Tennessee coach Pat Summitt had to wait for her talented Lady Volunteers to develope into championship contenders.
And Summitt isn’t a patient woman when it comes to winning.
“It was at times very frustrating for our coaching staff,” Summitt said. “At the same time, we knew it would be a process for them to get in the gym.”
The work has paid off. The players who were a part of Tennessee’s 2009 first-round loss and last year’s regional semifinal loss as a No. 1 seed have grown up. Now they understand what it takes to reach a Final Four and chase Tennessee’s ninth national championship.
“I think the real key to it is the maturity,” Summitt said. “As freshmen it was very, very challenging. As sophomores, they grew, but they still weren’t at the level where every game you knew they were going to bring our ‘A’ game and the opponent was going to get our best shot. We couldn’t fast forward that process.”
The Lady Vols (31-2) again earned a No. 1 seed this season after an undefeated run through the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament. Their attempt to reach the national semifinals in Indianapolis begins Saturday in Knoxville with 16th-seeded Stetson.
The team is anchored by their junior class, a group of McDonald’s high school All-Americans who were expected to fill the shoes of Candace Parker, Nicky Anosike and others who won back-to-back national championships in 2007-08.
Those players clearly had the talent but did not seem to listen to Summitt when she told them as freshmen that they couldn’t just put on the Tennessee uniform and expect to win championships.
“As a freshman, I just kind of did what I wanted to with my game,” junior forward Glory Johnson said. “I didn’t really put in too much extra time. I just felt like I could do this with talent, and clearly it didn’t work. You have to put in extra work outside of practice. You have to take your game seriously all of the time.”
That lesson started immediately after the first-round loss to Ball State in the 2009, the first time a Lady Vols team had ever lost on the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Summitt was so angry she forced the team to return to practice as soon as they returned to Knoxville.
The message? Spend some more time in the gym working on your game.
“It took them a couple of years to buy into that concept and kind of embrace the game for themselves,” Summitt said. “Going into this junior year, it’s been a tremendous difference in what the players are willing to invest.”
The team has spent the past two offseasons going through grueling workouts with strength and conditioning coach Heather Mason and now use their free time during the season getting extra shots in at the practice gym.
That committment has helped the team develop the depth and extra skills that helped the Lady Vols go undefeated in Southeastern Conference play this season and win the SEC tournament championship.
“I think the thing about this team is if someone is not having a good game or is in foul trouble, our depth is really key,” Summitt said. “I think it really brings a lot of confidence throughout the team to know that we have a lot of options.”
The confidence also comes from the bond the players have developed through the ups and downs of their career. The Lady Vols have found they can talk frankly with each other about their struggles, mistakes and losses while managing to stay positive about the team.
“It sounds really cliche, but we definitely are like sisters,” junior forward Alyssia Brewer said. “We do anything and everything—movies, bowling, go-karting, whatever. Most of us live with each other. It’s like you have your own family here.”
Despite the maturity and confidence, the Lady Vols still occasionally have some lapses. Turnovers have frequently been a problem, and sometimes player resort to taking bad shots instead of focusing on defense to get the job done.
Every so often there’s a lapse in the Lady Vols’ effort and attitude during practice, but it doesn’t take quite as much for Summitt to get the team back on track.
“It works a whole lot better when they have leadership and make other people accountable,” she said. “We’ve been pretty good at that all year, we just had a couple of lapses.”