Two years ago the Lady Vols lost to Stanford and then departed California for the Christmas break. Coach Pat Summitt spent the holidays replaying the game in her mind and getting more upset with each visualization.
At least this Christmas her players sent her back to Knoxville with a resounding win, and a 10-1 record, a rather remarkable turnaround for a team that lost to Ball State in the first round of the NCAA tourney last March.
"I think it's good," said Summitt, who was in a considerably better state of mind at the end of this West Coast trip as opposed to the one in 2007. "I didn't like the way we played at Stanford, and I'll have to chew on that during the holidays when they're chewing on turkey, but that's OK. That's what coaches do, and players go on and they'll go home and look to see what's under the Christmas tree and have a lot of fun.
"And that's what I want them to do. They've earned the right to have some time off and to be with their families at this special time."
Summitt used the two days between games to get in a film session immediately after the defeat, an extra practice session on Sunday and then one-on-one meetings with each player Monday after practice.
The image of chewing is apropos because no player has been gnawed on quite like Kamiko Williams, as the first-year player has struggled to adjust to the demands of practice and conditioning at Tennessee.
Williams has been a frequent target of Summitt's wrath and missed one road trip earlier this season to San Antonio for violation of team policy. This trip could turn out to be her turning point for the season. The meeting with Summitt was epiphany-like in nature and Williams' explanation of it after the game seemed almost cathartic.
Before Williams spoke, Angie Bjorklund leaned in to remind the freshman that she was speaking to the media and she could keep it private if she wanted.
"I know," said Williams, who then outlined what happened. "I was just telling her my frustrations and telling her how trying to play for her and then trying to play for my dad can bump heads a little bit, because my dad wants me to do one thing, and Pat wants me to do another thing, and it gets confusing. It really does.
"I get to the point of where I try to satisfy too many people and that catches me into not playing my game. OK, Coach wants me to this. My dad wants me to do this. Let me try to do what they both say within the frame of her offense. My dad says, ‘You can score, penetrate, do this and that.' OK, yes, I can do that, but if Pat wants me to pass the ball, I can pass the ball and if it comes back to me, then I'll penetrate. I am just going to try and please both of them at one time and keep a smile on my face.
"She listened. She understood. She gave me some tips on how to talk to my dad."
Summitt's late father was as headstrong as his daughter, and the coach has written and talked extensively about trying to meet his expectations as she grew up. So, Summitt would understand what it's like to have a father who is demanding.
"That's what she said," Williams said. "That helped me out as well. But I was like, ‘But you don't know Vincent Williams. He's a military man. He's got that extra oomph to him.' But she helped me out a lot."
Williams also has Stephanie Glance, who was just activated to coach on Sunday in the health-related absence of Daedra Charles-Furlow, in her corner.
"Stephanie's been helping me out, too," Williams said. "She's been a great help. I'm glad Pat added her, because she keeps me focused. She's a little bug in my ear, ‘Miko, stay serious, stay serious,' because you know me, I'll put a smile on and start laughing and giggling and stuff like that."
That has been what might best be described as a coping mechanism by the freshman, who has nowhere to hide on this team, as fellow freshman Taber Spani came in with uncommon maturity and the third newcomer, Faith Dupree, is out with back issues. That façade crumbled when Williams finally opened up to Summitt.
"I was a little nervous," Williams said. "My hand was trembling. I shed a few tears, too. I just told her what was on my chest, and I'm good now. I feel great."
The result was 14 points on 6-8 shooting, eight rebounds, four steals, three assists, two blocks and no turnovers.
The opponent was the overmatched Dons of the University of San Francisco, but Summitt will look at the sustained effort of Williams in 22 minutes of play.
"It's by far the best she's played in terms of being able to stay on the floor longer and not give in to fatigue," Summitt said. "She's explosive. She can get to the rim. She's got a great pull-up game. She can get other people the ball. Again, I told her it's a matter of maturity and how long is it going to take her to really commit to this every time she takes the floor and know what a privilege it is to wear the orange.
"I thought we had a very good meeting. I met with all the players individually, and I thought Kamiko responded very well. That's obviously a beginning, and I just hope that she can keep her focus and do what she needs to do to help us be a be a better basketball team, because she could make a big difference for us at the guard spot."
Angie Bjorklund was a difference maker Tuesday as she scored 19 points in just 17 minutes of play. She was 7-10 from the field, including 4-5 marksmanship from behind the arc. She now has sole possession of third place for career three-pointers at Tennessee with 165.
"I didn't recruit her for her defense," said Summitt, teasing Bjorklund, who is one of the better perimeter defenders on the team. "But it's better. She's worked hard on her defense. She's done a good job of keeping people in front of her. Obviously, we recruited her because of her ability to make shots. Before she leaves, she's probably going to pass someone else by."
Glory Johnson joined Williams and Bjorklund in double figures with 13 points. As a team, Tennessee shot 53.1 percent for the game, 53.8 percent from behind the arc and 82.4 percent from the line.
Johnson had a team-leading nine rebounds to contribute to Tennessee's 52-32 domination on the boards. Summitt used all 10 players in both halves, and everyone scored.
