Pat Summitt seeks competitors

Pat Summitt had a stern message for her team Monday – put down the phones, pull out the earbuds of their iPods and interact with each other. It's not a case of a curmudgeonly coach disconnecting from this generation – she credits her players with keeping her young – but rather one who wants to see the team connect after a loss.

The coach made quite a speech after practice Monday – and the team will hold a Tuesday session instead of getting a day off – as she cited the lists of things that seem to have their attention – meal money, music players and texting.

"They are more concerned about when they're going to get their meal money, making sure they've got their iPods on," Pat Summitt said. "They don't connect with each other. They've all got their iPods on – and who knows what they're listening to – and it's not about getting ready for competition. They're just disconnected. If I got my butt beat like that I'd be saying, ‘All right, what are we going to do? How are we going to get better tomorrow? How are we going to make a stop?'

"They get on the plane. They've got their iPods on. They get off the plane. They've got their iPods on. If that had been me last night and I'm a player, I'm back there, we're huddled up, we're trying to figure out what we can do to help this team win.

"They're more afraid of what I'm going to do in practice than what they're going to do in a game. They should be worried about what they're going to do in a game. They need to be worried about what they're going to do."

It's partly the nature of college students and partly the fact that Summitt has seven freshmen on the team and just one senior. The other two players able to suit up this season are sophomores. The two most-intense players on the team, Cait McMahan and Vicki Baugh, have been sidelined with knee injuries.

"I am having a hard time with people who aren't competitive. Bottom line," Summitt said.

"We've got a lot of players who get beat and it doesn't seem to bother them. It sure bothers me. But as people say, ‘They'll never care as much as the coaches do.' This is our livelihood."

It's also a coach who milked dairy cows at 5 a.m., went to school, worked on the farm again and then played basketball with three brothers in take-no-prisoners games in a barn. A lack of toughness, focus and energy do not register on Summitt's radar and her patience with anyone lacking those three qualities is essentially nil. She also believes a player can change that internal makeup.

"I don't think you're born competitive. I don't," Summitt said. "I think how you are brought up helps to shape your competitiveness. For example, growing up on a dairy farm with three older brothers, the battles we had playing basketball, I mean we went at it every night after we did our chores, got our homework done, we went to the barn in the hayloft with lights up and we went at it.

"I really think that people either decide they're going to be competitive or decide they don't care. You've got to want to win. If you're going to play this game you've got to want to win and that means you've got to play hard on every possession."

So imagine that coach seeing her players engrossed in their iPods and text messages on the plane home after a 66-57 loss to Florida in which a lack of focus, toughness and effort over a short span in the second half cost them a vital conference win?

"They text and they listen to music," Summitt said. "How did we get there? I know one thing, as a parent, my son is going to be in tune with me when I need to talk to him. He doesn't walk around with an iPod. I go to say something to somebody, don't worry about talking to them. Guess what? ‘How's it going?' They don't answer. I know why. They're plugged in to something else. They don't look you in the eye.

"They may have their eyes closed because they're kind of sleeping listening to their iPod."

By now Summitt is smiling – underscoring her words are the message she is trying to send her team and it can be leavened with her sense of humor.

But how Summitt felt was apparent in her post-practice remarks to the media. She also let the players know how she felt – despite their youth and adjustment to college they have to compete at this level.

How well they do that will determine how this season ends.

"I told them, ‘You'll have your place in history,' " Summitt said. "We're just not sure where it will be. Worst team ever? Best freshman class to perform at a Final Four? Or first to get beat in the first round? It's just a matter of time, and we'll see."

Summitt's next step is to identify who will compete and the starting lineup for Thursday's game against Alabama is expected to change.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "Trust me, I have ideas. I'll tell you (Tuesday) what I am doing."

"I don't know yet who our most competitive people are going to be. Alex (Fuller) is. I thought Glory (Johnson) would do that. She didn't do that at Florida. Kelley (Cain) stepped up. She makes a big difference. Lyssi (Brewer) got a little bit better in that game, except for that nice little flip pass. How about that? Could you believe it? That changed the momentum. That one play was costly."

Brewer made a stellar defensive play in the second half against Florida and then headed down court. Instead of driving to the rim, she flipped the ball behind her and out of bounds.

But Summitt's bewilderment Monday wasn't just with her players.

"And those sideline fouls they called on Angie (Bjorklund)?" Summitt said. "And, go figure, we're going inside; we can't get to the free throw line. It's unbelievable. That, to me, I could not, how do you get to the free throw line? I don't know.

"Think about it. How many free throws did we shoot? Eight free throws versus 29 free throws. Don't expect to win. Why is that on the road? I don't know. Were we that bad? I don't think so. It was literally amazing. I was almost in disbelief in that game that we could not get to the free throw line."

Summitt complained during the game but never crossed the proverbial line with the officiating crew.

"I didn't want to give them the pleasure of giving me a technical," Summitt said. "It wasn't like I wasn't trying to plead my case here or what I was seeing and the discrepancy, but I wasn't going there."

Summitt watched the game tape on the flight to Knoxville and then again at home with Coach Billie Moore, who is visiting from California, "and it didn't get any better."

She did get one bit of good news from freshman guard Shekinna Stricklen.

"One of the first things she said, ‘I didn't sleep at all last night.' Now I know there's two of us," Summitt said.

