Kara Lawson returns for rehab

Kara Lawson is making her off-season home in Knoxville for now as she rehabs a quadriceps injury and waits for college basketball to begin. The former Lady Vol, who has made a name in the WNBA and on the U.S. Olympic team, is also a standout television broadcaster for ESPN, and she will handle the doubleheader next month in San Antonio featuring Tennessee and Texas Tech and Connecticut and Texas.

Kara Lawson, a Tennessee guard from 1999 to 2003, gutted out this past WNBA season for Sacramento and was put on the shelf late in the season after the Monarchs were eliminated from the playoffs. She opted to travel cross-country to Tennessee so that she could work with Jenny Moshak, the Lady Vols chief of sports medicine.

"I have quadriceps tendonitis," Lawson said. "It's an overuse-type thing. I had it this whole pro season and probably shouldn't have played."

Lawson played in 25 games for the Monarchs and averaged 8.8 points, 2.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. The Monarchs organization announced Aug. 31 that she would be out four to six weeks because of the right quad – Coach John Whisenant said then, "Kara is a great shooter and crucial to making our system go … This is a major loss to the Monarchs" – and with the regular season finale on Sept. 13 that effectively ended her 2009 WNBA season.

"I should have never started, to be honest," Lawson said. "As the season went along it just continued to get worse and worse, and I was in a lot of pain. That led to a decision by the doctors and the trainers, and that is why I didn't play the last nine games of the year.

"I was very far from 100 percent the entire season, but you have pressure that you put on yourself that you want to play and you want to be out there for your team, and the coaches put pressure on you. They want you to be out there."

The Western Conference's four playoff spots also were up for grabs until late in the season.

"So, all those things, but ultimately it was me that made the decision (to play) and so I am probably paying for it a little bit now in terms of the length of my rehab," Lawson said. "Fortunately, I don't play overseas."

Lawson spends her off-season working for ESPN as a game broadcaster and in-studio host for its women's basketball coverage. Since she doesn't have a commitment to a pro team overseas Lawson can spend this time immersed in rehab and rest.

"Rest and rehab are what I'm doing now," Lawson said. "It's a little bit of an oxymoron because Jenny Moshak's rehab is not rest at all. I'm working really hard with Jenny every day and I am also working with Jackie Ansley out at Performance Training three days a week right now and hopefully we'll build on that as my leg gets stronger and I get more endurance. That's the plan right now. As I improve and as I get stronger I am sure they will add more things to my plate, but right now I am not allowed to get on the court. I am not allowed to do any type of impact cardio."

That restriction has kept Lawson from practicing with the current Lady Vol team, but she hopes to be able to do so later.

"I could. It just depends on how I progress. That would be ideal if I could do that before I leave," said Lawson, who added that would allow Moshak to evaluate her progress based on live basketball action.

Lawson said she had no timetable for her stay in Knoxville – husband Damien Barling is with her – and plans to stay "until I'm better."

Her goal is to be completely healthy for the start of WNBA training camp and also for a spring camp in 2010 with USA Basketball. Lawson was one of eight core players named to the U.S. Olympic Team, and she helped lead the USA to the gold medal in Beijing in 2008.

Lawson was at the USA camp last month, but she was held out of action because of the injury.

"The main thing is to get back out there and get to play because it's a new coach, it's a new system," said Lawson, who also noted there were new players in the pool. "You want to play as much as you can to learn how to play with them. There is another training (camp) in the spring. My goal is definitely to be 100 percent by then."

To get fully restored to health Lawson decided to return to Knoxville. Former Lady Vol Nicky Anosike, who needed meniscus surgery on her knee, also came to Knoxville this fall so that she could work with Moshak. Anosike, who was in town for about seven weeks, just left on Wednesday to visit family in New Jersey before heading overseas to her pro team in Romania.

"Whenever you're an athlete and you get hurt there are a lot of places that are good, but I think what's important is that you have trust in what people are doing to help you get better and trust in knowing that it will get better," Lawson said. "If you have that trust factor you're going to work harder, you're going to push through some of the pain because you believe what the person is telling you is going to ultimately get it better.

"That was probably the most-important factor for me in coming to Jenny is knowing that it was going to get done the right way and in a way that is best for me. You go to a lot of places and they will get you better because they want you on the court. The organization is great in Sacramento, but it's a business, and they want you back on the court by any means necessary, whether it's surgery, whatever it is. That is what pro sports are."

The inflammation to the quad has created a chain reaction and also caused some knee pain, so Lawson and Moshak are focused on the entire leg.

"Jenny wants me to have a healthy life," Lawson said. "That is what I am concerned about is making sure it's something that is getting better for long term, not just, hurry up, quick get it better as quickly as we can for next year."

Lawson will continue her work with ESPN this season – she has carved out a second career as a broadcaster and has earned kudos for that work – and will be in San Antonio for the ESPNU Women's College Basketball Invitational on Nov. 17.

"What's nice about broadcasting is they fly you wherever you need to go," Lawson said. "I will just be flying out of here instead of Sacramento."

Lawson plans to do some pre-game research on Tennessee before she reports for television duty in San Antonio, but, so far, she has been so busy with rehab that she hasn't been able to watch the Lady Vol practices.

