Road to San Antonio starts at practice

If a Lady Vol basketball player wants to know how many miles it is from Knoxville to San Antonio – the site of the 2010 Women's Final Four – there are reminders on the basket supports and the doors into Pratt Pavilion. It wasn't the handiwork of Heather Mason or even the coaches. Former player Cait McMahan is responsible.

The basket supports at both ends of the court at the Pratt practice facility have a single sheet of paper with the numbers, 1,116, in large type.

"I saw it," Shekinna Stricklen said. "What are the numbers? I kept looking at the numbers."

When told it's the traveling distance to San Antonio, Texas, the sophomore guard smiled.

"We set that goal early and to get that goal we've got to start early and just keep working hard every day and come to practice every day with a high intensity and pick each other up and just go hard," Stricklen said.

Heather Mason, the strength and conditioning coach known for her motivational techniques, especially when it comes to numbers, seemed like the likely culprit for the postings, but it wasn't her. She did express admiration for the idea, as Mason has been known to take numbers and devise gut-wrenching workouts centered on those figures.

The head coach also saw it for the first time when she walked into Pratt.

"I just saw it today," Pat Summitt said. "We've got a long way to go."

Pat Summitt smiles Monday while watching individual workouts. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

Summitt was speaking literally – the travel distance – and figuratively about a still-young team that exited from the NCAA Tournament last season in the first round with a floor full of freshmen.

Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, who puts together the "thought of the day" for each practice and workout session said former player Cait McMahan saw his thought – "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" – and got the idea. She copied photos of the players onto the paper – those are on the doors and in the locker room at Pratt; the players do have access to that one – and affixed them before practice where the players would see them.

One sign is on one of the doors that lead into Pratt Pavilion. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

"There're photos of the first workout and miles to San Antonio," Lockwood said. "Her caption was one of our thoughts."

Summitt nodded her approval as Lockwood explained the heretofore mysterious postings and particularly liked the idea that it came from a player – McMahan now works in the Lady Vol office as an administrative assistant after balky knees forced her to give up basketball midway through last season – and not the coaches.

"I think it's a great idea," Summitt said.

The Lady Vols held their second session of individual workouts in small groups on Monday, and the high energy level and focus are readily apparent.

"I think a combination of the disappointment of how we got knocked out in the first round and then realizing that we are Tennessee," Summitt said. "A lot of former players were not happy. They were very disappointed. They heard from them."

A third factor is one the calendar controls – the players are simply a year older. A good example of that is Stricklen, who was quiet last year – her answers to questions were usually short, and she spoke very softly – but who is now smiling and comfortable both during practice and afterwards with the press.

"Last year I was really shy," Stricklen said. "I didn't talk much. And that's another thing I'm working on is my communication, talking more. Pat is still on me about that."

Stricklen really came out of her shell at the tribute to Summitt last May for her 1,000-win milestone. She got down on one knee in front of Summit and begged for access to the plush locker room in the arena to be restored, as the crowd laughed uproariously.

Shekinna Stricklen walks away laughing on the stage of the Tennessee Theatre after getting on one knee and begging an equally amused Pat Summitt to please let the team have back its locker room. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

Stricklen also used the off-season to become a better defender – a matter of stance, lateral speed and strength.

"I was really working on my defense," Stricklen said. "I felt like that was a big downfall for me."

She also has been willing to talk to the newcomers.

"I am just trying to help the freshmen so when it comes to October we're all on the same page," Stricklen said.

Freshmen guards Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams joined Stricklen and junior guard Angie Bjorklund in their session Monday at Pratt Pavilion, and a heavy emphasis was once again placed on defense – position, closeouts, footwork, help and spacing.

"They can help us out a lot," Stricklen said. "They are already communicating real well with us and working hard. The defense is looking good. Taber looked great today, Kamiko, too. They will help a lot on offense and defense."

Holly Warlick works on positioning with Taber Spani while Angie Bjorklund prepares to pass in a defensive drill. In the background are Shekinna Stricklen, left, and Kamiko Williams. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

Williams has a polished offensive game, and like Spani, she's left-handed. Alyssia Brewer, who worked out with the posts in the second of three groups, also is left-handed.

"That's special," Brewer said. "I think it's just going to be harder for the defense."

The posts worked on defense but also placed an emphasis on making short jumpers and finishing at the rim.

Brewer's goal in the summer was to get off to a good start in the workouts to ease the transition into full practice in mid-October.

"I considered my weight factor of how I was last year, and I've lost weight since then," Brewer said. "I wanted to be able to get up and down the court a lot better than I was."

Brewer also had chronic allergy and asthma-like symptoms last season, and she has been treated for that condition, which can take time in East Tennessee to really manage.

"We've almost got it under control," Brewer said. "It's a lot better than what it was. It's a lot better to breathe."

Brewer's other emphasis over the summer was to improve the consistency of her offensive game.

"My shooting, being able to have better jump shots, because when I talked to Coach, she wants me to be able to do high post and low post stuff so inside-outside game," Brewer said.

