Fleser: Unusual off season for Lady Vols

Dan Fleser
Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt, left, talks with players Glory Johnson, Alyssia Brewer and Briana Bass, left to right, during the Ball State game on March 23 at Bowling Green, Ky.

Photo by Saul Young

Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt, left, talks with players Glory Johnson, Alyssia Brewer and Briana Bass, left to right, during the Ball State game on March 23 at Bowling Green, Ky.

A memory lingers from Tennessee's 2008-09 women's basketball season. The sight of the Lady Vols scattered about a locker room like shards of broken glass doesn't fade easily.

The same could be said for a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Ball State, which created the fallout.

Pulling this shattered group back together and getting everyone back on their feet was expected. But an aneurysm and a group of Iraqis serving as dual catalysts was beyond far-fetched.

"You know something like that is: Where does that come from?" sophomore guard Alicia Manning said.

The wildest imagination would've struggled to conceive the combination.

The aneurysm saga was mind-boggling enough. Lady Vol Amber Gray's stroke after shoulder surgery in July and subsequent brain surgery rocked everyone's world. UT coach Pat Summitt still gets emotional when asked about it on the speaking circuit.

The players, who have reconvened for fall classes and individual workouts, have a vivid recall of the dramatic chain of events, along with their impact.

"It was crazy,'' junior guard Angie Bjorklund said. "I was really proud of our team for coming together right when it happened. Our whole team was there supporting her. We were in that (hospital) room praying for her. We stayed there until they kicked us out."

The players also have come together over a prevailing sentiment: Take nothing for granted.

"I know,'' sophomore guard Briana Bass said, "and our team knows that (Gray) wishes she was here right now. So we're busting our butt for her."

Gray, who is recovering at home in West Chester, Ohio, visited last weekend and has vowed to return to the court. In the meantime, the inspiration likely will be ongoing.

Under the circumstances, it's hard for a plucky group of Iraqis to compete. Ten girls from the country, along with three coaches, attended Tennessee's basketball camp in June. Summitt had videotaped a message for them as part of the Sport 4 Peace development organization and their dream was to visit the United States, attend a WNBA game and to meet Summitt and thank her.

The young Iraqis mingled with the Lady Vols during camp. Sounds like sophomore Alyssia Brewer owes them a debt of gratitude.

"It was awesome to be able to watch them,'' she said. "I was score-keeping one of their games. They got so excited, just whenever they scored a basket. They were just excited to shoot a basket or do a good pass or anything like that. They didn't take anything for granted. Anything was good for them.

"I also heard how they cried after one of their games. That just shows they have a competition level for themselves. Even though they might have never played, they still have that mindset of competition. I thought that was awesome."

Brewer was particularly down and out after the Ball State loss last April. She was lying on the floor with her head propped up against a wall. She could've used some help in getting up.

Imagine a young Iraqi girl reaching out her hands. Brewer couldn't have then but she probably could now.

"It makes you feel that you are special for what you have,'' Brewer said. "It's not necessarily that we're spoiled, but it's just we have to know since we have this opportunity we have to build on that."

Perhaps the thought will linger.

Dan Fleser covers Tennessee Lady Vols basketball. He may be reached at fleserd@knoxnews.com.

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Comments » 15

kazoo writes:

Last year's team was a mess--slow, young, girls playing out of position, a lot of problems. The team needs healthy centers and much better point guard play to improve.

KCHS63 writes:

in response to long_vol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Wanted to reply to your post. I will as soon as I'm able to exhale.

How many games did you attend last year?

rogatl2002#222395 writes:

in response to KCHS63:

Wanted to reply to your post. I will as soon as I'm able to exhale.

How many games did you attend last year?

i will comment. spot on. there is not a bigger LV fan but the fact is that was not a good coaching job last year by the LV staff. there is plenty of talent on this team LV offense has been stagnant for years now...sometimes painful to watch. pat is still the greatest coach but needs to add a great offensive coach to the staff.

eefor10c writes:

Rogati, you said "LV offense has been stagnant for years" ....National championships in 07 and 08 and you call that "stagnant". I'll take it any time. Long vol-short memory, I too was unhappy with last years Lady Vol results. As a long time supporter of the the Lady Vols and Pat I have observed how she can adjust. Remember the "corn fed chicks". I'm sure that Pat knows a little more than you. Last years team didn't respond well but look at the youth. If you think Pat threw the girls under the bus just what are some of you posters doing-throwing a hall of fame coach and her eight national championships under the bus. Give it a rest!

packie56 writes:

...some people have missed the point of this article................

queens2183#661836 writes:

