Lady Vols focus on getting better as team

Spring break usually means few practice players are available for Tennessee, but former Lady Vol Kara Lawson took the court Thursday to test out her basketball skills post-rehab and help out her old team in a scenario that was mutually beneficial for both sides.

"I hope it is," Kara Lawson said after the two-hour session ended at Pratt Pavilion. "I hope I was good enough. I was pretty rusty out there. That's the nature of getting back into it."

Lawson, a studio host and analyst for ESPN's women's basketball coverage, may end up in footage on her own network. A crew from ESPN was in Pratt filming practice and had Pat Summitt wear a microphone. The clips will be shown at various times during the NCAA Tournament, which begins March 20.

Lawson, who won a WNBA title with the Sacramento Monarchs and a gold medal with the USA team in Beijing in 2008, signed as a free agent with the Connecticut Sun after the Monarchs folded. In her off-season, she is in studio with ESPN and calling basketball games on the sideline. Since last October, Lawson has been in and out of Knoxville to rehab a quad injury that affected her knee under the watchful eye of Jenny Moshak.

"A little bit tired going up and down, but my knee felt good," said Lawson, who was especially anxious to test the leg under fast-paced court conditions. "Live basketball you don't know if you have to cut here or jump or sprint."

Lawson was joined on the practice squad by former Lady Vol Dominique Redding; current Lady Vol Faith Dupree, who is taking a redshirt year to strengthen her back; and regular practices players Tyler Summitt and Andy Deatherage, who gave up the frivolity of spring break to sweat with the team.

That is quite a practice squad for a time of the year when the players often just have to play five on five without much rest or forego some full court work. With five members on the scout team, the Tennessee players can rotate in and out as usual.

Lawson made it through the two-hour session and although she felt rusty, she still nailed two long-range threes.

"I don't think I'll ever lose that," Lawson said with a smile.

She did have to adjust to "the timing, getting back to playing again, the reading," and "I had Glory on me," she said.

Lawson was referring to Glory Johnson, who applied stiff perimeter defense. Lawson also adjusted to a scout team role, and the coaches wanted to work on stopping dribble penetration and shooters. With long ball specialist Redding on the floor that turned Lawson into an assigned driver.

"The thing that killed me they made me a driver every time," Lawson said. "I was catching the ball, and these girls are sagging off me. I'm like, ‘Are you kidding me?' And then I'm like, ‘I'm a driver!' I (now) know what it feels like to not be (allowed) to shoot as a player, and I did not like that so I'm glad I can shoot."

Lawson had some words of encouragement for Shekinna Stricklen. The pair also was matched up on offense and defense, and Stricklen took the conversation to heart and enjoyed having a top-caliber player on the court.

"It was very good," Stricklen said. "She's a hard worker, and she makes you go hard. She's out there and she's been through the things we're going through. She's been talking to me and helping me out. She basically said, ‘You're a great player. You've got to make people guard you. You can take the ball to the hole anytime you want to. Just make people guard you. Be more aggressive.'

"It was great encouragement. She was playing great D, and she was pushing the ball, so I had to play great D on her and turn her. She helped out a lot today."

Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said the coaches are grateful for the help from former players.

"They hear our voices so much," Lockwood said. "At this point in the year they've heard six full months, part of August and now part of March. Not to say they don't listen, but, guess what, another voice helps and especially a voice that has the credibility of a Kara Lawson. That's worth its weight in goal. You can't buy that.

"I hope that they really, and I think they did, see the value of having somebody with that experience and say, ‘If nothing else I am going to totally absorb this and think about it and even if I don't use it, I am going to think about what she said because there are probably some nuggets in there somewhere for me.'

"It's so valuable because these are active players who are still doing it. They're between us. They're not coaches yet, but they are accomplished players who are past college. They're still on that peer level. You can't get enough of that."

Tennessee was down one player Thursday as Alyssia Brewer was held out of practice with a pulled left calf muscle. Brewer felt discomfort in her calf in the Ole Miss game in Duluth, Ga. – the first of three for Tennessee in the SEC tourney – but thought it was just cramping and played through it all weekend.

"I thought it was cramps, and it gradually got worse," Brewer said. "I couldn't even tell you when I did it."

After two days off this week her leg felt better but then it hurt again after Wednesday's practice, so Moshak pulled her out of Thursday's session for additional treatment.

"I plan on practicing (Friday) if everything goes well," Brewer said.

Brewer ended up winning the tourney MVP award after leading the team with 14.7 points per game and hitting 70.4 percent of her shots.

"Maybe I should pull the other one," Brewer said. "It's been four days since then and I still don't feel as if I got an MVP award. It doesn't feel as if I've done enough."

Freshman forward Taber Spani missed the final 30 minutes of the rigorous session under orders to ease up and get treatment for her chronic case of turf toe. That was met with what could best be described as a scowl from Spani, but she headed to the sideline as directed.

"She's really, really competitive," Lockwood said. "She wants to be in the thick of the action. Anytime you take her out of that it really bothers her. Any competitor when you pull them out of the scrap they're not happy. They want to be right in the middle of it. One thing about Taber is she is not allergic to working and not allergic to putting out effort, just great volumes of effort.

"Somebody who loves doing that, for her, it's like you're penalizing her. You can criticize her five minutes straight. She won't look at that nearly as negative as, ‘Go sit down.' Go sit down to her is a bad phrase. She hates it. All of us really respect her for that. One thing that kid is not about is shortcuts. She is not looking for easy ways out. She wants to be in there from start to finish working."

The time between tournaments is all about work for the team.

"Little things. Transition. Feeding the post. Working on our defense. Communicate. Those are the little things that will help us through the tournament," Stricklen said.

Spring break means no class, but players also are using the time to catch up or get ahead with schoolwork. Extra sleep doesn't hurt, either.

"It's good to get some rest," Stricklen said. "We're having hard practices, great practices."

A year ago the Lady Vols returned to Knoxville after losing in the semifinals to Auburn, the regular season champion, in a game in which Tennessee played a solid first half and then folded in the second. This year they came home with the regular season and tourney trophies.

"I feel like as a team we all committed," Stricklen said. "We're playing the Tennessee way. We're abiding by the system. Everybody is going hard every possession. I feel like we didn't have that last year. Some of us would say we wanted to but (didn't do it) all the time. We saw that that hurt."

The coaches are using the time to identify areas for improvement and taking advantage of no travel and no specific game scouts. Brackets won't be announced until Monday at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

"The real focus is our team," Lockwood said. "You want to shore up weak areas. All year long one of the things that has plagued us is dribble drive defense. Every day we've done something to address that. You're tweaking some things with (offensive) sets. We want to be able to introduce those things in the tournament now. You're improving your weaknesses and you're tweaking your system and trying to get that stuff airtight.

"You're just trying to get a little bit better. One of the things we're doing is playing out of traps. And going against some things you know you might face, gimmick defenses, doubling the posts. Coaches know your own flaws. We see some of those things and we're trying to improve them and try to hide them because you can improve (in March) only so much."

The coaches also know the team is in a better place than a year ago. Last March, the Lady Vols entered the NCAA tourney with 22 wins and 10 losses. They have 30 wins this season and just two defeats.

"We're eight wins better. We'd be crazy to say we felt like last year," Lockwood said.

"The confidence that the coaching staff has in this team is much, much higher than it was a year ago. We're very proud of them for how they've worked. They've really shown that they're serious about it now. They've shown that they've committed to something."

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