Lady Vols get to work on defense

The Lady Vols returned to the practice court Tuesday to work specifically on transition defense – an issue all season and an especially glaring weakness to open the game against South Carolina – and to get freshman Kamiko Williams some additional repetitions with the first team.

The guard will make her first career start Thursday against Arkansas (7 p.m. Eastern, FSN), a decision by Coach Pat Summitt that Kamiko Williams learned about Tuesday.

"I was quite surprised," Williams said. "I figured I would have to prove myself a little more, but I am just going to take this opportunity, embrace it, take on the new leadership role and challenges that come forth and do my part and try to help us win a championship."

Williams worked with the other four regular starters on both sides of the ball Tuesday in an up-tempo practice that forced the players to fight through fatigue. Heather Mason was waiting afterwards for a series of sprints and then a weight workout.

Tennessee's porous transition defense has cropped up all season – Williams has the speed to be an asset in that regard, if she will consistently sprint the floor – and Summitt spent a good portion of Tuesday's practice reminding several players that their effort needed to increase.

"That is why they're running right now," Summitt said as the players ran sprints behind her while she handled post-practice media interviews.

Tennessee (19-2, 7-1) is in the final month of the regular season – there are eight games remaining – and Summitt is grateful for the time in February. After spending most of the month of January on the road, the Lady Vols get five of those last eight at Thompson-Boling Arena, including the final three regular season games. Less travel means less wear and tear and more quality time to practice.

"We need a lot of work," Summitt said. "The way they started in that game at South Carolina, not good. I am not happy about it and that's why I said we're going to practice hard (Tuesday). Transition defense is a top priority. And rebounding."

The Lady Vols used two hours of time in Pratt Pavilion on Tuesday to watch some film before getting to work one on one defensively in half-court drills and then full court with an emphasis on getting back on defense. The male practice team was under orders to push tempo and try to score before the defense could get set.

While one group of five played under those game situations for six minutes at a time, the other four players available for practice – Taber Spani is sitting out right now to rest her left foot – shot free throws on the other baskets in Pratt and then the groups switched ends with Williams doubling up against the scout team to get more full court repetitions.

One challenge for Williams is to fight through fatigue – in practice and in games – and that put her in another position to do so. Junior guard Angie Bjorklund came to the baseline to shout encouragement to the freshman to not let up.

Summitt spent time before practice watching film in a one-on-one session with Glory Johnson, who settled for outside shots against South Carolina instead of getting to the paint.

"I just wanted her to see that she was stepping out, wanting to face up, shooting outside the paint," Summitt said. "She needs to understand getting paint points. I am not saying she can't step off the lane, but she didn't want contact. She was trying to face up out on the floor.

"She saw it. She's smart. She'll figure out where she needs to be and get better."

Getting better has been a season-long pursuit for what is still a young Tennessee team. Williams took a big step in that direction last week by learning set plays on offense and demonstrating to Summitt that she really knew them.

"I feel a whole lot better," Williams said. "Now, when Coach tells me we're going to run this, I am like, OK, I've got it. I don't have to ask (for help). I know right off the bat, and I know all the options that we have. I feel a lot more comfortable and a lot better."

Last month, the coaches sent Williams home with a DVD of five specific plays. She had to learn those and understand the various options out of each play.

"I knew the names and I knew the signals, but I didn't know who does what," Williams said. "I didn't know what the posts are supposed to do. I didn't know who to look for first, who to look for second. Now, I know the order of who I look for. I know what the posts are supposed to do.

"So, now I can lead people and tell them where they need to be (instead of) be like, ‘OK, I thought that was what she was supposed to do.' "

Williams studied the plays on her own for two days and then met with Summitt in her office last week. She used pen and paper to outline the plays and where each player should be on the floor. Then, the classroom moved to the court.

"When we got on the court she said, ‘Miko, run the point,' " Williams said. "She'd call out a play, and I'd have to run it right off the bat. I couldn't ask questions."

Williams passed the tests very well and it was a relief for the first-year guard.

"It felt great," Williams said. "At first I didn't know if I am going to run. I don't know if I am going to be in trouble. But now it's like, ‘OK, you want me to run that? No problem. I can do that.' "

Williams also learned by watching Stricklen at practice and seeking Bjorklund's assistance. Williams also got guidance from Sydney Smallbone, a selfless act from the junior guard because as Williams got up to speed that would cut into Smallbone's possible playing time.

"The person who has helped out a lot is Sydney," Williams said. "She knows the plays and before I would go in I would say, ‘What do we do on this one?' and she could break it down. She would tell me, ‘You do this, this and this.'

"What really helped was Coach making me watch tape, making me draw it out, write down the options and then explain it to her as if I was coaching. I think that's what got me to learn it the most."

The benefits for Williams and the team were immediate. William came off the bench Sunday to relieve a struggling Stricklen and scored a career-high 17 points with four assists and two blocks.

"Obviously, I thought she was a difference maker down the stretch," Summitt said. "That is by far the best she's played. I think that is an answer for us to have a guard that can get to the paint, score off the pull-up, she can hit a three. She plays on both sides of the ball.

"That will take a lot of pressure off of Stricklen because I think she struggles at times and is not as comfortable. But we've got to have more than one guard, so she's (Stricklen) going to have to do a better job, Bree (Briana Bass) is going to have to give us some quality minutes. We've got some options but right now what I saw from her (Williams) is very, very positive for our team and our program."

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