It was a busy day for the Tennessee basketball team, which moved up to No. 3 in the AP poll. Classes were out because of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and the basketball players joined the Lady Vols softball team to participate in the Memorial March Parade that began mid-morning at the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Knoxville.
Shortly after midday the players were warming up at Pratt Pavilion with Heather Mason and then joined the coaching staff for a lengthy film session. That was followed by more warmups and then close to two hours of court time in an up-tempo practice that consisted primarily of full court drills and scrimmages and left the players soaked in sweat. Mason then escorted them to the weight room for a vigorous workout.
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood always provides a thought for the day for each practice and Monday's was: "Improvement that leads to winning is good, but winning that leads to improvement can help even more."
Tennessee (16-1, 4-0) defeated Vanderbilt on Sunday evening by a score of 64-57, but the Lady Vols had to hold on after surrendering a 20-point first half lead.
Last week against Florida, Tennessee started strong on the road but lost the lead and had to come back in the second half for a 66-64 win.
"We're not out of the woods yet," Lockwood said. "Those two games prove that point."
Tennessee may still be finding its way out of the forest, but it's not bewildered in the wilderness as a freshman-laden team was at times last year. But the specter of 22-11 a year ago never strays too far from the coaches' minds and when they see any reminders of that season the reaction is to turn the screws a little tighter.
"Last year we didn't have a great team compared to our standards," Lockwood said. "We've improved. Did we improve in the spring with our conditioning? Yes. Did we improve in games? Yes. Now, we're 16-1 and we've won some games, and we won some games in our last two that we could have very well lost last year. That game at Florida could have been an eight or nine-point loss. That game (Sunday) could have been a two or three-point loss.
"Do we sit and say, ‘We're fine, OK, everything is great, we're 16-1.' Or do say, ‘It's good we've traveled so far since last year but we still have more to go and how tough on ourselves are we going to be?' Are we going to sit in our nice soft chairs and say, ‘I don't have to work eight hours a day anymore, because the sales went great, we've built this empire, now we can work eight hours and go home.' No, we're not like that. We still have areas to address."
Three-point defense and dribble penetration were at the top of the list at Monday's practice session after Vanderbilt unloaded on Tennessee from behind the arc. That was followed by free throw shooting.
"That team was 10 of 14 at one point behind the arc," Lockwood said. "Ended up 10 of 19. We were 15 of 26 from the free throw line, 57 percent at home. That's unacceptable. Our penetration defense. Our three-point defense. Our ability to make key free throws, especially in a pivotal game like that. Those are things that we want to do.
"We looked at it as a coaching staff, just our overall intensity. We don't think, ‘Oh, we're terrible.' But you know what? We've got more to give. We can play harder. We can compete. We can become greater competitors and be a more competitive five, whoever the five is.
"Who's the best team in the country right now? UConn. They go up 30, and they want to go up 40. They go up 40, and they want to go up 50. Last night's game we're up 20, but when we watched that tape we did a lot of things to let that team off the hook. We can't let the foot off the pedal one iota. We've got to stay competitive. We've got to stay tough-minded. We've got to stay demanding, both with ourselves individually and then collectively.
"That's what today was all about to let everybody know – players and coaches – we're not going to stop pushing."
Lockwood used a wrestling analogy to describe the first half when Tennessee got a 27-7 lead and then squandered most of it by halftime, when the score was 37-29.
"It's like a wrestler letting a guy off the mat," Lockwood said. "I've got control and I'm just going to kind of get comfortable and relax, and then that guy rolls and, boom, he pops up. That can't happen. Now, if that guy makes a great maneuver that's one thing.
"We're better than we were last year, but we're still not where we want to be. When you look at our team and say what areas need to be shored up, teams have done that now twice and how it's happened and what we weren't doing as much as what other people were doing, yes, we are concerned about that, and that's why we want to address it."
The coaches decided Monday was the best day to hold an accountability session – if the players don't go hard every possession in a game the coaches will make sure they do so in practice.
"So we go back to an October practice to get us back in that groove," Lockwood said. "We haven't had a lot of time to do this. A great mentor of mine, Don Meyer, always said, ‘Coaching is a race against time.' Once you get going from the start of the season you're always racing against time. You've got your travel schedule, you've got your game schedule, you're conscious of getting them rest."
Tuesday's session will be scaled back considerably compared to Monday, both in intensity and duration, and Wednesday will be used to travel to Athens after class. Tennessee faces No. 8 Georgia (17-1, 4-1) on Thursday at 7 p.m. Eastern (FSN-South).
The point of Monday's practice was to push the players to the point of fatigue and then make them perform past that point in game scrimmages against the male scout team.
"We have got to play through fatigue, and we have got some players who do a very good job of that," Lockwood said. "Angie Bjorklund does a tremendous job of that. She really, really does. Glory (Johnson) has gotten better at that, certainly.
"But we've got to get a whole team that's doing that. Until we can say 10 that are all in uniform, we're not happy. So that's another area that today was all about. It was planned accordingly so that we could get them fatigued and then just push through, push through, push through. Glory did a great job today."
Tennessee was down a player – freshman forward Taber Spani had to sit out with "turf toe" on her left foot – so somebody had to double up in the various scrimmage situations when substitutions were made. That often was Bjorklund, Glory Johnson or Alicia Manning.
Turf toe is a painful condition that affects the base of the big toe and the ball of the foot. It can be caused by jamming the toe, and it is aggravated by repeatedly pushing off with the foot, running and jumping. Spani has been bothered by it since last summer when she played with USA Basketball and she has been getting regular treatment all season. On Monday, she was required to rest, but Jenny Moshak said Spani should be available for this week's games.
