Kamiko Williams arrived at Tennessee with an athlete's skill set after a peripatetic basketball career that began in Germany while her father was stationed there for the U.S. Army. Williams' attention span, by her own admission, could be measured without using all the ticks of a 60-second stopwatch.
Two sophomores have never been more different in temperament, but both seemed to have affected the other in a good way. Williams has become more serious, and Spani is inclined to laugh at her classmate's antics.
Both second-year players will be needed in the NCAA Tournament, which No. 1 seed Tennessee, 31-2, opens Saturday against No. 16 seed Stetson, 20-12, at 11:05 a.m. Eastern (ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network) in the first round of the Knoxville sub-regional.
Williams' increased focus was noticeable in the past two weeks, so much so that regular media observers pointed it out. Williams' body language, which can include twisting and shifting instead of standing even relatively still, looking around, twiddling her thumbs, staring at her shoes and generally having Coach Pat Summitt constantly wondering if the sophomore was paying attention, has improved remarkably.
During the coaches' instructions Thursday at Pratt Pavilion, Williams stood still on the sideline and then leaned in to intently watch the first group run the drill before she took the court.
"That is beautiful," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "All I say is that the proof is in the pudding. I believe when I see it (consistently), but she has (improved). She has practiced well.
"It's the maturity continuum. I think as people and players mature competitively, you're going to see more consistency. We're hoping that's what has happened. She's had a good week-and-a-half of practice overall."
Spani and Williams arrived on campus together, and since Faith Dupree transferred to Chattanooga, they are the team's only two sophomores.
Spani was ultra-serious and ultra-focused and carved out major minutes as a freshman with 16 starts until a debilitating case of turf toe curtailed her court time.
Williams, whose organized basketball experience had basically been no defense and shoot/score at will on offense, struggled at the college level. She had trouble absorbing the concepts on both sides of the ball and started just twice in her first year.
Both players are likely to come off the bench in the NCAA tourney – Williams backs up Meighan Simmons at point and Angie Bjorklund will return to the starting lineup after a late-season foot injury – but both also are expected to be in the regular rotation.
Spani, who averaged 21.0 minutes per game in the SEC tourney, plays on the wing. Williams, who averaged 17.0 minutes per game in Nashville two weeks ago, relieves at the point and two spot.
Summitt has known what she will get from Spani, who has deep three ball range and shot 60 percent (6-10) from behind the arc a year ago in the NCAA Tournament.
The head coach knew the potential of Williams – she can score off the bounce and has the capability to be a shutdown defender – and wanted to see it on a consistent basis. It remains a work in progress but the past two weeks were a big step for the sophomore.
"Every now and then the lights come on," Summitt said with a smile. "Let's hope they stay on."
Such was the change that Summitt rarely yelled Williams' name this past week in practice. There wasn't any real reason to – the sophomore was doing what she was supposed to on the court.
Williams smiled Friday in the locker room when she was told her change in demeanor was so noticeable.
"Pat was talking to me one day," Williams said. "We had this conversation about me being casual."
It's a message Williams also has gotten from Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick and Daedra Charles-Furlow, the team's director of character development, and some of her teammates.
The conversations have been ongoing for a while, so what was so different this time?
"I think maturity is kicking in, because I have been a lot more focused on and off the court," Williams said. "I find myself in class being more focused, too. I will just continue doing what I am doing and get better at it every day. I watch people like Syd and Angie who stay focused in practice."
Williams said she first changed her approach in the classroom – taking a page out of super student Sydney Smallbone's notebook – and then transferred that to practice. Her reasoning was that if she could make it work doing something she didn't particularly enjoy, such as going to class, then it would be easier on the court.
"Basketball is something I love to do," Williams said.
The results were immediate, and Williams noticed.
"Pat is off my back," Williams said. "Coach is relaxed, so I am relaxed. If I stay focused, it will stay like this."
Spani, who was sitting beside Williams and listening, let loose a big smile.
Spani, who has rarely, if ever, drawn Summitt's ire for lack of effort, knew this lesson before she arrived on campus, but all players learn on their own timetable. It doesn't mean Spani has never been in Summitt's crosshairs – she has, along with every teammate – but it wasn't for lack of focus.
