Tennessee races past Rutgers, 87-51

Three hours before Tennessee tipped off Thursday against Rutgers, Pat Summitt spoke at the funeral of Melissa McCray-Dukes. The moment of silence before the game brought tears to the eyes of those in Thompson-Boling Arena. With a No. 35 patch on their shorts the Lady Vols played in memory of a former player and wiped out the Scarlet Knights, 87-51.

It was a game Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer didn't even want to play – and her team seemed to respond in kind – because of difficulty getting to Knoxville after snow blanketed the Northeast region of the country and snarled air travel on Sunday and Monday.

But Tennessee, 12-2, had nowhere to put the game on the schedule with conference play beginning Sunday. The Vols basketball team plays at home Friday afternoon, and the Lady Vols leave Saturday for Baton Rouge, La.

"Unfortunately it was a scheduling issue for Tennessee," Stringer said. "It was not a scheduling issue with me. We proposed three or four dates that we could have played this game but we don't have access to the men's schedule (to check for additional conflicts) so there are a lot of things that administratively have to happen. No, I would not have wanted to play this game, not like this."

The schools' athletic directors, Rutgers' Tim Pernetti and Tennessee's Joan Cronan, talked Tuesday and decided the game needed to proceed as planned.

"We talked about what was happening weather-wise, what the planes looked like, what we could schedule," Cronan said. "We felt at that time that we needed to play the game on Thursday. It was a scheduling impossibility. The weather's good. The planes are flying now."

Rutgers, 7-6, took a charter flight from New Jersey and had a team practice at Pratt Pavilion on Wednesday evening with the available players. The issue for the team was getting all of the players to New Jersey to catch the charter flight since they were scattered across the country because of the Christmas break.

"As you can see all of our players are from all over the country, and none of them got in here except Nikki (Speed)," Stringer said. "Nikki took an overnight flight from California. April (Sykes) came from Mississippi, right here in the South, and didn't get here until this morning or late last night."

When Stringer was asked if she would revise her post-Christmas schedule in the future, she said, "If the good Lord willing doesn't let it snow like it did, then I guess I would. I don't have a special number up there to the good Lord. It wasn't a scheduling issue. It really wasn't. It wasn't a scheduling issue; it was that the good Lord let a lot of snow come on a lot of people. We happen to have it in the Northeast.

"We had a kid that flew all the way from Las Vegas and had to stay with a coach at Syracuse for three days. You know how close Syracuse is? It probably snows more there than any other place in the country. The game should not have been played, period. We were not worthy of this competition today, not that we would have been a whole heck of a lot better, but I could have felt better about coming into the game."

Despite the 3 p.m. tip on a Thursday – a time changed three weeks ago from 7 p.m. to avoid a conflict with the football Vols bowl game – 13,971 fans made it to Thompson-Boling Arena.

"Well, first of all, I thought we had a great crowd," said Coach Pat Summitt, who used the courtside microphone after the game to thank the fans, remind them to "stay out of trouble," wish them Happy New Year and express her love.

"If you can't get motivated in front of a crowd like that then you don't even have a pulse. I thought our team came out and played with a lot of energy. We did a lot of good things."

The fans didn't have to wait long to see Angie Bjorklund claim the school's all-time three-point record as the senior guard swished her first trey attempt at the 18:32 mark of the first half on a pass from freshman Meighan Simmons in transition.

Bjorklund was wide open – she had time to slightly adjust her feet – and the crowd, which stirred as the play was set up and then held its collective breath as she launched the shot, exploded when the ball went through the net.

"I just had some extra time because the defense was sagging off of me. I just took my time to shoot and it went in," said Bjorklund, who said she didn't think about the record-breaking shot before it left her hand and keeps her mind uncluttered during a game. "I think you just have to go in and focus on the game and that's it. Focus on what you have to do to win."

As the Lady Vols went back down the court, the feat was announced over the PA system, and the fans rose to their feet for an in-game standing ovation.

"I knew that was going to happen at some point in time," Summitt said. "She's excited about that. Records are made to be broken and hopefully that will keep happening."

