Practice starts next week for Lady Vols

Glory Johnson (Danny Parker photo)

The Lady Vols held their final workout of September on Tuesday and will report next week for the official start of practice with a team that seems ready to run.

The players have a conditioning session scheduled for early Wednesday morning with Heather Mason and then will be turned loose for the rest of the week for fall break. It's the first time the players get an extended fall break – an indication of the trust the coaches have in their veteran team – and the players will take advantage of it by taking trips home.

Even Glory Johnson, who is from Knoxville, will take advantage of the free time by getting out of town.

"I am going to go see my sister in Cincinnati," Johnson said. "I will spend four days with her and then come back."

Johnson, who is now working on a master's degree after earning a bachelor's in three years, will have to be ready to work in the paint this season. Johnson is the most experienced returning post player and has been a workhorse the past three seasons because of injuries. Her nickname has been "Lonesome Post," because there were many occasions at practice when she was the only paint player cleared to participate.

"I have friends now," Johnson said with a smile after the workout session at Pratt Pavilion.

She was referring to freshman Isabelle Harrison, whose rapid development has been a pleasant surprise to the coaching staff, and fifth-year player Vicki Baugh, who has All-American ability but has been hobbled for the past two seasons by knee issues – she had two ACL surgeries and took a redshirt year and then played sparingly last season because of pain.

The post depth took a hit this past month when Coach Pat Summitt announced that rising senior Alyssia Brewer would leave the program. Brewer apparently is headed to UCLA and because the Pac 12 institution is on a quarter system rather than semesters, she could be able to enroll in early October.

"I think we just have to pick it up a little bit," Johnson said. "Lyssi was a powerful player. She was a big presence in the post. Having Izzy, though, Izzy has gotten a lot stronger since she's been here, and Vicki Baugh has always been strong.

"Without Lyssi, Vicki knows that she has to play a bigger role and forget about the knee pain and be able to play through pain and pick up the slack. I think we have a powerful presence in the post anyway."

The good news for the Lady Vols is that Baugh has reported her knee has been pain-free this preseason. But it's a long season and lengthier practices begin soon so it's a situation that Baugh will have to monitor.

Baugh has looked noticeably stronger and more mobile this preseason.

"Vicki looks really good to me," Johnson said, who added that Baugh has not had any issues or limitations.

"Not at all," Johnson said. "Not in the weight room, not in conditioning, not in practice."

The three remaining posts are not classic centers – though Baugh is 6'4 – but all three are agile in the paint and speedy in the open floor.

Johnson has been the stalwart inside for the Lady Vols, and she is ready for a major role in her final season.

"I am going to have to pick it up for sure, be a lot more confident when I play and forget about who's on the floor, who's not on the floor, know that we have a job to do," Johnson said.

The month of September was used for individual sessions for the first two weeks and team workouts for the final two weeks. The NCAA allows two hours of court time per week, and the coaches took advantage of it.

"I am pretty happy," Johnson said. "Every once in a while we'll stumble with communication lapses, but as a whole I didn't expect as much coming out of the freshmen."

Several players were scattered about this summer – though Harrison attended both sessions and was on campus all summer – with freshmen Ariel Massengale and Cierra Burdick playing USA basketball on the U19 team in Chile, while Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen played for the USA at the World University Games. It meant the full team didn't assemble until late August when Johnson and Stricklen returned from China.

"We were gone all summer," Johnson said. "We weren't together and normally everyone is here. I expected us to be not where we are at right now, so it's kind of surprised me how together we have played and how on the same page we are already."

When asked what the team accomplished in the month of September, Johnson said, "I think playing together with confidence. Everyone worked on ball handling. Everyone worked on posting up. I think we are all putting everything together, and everyone is working on the same thing. I think our confidence level has gone up a lot."

A new NCAA rule put in place a year ago allows teams to start practice 40 days before the first regular season game. The coaches like the extra time on the court and will start full-scale practice on Oct. 5.

"We love it," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said.

Tennessee mixed up individual and team drills in September with the goal being to form a cohesive group by the start of practice.

"I think it will prepare us," Warlick said. "When they come into practice they'll have organization to them both offensively and defensively. I love where they're at."

That is especially important as Tennessee expects Massengale, a freshman point guard, to play a major role in her first year. She is soft-spoken off the court but turns into a vocal presence once she steps over the line.

"All three (freshmen) have been very receptive," Warlick said. "They've been very coachable. They work hard. I've been impressed. We know what Ariel can do. Just today with some up-and-down (the court) things, she has shown me she's going to be a very good point guard in this program.

"She leads by example and she is a vocal leader on the floor. When you get her off the court, she's a little quiet, which is fine.

"Burdick is playing well and picking things up. Probably the biggest surprise is Izzy. She's get better and better. It's been amazing to see how hard she works and she's taking the drills and putting them over in a game situation."

A year ago the coaches were asked about a roster of 14 players and trying to determine a rotation. Practice next week will start with 10 players while the 11th, Kamiko Williams, continues her rehab from ACL surgery last July.

"I don't know what the magic number is," Warlick said. "If you have 14, you work with 14. I like 10, but you always run a risk of if there's injuries it can get you in a tight spot."

Warlick is comfortable with the post trio of Harrison, Baugh and Johnson.

"No question," Warlick said. "They are three athletic, versatile posts. They can post up. They can step out. They can drive. Izzy had a great drive to the basket today. Vicki rebounded, dribbled up the length of the floor and made a pass for a layup. They are very athletic.

"You're going to see a team that's more physical, that's quicker, that's faster. We're going to press a little bit more and we're going to get after it on the defensive end. If we didn't do that then we're not doing our job, because that's our strength – athletic ability and being physical.

"We're not having to wait for people to get down the floor this year. We haven't in practice so far."

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