Williams knows it's a big step forward, and she has to guard against any steps backwards. Her personality can be like those of kids in T-ball who drop their gloves and play in the infield dirt or track butterflies in the outfield.
"That is what I used to do when I was little," Williams said. "I played soccer and I would play with the grass when the ball wasn't near me.
"I am getting better. I'm getting somewhere. It's something I've got to work at every day. I just hope, like she said, the light stays on."
Bjorklund, a senior with the most experience on the team, said the coach also knows how and when to push buttons.
"Coach does a great job of breaking you down and building you up at the right time," Bjorklund said. "Pat will get on her, but it hasn't been as often, and I've noticed a lot more building up.
"She's also been playing better. After a year she's realized how serious it is and maybe she's realizing how much she wants to win and what it's going to take. The older you get, the more you understand what it takes to win."
This doesn't mean Williams will change her irrepressible spirit or Spani will suddenly cut loose. Shortly after the interview ended Williams was singing and dancing. Spani didn't jump up and join her, but she did smile.
"She definitely lightens the mood in the locker room, and it's a lot of fun," Spani said. "Bus rides, locker rooms, she's always goofing off, so it's a lot of fun."
"Taber puts up with me," Williams said. "She does a pretty good job of putting up with me. She knows how I am and every once in awhile she'll go, ‘Miko! Act right!!' I go, ‘OK, I'm sorry!'
She's like the big sister I probably would have had if my parents would have had a child before me. She calms me down. Bring it down a notch."
"She's focused when she wants to be and right now she knows that she's needed on this team because everybody is needed," Spani said. "We're going to need her. I think that's something that she's bought into."
Summitt has repeatedly mentioned her team's depth as a bonus in postseason and the desire to play pressure and full court defense when needed. Williams is tailor made for that role.
"She has grown, matured more," junior Shekinna Stricklen said. "She understands that this team really needs her. She knows that Pat has stayed on because this team needs her. She's like the best defensive player on this team. She can get to the basket on her own.
"She's a big part of this team. The coach knows it, and she knows it finally. We're all trying to keep that (light) on because we really need her."
If anyone knows the effect of Summitt telling a player that the team needed her, it would be Stricklen. Summitt confronted the under-performing Stricklen at a January practice and told her that she had to play like the All-American she was recruited to be at Tennessee.
Stricklen briefly pleaded her case and then fell silent and listened. Over the next six weeks, she improved in all statistical categories, was voted SEC Player of the Year by the coaches, earned MVP accolades at the conference tourney and made the WBCA All-Region team, along with Glory Johnson, making both players eligible for national All-American consideration.
"From that conversation I really turned it on," Stricklen said. "I am glad we had that talk. It feels great to be getting the awards. It just shows that I responded to her. I stepped up to her challenge.
"I am the type I don't like to get in trouble. I don't like getting yelled at. I really try to avoid that. When I get yelled at once I try not to make the same mistake, and I just want to respond."
Stricklen said she learned that lesson as a child after repeating mistakes and realizing her parents would get upset each time. She decided the best recourse was to change her behavior.
"I think I grew from that," Stricklen said. "I think I learned from being younger that I kept doing the same things over and over, and I still got in trouble with my mom and my dad."
Stricklen's parents will be in Knoxville for the opening rounds from Morrilton, Arkansas – always a good thing for Tennessee because the junior tends to be play well when they are around – and she will have Bjorklund back in the backcourt with her at the opening tip.
"She's a senior and she knows the game," Stricklen said. "Right off the bat she just knows what to do. She's been in this situation a lot. She's a shooter, and people are going to really focus on her from the get-go. They know she's our shooter, and that just opens it up for other people."
Summitt used the break between tourneys to hold some demanding practice sessions. She made it clear to the team that a strength was its numbers.
"I feel good about them in that we have great depth," Summitt said. "It's not like we're going in with six people that we're counting on (as in past tourneys). I think our depth is going to be key for us to rotate people and keep people fresh, provided they are taking care of what they've got to do.
