The Lady Vol players are happy to open first round play in the cozy confines of the arena – with the media rows reconfigured to the sideline and curtains draped across the upper deck, capacity has been reduced to 12,839.
Coach Pat Summitt has repeatedly cited the benefit of the players being able to sleep in their own beds, and Kelley Cain emphatically nodded when asked if that were really a big difference. Of course, Cain is 6'6 so a comfortable bed is mandatory for a good night's sleep.
At Thursday's practice Cain swiped the jersey of the 5'2 Briana Bass and wore it, leading to a free for all among her teammates who all wore someone else's jersey in an indication of the team's looseness and its camaraderie.
"The craziest part was Kelley and Bree because Kelley's jersey looked like a sports bra, and Bree's looked like a dress that was three sizes too big for her," Glory Johnson said.
"I had a little room to breathe," Cain said. "It did look a little small on me."
Vicki Baugh, who is taking a redshirt year this season to recover from two ACL surgeries, is still making an impact this season. She put on a practice jersey Thursday and worked some in the paint against Cain, Johnson, Faith Dupree and Alyssia Brewer.
"It was good," Brewer said. "She slapped at me and hit me, but you need that sometimes. It's going to be great when she comes back next year."
Summitt agreed with the analogy of Baugh, a 6'4 athletic forward, as having a Christmas present that still can't be opened yet.
"Really?" Baugh said. "That's very nice of her to say. Right now my role is my teammates. I am just concerned about them. Whatever I can do to help them get better. Bree needs to shoot when she's open without thinking. Bree needs to play with confidence. That goes for everyone on the team."
Baugh has had several conversations with Bass, who was noticeably improved in practice in the past two weeks, both with how she ran the offenses and in hitting her shot behind the arc.
"It was the 52 jersey," Cain said.
That brought a smile from Bass, the shortest person on the team who seems to gravitate to the tallest ones. One of her best friends on the team is Brewer, Bass and Cain constantly cut up – thus the jersey escapades – and Baugh has always treated Bass like a little sister.
"Vicki Baugh has really been helping me with my confidence and stuff like that," Bass said. "I have really been working on being strong-minded and helping my team as much as I can. All it is is confidence. Big time."
Help has also come from the coach's son. Tyler Summitt is a practice player for the team and a freshman student at Tennessee. He was a point guard at Webb School of Knoxville and has his mother's eye for the game. He also can relate to the players because he's a peer.
It was a conversation with Tyler that showed Angie Bjorklund how powerful her voice could be.
"Tyler really encouraged me one practice," Bjorklund said. "He calls me ‘QB.' He goes, It's kind of like a domino effect. You're talking. The whole gym starts talking.' When he told me that and I noticed it, I was like, ‘Wow, it really does have an effect when I show off the energy and I cheer and I clap and I really talk.' The rest of the team seems to pick it up."
It was so noticeable in the past two weeks of practice that two media members brought it up to Bjorklund, whose voice has boomed across the court both when she's playing or waiting to rotate into a drill or scrimmage.
"I think it's something I've really been working on is non-stop talking throughout practices," Bjorklund said.
The volubility of Bjorklund is noteworthy, as is the confidence level of sophomore Shekinna Stricklen, who has started nearly every game at point guard this season and finally seems comfortable.
Stricklen credited her teammates for her peace of mind.
"The way they're encouraging me, and Coach is really encouraging me," Stricklen said. "I've just been having fun. I haven't been letting things get to me, and I've taken the leadership role."
Bjorklund also cited experience as a factor in Stricklen's favor. A year ago, a team full of freshmen had a season full of firsts from home opener to away game to conference play to postseason.
"She's confident," Bjorklund said. "She knows she's been through a tournament before. She knows the routine and what to expect, not past the first round but up until the first game. I think we're all at a state right now where we're confident.
"We know what we're going to do, we're confident playing with each other, we're familiar with things and so once you have that every year we'll gain more and more confidence."
Bjorklund noted the lack of experience past the first round with a wry look. That's because Tennessee was defeated a year ago by Ball State in a colossal upset by Tennessee standards.
