Lady Vols leave for New York today

The Lady Vols spent the bulk of their court time Thursday working with the ball in their hands after two previous days of defensive sessions and will fly Friday to New York to eat, shop, take in a play and take on Rutgers on Sunday in Madison Square Garden. Exams ended Thursday – Taber Spani is hopeful she got a 4.0 for the fall semester – and the players were downright giddy before practice.

"They're done," Pat Summitt said. "I am sure they're thrilled."

Elated was more like it. Players bounded early into Pratt Pavilion and were smiling and laughing, even while stretching and warming up. After spending Monday and Tuesday entrenched in defense the team spent most of Thursday working on offensive sets.

Tennessee will go coast to coast over the next week as they leave today for New York – the game Sunday is at 3:30 p.m. Eastern vs. Rutgers on ESPNU, and it's preceded by Baylor and Boston College at 1 p.m. – and then return to Knoxville after the game on an evening flight.

Tennessee hosts Louisville on Wednesday and then departs the next day for the West Coast with games against Stanford and San Francisco. The coast-to-coast travel comes just as the fall semester officially came to a close, so the players don't have to be in class at 8 a.m. after a late flight or balance coursework with basketball studies for a few weeks.

"It's helpful, especially with the competition level of these next four games before Christmas," Taber Spani said. "We can all really focus in – not that we weren't before, but school is another thing that can be (time-consuming).

"I think it's going to help because Rutgers is a huge game, and we respect them so much. We're really looking forward to that game. It's definitely an advantage that this came at this time of year."

The freshman forward had a goal of getting a Vol Scholar torch patch – Spani also took courses over the summer so this was her second term in college, making her torch-eligible – and she wanted to earn it with a perfect mark. Student-athletes who maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher have torches on their jerseys.

"I am getting an ‘A' in every class," Spani said. "I had better be. I am expecting to get a 4.0."

Since finals just ended Thursday, grades will be officially recorded and certified later this month, so Spani won't know for sure if she will be sporting a torch until that process is completed. But Summitt wasn't surprised to hear that the first-year player expected perfect marks and would be disappointed if she fell short on her exams.

"That's just her discipline and how she goes about school," Summitt said. "It's the way she goes about being in the gym and getting in her reps and making sure that she can help our team. She is very bright, and remember she was home-schooled. Her mother (who taught her) would be disappointed if she had anything less than that. And her father."

Spani was recently quoted in a USA Today article on Florida standout quarterback Tim TebowGator Legend – as the two share the traits of having been home-schooled, being fierce competitors and putting a premium on living a faith-based life.

"I was honored that I got to be a part of that (article)," said Spani, who has cited Tebow as a role model and was aware that he would be in New York at the same time as the Lady Vols team because he was a Heisman finalist.

Spani has yet to meet Tebow in person, but "I hope to someday," she said.

Spani's overall maturity as a freshman has been noted on several occasions by Summitt, and the freshman said she wants to savor every second of college, which, relatively speaking, goes by very fast.

"Yes!" Spani said. "Everybody says that and my sister (Shalin, who plays at Kansas State) said that and her friends. Everyone who was in college said, ‘Just enjoy it.' One of my favorite songs is, ‘Every Moment.' If you focus on enjoying every moment, yeah it's tough, because sometimes I'm walking around campus and I like, ‘Oh my gosh, I am done with my first freshman semester.' It's just crazy, and I miss it (already).

"But if you focus on just enjoying the moment that is what I am trying to do, and I think that helps. It does go by really fast and these are amazing memories in your life, and you don't want to miss out on them."

Spani's learning curve for college basketball hasn't been as steep as most freshmen because she came to Knoxville prepared. She arrived early to work with Heather Mason on strength and conditioning and to play pickup with her soon-to-be teammates.

She also went through a workout program inspired by her father's football training. Gary Spani was an All-American football player at Kansas State and the all-time leading tackler for the Kansas City Chiefs while a pro. The program included running 50 forty-yard dashes in one session with little rest between repetitions.

Spani also worked in the weight room. Her physicality is such that she is much more likely to put someone on the floor rather than be knocked there. She has secured rebounds simply by not giving up on a board and using her strength to make sure she maintains possession.

"I think the speed of the game probably was at first (the biggest adjustment), but it helped a lot this summer because I got to play with all these girls so that benefited me," Spani said. "The scouting report stuff, I like to study that. It's easy for me to do that.

"Maybe the ongoing daily level of, ‘You have to bring it every day,' (was the biggest adjustment). That's what I love to do, but if you have a bad day it's going to show big time."

Guard Kamiko Williams is trying to absorb that lesson. Spani can help her fellow freshman, and Williams also has to start her own engine.

"I think it's both," Spani said. "But I think this team has also decided we need to help and we need to step up for accountability. I love Kamiko, and everybody sees the talent in her. If it's me or if it's all of us pushing her and extracting every ounce of energy that she has right now because we see what's in her and if we can push her towards that, it's going to really end up helping us. We see that in her and so we try to pull it out."

Last week Summitt was upset enough to state that if Williams' effort didn't pick up, she could miss upcoming trips. But every player is expected to board Friday's flight.

"As of right now we're all good if nothing happens (overnight)," Summitt said.

Friday will be a travel day, so the Lady Vols won't return to the court until they practice Saturday in New York.

The players are looking forward to the trip – their talk is often of Manhattan restaurants – and they also have plans to see the Saturday evening show at the August Wilson Theatre of "Jersey Boys," a Tony Award-winning Broadway play about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, a singing group from Newark, N.J., that rose to worldwide acclaim.

"Our team talks about eating a lot, but I think that's probably every athlete," Spani said.

Spani was last in New York in 2002 when her father was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame – Gary Spani. The hall is located in South Bend, Indiana – though it will relocate to Atlanta in a year – and the ceremonies occur in New York City.

Sophomore forward Glory Johnson was in New York two years ago but as a singer, not a basketball player. She went with the senior class of Webb School of Knoxville because she was in the chorus. Johnson also was looking forward to the culinary offerings of the Big Apple.

Johnson said lack of high-quality food could never be offered as an excuse if the team didn't play well in a game.

"We always eat good," Johnson said. "No matter what, Pat is going to make sure that it's not the food aspect that didn't get us playing good."

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