Lady Vols tip off season tonight

During Pat Summitt's teleconference this week to discuss tonight's game against Louisville, the head coach mentioned immediately the importance of leadership when the Lady Vols travel to the sold-out Yum! Center to take on the Cardinals. That is where senior guard Angie Bjorklund comes in, as she is the only starter to have played in a Final Four in what should be a postseason environment.

"Coach says that because she knows with that crowd, and I know from experience, that it's going to be loud in there, so I think communication on the court is important," Angie Bjorklund said. "Coach always tells us, ‘It's your time out there. We're not going to be out there calling the shots. You guys have to call the shots.'

"Leadership is going to be so important and just being loud, communicating a lot and just being on the same page with all five people."

No. 4 Tennessee is taking a veteran team on the road for the season opener – the starters consist of one senior, three juniors and a sophomore – but the Lady Vols will also need contributions from their two first-year players, Meighan Simmons and Lauren Avant.

"Tell the freshmen first road game we're not on our home court, it's going to be a lot different," Bjorklund said. "You have to let them know to respond well to the upperclassmen. That's the biggest thing I learned my freshmen year. The upperclassmen are going to tell them what they need to do, where they need to be. They just have to listen and respond and really be focused in and keyed in on the game, not what's going on around you.

"Also, just have fun. That's the biggest thing. This is our first game, it's a road game, with the crowd this is huge for women's basketball, so staying focused but having a good time at the same time."

Tipoff at the new KFC Yum! Center is set for 7 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network, 9:30 p.m. Eastern tape delay on CBS College Sports).

Louisville played an exhibition against Indiana Wesleyan on Oct. 30 – won 67-42 by the Cardinals – but Friday will go in the record books as the first official basketball game at the new downtown arena along the Ohio River. A sellout of 22,000 was announced Monday.

"Hopefully we'll have a lot of Big Orange fans there," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said.

Louisville came to Tennessee last season – an 86-56 loss on Dec. 16 after the Cardinals had been decimated by injuries to the extent of adding to the roster a walk-on senior guard who had not played since high school – with Tennessee agreeing to a return trip to open the new arena. Louisville Coach Jeff Walz said after the game in Knoxville that the intent was to sell out the facility and it worked.

"When he approached us and asked us about this, how can you turn it down?" Summitt said. "It is going to be a great experience for us and hopefully to get our team ready to play on the road, which is always a challenge. With our team being more mature, hopefully we will have the type leadership we will need from our standpoint.

"When he called and we talked about it, I was in favor. First, I am thinking about our team, the growth and what we can learn from being in this environment. At the time I had no idea it was going to be a sellout, and I am thrilled that it is. We are going to go out and test the waters early with this game on the road. It doesn't get much better than that because, win or lose it is going to be a valuable learning experience. I am really pleased that he did approach us and obviously I think we will benefit from it."

Summitt said she was also open to the notion of extending the series. Walz has recruited well, Louisville was a Final Four team in 2009, and it's a relatively short road trip from Knoxville at roughly four hours.

"I could see us playing them again," Summitt said. "I would have to look at our scheduling as we move forward. It is not that far, he does a great job and he is going to get great players. I could see a very competitive series. We haven't really talked about it but it is definitely something I would entertain."

Bjorklund has been through the battles as a Lady Vol – she won a national title as a freshman in 2008 and endured one of the worst seasons in school history in 2009, followed by a 32-3 season in 2010 that finished in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tourney. She won't pay any attention to last year's box score against Louisville.

"We're Tennessee," Bjorklund said. "We always have a bullet on our back. We're going to get every team's best shot. It doesn't matter what happened last year. Louisville is going to come in there ready to play, and we have to match them or exceed them."

Bjorklund missed the first exhibition game of the season because she was a wee bit late to a class. She smiled when asked about Summitt's tough class attendance policy.

"Coach has always made academics a priority," said Bjorklund, an Academic All-American. "That just goes to show you have to be on top of your game in the classroom, too. That's a priority in order to play. It's tough, but same thing with Miko happened.

"It was good for the freshmen to see, too. I think it sets the tone for the year and it sets the tone for the freshmen's entire career here that Pat is serious about academics. I respect that."

