Vicki Baugh returns to court

Vicki Baugh's routine for the past six months had been the same – change into workout clothes, accompany her teammates to the pre-practice circle and then go to the sideline or weight room for rehab. For the past two days, she has broken that circle and stayed on the court. It's been a long way back from two ACL surgeries and restoring her confidence is the next step, but Baugh is finally full go.

As Jenny Moshak applied ice bags to Vicki Baugh's left knee while the rising redshirt junior forward spoke to media after Wednesday's workout session at Pratt Pavilion, Moshak smiled when asked if it was reasonable to expect Baugh to be restored to pre-surgery status.

"We will see her back again reincarnated as one step better," said Moshak, the Lady Vols' chief of sports medicine.

That brought a smile to the face of Baugh, who very candidly acknowledged that the next step for her is regaining her confidence.

"It's kind of difficult trying to overcome an injury as far as confidence building, but I'm getting there," Baugh said. "I am just excited to help out. I know I'm a little slower than usual but that all will come.

"I know I'm fine physically, but it's definitely a confidence level. Mentality is everything. If I don't believe it's OK, it's not going to be, so I am trying to build to where I get that complete confidence in my knee. Right now I don't have it, but it's coming. The more I keep practicing the more it comes."

Baugh went the full hour with her teammates on Wednesday, full court drills included. She has just now been released to run – all of her previous cardio work was on an elliptical machine – so her level of conditioning is nowhere near ready for extended basketball action.

Baugh, a 6'4 athletic power forward, is testing the knee in basketball situations – jumping, pivoting, landing, lateral moves, et al – and with each successful step she gradually becomes more comfortable on the court.

Baugh's knee is finally fine physically after two ACL surgeries in May of 2008 and February of 2009 that cost her half of the 2008-09 season and all of the 2009-10 season. The next step is mental fitness.

"That's absolutely right," Moshak said. "And what she has to understand is that when she goes live she hasn't had repetitions of confidence, and live is reactionary. We've got to get her repetitions of controlled situations and that's why we're going to get her with a coach and start working on some of that stuff.

"The knee looks great. She's clear. She's good to go. Now, it's just a matter of her getting some confidence in her style of play. When you go from rehab to advanced rehab to live you can't get that (without extensive court time). She's been doing some drill work, but she needs more drill work. She needs one-on-one time where she gets rep after rep after rep after rep.

"When you go live you have to react and that's where the lack of confidence is right now. But this is March 31. We have time to get this."

Baugh has physically transformed her upper body and is now much stronger than when she first entered college.

"Every time I rehab I do upper body while I am doing rehab for my knee so every time I am lifting lower I am lifting upper so therefore I am getting stronger," Baugh said. "After this latest meniscus repair I see my quad growing and before that I wasn't seeing it growing so I wasn't believing. Your thoughts transfer to your actions so now that I see it growing I work a lot harder. That's just the reality of it."

Baugh had a small meniscus tear repaired in January, so that was three left knee surgeries in a period of 20 months. That meant a slow return to the court, with Moshak just releasing Baugh for some drills in March.

Wednesday was Baugh's first full court action, and she will take advantage of the full team sessions that can be held with the coaches for the next two weeks.

"I still see myself playing kind of timid on defense," Baugh said. "I can't do that, but that all will come. These practices will be helpful. I am a little bit slower, but the speed will build. I haven't been running yet really.

"It helps me to build my confidence once I see I can do the things JMo told me I would be able to do. I feel excited. I am happy to be back with my team and helping them get better. We have a long way to go."

Tennessee bowed out in the first round of the NCAA tourney in 2009 and in the Sweet 16 in 2010, and Baugh was reduced to spectator role for both postseasons because of her knee. But she now views even that down time as a long-term benefit for her basketball career.

"It was definitely a whole different mindset," Baugh said. "I am glad I had that chance – I took it in a positive manner – because I do want to coach in the future and I got to see it from a different perspective and it showed me how difficult things are when you're not out there and when you can just watch and not do anything about it."

One of the most anguished people on the bench last Saturday during the 77-62 loss to Baylor was Baugh, who shouted encouragement to her teammates and agonized over the mistakes.

In the aftermath of that loss the players realized they needed to hold each other accountable more than they did this past season. Baugh has already been identified as a player who will let her voice be heard, and her blueprint in the post came from Candace Parker and Nicky Anosike, who were seniors when Baugh was a freshman and helped the team win a national title in 2008. It was in the championship game that Baugh first tore her ACL and her cries to her team to, "Let's go y'all," as she limped off the floor galvanized the Lady Vols.

"Nicky and Candace were always in my ear," Baugh said. "Nicky Anosike, she never held her tongue. We were saying that we don't have that on this team, so I guess my team thinks I fit in that role best. So, basically I am just going to call it like it is because it helps. It helps to call people out. It builds our team bonding. It builds everything. It makes us more trusting in one another. It's just something that needs to be done.

"A lot of people bite their tongues and then when we lose a lot of people have stuff to say. I think we should address it at the time and we won't have to unfortunately go through a loss in order to change it."

Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said Baugh, who is respected by her teammates and also has a delightful sense of humor to keep any harsh words from having a negative lingering effect, would use her voice.

"There is no question she will," Lockwood said. "How she comes back into the fold remains to be seen, and we're very anxious for that because we think we need that. That's been a big thing for us that we still don't have. The Anosike-type model that we've had, we need that. I am anxious to see how comfortable she is. She's got to come back into that circle now and be that voice.

