Lady Vols pass Pat Summitt's test

Exams begin today – and the players will be off for the second time this week to focus on the academic part of student-athlete – but Pat Summitt's test was Wednesday after the letdown in the Virgin Islands. The Lady Vols earned a passing grade after a 99-55 win over Lamar with a dominant performance on the glass and freshman Meighan Simmons claiming the school record for three-pointers in a game.

Exams start Thursday – and the players will be off for the second day this week to focus on the academic part of student-athlete – but Pat Summitt's team exam was Wednesday after her players disappointed her in the Virgin Islands. They earned a passing grade for the 99-55 win over Lamar with a dominant performance on the glass and freshman Meighan Simmons claiming the school record for three-pointers in a single game. "I thought we had good energy overall, once we did the things we had to do," Pat Summitt said. "They had a lot of energy after that and did a great job. They'll have (Thursday) off, which is going to be good for them and good for us. We'll go recruiting, and they can fill in the academics. I think that's going to be good for all of us."

Junior guard Shekinna Stricklen also gave the team a passing grade and noted the response after the loss last weekend.

"I think we did pretty good, but I still think we can work a lot more on our defense," Stricklen said. "Our help-side (defense) wasn't there. We still need to work on our defense, but other than that I think we came back strong."

The reminder of the start of exams was the only thing to bring a scowl to the face of Meighan Simmons, who donned a pirate hat from the Virgin Islands trip that her teammates made her wear for the radio show and post-game press conference.

After Angie Bjorklund had come close several times to claiming the single-game record of eight threes – she and Shanna Zolman share the record with seven, which Bjorklund has done three times – Simmons stroked 8-15 from behind the arc, the record breaker on an assist from Bjorklund.

"She is one of the most confident players I've played with, and I have complete respect for her on the court," Bjorklund said. "And when she's hitting like that, it opens up a lot for everyone else. I'm happy. She got up my assists."

Bjorklund had five assists in the Lamar game and leads the team overall with 24 assists to just 12 turnovers. She came off the bench to tally 15 points and connected on three 3-pointers to give her 253 treys, just 13 off the school record of 266. Bjorklund also added five rebounds, two steals and a block.

Summitt smiled when she talked about both players.

"Meighan Simmons broke the record," Summitt said. "She's so light on her feet, so aggressive both offensively and defensively. That just speaks volumes to have a freshman do that. She loves the game of basketball, and I think she really inspired everyone else.

"With all that said obviously Angie has been right there next to her, so I think we'll have a little competition now … and try to pass her by."

Tennessee, 7-1, was 15-36 behind the arc as a team, which tied its single-game record for threes made and set the record for three-point attempts. Tennessee went 15-of-35 from long range earlier this season against Chattanooga.

It's an effective offense when the shots are falling – threes accounted for 45 of Tennessee's 99 points on Wednesday – and certainly played a part in why Georgetown was able to beat Tennessee last week at the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas.

"It's all about percentages," Summitt said. "If the ball's going in and we're in great rhythm, I don't have a problem with it. If we're not efficient that's when you have to think about the change you want to make and typically that means we want to go inside as opposed to just jacking up shots if we're not efficient."

Tennessee's inside game is limited now as the only true post logging extended minutes is Glory Johnson, who has pulled down double-digit rebounds for three consecutive games.

"Glory has done a nice job overall, and she's a great competitor," Summitt said.

Vicki Baugh logged seven effective minutes with four points, including hitting both free throws, three rebounds, one assist and a block. Baugh is easing into play this season after three knee surgeries and has dealt with tightness in her iliotibial band and hip that caused her to miss four games last month.

"We're kind of taking this game-by-game with Vicki," Summitt said. "I don't want her playing extended minutes, and I think we've got to be smart. She's doing a much better job of playing on balance. A healthy Vicki Baugh would really change what this team could be all about. She brings a lot of great things."

Kelley Cain, who is bothered by a sore hip and whose right knee can get irritated in inclement weather – East Tennessee experienced monsoons and then a light snow with a radical drop in temperature over the past 24 hours – sat out Wednesday's game.

"She's been stiff, and Jenny (Moshak) and I talked," Summitt said. "I said I don't want to push it. I'm good to rest her as much as we have to rest her."

