Post play key in postseason

One maxim of college basketball is that teams win with guard play and although Tennessee isn't disregarding that notion, the Lady Vols have pinpointed post play as vital to its postseason success. With wily senior Alex Fuller and freshman Kelley Cain operating inside and athletic freshman Glory Johnson completing the frontline, the coaching staff has decreed paint touches to be mandatory.

"It's pretty important," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said.

Tennessee's practice sessions for the past 10 days emphasized inside-out play with a few new wrinkles installed on offense.

"I think we have had some very good practices," Lockwood said. "No coach thinks we got done exactly what we needed to. We always think there's more, but, quite frankly, we made some progress here. Now, the question is, as we told our team, we have got to carry that over. If we don't see that on the floor then it means nil.

"We're really pleased with what we've done in practice and now we're saying, ‘Let's carry those principles over into competition.' "

No. 5 seed Tennessee, 22-10, will take on No. 12 seed Ball State, 25-8, on Sunday at approximately 9:30 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2) at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky.

The Lady Vols practiced Friday in Knoxville and then left by bus for Bowling Green. On Saturday they will meet with the media and hold an open practice at the arena at 2:10 p.m.

En route to Bowling Green, the team watched "The Cinderella Season," the HBO documentary that chronicled the Lady Vols' 1997 national championship season despite 10 losses.

Before the team departed, Glory Johnson said she was looking forward to the film, which she had not seen. Johnson was 6 years old and still living in Colorado, her birth state, when the 1997 team won the title.

Johnson, who moved to Knoxville later that year, is now a key piece of the frontline of the 2009 team.

That frontline is anchored inside by Kelley Cain, a 6'6 redshirt freshman, and Alex Fuller, a 6'3 redshirt senior. Johnson, a 6'3 freshman forward, can roam inside and out on defense and will be asked to guard on the perimeter in postseason. It's an assignment Johnson has readily accepted.

"It's more fast-paced and you're able to get more into them when you're guarding them on the perimeter," Johnson said. "When they have the ball on the wing it's fun for me to guard penetration. It's definitely to help my team out and something I can do. It's hard work sometimes, and you've got to be focused and devote yourself to guarding that position."

Nicky Anosike, a 6'3 center/forward who now plays in the WNBA, made a name for herself at Tennessee because of her ability to guard on the perimeter or handle post players inside. Anosike had played on the perimeter in high school – she first turned her back to the basket at Tennessee – whereas Johnson stayed in the paint in high school.

"It's more fast-paced and I think it's a little harder, but at the same time you're not being physical with the post down low," Johnson said.

Because of the hands-off approach on the perimeter Johnson said she must be mindful of not reaching and getting whistled for a foul.

"Making sure you keep your hands up and your hips low and your feet moving all the time," Johnson said. "Otherwise you're more than likely going to get a foul."

Johnson, a high school sprint champion, has the speed and ranginess to wreak havoc on the perimeter.

"I plan on it, so hopefully it works out in our favor," Johnson said.

While Johnson can go all-out on defense it has been a season-long effort by the coaching staff to get her to slow down on offense.

"I've been definitely talking to the coaches about having composure on offense and not trying to go too fast or do too much, knowing my role and what I need to do for the team and slowing down and taking good shots instead of quick shots, trying to avoid offensive fouls, making contact and still finishing with my left or my right hand," Johnson said.

At least those hands are relatively unencumbered now. Johnson's hard cast has been removed from her lower left arm – it had immobilized her thumb to protect a severe sprain sustained in the SEC tourney – and she will wear a brace off the court and have the thumb taped for Sunday's game. Her middle finger on her right hand will also be taped after she sprained it a week ago in practice.

"It's a little sore around the knuckle, but it's getting there," Johnson said of her left thumb. "I'll be fine hopefully by the game. I'll tape it up, because I can't wear the brace that I have in the game. It was tough to dribble with my left hand. I'm excited to finally practice without this cast."

Lockwood and Assistant Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow work with the post players in practice. Lockwood assessed the five post players – Johnson, Cain, Fuller, Alyssia Brewer and Amber Gray – and what the staff wants to see in postseason.

