Lady Vols romp in exhibition opener

Tennessee got plenty of offensive output Tuesday – led by Glory Johnson's 26 points – but so did Carson-Newman as the Lady Eagles took advantage of the fact that most of the Lady Vols' size was sitting on the bench, along with several other players. Tennessee put six in double figures and dominated the boards in the second half for a 110-66 win in the exhibition opener of the season.

The score was clearly on the mind of Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt as she noted the opponent's output in her opening remarks at the post-game press conference. This was the seventh consecutive exhibition game against Carson-Newman, and the Lady Eagles had not tallied more than 55 points in the previous six matchups. Carson-Newman put up 73 points in 1975, the most ever in the series.

"Why?" Summitt said. "Because we just weren't passionate all the time about playing great defense. I don't know many teams that are going to win championships if they aren't passionate about defense and board play. We can certainly address that."

It should also be noted that Tennessee used just eight players because of injury, rest and suspension. The starting lineup Tuesday is unlikely to be the one that takes the court in the season opener at Louisville on Nov. 12.

For starters, senior guard Angie Bjorklund, who sat out Tuesday for being late to a class, will be back for the next exhibition on Sunday. Another starter, Kelley Cain, a 6'6 center, also should be cleared by then. Vicki Baugh, a 6'4 power forward, also could be available at the end of the week. Freshman point guard Lauren Avant is expected to make her debut Sunday and dressed out and warmed up Tuesday but did not play. She has been treated for a nerve contusion of her right hand and is expected back at practice this week.

Another starter, Shekinna Stricklen, played just 14 minutes, as she has been bothered by quad tendinitis and spent all but two minutes of the second half on the bench. Stricklen scored 15 points, all before halftime, on 5-7 shooting, including 4-5 from behind the arc.

That left seven other players to handle the bulk of the minutes with Taber Spani and Alicia Manning logging 33 minutes each and Glory Johnson clocking in with 30.

Summitt tried to rotate players in and out as often as possible and noted the assortment of combinations, all of which lacked a true big presence in the paint.

"I think we're playing a lot of players," Summitt said. "At the same time, I thought we'd be a lot sharper stronger on the defensive end. I think that's the disappointment. Everyone loves to play offense.

"With our defense we've got to get a lot better, and we've got to be passionate about rebounding. Our box-outs were not very good. Again, this was the first time that this team was on the floor together with people in the stands. Not that that should bother anyone, maybe the freshmen, but Meighan didn't seem real shy. She was one of the ones that was pretty aggressive. But this is why we have the exhibition games, because it's a great learning tool."

The official attendance, including tickets sold, was 11,071, with actual attendance at about 6,000. Among those in the stands were the parents of Meighan Simmons, who is from Cibolo, Texas. The freshman guard entered the game at the 16:10 mark of the first half and played at turbo speed.

"Did you see that layup where she went like 105 percent, and then she went 115 (percent) and then finished?" Glory Johnson said. "She's speedy. I think that's part of her game, and she's good at it. So, until she starts messing up while she's going fast, I think she should keep using that to her advantage."

Simmons smiled when asked about having her parents in the seats and whether or not she slept Monday evening.

"You just can't worry about who's out there in the audience," Simmons said. "You've just got to go out and play your game, and no, I didn't (sleep). I got four hours of sleep (Monday) night pretty much. I was pretty excited about today, just being out there for the first time.

"I think it's a blessing, and my dream has come true."

Simmons played five minutes in the first half and picked up three fouls. When she picked up the fourth one in the second half, a smiling Summitt called her to the sideline while Carson-Newman's Katlin Moore shot and made two free throws.

"The main thing is you've got to keep yourself in the game," Summitt said. "If you want to be a player you've got to make sure that you keep yourself in the game and you don't make foolish mistakes on the court. And she's learning.

"Her parents were here, and I saw them sitting (in the arena at shoot-around). I think she was real excited, a little overanxious, but she's got a great touch, a great shooting touch and obviously is very quick and just really a great team player. She did a lot of good things and we've got tape to look at so we can continue to work and get better."

