Lady Vols return to practice

The freshmen class, perhaps because of its size, is aware of its place in Lady Vol history. Enough players have heard enough stories to keep the others apprised on where they stand. No Tennessee team has failed to make the Sweet 16 in the 27-year history of the NCAA tourney, and two freshmen said they don't intend to be the ones to break that streak.

The freshmen class also is aware of its history-setting ways – as Pat Summitt has said on the wrong side of the record books – as they have fallen in the polls to spots not reached in two decades and became the first team to ever have five SEC losses in the regular season.

"We've been the first Tennessee team to do a lot of things this year," Alyssia Brewer said wryly.

No Tennessee team has ever failed to reach the Sweet 16 in the 27-year history of the NCAA Tournament.

"Well, we broke a lot of other records, but we're not going to break that one," Brewer said. "I'll guarantee that. The whole pressure thing for me has flown by. It's come and gone. We can't do anything to change that, but you can do what you have in your future."

The freshmen aren't avoiding the topic either. Among the six of them they know enough history about Tennessee – or can look it up – to keep each other apprised of where they stand.

"We do talk about it," Amber Gray said. "We talk about playing with no pressure on us because although no Tennessee team has missed a Sweet 16 … we're going to get there. We know what we can do and we know what it's going to take for us to get there.

"It definitely is motivation. We're going to get there. People know what we can do on any given day."

Summitt just smiled at the pronouncements. It has been a wait-and-see season for her since October, so she wasn't ready to endorse any predictions. She wants to see it on the basketball court.

After giving the team two days off on Monday and Tuesday – Sunday was used to travel back to Knoxville from Little Rock, Ark., the site of the SEC tourney where the Lady Vols lost in the semifinals to Auburn – the players returned to the practice court on Wednesday afternoon for an up-tempo, full-court session with a heavy emphasis on defense.

"I thought we got some good things in," Summitt said. "We let our offense affect our defense (against Auburn). That's why we wanted to go against the guys, and we're going to do that the next two days while we have them here. We'll probably take Saturday off and then go Sunday, Monday."

Next week is spring break so the male practice players won't be available, minus maybe one or two who live in town. A few former Lady Vols might show up as they did a year ago to help out the current team.

Summitt will try to schedule one day off this weekend so the players can have a full day off without class obligations. The players have missed a lot of class this semester, especially on Thursdays, and this week has been a catch-up one with midterms also scheduled.

"It felt like one day," Brewer said of the team's brief break this week. "You could tell from everybody that all their energy was gone from them. It definitely helps us all out a lot (to have a break)."

"I think we needed it a lot just to let everybody get their legs back and get ready mentally," Gray said. "Because like Dean (Lockwood) said, ‘It's a whole new season now.' One game and we're done. So I think we needed it a lot."

The Lady Vols beat Alabama and Florida in Little Rock and were leading Auburn at halftime before a second half fade wiped out the five-point lead and ended in a 78-58 loss. The players cited mental fatigue.

"It definitely was a mental thing," Brewer said. "Physically we took care of our bodies, as well as we could, eating right and cold whirlpools after our games, but it all comes down to mental fatigue, and I definitely learned from that experience."

"It's all a mental game," Gray said. "It's not that by the second half we're physically tired. There's no way. We're the most conditioned team that Tennessee has ever had. It's just a mental game, and everybody going in there and thinking whatever they were thinking in the first half.

"I think it's how everybody feels individually and whatever is going through their head. I'm not sure because I'm not in their head, but it's definitely not us being tired because we can outrun any team. Good teams are going to make their runs, and we just have to answer them."

Gray has been working overtime to make sure she can run with those teams and has significantly improved her conditioning to the point that she can run with the pack in practice sprints. Gray volunteered for extra sessions with Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach, and sophomore Sydney Smallbone went with her on Saturday mornings for the past few weeks.

"Just me realizing if I want to be on the floor that's what it's going to take, the extra work," Gray said. "Syd has always been there by me even when she didn't have to do any extra conditioning. That helps a lot with both of us doing it together."

It has been a difficult season for Gray, who had to play catch-up in her conditioning all season long.

"It has been a huge challenge, but it's something that I wouldn't change, because at the end of the day I know it's getting me better and getting me ready for my next steps in life," Gray said. "I'm probably in the best condition by far that I've ever been in my entire life. My skills are getting better and being able to work with the team has been good. I've gotten stronger but just the extra conditioning has gotten me into better playing shape."

Gray's playing time has been limited this season and that fueled Internet speculation that she might bolt from Knoxville. Gray's father, Carlton Gray, was an NFL defensive back, so she grew up immersed in sports and understands the fickle nature of fans.

"People are going to talk no matter where you are, no matter what level you're playing at, and you can't let that bother you," Gray said. "People can think what they want to think but at the end of the day I'm the only person that knows what I'm going to do with my future."

Summitt has been through such speculation before with other players over the years.