"I think they're excited. I think they're focused."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Meighan Simmons, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 10 (13.7 points per game, 2.8 rebounds per game, 2.8 assists per game), hails from Cibolo, Texas, will be playing in her first NCAA Tournament game; Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 senior guard, No. 5 (11.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.1 apg), hails from Spokane Valley, Wash., returns to the starting lineup after coming off the bench following a foot injury, has made 16 of her last 18 three-pointers; Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 junior guard/forward, No. 40 (12.6 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.0 apg), hails from Morrilton, Ark., only Lady Vol to start all 33 games this season, tallied 10 double-doubles; Glory Johnson, 6'3 junior forward, No. 25 (11.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg), hails from Knoxville, Tenn., has held down the post position this season while other bigs recovered from injury; and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt junior center, No. 52 (6.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.2 blocks per game), hails from Atlanta, Ga., dealt with hip and lower back issues all season but still started 17 games and played in 28.
Cain had been mobile in practice all week until getting hit in the hip in practice Wednesday and tumbling to the court. Cain said the initial collision seemed to bother her hip more than the fall.
Cain's status is day to day, so if she doesn't start Saturday, Summitt might opt at the opening tip for Vicki Baugh, a 6'4 redshirt junior who had a very effective week of practice. She also is day to day because of ongoing issues from her two ACL surgeries.
Stetson Coach Lynn Bria is expected to start: Victoria McGowan, 5'5 sophomore guard, No. 30 (14.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.4 apg), hails from Inkster, Mich., MVP of the Atlantic Sun Tournament, sat out last season after transferring from Bowling Green; Tierra Brown, 5'7 senior guard, No. 3 (13.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.4 apg), hails from Orlando, Fla., selected to the Atlantic Sun All-Tournament Team, has connected on 47 treys this season, has tied a Stetson program record by playing in 118 career games; Sasha Sims, 6'0 freshman forward, No. 24 (9.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg), hails from Fayetteville, Ga., selected for Atlantic Sun All-Tournament Team, scored 24 points and grabbed 12 boards, both career highs, in tourney title game against Jacksonville, also hit first six 3-pointers in that game; Janelle Mills, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 34 (2.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg), hails from Wesley Chapel, Fla., has made 20 consecutive starts, played in all 32 games this season, tallied five blocks this season against USC Upstate; and Natasha Graboski, 6'3 senior center, No. 41 (10.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg), hails from Upper Sandusky, Ohio, scored a career-high 26 points this season against Youngstown State, sat out the 2008-09 season after transferring from Cincinnati, grandfather Joe Graboski played for 13 years in the NBA.
Bria said Friday in her press conference that her team would embrace the history at Tennessee but focus on the task at hand.
"While we appreciate the history of Tennessee and what they have done for women's basketball, and respect that a great deal, you can become overwhelmed by it if you don't break it down," Bria said. "I tell them, ‘We are not playing the history; we are playing this particular team, which is a very good team.' They're not a No. 1 seed for no reason. …
"We do have a great deal of respect for the history. You enter the state and you're talking about Tennessee women's basketball. We all have an appreciation for it. Most of these players weren't even born when they hung a lot of those banners so they shouldn't get caught up into that."
Brown said she would make it a point to look at the banners.
"I came in just wanting to take in the whole experience and take in Tennessee," Brown said. "I grew up being a Tennessee fan. I think it's better for me to come in and look at the banners and look at all the history.
"To just have the opportunity to beat the number one team, it gets me a little more pumped up for the game."
A full transcript of the press conference is available here.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Stetson game. Here is his assessment.
When Stetson has the ball: The Hatters are a perimeter-oriented team, according to Lockwood.
"They've got two very good scoring guards, (Victoria) McGowan and (Tierra) Brown," Lockwood said. "(Sasha) Sims got hot in the conference finals (from the arc). So she can shoot the ball. They are a little bit more perimeter-oriented than post-oriented.
"They are very good off the dribble drive. They set some ball screens, so it's kind of an old tune for us. We're going to have to defend dribble drivers and ball screens, primarily."