Summitt has heaped praise on the youngster in preseason for her work ethic and basketball IQ, and the crowd was ready to roar its approval. When Simmons took the ball down court on a fast break, she went from left to right and got to the rim in an explosion of speed – the play Johnson referenced in her post-game remarks.

That made the score 90-58 and a crowd that had settled down for the rout suddenly was energized again, as was Tennessee's overcrowded bench. Simmons followed that up with a stop-and-pop, which she missed but got her own board on the opposite side of the basket and hit the short baseline jumper. She then nailed a 16-footer to increase the lead to 96-58.

Summitt may have been annoyed with the defense and board play – Carson-Newman actually had the edge at halftime, 18-16 – but the offensive output, considering only five players were available to finish the game, was overflowing.

Taber Spani had 22 points and hit 4-6 from behind the arc, including two step-back threes, one of which came on a Johnson pass after she was doubled on the low block and found Spani just in front of the arc.

"I think the step-back is something that is kind of my go-to move just because I can create space, and it's hard to block I guess," Spani said, while Johnson nodded. "And so, now that my foot is finally healthy, I can explode a lot more off of it. It's one thing where I can explode back, but it's another thing I've got to jump to shoot it, and so now with my foot feeling so much better, I think I can get that explosion off of it, and that's really helped."

Spani played last season with a painful turf toe injury and was limited in practice and games. She was not allowed to take extra shots outside of practice because the foot needed as much rest as possible. That restriction has been lifted.

"Taber is very dedicated to this team and to her game," Summitt said. "There is no one that is going to outwork her. She gets in a lot of shots, a lot of reps, has a lot of confidence. I think she's playing with tremendous confidence. When you have someone that can shoot and be that efficient, it makes a big difference. We can obviously spread things out a lot more."

Johnson led all scorers with 26 points on 8-12 shooting from the field and 10-12 from the free throw line. She also had nine rebounds, four assists and two steals. More importantly, Johnson kept her composure – a state of play the coaching staff has sought for two years – and took shots within the offensive flow while also finding open teammates.

"Her composure this year is so much better, and she's not rushing as much," Summitt said. "She's so athletic that a lot of times she's almost too fast for herself. But overall she has really made just tremendous strides and she's more invested in her game, and it shows. She's going to be a key player for us, without any question."

Stricklen and Manning added 15 points each, while Simmons chipped in with 11 points, and Sydney Smallbone added 10. Kamiko Williams tallied nine, and Briana Bass added two points with five assists. Williams got Tennessee to 100 points for the game when a Carson-Newman turned her back for the in-bounds play. Williams tossed the ball off the defender's back, grabbed the carom and hit the layup for a 100-58 lead.

"I think the confidence level of everyone to produce offensively has risen a lot with each year," Spani said. "You saw Bree out there. You saw Syd out there. You saw Meighan come in and isn't afraid to do something on offense.

"I think if we can have five people who are all major threats offensively when we're out on the court I think that is very hard to guard. Everyone is really taking it personally, and obviously we've got to focus on the defensive end and step that up, but I think in the off-season everyone's really improved their offensive skill set."

Tennessee had 63 points by halftime while shooting 61.1 percent from the field overall and 61.5 percent from behind the arc. But Carson-Newman had tallied 36 by the break, two more than the Lady Eagles scored in the entire game a year ago when Tennessee won 124-34.

Tennessee opened the game with a 20-footer by Spani with three seconds on the shot clock – the start of the game was interrupted for a few minutes when the clock did not start after Johnson won the opening tip – but Carson-Newman also was on the board within the game's first minute when Moore hit a short jumper.

The Lady Vols had a double-digit lead, 15-3, barely three minutes into the game and extended it to 21 points, 31-10 with a Johnson layup. In past games, Carson-Newman had tried to score on Tennessee by shooting from behind the arc, but the Lady Eagles were just 1-7 from long range in the first half. Instead, they got their points from midrange shots and the free throw line (9-12) in the first half to go into the break shooting 44.8 percent and trailing 63-36.

That strategy would not have worked had Tennessee's frontline not been watching from the sideline.

"Honestly, you miss Kelley, Lyssi (Brewer), and Vicki because normally guards don't like to drive when they see the huge presence inside," Johnson said.