Brewer also cited the team's overall maturity from a year ago, though her sense of humor has always been finely tuned. She saw the 1,116 signs posted on the goal supports and was asked if she knew the distance to San Antonio.

"Actually, I didn't," said Brewer, who is from Sapulpa, Okla. "I just knew it was kind of close to my home. We were warming up with Heather and she said, ‘That is just great.' I put my hand over the numbers like, ‘Heather, don't even get any ideas.' "

The post players are still down two with Kelley Cain out with a concussion – she remains day to day – and Vicki Baugh rehabbing her knee following ACL surgery last season. Cain will return as soon as she passes the concussion protocol tests – mental and physical – but the approach with Baugh is one of caution, especially this early.

"There is a lot of time left," Summitt said. "Get stronger and be confident."

Summitt was peeved Monday with Baugh, a junior forward, because she missed the team's conditioning workout with Mason.

"She overslept," Summitt said. "She missed workouts this morning. I am not happy. If she wants to be a leader she should have been one of the first ones to the workout."

Summitt will let Mason determine the penalty – an argument could be made that it would be better to face Summitt under those circumstances.

"Heather's in charge," Summitt said. "Heather will take care of it."

Summitt also lobbed a small shot across the bow of another junior. The Lady Vol players traveled by vehicles on Sunday to the WNBA game in Atlanta, where the Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks. Bjorklund didn't make the trip.

"I don't know why she didn't go," Summitt said. "She should have been there."

The players sat in a section behind Summitt – who was courtside with her staff, as she was honored at halftime by the Atlanta Dream for reaching the 1,000-win milestone – and seemed to enjoy the game.

"It was great," Stricklen said. "We were all excited about it. We enjoyed the whole thing. All the way back we talked about how the intensity was, how the crowd was into it. I was really excited."

Stricklen's favorite former Lady Vol is Chamique Holdsclaw, but she was held out of the game for the Dream because of a sore knee. Three other former Lady Vols played – Michelle Snow for the Dream and Candace Parker and Shannon Bobbitt for the Sparks.

"I was kind of upset I didn't get to see Chamique play, but I was just glad to be there," Stricklen said.

Stricklen also had entertainment provided by a freshman. Williams did not sit still during the game. If music played – and that is often at WNBA games – she was standing up to dance or just moving in her seat. Does she ever not dance?

"Kamiko? No," Stricklen said. "If there is music there, she's dancing. She doesn't sit down. She was in the car with me yesterday and she danced to every song for three hours just moving, throwing her arms. She doesn't sit still."

Stricklen was asked if it would be beneficial if Williams could play defense like she danced – nonstop movement.

"It would be great," Stricklen said with a laugh.

Summitt enjoyed seeing her former players – she spent time with them either courtside or in the locker room – and she spent a few minutes giving Bobbitt what amounted to a pep talk.

Pat Summitt talks to Shannon Bobbitt after Sunday's Dream-Sparks game in Atlanta. (Photo by Maria M. Cornelius)

"To me Shannon pushes the ball harder than anybody," Summitt said. "Obviously I'm partial to her, but I thought the minutes that she got she made the most of them."

Bobbitt played limited minutes in the first half, but they were effective ones. She plans to play overseas at the end of the WNBA season.

"I am going to go overseas," Bobbitt said. "I don't know which country (yet). You get better over there."

Parker had her husband, Shelden Williams, and their 3-month-old daughter, Lailaa, at the game. She also got to catch up with Baugh.

"We talk every week," Parker said before tipoff. "I'm excited she's going to be here. She gets to meet Lailaa. I am very excited about that. She's one of the best friends that I have. She truly is a great spirit, and I hate all the things that have happened to her, but sometimes you have to go through struggles to really appreciate the game of basketball. I know I myself have done that, and I just continue to talk to her about it."

Bobbitt has befriended Briana Bass and offered some words of advice to a fellow 5'2 point guard.

"Just be more aggressive and make sure she runs that team," Bobbitt said.

Bass has taken ownership on the court with her voice. She has lowered the pitch and increased her projection after working with a speech professor last spring.

"She responded," Summitt said.

Both Bobbitt and Parker were stunned at Tennessee's first round exit last season – they won back-to-back titles for the Lady Vols in 2007 and 2008 and then were part of an exodus of five players, all of whom were drafted into the WNBA with four still in the league, including All-Star Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle, who won the championship with the Detroit Shock last season.

Parker watched the game with Nikki Caldwell, a former Lady Vol assistant who now is the head coach at UCLA.

"I watched it," Parker said with a solemn tone. "I went over to Nikki Caldwell's house, and we watched it. Definitely disappointed, but it's going to be interesting to see how this team handles that. It's not necessarily how it happened. It's what they do about it. So it's happened; where do you go from here?

"I think it will be a great way to show how Pat handles failure like she handles success. I think she's going to do a great job of getting this team ready."

Bobbitt wasn't able to watch the game, but she heard about the outcome.

"I was overseas," Bobbitt said. "I was shocked for them to lose in the first round and for them to lose to Ball State because I had never heard of Ball State before. I was just a little shocked.

"They're going to do well this year. They don't want last year to happen to them this year. I've got confidence in them. I believe in them."

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