Defensively, it seems likely that the Hatters would deploy some zone looks because of the size inside of Tennessee, but it could also depend on which lineups the Lady Vols use.
"They play primarily man, but they do employ a 3-2 zone, and I could see them doing that," Lockwood said. "It's hard to know going into a game like this, because they haven't played a team like us in some time, so we don't know what they might pull out of their bag.
"We've been kind of preparing for everything and also things we might see down the line as well, because I think we'll see pressure, we'll see zone. So we've been really putting in a lot of things competitively that we're going to face potentially, but I could see this team mixing up their defenses on us."
The assistant coaches have to prepare ahead for what teams loom in the bracket. The Lady Vols have added several wrinkles in the past two weeks on both sides of the ball to tweak the offenses and hone the pressure defense.
When Tennessee has the ball: The concept of working from the inside-out was hammered home between tourneys because Pat Summitt knows she can't expect a team to shoot 76.2 percent behind the arc in the NCAA as Tennessee did in the SEC postseason title game.
Lockwood and the other coaches have emphasized that that doesn't mean the points have to be scored initially by the posts – just that Tennessee establish it can move the ball through the paint and force the defense to react. That way, the coaches get an early look at how a team intends to guard the bigs – single coverage, double teams or swarms.
Player and ball movement also create driving lanes or better perimeter shots for the guards and can open up a high-low game.
Tennessee also wants to set an up-tempo pace.
"We want to create transition points like we have done in the past," Lockwood said. "If we can force a faster tempo, create pressure, create points from our defense. We love that. We would love to get after these guys and really create some defense and points."
Defensively, that would indicate that Tennessee intends to extend its defense, but the Lady Vols likely would prefer to not have to unveil all their weapons in the first round.
"Some," Lockwood said. "In stretches we're going to experiment with it. We're going to see how they handle it."
"THE MIRACLE IN MACON:" Stetson's Victoria McGowan made ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 plays after her 55-foot heave at the buzzer swished through the net to beat Belmont, 48-46, in the semifinals of the Atlantic Sun tourney in Macon, Ga., on March 4.
"The shot was amazing," McGowan said. "I can't really explain it. Yes, people are still talking about the shot. We were up by two points with about 30 seconds left. Belmont got the ball out and got an and-one. The girl made the free throw with about 1.4 seconds on the clock.
"I got the ball out across the free throw line, took a dribble and shot it a little before half court, and we won."
Coach Lynn Bria said the shot caused her phone to blow up.
"You're at the lowest of lows and then the highest of highs after she made that shot. We were picked next-to-last in our league and nobody thought we would be any good. While I thought we had some pieces to be much better, I had no idea we would do what we're doing now and win the league.
"As far as a ripple effect, I think it has put Stetson on the map. It's amazing how many people watch ESPN and the Top 10 highlights. I had people I hadn't heard from in years calling me. It's amazing the exposure it has gotten for our program, for Stetson University and even for our conference. If we had just won that game in a normal way, nobody probably would've cared."
Sasha Sims, a freshman forward for Stetson, said the players got bunches of text messages and posts on their Facebook pages after the shot, in addition to the national attention.
"It has given us a lot of exposure and allowed us to let people know where we're from," Sims said.
Tennessee Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, who is from Bay City, Mich., saluted the shot by the Inkster, Mich., native.
"You dream of that," Lockwood said. "That's something when she's my age, when she's 51 years old, good Lord willing, she's going to be talking about that. She has created an incredible memory."
CLOSE TO HOME: Sasha Sims hails from Fayetteville, Ga., so she will have some familiar faces in the stands Saturday as she expects 15-20 family members and friends to make the trip to Knoxville.
"Tennessee is a good spot to be in," Sims said of Stetson's sub-regional.
The freshman forward played in the same AAU program, Georgia Metros, as Tennessee's Kelley Cain and Alicia Manning, who are both from the Atlanta area, but wasn't on the same team – although she did practice with them sometimes – because she was two years younger.
"Growing up in Georgia you get exposed to a lot of good players, and they are both great players," Sims said.
Sims said she was well aware of Tennessee's tradition, especially having grown up in a border state, but the team wasn't focusing on that.
