March 10, 2010

The Comeback Team: Lady Vols

As UConn takes a few days off to rest after winning the Big East tournament last night, women's basketball teams continue to play to determine who will go to the NCAA tournament. The unbeaten Huskies await their subregional and regional assignments, as do the Lady Vols of Tennessee, who some say may be the team who faces UConn in the finals during the NCAA tournament.

Since no one's been able to beat UConn, there are lots of discussions going on about what it would take. Notre Dame played a good first half against UConn in the Big East tournament that showed some of the Huskies' vulnerabilities. It's a tape many coaches will be watching.

But what about the Lady Vols? What's happened to a team that didn't make it past the first round last year in the NCAA tournament, losing to Ball State?

Simply put, they grew up. They spent the spring and summer conditioning themselves (photos here) and practices honing their basketball IQ, team communication and overall skill level. They're at a point where they are starting to coach themselves and, more importantly, they can go the distance physically and mentally.

The Lady Vols are now a comeback team. Simply put, they find a way to win. Consisting entirely of sophomores and freshmen except for juniors Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone, their growth over the season is impressive. They have good size and a roster of McDonald All-Americans to help them along.

Freshman Kamiko Williams, instrumental in their SEC tournament win game against Kentucky, has the ability to do much more. Hampered by a turf toe, Taber Spani's contributions have been somewhat limited, but she scores key points when playing and is another freshman who makes the team's bench deep.

So what about the sophomores? There's Alicia Manning, a sophomore who won the MVP award from the SEC tournament. Manning became a starter late in the season and is starting to rack up double-double stats in scoring and rebounding. Kelly Cain, Glory Johnson and Strickland are also sophomores with great athleticism who make clutch plays. Brewer's play continues to improve, providing more depth. Bass has quickness when she comes off the bench.

The Lady Vols are a team that wins by rebounding and playing good defense. Then there are the individual skills of team members. When Bjorklund is shooting hot, her 3 point baskets can drive the momentum of a game. Cain and Brewer have the size to block and score easily. Johnson's athleticism results in easy baskets that are pretty to watch. Strickland is not as consistent as she will eventually be, but when she has a breakout game, it speaks for itself.

All of this could help the Lady Vols beat UConn, but I'd bet that their biggest asset is the one the Lady Vols didn't ask for and probably Coach Summitt has found hardest to deal with: their innate ability to stay in close games and get a win. I'm sure the coach would have liked to see more games where the team pulled out ahead in scoring, but there's one thing we know from this season: this team doesn't quit. They'll keep playing even when the score doesn't favor them.

And the main reason for that may be someone who is sitting on the bench. I haven't mentioned Amber Gray, who isn't playing this season due to recovering from brain surgery last summer. In many ways, however, the bonding that happened within the team because of Amber may be one of the single most important factors behind the Lady Vol's continuing growth, both as individuals and as a team. Amber has sat on the bench at home games. She's led the cheers from the bench. She's an example of how athletes should never take for granted the chances they have to play- as well as an example of how to deal with adversity and how to make a comeback.

Carpe diem is a word that comes to mind for a team that threw away a shot at the NCAA tournament last year, only to have a team member face such a serious medical situation. Courage is another word when watching Amber walk out of the rehab center weeks early wearing her Lady Vols colors. Persistence and discipline are other words, as Amber did her physical rehab on the sidelines as the team practiced this year.

All of this will be running through the minds of the Lady Vols' players as they take the court in the NCAA tournament. If the Lady Vols do face UConn and if they pull off a win, there will be a lot of people who will be shocked. A long shot? Sure. Improbable? Maybe. Impossible?

I don't think so. Not for this group of young ladies.

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