"That's true," Spani noted.

"They're more worried about getting their shot blocked than when there are no shot blockers," Johnson said. "I'm not going to try (to block shots) because I'll get fouls, but when there are no shot blockers out there, guards tend to penetrate. So when Kelley, Vicki and Lyssi get back out here, I'm sure you'll see a lot less penetration."

Johnson, the team's tallest player with the three bigs out of the game, also was patrolling the perimeter on defense, an experiment two years in the making. Johnson is quick and athletic enough to suffocate perimeter players, but Summitt has hesitated to deploy the 6'3 forward in that role because of a tendency to foul. That was not an issue Tuesday. Johnson had one foul in the first half and none in the second.

"In the past, we were a little more hesitant with that just to avoid any unnecessary fouls," Summitt said. "But I think she's older, she's smarter, she really has a good feel for what she needs to do. I think what we're seeing is a maturity level that we've been waiting to see."

Tennessee also missed Bjorklund on the perimeter – she is a solid defender – and the Lady Vols' style is to be aggressive, jump passing lanes and switch. The switching actually was easier with the bigs on the bench.

"Sometimes it worked with our defense, and sometimes it didn't, but being able to switch everything, just having a smaller team playing against a smaller team and then having the guards in, we were able to switch everything," Johnson said. "Sometimes that works on defense, and I guess it stopped them from shooting as many threes as they were shooting. The posts weren't back there, so it will make it easier for our guards (to switch)."

Tennessee also stayed in its man-to-man schemes and missed on some switches on the perimeter.

Carson-Newman was 5-14 from behind the arc (35.7 percent), 23-56 overall (41.1 percent) and 15-19 from the line (78.9 percent). The Lady Eagles put four players in double figures – 16 from Mandy Mendenhall, 14 from Moore and 10 each from Shannon Depew and Candis Clear.

"It was amazing," said Depew, who hails from nearby Newport. "I had half of Cocke County supporting me and some Knoxville players that I played with supporting me, so it was amazing to be able to play in front of those players and my family and friends.

"I was nervous but I think I played alright since they're 10 times bigger than I am."

This was Mendenhall's fourth game in the arena, and she played like a veteran, shooting 7-15 from the floor and tallying six rebounds, four assists and two steals.

"This is my senior year and these exhibition games are fun for us, so I just wanted to go out and have fun for the most part and execute the best I can against big-time players," Mendenhall said. "I think we are more focused, we want to win more and we care more than we did last year and that is a good thing."

Carson-Newman Coach Dean Walsh was pleased with his team's offensive execution.

"This team is hungry," Walsh said. "We came out of here last year, as poorly as we played, and we still started the year 16-0. They know what they are capable of doing, and they have their own goals set. Tonight was finally a chance to get up and down the floor because with all the injuries we had we haven't been able to get up and down as much as we wanted to."

Walsh schedules a slate of ranked teams in the exhibition contests because he wants his team to run its sets against superior competition before starting Division II play.

"You saw it tonight, because if you can execute and do some good things against a defensive team like Tennessee and score 66 you've got to be pretty happy," Walsh said of the reason he likes the preseason matchups. "We will do the same thing with Duke and (North) Carolina. We are going to see athleticism. We won't see the same physicality.

"Heck, if you look at the polls it gets easier. Duke is No. 6 and Carolina is 15th. … We know if we can do some good things against teams like this, whoever we face at our level we'll be ready for."

Summitt also saw plenty that she liked in the scrimmage and acknowledged the shortened roster. Carson-Newman used 12 players. Tennessee essentially played seven and when Williams fouled out late in the second half, the Lady Vols were down to six. Manning turned an ankle – she appeared to be fine post-game – and Spani reentered for the final minute. Had Simmons picked up a fifth foul, Stricklen could have either removed the large ice bag on her right knee, the Lady Vols could have finished the game with four players on the court or Avant could have made a cursory appearance.

"We know that we're a little shorthanded in the post right now," Summitt said. "But that's a time for other people to step up. I thought Glory stepped up and did a great job. And I think we all had a competitive mindset. We just weren't always as efficient as we needed to be, but obviously not having Kelley Cain in there or Lyssi Brewer in there, it's a little bit different.