"There is a certain amount of leadership that you can get from toughness and being a great-conditioned person, but then there is a certain amount that the only way you're going to get it is by proven success and demonstrated ability. If you've got proven success and demonstrated ability, you have a voice. If she comes back and has some demonstrated success on the court I think her voice will be stronger."

Baugh said Wednesday that it's a role she would readily accept.

"That is not out of my character at all," Baugh said. "I am always very comfortable talking to my teammates. I feel like I can talk to each and every one of them. It's just I'll be more comfortable doing it now because I am out there and I am doing it.

"I was kind of in a coach's perspective this year because I am sitting and all I can do is watch. I can't go out there and do it. But if they see me doing the things I am telling them to do, they know they have to and they see I'm doing it so they have no excuse not to."

Court time is what Baugh needs now and fortunately, as Moshak pointed out, she has several months to work her way back into basketball condition.

This will be the first summer since 2007 that Baugh will spend on the court instead of in the rehab room. Once again, Baugh, who is from Sacramento, Calif., intends to spend her summer in Knoxville. The last two years it was for rehab reasons. This year she wants to get better as a basketball player in the off-season.

"I haven't had one," Baugh said. "If I don't get any better, it's all on me, because this time I have a chance. I'll be working my butt off this summer, along with my teammates. I can't wait.

"I plan to go home in May and I do plan to stay in Knoxville the whole summer. I have to do what's best for my knee and my team. My family is always going to be there and have my back, and they support my decision. I'll be living in the classroom and Pratt."

Baugh said she will take a smart approach to her court time and listen to Moshak's advice to listen to her knee. Baugh has essentially been off the court for more than a year – and a good portion of last season was spent trying to play and then having to rest – so she has to be patient as her knee adjusts to the physical demands of basketball.

"I am just going to be smart," Baugh said. "I am just going to do whatever my body allows me to do. I'll play as much pickup as possible but if I physically cannot go that day – physically, not mentally – I won't do it."

Moshak was applying the ice bags to Baugh's knee while she spoke and nodded at that response to a question about her upcoming off-season.

There is no question that Baugh can help the post game next season. Even at limited capacity for the past two days in the one-hour sessions her presence elevated play.

"Timing still needs to come back but athletically she presents us with a whole different dimension with her length, with her jumping ability, with her rebounding ability, with the way she can defend," Lockwood said. "So we're very excited. But Vicki Baugh has never been a basketball player in her last two summers. She's been a rehab patient. So this summer is very, very crucial for her."

Baugh is a senior academically – she entered Tennessee with Angie Bjorklund, Sydney Smallbone and Kelley Cain – but will be a redshirt junior with two full years of eligibility on the court. Cain also will be a redshirt junior, so Bjorklund and Smallbone will be the only two seniors, but Baugh said in terms of leadership she considers herself to be a senior and someone who can help Bjorklund, who has shouldered the leadership role for two years, starting as a sophomore.

"Most definitely and the same with Kelley and Syd," Baugh said. "Same with everybody. Like we said in our meeting we're going to hold each other accountable. Everybody. I don't care if you're coming in as a freshman. It doesn't matter. I just think everyone being leaders will make us a stronger team, not depending on just seniors, just juniors or anyone."

The Lady Vols won't take the court again until next week, and they are not at full strength for these sessions. Freshman forward Taber Spani has been pulled from basketball activity for two months to heal her left foot, and Cain, whose surgically repaired right knee survived a full season, is being held out so she can rest. Amber Gray, who is recovering from brain surgery, is working on conditioning and balance and has not returned to basketball activity.

Faith Dupree, who took a redshirt year to recover from back issues, participated Wednesday but went down a few minutes before practice ended after getting hit by two male practice players in a defensive set. She sustained a blow to the neck but was able to leave the court under her own power and was expected to be OK.

Lockwood is sporting a bloodied right eye, the result of burst blood vessels, presumably from raising his voice during Saturday's game.

"But they say stress doesn't help and from Saturday on I'm going to tell you it's been (difficult)," Lockwood said.

His right pinky finger remains wrapped after he damaged the ligament while holding pads in a post drill last week. He now has a scar over his right eye from running into a door in a dark hotel room in Duluth, Ga.

"Everything was fine until I hit 50," Lockwood joked.

The coaches were grateful for the court time with the team but the mood remained somewhat testy among the staff after a disappointing ending to a season in which Tennessee had plans to at least reach the Final Four in San Antonio.

"We love to be on the court but I think there's still an underlying frustration of where we wanted to go farther," Lockwood said. "We weren't clearly a cut above. Duke could have beat us in the next game. But we were good enough and when we were hitting our stride … we really believed we could go one or two more games. You would have loved to get there and see what happens.

"For me personally there is a little bit of, dang it, we need to be in Texas right now."

It is particularly frustrating for the players because Tennessee led by five points, 55-50, with 7:53 left in the Baylor game but lost the lead and then their composure.

"I think that's one of the things we need to work on," forward Alicia Manning said. "Stuff like that is going to happen, but you can't let it affect you. Our team has played with so much heart and desire. We had the momentum and that just kind of was a backbreaker. We didn't respond to it and that hurt us."

Manning's attitude was much like the rest of the players after the game ended – get back to work and use the off-season to improve as much they did the previous year.

"Our freshmen are going to get a year under their belt," Manning said. "That's going to help, and we're going to have some freshmen coming in and it's amazing how one player and a team can improve in a year, so I am really looking forward to it."

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