I think people didn't look at this team correctly last year and are still not looking at them the right way this year. Look, guys, the expectations for this team SHOULD have been lowered last year b/c anyone who knows anything about bball knows you don't replace an entire starting 5 with the likes of a Candace Parker, Nicky Anosike, and Alexis Hornbuckle, and have the same success that you've had the previous 4 years. It doesn't work like that. Realistically, last year's team was a team predominantly made up of players that had never suited up on the collegiate level that were forced into a difficult situation by injuries and by the fact that they made up majority of the team and they played like freshmen who don't have experience or vets play: like freshmen. They weren't ready for that and any person that knows bball knew that would be the case. Only 2 players on the team last year had ever started a collegiate game less a collegiate game with each other and those were Angie and Alex (the game they started together was Depaul in 07). The team pretty much was completely new to Coach and her staff (and vice versa) and to each other so how could anyone expect them to play like a vet team that knew each other backward and forward. Last year was a rebuilding year, plain and simple, and anyone that treated it like this was the 2x NC winner was being naive to last year's team's situation.
Point 2: There's nothing wrong with the recruiting. TN's class was ranked #1 with 5 MAAs in 08 and 3 in 07 not to mention Taber this past year. Everyone wanted those players and I think still would take them b/c they understand the nature of their situation. Has TN missed on some players? Yes but every program does once in a while. Alex Fuller was NOT a miss. She was a highly recruited Mickey D's AA who played great for TN during her career and was always ready to step up for this team when they needed her while doing it on knees that were basically shot. The issue for Alex was that last year she was having to be more of a babysitter b/c of the youth and that stifled her game. Also, let's not forget that without transfers this team would have had more vet leadership on it last year and nobody could have predicted Sade Wiley-Gatewood, Lindsay Moss, and Nicci Moats would all not be up for the LV challenge; all were highly recruited players that just didn't pan out for anyone. B/c of the transfer situation, the coaching staff had to over-recruit b/c they invested soo much into that '04 class that yielded TN 2 NCs.

queens2183#661836 writes:

Let's look at last season. Your starting PG in Cait McMahan goes down with a knee injury which forces Briana Bass, a TRUE freshman, into the starting job. TN's system is not easy to pick up and most former players state that it took them at least a year to get acclimated to it not to mention PG is the most difficult position on the floor. Imagine how Shannon would have adjusted to playing in TN's system as a TRUE freshman if she didn't have Lex there to help her out when she was learning it. So why would anyone expect Briana Bass to play all-world with basically nobody to learn from? She wasn't going to be and IMO, never really got the vote of confidence that Shannon got and needed to be the team's PG. Secondly, Angie Bjorklund played with a bulging disc in her back and was now the target for other teams. That's an adjustment when you haven't had to be that and it takes time to tweak your game to that type of attention; she was getting Candace Parker attention in Angie Bjorlund's body. Also, Vicki Baugh was a HUGE catalyst and learning tool for the freshmen and when she went down again, the team lost a big part of its inside game. Kelley Cain played on a knee that had screws migrating in it that felt like a cymbal was going off in her knee every time it took a hit. The only healthy players on this team were freshmen and Sid Smallbone. Couple that with inexperience, no vets, and everything else and you get what you got but when this team was at full strength, we saw what they could do and before SECs you still have a team that had only lost 3 games. Also, some last year said look at other freshmen like Whitney Hand and Tiff Hayes at OU and UConn. Well, look at what each of those players had around them. The only team that was in a similar situation to TN was LSU and their record was worse than TN's was. Rutgers also had a lot of freshmen but they were never relied upon like TN freshmen were and Rutgers still had a large, healthy vet contingent in Piph Prince, Kia Vaughn, Brittany Ray, and Heather Zurich to help the younger players. TN had none of the luxuries that other teams had and it showed in their performance. They had the tools and abilities but they didn't know how to use them.

queens2183#661836 writes:

This year's team is different from last year's team; maybe not in personnel but in mental and physical health. You have Kelley Cain back at full strength, Angie back, Vick almost there, and a freshman class 1 year older and a few years wiser. Most kids wouldn't have survived and come back after a season and offseason like this team had but these kids did both and have seemingly gotten better and stronger and have changed their mindset. Everyone can be on the wait and see basis but I think this team might surprise you if you actually give them a chance. They weren't going to be a NC team last year and you didn't have a Big 3 like Candace, Nicky, and Lex but what you do have is a deep team that has many weapons and now at least has some experience not only on the collegiate level but with each other to build upon.

