Sophomore makes strides

Kamiko Williams sets up a play at practice Monday

It's quieter at practice for Kamiko Williams this season – and that's a good thing and she wants to keep it that way. The sophomore guard is raising Pat Summitt's ire less and one year after Williams questioned if she was ready to contribute as a freshman she knows her team needs her to produce on both ends.

"Definitely," Kamiko Williams said. "I definitely can see that and my teammates reassure me, too, especially Angie (Bjorklund). She tells me all the time, ‘Miko, I need you out there.' She helps me. Stuff like that helps motivate me as well, just hearing it from my teammates more so than the coaches."

The coaches wanted to fast-forward the process as quickly as they could with the 5'11 guard, but Williams had major leaps to make in college. She arrived at Tennessee a year ago with beaucoup athletic skills and limited knowledge of a team system. In high school in Clarksville, Tenn., she was her team's offensive weapon but was not asked to play much defense. Her job was to get the ball and score.

That approach won't work in college and especially for Coach Pat Summitt, who insists that her players learn and execute defensive schemes. Williams was basically starting from scratch on defense and also learning how to play with four other people on offense.

She has made strides from freshman to sophomore year, and those have been noted by Summitt, along with a directive to shore up her defensive habits.

"Her pull-up game, she can score, she can get to the paint," Summitt said. "I think she is playing better and communicating better with her teammates. There is no question her offensive skills are ahead of her defensive skills."

The next step for Williams is to sustain her energy, and she has tried to improve on that aspect of the game by making fewer trips to McDonald's and Taco Bell and making sure to eat lunch before practice.

"I am eating a whole lot better," said Williams, who has started making homemade meals such as spaghetti and tuna and hamburger dishes with pasta. "I am laying off the Taco Bell. I am laying off McDonald's. Even though I really want some. And I've been eating lunch and I've kind of been eating breakfast. Sometimes (last season) I didn't eat lunch before practice."

The freshman Williams didn't always take time for lunch. The sophomore Williams realizes she needs that fuel before every practice. A year ago it was fairly common for practice to be halted by loud shouts of "Miko!" from Summitt, but those incidents have definitely decreased. Williams also has joined the slipstream of her teammates.

"I am trying to keep it that way," Williams said. "I am trying to do everything I am supposed to do. I kind of like it."

Williams, like Glory Johnson, could be a shutdown defender for Tennessee. She has the athleticism and lateral speed needed to keep offensive players in front of her and the ability to strip ball handlers.

"I know that because the coaches tell me that all the time: ‘You and Glory, there should be no reason why anybody gets by you,' " Williams said. "And there should be no reason but once again it goes back to me having to buckle down when I'm tired. When I'm energized, I am all over the ball. But when I'm winded a little bit I see myself lagging (and say), ‘OK, Miko, get on the ball. Do the little things.' I am still trying to work on that.

"I talk to myself. Lately that's the thing that's been getting me through. I talk to myself all the time. Get intense."

Williams also has worked on her body language with help from Heather Mason and her teammates. When Williams gets tired, the shoulders slump and her head tilts sideways. Summitt is a stickler for focus, and Williams' appearance of inattention at those moments might as well be in neon lights.

Williams gets words of encouragement from Angie Bjorklund and warnings from Briana Bass as part of a shared agreement.

"We have this deal where I help her with her attitude and she helps me with my body language," Williams said. "I still need to work on my body language."

In return Williams reminds Bass to, figuratively speaking, keep her head up.

"Bree likes to get on herself a lot, like hard. I am like, ‘Bree, it's OK, you've got it. Just keep your composure. Just stay positive,' " Williams said. "Because I am a positive person. With me, ‘Miko, you're tilting your head. You look like you're tired. Tighten up.'

"Heather pointed that out. She said, ‘Miko, when your body language starts getting bad, you tilt your head to the side and your shoulders drop.' I didn't know I did it but she noticed it. Bree points it out all the time."

With so many upperclassmen and two freshmen who came in eager to compete there is nowhere to hide on the court. Any lack of effort, or perceived lack of effort, will be even more noticeable this season. Williams has embraced the two freshmen, Lauren Avant and Meighan Simmons, who are trying to stake their own claim to playing time.

"I look at it more of I need to keep my engine going so that they will keep theirs because we're upperclassmen and they look up to us," Williams said. "I try to help Lauren out a lot, especially at the point (by letting her know what Summitt prefers on the court).

"But I don't necessarily worry about who's going to get more minutes because if I start doing that I know I won't go out there and perform because I am going to be too worried about other things. I am just focused on my game and what I need to do to help this team win."

Williams has an irrepressible personality and is a go-to player for keeping her teammates loose. She also has an athletic skill set unmatched by any guard on the roster in terms of strength, quickness, leaping ability, silky-smooth jump shot and the ability to get to the rim.

The coaches want Williams to be ready at either the point or wing position, but regardless of where the coaches place her Williams is certain of one thing – they need her to score.