Bjorklund was 2-4 from behind the arc and now has 268 three-pointers to claim the top spot on the career list and vault the previous record-holder, Shanna Zolman, who accrued 266 treys.

"It's definitely an honor," Bjorklund said. "I definitely look up to Shanna and all the players on that list so it's just an honor to be a part of it. Records are meant to be broken. Meighan (Simmons) is sure on her way, that's for sure. She's a great player. I think a lot of people coming in to this program are great shooters."

Summitt had said Bjorklund would have claimed the record sooner had she hunted more shots as requested, and that made the senior smile. She also said that she would look to shoot more in the second half of the season.

"Absolutely, but at the same time continuing to play with your teammates, moving without the ball, setting and using screens and playing inside-out," Bjorklund said. "I think the more we play together as a team, and the more player movement, ball movement, the more open shots I will get."

Tennessee opened the game by sticking to the game plan – find Kelley Cain inside and make the extra pass to get open looks.

"We had really great ball movement and our passing and sharing the ball, I thought we were very unselfish and also very aggressive," Summitt said.

Midway through the first half the Lady Vols were shooting 71.4 percent from the field and had a 27-12 lead.

Rutgers, meanwhile, was without a key player in guard Khadijah Rushdan, who suffered a bruised knee in the game against Texas A&M before the holiday break. A timetable for her return wasn't known, and Rushdan, who was not on crutches but walked with a slight limp, was on the bench in street clothes.

"Obviously we would have loved for her to have played," Stringer said.

Rutgers also only had April Sykes – Rushdan and Sykes are the leading scorers – for three total minutes in the second half after she went the distance in the first half and scored 13 points on 5-8 shooting. Both legs suffered cramping, and three times Sykes had to be helped off the court.

"Never had them before," Stringer said. "I wish I could tell (why it happened) but I don't know. I've never seen it before, but it is what it is."

With Rushdan out, Sykes hobbled and the travel complications, Stringer's post-game frustration was clearly evident when she was asked about her team's lack of preparation time for the game.

"We have been totally unprepared most of the year, so that's not so much it, but I can tell you we could have made a far better representation of ourselves," Stringer said. "It would have been worth the money, worth the time to have come here if we had a little bit more, and then it didn't help that we didn't have Khadijah. So we never got a chance to practice without her and didn't have April after she went down, so what the hey, you saw the other people that went in."

Tennessee spent three days before the game being challenged by Summitt with some strenuous practice sessions that included some exhausting team sprint sets for individual turnovers and failure to crash the glass.

"We had some tough practices just trying to get the team to have more of a sense of urgency," Summitt said.

The Lady Vols played Thursday as if they had received the message. Taber Spani, who scored a career-high 22 points, said the team's preparation and in-game attitude should not waver regardless of personnel issues with the opponent.

"Our coaches do an awesome job," Spani said. "They could have their five leading scorers out and we would still prepare the same way. We don't care who we are playing. We know we are going to get everybody's best shot and we are really playing against ourselves because we want to become the best team that we can be. Every night, we are trying to play up to our potential.

"We would prepare the exact same way if they have their top two leading scorers out or they didn't. That is a credit to our coaching staff."

Tennessee started the game by immediately getting Cain the ball inside.

"On the offense side, there really isn't anyone to stop her," Shekinna Stricklen said. "She's 6'6. She posts up hard, so if you get the ball in to her that's an easy two points right there."

Tennessee also hit its first two free throw attempts – both by Spani – which had been a place of missed opportunities in past games.

After a Stricklen drive and layup and Bjorklund's record three, Tennessee led 9-4 just two minutes into the first half. When Bjorklund hit her second three, the Lady Vols led 14-4 at the 16:15 mark and Stringer wanted a timeout.

On Rutgers' offensive possession Erica Wheeler beat her defender on a baseline drive and found Cain in her path as the center shifted to help. A startled Wheeler lofted a shot that never touched the rim.

