Pat Summitt prepares for SEC

Pat Summitt had the court and the team to herself on Tuesday afternoon – the three assistants were out recruiting – but she smiled and said after nearly four decades in the profession she could probably run a practice session on her own. The Lady Vols got back to work after taking a day off from practice to treat some sore bodies and will open SEC play on Thursday against South Carolina.

"I could tell when I went up to the training room (Monday), they were the walking wounded," Pat Summitt said. "And we'll go light (Wednesday), because one thing we want is to have our legs and be sharp. They're getting in a lot of extra shots during this time of the year, which is good."

Summitt called off Monday's practice after getting the training room report from Jenny Moshak.

"We did treatment, then we lifted and we did treatment again," center Kelley Cain said. "We were a little sore."

Tuesday, which was originally going to be a day off, instead became a two-hour session with film study, too. Summitt had the floor to herself because all three assistants had recruiting trips already planned for that day.

"Everybody had scheduled to go recruiting, and Holly (Warlick) thought her flight might get cancelled but it didn't, and so I told her, ‘I think I remember how to run a practice,' " said Summitt, who is in her 37th year at Tennessee.

Not surprisingly it was a defensive-oriented session. Summitt was pleased overall with her team's 96-75 win over Oklahoma on Sunday, but wanted to see better defense, especially to start the game.

"They were going baseline to baseline in a hurry and they can make shots," Summitt said. "That's why I was like, ‘You've got to guard these people.' "

"We started a little slow," sophomore forward Glory Johnson said. "We're still working on being a 40-minute team instead of playing here and there and having spurts of energy. We still need to commit to being a 40-minute team."

Tuesday's session was devoted to specific defenses and defensive principles, especially in the open court.

"We worked a lot in the full court with our defense today, and I think our team is getting better at extending and trapping," Summitt said after practice ended Tuesday. "I think this team is a much better team than we were a year ago. I think the one challenge for us is transition defense, early pickup, doing a good job with our traps and sprinting out of our traps.

"I think a priority for us is always going to be transition defense, because a lot of people don't want to set up against our pressure, so they're trying to get down the floor as quickly as possible. That's what Oklahoma did the other night and finally by halftime we figured it out. So just our transition defense and not allowing them to score in early offense."

Wednesday's session will be light with shooting and scouting report defense to prepare for South Carolina on Thursday at Thompson-Boling Arena (7 p.m. Eastern, TV: FSN) in the SEC opener for Tennessee.

Summitt also wants to address some issues when the Lady Vols have the ball in their hands.

"Ball security," Summitt said. "We've got to take care of the basketball. I think we've got to help each other out offensively, setting better screens and just playing better together. We've been playing a lot of three out, two in, and not running as many set plays."

One player who has benefited from the offensive freedom is Angie Bjorklund, who has become better at reading screens and working to get open before she receives the ball.

She is shooting a healthy 46.9 percent overall and a robust 47.8 percent from behind the arc, but where the numbers particularly stand out is in the second half. The junior from Spokane Valley, Wash. – the first Lady Vol basketball player from the Evergreen State – is shooting 60.3 percent overall and 69.2 percent from long range.

"I didn't even know that," Bjorklund said.

Summitt had joked that, given those numbers, she might not start Bjorklund until the second half.

"Oh, that's funny," Bjorklund said.

Bjorklund theorized that her improved numbers after halftime might be due to in-game adjustments.

"I think it's getting in the flow and also feeling out the defense, maybe," Bjorklund said. "I'm not sure. I didn't know that stat at all. That could have something to do with it though, getting familiar with how they're guarding me, on-ball screens, off-ball screens, that type of thing.

"I try to be consistent on my form. I think it's working without the ball, getting open and working for my shot before I actually get the ball, trying to create space and that type of thing."

Bjorklund has 208 points so far this season. She tallied 318 points as a freshman and 344 as a sophomore, so she has 870 to date – 130 points shy of 1,000 for her career.

Her numbers also are solid in other categories – 36 assists to 19 turnovers, 12 steals, three blocks and a rebounding average of 2.5 per game.

Bjorklund has hit a surprisingly low 65 percent of her free throws, but has gotten to the stripe only 20 times, hitting 13 of them. That is something the coaches want to see more of from the guard, because she can be an excellent free throw shooter.

"We would like to see her get to the free throw line a little bit more, but I think that's coming," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said.

Bjorklund is averaging 29.8 minutes per game but can go the distance, if need be. In games against tough opponents she is either on the floor the entire time or for extended periods in the range of 35 to 37 minutes total. In games in which Tennessee is well ahead, Summitt has tried to limit Bjorklund's minutes with a season-low of 17 against San Francisco.