"I'll wait and see how she's feeling," Summitt said.
If left up to Spani, she would play Thursday, but it will be Moshak's decision. She was stretched, taped and ready to go Monday and when told to get treatment on the sideline, she very reluctantly removed her shoes after pleading her case. She still maintained a vocal presence on the sideline.
Summitt's focus was on shoring up relief in the post from Alyssia Brewer and getting the perimeter game, specifically the play of point guard Shekinna Stricklen, back to where it was pre-Florida and Vandy games.
"I've seen (Brewer) play at a whole different level, and when we've got Lyssi and Kelley in the paint that lets us play Glory on the perimeter defensively, and it's a good matchup for her," Summitt said.
"Our guards have got to be tougher. Stricklen is coming off two sub-par games, and she's got to be a lot better. She was better (Monday). She gave in to fatigue (Sunday). It was obvious.
"I am just disappointed that we pick and choose when we are going to play hard, too many of us. I am not going to compromise anymore."
A review of stats in the SEC games shows some excellent numbers from the post players. Johnson is averaging a double-double in league play at 12.5 points and 10.8 boards per game. She also has more assists, seven, than turnovers, six, which is not common for post players.
Kelley Cain is shooting 68.0 percent (17-25) from the field in four SEC games. Brewer is shooting 55.0 percent (11-20), and Johnson is at 51.4 percent (18-35).
All three post players need to boost their numbers at the line. Cain is shooting 55.0 percent (11-20), Johnson is at 53.8 percent (14-26), and Brewer is at 50 percent (3-6), and was 0-3 against Vandy after going 3-3 against Florida.
Cain is averaging 24.3 minutes in SEC contests with Johnson at 31.5 minutes, so they are likely to be sent to the line several times a game. Cain missed two free throws late against Vandy and with 44 seconds left and Tennessee holding a six-point lead, the Commodores opted to foul Cain well off the ball to send her back there. That time she hit them both for an eight-point lead, "which pretty much at that point sealed it," Lockwood said.
Cain seemed especially motivated to hit them and that helped her, according to Lockwood.
"Free throws are about having a system," Lockwood said. "It's ritualistic and routine. You can close your eyes and see that person doing it. Get a system you trust and believe."
Summitt worked with Cain last week to tweak her mechanics and they will get extra reps together again Tuesday. The key for Cain now is to repeat the routine over and over until she is comfortable. That occurs on the court in extra sessions.
Lockwood said the coaches have also noticed the improved post numbers overall in SEC play.
"I just told (Johnson) where she was last year versus where she is now, she's come so far," Lockwood said. "Kelley's numbers are good. I am personally proud of them for that. We can do one of two things. We can say, ‘Great job, and we're so much farther ahead,' or you can say, ‘OK, now what else do we want to get better at?' First area for both of them is free throw shooting."
Lockwood also addressed offensive charges with Cain – that was done in-game Sunday – after she got two fouls drawn by much smaller Commodore players. Cain was clearly frustrated with the defenders draped on her in the paint.
"If she can be frustrated and play through it and go 6-7 and get 17 a night, I'll be happy," Lockwood said, referencing her numbers in the game. "Vandy, they're not tall. They've got to jam her. I watched tape last night and I saw a couple of times where Elan Brown and (Hannah) Tuomi, they literally took a forearm in her back and just planted it and at the same time it was like I was pushing against a door (to keep someone from opening it). She's going to get that. I talked to her about it.
"She made two offensive fouls on her sealing and she can't do it because they'll set up for charges. Normally, she'll come down at two-thirds speed or half speed and then go right in to a seal. With a big player that's moving you can get away with it. But Vandy is planting, and they're going to flop and get charges.
"So as you approach that play you have to slow up just a little bit so the ref doesn't think you've got all this momentum going and then go in to your seal and slowly get deeper, deeper. The thing that is good about her is that she's strong enough to now get leverage. In the north we used to call it snowplowing. You're going to first hit the snow and then slowly you push it to where you want it to go. That's what she's got to do.
"She's got to get into position and then just keep digging and get a few inches, a foot, a foot and a half deeper. She was doing that late in the game, and that's what got her some nice baskets.
"She's going to get that. That's part of the deal with her. She can't let that frustrate her. That's just part of the game plan. When you're big you're going to get played a certain way. I call it the bully syndrome. In high school I see this all the time but even college refs sometimes when they see a big player it's automatically compensate (for the smaller player because) you're big enough to take care of yourself."
Tennessee has to travel to Vandy for a Feb. 8 game, and the Lady Vol coaches will likely again break out the matching orange jackets in Nashville.
A high school post player from the Midwest was watching Sunday's game against Vandy from the stands at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville. Kiah Stokes, a 6'3 center in the class of 2011 from Linn-Mar High School in Marion, Iowa, took in the game on an unofficial visit.
Her father, Greg Stokes, was a standout basketball player for Iowa, and he also played in the NBA for the Philadelphia 76ers. She has played in the USA Basketball system and her bio says she would like to go one on one against Candace Parker, a former Lady Vol.
Post play was on Summitt's mind Monday, along with the perimeter game, defense, free throw shooting and the next opponent, Georgia. It may have been an October-like practice, but Summitt was in postseason form.
"It is my job to bring out the absolute best in everybody, my staff and my team," Summitt said. "We won't go nearly as long (Tuesday), but we needed this today."