That left Johnson as the only true post with Taber Spani starting in place of Cain. Spani, Alicia Manning and Shekinna Stricklen, rotated among the three and four spots and also at center when Johnson was off the court.

Tennessee has always been an inside-out team but a strength of the team at this point is its shooters.

"With some posts injured for now it could be an outside-in team, especially when Meighan is coming in and hitting like that, and our guards are shooting well," Bjorklund said. "But at the same time our post game is just as dominant, and they need just as many touches. If we have both the outside and in scoring like that and dominating then we'll be just fine."

Simmons started at the point spot with Kamiko Williams and Shekinna Stricklen on the wing. The freshman scored or assisted on six of the Lady Vols' first seven baskets, including hitting back-to-back threes to open the game. Stricklen scored in transition and Simmons fired a no-look pass inside to Johnson for the layup, and the Lady Vols led 10-0. Lamar wanted a timeout then at the 16:56 mark of the first half.

Simmons finished with a career-high 28 points and added five assists, two rebounds, two steals and a block.

Simmons has played at the point position in past games, but this was her first start at the spot.

She was Mickey Dearstone's player of the game and arrived to speak to the media wearing a pirate hat purloined from the Caribbean.

"I had to wear it on the radio, too," Simmons said.

"We made her wear it," Bjorklund said.

"Every game there's somebody who's a pirate of the game," Simmons said. "They work hard 24/7 through the game. And I earned this so I have to wear it 24/7 now."

That brought smiles from Bjorklund and Stricklen, who particularly seemed happy that she had moved off the ball, at least for this game.

"I feel like a lot of pressure is off of me a little bit," Stricklen said. "It's kind of freed me up, like coach said. I was able to just play on the wing some. They even put me at the four and just helping out the posts just being physical, I'm kind of like a big guard. I feel like that's a good spot, too."

Summitt had used Simmons, Briana Bass, Lauren Avant and Kamiko Williams at the point spot in preseason and some game repetitions, but Stricklen had still played the bulk of her minutes there. In Wednesday's game, she remained off the ball for the entire game. Avant, who should return soon after missing more than two weeks of court time with a sprained ankle soon after coming back from two weeks away with a nerve contusion in her hand, also will enter the mix.

The long-term plan has been to have Stricklen shift to the wing – that was put in motion in preseason – but injuries to Avant and the time needed to get another point guard up to speed means it will occur during the season.

"Ideally, I think that's our better lineup, whether it's Meighan, whether it's Bree," Summitt said. "I think that we will see that a lot more, because I think Stricklen is a lot more free and confident when she's not having to handle as much at the point. I like where we are right now and hopefully we can continue to make progress."

Simmons has played just eight college games, but she has shown a willingness to work hard and try to absorb the terminology on both sides of the ball. It's a lot for a freshman to shoulder, but Simmons doesn't lack for confidence, a desirable trait in a basketball player.

"I think I am pretty comfortable, and I think that it just comes with confidence," Simmons said. "Pat actually expects a lot of me, so you have to learn every position out there on the floor and not only learn your position but learn the position that your teammates are playing at. I think that her depending on me to come out and play the point guard really helped build my confidence."

Lamar, 5-1, was a scrappy team and didn't fold after missing its first eight shots, but the Lady Cardinals can't bring the defensive pressure of Georgetown, so the issue of who will handle the ball and lead press breaks against stiffer competition remains to be resolved.

Simmons didn't, however, let the point guard duties affect her style of play. She still hunted shots – Simmons was 10-18 overall – and pushed the tempo, both getting baskets in transition and wowing the crowd with a behind-the-back pass to a streaking Stricklen on the left wing for a layup and a 12-2 lead with 15:18 left in the first half.

The play came after Simmons had gotten too deep in the paint on a fast break and committed an offensive foul after passing to a teammate. Simmons has an instinctive feel on the basketball court, and that should help her as she tries to incorporate point duties into her repertoire.

"I think it might be an adjustment for her, but I think she's the type of player that she's picked up the system quickly, and if that's where she needs to play, she'll pick that up too," Bjorklund said. She'll do good."

Summitt added, "She's really is (a fearless shooter). Of course she's never seen a shot she didn't like, but I like a lot of her shots. I just like how light she is on her feet, the competitor that she is. She's a great teammate as well. I think the players really look to her at critical times in games."

