Lady Vols shoot down Razorbacks

Shekinna Stricklen wasn't hitting in shoot-around, and she was nervous before tipoff, but it didn't show during the game as the junior forward, playing in her home state before a host of family and friends, scored 26 points, including a career-high six treys, in Sunday's 72-53 win over Arkansas to keep Tennessee perfect in SEC play.

"I was nervous," Shekinna Stricklen said. "I don't really know why. It went away as soon as the game started, though. … It felt great to come back home and play in front of my family and friends. I love them."

Stricklen had several dozen family and friends among the crowd of 6,149 from her hometown of Morrilton, Ark., and relatively nearby Kansas City.

"It was homecoming for Stricklen," Coach Pat Summitt said. "She liked it. I think everybody in her hometown was here. Sometimes players won't play as well, but I think Stricklen was liking it. She has put time in in her shot and that has made a big difference for her. There is no substitute for repetition, and she understands that very well."

"Kinna has such amazing support from her family," Taber Spani said. "About 20 of them showed up to shoot-around (Saturday). She's a pressure player and a clutch player so she's going to love playing in her (home state)."

Stricklen struggled to find the bottom of the net during that shoot-around session.

"They were like, ‘You had better not be doing that (Sunday),' " Stricklen said.

She didn't, and Tennessee (21-2, 9-0) downed an upset-minded Arkansas (16-5, 4-5) at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville. The Lady Vols will now have a week off, as they don't play again until taking on Kentucky on Feb. 7 in Lexington.

It's rare for Tennessee to have a bye date in SEC play – Pat Summitt has used those for non-conference games in years past – but those games were all scheduled this season before SEC play began and then Tennessee awaited the league slate.

"I think for us at this point in the season right now it's a good thing," Spani said. "Just because people are sick or a little bit injured. There are some nagging injuries and then some bigger stuff, so I think anytime you can get that week off in the middle of SEC play, it's a good thing.

"I think now that this team has matured past the point of letdown we know this week in practice is preparation for our Monday game (against Kentucky next week). So we're not going to use it an off week. We're going to use it as a week to get better."

"I think I'll go to my beach house," Summitt joked on her post-game radio show with Mickey Dearstone.

Summitt and her staff will take trips this week, but she said on the radio it would be for recruiting purposes. The team will have practice Monday and then an off day Tuesday.

With guard Angie Bjorklund still sidelined with a right foot injury – the weeklong break in SEC play comes at a good time for the senior – Summitt has had to adjust her starting lineup. Glory Johnson moved into it at power forward with Kelley Cain at center, so that allowed Stricklen to play at small forward, the spot she is most comfortable with on the court.

The Razorbacks packed the paint with a zone to account for Cain and Johnson inside, and that left Stricklen and Spani room to work on the perimeter as zone-busters.

"That solves a lot of problems," Summitt said on her post-game show. "That definitely solves a lot of problems. Those two have definitely invested in their offensive skill set. I like what I am seeing from both of them."

Stricklen had 18 points by halftime with Spani adding 13 by the break.

"They were in that zone and they were really packing it inside," Stricklen said. "They were really keying on Kelley and Glory inside, and they were just leaving us open. Me and Taber took advantage of that."

The pair accounted for 31 of Tennessee's 39 first half points.

"The shot's were open," Spani said. "Kinna and I both hit some early shots and that always helps your confidence."

Spani hit a jumper to start the game deep into the shot clock as Tennessee rotated the ball against the Razorbacks' trapping zone. The Lady Vols also started in their 2-3 matchup zone to cut back on Arkansas' forays to the rim.

Stricklen, who lined up on the perimeter after playing power forward for the first eight SEC games, drained a three on a pass from Meighan Simmons for a 5-3 lead two minutes into the game.

"I feel like we kind of overlooked her," Arkansas guard Lyndsay Harris said. "She's changed positions this year. She's playing a little bit more at the four position. She hasn't really been leading the team, but she went off on us today, and I don't think we paid enough attention to her."