She limited the minutes of Kelley Cain, whose knee was sore, and Taber Spani, who has been bothered all season by foot problems. Cain still had six points, seven rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 17 minutes. Spani added a three-pointer and a block in 13 minutes of court time.
No starter played more than 23 minutes, and Alicia Manning's 25 minutes off the bench were the most of any player. Manning was 4-5 from the field and had eight rebounds and three assists.
"I wanted to get the people that have played the most minutes the most rest," Summitt said.
All in all, Summitt was happy to be headed into the break with a 10-1 record.
"I am," Summitt said before rattling off a Christmas wish list for the New Year. "I would like to see Lyssi Brewer really run the floor hard and establish point paints right away so Kelley Cain is not having to play the minutes that she's been playing. Taber Spani, the reason that I didn't play her (long) tonight is her foot was bothering her some. It was good for Syd to get some minutes as well.
"I liked the fact we got to play everyone. That gives us something to look at and decide eventually. We're not going to play everybody every night. It's not going to happen, but we've got to find a good eight, if we could go eight, maybe even nine deep, that would give us a chance to be really good and keep the pressure on the opponent."
San Francisco was led by Rheina Ale with 11 points. Tawny Drexler didn't score - she had Cain, Johnson or Alyssia Brewer to contend with inside - but she did tally nine rebounds.
Despite the lopsided score, the Dons can pull out film clips in which they executed their offense and got stops on defense.
"Absolutely," San Francisco Coach Tanya Haave said. "I think there was some really good execution offensively and defensively, and we got some good shots, and again, I think they sped us just a little bit, that seed of doubt, ‘Oh, am I going to get blocked,' or ‘I've got to get it off quickly because I don't want it to get blocked,' so absolutely there are some good things that we can build on, and that's what we want to do. We just need to get more consistent."
The biggest issue for USF was the size of Tennessee. Even with the 5'2 Briana Bass in for extended minutes, the Lady Vols still had reserves on the floor who were 6'1 in Manning and 6'3 in Brewer.
"I just think Tennessee's size and skill and athleticism was too much for us," Haave said.
Haave and Ale both thanked the fans who attended the game - 3,255, nearly 3,000 more than the average attendance for a home game - and said the experience was beneficial for the team.
"I think, for the most part, we played really hard, but I think it's great for our program to see that level of play and to experience that atmosphere in our gym," Haave said. "We've never had that in our gym. We were just overmatched in almost every spot but I think, again, really good for our program and our players to see that."
The Lady Vols brought a little half-court pressure but backed off that after a few possessions and instead worked on defending in the half-court, especially in their zone. In the first half, USF had more turnovers, 10, than field goals, seven, and Tennessee led 48-17 at halftime.
Tennessee added eight steals in the second half to finish with 12 for the game and forced 18 turnovers.
"It surprised me that I saw as much zone from them, because they definitely can match up with us man to man," Haave said. "They were going to make us shoot them out of it and we never did."
San Francisco shot 21.5 percent for the game and 20.0 percent from behind the arc. The Dons were 0-4 from the free throw line. Had they hit those the Dons would have duplicated their 38-point output a year ago in Knoxville.
Tennessee opened in its man defense, but switched to zone in the first half and stayed with it for most of the second half, especially with the reserves on the floor.
"Sometimes you experiment and you look at something," Summitt said of the deployment of the zone all season. "Man to man has been our bread-and-butter defense, but we've got size. When we opened up with Baylor it was the first time I've ever opened up in a zone. People were like, ‘Oh my gosh,' and I'm sure they thought I was losing my mind.
"But really when we put it on the floor I love the size that we have. We're long, and we're rangy, and we can play big. It has really bothered a lot of teams. They have a hard time getting inside on our zone."
USF ended up launching 30 three-pointers - and hitting six of them - both by plan and because the Dons were forced to since they couldn't get the ball inside.
"A little of both," Haave said. "Our inside game, since we don't match up with them, every time we went inside we had a lot of blocked shots. The open threes were there and normally we shoot a little bit better there."
The Dons also had to adjust to the name on the front of the orange jerseys.
"You've got eight-time national champions Tennessee, all that they are and all that they have been there's going to be some of that intimidation, but I think a couple of them were not intimidated," Haave said. "I think overly excited, like the young lady sitting next to me, but she wasn't intimidated."
Haave was referring to Ale, who smiled and said she enjoyed the experience. Ale hit three of USF's six three-pointers.
"It was exciting to play with all of the fans that we had," Ale said. "We knew that Tennessee was bigger than us and more athletic than us. I knew that they were going to give me outside looks, and I had a lot of looks. I rushed. Like she said I was too excited. I needed to settle down.
"Hopefully we can take what we learned from this game. We just need to play hard and play like we did in the first six minutes."
USF was down just eight points, 12-4, within the first six minutes but then Bjorklund hit back-to-back threes, and the Dons were having trouble getting off a shot. At the 10-minute mark, USF had attempted just nine shots to 21 for Tennessee.
