Lady Vols have traveled long road

On March 23, 2009, the Tennessee players and coaches rolled out of Bowling Green, Ky., by bus and headed back to Knoxville after an early exit in the NCAA Tournament. Had someone told them that day that a year later they would be SEC regular season and tourney champions and a No. 1 seed in the next tourney, "I would say, ‘You've lost your mind. You're certified nuts,' " Pat Summitt said.

On March 20, 2010, Tennessee gets the chance to finally exorcise that demon by taking the court again in the NCAA Tournament, this time on its home court against No. 16 Austin Peay.

"I don't think that we really think about that because we stay in the present now, but that is something definitely that we need to check mark off," sophomore guard Briana Bass said.

Tennessee, 30-2, has certainly put a lot of distance in the rear view mirror between the worst loss in program history – from Summitt's point of view – and where the team has ended up this season with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney and two 2010 SEC trophies for the display case.

"Before we have this feel good party, this is where it really counts," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "The next game you lose your season ends. This team I hope still has hunger and still feels they have something to prove and has a demon to exorcise.

"Feeling good is one thing, but you know that there's more to accomplish and, once again, it's like anything in postseason play (in that what happened up to that point doesn't matter anymore). This is where the cream rises to the top."

The Ball State loss in 2009 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament ended up being the springboard to this season's success, as the players went back to practice two days later and had sessions with Heather Mason called "Iron Will" that were intended to see whose will would break. All the players crossed safely to the other side and have cited that experience as the ultimate team-bonding exercise.

The players couldn't escape the intense scrutiny of the coaches, media and fans – they heard about the failure in class, in the community and whenever they turned on the basketball tournament – and they realized they needed each other.

Sophomore guard Shekinna Stricklen said if the double-double prediction had been made to her a year ago, she would have believed it.

"I would probably say yeah, because I knew we were about to come back and work, and that's what we did, and it's all paying off," Stricklen said. "The whole thing with Heather and coming back that whole month it brought this team together just working hard and knowing that you've got to have each other's back. Knowing what we went through with Heather we couldn't go through it by ourselves.

"We were going to have to pick each other up and at any particular time someone was going to let down. It's like in a game when someone lets down you've got to pick each other up."

That was precisely the response Summitt was hoping for when she reassembled the team on the court 48 hours after the loss and also turned them over to Mason for excruciatingly difficult workouts. Mason's marching orders when they got off the bus back in Knoxville were to find the competitors. It turned out to be the entire team.

"They made the most of it," Summitt said.

One player who especially used the time between the end of last season and the beginning of this one was Alyssia Brewer, who got in better basketball shape.

Forget the SEC double-double prediction. The notion that she would go on to average 21.1 minutes a game this season would have floored her a year ago.

"The fact that they would have told me that I would be playing over 10 minutes a game would have been surprising," Brewer said. "I would not have believed that for a second. If they would have told me you guys are going to be 30-2, you're going to win the regular season and the tournament championship, no, not at all.

"I think that was going through everybody's mind until we actually did it. I'm kind of a loss for words. … I am just so glad that we pulled it off."

Glory Johnson dealt with that disappointing 2009 loss by trying not to think about it, as did Kelley Cain, but the questions about it started anew as postseason approached.

"Once the season started it's all about this year and what we're going to do next," Johnson said. "We're focused on what's going to happen now, what's going to happen after this, what's going to happen when we go back to work in the NCAA Tournament."

Angie Bjorklund believes that the Lady Vols fell victim to thinking ahead to the Sweet 16. They expected to handle the first two rounds – every other Tennessee team had made at least the Sweet 16 every year since 1982 – but when Cain couldn't play in the second half because of her injured knee, the inside game collapsed and Ball State hounded Bjorklund and Stricklen on the perimeter. Several freshmen said later they couldn't shake the nerves, and the result was a history-making early exit from postseason.

"I would have said, ‘I'm never looking ahead. I'm taking it one game at a time,' " Bjorklund said when asked how she would have reacted the day after that loss to the double-double prediction in the SEC. "Because I think that was the biggest lesson we learned. We were thinking about Sweet 16 and all that.