Stricklen shot 3-13 from the field and struggled on the defensive end, too.

"Kinna had low energy," Summitt said. "I just kept telling her, ‘We need you. We can't win without you.' And obviously we didn't. I think she'll bounce back. She was disappointed."

It was the way Tennessee lost – surrendering the lead late and not getting stops on the go-to player – that was particularly galling for Summitt in the aftermath.

"Clearly we weren't committed to playing defense," Summitt said. "We had a chance to win that game and instead of closing it out we go down and we just folded. We put ourselves in the position, but we didn't close out the game. Florida did.

"What does that mean? It means they were better than us at that time of the game. That's when you've got to be good. You've got to be great. Not just good. You've got to be great."

Florida's Sha Brooks scored 29 points – the rest of the Gators were kept in check – and single-handedly wiped out Tennessee's seven-point lead in the second half.

"Brooks is a very good player and no one really stepped up to guard her," Stricklen said. "I think the team was looking at me to step up and obviously I didn't. A lot of us didn't step up in that game, and it hurt us."

Stricklen sustained a groin injury in last Thursday's game against Georgia, but she was hesitant to use that as an excuse. Stricklen also has dealt with some knee soreness.

"You have soreness. You still have pain," Stricklen said. "I've been hurt quite a bit. It's (the groin) still sore. My knee is bothering me, but it's something you've got to work through it. You've just got to move on."

Alex Fuller was pulled from practice Monday to treat her aching left knee, which took a shot Sunday. Kelley Cain nearly finished the session but also needed treatment and is dealing with pain in her right knee. Both players are key – Fuller with her ability to get the players on the same page and Cain with her size and scoring – and Summitt is hopeful that Cain will be able to provide 25 minutes a game this month as she gets the knee used to basketball activity.

The team will reassemble Tuesday – a victory would have meant a day off – because Summitt wants to be able to get up and down the court and that is not advisable on the day before a game because of the need to save their legs. The players will instead get Wednesday off the court.

"We've got a lot to work on," Summitt said. "We need to get in better shape. We had people play like they were on their last leg late in the game. I don't know if that's mental fatigue. I think it is mental fatigue. That's not uncommon for young players, but we can't accept it if we're trying to be in the hunt."

That, of course, is why she is pushing the team. She thinks they have the ability to rattle cages in the postseason.

"Certainly I am not giving up on them, and I am going to challenge them every day," Summitt said. "I've told them all along our goal is to be in St. Louis. But we've got to become a different team for 40 (minutes). We have to. And if we don't then we'll take ourselves out of the mix.

"That's the big concern I have. Really and truly how many people are so competitive that it really bothers them when we don't get a stop, when we give up a three? Late in the game (against Florida) we gave up a big three. Did that bother us? If there had been a sense of urgency that would not have happened. It is what it is right now. They've got to get better."

Summitt said the veteran teams of the past two years would have addressed Sunday's game already, but this team has seven freshmen, two sophomores and one senior on the active roster.

"They would have called a meeting," Summitt said. "Nicky Anosike would have been the first one to call it. And then call people out. It's accountability. I think these players are just excited to be at Tennessee. They don't realize when you come to Tennessee everyone wants to beat you, and they don't compete like, ‘You're not going to beat us.' And they did obviously for awhile, but it's for 40 minutes. It's a 40-minute game. And it's very disappointing, very disappointing."

"They're on full scholarship. As Daedra (Charles-Furlow) said to them in Auburn, ‘Has your scholarship check ever been late? No. Has your meal money ever been late? No. Well, then what is it you don't get?' Do they go out and say, ‘We're winning for the Lady Vol program?' Not all of them."

Summitt has reached into her motivational bag this season by having the players do laundry, pairing them with accountability partners and making them put together a scouting report. She takes away cell phones overnight on the road to avoid disruptions – last year's team acted like children running to their Christmas stocking to get the phone back at breakfast – so are the music devices next?

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Summitt said. "If I could I would take their uniforms away, but they need those to play in."

The NCAA requires that teams wear uniforms, so that's not an option. Summitt did say she would check with men's Coach Bruce Pearl for ideas. The two coaches are dealing with similar issues – young teams that take off too many possessions, especially defensively.

"I'm going to go talk to him and see if he's got any suggestions," Summitt said with a smile.

Summitt also had a simple solution for her players: Grow up now.

"Obviously we do need to grow up," Summitt said. "The game doesn't know an age. It's not about that. It's a matter of what they're willing to bring to the game. It doesn't matter how old they are. It matters how invested they are. And how committed they are to playing defense and rebounding and taking care of the ball."

Stricklen's response to the loss did indicate maturity.

"We've just got to stick together and tell each other what happened against Florida happened and we've got to learn from it and keep moving on and come out at practice (Monday) and every day and just work harder," Stricklen said.

"We all had our heads down and after the game we had that feeling and we don't want that feeling, and you've just got to learn from it and know what you've got to do to not get that feeling again."

Stricklen was a frequent target of Summitt's attention in the Florida game. The coach wore a sideline microphone and was taped at halftime, and Stricklen was on the receiving end of Summitt's ire.

"You just try to go out there and respond," Stricklen said. "She was on me, but I've just got to work hard and respond to what she said. She knows what she's talking about, and I've just got to step up and do it."

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