That Tennessee team also had undergone excellent practices and entered postseason with some confidence, but when the game started the nerves kicked in, and several freshmen said they didn't ever go away.
"Everybody was disappointed," Summitt said. "We let down our fans that came. We didn't answer their runs. We had low energy. I thought we gave in to fatigue. I was like, ‘Where did this team come from?' I've still got a visual of that whole game. I thought they were the better defensive team. They were the better offensive team."
Tennessee's bus didn't depart for Knoxville until the next morning. It was a ride home that Bjorklund would like to forget.
"I don't even remember. I've tried to wipe it from my memory," Bjorklund said. "I remember a number of bus rides from last season. The majority of the time we took a bus we lost and on the way back we would have to watch the game. We didn't watch the game this time. We didn't have our cell phones or anything.
"What I remember most after Ball State was the meeting we had when we got back to the hotel. We had a lot of meetings. The bus ride back it was just silent. (During the meeting) it was basically talking about everyone needs to decide whether they really want to be here or not, whether you're really going to invest."
Tennessee essentially had to hit the reset button, and the commitment test began immediately. The team returned to the court two days after the loss. The players belonged to Heather Mason three days a week, and she put together workouts that guaranteed the weak would be weeded out.
"That was a defining moment for our team and our staff," Summitt said. "We knew it was unacceptable, and we had to get better."
The players all survived and started the 2009-10 with a 9-0 record. Then, they lost to Stanford on the road, 67-52, and with another game on the West Coast against San Francisco before the Christmas break, Summitt had time to meet with her players. That is when she found out that Bjorklund and Taber Spani were the only ones still getting in the gym on their own on a regular basis.
"We did a good job but not until we lost at Stanford – they did their off-season stuff and their bodies changed, and they were a lot better – but the loss at Stanford was so significant to our success this year because when we lost there that's when I asked them how many of you are getting in the gym and shooting," Summitt said. "They thought they could just put on the orange uniform and win and I'm like, ‘Remember last year? You can't do it.' "
Summitt is much more at ease – as much as a head coach can be – going into this postseason. A year ago, even as well as the team had practiced before the Ball State game, she still said every game was a "wait and see."
"I think that we're obviously a year older and wiser," Summitt said. "I think this team is really invested in their individual improvement. I think our post game is so much better. That's a real strength of ours. I also think our guard play is greater. Stricklen is so much better this year than she was a year ago.
"(Angie has) really matured as a leader. There is no doubt she and Shekinna are sticking together on that."
As painful as the Ball State loss was to the program, Bjorklund does acknowledge that it was a significant turning point for the team.
"I think if you look back it really was," Bjorklund said. "I don't want to say we wouldn't have worked this hard this summer, but it really did put a spark under us. It kind of opened a lot of people's eyes up to, ‘OK, wow, it does take a lot of work to be here and win here. Not just be here but win here.'
"I think that was the main thing that that game did last year."
On Friday afternoon before heading to the arena floor for Tennessee's open practice, Bjorklund sat at her locker and pondered for a split second a request to describe her current state of mind in one word.
"Thankful," she said.
"Thankful that I get an opportunity to be here," Bjorklund said. "I was just telling Alicia (Manning) a year ago we were sitting there and I was like, ‘I wish I could have that game back.'
"And now we're here, and we get that game back. It took the entire year to get here, but I think we needed that to be here."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard/forward, No. 40 (12.8 points per game, 6.1 rebounds per game, 3.8 assists per game), hails from Morrilton, Ark.; Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (14.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.7 apg), hails from Spokane Valley, Wash.; Alicia Manning, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 15 (5.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.3 apg), hails from Woodstock, Ga.; Alyssia Brewer, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 33 (10.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.2 blocks per game), hails from Sapulpa, Okla.; and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (10.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 3.4 bpg), hails from Atlanta, Ga.
Austin Peay Coach Carrie Daniels is expected to start: Brooke Faulkner, 5'10 junior guard, No. 23 (6,3 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.9 apg), hails from Cynthiana, Ky.; Whitney Hanley, 5'10 sophomore guard, No. 12 (8.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.3 apg), hails from Mt. Washington, Ky.; Ashley Herring, 5'9 junior guard, No. 33 (14.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.5 apg), hails from Memphis; Nicole Jamen, 5'11 senior forward, No. 34 (10.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg), hails from Yaounde, Cameroon; and Jasmine Rayner, 5'10 sophomore forward, No. 00 (10.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg), hails from Memphis, Tenn.