"No matter where we play we're always the underdog so we always come out and go hard," Sims said. "We respect Tennessee's tradition, but at the same time we're worried about us. We are excited. It's a big stage to play on, and it's time to show what you're made of and what you're going to do.
"It will be good for us to get Stetson's name out there and that we're trying to set our own tradition."
LONGEST TRIP: The longest route to Knoxville, albeit one a few years in the making, was that of Stetson's Mairead McNally, a junior guard from Belfast, N. Ireland.
McNally made it to Deland, Fla., to play for Stetson after first stopping off in Nebraska. Her coach in Belfast was originally from Iowa and had a brother who lived in Norfolk, Neb., the location of Northeast Community College.
She took a year away from her university to play basketball in Nebraska at the junior college, performed well and was asked back to the team. After a second successful season, McNally received Division I interest and selected Stetson because of its location in Florida and academic programs.
McNally is majoring in biology and will return to her home country for post-graduate work after her Stetson career is completed.
She was knowledgeable about basketball in the United States and already knew about Tennessee's first round loss to Ball State in 2009 and she mentioned Harvard, a 16 seed, defeating Stanford, a one seed, in 1998.
McNally also was aware of Tennessee's tradition and was excited to draw Knoxville as the team's destination in the tourney.
"It's really cool," McNally said. "Tennessee is the pinnacle of women's college basketball. A lot of people at home are very jealous of me right now. I am just enjoying it."
McNally said she would enjoy the atmosphere and then focus on the game instead of the banners draped at the top of the arena.
"Don't think about," McNally said. "It's five of us, five of them on the court at one time. Just play our game and play hard. Enjoy the journey and see where it takes us. There's nothing to lose."
SPACE TRAVEL: Glory Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen and Angie Bjorklund were the player representatives for the NCAA press conference on Friday, and they were asked about fan support.
"A while ago, we were joking about if we had a game on a different planet, would we have any fans there?" Johnson said. "We said we would have at least one carload. We'd make it there, and we'd have at least one carload. And everyone would be wearing an orange shirt.
"That shows how dedicated our fans are. They just put so much effort into coming and watching us play. They get so excited to see us out there. Even in the past when we've lost, they still come and support us. You can see them at every game. In the SEC Tournament, we had so many fans in orange shirts and we were I don't know how close to Vanderbilt. Tennessee fans still swamped the entire place.
"We just have to be as dedicated as they are. We've put so much into the game of women's basketball, and they've been there to support us. I think we have to represent for Tennessee just because of that."
Bjorklund answered in a similar vein and added that Pat Summitt often points out the fans to them.
"I totally agree with Glory and Angie," Stricklen said. "They took my answers. Just like they said, it doesn't matter where we play, they're going to be there."
A full transcript of the press conference is available here.
HEADSTRONG: Marquette Coach Terri Mitchell was an entertaining presence on the dais Friday during the media press conference as she discussed her concussion this season and shopping with Pat Summitt 15 years ago.
The concussion made SportsCenter after Mitchell's head snapped back when she looked up just as a deflected ball headed at high speed to the sideline.
"We had just run a play three minutes into the second half (against West Virginia on Jan. 11)," Mitchell said. "We ran a beautiful play, but we missed the layup. I'm turning to Cara (Consuegra) who calls our offensive sets and I said to her, ‘I want to run that play again.' And as I'm saying it, she says, ‘Heads up.'
"She should've said ‘Fore,' like on the golf course. When she said heads up, I looked. The ball got deflected, nailed me and I snapped my head back and I was out. My staff thought I was hamming it up for a second, and I really wasn't.
"When they were asking me my name and I was going, ‘Yes. No. Yes. No.' They knew that I was done. Cara took over and to this day I'm convinced she planned it when she said heads up because she coached the rest of the game against West Virginia and the team did fantastic."
The text message Mitchell got from her older brother, who saw the footage on television, said: "Down goes Frazier."
Although Mitchell told a humorous tale Friday, she also ended up writing an article about concussions and developed a "newfound respect" for head injuries and associated protocols in place for athletes.