Kamiko Williams missed the second exhibition game for violation of the same team policy, but she is good to go Friday, as is the rest of the team, except for Alyssia Brewer, who continues to rehab an Achilles injury and could return next month.

After a lackluster session Wednesday, the players came out energetic Thursday and after an hour-long practice to shoot and go over the scouting report, the Lady Vols departed for Louisville by bus.

Bjorklund won't just be key as a senior leader in a raucous environment come game time. The senior sharpshooter will also need to knock down shots. She misfired to open the exhibition game last Sunday and said the missed game likely made her too eager.

"I think I was overanxious," Bjorklund said. "I was rushing a lot. The open looks were there. A couple of times I was surprised by how wide open I was. My teammates were kind of joking with me, ‘Angie, do I need to guard you? Then you'll hit a shot.' "

Bjorklund should be guarded, and she'll need to knock down some shots, as will Taber Spani. Both players can stretch a defense and having two long-range bombers on the floor at the same time can also open up the paint for Alicia Manning and Glory Johnson, plus Shekinna Stricklen, who can go from point guard to posting up in offensive set.

Bjorklund, like the rest of the team, is ready for the season to tip off. At the same time she wants to savor each moment of her final year.

"Every single day is exciting," Bjorklund said. "It's getting closer to the end so I think it's making every day count and enjoying being here but at the same time leaving it all out on the court because this is my last year."

The preseason talk was about commitment and a Final Four. The Lady Vols start the season ranked No. 4 in the AP and coaches' poll. Are they as good as ranked right now?

"We'll find out real soon because it's here," Summitt said. "And this team has yet to get to a Final Four. They've got a lot to prove. They appear to be invested. That's all I can tell you until they throw it up and then here we go."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 junior guard/forward, No. 40, averaged just 16.5 minutes per game in the two exhibitions with a 12.5 points per game average; Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 senior guard, No. 5, needs 35 three-pointers to pass the career record of 266 (held by Shanna Zolman) at Tennessee, hit five three-pointers against Louisville last season, has 89 career starts; Taber Spani, 6'1 sophomore guard/forward, started 16 games last season before a foot/toe injury limited her minutes, shot 57 percent in the two exhibition games; Alicia Manning, 6'1 junior guard/forward, can play inside or out, Summitt said of Manning: "She may be undersized (for the post), but dynamite comes in small packages," averaged 10.5 rebounds per game in the exhibitions, board play and overall hustle keep getting her on the court; and Glory Johnson, 6'3 junior forward, averaged 23.0 ppg and 10.0 rpg and shot 64 percent from the field and 85 percent from the line in the exhibitions, composure on both ends of the floor much improved this preseason, also fought her way into starting lineup with hustle.

Tennessee will bring its bigs, 6'6 Kelley Cain and 6'4 Vicki Baugh, off the bench, though Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said one or both could enter the game in a hurry, if need be.

"Who we start is not always indicative of who is going to play a bunch," Warlick said.

Cain and Baugh are working their way back from hip and knee issues, respectively, with Baugh having been off the court for 21 months until she played in last Sunday's exhibition game.

"They are both going to play some minutes. Absolutely," Warlick said.

Warlick also anticipates that the two newcomers, Lauren Avant and Meighan Simmons, would log minutes. Avant is an aggressive defensive player, and Simmons' quickness is a welcome dimension on both ends.

"They're a big part of our game plan and how we played in the preseason," Warlick said. "They will both definitely play."

Cain said the freshmen need to pay attention to the scouting report – the team went over it on the court Thursday and will also watch film, plus each player gets a written copy pf the report to study – and remember that it's still just a basketball game.

"If you go in there with the mindset that you're going to play your game and go with the scouting report, they'll be fine," Cain said.

