Lady Vols hold practice session

It was a national title game Pat Summitt could appreciate – lots of defense. Alyssia Brewer couldn't help but wonder what could have been had the Lady Vols taken care of business in Memphis. Tennessee took advantage of some court time Wednesday with the coaches and spent an hour in an up-tempo scrimmage-type session.

Alyssia Brewer senses a difference in these post-season practice and conditioning sessions. A year ago the emphasis was physical fitness and mental toughness – not that Heather Mason hasn't devised some more diabolical drills this spring – but the Lady Vols also are focusing more on basketball fundamentals and specific scrimmage situations with a clear idea of what needs to be fine-tuned as opposed to the overhaul of a year ago.

"I think there's a better understanding of what needs to be accomplished," Brewer said. "I think this off-season is going to be more productive than last off-season."

Rising redshirt junior forward Vicki Baugh was again fully released for the session and even participated in the full-court work against the male practice players. Baugh is still getting her sea legs, so to speak, but her voice is one that can be heard and she has shown glimpses of how good she can be, including a head fake and drive to the basket that left her defender chasing her back and an athletic rebound that clearly belonged to nobody but Baugh.

Still, the return is a cautious one as she tests her knee in traffic and eases up in some situations so as not to push too quickly too soon.

"It's good to see her out there," Coach Pat Summitt said. "I think she'll get more and more comfortable. When you have two of those (ACL surgeries) … just my one it took me a long time to just really feel like that it was solid and I didn't have to worry and I wasn't thinking about it. She is still thinking about it."

The two hours of full team workouts – they will hold another session on Thursday – have allowed Baugh to work with her coaches and teammates in game-like scenarios in terms of shot clock, tempo and keeping score in various scrimmages.

"I think it's great," Summitt said. "I think she needed that. I am going to challenge her and see what she's willing to bring (this early in her return). The more she is out there with our team and moving up and down and jumping, playing defense, eventually it will be out of her head."

A healthy Baugh would pair with the 6'6 Kelley Cain inside next season to give the Lady Vols a formidable post presence. Cain, who essentially completed her first full season of basketball since her senior year of high school in 2007 because of knee issues, had a one-on-one workout Wednesday with Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood and was held out of the full team session to avoid the pounding on her knee.

"I don't want that at all (right now)," Summitt said.

Baugh has said she needs to restore her confidence after two ACL surgeries. For Cain, the coaches need her to stay on the court early in games. Cain was plagued by foul trouble in the latter part of the season – she had two early in the Baylor game, one on defense, the other on offense, though neither should have been called – and Summitt doesn't want a repeat of that trend to start next season.

"The biggest concern I had was taking herself out of the game with all the early fouls," Summitt said. "We can't do that next year. Not happening."

Tennessee, which finished No. 8 in the final USA Today/ESPN coaches' poll released Wednesday – the first seven, in order, were Connecticut, Stanford, Oklahoma, Baylor, Xavier, Duke and Nebraska – returns every player next season plus adds Baugh and freshmen guards Lauren Avant and Meighan Simmons.

Simmons played last week in two high school All-American games, and Summitt was duly impressed. Simmons was a late recruit for Summitt – Tennessee made its move in late August after a phone call from Candace Parker, who saw her play last summer for her AAU team – and a five-week courtship ended with LSU getting spurned and Tennessee signing the 5'9 combo guard from Cibolo, Texas.

"She's really athletic," Summitt said. "She's a quick jumper, shoots the ball well, attacks the rim. I saw more than I knew. I knew she was good but I didn't know how versatile she was. She's an impressive player."

Summitt has no desire to pigeonhole Simmons into a single position on the floor.

"I don't think we have to lock it in to point guard, two guard," Summitt said. "Just be a player, and she's a player."

Tennessee's intended destination next season is the 2011 Women's Final Four, which will be held in Indianapolis. The Lady Vols had the talent to get to San Antonio this season for the Final Four but not the big game experience to survive a regional.