Mitchell first encountered Tennessee and Pat Summitt in her rookie season at Marquette when the two schools met at a Thanksgiving tournament, the Howard Bank Classic in Burlington, Vt., in 1996.
Summitt was seeking her 600th win. Mitchell needed her first. She happened to run into Summitt, who was shopping for clothes, the day before the game, and decided to strike up a conversation.
"I asked her, ‘What would you tell me?' " Mitchell said. "She said ‘Keep a player's perspective. Stay away from the three Ps: Your press, your peers and your parents."
Mitchell smiled and apologized for the remark about the press and continued with her story.
"The press is going to focus on an aspect of a story," she said, recounting Summitt's words. "Parents are always forever going to be parents so they love their kid. Peers are going to tell you what you want to hear, but nobody knows the real deal except those of you that are in that gym every day, working day in and day out, getting it done.
"I give that speech every year. She has no idea that I do give that, but it was one of those nuggets of wisdom that at 28, I needed to hear and I got it. I took it and tucked it away. I'm sure she has a little bit more wisdom 15 years later so I should ask her for something else I can use."
Tennessee won that game, 83-68, behind 24 points and 15 rebounds from Tiffani Johnson. Mitchell now has 296 wins at Marquette.
A full transcript of the press conference is available here.
Marquette plays Texas in the second game Saturday at approximately 1:30 p.m. Eastern.
"I have great respect and admiration for Terri," Texas Coach Gail Goestenkors said. "She's been a good friend of mine for a long time and she does a fantastic job. It's going to be a great game, and I'm sure it's going to be a tremendous atmosphere because the Tennessee fans always come out strong. We are really looking forward to it."
A full transcript of the Texas press conference is available here.
WAKEUP CALL: Tennessee's players said they were eager for a basketball game after two weeks spent tangling with each other on the court, but not all of them are morning people and tipoff time is 11:05 a.m.
"I will be," junior Glory Johnson said with a smile when asked if she would be ready for an early start. "I'll go to sleep maybe at 10, 9 o'clock."
Kelley Cain looked a little bleary-eyed in the locker room for the media segment of the day but fellow Georgian Alicia Manning said she would make sure the 6'6 center was alert.
"I'll get a water gun and squirt her," Manning said.
For Manning, the 2009 Ball State loss when she was a freshman is history, but the result is that she would never look ahead again.
"It's long gone," Manning said, "(but) people have asked, ‘What dates are you playing (in Dayton).' I said, ‘I'm playing on Saturday at 11 o'clock, and I don't care about any other time but that.' "
Cain, who was hobbled in that 2009 game and couldn't play in the second half, said the Lady Vols would never overlook any team.
"We have no room to do that," Cain said. "Even watching the guys play (in opening games Thursday) you see that anybody could win on any given day. We take it one game at a time. We are not worried about anybody else in our bracket but Stetson right now.
"We are just ready to get this ball rolling."
ODDS AND ENDS Tennessee leads the series with Stetson, 4-0. The Lady Vols are 3-0 home, including a 102-59 win on Dec. 3, 1987, the first game ever played at Thompson-Boling Arena. The 97-62 road win came Jan. 9, 1989, in Deland, Fla., a homecoming game for All-American Bridgette Gordon, who later served as an assistant coach for the Hatters from 2001 to 2006. … Tennessee is 5-0 in games played on March 19. The last win on this date was against Army, 102-54, in 2006. The first win on March 19 was against Memphis, 78-63, in 1982. … Pat Summitt's record at Tennessee in the NCAA tourney is 106-21. The Lady Vols received the program's 21st No. 1 seed, the most of any program. Next is Connecticut with 14 and Louisiana Tech with 10, followed by Duke with eight, Stanford with seven, and North Carolina, Texas and Old Dominion with five each. Tennessee is the only team to receive an invitation to all 30 NCAA tourneys with 15 automatic bids and 15 at-large.
Glory Johnson before practice this week
Meighan Simmons before practice this week
It was stipulated that defense and board play were Pat Summitt's givens as keys for Saturday's game. A few players in the Lady Vols locker room offered a few more Friday.