"Glory had some very good games early for us and then there was a stretch in the season where she really, really struggled," Lockwood said. "It's a little bit of a bull in the china shop, so to speak, before she reads and sees what's there she would put that head down and just want to go. I think she has become more patient and will pick her spots. She's so athletic and she can be so good for us and she has been good for us in games. She is slashing and driving and she can get her points off of drives and slashes and offensive rebounds and the midrange and the pull-up."

Johnson executed a move in practice last weekend that she had not shown in the regular season. She went to one side of the lane at a deliberate speed without the ball and took her defender with her. She reversed at an acceleration possessed only by a sprinter that left her defender flat-footed, caught a wing pass and scored at the rim on the other side.

In the SEC tourney Johnson drove the baseline after uncorking a first step that could be nearly un-guardable in women's college basketball.

"I ran track half my life so just keeping my feet moving and the quick first step," Johnson said. "I look to see whether I can beat them or not and if I can I go off the dribble."

It is that change of speeds on offense – especially from slow to fast – that the coaches have been seeking from Johnson.

"Absolutely," Lockwood said. "She is not going to get all her points back to the basket. That's not her. Go to the short corner and rip and drive. Go to the high post and drive. Hit your pull-up jump shot. Run the floor in transition and get a couple of easy baskets just beating people down the floor. Stick-backs. She should be good for one or two offensive-rebound stick-backs a game. If she can do that for us and be around 10 points a game and anything beyond that would be wonderful. Honestly, if she can play and get to the foul line and get rebounds for us and score a little bit like I just described we're very happy."

Cain is the low block force inside for the Lady Vols and is playing through the pain of a knee that will need surgery after the season to remove two migrating screws. Every time the knee gets jolted she gets a percussive effect in her kneecap because of the loose metal. The screws were put in place in December of 2007 when she underwent surgery to realign her right kneecap to correct a congenital condition. But they are pushing out – a good sign because the body considers them to be extraneous now – and must come out when the season is over.

Cain had to learn to trust the rebuilt right knee – she relearned basketball moves – and then deal with the pain. Jenny Moshak assured her it was pain, not injury, and Cain continued to turn corners – both physically and psychologically – as she realized the knee would hold up.

"She had never gone through that surgery before so until you go through something I don't know that any of us know what we're capable of doing or how we would feel or how we would react," Lockwood said. "I think for her this was all uncharted territory. This was new ground. I think she had to go through it and experience it and with Jenny's help knowing that even though you're feeling pain, you're OK. All of us if we feel pain our initial reaction is, ‘Let's stop. Because something is not right.'

"There is a difference between pain and injury and I think what she has had to realize is that there is going to be some pain and discomfort that accompanies this, but it's not anything that threatens my well being and my health and safety. Once she was secure in that knowledge I saw a whole different Kelley Cain. Because early on she would talk a number of times about the knee being hurt, can't do this, can't do that. And now she's doing things and she's playing so much more freely.

"She knows who she is and what her game is."

The coaches want Fuller to recapture her regular season production after a lackluster performance on offense – Fuller's defense was still solid – in the SEC tourney. Fuller is a versatile post in that she can guard inside and play on offense in the paint or on the perimeter.

"If she's making high post jump shots, that opens things up for Kelley tremendously," Lockwood said. "It opens things up for everybody. One of things that Alex does so well is she positions, she blocks out, so if she can get rebounds for us at both ends of the floor, that's huge. Anything she can give us, that little jump hook, the little fake, a little shimmy this way, if she can do stuff like that and get enough to plug in some gap scoring, wonderful.

"I think if she can be consistent and we can count on her for eight, 10 points, seven, eight rebounds, we're going to be very pleased. With her she's our most knowledgeable defender. She knows how to defend. She knows how to deny the high post. So I am counting on that as a given."

Brewer, a 6'3 forward, elevated her game in Little Rock, Ark., at the SEC tourney by becoming a force inside. She said her mindset had changed in postseason, and she realized she could help the team in the paint with her size and skill set.

"I kind of was just like, ‘Why haven't you been playing like you know how to play?' " Brewer said. "So I got in that mindset. Definitely, it's going to carry over."

That same mindset is a must in Bowling Green for Brewer.

"If she plays like she played in the SEC Tournament, we're going to be pleased," Lockwood said. "She averaged 9.3 rebounds – led us in rebounding. She got to the foul line. She drove to the basket from the high post. If she plays like she did in the SEC Tournament, we're going to be very, very happy, and that's what she needs to do.

