Pat Summitt raises expectations

Before practice began Monday, Pat Summitt made an addendum to her halftime speech from Sunday – as soon as the players got on the court, they were to be ready to bring maximum effort and energy. Within 15 minutes of practice, one Lady Vol was sent to the locker room for the duration of the session in an indication of how serious the coach was about her edict.

Postseason is two weeks away, and Pat Summitt has been on an accelerated course of intensity this season – the tone was set last March after a first-round loss in the NCAA tourney – as she has imposed her will on a team that went 22-11 a year ago.

With Tennessee in first place in the SEC with four games to go – the Lady Vols play next at Alabama and finish with three at home after spending the majority of the past seven weeks on the road – the coaching staff's methods clearly had an affect on how the team bounced back from the most-disappointing season in Summitt's career.

After Tennessee was content to exchange baskets with Florida in the first half on Sunday afternoon, Summitt unleashed a halftime speech that, figuratively speaking, peeled paint off the walls. Literally speaking, it exposed the team in no uncertain terms to her expectations, and the players responded with the most inspired second half of their careers and an 83-44 wipeout of the Gators.

"At halftime I kind of lost it there for a little while because this team picks and chooses when they play hard, and that has to change," Summitt said. "Don't tell me that we're on a mission when you're picking and choosing when you play hard. That's what I told them. I said, ‘Don't mention San Antonio if this is who you are, because you'll never get there.'

"I told them we take this court (Monday), we're up and down. We're not going to be walking around. Every thing has to be game tempo, and we have to become a 40-minute or 40-minute-plus team.

"That's just day one. They've got (Tuesday) off. We'll see what happens."

What happened Monday was that one player, Kamiko Williams, was kicked out of practice less than 15 minutes into the session. The freshman guard has periodically struggled with Summitt's expectations all season and after a warning Monday to raise her intensity level or leave the court, Summitt lowered the boom a few minutes later and sent Williams to the locker room.

Williams was visibly upset when she left the floor and one player who knows what it's like to land in Summitt's crosshairs, sophomore Amber Gray, briefly stopped her courtside rehab to follow Williams into the locker room for support, as did junior Vicki Baugh and later, Assistant Coach Stephanie Glance. Williams later returned to lift weights with the team.

Gray was part of a six-player true freshman class last season that pushed Summitt's tolerance level on a daily basis but none of them ever got tossed from practice, though that was likely due to the fact that they all needed as much practice time as possible rather than Summitt suddenly developing an abundance of patience.

The last time an individual player was ordered out of practice was nearly three years ago in March of 2007, when then-senior Dominique Redding, who also got booted as a freshman, sophomore and junior, drew Summitt's ire. Redding was on the court Monday helping out as a practice squad player.

Summitt was so furious in December of 2006 with the team's focus before the Tennessee-North Carolina game – a game they went on to lose in Chapel Hill and then got revenge in the Final Four in 2007 – that she booted every player off the court and sent the team to a scheduled weight-lifting session instead. That team responded by trying to stay and hold practice on its own – then-sophomore Alex Fuller gathered the players and was about to run some drills – but Summitt said they were done with basketball for the day.

Alexis Hornbuckle got evicted twice – once as a freshman and once as a sophomore – and as a senior she laughed about it and said her attitude wasn't what it was supposed to be all the time at that time in her career.

Summitt wasn't particularly happy with Williams' effort in Sunday's game – her first defensive possession on the floor she left Steffi Sorensen wide open at the top of the key – and that carried over to Monday.

"A, how she played in the game," Summitt said when asked why Williams got booted. "Low energy, didn't go rebound, didn't defend, gave up dribble drives, just very casual. She's just really casual, and we can't be, because that's why I went off at halftime.

"The whole team is trying to help her constantly. She has got to buy in. Her teammates are doing everything they can to help her understand how we play this game, whether we're on offense or defense, running set plays or not."