"So we get all three of our bigs healthy (Cain, Brewer, and Vicki Baugh), then we're a whole different basketball team. That's going to take time."

Tennessee fixed the rebounding in the second half by recording a 29-10 margin for a final tally of 45-28. The Lady Vols had 20 assists, 10 steals, two blocks – recorded by Johnson and Williams – and 10 steals. Tennessee shot 54.9 percent for the game (39-71), 46.2 percent (12-26) from behind the arc and 74.1 percent (20-27) from the line. Turnovers were limited to 12.

"Obviously, I thought we did some really good things," Summitt said. "I thought we did a great job of taking care of the basketball overall. We only had 12 turnovers, so that's a real positive for us. I think we have to build on the positive things, but at the same time we'll have to go back and watch tape and look at where we had lapses.

"With that said, we know we have a lot room for improvement. Defense and rebounding, that's our bread and butter. It has been, and we're going to have to make sure they understand that that's two of the most important things that happen when we step on the court."

Manning can always be counted on to get on the boards, and she tallied a double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end.

Johnson had a list of items the team needed to work on this week.

"Probably our defense, transition defense for sure, middle drives, and our board play offensively and defensively, just getting inside position and being confident on defense knowing that we're going to get steals and push it back on offense and score," Johnson said.

Johnson's composure wasn't on the list and if that holds, Tennessee becomes a much more formidable team. Johnson was steady on both ends of the floor and made good decisions with the ball in her hand in the open floor and in traffic.

"I think it's just something that hurt us a lot last season," Johnson said of her tendency to rush the action. "And, me personally going too fast and knowing when to take a shot and when not to take a shot and when to kick it out or when not to dribble and just thinking about stuff before I do it. I think it has helped me have a lot more composure and control with the ball whenever I have it."

Summitt should see plenty on film that she likes about this team, especially the three-point marksmanship. Simmons hit the first three she attempted from the top of the key on a move that left her defender leaning well out of position. Spani's step-back move was in pre-injury form. Stricklen was wide open on the wing because of better ball movement and teammates finding her in transition, including a nice pass from Williams and another from Johnson. And this all came with Bjorklund, who is 35 three-pointers from setting the school career mark, watching from the bench.

Tennessee scored in a variety of ways – in transition, half-court sets and with four different point guards in Williams, Simmons, Bass and Stricklen. Spani's offensive repertoire was on full display as she scored from long range, midrange, post-ups, turnaround baseline jumper and drives to the paint, including a nifty right-handed flip shot.

"It's high," Spani said when asked about her comfort level on the court. "I think not only physically with my foot, it's feeling so much better, so I feel like that is allowing me to move a lot better, and then I think just being a lot more comfortable with the system and with what you do. So, I think those combined have really helped my comfort level go up a lot."

Simmons also showed why Summitt has anticipated working her into the mix, as once the freshman settled down, she hit some shots, found teammates with precision passes and also played the final nine minutes of the second half without picking up a fifth foul.

"I think it's great because as a freshman, knowing her role and how she was kind of a little hesitant at the beginning of the game, by the end of the game, she let the other team know that she's not scared to take the shot, she's not scared to take the drive, and she could take over the game if she wants to," Johnson said.

The coaching staff has been showing the team practice film and scrimmage tape. The first exhibition game will provide another teaching tool.

"That's the first thing that we're going to do when we go back to practice," Summitt said. "We're going to watch tape and maybe even do one on ones and come up with a really good evaluation of why they did what they did and how we can get better."

NEW JERSEYS: The Lady Vols are now wearing the racer-style jerseys that taper in along the back and shoulders. They arrived very close to the first game and are without names on the back, but Pat Summitt said that would change.

If the player's name is above the number, as usual, the letters would have to be very small to fit because of the cut of the uniform, especially for those with longer last names. Another option is to put the names under the number, as the WNBA has done.

"I am very hopeful they are going to get on there eventually," Summitt said. "We didn't have time to get them on there now, but we're working on it."

VIDEO WARMUPS: Pre-game clips of the Lady Vols.

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