"Coach (Carrie) Daniels has done a great job of getting her team to this point," Summitt said. "We probably play about eight deep, and they play nine deep. Their guard play has been impressive, and inside play is pretty solid."
SUB-REGIONAL: All four teams held press conferences Friday at the arena the day before their games.
Tennessee's session was held first, followed by that of Austin Peay. Pat Summitt was accompanied by Angie Bjorklund, Kelley Cain and Shekinna Stricklen.
"Obviously, we're very excited about being able to host here in the First and Second Rounds," Summitt said. "Our basketball team has really worked very hard to put us in this position, just really proud for our team but also I think we understand now it gets really serious, and we've got to be ready and focused. Looking forward to it, and I hope our fans come out and support not only our team but all of the teams that are coming here.
"I definitely think we're playing our best basketball. In the practices that we've had there's been great intensity. I can tell this team is very focused. It's going to take everyone. We do have good depth, and I think this team understands that they have to be ready when called upon."
The players reiterated their desire to get started, especially after the time between the end of the SEC tourney and the start of the NCAA one.
"It's been a huge gap," Bjorklund said. "It's been two weeks. We've been excited the entire the entire two weeks, especially having spring break, just a week focusing in on basketball and having a break from school. I think we've had a lot of preparation and we're ready to play."
"To spin off what Angie said, we've had some really good practices lately and we're just excited that tournament time is finally here and we get to prove to everybody that we're completely different from last year, and we're a lot better," Cain said.
"These last couple of weeks, we've been hanging out as a team, and we've been getting closer and closer as a team not just on the court but outside the court," Stricklen said. We've been together, and we've just been really focused."
Cain said the team welcomed the target on its back that comes with wearing orange, and she accepted that the loss from a year ago at this time of year could make the Lady Vols seem vulnerable.
"Any Tennessee team has a target on its back but with what happened last year, even though that has nothing to do with what we've been doing this year, we do have a target on our backs," Cain said. "That makes it even more fun for us, because we like to be sought after and we like to be the team that everybody wants to beat. That just makes us an even better team and it makes us even more competitive and want to go out there and show everybody why they want to beat us."
Stricklen continued the theme that this Tennessee team learned its lesson.
"I feel like, as a team, we're more committed," Stricklen said. "We're playing the Tennessee way. I feel like last year we chose and picked when we wanted to play hard and go hard. I feel like this year everyone is going hard every possession and we're not taking possessions off. I feel like we're more committed to defense and rebounding than we were last year. I feel like we have improved a lot more on that."
Summitt seemed to agree with that assessment and said the "pick and choose" flaw wasn't really recognized by the players until this season.
"I will say that the three players that were right here have provided great leadership," Summitt said. " Kelley has taken on the post game and really held everyone accountable. I think she's made Lyssi (Brewer) a lot better, Glory (Johnson) a lot better. I think with Angie and Shekinna they are all over the guards. They have to be accountable in order to hold other people accountable and so I think that is the big difference."
Since the brackets were announced, whenever Summitt has been asked about playing in-state school Austin Peay, she has mentioned two of her older brothers.
"My brother, Tommy, and my brother, Kenneth, both graduated from Austin Peay," Summitt said. "Tommy played basketball for two years there, and Kenneth played baseball and he was a pitcher. They were so excited that we were going to be playing Austin Peay because of the history with the two of them. I spent a lot of time at Austin Peay watching my brother play. I love Clarksville and that area, and I know they're really excited about it."
Summitt was asked if her brothers were pulling for Tennessee.
"They better be, or they won't get a ticket when they get here," she said with a laugh.
Austin Peay Coach Carrie Daniels was accompanied by Jasmine Rayner, Ashley Herring and Nicole Jamen.
