelley Cain, who re-irritated her right knee in Thursday's game, was very limited in practice Saturday. Cain will be a game-time decision on whether or not she can play.
Baugh has been brought back slowly because the sprain occurred to her surgically repaired knee, but she should be able to log some minutes Sunday as long as she had no swelling overnight.
The team misses Baugh's defense and rebounding – she is averaging 9.7 boards a game – and despite missing six games this season she still leads the team in blocks with 21.
Summitt delivered a stern warning to her team about board play Sunday.
"Box out or come out," Summitt said.
Stricklen will remain in the role of backing up Bass at the point position. She has a lot on her plate but Summitt said the freshman also has a healthy basketball appetite.
"I think that's why she wanted to come here," Summitt said. "She wants a big role."
Summitt also reminded Stricklen that her job is to get the offense in motion and then get into the flow. It's similar to what Candace Parker was asked to do in her redshirt freshman year when the point guard position was gutted by a midseason transfer and then an injury. But in this case Bass is available to take the bulk of the possessions.
"If she can realize once we get an entry pass it's not like she is the point guard," Summitt said of Stricklen. "It's three out, two in. I told her just don't put more pressure on yourself than you need to because you're there just to get an entry pass and get us into whatever we want to run."
South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley is expected to start: Samone Kennedy, 5'4 sophomore guard, No. 4 (5.4 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 2.4 apg), hails from Birmingham, Ala., started the last nine games for the Gamecocks, played 40 minutes against Auburn with three assists and just one turnover, if granted a super power she wants to be invisible; Brionna Dickerson, 5'9 senior guard, No. 23 (12.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg), hails from Columbia, S.C., played for her father, Jerome Dickerson in high school at Heathwood Hall and scored more than 3,400 points in three years (missed senior year because of injury), cousin Shaunzinski Gortman played for South Carolina and in the WNBA, mother Sandra Dickerson was an all-state player in high school and played at Columbia College, Brionna tallied season-high 20 points against Florida this season, prestigious Honors College student with major in business, wants to read minds as her super power; C.J. Pace, 5'10 senior forward, No. 10 (6.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg), hails from Snellville, Ga., played two years at Chipola College in Florida, cousin Josh Pace played on Syracuse's national title team in 2003, leads the team with 5.7 rebounds in SEC games, wants to snap fingers and be anywhere or point at an item in a clothing magazine and instantly have it; Jewel May, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 52 (5.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg), hails from Conyers, Ga., was homecoming queen at Heritage High School, nickname is Diva, sister Denise is a track and field athlete at Furman, had eight rebounds against Georgia, also wants to read minds; and Demetress Adams, 6'4 senior forward, No. 24 (11.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg), hails from Bishopville, S.C, was All Defensive and Second Team All-SEC last season, third on the school's record list with 135 career blocks, record holders are Lakesha Tolliver (2004-08) with 177 and Michelle Murray (1989-1993) with 148, wants the ability to multiply into hundreds of herself to go anywhere she wants and send the clones to places she doesn't.
Staley, who is in her first year at South Carolina, brought her Temple team to Knoxville on Nov. 28, 2004, and was a missed layup in the final seconds from a stunning upset. The Lady Vols held on to win 52-48.
Staley also was in Thompson-Boling Arena as a player when she was at Virginia in the 1990 Final Four. Virginia defeated Tennessee in a regional final in a game that was crushing for Summitt as it prevented the Lady Vols from playing in a Final Four that they were hosting. The NCAA no longer plays its premier women's basketball event at campus sites.
Staley scored 25 points in that 1990 regional final. A year later in the 1991 national title game against Tennessee in New Orleans, Staley had 28 points, 11 rebounds and six assists and was named Final Four MVP, but the Lady Vols won in overtime, 70-67, to seize the program's third national title.
"Dawn Staley, she is a terrific coach and was a great player," Summitt said. "When I think of Dawn Staley I think of us not getting back to Thompson-Boling Arena to play for a national championship because Dawn Staley pretty much beat us in a one-four low attack, and we didn't get to play here. When I think about Dawn I think about, ‘Well, they took a lot away from us.'
"That's just who she was as a player and now as a coach. She's got two of our former players. Nikki McCray and Carla McGhee are both there on her staff so there will be no secrets when they come to town."
McGhee won two national championships at Tennessee in 1987 and 1989 and won an Olympic gold medal in 1996. McCray was a two-time All-American in 1994 and 1995 and earned two Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2000.