"I come in passing or I am doing rehab," said Lawson, whose daily rehab sessions with Moshak take two to three hours each. "I haven't really sat down and watched them yet. I will definitely before the season starts."

Lawson did watch the team last season in which a roster of freshmen and sophomores struggled on both sides of the ball. The two returning players with the most experience were sophomores Angie Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh – neither started in the postseason in 2008 – plus fifth-year senior Alex Fuller, whose aching knees had limited her court time at Tennessee. Bjorklund had minor knee surgery the summer before last season, and Baugh was trying to come back from major knee surgery.

"They lost a lot the year before and there weren't too many players on that team that were in the rotation the year before," Lawson said. "Upperclassmen have always been a huge part of our program in terms of teaching younger players the ropes."

The youngsters had to learn on the job and had very few examples to watch in practice of how to play the Lady Vol way.

"You can watch," Lawson said. "You have an example of somebody you can watch to see, ‘OK, this is how I am supposed to do it. This is how (Tamika) Catchings is doing it. This is how it's supposed to be done.' Sometimes that's a little easier to pick it up than when it's just Pat yelling or them telling you something to do. If you see it from an upperclassman consistently every day then you can start to get it. Upperclassmen sometimes can also fill some of those holes that you leave as an underclassman. They can kind of make up for when things go wrong.

"I think it was a combination of those things and, frankly, they didn't defend well enough, they didn't rebound well enough, they weren't tough enough. They didn't have good balance on the offensive end. You could watch them and you could see it. They just didn't have it."

Still, the first round loss to Ball State in the NCAA tourney was stunning for the program.

"It surprised me," said Lawson, who expected the team to make it to the Sweet 16. "I would have been surprised if they make it farther than the Sweet 16. I thought they would get out of that sub-regional. That was something I definitely didn't see coming was losing in the first round. It's uncharted territory for this program.

"They had a long way to go and the only way you get there is if you work hard. It's painful sometimes, and you're pushing through and you're growing. That's part of the process. I think now that they have upperclassmen, now that they have young players that got so much on-court experience, if they can stay healthy, I think they have a great shot to get that Tennessee swagger back."

COACHES' PICKS: The SEC coaches seem to think Tennessee is ready to claim its spot atop the conference. In a vote released Thursday the coaches picked Tennessee to win the SEC followed by LSU – the media's vote last week – and then Mississippi State, Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Alabama.

"They just want us to have the pressure on us," Pat Summitt said with a laugh. "But you know what, that's good. I am a little surprised, though. I think LSU has got all the pieces they need, and I said at Media Day that (Mississippi State) has all five starters back."

LSU's Allison Hightower was selected the Player of the Year. Tennessee's Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen were both selected to the First Team All-SEC squad.

The coaches' eight-member First Team also included: Hightower and LaSondra Barrett, LSU; C'eira Ricketts, Arkansas; Ashley Houts and Angel Robinson; Georgia; and Alexis Rack, Mississippi State.

Tennessee's Glory Johnson was selected Second Team All-SEC. The other members of the second team were: Alli Smalley, Auburn; Porsha Phillips, Georgia; Victoria Dunlap, Kentucky; Bianca Thomas, Ole Miss; Armelie Lumanu and Chanel Mokango, Mississippi State; and Merideth Marsh and Hannah Tuomi, Vanderbilt.

PRACTICE REPORT: The Lady Vols ended practice Thursday with some extra running after two players, Kelley Cain and Glory Johnson, were late for a morning conditioning session with Heather Mason. Pat Summitt had the entire team take extra sprints. The coach said Johnson was running late that morning, and Cain's alarm clock malfunctioned.

"She went and got her a new alarm," Summitt said with a smile. "It was by no means intentional."

Thursday's session started off energetic but ended with too many players fading by the end, according to Summitt.

"I thought we started out really strong, and I thought we gave in to fatigue late," Summitt said. "It's a challenge to get them all on the same page and playing with great intensity every possession, particularly when the fatigue sets in. This was not one of our better days. We've got to get better than we were today.

"It just ruins my day," she added. "They have no idea of the effect they have on our coaches when they come in here and give in to fatigue. I told them be careful with getting days off."

One exception all preseason has been Angie Bjorklund, who has been shooting particularly well in practice.

"Everybody else is going to be open; Angie's not," Summitt said of the way opponents will try to play Tennessee this season. "Angie is shooting the ball really, really well."

The Lady Vols were not at full strength Thursday. Vicki Baugh continues to practice on a limited basis, and freshman post Faith Dupree, who has been making a strong push for minutes at the power forward spot, was held out with back spasms. She is expected to miss Friday's session, too.

The team was coming off a day off because Summitt was in Indianapolis on Wednesday to speak at a posthumous tribute to NCAA President Myles Brand, who died last month from pancreatic cancer.

After Summitt notched her 1,000th win last season she sent to Brand one of the official game balls – Tennessee inserted a new ball into the game at various intervals to accommodate requests from the halls of fame and also for the school's use – and he had inquired about the ball's authenticity after it arrived by mail to him from Summitt.

"I said, ‘Myles, I know you're listening to this, and I want you know, that ball, it was a game ball,' " Summitt said of her speech at his tribute. "I really liked his leadership style and how he listened. He challenged all of us to think big. While he was a strong leader he was also soft-spoken and sincere and humble."

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