"Her level of consistency has got to be there for the remaining time, whether it's one, two, three, four, five six, games, she has got to show us a level of consistency. It can't be the roller coaster – up, down, up, down. It's got to be consistent. She's got to go in there and be very physical in the paint. She's got to be able to establish position and catch the ball safely in the paint. And she's got to be able to get something done when she catches the ball – score consistently, get fouled or if she's double-teamed pass the ball. Get the ball back out and play the inside-outside game. And then she's got to rebound and defend."

Gray is an undersized post at 6'1, but she has a polished skill set in the paint. Her postseason minutes will likely come inside with Shekinna Stricklen, Angie Bjorklund, Sydney Smallbone, Alicia Manning and Briana Bass handling the perimeter.

"Amber has got a pretty diverse set of scoring skills," Lockwood said. "So her big thing is she's got to be able to withstand up and down for several minutes and play at a high rate of intensity. If she can do that for us Amber has got a craftiness in her game. She is probably one of our best in terms of shot fakes and drawing fouls and getting people to create contact. She is very good on the weak-side boards. She's got to defend and rebound and if she can do that we'll find minutes for her."

Although there are no back-to-back games in the NCAA format, the starters will still need some relief. Pat Summitt has been seeking bench players that she can rely on and postseason is the best time for players to finally flip a switch.

"In the postseason we're going to be a huge key," Gray said. "We need to be able to keep the same level of intensity that the starters have so that they get a rest. Our bench is deep so if we're able to go in and keep the same intensity level that the starters have it helps us out a lot."

"We all just have to step up for each other and get the minutes that we need to give each other a break," Brewer said.

The emphasis on post play doesn't mean that the importance of guards has been forsaken.

"I think Kelley is going to have great impact, but you've got to have guard play to win in postseason," Summitt said. "I think we are getting a little bit better on the perimeter and, in particular, I think Angie is more relaxed and playing with a lot of confidence.

"I think Shekinna now understands what her role is, and I think she's embraced the point guard as opposed to wanting to go on the wing. You make one pass and you're a player. I think overall they need to understand what they need to bring individually and collectively. We're going to have to have it inside and out."

Defensively, Summitt wants the guards to play position defense, get in a stance and stop reaching. She especially wants Stricklen to get her arms up but away from her player.

"She reaches too much," Summitt said. "As I told her you've got to foot fight, and you've got to keep your hands off people. Don't take yourself out of games. She's very high-waisted, so if she's not down in her stance, then she tends to be up here and reach.

"Angie and Shekinna, they're notorious anytime somebody starts to dribble drive they put their hands on them instead of working their feet. We spent a lot of time (in practice during the break) defending the ball, defending the drive."

Johnson also will be deployed on the perimeter to help cut back on penetration. With her size and reach – this time in a good way – she can disrupt smaller shooters by not letting them get a good look at the basket.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "That should happen. I still think postseason she can guard the perimeter. We've already talked about it and I told her, ‘We need you to be a perimeter defender,' especially if we get the size inside."

That size can come from Cain and Brewer with the solid fundamental post defense that Fuller provides. The practice sessions between the tourneys emphasized every aspect of defense – pressure, guarding the arc, denying the high-low action and stopping penetration.

"We've gotten better at the high-low game," Summitt said. "I think we're doing a little bit better job of denying there. And then I think on the dribble drives I think our help is better. Even if we're giving up some penetration I think we're supporting a little bit better. You can always get better in your half-court defense. When it comes down to it hopefully we're not going to let people just run up and down on us, but be able to affect them in the half-court game.

"I think just starting with defense we can do a better job of getting up in the passing lanes, and limit touches and force people to play beyond the arc as much as we can, at least catch there. I think defensively we can get better with high hands, as well as contesting and boxing. We've talked about them all year long, but now it's more and more important to us."

Seven players will make their NCAA tourney debut on Sunday. The mood at practice all week was upbeat – Summitt's volume is up, but so are the positive remarks – and spring break meant the players had no class and were able to sleep later.

"We definitely got a lot more sleep, able to sleep in or go to bed early," Johnson said. "We're not too anxious. We know what we have to do going into this game, and we know what we must do to stay in the tournament so we're keeping our minds right, focusing one practice at a time, one game at a time, one day at a time."


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