Lady Vols prepare to close out SEC play

At a time when the Lady Vols are looking better on the court the same can't be said for how they look at practice. But it has nothing to do with basketball. It's their attire – a mismatched collection of high school and AAU T-shirts and shorts sometimes turned inside-out.

The players have maintained their sense of humor and even displayed some ingenuity in how to cover the logos of companies that are not official outfitters for Tennessee. Kelley Cain had a strip of white athletic tape over the logo on her red shorts and had used a black Sharpie to draw an adidas symbol on the tape.

Other players have just turned their clothes inside out to hide the logos. Their clothing is a mixture of high school gear from Alyssia Brewer's "Refuse to Lose" shirt from Sapulpa, Oklahoma, to Glory Johnson's "Scout Team" shorts from Webb School of Knoxville.

After the back-to-back losses last week and what Pat Summitt saw as a lack of defense and discipline, she booted the team out of its locker room and took away their practice clothes, which are laundered, folded and left in the lockers by the team managers.

The rule was that players could not wear any gear issued this season – the returning players dug out last year's clothes to supplement their private stash – so everyone is in an assortment of colors and styles in stark contrast to the matching shorts and T-shirts usually worn at practice. Johnson made a quick trip home to get more clothes and said her teammates can borrow, if necessary.

"I live here but a couple of other people weren't prepared for it," Johnson said.

The players also are scheduling "laundry days" to try to get enough stuff clean for the week, but that has also been a source of amusement, especially after Angie Bjorklund wore some shorts that told her teammates she was at the bottom of her pile of clean clothes.

"They weren't ready for this," Johnson said. "The first day Angie came out she was wearing shorts that were way up to here. It is funny. We're getting used to it. It's just like before the season. We played during the summer. We played pickup all the time and we'd been wearing this type of stuff so we're just coming to work."

Monday's practice session was also in stark contrast to the ones last week that followed losses to Duke and Kentucky. Sunday's 82-68 win over Mississippi State seemed to inject energy into the players that had been missing last week.

"We just had to bounce back as a team," Johnson said. "We experienced a couple of losses that we shouldn't have and it started off rough at the beginning of (last) week, and we needed this win. When we need a win we work three times as hard and we go in the gym and practice three times as hard. We know what we did wrong, and we know what we need to work on."

On Monday that included rebounding. Despite the 48-31 margin the boards Sunday there were still too many missed box-outs, according to Summitt.

"That is why the lids were on today," Summitt said.

The lids clamp down over the iron and ensure that shots are unlikely to fall – it takes a perfect one to nestle through the smaller cylinder – so that players must rebound.

After watching the game tape, Summitt also wanted better three-point defense and communication.

"I think obviously defending the three – making that a priority, talking more both ends of the floor," she said.

The positives from the tape were the offensive flow, high-low action with the posts and the defense.

"I thought we defended," Summitt said. "We had a purpose defensively. We took a lot of pride in our defense, especially in closing out that game. First half we didn't guard the three ball; second half we adjusted and did a much better job. Mississippi State is one of the most athletic teams in the conference and they've got skill inside, outside."

Summitt used her 11th starting lineup combination of the season with Shekinna Stricklen and Bjorklund in the backcourt and Johnson, Cain and Alex Fuller across the frontline. Summitt liked it enough to likely put the same group on the floor to start Thursday's game against LSU in Baton Rouge, but she's not ready to say it's the five that will finish the season.

"We'll wait," Summitt said. "One time doesn't get it."

The LSU game has taken on added significance because both teams are 8-4 in SEC play. The winner Thursday will secure fourth place in the league – no matter what happens next Sunday – and the loser falls to fifth place and must play on the first day in Little Rock, Ark., in the SEC tourney next week.

"She hasn't talked to us about that, but I think she will," Stricklen said. "I think that's going to make a big difference knowing that can seal the fourth spot for us and we won't have to play that first day and we'll get to stay here for school because we have missed a lot of class already."

"Wow, at least she's thinking academically," Summitt said with a smile of approval. "Missing class alone with all the Thursday games we've had it's been tough. It's been really tough on our kids that have Thursday night classes."

If the Lady Vols don't play until Friday in Little Rock, they can leave a day later and miss one less day of class.

Summitt had not had time before practice Monday to figure out the possible league finishes and seedings.

"I'm trying to figure out what we're going to do when we get on the court," Summitt said, but she intended to tell the team of the stakes at LSU.

"I will," Summitt said. "I don't want to share it today. They may forget about it before we get down to LSU. We'll tell it when we get down there because none of them have thought about it, either."

Stricklen, who was not aware of the added significance of the game until being interviewed, smiled and raised her eyebrows with intrigue when she heard about the stakes.

"I really think that's going to be a big game," Stricklen said. "They're going to come ready to play."

Stricklen will start at the point position, where her play had been erratic until Sunday's game against Mississippi State when she had 14 points, six rebounds, three blocks, four assists and just two turnovers.

"At first I did have problems and I had second thoughts like, ‘This is not my position,' but I know that I can probably play any position," Stricklen said. "I just really have felt comfortable with it. I am learning and I have learned a lot at this spot, most of all is having control of the ball, taking care of the ball and that's the most important part of playing point guard really."