"We can put more pressure (defensively) because you know that Kelley is inside," Stricklen said. "If you get beat on a drive, you know Kelley is there to help."

Spani connected on a midrange shot, and then lobbed a pass to Cain for an 18-8 lead with 13:49 left to play before the break. Spani was on the receiving end when Bjorklund stepped in after a shot fake and found inside Alicia Manning, who bounced a pass to Spani, who buried the trey for a 21-8 lead with 12:47 left in the first half.

Glory Johnson replaced Cain at the 12:05 mark and found Manning at the rim for a 23-12 lead at the 11:40 mark. Manning scored the next four points with a steal and coast to coast drive – leading to another Rutgers timeout at the 11:09 mark – and then a defensive board off the floor and another trip to the opposite rim for a 27-12 lead with 9:43 to play before halftime.

When Stricklen was doubled deep on the wing she lobbed the ball to an unguarded Spani in the corner, and Tennessee had a 30-12 lead at the 9:22 mark.

When Vicki Baugh and Cain entered the game at the 7:57 mark, Spani, Manning and Bjorklund were on the perimeter, and Spani took a turn at point guard, as did Manning.

"We all do what we have to do," Spani said with a smile.

With Simmons on the bench for all but three minutes of the first half in foul trouble, Stricklen went back to the point spot for awhile, too.

"I don't play it as much, but if they need me there, I know the spot still," Stricklen said with a smile.

Since Summitt moved Spani to the perimeter more – a shift made easier as Cain has been able to log more minutes with Manning also raising her level of play in the paint – the sophomore guard has settled down and increased her production on the scoreboard and the glass.

"I think it's her more natural position," Summitt said. "Just watching her when she was in high school, she played on the perimeter, she played point some. She can shoot the ball from long range, and that helps us. That really stretches out the defense. Taber is playing with a lot of confidence.

"She's a player that you don't have to say, ‘Have you been in the gym?' I don't even think about that because I know she's in the gym. Typically, she's a shooter. She thinks of herself as a shooter, but I told her, ‘You've got to be more than a shooter. You've got to defend. You've got to rebound.' I think her response to that was very, very positive."

Spani was 7-11 from the field and 6-6 from the line for 22 points. She also had six rebounds, two assists and a steal.

"I definitely am because I think that's more of my natural position," Spani said when asked if she was more comfortable now on the court. "But wherever I am I just try to take the mentality, whether I'm at the two, three, four, wherever I am, I just try to be the same player and have that aggressive mindset.

"I think I'm learning to do that better at the four position when I get in there, but naturally I am a guard, so I tend to be more aggressive at that position."

Manning logged some of her 18 minutes at the four spot and was 3-5 from the field for a stat line of six points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals with her scoring coming before halftime.

Summitt used nine players in the first half – a few defensive lapses allowed Rutgers to trim the first-half lead and Sykes hit a three with seven seconds left before the buzzer – to take advantage of the depth and the Lady Vols led 40-29 at the break.

"That is what we talked about at halftime – picking up our defensive pressure and controlling the boards and making sure we were (sending) four people to the glass," Summitt said. As far as the team they came out really inspired."

The second half was a rout as Tennessee out-scored Rutgers, 47-22, and a 20-16 edge on the boards at halftime ballooned to 46-27 for the game.

This was best exemplified when Kamiko Williams somehow got an offensive board between two taller Scarlet Knight defenders and upon landing found herself in a human thicket. She simply handed the ball to Stricklen, who flipped in the ball for the bucket and a70-37 lead with 9:19 left to play in the game.

The Lady Vols shot 57.7 percent in the second half and scored at the rim, from the perimeter, from in-bounds plays – Bjorklund curled off a screen and nailed a baseline jumper – and off of steals, including back-to-back ones from Stricklen, who played aggressively on both ends.

"I've been working a lot more on my pull-up game because I know my shooting hasn't been so good," Stricklen said. "I was more focused this game. We started the game out very well as a team and played off of that. On defense, I was more aggressive about getting in passing lanes, and Coach stays on me about that."