Bjorklund entered the game after the second media timeout and Tennessee had a 20-8 lead at the 12:03 mark after Spani had connected on a short jumper and a layup.

"Coming into the game I really just focused on my defense because that's where it starts," Bjorklund said. "Just being aggressive on defense and then the offense will just flow. You just have to go out there confident."

Simmons swiped the ball and went the distance for a 24-8 lead at the 10:51 mark of the first half.

When Baugh checked in for Johnson at the 9:25 mark, the crowd of 10,692 erupted. She drove to the basket, was fouled and connected on both free throws for a 26-11 lead at the 7:52 mark of the first half.

Lamar settled down and kept pounding the ball in the paint while also connecting on three treys – one each from Jenna Plumley, Monique Whittaker and Ang Green – but the Lady Cardinals trailed at halftime 49-27 with Bass hitting a three-pointer for Tennessee five seconds before the buzzer sounded.

"I thought we got off to a slow start, but then found a lot of energy, because I really thought Lamar did a great job of just hunting paint points," Summitt said. "Once we got our defense more stable I thought we were much more effective. Obviously we shot the ball well at times.

"Overall, we started slow but you have to give them a lot of credit. They were just hunting paint points and pushed tempo, and we didn't match that intensity early on. But then I thought we settled down and did a better job."

Summitt used nine players in the first half and 10 for the game. No player went over 26 minutes – that logged by Simmons and Stricklen – and those that checked in kept the tempo on the uptick. Summitt cited those factors behind the team's 19 turnovers, one game after losing the ball 29 times against Georgetown.

"We still had a lot of turnovers," Summitt said. "We do play a pretty good pace, but we need to be a lot more efficient. I think when you play a lot of players you have to keep that into consideration as well."

Tennessee got 86 shots on goal and made 39 of them for a 45.3 shooting percentage and dominated the boards with a 54-40 margin, including 23 on the offensive end for 26 second-chance points to just six for Lamar.

Johnson and Stricklen paced the Lady Vols with 12 rebounds each and both got some of their points from cleaning up teammates' misses. Johnson was 4-8 from the field for eight points while Stricklen was 7-11 for 14 points.

"So much better," Stricklen said when asked how that effort affects the game. "What coach says, rebounding and defense wins games. You get second-chance points and putbacks and that helps out a lot."

Lamar Coach Larry Tidwell noted that stat in his post-game remarks.

"I think we could have rebounded better," Tidwell said. "We are not a bad rebounding team, and I've got people standing under the basket, instead of pushing and fighting and clawing and on the floor, things that we've done the last five games in a row. In our five-game winning streak we out-rebounded everybody. We've just got to take care of the ball better."

Lamar had 29 turnovers for the game with 16 miscues in the second half.

Tennessee increased its lead in the second half – it began with a wing jumper from Stricklen followed by putbacks from Spani and Stricklen with back-to-back blocks on the defensive end from Williams in between those.

"Just not being where we needed to be, not being mentally tough, not being mentally focused," Whittaker said of Tennessee owning the offensive glass.

Tennessee kept its accelerated pace with Bjorklund hitting a three in transition for a 62-33 lead with 14:14 left in the game. That also led to a Lamar timeout but after a Tennessee foul on Williams, she connected on a three-pointer as did Sydney Smallbone and the lead was 68-34 with 12:42 left to play.

Summitt continued to keep players rotating in and out so fresh legs were on the court for Tennessee. With Johnson the only healthy post and Baugh playing limited minutes that led to Stricklen and Spani playing power forward and center when Johnson took a seat.

Bjorklund found Stricklen on the high block for a 77-40 lead with 10:06 left. Bjorklund got another assist later in the second half when she stole the ball, drove the court and sent a perfect bounce pass to Williams for an 82-42 lead plus a foul. Williams converted for the 83-42 lead with 9:21 to play. That also gave Williams 13 points, the fourth Lady Vol to tally double digits in scoring for the game.