"I think what they are wanting, honestly, is just for me to be a scoring guard, scoring at the one or scoring at the two," Williams said. "They know either way it goes I can score. They love, especially Holly, running (a specific play) with me at the point because they know I can score off of it. They are looking for me to score whatever position I'm in.

"If you need me to play the two then I'll play the two. If you need me to run the point, I'm running the point. I am trying to learn everyone's position so that when game time comes if they throw me in a position I know what I am doing."

Williams was basically her team's offense before arriving at Tennessee and she had not had to learn set plays or decision-making beyond what she would do with the ball. Her freshman year meant learning how to fit into an offensive system and memorizing the terminology and specific plays.

"My comfort level is a whole lot better," Williams said. "A lot of the plays that we've been running so far are the plays I love (that involve screening action)."

Williams said some of the other sets require that "I am going to have to really buckle down and learn it, but I am really comfortable with the playbook so far."

So far in practice this season Williams has improved in finding open teammates in transition. A year ago she would sometimes take the ball into traffic – the coaches want her playing one on one but not one on three. That wasn't because she was selfish. It was because that was how she had always been told to play in the past.

In preseason, Williams has made better decisions in transition – either getting to the rim if she could beat the defense, stopping and popping from mid-range or finding a cutting post player if she is covered.

This year's team is deeper – though injuries and one transfer have nicked that depth – and intends to run. That is a style of play that fits Williams to a T.

"I love it when they run the floor and I've just got to pass it," Williams said. "I've just got to learn to come across half court because I do have a tendency to stay on the other side. Throw it ahead, score a layup and get back on defense, I love that."

Tennessee needs Williams to follow the offensive play because she can get on the boards if needed and if the Lady Vols set up full court pressure, Williams would be near the top. She has the skill set to be a defensive stopper, and the coaches are trying to embed that in her basketball repertoire.

"I think defensively she could be one of our better defenders," Summitt said. "She just gives in to fatigue. She's got to get over that, because it's mental. Physically with everything that Heather is doing there is no reason why she shouldn't be able to play extended minutes.

"I think she has (made improvements) but at times even (at Monday's practice) I had to say something to her. Sophomores shouldn't be having to be called out all the time. She's got to not give into fatigue. She's in shape."

Tennessee completed four consecutive days of practice Monday and will take off Tuesday before reconvening Wednesday.

"I thought they did well overall, got a lot of stuff in," Summitt said.

The team watched film and then practiced for a little more than one-and-a-half hours Monday. Summitt said the film session revealed that the defense "has got to get a lot better." The coaches deployed man and zone looks in Sunday's scrimmage. Summitt intends to play more man than season but wants to keep the zone handy. The Lady Vols have the depth and athletes now to play man and extend it.

"We do," Summitt said. "We're in better shape, and they're more committed."

Williams could play a key role in that regard, and the topic of defense has come up in phone calls with her father, U.S. Army Master Sgt. Vincent Williams, who has been in Afghanistan on a one-year deployment since last July. He should be able to come home for a brief break this January. Williams' father handles supply and logistics, so she is relieved that he is not in heavy combat areas.

"I miss him, but I know he's out of harm's way," Williams said.

The last call came over the weekend at about 1 a.m. Knoxville time because of the 15-hour time difference and trying to reconcile a student and a soldier's schedule.

"He does ask about basketball but the majority of the time he asks how I am doing in school and stuff," Williams said. "Growing up he always asked me about basketball and I'm like, ‘Dad, you never ask me about anything else,' so now he is trying to work on how's school, how's life and then we'll start talking about basketball.

"I talk to him about practice. I tell him all the stuff I need to work on so he can help me work on it, like fight through fatigue, especially on defense. Everybody gets juiced trying to playing offense but defense I need to work on."

Williams also has regular conversations on the court with Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick and Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss. Both want Williams to get up to speed as quickly as possible at the guard spots because of her ability to create and score.

"I love Mickie," Williams said. "She and Holly together are so funny. They are hilarious. I love Coach Mickie. She keeps it real with me. She is always positive. I love that about her, too."

Williams quickly answered when asked what area she had improved the most in since a year ago.

"It has to be my mindset," Williams said. "I still need to work on the fight through fatigue thing. I am not so much worried about, ‘Am I doing this right?' or ‘Am I doing this wrong?' or ‘Is Coach going to yell at me?'

"I can just go out there and go play, do what you can do, give it the best that you've got and go from there."

Williams had some breakout games last season, especially at South Carolina and against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. In both cases, Tennessee needed an offensive spark, and she supplied clutch scoring. She hopes to have a breakout season this year.

"I am looking forward to it, and I am hoping that's what happens," Williams said. "If I can just keep going in the direction I am going in now I think it will end up well."

SEC VIDEO COVERAGE: LSU's Van Chancellor is always entertaining at SEC Media Days. InsideTennessee.com has video clips of the head coach talking about senior guard Katherine Graham revealing that Chancellor's wife does all the work at home, his take on Mickie DeMoss returning to Tennessee and what he made the last time he cooked a meal.

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