Lady Vols get back to practice

The Lady Vols returned to practice Tuesday for an hour of work but with a much different vibe from a year ago when post-tourney sessions were interpreted as punitive. It followed a meeting in which the players nailed to a T exactly what they needed to do to get better and was boosted by the presence of Vicki Baugh on the basketball court.

The coaches are likely most thrilled to see Vicki Baugh back on the court, even at limited capacity, as she comes back from two ACL surgeries, but a close second would be rising senior guard Angie Bjorklund, who welcomes the leadership assistance.

"She's already made a difference," Bjorklund said after the first official off-season workout at Pratt Pavilion in which Baugh participated in all half-court drills. "She has an authority on the court I would say. Everyone has respect for her. She's an upperclassman. She has that presence. She was here when we won the championship. She was a part of that team.

"So I think just having that leader and also she's a great player. Very skilled, very athletic and works hard."

Baugh, an athletic post, and Bjorklund were freshmen in 2008 when Tennessee won a national title in Tampa, and entered Tennessee in the same class, but Baugh will be a redshirt junior next fall after sitting out this season to rehab her left knee.

Kelley Cain and Sydney Smallbone also were a part of that incoming class, but Cain ended up taking a redshirt year in 2008 to recover from knee surgery. That left Smallbone and Bjorklund as the only juniors on a team without seniors this past season. Baugh's presence at practice has the benefit of bringing immediate help in the arena of leadership because she won't hesitate to make her voice heard, even after a year off the court.

The players met among themselves Monday and emerged from that gathering with a directive to challenge each other more on the court.

"I think one of our main priorities was just holding each other accountable," Bjorklund said. "That was one of the main things we talked about and that we missed this year is just we're so nice with each other but at the same time we need to hold each other accountable individually and as a team and have more of that sense of urgency of not necessarily the coaches telling us what to do but teammates telling each other what to do."

Baugh will help in that area, too.

"Absolutely," Bjorklund said. "Because I think out of anyone on the team I think everyone respects her the most for what she's been through. It's going to be a kind of personality change for myself, but I might get a little nasty every now and then."

Bjorklund was smiling but serious. Her default mode will remain upbeat, but the rising senior will need to be able to bring some heat to her teammates, too.

"My personality has been more of encouragement," Bjorklund said. "I am never going to change that (long-term) but at the same time I am going to have to. If that's what it takes, I'm doing it."

That was already evident Tuesday as the players went against each other in some drills and some competitive testiness emerged. It also was the first chance to release some frustration after the 77-62 loss to Baylor in the Sweet 16 in the Memphis Region last Saturday.

"The last time we were on the court was Baylor so you're going to be a little hostile with each other," Bjorklund said. "That's just natural. It's good to get back at practice and work on the things that we talked about getting better at and get going right away.

"I think it's nice to come back a couple of days later and go back to work. We had a couple of days to think about the game, go over what we need to improve on, meet as a team, meet just with the players, meet with the coaches individually so I think it's been a good couple of days. Kind of refocus and work on what we need we get better for next year."

It was a much different mood than a year ago when the players gathered in a somewhat bewildered and morose state after a first-round loss in 2009. This time, the players said in Memphis that they expected to get back to work soon, and Pat Summitt opted to once again take advantage of an NCAA bylaw that allows two hours of full-team court time and six hours of strength and conditioning work until April 15.

Two players missed Tuesday's session. Cain was held out so as to rest her knee, and freshman forward Taber Spani will be on mandatory rest for the next month with another month of no basketball activities. She was on crutches Tuesday as part of that rest protocol to keep weight off her left foot, which was bothered all season by turf toe and related complications.

"The crutches are to rest her walking around campus," said Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine.

Spani was reluctant to rest during the season, but she is ready to do so now.

"She told me today in our meeting that she is going to put as much energy and passion that she did into basketball into healing now because she knows how frustrated she was this season where she couldn't do what she felt she could do," Moshak said.

"We're seeing how everything calms down and then we'll go from there. It's a month of solid rest and then she'll start doing some cardio."

The rest of the team took the court Tuesday – including forward Faith Dupree, who took a redshirt year because of her back – after a team meeting Monday in which the players did a lot of the talking.

"We heard from every player," Summitt said. "We talked about what every player had to get better at to improve their game and to help us win as a team. I thought they were right on. They took full responsibility for the way we played against Baylor.

"They had already talked about it. They talked to Tyler (Summitt) a lot and said, ‘What did you see Tyler?' And he was brutally honest. I think they all listened to him and basically then said, ‘What do we do?' And he said, ‘You need to be open and honest in the meetings. You need to call people out.' You've still got players that pick and choose (when to play hard)."

A team that lost in the first round a year ago made it to the Sweet 16 but the pressure of postseason seemed to seize the team last Saturday and, especially, the presence of 6'8 Brittney Griner after Cain went to the bench in foul trouble.

"I think they probably felt an enormous amount of pressure and I didn't see that going in, but I saw it once the game started," Summitt said.

In hindsight, Summitt said she could have deployed the bench players differently, especially to give Shekinna Stricklen and Bjorklund a short breather. Both went the distance in both halves.

"You can always second-guess yourself. But we weren't ready to beat Baylor," Summitt said, referring as much to the mental state of her players as their physical execution on the court. "I felt it but nobody said it.

"I think they were very open and honest about what they didn't do. It wasn't so much about what they did. They were focusing on how they could get better. We needed that. We needed to hear from them because they're the ones that have to make that commitment."

So what went wrong against the Lady Bears, a team that Tennessee had beaten in the season opener last November?

"Oh, where to start," Bjorklund said. "I think the main thing was our defense. We talked about, ‘OK, if our shots aren't falling – which happens – we want to be a good enough defensive team and rebounding team to a point where we're still beating our opponent.' Yes, we have to score but at the same time we have to be the best defensive team in the country. I think that is really going to be our focus is defense and rebounding."

That began Tuesday with drills on both sides of the ball and the assistants mixing up assignments with Dean Lockwood working with the guards and Stephanie Glance and Holly Warlick spending time with the posts.

"I think it's important that Dean works with the guards some," Summitt said. "Stephanie worked with the posts, and Holly worked also with the posts, and I'm going to be going to every group. They need to hear my voice as well. Did we get a little bit better today? Yes. But we also let out a lot of frustration.

"They'll learn, and they'll be a year older next year and it's probably fitting that we're in here practicing right now because they understand it, and they know it's not punishment. It's opportunity."

Last year's initial session at Pratt wasn't upbeat at all as the players seemed stunned still by how the season ended. But they came around by the second session and also spent considerable time with Heather Mason, who will get the players again this April for conditioning work before they head into the summer.

"I don't think last year was punishment," Bjorklund said. "We did a lot of running so some people might think of it as punishment but it's just we need to get better. We're very disappointed, but at the same time we're like, ‘All right, what's next?' And that's off-season and that's improvement and that's getting in the gym right away."

After Tuesday's session Summitt was happy with how her players responded. The ending to the season wasn't what she envisioned – Summitt felt like the team had Final Four capability – but she seemed ready to move forward without rancor.

"I definitely think they do (have a different attitude)," Summitt said. "Look at the maturity of a Lyssi Brewer. She's very different. Kelley Cain is different. Angie. Strick. Across the board I just think they understand what it takes and I expect to have a great off-season."


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