Lady Vols return to practice

Pat Summitt will stick with Sydney Smallbone in the starting lineup – and return Angie Bjorklund to her starting spot – in a move that gets another long-range shooter on the court and allows Glory Johnson to return to the paint. The Lady Vols returned to practice after an off day Monday – a welcome one for the players – and are looking forward to playing at home finally on Thursday.

"It will be great to be home," Coach Pat Summitt said after practice ended Tuesday.

No. 5 Tennessee (17-2, 5-1) will host Auburn (11-9, 2-5) on Thursday at Thompson-Boling Arena at 7 p.m. Eastern (CSS). It will be the first home game in 11 days for the Lady Vols.

"I'm glad to be in town," Summitt said. "They're glad to be in town. Get them back in class and have time on our court, so that's good."

The players landed in the wee hours of Monday morning after Sunday's win over LSU and while they still had to be in class, they were done for the day after that – no practice, no weights, no meetings and no extra conditioning.

"We had a long week, and I thought they had earned it," Summitt said.

Sophomore forward Alyssia Brewer nodded her head vigorously when asked if the day away from basketball Monday was needed.

"It was very, very big," Brewer said. "It was like I want to go to my bed just one day and relax and do whatever. (Monday) was huge."

Tuesday meant getting back to work at practice, but the session was under two hours and Wednesday will be even shorter as the team will go over scouting and do some shooting drills.

"I wanted to go over some different sets," Summitt said. "We did some different looks out of our set plays and worked our high-low game. I think overall we did some good things in the half-court. (We also) guarded Auburn's sets. That will help us when we come back (Wednesday)."

Summitt filled last week with some intense practice sessions, and the team also had to play two SEC games on the road at Georgia, a 53-50 loss, and at LSU, a 55-43 win. The Lady Vols are now in a tie for first place with Ole Miss and the win over the Lady Tigers, the third league victory on the road this season for Tennessee, surpassed the two road wins in the SEC a season ago.

Summitt put her hands together, looked up and smiled.

"We're better, but the league's better," Summitt said.

With that in mind, Summitt said the team that is mentally stronger has the better chance to win.

"Oh, yeah, that's a real key, and I thought we were mentally tough in the LSU game," Summitt said. "I thought down the stretch and for whatever reason we weren't that strong in the first half but they closed it out. And when you get a team that understands how we've got to finish and (play) down the stretch (that can lead to wins), and for our coaching staff it's going to be important that we know who we feel like at that time we need to go to. I thought we did a good job overall with that."

Summitt's clipboard was strong down the stretch in the first half. After a late timeout in which three of her post players were on the bench in foul trouble after some rather odd calls, Summitt slammed the clipboard to the court, but it survived intact.

"It did," Summitt said. "I got a warning, though. I threw it down."

With freshman forward Taber Spani limited because of a painful turf toe condition, Summitt and her staff have had to reconfigure the lineup.

Glory Johnson had moved outside on the perimeter with Brewer and Kelley Cain inside, but Johnson is better suited to play in the paint and with all three true posts in foul trouble at LSU, having them all on the floor to start the game needed to be reevaluated.

Sophomore forward Alicia Manning played well against LSU and earned more opportunities, including consideration to start, but Manning provides flexibility off the bench to relieve at several spots.

"She did," Summitt said. "We're probably not going to start her because Glory is just more comfortable on the low block or above the block and facing up. Lyssi, I've been very, very pleased with Lyssi. Most likely, Glory and Kelley will start in the paint, and Lyssi will come off the bench. Angie will be back in the lineup."

Sydney Smallbone, who replaced Angie Bjorklund for one game in the lineup after Bjorklund struggled offensively – and especially so against Georgia – will remain there.

"I was pleased with how she handled things, and had composure and I thought she defended the best since she's been here," Summitt said of Smallbone.

Brewer, who started against Georgia and LSU, and Smallbone, who started against LSU, are good examples of players who have steadily worked hard in practice and handled Summitt's expectations without losing focus or giving in to fatigue.

"Exactly. A-Town is another good example," Summitt said, referring to Manning, who is from Atlanta, by her nickname.

Manning was on the court an hour before practice started Tuesday working on shots with Tyler Summitt and then going over offensive drills with Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick.

Bjorklund will join Smallbone on the perimeter in the starting lineup. When asked about not starting for one game Bjorklund seemed startled that it was even an issue.

"I didn't play well," Bjorklund said. "Coach is going to do what she needs to do, and she is going to go off the last game played."

Summitt and Bjorklund met before practice Tuesday.

"I just asked her, ‘Do you want to come off the bench or do you want to start?' " Summitt said. "She said, ‘I want to start.' I said, ‘Then, you've got to be ready to start from the get-go."

The presence of Smallbone provides another long-range shooter and that can take some defensive saturation off of Bjorklund. Spani had been able to fill that role, but her mobility is limited by turf toe in her left foot and how long she can play or practice – she was able to go Tuesday – will be evaluated daily.

"That will be day to day," Summitt said.

With Spani's limitations in mind, the coaches are inclined to play her inside to cut down on the ground she has to cover.

"Just watching Taber my thoughts right now is to play her in the high post area," Summitt said. "I just think she's much more comfortable. Just watching tape and thinking about it I think putting her in that high post area would be our best use of her skills."

Sophomore Shekinna Stricklen will remain at the point guard spot.

"With Kinna running the point she's got a lot of responsibility," Summitt said. "She perhaps at times could go to the wing and may feel more open and certainly more comfortable, but it is what it is. She's the player that we've chosen to put there. She'll have good nights and bad nights, but that is not going to affect her playing time."

That remark indicates both that Summitt is aware that Stricklen plays with a heavier burden than the other four players in the lineup and that she remains the player best prepared to take the reins to start the game.

That doesn't mean Stricklen won't get some relief.

"Teams are trying to force her to her weak hand," Summitt said. "She's a target. They're picking her up earlier. They're turning her in the backcourt. Some games she's at her best, and some games she'll give in a little bit to fatigue and that is why I'm going to watch that because I would like to be able to get her out, and that's why we need some help at that point position."

The offensive flow was better against LSU, particularly in the second half when the posts weren't in foul trouble, because the guards stayed in motion.

"I think that we just focus on defense so much that sometimes we kind of forgot about our offense, and it comes to the point of where we starting trying to force things," Brewer said. "But the guards worked on cutting and moving all last week and that's something that we did really good against LSU and it opened up inside for us."

The three true posts, Brewer, Cain and Johnson, accounted for 33 of Tennessee's 53 points against LSU. Bjorklund also acquitted herself well with 10 points on 4-7 shooting, including 2-2 from behind the arc. She is just 56 points from 1,000 for her career and has 189 career three-pointers for third place all-time.

"Anytime if you have a tough game you always have to come back thinking, ‘All right, next game. That's in the past,' " Bjorklund said. "Take what you've learned from it and move on. Try to have that confidence just like you came off a great game. You have to have that mindset going into a game with complete confidence in order to do your best."

Tennessee won't have a long stay in Knoxville – they play at South Carolina on Sunday afternoon in a rematch of the SEC opener for the Lady Vols – but the players will be happy to be on "The Summitt" on Thursday.

"Anytime we play at home it's nice," Bjorklund said. "We get the home court advantage again. Road games are never easy. I think it's going to be nice for our whole team to be back home."


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