Taber Spani has shooter's mentality

When Taber Spani walked to the sideline during a timeout in the Texas Tech game in San Antonio, she smiled at an assistant coach and said, "I am going to make my next shot." Spani had struggled from the field – and inexplicably for her from the free throw line – but she took a gunslinger's mentality back onto the court and drained her next shots to lead all scorers for the game.

"I think for me I'm an offensive player," Taber Spani said Thursday when the Lady Vols were back at practice. "That is what I am supposed to bring. That is what I am expected to bring. I think everybody was just really trying to be aggressive and it was spread out and it was nice we had a balanced scoring attack throughout."

Spani tallied 18 points in the 91-53 win over Texas Tech in San Antonio, and she was joined in double figures by Glory Johnson (17 points), Shekinna Stricklen (16) and Angie Bjorklund (14). Pat Summitt used all nine players available for the game, and everyone scored at least three points.

Spani was 1-3 in the first half but finished 5-9 from the field, including 2-4 from behind the arc.

As she walked in front of the scorer's table at the AT&T Center to get to the bench in the first half, Spani just shook her head and spoke to an assistant coach, who smiled and patted her on the back. As the coaches gathered in their pre-huddle before speaking to the players during the timeout, Summitt said, "What did she say?" When told of the freshman's reaction to her shots not falling, Summitt laughed.

"I think my shot as a whole, when I think too much, I over-think it," Spani said. "Pat said, ‘You want to will it into the basket. You have to stop willing it in. Just shoot it.' "

"I think she just wants it in the worst way, but she'll relax," Summitt said. "Watching Taber I really like her skill set. She can shoot the deep three. She can take it off the bounce. She uses the glass. She's got great touch. Early on she's been pressing a little bit. She expects so much of herself.

"I just keep telling her, ‘Relax, and just shoot the ball.' She's in Pratt Pavilion, along with a number of our players. She spends a lot of time in Pratt making shots. Sometimes she gets on the Gun (an automatic ball feeder for shooters). Sometimes she gets somebody to rebound for her. But she's in there probably about five or six days a week."

As Summitt was talking to the media after practice Thursday, Spani was lofting threes with Tyler Summitt rebounding for her. She started directly behind the arc and kept moving back until she was swishing 26-footers. She then moved back in step by step and kept hitting three-pointers.

Spani is 6-11 (54.5 percent) from the free throw line with all the attempts coming against Texas Tech, as she did not go to the line against Baylor. She is an excellent free throw shooter, so that stat really annoys her. Despite the scheduled day off Wednesday, Spani was in the gym.

"It will get back on track," Spani said. "It irritates me so when I miss free throws because I know that's an opportunity that I need to make for the team. I also know it's a tiny adjustment of just going out and shooting.

"I went and made sure I shot with Tyler. We were putting ourselves in game situations, and I was 30 for 30 (from the line)."

Summitt opted to take the day off Wednesday and then returned to the practice court Thursday. The team will practice Friday in Knoxville and Saturday in Charlottesville. Tennessee takes on Virginia on Sunday at 4 p.m. Eastern at John Paul Jones Arena.

"We got home (after) two in the morning (Wednesday)," Summitt said. "I just felt like they needed a break. They were going to have to turn around and get up for class, and most of them have 8 o'clock classes, so I said we would adjust our schedule."

The two players left behind on the San Antonio trip, Alyssia Brewer and Kamiko Williams, for violation of team policy were at practice Thursday and have been restored to playing status. They will both make the trip to Virginia "as long as they don't miss class and keep their academic status where it's supposed to be," Summitt said.

For Spani and fellow freshman Faith Dupree, it was their first road trip as Lady Vols.

"It was a great trip, a lot of fun," Spani said. "On the court it was fun and obviously San Antonio is a beautiful city. The Riverwalk was great. For us freshmen our first big road trip and it was a great team win that we all got to contribute. We were really looking to build off of the Baylor win and just be consistent.

"Our theme was, ‘The Next Step.' We just have to continue off of it."

Thursday's practice was used to work primarily on defense, including installing what Tennessee calls its "12 back," a 1-2-2 full-court press.

"We got up and down, working on our defense," Summitt said. "Trying to do a better job and we also looked at a different press, ran a 12 back. We gave up some middle drives (against Texas Tech), but all in all I was pleased with our defensive effort."

CLASS OF 2010: Tennessee has received signed letters of intent from two players from the class of 2010, and the LOIs have been certified by the school. With the LOIs on file, Pat Summitt is now permitted by NCAA rules to discuss the recruits.

Tennessee met its needs in the backcourt by signing two guards – Lauren Avant, a 5'9 point guard from Lausanne School in Memphis, and Meighan Simmons, a 5'8 shooting guard from Simmons High School in Cibolo, Texas.

Avant committed to Tennessee when she was 14 years old and never wavered from that decision.

"Never," Summitt said. "She comes up to almost every football game. She's been on this campus about as much I have. She just loves it. She loves it here. That's a long drive (from Memphis), but they (Avant and her mother, Dana) make it very often. (Tennessee) through and through."

"Mom went to school here. She was going to run track, but she didn't because she wanted to work on her nursing degree. Just a great lady."

Avant has been absent from the court for the past few months after a series of nagging injuries and then a car accident last summer in which she injured her shoulder. The rest may have actually done her some good, as she had been playing basketball year-round.

"I think she's healthy and everything is good now," Summitt said.

Avant is a pure point guard and will add depth to the position immediately next season.

"She's a true point guard and has got a great feel for the game," Summitt said. "She has got obviously the ability to get to the paint, sees the floor really well and distributes the ball well and is tough on the defensive end, just a real, competitive driven person. You can tell that in her academics."

Lausanne is an elite private school in Memphis, so Avant's academic background is solid.

"She's extremely bright, outstanding in the classroom," Summitt said. "Just being down there and being in the school with a lot of the administrators and coaches everyone is so invested in getting things right."

Initially, Tennessee had just one available scholarship to offer in the class of 2010, but point guard Cait McMahan, who would have been a redshirt junior this season, had to stop playing basketball because of balky knees.

That allowed Tennessee to try to get in on a second guard, albeit very late in the game, and the coaches zeroed in on Simmons, especially after a call from former Lady Vol Candace Parker. Simmons had attended a WNBA promotional event in San Antonio last summer in which Parker made an appearance.

"She loves Candace Parker," Summitt said. "Candace had an event and she went to it, and she was so excited. Candace called me and said, ‘Coach, if you can get this player, you need to get her.' "

Simmons could play point, if necessary – Tennessee's focus with the second scholarship was to sign a combo guard – but her likely role as a Lady Vol will be as a scorer and defender.

"She's more of an off-guard," Summitt said. "She's a really, really nice shooter. She can shoot the three ball. She's just got great touch. She'll stretch the defense for us and it'll give us another great shooter on the perimeter. We're going to lose Angie (Bjorklund) and Syd (Smallbone) here pretty soon, so the timing is great for us. She's athletic (on defense). I feel good about it."

Summitt has been filling all available scholarships – something she hasn't always done in the past – and she said the reasons are the need for depth and the concern about injuries.

"I don't want to be left with six players or something," Summitt said. "You always have to consider having depth, quality depth, and I think that gives us a chance to put more pressure and play full court more. I don't mind rotating as long as we've got the people who are going to get out there and get after it."

The class of 2010 took care of Tennessee's needs on the perimeter.

"I'm glad we got the guard play," Summitt said.

The next targets will come from the class of 2011, and Tennessee is looking for size.

"Go big. Looking for bigs," Summitt said.


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