Board play, defense under scrutiny

With two SEC away games this week Pat Summitt emphasized board play and defense – must-have staples on the road – at practice Monday. The lid went on the basket and the coach's voice boomed across an arena being disassembled for a concert.

"I thought they came back and did a great job," Pat Summitt said of the practice session. "I thought the energy level was good. We went over a lot of our offensive sets, got to work on some boxing out. That's the first time I've seen that. I think having the lids on is important. We're going to have to do that daily.

"You would think that this team would be a much better rebounding team than they are. That's been a big disappointment, but I think if you put the lids on then accountability is much greater."

The lid pretty much guarantees a shot won't fall – occasionally one slips through the smaller cylinder – so it forces players to think about and get into rebounding position. Shekinna Stricklen led the Lady Vols on the boards with 10 in Sunday's 68-56 win over South Carolina, and the 6'2 guard is under orders to make that effort a habit. Eight of the 10 came on the offensive end.

"We've just got to do what she says," Stricklen said. "We've got to box out. She stays on me because I really don't go rebound all the time, but I've got to get that in my head that I've got to go to the boards. That's what we've all got to do. We've just got to get it in our heads to go to the boards on defensive and offensive end and box out."

The player who has really been in Summitt's crosshairs over board play is freshman forward Alyssia Brewer, who had just two rebounds in 18 minutes of court time Sunday. When the topic came up in Sunday's post-game press conference Stricklen and Brewer shook their heads and laughed.

"Because she stays on Lyssi every day about boxing out, boxing out," Stricklen said. "We were just laughing because we know it's true, but we know she can do it. When she boxes out she'll have a whole game. Lyssi is a great player."

Summitt's voice certainly carried Monday afternoon. The courtside chairs, media rows, scorer's tables and baseline seats had all been removed to get ready for a concert layout, so "The Summitt" floor, surrounded by concrete, was all that occupied floor space inside cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena.

A few minutes after practice ended work crews came out to take apart the court. With just three home games this month Summitt wants her team to get as many reps as possible on its home court so that it would seem like one in February. Next up for Tennessee are road games against Arkansas on Thursday and Auburn on Sunday.

The University of Tennessee is in the midst of a system-wide budget crunch so all campuses are trimming costs. The Lady Vols will take a charter flight to Fayetteville, Ark., on Wednesday, fly straight to Auburn, Ala., and then take a bus home Sunday. That will eliminate two flights in a cost-cutting move since they would usually break the games into two back-and-forth trips.

The team will take off Tuesday, practice Wednesday in Knoxville after classes and then leave for Arkansas. The number of players available for that game remains in question. Center Kelley Cain and forward Vicki Baugh practiced Monday, but both are still limited in terms of full speed.

"I think they're moving a little better but neither one is on top of their game right now," Summitt said. "I think the injuries have held them back."

Summitt's inclination right now is to limit them at practice, as she wants both to be as healthy as possible when they take the court. But they both were able to practice full court and run sprints Monday. Cain was pulled for a session heavy on lateral defensive moves, but Baugh was OK to go for that part. Baugh is wearing a new brace on her left knee and is adjusting to the fit and feel.

"She's getting used to the brace," said Jenny Moshak, the chief of sports medicine. "She's better in a half-court situation than she is in transition. Running still talks to her a little bit. She's still day to day. Her spirits are better, but she's frustrated. She wants it to be over as anybody would."

Stricklen was banged up in Sunday's game, but she practiced Monday. Moshak had fitted Stricklen with upper body pads to wear inside a shirt because she takes so much contact in a game – with other players and the floor.

"That's why we put her in that padded undergarment, which I'm glad she did from her hip standpoint and her rib standpoint," Moshak said. "But Shekinna's tough. She'll be all right."

Alex Fuller's right eye was scratched and elbowed in last week's game against Mississippi State, and she is still sporting a bloodshot eye with a black mark underneath, but she hasn't missed any practice time.

"She got scratched in the eye and then she got elbowed," Moshak said. "She got a scratch on the eye and then an orbital contusion. She'll be all right. She can see. She got her contact in. The scratch has healed."

Fuller is now wearing Cait McMahan's jersey in honor of her teammate whose season was ended by knee injury.

"I was very touched by it," Moshak said.

Stricklen said the gesture had an effect on the team because of Fuller's selfless attitude.

"That had a lot of effect," Stricklen said. "Not just for her but she did it for the team. We care so much about Cait. Cait is like the heart of this team. Every day she's telling us to go hard. She has more passion than anyone on this team. Cait is a big role model for us all. She's always there for us. Even though she's not able to play she's there for us every day."

The No. 2 jersey is a little snug, but Fuller led the team with 14 points and also had eight rebounds.

"She obviously could play (Sunday)," Moshak said.

Can the material be stretched?

"That's a garment issue," Moshak said with a smile. "I don't do garment issues."

Moshak has her hands full with the ongoing treatment of injured or hurting players. Summitt, once again, saluted her sole senior for holding down the proverbial fort, especially in the post, while players continue to shuffle in and out of Moshak's care.

"Alex has been terrific," Summitt said. "I've had nothing but praise for her because she's kept the team together. She's talking in the huddles. She's just really stepped up and provided the leadership, the direction and challenged people when she's had to challenge people."

Summitt also saluted the 16,413 who showed up Sunday at the arena instead of staying home to watch an NFL playoff game. The coach said an energetic crowd is vital for this young team.

"I was really excited," Summitt said. "And it makes a difference. It makes a difference in our intensity and our effort and that's why I used it at halftime. I said, ‘Here we are not playing the way we should be playing and look at all the people that decided to come here instead of stay home and watch football.' "

The team will take to the road again for the next two games as the conference schedule makers didn't leave the Lady Vols in Knoxville very often to open the SEC season.

"It's a challenge but I don't think that's all bad," Summitt said. "I wish we were a 40-minute team. I'd feel a lot better. But I thought we got a little bit better in the first half (Sunday). We did some good things. That's a place where I think we have to really start strong with our defense, our board play and our offensive execution."

Arkansas' Ceira Ricketts was honored Monday as the SEC Freshman of the Week after becoming the first Razorback women's basketball player to record a triple double with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists. The assists tied the record for most assists in an SEC regular season game with Arkansas' Amy Wright (vs. LSU) and Georgia's Rochelle Vaughn (vs. Georgia in 2004).

Arkansas, which is winless in the SEC, gave undefeated and No. 6 Auburn all it could handle, but the Tigers prevailed 70-61 behind DeWanna Bonner's 19 points and 14 rebounds.

"They play a lot off the dribble, two posts high, what we call the horns action," Summitt said. "That is what everybody is calling it now. We bring two post people up at the elbow; that's our horn action. They want to clear it out and then dribble drive and get in to high low. They like to play a lot off the dribble. That's why we worked on our defense (Monday)."

The Lady Vols' goal going into Thursday's game is to start the first half the way they did the second half against South Carolina.

"We have to start now because we can't do anything about the past," Fuller said. "We have to start now and try to make a 40-minute game instead of half a game."

Tennessee has rarely played at full strength this season, and the players have talked about what could happen if they all get healthy.

"Yes, we do. We all talk about that," Stricklen said. "We know if we can get back 100 percent we can be so much better than what we are. But every day the ones that are healthy we are getting better every day and just praying that the ones that are injured that they can get back healthy and get back out there with us."

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