It’s been a long time coming for Vicki Baugh, who graduated last May with a degree in psychology and is now working on a master’s degree in sports psychology. This is her fifth year on campus because the Sacramento, Calif., native tore the ACL in her left knee in the NCAA championship game of her freshman year in 2008, re-tore it in February of 2009 in her sophomore year and then needed a third surgery in January 2010 – she missed the entire 2009-10 season – to clean up meniscus damage.
Baugh, a 6-foot-4 athletic forward who can handle the ball and play in the paint, played during the 2010-11 season but still experienced pain and limitations. Jenny Moshak, the team’s chief of sports medicine, told Baugh that she would finally feel better before the 2011-12 season.
“I feel great,” Baugh said Thursday after her second workout session of the week with the coaches at Pratt Pavilion. “I feel back to normal. I am pretty close to 100 percent. With all honesty I haven’t been feeling any pain in my knee the whole summer. I got the time to rest and then a lot of pickup and getting back in the court.”
The keys were the passage of time to fully heal from three knee surgeries and complete rest – Baugh took several weeks off in late spring and then hit the weight room and played pickup with Moshak’s blessing.
Baugh spent the summers of 2008, 2009 and 2010 on restrictions in terms of court work and weights/conditioning sessions. She finally got turned loose in the summer of 2011.
“I was busting it in the weight room all summer,” Baugh said. “Heather Mason busted me up, and we busted that leg up, and it’s been feeling great ever since. I definitely feel the difference. This summer really paid off – all the work in the weight room and the pickup. It really paid off.
“My knee feels completely back to normal. My confidence shot up huge. And once you have your confidence you don’t really feel like anything can stop you. My knee hasn’t been a problem, I am feeling great, I am proud of my team, and it’s going to be a fun year.”
Assistant coach Dean Lockwood also has noted the improved mobility of Baugh.
“I’ve noticed, too,” Lockwood said. “It’s the best that I’ve seen in three years. I think Jenny at one point had told her, ‘There is going to be a point where you just feel it’s good, and you can trust it, and it’s healthy.’ Every time I see her move and do stuff I am like, ‘Man, is that good to see.’ ”
Lockwood, who often works with the posts in practice, has spent the past season not knowing day to day which bigs would be cleared to play. Kelley Cain’s availability was dependent on her pain tolerance for knee and hip issues; Alyssia Brewer missed the first half of the season because of Achilles tendon surgery and then was limited during her comeback; and Baugh was rusty after being off the court for 19 months.
“Vicki was tenuous at best,” Lockwood said. “We knew Kelley (was limited). We would watch her at a shoot-around, and I really had my eyes peeled and I would tell Pat, ‘She doesn’t have it today,’ and then there would be days I would tell Pat, ‘She is moving great.’ We would not know (on game day) until 3 o’clock in the afternoon. That’s no fun.”
Cain dealt with daily pain – it wasn’t until after the season that she publicly acknowledged how much — and Lockwood said on the days that it was determined Cain could not go, he could tell just by watching her try to make a basic basketball move, such as pushing off her foot to the basket, which caused pain to shoot into her hip.
It was that chronic pain that caused Cain to decide to forego her fifth year of eligibility — she missed the 2007-08 season to rehab from kneecap realignment surgery — and graduate with her original senior class of Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone.
Baugh, the fourth member of that class, is back for her final year. She is also now the only player on the roster who has been to a Final Four. Baugh was a key player off the bench in Tennessee’s 2008 national championship season and played her best game in the title matchup against Stanford.
“This team, in all honesty, this team feels like a championship team,” Baugh said. “I am getting feelings like I had my freshman year and that’s always good. I haven’t really felt that since my freshman year, the only national championship team, but this team I kind of got that same feeling that we can do great things and we can dominate like we did then, if not better.
“We’re hungry. We want it a lot. It would be great to leave the way I came in. (The seniors) haven’t been, and I am not satisfied with just one. That was a long time ago. I want to celebrate again.”
A healthy Baugh would be a major difference because her presence in the paint on defense – along with a healed Brewer this season – means Glory Johnson could finally be unleashed to guard on the perimeter.
Tennessee also will get help inside from freshman forward/center Isabelle Harrison, who has veterans ahead of her but will need experience this season with Johnson, Brewer and Baugh departing next spring.