Stricklen's teammates did as they made sure to get her and Spani the ball in the first half. The game started out sloppy on the Lady Vols end with Simmons and Johnson losing the handle – they were replaced for a stint by Kamiko Williams and Alicia Manning – and Harris tied the game at 8-8 with a deep three ball.

When Spani hit a deep three of her own at the 12:12 mark of the first half, it gave Tennessee a 13-10 lead, which it never lost. Stricklen answered with a baseline shot that had to be reviewed on the monitor to determine if it was a trey – it was – and the Lady Vols led 16-12.

Spani got an offensive board and, while heading out of bounds, flipped the ball to Manning for the basket and 18-12 lead with 9:39 left before halftime.

The Razorbacks stayed close in the first half and trailed by just four points, 31-27, when Harris hit a layup at the 2:32 mark.

But Williams found Spani in the corner for a three, Johnson got a defensive board, dribbled to the other end and flipped the ball to Spani for a long jumper and then Stricklen hit a deep three on a pass from Manning for a 39-27 lead with 1:26 left, and Arkansas called a timeout.

Tennessee didn't score again in the first half – Stricklen missed a three and Spani missed a jumper – but neither did Arkansas, and the Lady Vols took that 12-point lead into the locker room.

Summitt was happy with the flurry of offense to end the first half.

"It was huge for us," Summitt said. "We were kind of going back and forth, and I think we stepped on our defense, no question about that, did a better job on the boards, pushed tempo better, had a lot of energy. That's important, too, particularly when you are on the road."

Arkansas Coach Tom Collen didn't like that conclusion, but his team did regroup at the break.

"In the first half the last two and a half minutes of the game when they hit threes against our zone that were uncontested I think that sunk our spirits a little bid," Collen said. "That was frustrating going into the locker room.

"We came out of the locker room and I thought we were fine. We cut it back down to six. I thought we were going to compete and ultimately we really had a hard time scoring. They've got so much depth."

Summitt wasn't particularly pleased with her team's first half defense, and the Lady Vol used the switching man defense more than the zone in the second half.

Tennessee closed the half with an 8-0 run and got the first basket of the second half with a Stricklen lob inside to Johnson for a 41-27 lead with 18:38 left, but then Arkansas went on its own 8-0 run and cut the lead to 41-35 on back-to-back three-pointers by Sarah Watkins and Harris, forcing Tennessee to call timeout with 16:20 left.

"I think that helped us keep them in front of us," Summitt said of the shift from a zone to the aggressive switching man defense.

"We just have to be really aggressive and have a lot of energy, especially at the top of the key," Johnson said. "That's an automatic bucket if you can get a steal at the top. That's what Pat wanted us to do, a lot more in the second half and it changed the game completely."

Tennessee also got balanced scoring with eight more points from Stricklen and five more from Spani to go along with Johnson's work inside.

"You saw Glory step up and dominate the inside," Spani said.

Summitt also kept rotating in reinforcements with Williams, who replaced Simmons, who struggled to score and retain possession of the ball, and Manning, Alyssia Brewer and Vicki Baugh.

When Baugh hit a reverse layup for a 52-40 lead with 12:34 left, the Tennessee bench erupted in celebration, not so much because of the basket but because Baugh, who is coming back from knee surgeries, hit it.

"Vicki Baugh, I wanted to get her in and Lyssi Brewer," Summitt said.

Spani and Stricklen stayed involved, too, as Spani hit a step-back and Stricklen buried a deep three on the left wing for a 57-42 lead with 10:48 left.

Williams then scored Tennessee's next six points with a drive and bank shot, a jumper and a drive and foul with two made free throws for a 63-47 lead with 6:19 to play.

Simmons was 0-6 from the field with four turnovers and logged just 19 minutes. She did tally three assists, two boards and a block.