I'm off my tangent now and yes packie the article is about the perspective the team gained from the events of its offseason.

richvol writes:

in response to long_vol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I agree with you on two points for sure...the coaching staff needs to be more offensive minded and the recruiting is slipping. Tennessee has struggled to score for years now...even with Candace.

queens2183#661836 writes:

I don't think TN's offense has been stagnant and the numbers don't back that up. Since 2000, TN has averaged almost 80 ppg which is far from stagnant. While they do focus on defense a great deal, they also score equally as much. Rutgers would be a much better example of a stagnant offense. Also, as I previously reported, the recruiting has not been a problem. TN has had the #1 recruiting class 3 of the last 5 years and has won the NC 2 out of the last 3 years. Not to mention 7 of the past 9 years, they've been in the Final Four. I think people are over-reacting to 1 sub-par season out of the last 15 or more years when it was really the product of a rebuilding year.

queens2183#661836 writes:

Long_vol, trust me I know plenty about star rating and recruiting. No coach, or good coach anyways, would evaluate a player purely on "stars". Most, and I know TN does this, look at what that player does individually and in a team setting on all levels whether it be against their normal competition or AAU or out of state tourneys and skill camps they participate in. Coaches are looking at the complete package of the player in all settings as well as how the player would fit into their scheme if placed into it. You NEVER recruit based off of hype and TN def doesn't recruit that way. Like I said before, have they missed on some kids? Absolutely but most programs have. My whole point is that you can't judge really judge this team or the sophs based off of 1 year especially a year with as many variables as last year had. You put Cait and Vick back on that same team, they played well. You put Nicky, Lex, Shannon, Candace, or Bird back on that team, they perform much better. What that team lacked was veteran leadership aside from Alex and experience and that's a luxury that every other freshman class coming into TN has had. No other freshman class was completely relied upon for the team to live or die by and unfortunately, that's the position these kids were in. Everyone on that team had to adjust to a completely new team and system. It took Nicky, Candace, and Lex a while to really get the system and play within it for them to be successful. Yes, these were MAAs but they had never played on the collegiate level and to expect them to not go through the same growing pains as Lex, Nicky, Candace, Angie, Vick, and Sid all went through, IMO, was being very naive. Again, my whole point is that nobody knows what this team is truly capable of doing when at full strength b/c they rarely to never were last season. This is a better season to gauge who they are b/c now majority of the team has experience and are healthy with at least an offseason under their belts.

queens2183#661836 writes:

The other thing is these players would not have been as highly recruited by everyone as they were if they couldn't play at this level. Was everyone evaluating them wrong? I don't think so but circumstances made them look worse than they really are. Angie struggled the 2nd half of her freshman year and Vick was inconsistent majority of the year and had they not had Lex, Candace, Nicky, and Shannon on the floor to cover those flaws and mistakes, they would have looked worse also. Having 4 vets on the floor who not only know the system but know each others' games is a tremendous asset to not only a freshman starter but a team in general. The freshmen last year had nobody to "hide" behind or learn from (i.e Bri at the PG position had nobody but Kinna, another TRUE freshman, behind her) so they played based off of what had always worked for them and quickly learned it wasn't going to work in college. The whole thing is these kids got beat up by not only their coaches (who are suppose to beat them up while still picking them up) and opponents but by other fans, media nationwide and locally, not to mention their own fans, and they still came back, dusted themselves off, learned from it, and worked hard to get better in the offseason.

YankeeVol writes:

I think this article was supposed to be about how "real life" trumps a game, and about helping kids (and maybe coaches) get some perspective about what's really important, and last but not least, that there are people out there for whom basketball is a fun, recreational activity, not a grinding chore for the overly ambitious.

johnlg00 writes:

I think the Lady Vols will be WAY better this year. They are probably NOT a threat to win the NC, but they will be much more competitive and confident. By NEXT season, they could well be back where we all think they SHOULD be; maybe not a lock for a Final Four, but a real national power nonetheless. There are so many variables that go into making a successful program that I really couldn't say how much of last year's "failure" was Pat's fault. I know many have said that she REALLY missed Mickie DeMoss, who was essentially the team's recruiting coordinator as well as an accomplished practice and bench coach. All I know is that for a long time now, Pat has mostly had the right response to every challenge and I don't think she forgot all of that overnight.

YankeeVol writes:

in response to long_vol:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

Quite a tangent. As for your concentration camp history lesson, I'm quite sure that just as many people affected by genocide are permanently, catastrophically affected by their experience. But I would not expect them to be reading the Lady Vols blog, so I guess we'll never know. My comment was purely in support of the article's message that basketball is great fun, but there are larger issues to expend energy on. I think I get irritated because every competitive program says, "we teach our kids how to compete in the game of basketball and the game of life", but I don't see a lot of that - in TN or other places.

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