"I told Heather (Mason) that was my goal to be able to play a 40-minute game," said Bjorklund, who has shown no signs of fatigue in games or practices. "I think, knock on wood, I haven't had any injuries this year."

Last season, Bjorklund had knee surgery in July of 2008 to repair a torn meniscus and then she missed the first five games of the 2008-09 season because of a bulging disc in her back that caused her to miss significant preseason practice time, too.

"Coming in fresh and working all summer and this preseason has really, really helped," Bjorklund said. "I think the coaches are smart with how they do practices to keep our legs fresh for the game, too. There might be a stretch here or there (to fight fatigue), but especially when I'm in that leadership role I have to be so focused and locked in on what I'm doing that fatigue doesn't become a factor."

By delaying practice for a day, a healthier team took the court Tuesday. Shekinna Stricklen showed no ill effects from a knee mishap last week, and Cain said her right knee was feeling OK. It took her a little while to get warmed up Tuesday, but temperatures are frigid in Knoxville this week.

"It's a lot better than last year," said Cain, who added she was not having any knee swelling. "It feels totally different. It feels good. It's one less thing to worry about, which was the main thing I was worried about, so I'm good now."

Johnson injured her left shoulder in practice in early November and now wears a protective sleeve for all practices and games, but she said it felt OK.

"I'm feeling pretty good," Johnson said. "My shoulder feels good. Everything feels good so far."

With the SEC opener on Thursday, the Lady Vols had the local broadcast media seeking interviews after Tuesday's session, and the line of questioning also steered to the recent troubles of the Vols basketball team, in which four players were charged with misdemeanor offenses after a traffic stop off Interstate 40 near campus. A search of the car turned up two guns and marijuana. Coach Bruce Pearl has suspended the four indefinitely, while the police and the university conduct probes.

"My heart goes out to Bruce," Summitt said. "Obviously I've talked to Bruce, and he's working through this with Mike Hamilton. As I said, it's all about decision-making and making the right decisions. In this program, whether it's football, men's basketball, women's basketball, soccer, it doesn't matter, we live in a fish bowl and so a lot of people are watching and seeing how we respond.

"I think Bruce has handled this as well as he can under the circumstances."

Summitt was on her way to do some recruiting Saturday morning when she received a text from Pearl that apologized for the incident and the tainted publicity that the charges brought on Tennessee.

"He sent me a text, and I had just gotten on the airplane," Summitt said. "I read his text, and I tried to text him back, but we were already in the air. I did when I came back home. When they were practicing the other day I went over and gave him a big hug and just said, ‘I'm here for you.' This is just flat-out difficult but eventually it will all be over."

Over the years, Summitt's program has dealt with some disciplinary issues, such as curfew or missed classes, and the occasional wayward player, but nothing that escalated to criminal charges involving weapons and drugs.

"We've dodged bullets," Summitt said. "We've been fortunate. I've pretty much set the specifics of what will keep you in the program and what might keep you from being a part of it. I think they have followed our Definite Dozen rules pretty well (Summitt's rules for success that were published in a 1998 book, "Reach for the Summit,") because they understand it.

"We've had people come in, maybe not get enough playing time and choose to leave. But the ones that stay understand that there're consequences for breaking rules. We have been pretty fortunate in that area."

Johnson said the Lady Vol players reacted to the news of the Vols players as any extended orange family would.

"We're all good, and we'll get through this," Johnson said. "I don't know too much about the situation, but I know they're a strong team, and Coach Pearl has a big decision to make. In a way, they'll get through it, and we'll still be as strong of a program as we were before. We've just got to be smart about things."

Johnson pointed to the influence of Summitt and teammates as crucial in keeping players on the correct path.

"She's just strict, and she's a coach that we must respect," Johnson said. "She gives respect so we take it, and we give her respect. Things like curfews, we abide by her curfews. And even if she doesn't give us curfews we tend to stay with our teammates if we go out or hang out within apartment complexes and play games and stuff, we'll stay with our team.

"We all bond and knowing that we're not going to get in trouble if we stick together, we tend to stick together whenever we do group activities. I think that would help any team and if you're with your own team and one person is doing something wrong the whole team is not going to do it, so just stick with your team, and have faith in your team. They'll tell you whether you're doing something wrong or not.

"We all respect each other, and we know right from wrong. We haven't had any problems with that, and we don't have any problems with curfews. We tend to all act the same. We're just a big, playful group, and we know when to be serious, and that's on the court, and sometimes we have fun on the court. We're smiling. But we tend to stay out of trouble. We don't really have that issue."

Cain and Johnson both declined to comment when asked specific questions about the situation and answered only in the context of team unity.

"It's unfortunate," Cain said. "Coach wants to establish discipline within our team, and she wants to make sure that we're giving 100 percent to the team. We are here to get an education and to play basketball."


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