"I think we're just tremendously excited to be here," Daniels said. "Knoxville has done an excellent job with the University of Tennessee being the host here. We knew coming into it that we were going to be matched up with an excellent team. I think our team is excited with the atmosphere that we're going to be going into (Saturday). Coming to Knoxville with the time and distance for our fans to be able to travel and be here to support us is one thing that we're excited about as well."
The Lady Govs are better than their 15-17 record. They had an ambitious schedule with games against Xavier, Pittsburgh, James Madison, Chattanooga, Middle Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh. They were the No. 3 seed in the Ohio Valley Conference tourney and won that event for the automatic bid.
Austin Peay faced size this season against Pittsburgh, a 76-75 loss in overtime, and Xavier, an 87-41 loss.
"I think the first thing when you look at Tennessee – and they're a tremendous team all the way around – is that compared to our team from every position we're outsized, from every spot," Daniels said. "Two teams that we played this season, Pittsburgh and Xavier, in every spot we were outmatched and outsized. So from that aspect, those are two teams that we went up against and were outmatched. Also, at one point or the other during the season, we played five teams that had been in the top 25. So we have gone up against some top caliber teams.
"But I think the size is something our players are going to have to be aware of, and they can't back down to that. You look at the scores and it was kind of lopsided in a lot of our games but we had to look at positives and find the little things to get us through that season and help prepare us. I feel like they have kept a positive mindset throughout it and never dropped their heads. They continued to push forward. I think that's a big reason, even though our record may not show it, because they are competitors and they are fighters. I think that's one reason why we are here today."
Daniels doesn't see the Lady Vols as vulnerable after the outcome of a year ago in the tourney.
"I think they went back to the drawing board after having lost that game," Daniels said. "That's not something that we really talked about. Our focus is on ourselves. We know it's a tough challenge.
"One thing we've talked about a lot with our team is we can't get so concerned with the name on the front of the jersey and who we're playing. We have to focus on the 40 minutes at hand and what we have to do on the court. We know there's going to be a lot of pressure and it's going to be a tough task, but we played the non-conference schedule that we did for a reason."
The players seemed eager to play in today's game and were excited when their school's name popped up under Tennessee's during the bracket announcement, partly because it meant Austin Peay fans could easily get to the game.
"For me it's not, I mean I'm excited, but not intimidated," said Rayner, who is from Memphis. "It's just another team, they are an excellent team, but in our season we played a lot of teams that were like Tennessee, the same size and everything
"I am not in awe but I am so excited to be playing against this team, I mean we are in Big Orange Country. Also excited that we are having our fans come in, I mean we're only down the street."
Ashley Herring, who also is from Memphis, expressed the same sentiment.
"I am very excited, this is just a great experience," Herring said. "I have not had the opportunity to play in Knoxville or this gym. Like they said it's not about being in awe it's just the opportunity we are going to take advantage of to just go out there and compete with one of the best teams in the tournament so it's just going to be a great experience."
Nicole Jamen, who played for the Cameroon national team in the 2009 FIBA Africa Championship for Women, looked forward to the challenge.
"Coach Pat Summitt is a great coach so it's a good opportunity for us to play against them, but at the same time it's not going to be a reason why we are going to be in awe and just stare at them," Jamen said. "I mean it's a competition and we are competitors so it's going to be different on the court."
The winner of the Tennessee-Austin Peay game will face the winner of the Dayton-TCU game.
Dayton is making its first-ever appearance in the NCAA tourney.
"It is a pleasure to be here," Dayton Coach Jim Jabir said. "I know I speak for the team when I say we are excited to be in our first NCAA Tournament. We face an opponent that is an excellent team, well coached and a veteran team. They are similar to us in some ways, so we will have a great challenge tomorrow that we are looking forward to very, very much."
The Flyers are battle-tested. They played Michigan State, Louisville, Georgetown and Purdue outside of Atlantic 10 Conference play and went 3-1 with the loss being to Louisville before that team was gutted by injuries.
"It should be a good first round meeting as most 8, 9 matchups are," TCU Coach Jeff Mittie said. "Dayton is a very balanced team. They play a lot of people. People ask who they remind us of in conference. The Atlantic 10 and Mountain West compare very well. Most teams in that non-BCS group are no different. I'm impressed with Jim's group. They played quite a schedule. Hopefully, we'll have a great basketball game."