Summitt continued to rotate players in and out, and Tennessee got its running game on track to race out to a 31-point halftime lead.
The Lady Vols had 10 assists on 18 first-half baskets with two sweet ones from Manning, who bounced a pass across court from right to left to Johnson, who finished the left-handed layup, and Bass, who drove into the paint and found Williams under the basket just as the horn sounded for the break.
"I think they shared the ball," Summitt said. "Part of why we only had four assists (in the last game) is Stanford is better than us defensively and were out in the passing lanes, and we didn't handle that very well. I think with this game we did a much better job, and that's what you want. You want ball movement and player movement, and you definitely want paint points, and we got a lot of all of that."
Tennessee finished with 17 assists, and Williams reversed Manning's first-half path and bounced a pass from left to right for Manning to finish. Williams and Manning even elicited an ooh from the USF crowd when Williams sent a no-look pass into Manning under the basket, who left it for a cutting Sydney Smallbone to finish the uncontested layup.
The only real blip in the game was an early timeout from Summitt at the 17:47 mark of the first half with Johnson getting an earful of instruction.
"I thought we did a lot of good things tonight," Summitt said. "One of the best things was getting our paint points established early, once Glory figured out who was going to in-bounds the ball, we were OK after that.
"But overall I liked the fact that we established our inside game. We played inside out, did a lot of good things there. Our offensive efficiency was pretty good. Overall I thought it was good that we could play our bench and rest some other people, like Kelley Cain that's had to play a lot of minutes, and also to challenge Lyssi Brewer to continue to sprint as opposed to a slow jog. We got that a few times, so that's encouraging.
"She and Kelley, when they're in there together, we have great size, and they both have a really good skill set. We've just got to get her in great shape, and we'll have a better post game. Our perimeter game, Angie is very comfortable now and doing a better job of slowing down, making better reads, and she's in the gym. That's exactly what you have to do. You have to get in the gym."
Haave saluted Bjorklund's shooting performance - Haave can appreciate a good shooter at Tennessee as "LaMachine," as she was called when she was a Lady Vol, could also light up a scoreboard - and said one shot in particular stood out.
"I haven't seen her play in person since high school because she didn't play in Knoxville last year (because of a back injury)," Haave said. "She made a move tonight. She had an on-ball (screen), and we went over the top of it, and she crosses over it, doesn't use the on-ball, comes back on balance, 18-foot midrange jump shot and just drained it.
"I haven't seen anybody that we've played against do that. We defended it how we wanted to defend it and forced her to take that shot. It's good defense and just better offense so I was extremely impressed. All you can do is take your hat off to someone who can score like that with that type of skill."
Haave knew what kind of mindset Tennessee would take into this game, and she was especially disheartened by the loss to Stanford.
"I got a pit in stomach when I saw that loss," said Haave, who knows how Summitt reacts to defeat. "I was hoping that they were going to win, because you don't want them to play them after they lose. She has won more games than anybody. She knows exactly what to do after a loss, and she hates to lose with a passion. Hates it."
Summitt took advantage of the team being in one spot together for an extended period of time and had them evaluate themselves and the team as a whole.
"The team did the work," Summitt said. "They can critique themselves, and I think they did a nice job but also giving me a chance to see where they see themselves, and where they see this team and how they can individually get better. They've got a good IQ and that's important. If you've got a good basketball IQ and especially if you understand how to play to your strengths, I think that's where we are, and we'll continue to get better there."
It wasn't all work on the trip. When asked by the San Francisco media how they liked the city, both Williams and Bjorklund sounded like they could double for the tourist bureau.
"I love this city. It's been so much fun," Bjorklund said. "Just walking around the Wharf, it's beautiful."
"Shopping. Eating," Williams said. "The weather."
"And the weather," Bjorklund said. "It's very nice here."
But Bjorklund also knew that the trip was beneficial as far as the basketball team's development.
"I think it's good to have one-on-one individual meetings with Coach because it does give you an opportunity," Bjorklund said. "A lot of times when Coach is yelling at us it's in a team setting, but that one on one gives you a chance to say what's on your mind and how you think you can improve yourself.
"Just having the opportunity to write down what we need to improve and Coach seeing that, and she printed off copies for everyone, I think that is really going to help us to see where we're at. We all did a little critique after the Stanford game of ourselves and the team."
The effect of the written remarks and off-the-court meetings got put to a real-time test with the game Tuesday.
"I think they're both important to see where you're at," Bjorklund said. "We took two days to say, ‘Hey, this is where I need to improve,' and then we had an opportunity to come and go right back into a game and apply that. I thought it was a great opportunity to take what we learned and really apply it. I thought this game was very important."
Bjorklund was a freshman after the loss on the West Coast two years ago and remembered how peeved Summitt still was days later when the team returned to practice. This year, as most players on the team boarded a redeye flight out of San Francisco to head to their various homes for the holidays, Summitt was in a much better post-game mood.
"I thought we responded well with the loss, especially the two days after in practice," Bjorklund said. "We had a couple of really tough practices that prepared us for this game and prepared us to have a good Christmas break."