"When you don't get quality minutes sometimes people just assume you're unhappy," Summitt said. "It's hard for freshmen to play in this program."

Summitt also doesn't fret about such – "I've been surprised in the past – surprised some stayed, surprised some left," she said – and when asked on her call-in show after a game in November about the second Six Pack breaking up, Summitt said they would miss out on some championships if they opted to depart.

In this case Gray was emphatic about her intentions.

"I'm not going anywhere," Gray said. "This is where I'm at. I love this team and I wouldn't trade it for the world. First and foremost I'm not a quitter. I'm going to continue to fight through anything that is thrown at me. Like I've said if you have the opportunity to play at the University of Tennessee no matter how many minutes you have at the end of the day when you're done playing basketball, opportunities, doors are open for you. That is what I'm looking at right now."

That doesn't mean Gray is content just to be here. She has an offensive skill set that with proper conditioning and absorption of defensive principles could land her in the status of steady contributor.

"That is what I am pushing for," Gray said. "That's why I haven't let down. I'm not going to let down. I am going to continue to push through anything that is thrown at me."

Summitt's sees Gray's minutes in the postseason as providing some relief in the paint.

"I think where Amber can help us is probably more in the paint than on the perimeter," Summitt said. "The thing that she is getting better at but it's still a challenge for us is multiple action – having to deny and then open up, take a charge, close out long, defend off the dribble. But she's not a one-person deal. A lot of our freshmen are still struggling."

Gray also has proven herself to be a good teammate. Whether playing or on the bench her enthusiasm has not waned this season. She is talkative in timeouts and leads the cheers on the sidelines.

"You have to maintain a positive attitude because it's not all about you," Gray said. "It's about your team and if my team is successful, whether I'm able to help by being on the playing floor or whether I'm able to help by sitting on the bench and keeping everybody in the game I'm going to do what I have to do in order to help us win."

Gray has some words of inspirations written on her shoes.

"I have a Bible verse: ‘No weapon formed against me shall prosper,' " said Gray, which is from Isaiah 54:17. "And then I just have words, things that just push me through. Hard work, passion, warrior, intensity, competitive, strength and then ‘Just Play.' Because at the end of the day that's what you have to do – just play and leave it all out there."

Gray also has the initials "BLH" on her shoes, and they stand for Benjamin Lawson Hooks, a legendary figure in the civil rights movement who is also her great-grandfather.

"He never quit," Gray said. "He never gave up. He fought through. He fought for everything that he wanted. It's a struggle, but I am going to continue to fight."

INJURY UPDATES: During Tennessee's win over Florida, Glory Johnson's left thumb hit the back of a Gator player cutting through the paint in a congested area. Johnson emerged from the pack wincing and with good reason.

"She has sprained her ulnar collateral ligament in her thumb," said Jenny Moshak, the program's chief of sports medicine. "In layman's terms it's a gamekeeper's thumb. It's very common for soccer keepers, football players, skiers when they fall because their hands are on a pole, and it gets jammed. It's probably the most common injury in skiing. She jammed it on a player, hit the player in the back."

The ligament connects the bones at the base of the thumb and prevents the thumb from bending too far away from the hand.

"(The cast) immobilizes it," Moshak said. "This ligament will heal without surgical intervention if we don't move it, because then the ligament will scar down. It's like the medial collateral ligament in the knee. A lot of times that is non-surgical as well."

Johnson is wearing a hard cast but was able to practice Wednesday and didn't seem deterred by the club on her lower left arm. The cast will remain in place until March 19. The earliest Tennessee would play in the NCAA tourney is March 21. Brackets will be announced this coming Monday.

"She'll have it off, we will rehab quickly to get some motion back and then she will be taped for protection in the game," Moshak said.

Kelley Cain, who sustained yet another blow to her left knee in Saturday's game, was able to practice for most of the session Wednesday and is OK, according to Moshak. Sydney Smallbone turned an ankle, and Alex Fuller tweaked her right knee, but both returned to practice.

"I think everybody else is pretty good," Moshak said. "Still trying to recover (from the regular season) and get academics squared away."

The good news is that the respiratory virus that had afflicted some players had run its course.

Pat Summitt should have all 10 players available for Thursday's session and offense will get a longer look, along with defense.

"We'll do a combination," Summitt said. "We'll add some quick hits offensively. I think what we need to do is get up and down a lot so they're talking (on defense) and they're having to rotate, deny one pass away. When you play that many games (without practice in between) a lot of times I think it hurts you more than helps you, because we quit denying."

That is another indication of this team's youth – practice lessons need to be reinforced regularly for a carryover to the court.

"Just staying together no matter what," Amber Gray said. "Working hard and everybody being on the same page and just continuing to work because this two weeks that we have (between tournaments) it's going to be huge with resting and with practicing.

"I think the more that we practice together without having any games is better because Coach always said, ‘We practice harder than we play in games,' and with us practicing straight without any games I think that will get us a lot better."

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