Louisville Coach Jeff Walz is expected to start: Shoni Schimmel, 5'10 freshman guard, No. 23, hails from Mission, Oregon, WBCA All-American averaged nearly 30 points a game in high school, has deep three-ball range, ran cross country and played softball in high school; Tia Gibbs, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 25, hails from Louisville, Ky., should be familiar to SEC watchers as she transferred from Vanderbilt, was 2008 Miss Kentucky Basketball, all-time leading scorer at Butler High School with 2,790 points, also had 1,091 career rebounds; Asia Taylor, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 31, hails from Columbus, Ohio, started 10 games last season, played in all 31, had six points, four rebounds, two blocks and two steals in the Tennessee game last season, was team MVP all four years in high school, scored 45 points in one prep game after going 17-21 from the field; Monique Reid, 6'1 junior forward, No. 33, hails from Louisville, led the team last season with 18.4 ppg, 2010-11 preseason First Team All-Big East, had 13 points and four rebounds against Tennessee a year ago, state champion in high school in the 4x100 relay; and Keshia Hines, 6'2 senior center, No. 45, hails from Auburn Hills, Mich., started 23 games last season, averaged 6.9 boards a game, had six rebounds against Tennessee, finished third in Miss Michigan Basketball voting.

The Cardinals' top reserve is Becky Burke, a 5'11 junior guard from Clarks Summit, Pa., who started the exhibition game on Oct. 30. Burke lit up Tennessee a year ago with 23 points and hit 7-9 from behind the arc.

Reid came off the bench in the exhibition game and was 6-9 from the field for 15 points in 18 minutes of play.

The Cardinals are a young team off the bench with Burke and fellow junior LaToya Johnson, a 5'5 juco guard from Kansas City, Mo. The rest are underclassmen – one sophomore and six freshmen. Newcomer Sheronne Vails, a 6'4 center from Odenton, Md., had 12 points on 6-8 shooting in the exhibition win.

The six-member freshman class was ranked in the top five, the highest in the history of Louisville women's basketball.

The group is down one player in Shawnta Dyer, a 6'1 freshman forward who started in the exhibition game against Indiana Wesleyan and had six points and three rebounds. Louisville announced Thursday that Dyer suffered a right heel fracture in a scrimmage last weekend against Marshall and when the pain persisted an MRI revealed the extent of the injury. Dyer is expected to be out at least three months.

SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Louisville game. Here is her assessment.

When Louisville has the ball: Early season games mean little to no scouting film so the coaches have to prepare primarily based on past trends with a nod to the new personnel. Warlick expects an up-tempo game at the start.

"I think they're going to run the ball, push the ball, try to score in transition," Warlick said. "They like the high-low game, they like running sets to shooters. That's what they have done in the past. He could do something totally different up there."

Warlick said the Lady Vols would need to find Shoni Schimmel and Becky Burke on the floor. Burke was 7-12 from the floor against Tennessee a year ago.

"She is a great shooter," Warlick said. "The point guard, Schimmel, and Burke are the two primary shooters. The rest are very athletic penetrators. He's got more bodies. His freshmen are very good. He got a great recruiting class. They are kids we really haven't seen a lot of, so it's different scouting when we really haven't seen a lot of what they've done this year."

Defensively,, Warlick expects Louisville to be aggressive. The Cardinals had 15 steals and four blocks in the exhibition game against Indiana Wesleyan.

"They are going to try to make us play quickly, speed up our game," Warlick said. "They'll trap us some, press us some. They're going to try and make us do things we're not used to doing."

When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols are going with a shorter lineup – though every starter is still over 6 feet tall – and one that started the last exhibition game. It is likely that the Lady Vols want an up-tempo game, too.

"We do," Warlick said. "We want to run every chance we get. We want to score quickly. We're not going to do anything differently regardless of who we're starting. We're going to press, get after you on the defensive end (to try to generate turnovers and easy baskets). That's just our philosophy and we don't deviate from that.

"We'll do different things from the half-court set, but we're going to be as aggressive as we can."

Defensively, Tennessee has traditionally been a man-to-man team, but the Lady Vols used their considerable length last season to play quite a bit of matchup zone. Warlick said the coaches intend to stay versatile again.

"I think we're going to mix it up," Warlick said. "We could start in a zone (Friday). We're willing to mix it up. We can go back and forth more than we did last year."

What Warlick and the rest of the staff really want to see is a good start, especially in a sold-out venue on the road. The players have been on big stages in the past, both in the regular season and postseason from Madison Square Garden to the SEC tourney title game.