"Obviously we were very, very disappointed in our loss to Baylor," Summitt said. "We struggled across the board and when they made their run we didn't answer it."

Did that surprise Summitt?

"It did just because of how we played going into it," Summitt said.

Wednesday's session was a small step among many to come in getting the team back to championship form. It lasted just one hour but it was packed with defense, offense, ball-handling, post moves, perimeter shots and then full court scrimmages against the male practice players. Bodies collided and hit the floor, but everyone survived intact.

Cain and Taber Spani were held out – Spani is off the court for two months to heal her left foot – but the rest of the team participated in the rugged workout. Summitt also wants the players to find Pratt Pavilion on their own this off-season.

"I think this team, across the board, we haven't been invested in getting our offensive skills where they need to be," Summitt said. "I think everybody on our team can improve."

Two teams that were offensively skilled, Stanford and Connecticut, played for the national title in San Antonio on Tuesday night in a game that, ironically, set a record for fewest points scored in a championship game. Connecticut prevailed, 53-47, after scoring just 12 points in the first half. The 100 total points broke the record set by Tennessee-Rutgers, two defensive-minded teams, in the 2007 title game, won by the Lady Vols, 59-46, for a total of 105 points.

"It was a really strange game," said Summitt, who watched on television. "It was not what we expected it to be, but I think both teams played really solidly defensively and offensively Connecticut in that second half found a way to make shots.

"I thought both teams were a little overanxious at the beginning. Obviously, Stanford really struggled offensively and UConn did the first half. I thought in the second half they really settled down. It wasn't the kind of game that I expected. I thought it would be nip and tuck all the way to the end. Both teams played defense."

Brewer also watched the game and enjoyed it.

"I thought it was a really good game," Brewer said. "It wasn't a good game shooting percentage-wise, but I think it was a good game to see what could happen. I think for the halves they just switched. Stanford was doing a good job contesting their shots and then the second half UConn was getting all the shots and Stanford wasn't."

Brewer watched some of the NCAA tourney but not all of it after Tennessee bowed out, "because I have been studying like no other," she said. It did cross her mind that the Lady Vols could have been competing on that stage had they not gotten away from their game plan against Baylor.

"Every game I watched I definitely thought about that," Brewer said. "That could of, should of, would of been us. Any game I watched during the year if it's a team we're going to play or we have the opportunity to play, I try to see what their weaknesses are and what we can do and our strengths compared to theirs. I did that (Tuesday) night as well."

Stanford last won a national title in 1992 and had one there for the plucking had it been able to muster some second-half offense after leading at halftime, 20-12, with UConn shooting 17.2 percent (5-29) in the first 20 minutes of the game. The Cardinal, which had a field goal percentage of 46.3 percent for the season, shot 26.5 percent in the title game.

Summitt knows the thrill of winning on that stage and the agony of falling short and intends to talk to Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer.

"I thought about calling her (Tuesday) night but then I thought, ‘She's not going to want to talk,' " Summitt said. "I'll call her in the next day or two. We had talked prior to her getting to the Final Four."

Tennessee hasn't been to a Final Four since 2008 – the Lady Vols won back-to-back titles in 2007 and 2008 – and the players, especially the rising juniors, know the clock is ticking.

They also know that titles are won in the off-season, and Brewer said she actually now enjoys the drills that Heather Mason has created for the team.

A year ago, Mason's orders were to sort out the competitors and determine who would fight. That answer turned out to be all of them, as the team stayed intact and went from a 22-11 record and first round loss in 2009 to a 32-3 season and double SEC titles and the Sweet 16 in 2010.

This year, Mason is also making them better basketball players and is using an assortment of props – bike handlebars, weighted grocery carts, monster truck tires, weight stacks, tackling dummies, sandbags and medicine balls – to achieve her objectives.

"We did ‘Iron Will and all of that (a year ago), but now we're focusing on things we can get better at, such as footwork technique, defense and fundamentals," Brewer said. "That's really going to help us out, especially with Heather and the creativity that she has."

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