The coaches have also scheduled sessions with Williams, who has formed a rapport with Glance that got started on the West Coast trip.

"We've been taking turns," Summitt said. "I said maybe it would be better if you (Glance) sat her down and went over plays and talked to her. I think they had a great conversation, but there was no change when she came back to practice, which was disappointing.

"We need her. We need her to help this basketball team. She's been watching tape. Stephanie watched tape with her and when she saw it she realized that she wasn't playing hard, and she was very open about it. But then she comes out (to practice), and there's no change. Today might have been the lowest energy of all through the whole year. And so I kicked her out. She's running right now in Pratt and hopefully she'll learn. Because, again, she's the most athletic guard on our team."

Williams was on the floor before practice with Glance, Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick and Alicia Manning to get in some extra shots and shoot free throws.

"I think for her it's hard for her to fight through fatigue," Summitt said. "So if she was out here (earlier) then most likely she gave in to fatigue. When we got out here and started practice, she was just low energy. She just looked like she was on her last legs."

The extra sessions with the coaches usually last 20 to 30 minutes or so, and it was followed by a 15-minute break and then a film session before the team assembled for practice. Manning, a sophomore, had plenty of energy for the full-team session, and Williams had participated in extra sessions before and still had enough in the tank for practice, but it remains a daily learning process for all freshmen, as was so evident last season.

"She could be a difference maker, and I am just hoping that she will get it before too long because, you know what, time is ticking," Summitt said. "If she's bringing the intensity on the defensive end and pushing the ball offensively she could be a very special player and help us a lot. There are a lot of ifs. We're talking if, if, if.

"Right now I've got to wait and see what she does when she gets on the practice floor Wednesday (in terms of playing time on Thursday)."

Summitt didn't have to wait to see the effect on the rest of the team. Before Monday, nobody on the roster had ever been at practice when Summitt pitched out a player, and there were some wide eyes in the immediate aftermath, especially among the sophomores. But seconds later, practice resumed, and the energy and intensity level resembled the second half of Sunday's game when Tennessee overwhelmed Florida

"I am committed to holding this team to the highest standard in every practice and everything we do. And today I thought we had a different intensity level," Summitt said after practice ended Monday. "And it's going to be here every day I'm on this court. It's not going to change. And they know that now."

Tennessee needed a game to unfold as Sunday's did after two come-from-behind wins at Vanderbilt and at Ole Miss, the last of which required an Angie Bjorklund three-pointer that nestled through the net with one second left on the clock. Lady Vol fans on heart medication likely appreciated Sunday's second-half effort.

"How about the coach? I have to take mine, too," Summitt joked.

Summitt's intensity always skyrockets in the postseason, and the players need to anchor themselves in the slipstream.

Summitt has been particularly focused on the guards – the post play has elevated behind the overall efficiency of Kelley Cain, defense of Glory Johnson and steady play of Alyssia Brewer – but the point guard position has been unsettled with Williams getting two starts and then Shekinna Stricklen returning to the spot from the wing. The two starts threw Williams off her game, and she has struggled in the past four games – two starts, two off the bench – to get back on course. Were the starts disruptive to her?

"I don't know, because I don't know how she thinks," said Summitt, as she pondered the question about the, at times, perplexing, and at other times, precocious freshman. "If someone told me, ‘Hey, you can be my starting point guard,' I would be studying my notes, I would be looking at all of our sets, I would be invested.

"She's very casual. She's just got to grow. She's just got to grow up and understand playing hard all the time, investing in our set plays, knowing all of our offensive and defensive schemes. She's just got to invest."

Tennessee got some solid minutes Sunday out of backup point guard Briana Bass, who entered 90 seconds into the second half when Stricklen tweaked her knee, and was on the floor for the team's separation from Florida. Summitt put an arm around Bass at practice Monday, and the conversation clearly boosted the sophomore's spirits.

