Stricklen returns to practice

Shekinna Stricklen returned to practice Tuesday after hyper-extending her knee in the win over Texas and is full go for this weekend's trip to New York and matchup with Rutgers in Madison Square Garden. The Lady Vols got two solid days of defensive preparation this week and will take off Wednesday to focus on finals.

The players have final exams to complete on Wednesday and/or Thursday – they will practice Thursday afterwards and then travel Friday to New York – and Coach Pat Summitt has tried to balance practice sessions and study time.

Tuesday's practice was an hour shorter than Monday's session and continued with an emphasis on defensive concepts, as the next opponent, Rutgers, likes to penetrate into the paint and shoot from behind the arc. The Lady Vols also spent time on both sides of the ball in full court scrimmages against the male practice team.

Shekinna Stricklen scored 16 points a year ago in the 55-51 win over Rutgers, in which the Lady Vols wiped out the largest deficit in program history – 33-13 at halftime – and Summitt was happy to see the sophomore guard/forward back on the court Tuesday.

Stricklen hyper-extended her left knee in Sunday's game and was sidelined for Monday's practice to get treatment. She was back to form Tuesday and had no issues going full court.

"She's really doing a great job," Summitt said. "And, I like, again I've said this, I like a big lineup. I like what she brings, as long as she gets rid of those one-handed passes and picking the ball up early and then trying to decide what to do with it. We've got some people, particularly our guards that have got to make better decisions in that regard. But Stricklen has just been super."

Junior Vicki Baugh remains sidelined as she continues her rehab from ACL surgery last March. It was the second ACL procedure on her left knee within one calendar year, and the process with the 6'4 forward has been one of deliberate caution and patience.

Summitt said she planned to talk to Baugh's family in Sacramento, Calif., this week to provide a progress report, and she reiterated her position that Baugh needs to take her time with her comeback, even if it means not playing this season.

Baugh hasn't practiced for several days but has been working in the weight room.

"She's had a little swelling so I just said, ‘Back off,' " Summitt said.

The minor swelling is expected at this stage in her recovery.

"Again I told her, ‘If you want to play, whenever you're ready, if it's January, February, March, or redshirt," Summitt said.

The conversation hasn't reached the point of finalization yet – Tennessee also has considerable time before any decision has to be made – and Summitt said there is no rush to do so.

"I am going to talk to her family, but unless her heart and her head (and her knee) is where it needs to be, then no," Summitt said. "Imagine next year if she and (Kelley) Cain are in the paint and Glory Johnson has moved out to play on the perimeter because she has expanded her game."

The decision on Baugh's status this season ultimately will be made by the player, her family, Summitt and the medical staff.

"I will let them know where they are and what Vicki and I have talked about, and she has talked to her grandmother," Summitt said. "They are such a close-knit family. I am sure they will all pick up on the other line, and we'll talk."

Summitt characterized the situation as a "wait and see," and the door remained open for Baugh to play this season.

"The weather is not helping her," Summitt said of the damp and cold conditions in Knoxville recently. "I don't want to bring her back in because I think she can help us win a championship. I only want to bring her back when she is healthy and pain-free on the knee."

A healthy Baugh is a phenomenal player in terms of skill, energy, attitude and leadership. It also would provide the Lady Vols with two super-quick forwards.

"She and Glory would be the two best athletes on the floor," Summitt said.

Tennessee has just three true posts playing this season – Kelley Cain, Johnson and Alyssia Brewer. Brewer has been inconsistent, but has shown signs of turning the corner.

"Lyssi is starting to show a pulse," Summitt said with a smile.

As Summitt spoke, Brewer worked after practice on a side goal on her free throw shooting with Sydney Smallbone staying to rebound for her. On another goal, Briana Bass rebounded for Cain.

Summitt was pleased overall with the team's focus for the past two days, especially with the players in the thick of final exams. Several players have the Vol Scholar torches on their jerseys and it is a team that overall takes school as seriously as basketball.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "That's why I wanted to get them out of here a little early."

Amber Gray, who is taking an online class this semester, will reenroll at Tennessee in January and will be able to officially rejoin the team. She is able to be at practices now and work with Jenny Moshak on her rehab as she comes back from shoulder surgery and a stroke, but she can't travel with the team until next semester.

"Once I get enrolled in January I will officially be back," Gray said. "We are going to take things slow (as far as coursework), but at that point I will be back as a part of the team."

Gray endured a tough season a year ago as the freshman forward struggled to adapt to the demanding system at Tennessee. Gray was a frequent target for Summitt's ire, and with that experience she is the perfect person to talk to Kamiko Williams, a freshman guard who also is struggling to keep up.

When Williams runs extra conditioning sprints, it is Gray who is at the finish line and shouting encouragement.

"I talk to her all the time," Gray said. "Pat has asked me to talk to her. If she is running I am right by her telling her, ‘You are going to get through this run. You are not tired.' It is all a part of the mental game. I am going to help her because not only is she my teammate but that is what I want to do. I want to help kids, and I want to encourage them."

Gray's fellow sophomores also had their ups and downs last season, and Summitt thinks the second-year players now understand what it takes to succeed at Tennessee.

"I think Amber finally understood what we were trying to get out of her," Summitt said. "I think with what she's gone through and lived through, I want her to talk to Kamiko just because Kamiko right now is so laidback, no sense of urgency, and she could really help us. She is our most athletic guard when it comes to getting to the paint; the pull-up game she has is really great.

"(But) today, same thing, not real fired up, not real eager to do much of anything. It's disappointing, but I understand she's a freshman. Let's think about last year when we were freshmen, look how we all played."

Last year there were six true freshmen, so they had power in numbers. It could be the same or different ones that tried Summitt's patience from game to game or practice to practice.

Now, freshman forward Faith Dupree is out for the season because of back issues, and freshman guard/forward Taber Spani arrived on campus with the maturity and work ethic of an upperclassman, a rare occurrence with a first-year player. That leaves William marooned on freshman island, and Summitt has asked the other players to help her.

"I don't think it's just Amber's place to do that," Summitt said. "The whole team should hold her accountable. That is what I told them the other day. Absolutely the greatest pressure is peer pressure and you all need to be on her. They weren't on her as much today, but of course I know we were going through a lot of what Rutgers is wanting to do on the floor and trying to break all that down from a defensive perspective, but, no, she still doesn't get it.

"And it's a shame because the season goes pretty fast. I've told A-Town (Alicia Manning) you've got to get in her head, get in her ear, tell her this is not going to work."

Williams will find a sympathetic ear in Gray, who has a unique perspective that nobody else on the team does. Gray nearly died last summer from a bleeding aneurysm that caused a stroke after she went into the hospital for shoulder surgery.

"She'll be all right," Gray said. "Like I told her, ‘I've been through it before. Keep fighting. Don't give Pat a reason to yell at you. Get through practice.' I am lucky to have another chance. I think I took it for granted.

"I told her the other day in the huddle you never really realize how much you love something until it's possibly taken away from you, so take advantage of the things that you have. We have this beautiful facility. We have the best coaches in the nation. Take advantage of it, learn as much as you can and do what you can while you have the chance."

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