Simmons, who had 17 points at halftime, had an extended rest break in the second half but checked back in and hit 3 three-pointers – all assisted from Smallbone, Bass and Bjorklund – in less than three minutes for a 97-52 lead with 2:03 left. The final three set the record, and the bench erupted in cheers. During a media timeout, Alyssia Brewer, who is out because of injury, scooted over to the scorer's table. At that point Simmons had seven treys, and whatever info Brewer sought from the brief exchange was delivered to the players' huddle.

"(Making the first two) builds my confidence for later on in the game," Simmons said. "I have to be ready to shoot at all times. There might be a point in time where my team is depending on me to hit open shots, and I think that's what I came out and did (Wednesday).

"It (setting the record) hasn't hit to be honest, but my teammates are forcing it into me right now. They're like, ‘You pretend like you don't want to smile,' but I can't help but to smile. I think that's another way of God showing what I can bring to the table and as far as letting my team know that they can depend on me at any time during the game."

Lamar will at least take some cash from Knoxville. The Lady Cardinals sought the game without requiring a return home game for financial reasons and to upgrade its schedule.

"We go from here to Arizona State," Tidwell said. "It is what it is, and we have to raise money. We play these games to raise money. It pays for our summer school so our athletes can graduate on time. I've been here four years and we 11 of 12 athletes have graduated on time, and the one who has not graduated will finish up this spring.

"This is the seventh arena since I've been at Lamar that (the team) has either went to the Final Four or won national championships. The only way you are going to raise your program to a level you want it to be is you have to come in and experience this but you've got to continue to get your players to really believe in what you are doing."

Lamar is located in Beaumont, Texas, and Tidwell expressed disappointment in his team and also saluted the Texan on Tennessee's roster.

"We played hard and everything but we didn't finish, and we are very capable of finishing," Tidwell said. "I've got a really good point guard, I've got a really good forward and we are going to continue to get better.

"Hats off to Tennessee. Meighan, the girl from San Antonio, what a great game she had, shot the ball well. When you come into Tennessee you've got to be ready to play way above your head to stay in the game. I thought we were getting close to that but we let it get away from us in the second half.

"I am not mad at my team. I still love my team and I love my players. But to say I'm not disappointed that's not true because I thought we could play better."

Playing Tennessee at home is a difficult task for any team. Playing a Summitt-coached team after a loss can be particularly daunting.

"I am really mad at Georgetown right now," Tidwell said with a smile. "When you have a program like Tennessee does they should be mad. I am disappointed for losing. Nobody wants to lose but when you have a program as Tennessee does and they do get beat by Georgetown – and I'll say it publicly, nine out of 10 times that will not happen, Tennessee will win – it makes them aware. It really does."

Lamar shot 30.6 percent overall (19-62), 23.8 percent from behind the arc (5-21) and 75.0 percent from the line (12-16).

Green led Lamar with 15 points. Whittaker added nine points and seven rebounds.

"I wouldn't say nervous, but maybe a little anxious, just wanting to do our best," Whittaker said of Lamar's struggles to start the game. "We really couldn't control what they were doing, but we have to make sure we play within ourselves. After we scored our first basket we got our rhythm back and we got better."

Plumley, who transferred from Oklahoma, had five points on 2-10 shooting, three assists and five steals.

"I just wasn't in rhythm," Plumley said, "I've got to catch my game, get in a rhythm, and one of the big things is putting the ball in the right spots for our players, and we didn't finish. When we don't finish, it takes a little bit out of me, but I have to keep pushing.

"I took a lot of shots that I should have made. I felt like I was too close to the three-point line when I can shoot pretty deep. I was really excited and anxious for this game. It was a big thing for us. We let them shoot lights out. That's one thing we've got to get better at."

Tennessee shot 45.3 percent overall (39-86), 41.7 percent from the arc (15-36) and 75.0 percent from the line (6-8).

Despite guards having to post up, Tennessee still got 36 points in the paint and its bench outscored Lamar's, 30-11.

"Some people were playing out of position, but we made it work, and we played together," Bjorklund said. "I think it's just a lot of communication. When you're in a different position it really helps when your teammates are talking to you and making sure we're all on the same page, and I thought we did a great job of that tonight."

POST-GAME VIDEO COVERAGE: The three videos include Pat Summitt's remarks and those of Angie Bjorklund, Shekinna Stricklen and Meighan Simmons plus Lamar Coach Larry Tidwell and players Jenna Plumley and Monique Whittaker.


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