“Izzy is awesome,” Baugh said. “She’s got that tall, lanky frame. She can jump out of this world. She is very versatile. She will be able to score from the low block to the free throw line, short corner. Tough to guard. It was fun playing with her in pickup. She runs the floor really well.”
Harrison had a good session Thursday and played with poise during drills. She was initially rattled Tuesday when she didn’t realize until minutes before she took the court that the coaches ran the individual workouts. Harrison seemed more at ease for the second workout of the week.
“That is so Izzy, too,” Lockwood said. “She is so wide-eyed and innocent but it’s not naivety as much as she is very open and innocent about, ‘Hey, what do I need to do?’ We love her spirit that way because she is so receptive. She has been very good. I have really liked what I’ve seen.”
Harrison’s teammates said last summer during the Women’s Pilot Rocky Top League that Harrison would respond well to coaching and Lockwood’s energy and positive attitude.
She responded immediately to his directive to keep the ball up and extended and fixed her mechanics on the next repetition.
“She’s running and sealing really well, too” Lockwood said. “She is seeking out the contact and doing a good job of leveraging and moving her feet. So right now I am very pleased with her growth and progress. Obviously there is stuff we want to polish up, but I am pleased with her the first week.”
Harrison joined the session with Baugh and Brewer. Johnson, who was given an extra week of rest after playing in August with the USA team– and teammate Shekinna Stricklen — at the World University Games in China, will join the post group next Tuesday.
The two other freshmen, guard Ariel Massengale and forward Cierra Burdick, also have been put in groups with veterans. Stricklen will join Massengale’s group next Tuesday — which also includes Briana Bass and Meighan Simmons — while Burdick has been on the court with Taber Spani and Alicia Manning.
Simmons has been impressed with the freshman in her group in Massengale.
“She has the gift of speed,” Simmons said. “Cierra, with her size, Izzy, with her size, they all bring so much positive energy. Freshmen come in and they’re hungry, they’re excited and ready to play. With them being excited I think they’re really going to help us, especially early on.”
Tennessee will seek contributions throughout the roster – 11 are cleared to play with the 12th, junior guard Kamiko Williams, recovering from ACL surgery – and has a challenging regular season schedule with two Final Four teams in Stanford and Notre Dame, both of which are road games. Baylor, a Final Four team in 2009 and 2010 that lost to eventual 2011 national champ Texas A&M in a regional final, comes to Knoxville in late November.
“It is wicked,” Lockwood said. “New York and then the West Coast swing. You look at it and you say, ‘Man, there are a couple of these stretches where we need to play awfully well.’ Otherwise, you could get hit once, twice, three times and be spinning around the ring.
“I don’t think our players can look at that schedule and not be motivated. That is very motivating to me.”
In December the Lady Vols will go coast-to-coast with games against DePaul in New York at Madison Square Garden and Rutgers in New Jersey followed by a trip to California to play UCLA and Stanford.
“I get to go home again,” said Baugh, who is from Northern California. “We have a cool schedule this year. I actually have family in New York now. My cousin is going to school out there. So I’ll have family in New York and in California. I am really looking forward to it.”
The first game is more than two months away so, for now, the emphasis is on court work and individual instruction.
“I think there are a couple of things – skill development and offensive concepts right now,” Lockwood said. “We are going to hit some defense very soon as well. With (groups) you’re not going to get the mass schemes in, but what you really can get in are concepts.
“We’re working on using ball screens and post transition, getting concepts of how we play, fundamentals of position play, fundamentals of offensive action conceptually, so that when we get into (full team sessions) we don’t have to take extra time to teach a lot of stuff.”
The sessions also have included dribbling and passing drills – fundamental components of basketball but important foundations.
“You look at our stats and you realize those are two areas that we can improve a ton in – our ball-handling, our passing, our decision-making, ability to read defenses,” Lockwood said. “We’re trying to eliminate the unforced or needless turnovers that occur from mental mistakes. Those are conceptual and fundamental things that we are trying to address.”
The players have expressed the fact that they are happy to be on the court. Last week they learned that Coach Pat Summitt had early onset dementia. The coach told the team as a group after Johnson and Stricklen returned from China and then said the focus remained on cutting down nets.
Summitt participated in the workouts this week the same as she has in previous seasons – observing, taking notes and talking one-on-one with players.
“Even with all the news basketball is our priority,” Baugh said. “Pat is still the same. She’s a great coach, and I don’t notice any difference. Basically we got informed about something we didn’t know about, but everything feels the same to me.”