When Alyssia Brewer checked it at the 7:49 mark – it was her first home appearance of the season – the crowd applauded at the sight of her at the scorer's table. She tallied two boards and fought for inside position in eight minutes of play.

The only suspense left was whether or not Simmons would continue her freshman streak of double-digit scoring games, but she was stopped at 13, and Chamique Holdsclaw's record of 14 remains intact for at least another year.

Simmons logged just three minutes in the first half after picking up two quick fouls – one on defense in transition and the other a charge after dishing the ball on the fast break – and started the second half trying to make up for lost time. After launching a long three that barely drew the front iron, shooting over a double team and then losing the ball after dribbling into a double team despite an open Stricklen on the break, Summitt parked her precocious freshman on the bench with seven points.

By then Tennessee's lead was 30+ with a little less than 10 minutes to play, and Summitt went deep into the bench, using every available player for at least five minutes with 12 logging minutes. The 13th player on the roster, freshman Lauren Avant, missed the game after banging her head in practice Tuesday or otherwise Summitt would have been able to use the entire team for the first time this season.

"We outscored Rutgers' bench, 24-1," Summitt said. "That was a key for us, our depth coming off the bench and keeping people fresh and seeing them knock down the shots and play good defense."

Stringer used nine players, including juco transfer Julie Paunovic, who just became eligible on Dec. 30. With Sykes hobbled and trying to stretch and recover on the sideline – she went down right when the second half started, came back in and went down again seconds later before trying again midway through the game – the Lady Vols increased the tempo to take advantage of their depth.

"That was definitely a disadvantage for them with April not being able to go," Summitt said. "She was having spasms or whatever and couldn't seem to stay in that long. That hurts them because she's really a terrific player."

Spani noted, "We knew that they do play a short bench, and we just want to attack no matter what. That kind of gave us three extra media timeouts almost (when Sykes had to be treated and then helped off the court). We were ready to go at that point. We were trying to focus and go after it."

The performance by Rutgers reflected those shortcomings, and it was apparent after the game that Stringer didn't like the circumstances.

"I called Tennessee and asked that question," Stringer said when asked about trying to reschedule. "You see we're playing don't you? They couldn't do it. I would have done it anyway. I would have done it if we played every day back to back. I back down from nobody. I will play five games in four days, and you know it. We played four teams, top-five teams in eight days, this coach will do it, but I don't want to waste my time or the players' time by coming in here and not representing ourselves."

The poor outing by Rutgers was particularly galling to Stringer, and the lack of pre-game preparation time fueled her post-game distress.

"I didn't think. I know we did not have time to get my team prepared because I'm saying to you, we couldn't tell you whether they were doing a zone or a man or anything else," Stringer said. "We obviously have had our hands full because we had issues with Texas A&M (a 79-50 loss).

"It has nothing to do with Tennessee. Tennessee is an outstanding team. Pat is an outstanding coach. I don't like coming into this kind of situation where we are not prepared, and I don't appreciate it. We didn't do well against Texas A&M, but we had time to prepare for them. We may have done the same thing with Tennessee, but I want to have a chance to do well or at least to see what we are doing better, but we'll practice."

Rutgers was led by April Sykes with 15 points – all but two coming in the first half – with Nikki Speed adding 11 and Erica Wheeler chipping in with 10. The Scarlet Knights shot 33.3 percent overall (21-63) – 40.0 percent in the first and 27.3 percent in the second – 25.0 percent from behind the arc (4-16) and 62.5 percent from the line (5-8). Rutgers had seven assists, 16 turnovers and five steals.

Tennessee had five players in double figures led by Spani's 22 points. Stricklen and Johnson had 12 each with Bjorklund and Cain tallying 11 each. Bjorklund went the distance in the first half and finished at 33 minutes, but no other Lady Vol exceeded 28 minutes.

Johnson got eight of her 12 points from the free throw line as she went 8-12 from the stripe and 2-4 from the field with a team-high nine boards in 19 total minutes off the bench.