"This year we literally were like, ‘The next game.' Now, we're to a point where we're like, ‘The next possession. The next practice, let's get better.' "

Bjorklund said the players also weren't thinking too far into the future on the bus ride back home.

"We were thinking about what the heck Pat was going to do to us when we got back," she said.

Bass, a point guard like Stricklen, said she would have nodded if the prediction had been made to her. Bass showed up at one practice last spring wearing a T-shirt on which she had written "No more losing."

"I would have believed them because we had to go to work after that loss," Bass said. "Coach said we set a lot of history in good and bad ways. That was, of course, one of the bad things. We had to come back and get in the gym and hold each other accountable.

"We didn't stay in the present like we do this year."

Lockwood said the players had a feisty response to the coaches' challenge that they get better. The purpose was to determine who was willing to work hard, and every player survived those sessions with Mason.

"With the ‘Iron Will' and saying, ‘You have some ground to make up,' they put it back on our plate," Lockwood said. "They came back and said, ‘How's this?' We feel very proud about what they've done and feel very good about them and have a lot more confidence in them."

The team was back at practice Wednesday after a day off Tuesday. The players will gather again Thursday for a standard practice at Pratt, and then hold an open practice for an hour Friday at noon at the arena. Those sessions are light, and that will be the only court session Friday, as Summitt wants to save their legs for Saturday's games.

"That's it," Summitt said.

Wednesday was an up-tempo session that lasted about two hours with a heavy review of offense.

"Get up and down the floor and run a lot of our sets," Summitt said. "We'll get up and down a little bit (Thursday) but not a lot. We'll start tapering. We'll scout our opponent."

The arena has taken shape this week with NCAA modifications. Advertisements on the scoreboard that are Tennessee but not official NCAA sponsors have been draped in black. The courtside seats for high-dollar donors have been removed and media tables are in their place. The ubiquitous blue NCAA carpeting is everywhere at floor level, except the court, of course, which will get NCAA logos.

When a few sophomores walked out to shoot this week, they asked why the blue carpet was in place. They can be forgiven for not knowing it's the same blue at every NCAA site since they didn't stay but one game in the tourney last year.

"We were blue," Summitt said with a laugh. "We were all blue."

Summitt and the coaches have maintained their sense of humor this season. Of course, it's easier to smile with this team. It lacks a go-to star – and Summitt said she would always welcome one – but the pieces have worked well.

"It would be great to have a Candace Parker on the floor, but I like the fact that we have a lot of skill players," Summitt said. "We've got size in the paint. That's why we want to play inside-out. Our guard play is getting better. I think Strick is playing with a lot more confidence, and Angie hasn't seen a shot she didn't love – not like, love – and she's hitting a lot of them.

"When you've got the star, the go-to player we all would like to have that. But keep in mind, too, that they'll double-team the star. People are going to have schemes for the best player. And the fact that we have a lot of skill players and we have Kelley and Lyssi and Glory, I really like this team."

Those three comprise the post game and have been critical to the team's overall success. Brewer's transformation from role player to starter has been so pronounced that when Summitt was asked if Tennessee would be 30-2 without the contributions of Brewer, she said, "No. Oh, no."

Cain has to stay on the floor in postseason and her tendency to foul has been addressed again by the coaches.

"We've addressed that. We've watched tape. She understands," Summitt said.

Johnson is the most athletic post, but has been in and out of Summitt's doghouse with guard Kamiko Williams to the extent that the freshman Williams calls them "dog" and "puppy."

"I didn't put them there," Summitt said. "They put themselves there."

Both players are key if Tennessee hopes for a long stay in the 2010 edition of the NCAA tourney.

"We've got to have them," Summitt said. "The two best athletes on the floor."

Before the season started Summitt said she wanted a rotation of eight players. She said Wednesday that she has that now but added the eight can vary from game to game. That was apparent at Wednesday's practice when the coaches used an assortment of combinations to run various sets to get everyone ready.

"I think you have to really focus on who's on the floor and who you want to substitute, because you don't want to substitute a bunch of people at one time," Summitt said. "From a coaching standpoint, we're constantly talking on the bench. Sometimes it's a guessing game, but you hope we make the best decisions. … Everyone has to be in tune and mindful.

"I am very happy with our talent. What a difference in their bodies but also in their minds and their level of commitment to this program."

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