Jabir sees an opponent that plays in similar ways to his team in some ways.
"They play some big guards who have perimeter skills," Jabir said. "They can shoot the ball very, very well. They share the ball well. They are unselfish. They are very intelligent. They are a veteran team with some youth mixed in. They play very hard and intelligently. They are very well coached. Coach Mittie does a great job. So, we are going to have to depend on our principles defensively, and we are going to have to attack them offensively. I think we have a tough opponent ahead of us for sure but I am looking forward to it."
Dayton senior guard Kendel Ross welcomed the chance to play in the NCAA tourney in her final season.
"I am really excited," Ross said. "It's just great to be here. Like we've been saying all along, this is where we've wanted to be. Now that we're finally here, it's an amazing feeling."
TCU has been in the field of 64 every year since 2001, except for 2008. The Lady Frog are 5-8 all-time in NCAA tourney play.
The last appearance was a 90-55 pasting by South Dakota State, and the players seemed ready to make a better showing.
"We're a lot more prepared this year," senior guard TK LaFleur said. "We've been focusing in practice on being more competitive and playing a lot harder than we have been. I think that's definitely something that will show in the game. We also, as a collective group, now have NCAA experience. Last year, we had some players who had it with various other teams and we had some people who didn't have any experience at all in the NCAA. So I think that experience will be drawn upon." LaFleur's birth name is not "TK."
"My real name is TreKessa," LaFleur said. "The T and the K are capital, so when I was in fourth grade, I was tired of people calling me by my real name so I just kind of made up my own nickname and it stuck. It's a lot easier for coaches to say, and yell at times."
Mittie was amused by that and said he would start calling LaFleur by her given first name, especially since she revealed that he yelled "TK."
That brought laughter from both player and coach.
The TCU players toured the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame before their scheduled press interviews and court time at the arena.
"I just enjoyed being in there, in a place where they appreciate women's basketball so much and they dedicated a whole building to it," LaFleur said. "Every so often they change out the jerseys for the Final Four teams. They change out what jerseys hang up when you walk around. I think just being in the atmosphere where there are so many great women athletes that are represented and supported, it's just a great feeling."
Junior guard/forward Helena Sverrisdottir, who is from Hafnarfjordur, Iceland, was struck by the former uniforms, which nearly covered players' arms and legs.
"The outfits they wore," Sverrisdottir said when asked which item on display stuck in her mind. "It was definitely a great experience. Just going back to 1890 when they were wearing those long skirts and played with like three different teams where you were only on offense or on defense, it was something fun to see how people change. There's a lot of cool stuff in there."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Austin Peay game. Here is his assessment.
When Austin Peay has the ball: "They run what we call the fist triangle offense a little bit," Lockwood said. "They run actions out of that. They set some ball screens. They do some four-out action. Ashley Herring is their leading scorer, and then they have two posts who are undersized posts. We've seen this before, 5'10, 5'11 kids who if they were a few inches taller they could be in our league. They root around. They use their bodies very well. They have one or two patented moves. They draw fouls. They kind of scrap around. Those are the three kids we really have to concentrate on. They have a couple of other kids that can make spot-up shots, too, so we can't sleep on those kids."
Defensively, Because of Tennessee's overwhelming size inside, Lockwood expects the Lady Govs to have to use some zone looks.
"I have not seen them play a lot of zone," Lockwood said. "I looked at their more recent games and then one of their conference games. I said to our staff that I would be shocked if we didn't see some zone."
When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols played inside-out for 32 games. That won't change in the NCAA tourney.
"We've got to get into a rhythm that we've been into, that worked for us in the SEC Tournament and that is going to be kind of our calling card for the NCAA Tournament," Lockwood said. "That's where it starts for us. Playing through our inside, playing through our middle. If we can generate post touches, paint points early then that is what we want to do."
Defensively, Tennessee wants to set the tone for the tourney early.
"No question," Lockwood said. "We want to make this a very high octane, pressure game. We want to play it at the SEC level, the type of basketball that we've played all year, that we were able to do a couple of weekends back in Duluth where we got after people, we pressured people, we wore people down physically. We want to do the same things here on Saturday afternoon."