"It was good to see Glory battling and get on the boards and score for us," Summitt said.

Tennessee shot 52.5 percent overall (32-61), 31.3 percent from long range (5-16) and 72.0 percent from the line (18-25). The Lady Vols had 14 assists, 13 turnovers and 10 steals.

Thursday was a difficult day for Summitt and the Tennessee program because of the death of Melissa McCray-Dukes on Monday after two battles with breast cancer. The funeral service was Thursday at noon for the former Lady Vol guard, who played from 1985 to 1989, and was a teammate of Daedra Charles-Furlow and was coached by Summitt, Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick and Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss.

Summitt spoke at the service at a Knoxville church before coming to the arena.

"I went to bed at 1:30 last night," Summitt said after the game. "I went through everything with Melissa and what I wanted to do. When I got up there I thought – I was really nervous, and I typically don't get nervous – but I just wanted to do a great job for her. I love her. I love her family. It was a really emotional time just getting to the church but when I got up there I thought, ‘This isn't about you. This is about Melissa and her family.'

"I just spoke from my heart. She's been a tremendous asset to this program and to Coach Summitt. I've spent a lot of time with her and the last time I was with her (two weeks ago), I thought this may be the last time I see her alive. She battled and battled and battled, but she did it in a graceful way. I will always remember those days."

When Tennessee lined up for the national anthem, the PA announcer first asked for a moment of silence to remember McCray-Dukes. The Tennessee staff wore No. 35 patches and the shorts of the Lady Vols also had the patch, which will remain all season.

It was an emotional moment and when the seconds of silence ended, Warlick wiped tears from her eyes, as did some fans in the stands.

Several of McCray-Dukes' teammates attended the service, including Charles-Furlow, Shelley Sexton Collier, Cheryl Littlejohn, Jennifer Tuggle Wallace, Tonya Edwards, Bridgette Gordon, Lisa Webb Kimbrough and Sabrina Mott.

"I wasn't surprised (so many former teammates being at the funeral)," Summitt said. "I just felt like, ‘They're going to come. They're going to be there for her.' … The place was packed. So many people love her in such an incredible way."

McCray-Dukes, while undergoing chemo and radiation, made a trip to campus in 2009 to talk to the Lady Vols.

"She talked a lot about when you put on the orange you don't come here unless you want to win championships," Summitt said. "She made that very clear. She said everybody has a role, and everybody has to be invested. She said, ‘You've got to understand you're on the biggest stage in the women's game.'

"She was passionate about trying to motivate our team and back when she played and what those teams were like and winning two national championships here (in 1987 and 1989). Every day I come out I am going to see those two banners."

Bjorklund noted, "I'll never forget when she came in and talked to us about the fight and battle that she was going through. She was one of the most motivational people I've ever talked to. She had so much faith and so much fight in her, and she was doing everything she could to pass it on to us.

"We are definitely keeping her family and friends in our prayers. I respect her very much."

McCray-Dukes had wanted to make a return engagement, but her illness didn't allow the trip.

"The one thing she wanted to do was come back and talk to the team one more time," Summitt said. "I said, ‘You don't need to worry about that right now.' "

McCray-Dukes set up that play. Her teammates finished it. The former players in attendance at the funeral came to the game afterwards – probably the best place to seek solace and comfort – and met with the team.

"Once you're a Lady Vol, you stay a Lady Vol," Bjorklund said. "It's just one big family. There were three former players in (the locker room) talking to us after this game trying to motivate us. That's what it is all about. You continue to be a part of the family and she will always be a part of the family."

"I just want to echo what Angie said," Spani said. "Our whole team and myself personally we are keeping Melissa's family and friends in our prayers. It's a tragedy for the whole program.

"It is such a tight-knit group and it's been amazing for us to see the tightness and the closeness and how much of a family it truly is. That's what we're going to continue when we leave here and I think that's special only to Tennessee."

VIDEO COVERAGE: Post-game press conference videos.

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt

Lady Vol players Angie Bjorklund, Taber Spani, Shekinna Stricklen

Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer


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