Stricklen is a 6'2 guard/forward with a good handle, solid shot, deep three-point range and the ability to drive to the rim. The additional size is why Summitt likes the lineup – Bjorklund is 6'0, Johnson is 6'3, Fuller is 6'3, and Cain is 6'6 – as it can create mismatches.

"It gives us size," Summitt said. "Obviously I like Stricklen at the point. We can post her up. I think when she decided she was going to be a player for us … I think it was bigger than it needed to be in her mind. If I'm the point guard I'm going to get us in our offense. One pass and now we're all players."

Stricklen agreed that she has the physical tools to play point but was struggling with the mental adjustment.

"I would say mental," Stricklen said. "To me point guard is a big job, leading the team and getting them set up in plays and you're the first person with the ball and trying to control things."

The lineup can also lead to mismatches when the other team has the ball as Johnson has the quickness and athleticism to guard on the perimeter, even picking up the point guard as she did against Mississippi State.

"The fact that she's the most athletic player on our team and she can defend one through five, putting on her the point guard to me I thought that was a good matchup for her," Summitt said. "I've had it in my mind a lot, but I was trying to play her more in the post. Now, she can play both. Kelley, that makes a big difference, because we can run a triangle, which we ran. Keep Kelley low and keep Alex and Glory in the high or low and do a lot of screening out of that, back screening."

"It helps a whole lot," Stricklen said. "With her quickness she's so long and tall and she's one of our best defenders on the team. She can guard the post. She can guard anyone. That helps a whole lot."

Stricklen also likes the lineup when Tennessee has the ball because of being able to get the ball inside to Cain, whose synergy with Fuller has been clicking in the paint.

"I really do," Stricklen said. "I think it's really good because right now our inside game is killer and that is what has really been carrying us. We have three inside players working together and me and Angie on the outside. And then you've got the best rebounders on our team going to rebound."

Sunday's win certainly elevated Monday's practice. The players took the floor eager to get on the court with a lot of chatter about the game during their shooting warmups. For any team, but especially a young one, confidence can't be underrated.

"I think (Sunday's) win really helped us all," Stricklen said. "I think everyone has really got their confidence back and playing the way we should have been playing. I think that with this win it's really helping us. We have figured out some things and most of all I think our defense has really picked up, and I think as long as we keep our defense up we'll be really good."

The win also allowed Tennessee to stay in position to grab that valuable bye in the SEC tourney, while still controlling its own fate.

"That's a torpedo before you're even out to sea," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "That's getting your boat shot up before you even get out to sea to fight. We want to be captain of our ship and master of our own destiny here. We knew this stretch here, these last three were big. Had we lost (Sunday), we're dead ducks before we even get out in the race. Winning that game now opened the gate."

Monday's practice was productive, especially when the starting five ran sets together, and Summitt was pleased with the response from the team as a whole.

"I think our freshmen are getting a little bit more of a commitment in practice, starting to understand how we want to guard things, scouting report defense," Summitt said.

Summitt played all 10 on the roster in the first half against Mississippi State, but she was more judicious with minutes in the second half.

"I think we are defining roles," Summitt said. "I don't think that everyone would say, ‘I know what my role is.' Some are not happy with their role I'm sure right now because we chose not to play as deep off the bench (in the second half). I made that decision. I told them, ‘Don't try to get my attention during the game. You can get it every day in practice. Do positive things in practice to show me and show our coaches that ‘I'm ready. I'm ready to play.' ' "

The team will get a well-deserved day off Tuesday and then practice in Knoxville on Wednesday before departing for Baton Rouge. Thursday's game is at 9 p.m. Eastern (FSN-South).

Two players putting themselves into position to try to earn more minutes are Amber Gray and Sydney Smallbone.

"She and Sydney have both been really committed to going and getting in the weight room with Heather (Mason) and doing cardio stuff," Summitt said.

Gray played eight minutes in the first half and was 2-2 from the field with four rebounds and an assist.

"That was one game," Summitt said. "I've always seen possibilities but I am not saying she's got it. I think our freshmen are still a work in progress."

Summitt shuffled players in and out of the Kentucky game but that was more due to her unhappiness with nearly everyone on the floor, with Cain and Fuller being the notable exceptions in that game.

"I really thought in Kentucky we were sending people in and out trying to find someone that could do something that might help us," Summitt said. "We never really established that. A lot of people just did not compete hard. That's the most upset I've been this year just watching kids not play hard. That was a long night."

The team took a bus back to Knoxville, but Summitt didn't pop in a game tape on the televisions.

"I couldn't stand to see it," Summitt said. "I'd seen enough. We watched Vanderbilt play. That was a good game. We wanted to watch somebody play hard."

That loss to Kentucky and the preceding one to Duke caused Tennessee to drop from No. 13 to No. 18 in the AP poll, the lowest ranking since 1985.

"I'm just glad we're in the top 20," Summitt said. "There was a time I thought if we get out of the top 20 maybe we'll play a little better. Fight to get back in."

The win Sunday also avoided the first three-game losing streak at Tennessee since 1986, when among the players only Fuller was even on this Earth and was a newborn.

"That would have been three in a row," Lockwood said. "I think anytime you lose three in a row here, that's heavy. That's a heavy burden to bear and I think they would have felt that as opposed to having a good performance, winning, continuing to control your destiny.

"It's the difference between day and night winning and losing that game."

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