Lockwood presented the scouting report to the team clearly and honestly. A coach who presents a 16 seed as a formidable challenge would lose his effect on the players, but Lockwood also knows that a Tennessee team that bowed out in the first round a year ago can't overlook anyone either.
"We're going to tell them their strengths," Lockwood said. "This team wouldn't be in the tournament if they didn't beat somebody and put together a string of good basketball late in the season, which they did in their conference tournament.
"We're not going to blow smoke and tell them it's Kentucky, but we're going to tell them what they do well and what we have to do against them. I'm going to be frank with them. Can I look you in the eye and tell you this is Kentucky? This is LSU? This is Vanderbilt? No. But we all know that it's not the school's name and it's not the conference that the schools plays in. We have to respect every opponent.
"Anybody who comes before you is dangerous. Every person that stands in front of you is a dangerous person until you take them out. That is what we have to do to this team. We have to be very, very aware of their strengths and how we can immobilize those strengths and then what we need to do to exploit our strengths."
ASSORTED FACTS: Tennessee leads the series with Austin Peay, 5-0. The Lady Vols all-time record in the first/second rounds is 42-1. The lone loss came last season to Ball State, 71-55, on March 22, 2009. Tennessee is the only team to have been invited to all 29 NCAA Tournament fields and has played 124 tourney games with a 104-20 overall record against 71 different teams. Saturday will be game No. 125. … Tennessee is 7-0 in games played on March 20. The last win on this date was against Pittsburgh, 68-54, in the second round of the 2007 NCAA tourney. The first win on March 20 was against Georgia, 85-82, in an NCAA regional final in Iowa City, Iowa, in 1986. Tennessee beat Austin Peay, 80-38, in the first round of the NCAA tourney on March 16, 2001. The Lady Vols set a program postseason record in that game with 59 rebounds. The Lady Govs also claimed a Thompson-Boling Arena NCAA tourney game record when center Gerlonda Hardin swatted seven shots. This will be the Lady Govs' seventh appearance in the tournament. They are 0-6 overall. Austin Peay debuted in the NCAA tourney in 1996 when current Coach Carrie Daniels was a player for the Lady Govs. …Vicki Baugh and Faith Dupree, who are taking redshirt years but practicing with the team, will be in uniform on the bench today. Both Baugh and Dupree participated in Friday's open workout, and Baugh hit the center court shot – a team tradition with the winner also getting balls thrown at her by her teammates. Amber Gray, who is taking a redshirt year to recover from brain surgery, will not be on the bench, because of the limited number of seats by NCAA policies. Gray will have a seat in the stands behind the bench. Ticket pre-sales as of Friday morning were at 8,811.
HAVING VISIONS: Freshman forward Taber Spani has dealt with a painful case of turf toe all season, a condition that has prevented her from being able to take extra shots. She is limited to work at practice and even that can be curtailed at times.
For a jump shooter, the lack of repetitions adversely affects shooting percentage.
"With my foot, obviously it's a frustrating injury," said Spani, who would take the extra shots if medically cleared to do so. "Trust me, I want to get in a ton of shots, and I just can't."
So, Spani instead visualizes shots nestling through the net in sessions with Carolyn Savoy, a retired basketball coach who got her PhD in sports psychology from the University of Tennessee.
"We've done a lot with visualization with Carolyn so trying to fine tune those aspects," Spani said. "Maybe it's not drastic but just maximizing everything that I can do for this team."
Spani's maternal grandfather, Frosty Westering, was an expert in the mental approach to competition – he is a retired college football coach who still teaches and speaks – and she has absorbed those lessons since she was in preschool.
"It's reaffirming all the stuff that I learned," Spani said. "I feel like this team has really grasped everything. We've taken what's she tried to implement into us, and we've really bought into it."
Spani deals with the pain in her foot by thinking about the pleasure of cutting down nets.
"I've just got to get through six games, win the national championship and then get off it," Spani said. "I've really tried to focus on adjusting to what I can and can't do off of the explosion part of it. My game has to change because I can't do what I usually can do off of it."