"I am pretty accustomed to seeing former Lady Vols on the opposing bench and that's something I'm pretty proud of – the number of players that decided to leave Tennessee and go into the coaching ranks," Summitt said. "I know Dawn, when she brought the two of them in, she was excited, and obviously I was excited for Carla and Nikki. You always have a feeling a pride and they're always family. Once a Lady Vol always a Lady Vol. So I'm proud for them."
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-South Carolina game. Here is her assessment.
When South Carolina has the ball: "They're going to run," Warlick said. "They run a lot off their steals so we're going to have to take care of the ball. Good guard play. They are all very good athletes, very good penetrators, so our one-on-one play is going to be very important. It's going to be very important to defend one on one.
"(Demetress Adams) is really playing well inside, driving from the high post, strong rebounder. I think (Brionna) Dickerson is a difficult guard. She can shoot the three. She can penetrate. She can shoot midrange jumpers. She is playing really well right now. So I just think our individual one-on-one play is going to be very important."
Warlick expects the Gamecocks to bring pressure on defense.
"They play a pretty aggressive man to man, getting in the passing lanes," Warlick said. "I've seen them play some 2-3 matchup. I think they're going to press us, trap us a little bit. I think primarily man to man – it's what I've seen the most of. They're aggressive. They're going to try to run off steals. They'll try to take you out of your comfort zone. I would anticipate that's what they're going to try to do to us."
When Tennessee has the ball: One challenge for the Lady Vols is the ever-fluctuating availability of players because of injury. Tennessee's game plan has always been to play inside-out and try to get paint points, but the revolving door into the training room has meant a lot of variation in player combinations and the result has been inconsistency. So the approach now is to remind each player to remain composed and allow the offense time to work.
"I think our main thing on offense is don't get in a hurry," Warlick said. "Be patient. We want them to move but then we don't want them to move where it's affecting them and playing too fast so we've got to find a happy medium between moving and not playing overly anxious."
"I think the big challenge for us as a coaching staff right now is to get them to be more efficient in our half-court offense," Pat Summitt said. "They'll get so overanxious and they won't wait on screens and they'll play in a hurry. If we can keep them from rushing so much I think we'll be so much more efficient offensively."
Summitt also expects to see a South Carolina team with Staley's stamp.
"I think from a defensive standpoint you definitely can see Dawn Staley because she was and still is very tough minded, very committed to defending dribble drives," Summitt said. "I would (also) expect them to attack us a lot off the dribble. That's always been Dawn."
The Lady Vols will maintain their standard plan on defense by opening in man.
"We're going to play man. We're going to mix it up. But our man is probably our primary," Warlick said.
ON TAP: All 12 SEC teams are in action Sunday. The other matchups are: Alabama at Ole Miss; Auburn at Arkansas; Georgia at Florida; Mississippi State at Kentucky; and LSU at Vanderbilt.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with South Carolina, 39-2. The Lady Vols hold a 17-0 record against the Gamecocks in Knoxville. The two losses occurred at a neutral site on March 10, 1973, prior to Pat Summitt's arrival as head coach, and at Columbia on Jan. 23, 1980. The Carolina Pep Band positioned itself behind the Lady Vols bench and played amplified instruments for the entire game. Tennessee moved its huddles to near the free throw line, but communication was still difficult, and the Lady Vols lost, 56-52. After that game the AIAW, then the governing body of the sport, banned bands from playing during the game and outlawed electronic amplification. According to the Lady Vol game notes compiled by Debby Jennings, chief of media relations, Pat Summitt was still peeved by the loss – but at her team. The players wore their game uniforms in practice the next day, since (then) Coach Pat Head said her team "had only played for about 20 minutes in them." … Tennessee is 10-3 in games played on January 18. The last win on this date was against Mississippi State, 73-44, in 2007. The three losses were to Western Carolina, 77-46, in 1969; Louisiana Tech, 81-63, in 1984; and Mississippi in overtime, 80-78, in 1992. … BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee averages 73.4 points per game while allowing 62.4. South Carolina averages 59.1 points while allowing 61.8. The Lady Vols are shooting 40.4 percent overall, 34.0 percent from behind the arc and 68.2 percent from the free throw line. Tennessee makes 5.0 threes a game and allows 5.1. The Gamecocks are shooting 39.8 percent overall, 30.5 percent from long range and 68.6 percent from the line. South Carolina makes and allows 3.4 threes a game. Tennessee averages 45.6 rebounds a game for a +7.6 margin. South Carolina averages 36.9 boards for a +3.3 margin. The Lady Vols average 13.1 assists and 16.8 turnovers a game. The Gamecocks average 9.5 assists and 20.4 turnovers. Tennessee averages 9.4 steals and 5.0 blocks per game. South Carolina averages 7.3 steals and 2.4 blocks a game.