"You want to have a great start," Warlick said. "Our upperclassmen should be used to that environment. They've played in that kind of environment. Regardless of where we're playing to get off to a good start in the game is key for us."

It's still a tough way to open a season – taking on a major conference team on the road instead of scheduling a far lesser opponent.

"We come home and play Chattanooga, Virginia and Arizona State and then we go to the Virgin Islands," Warlick said. "We don't tend to shy away from competition early."

Pat Summitt expressed the same sentiment in her Wednesday teleconference.

"I would be bored if we had some patsy schedule," Summitt said. "I love the Xs and Os, and the decisions that you have to make when you play an opponent like Louisville. It is going to bring the best out of our team as well as our coaching staff and I hope there will be a lot of people wearing orange. That gives us a little bit of an edge wherever we go."

Summitt has said that her players like people in the stands, whether the fans are pulling for them or are in opposition.

"Definitely," redshirt junior center Kelley Cain said. "When there are people cheering for us, that helps us. When there are people cheering against us, that also helps us because it motivates us to play even harder."

JERSEY RETIREMENT: The No. 35 jersey of former Louisville All-American Angel McCoughtry will be retired before the game. The ceremony is expected to start about 6:45 p.m. with tipoff set for 7 p.m. Eastern.

McCoughtry finished her four- year career as the all-time leading scorer with 2,779 points, all-time leading rebounder with 1,261 boards and the all-time steals leader with 481 thefts. The three-time WBCA All-American averaged 20 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.5 steals per game.

She was the first pick of the 2009 WNBA draft by the Atlanta Dream and led the franchise to its first WNBA Championship series. McCoughtry will be the first female to have her jersey retired at Louisville.

ON TAP: Seven other SEC teams are in action Friday in the following matchups: Tennessee State at Alabama; Florida A&M at Arkansas; Mercer at Auburn; Morehead State at Kentucky; Sam Houston State at Ole Miss; South Carolina (Upstate) at Mississippi State; and Xavier at South Carolina.

Former Lady Vol Amber Gray, who wasn't medically cleared after a brain aneurysm/stroke but whose surgeon and physician are located in Cincinnati, now plays for Xavier after sitting out last season to recover.

ODDS AND ENDS

Tennessee leads the series with Louisville, 1-0. The only previous matchup was last season in Knoxville, an 86-56 win on Dec. 16, 2009. That game may be most memorable for the fact that Pat Summitt put the names back on the uniforms for the first time since the 2004-05 season and told the crowd, "Merry Christmas." The names are expected to be on the uniforms for this game, too, but below the numbers so they will fit on the new racer-style jerseys. … Tennessee is 1-0 in games played on November 12. The last game on this date was against Chattanooga, a 102-72 win in 2006. … Tennessee is 33-3 in season openers during Pat Summitt's tenure, which is now entering its 37th year. The three defeats all occurred at home, including Summitt's first game as a head coach, an 84-83 loss to Mercer, on Dec. 7, 1974. The two other opening losses were to Stephen F. Austin (80-74 in 1981) and Louisiana Tech (69-64 in 1999). Louisville is 30-5 in home openers and has won six consecutive season debut games. Head Coach Jeff Walz has a 3-0 record in home openers since taking over at Louisville. … This may just be the second game against Louisville in program history, but Tennessee has played plenty of times against Big East Foes. The most games against a conference is, of course, the SEC with 493. That is followed by 99 each against Big East and ACC opponents. The Pac 10 is next with 70 games against Tennessee followed by the Big 12 and Ohio Valley Conference with 62 each. Austin Peay, Tennessee Tech and Tennessee-Martin are all in the OVC and were once fairly frequent foes of the Lady Vols, especially in the 1970s. … Tennessee traveled by bus to Louisville and has made frequent trips to the Bluegrass State. The Lady Vols are 68-10 against teams from Kentucky, led by the 46-7 marked posted against the Wildcats in the SEC. The first trip to the state was in 1922 when the "Volettes" traveled by train to take on Cumberland. Tennessee won, 28-19.


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