MOST IMPORTANT MEAL: Several players were asked to describe their state of mind going into the tourney.
"Happy," freshman guard Kamiko Williams said.
When it was pointed out that Williams is usually always in a good mood, she replied, "Today is extra, probably because I ate breakfast. I am trying to make a habit of that."
With the two weeks between games Williams was able to get some extra conditioning work, too.
"I think I can run and last longer now than what I could before," Williams said.
Any other improvements?
"Thinking," Williams said. "Not so much playing on instinct but actually trying to do what Coach wants me to do within the system. I think I got better at that."
Breakfast, it does a body good.
BACK TO WORK: Pat Summitt said the break between tournaments was time to get better. For the coach, that meant forcing players to use their off hands. A right-handed player underneath the left side of the basket who didn't use her left hand heard about it quickly and vice versa.
Even Tyler Summitt heard it once when his mother walked up to him and smiled – she was miked for ESPN – and inquired as to whether he had a left hand.
"We've done a lot of drills," Summitt said. "We're drilling weak hand. If you watch our post people we're doing the same thing there. We're trying to be able to score left and right in the post game. That has really helped us."
Kamiko Williams cited her conditioning as an area of improvement. Briana Bass mentioned confidence. Taber Spani talked about finding basketball moves with a better chance of success because of her foot limitations.
What about the other players?
"Hopefully everything," Kelley Cain said. "Finishing well, communicating with my teammates, going hard every possession, keeping teammates up."
Pat Summitt would add not fouling.
"I just can't think about it," Cain said. "Go straight up."
Defense also was on Sydney Smallbone's list.
"Defense has been what I've been trying to focus on and not missing box outs and getting rebounds," Smallbone said. "Defensively, not giving up middle drives. Little things like that I've been trying to work on."
Shekinna Stricklen's game changed – as did the flow of the team on both sides of the ball – when she took the court with emotion from the opening tip.
"Having energy, communicating with my teammates and being a leader and making sure everyone is happy and having fun," Stricklen said of her focus the past two weeks.
Glory Johnson worked on her mental approach to the game, which was improved by shooting sessions with Dean Lockwood and hanging out with teammates.
"Confidence level, being in the gym with Dean a lot more the past couple of weeks," Johnson said. "My confidence level with my midrange shot has improved a lot. Being in Knoxville and team bonding."
Alicia Manning, who entered the starting lineup because of her rebounding and pursuit of the ball, worked on the other part of the game.
"I focused offensively hitting shots and getting a lot of shots in, finishing shots and my pull-up game," Manning said.
Alyssia Brewer, one of three lefties on the team, stuck to Summitt's game plan and tried to develop some solid post moves using her right hand.
"I've been trying to work on my right hand," Brewer said. "I think I've gotten a little better at it. That's probably been the main focus."
Angie Bjorklund zeroed in on what she vocalized, specifically the frequency, as an area to improve.
"Exactly that," Bjorklund said. "Getting my team going. Being vocal and also I think as a team we've gotten a lot better. Working with my teammates, playing inside-out more. Being more connected with my team on and off the court. We've hung out together off the court. Being more connected with my team is key. We've spent a lot of time together.
"If you can have each other's back off the court you can have each other's back on the court. That's where it counts. I trust my teammates. That's where it counts. We all love each other, and we have a good time together so I think that helps with chemistry on the court."
ONE WORD: Angie Bjorklund described her state of mind as thankful. Kamiko Williams said happy.
So what did their teammates select?
Sydney Smallbone: Driven; Shekinna Stricklen: Confident; Kelley Cain: Eager; Glory Johnson: Competitive; Briana Bass: Energetic; Taber Spani: Focused; Alyssia Brewer: Relaxed; and Alicia Manning: Excited.
Brewer's word could apply to the entire team overall and after last season's postseason flameout that is likely a good thing for the Lady Vols.
"I am going to be nervous when the game starts, but it's not going to be the whole entire game," Brewer said. "That happens every game we play. You feel a little antsy before but once you start playing you have to relax."
Pat Summitt welcomed loose.
"Whatever works for them," Summitt said. "I'm flexible."
