Kelley Cain key to postseason

Despite the early hour Friday, the Lady Vols were on the court ahead of time, laughing, talkative and, by Pat Summitt's reckoning, focused. They earned a day off Saturday and will return to practice Sunday afternoon as the coaches continue to tweak and re-teach in preparation for postseason.

Friday's session was short by design after two up-tempo practices, but the session, which lasted just under an hour, was at game speed. It began with posts and guards split into shooting drills, segued into half-court defensive drills and ended with full court work on both sides of the ball. Heather Mason then took over for wind sprints and weights. Afterwards, the players were dismissed for class and some time off.

Pat Summitt trusted them enough to not even set curfews this weekend, recognizing that the campus was about to start spring break.

"Let's face it," Summitt said, "they do have a break. So if they want to stay up until midnight or whatever I'm not going to police them."

She then smiled and added, "Trust me, if they go out I'll probably find out."

Summitt would know about any missteps in all likelihood before they even got back to their dorms or apartments. Former players used to marvel at how quickly Summitt knew of any extracurricular activities. They later realized the entire community keeps an eye on them, given their high-profile status as Lady Vol basketball players.

The fact Summitt felt comfortable enough to turn them loose – even if just for two days – indicated she was pleased with their practice production the past three days.

"We've done a lot in transition, offensively and defensively," Summitt said. "They had to make stops. I think the energy level today was really good."

The players were already on the court by 5:30 a.m. at Pratt Pavilion and were ready for the coaches at 6 a.m.

Summitt appears to have found a starting lineup for postseason with Shekinna Stricklen and Angie Bjorklund in the backcourt and Glory Johnson, Alex Fuller and Kelley Cain across the frontline. Those five have had plenty of practice reps together this week and were clicking noticeably on both sides of the ball.

"I'm very pleased," Summitt said. "Strick has really elevated her game. Kelley has obviously. Angie, while she's been inconsistent (shooting the ball), you can depend on her to play defense. She doesn't let her offense affect her defense."

Cain practiced all three days this week – she missed the end of Wednesday's session after tweaking the knee – and was moving much better. Of course that's relative to watching Cain in Little Rock, Ark., in which she limped through the third game after colliding knee to knee with an Auburn player. After that loss Cain stretched out across the locker room floor and shook her head when asked if she could have mentally or physically dealt with the pain a year ago.

When asked if she has developed a toughness she didn't know she had, Cain answered, "Definitely, because I know last year I wouldn't be able to do this."

Cain has had her right kneecap realigned to correct a congenital tilt that caused multiple subluxations, and the screws from that surgery are migrating out of the bone. Every collision jars them loose even more. At season's end the two screws will be removed, and she will be on crutches for six weeks while the holes in the bone heal.

"She's doing what she needs to do for the team, and she's going to fight through it," Bjorklund said. "That says a lot about her."

At Friday's practice Cain was wearing a Tampa Final Four T-shirt from last year's championship season. Cain had a front row seat on the bench for that title as she spent a redshirt year healing from the surgery. If Tennessee can somehow get back to the Final Four in 2009 after replacing the entire starting lineup, Cain will be a big part of why.

Alicia Manning and Cain are both from the Atlanta area, so Manning was familiar with Cain before both arrived at Tennessee. One scouting report on Cain when she was still in high school noted she needed to be more aggressive. Manning scoffed at that notion.

"If they want to think Kelley Cain is soft go ahead and let them think that," Manning said. "She's nothing but soft. She's a beast. Kelley has been working all year, playing through it and we've needed her big time, and she's come through in a lot of key moments."

The last thing Cain noted in the locker room at Alltel Arena was that the team needed to get back to work between tournaments. Cain, like the rest of her teammates, was visibly peeved by the outcome against Auburn in Little Rock in the semifinal game.

"Practice," Cain said. "That's all we can do. Just got to go back to the drawing board."

Cain is listed as a redshirt freshman on the roster, but Summitt doesn't consider her a first-year player at this point.

"I think Kelley grew more this year," Summitt said. "I don't think of her as a freshman. I think of her as more of a sophomore, having been a redshirt freshman and knowing what's expected in this program and watching and then being able to come in and play.

"She's had a lot of success, but to me it's because Kelley knows her role. She's not trying to be somebody else. She just wants to be the best Kelley Cain can be, and she knows that the paint is the place she needs to own."

Cain averaged 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds a game in conference play and hit 66.3 percent of her shots in SEC games and 61.3 percent overall.

"I like the fact that she goes in, and she plays at the rim," Summitt said. "Most of our players run down, and they play outside the block. Kelley plays to her strengths. It's not anything fancy, but it's efficient."

To state that Tennessee's postseason hopes are pinned on the health of Cain is an understatement.

"You tell me who's been our most persistent paint producer," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said.

Kelley Cain.

"So I'd say a resounding yes," Lockwood said. "The health of Kelley Cain is extremely important to this team."

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