"She's doing some good things for us. Just to encourage her and I like what she's bringing," Summitt said of the practice talk. "She's pushing the tempo hard, playing really good defense, picking the ball up early. She was right up in the practice guy's shirt, and that's what she needs to do."

Bjorklund, a junior guard whose practice effort has been saluted all season by Summitt to the point of telling the other players to take note, was named SEC Player of the Week on Monday after leading the Lady Vols to wins at Vanderbilt, 69-60, at Ole Miss, 61-58, and over Florida, 83-44.

For the week, Bjorklund averaged 15.3 points per game while hitting 12-27 three-pointers (44.4 percent). She also averaged 3.7 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game. She surpassed the 1,000-point mark for her career with a three-pointer in the first half against Ole Miss.

It is the first time the Spokane Valley, Wash., native has earned the league honor.

"Angie has earned the right to play this well, because she has invested so much time in her game," Summitt said. "I just think that she gets in Pratt or in TBA and puts up hundreds, thousands of shots. That's who she is, and that's why she knocks them down.

"She's more surprised when she misses. She's had some games that she didn't shoot as well but usually that's because they'll run three, four, five people in to guard her and just try and run her down. She deserves that. I was proud for her."

Bjorklund's outside shooting has been a major reason why Tennessee is in first place in the SEC and Summitt said, "I definitely think so," when asked if Bjorklund belongs in the conversation for SEC Player of the Year.

Monday's practice lasted about two hours and allowed the team to get in a lot of work on both sides of the ball in full court and half court drills. The coaches also installed some offensive wrinkles.

"We wanted to put in some new offense for us for later on," Summitt said. "We got that in. We got up and down. We worked on our closeouts, our defense and our board play, and I like the fact that we did our conditioning on the court."

Freshman forward Taber Spani, who has been battling turf toe all season, was able to practice, but Summitt said she might rest her Thursday as a precaution.

"I'm trying to pick and choose when we do play her, because we've got a lot of basketball left in postseason," Summitt said. "Today, she got in a really good workout, (Tuesday) we're off, probably Wednesday I wouldn't want her to do anything, but she could be available Thursday. It's a wait and see with her."

Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, has been treating Spani for the turf toe and related complications.

"I think we've got a routine now," Spani said. "We know the treatment that needs to happen. The pain is always there and the basic symptoms are always there, but all the other symptoms that JMo said were a cycle because of it, when those flare up, that's the kind of things they worry about, which adds on to the fact that I have turf toe.

"Those things are kind of under control and that's really helped it, and it's helped my movement. Right now it feels good."

Spani logged 11 minutes against Florida and was 2-4 from the field for five points. She had been starting for Tennessee but the turf toe has sidelined her for games and some practices.

Once Spani's availability was curtailed last month, Summitt began trying an assortment of starting lineups and her loss in the regular rotation has caused Bjorklund to be blanketed behind the arc, as Spani has deep three-ball range but limited mobility right now. Bjorklund has adjusted better in the past few games, but Spani's presence on the floor, even in limited minutes, means better looks for Bjorklund.

"Obviously my role has changed dramatically and I've tried to accept that," Spani said. "I just want to be the best I can be in whatever role I'm in. I need to be a spark off the bench. Like Pat always says, ‘You need to hunt for your shots. You need to make an impact when you're in there.' Because that's what I can do for this team. That is what I am really trying to do."

Spani smiled when asked about Summitt's Sunday halftime speech – the coach called it a "prayer meeting" – and the effect it had on a freshman and the team.

"She knows through experience how to motivate and how to do that for our team," Spani said. "I think the message was clear, and we took it, and we went out and executed. I think that's the next step in our team's development, us taking ownership. The coaches are there to impart everything that they see, but we are not playing up to our potential.

"We need to step this up, and we need to turn this around. I think that's what she was really looking for in us was to take ownership and do a 360 on our energy level, our intensity and our passion to play the game. I think it was good for us to do that, and it was probably good for them to see that."


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