ABOUT THAT LOSS: Tennessee's loss in the first round a year ago hasn't lacked for attention from the media, and the players have periodically been asked about it all season.
A win Saturday might go a long way in finally putting some distance between this team and that loss.
"I am extremely ready for it," Alicia Manning said. "What's done is done. It happened. We can't go back in time and change it. Obviously we're a new team this year. Our priorities are right where they need to be, especially going into the tournament, and we know each game what we have to bring. I'm ready to get it started."
A state of readiness was apparent throughout the locker room.
"We'll are pretty driven on account of what happened last year and everything we've been through together this year and the off-season," Sydney Smallbone said. "I think driven is most of our state of minds right now.
"We've been looking forward to just kind of getting ourselves back in the tournament and showing the country what we're really all about and taking care of business one game at a time. I think that's something that we really learned last year."
"It doesn't matter who's talking about it," Cain said. "What matters is that this team is focused on the game and only the game. I want the games to start. We've been practicing so much. We've had really good practices lately, and it's just exciting that it's finally game time."
"I think it's been away for us," Angie Bjorklund said. "I think for the rest of the nation that's watching it may take that game but, as a team, we've been focusing on this year. It's in the rear view mirror. You take what you've learned from it. It's helpful if anything. I'm just thankful that we get another shot."
Taber Spani wasn't a part of the 2008-09 team. She is eager to see what this team can do after it had a two-week break to treat some aches and pains and get in solid practice sessions.
"People got to rest some stuff that's bothering them," Spani said. "I think we came back and this team really wants to go for it. We want to be at the Final Four, and we want to compete for a championship. The coaches have been pushing us and we've really been pushing each other.
"I feel like we've really come together. We're peaking at the right time, and I'm really excited about it."
Fellow freshman Kamiko Williams has had her own season's worth of ups and down as she has moved in and out of Pat Summitt's doghouse. After hearing Summitt talk about how much she needs the skilled but sometimes unfocused guard, Williams said she felt obligated to help her team.
"I do," Williams said. "I think it happened after the Kentucky game (in the SEC tourney when Williams scored eight straight points in the second half to create some separation from the Wildcats).
"I noticed when she put me in there she gave me that look again like she did at South Carolina (when Williams rescued the team from what was shaping up to be a loss). I said, ‘OK, this is something that I am going to have to get used to and it's something that is probably going to happen in the NCAA Tournament.
"So I take it as a job now. That's my role is to come in and make things happen and bring that spark."
Williams, who is from Clarksville, Tenn., has one additional motivation. If Tennessee were to lose this first round game, she doesn't want to go home this summer. Austin Peay is pretty much in her backyard.
"If I do I'll hear it everywhere I go," Williams said.
For Tennessee, the first round game has traditionally been the first step on the road to the Final Four. Can a team that starts one junior and four sophomores make it to San Antonio?
"I expect us to be there, but there's a lot of parity in this game," Pat Summitt said. "We've got to be on every game we play. We've got to be invested. I think they're excited to play. They're not going to take anything lightly. I think they're going to be ready to go.
"It's about us. It's about our defense and our board play and our ball security. That's it in a nutshell."
COLOR SCHEMES: When the Lady Vol players realized the royal blue of the NCAA would pop up all over the arena – the perimeter carpet, the hallway floors outside the locker room and media interview areas – they weren't sure how it would look with the orange.
The final setup passed.
"It kind of transformed a little bit," Sydney Smallbone said. "I think it looks really good. At first I was like blue and orange? Is that really going to look alright? But I like the way it looks."
"I like it," Shekinna Stricklen said. "I think the blue kind of goes with the orange. It looks good."
"It's cool how they transformed the gyms to look all the same during NCAA Tournament time," Glory Johnson said. "I'm glad it's here. I like the carpets."
Briana Bass and Alicia Manning liked seeing the setup in the arena for one reason in particular – it meant they were at home.
"You can really tell that March Madness is finally here with the blue carpet and the press tables," Bass said. "It is really good to be home, especially with school and everything."
"It's different," Alicia Manning said. "We notice everything that's different. I'm glad that it's at home, and I'm glad that we have our fan support here to be there for us."