"It wasn't one of Meighan's better games," Summitt said. "Sometimes they look like freshmen. The thing about Meighan is she is going to play hard. She didn't have a particularly good game today, but it's just a matter of time. She's going to be a great player for us."

Williams logged 22 minutes and was 4-7 from the field for 10 points with four boards, one assist and three turnovers.

Besides scoring by dribble penetration, Williams also slipped in behind the defense and got a perfect pass from Manning for the layup. When she left the game with 1:14 to play, Williams got a pat on the back and the words, "Good job," from Summitt.

Tennessee concluded its scoring with a three-pointer from Stricklen, a Baugh drive and layup and a turn-around from Johnson inside. Summitt emptied the bench for the final minute-plus, as did Arkansas, and Keira Peak hit a layup off a steal for the Razorbacks for the final 72-53 outcome.

Despite no points from Simmons and Cain, who was limited by foul trouble and illness to 12 minutes, the Lady Vols still won by double digits because of the different scoring weapons that can be unleashed.

Stricklen entered the game averaging 11.0 points per game and more than doubled that output.

"I don't think we overlooked her," Collen said. "If you look at them statistically they have so many players that can step up and score for them. I don't think as a staff we underestimated her."

Collen noted that Stricklen wasn't the team's best three-ball shooter statistically, yet she went 6-9 from long range.

"In a lot of situations (before) she passes those threes up," Collen said. "She was playing at home in front of her fans and once she made a couple she was feeling pretty good. She came in here and lit it up.

"It's a hard thing to watch, but she's a great player, a great kid. I wish we had her on our team."

The Razorbacks did intend to better corral Stricklen.

"Usually when we have girls that play on other teams that are from here, we look to kind of shut them down," Harris said. "We don't want them going off and getting confidence from the crowd or their family."

But Arkansas also noted the quality of players that came off the bench for Tennessee and the fact that every starter is capable of scoring. It makes it difficult to account for all of the Lady Vols' options for 40 minutes.

"A lot of teams you play they have role players, but this team they all can score," Harris said. "You've got to be on your toes with all of them. You've got to know your personnel really well. You've got to know who the shooters are. You've got to know who is more likely to drive the ball.

"They are so talented that even when they sub, you've got somebody coming in that is just as good as the girl that left the floor."

Summitt had challenged Stricklen in early January to start playing like the All-American she was recruited to be at Tennessee – she was so talented in high school that after Holly Warlick went to watch Stricklen for the first time, the associate head coach was so impressed that she reported back to Summitt that she would resign if Summitt didn't recruit her.

Stricklen responded to the challenge from Summitt and while she had done so from the post, she performed Sunday as a small forward, the position she was recruited to play for the Lady Vols but has played all five because of injuries to other players.

"I told her I didn't want to take her out of the lineup and she obviously didn't want to go out of the lineup so she decided to show up," Summitt said of that earlier conversation with Stricklen. "We like it."

Having Stricklen on the perimeter also makes Tennessee an even taller team as she is 6'2 and lines up with the 6'1 Spani.

"It's not just their post kids, it's their length at the guard position," said Collen, who noticed the size before the game started.

"Sitting there watching them as the national anthem was playing, their long line of players right there, and I looked down to the end of the bench and their shortest one was listed at 5'11," Collen said. "They've got so much length. It's hard to pass the ball around. They all go to the boards, too."

Tennessee prevailed on the glass, 42-23. Spani had five rebounds with three players, Stricklen, Manning and Williams, getting four each. Johnson grabbed 14 boards, the only player for either team to be in double digits.

"Glory was terrific, just all over the glass," Summitt said. "That was a big difference maker for us."

Johnson said, "I know Coach relies on me to pull boards offensively and defensively. When I practice it I think of every shot as a miss no matter if I know that this is a great shooter, every shot that goes up I think it's a miss and I'm looking for the rebound. That's my mentality."

Arkansas was led by Watkins with 15 points on 4-6 shooting, including a trey, and 6-7 from the line.

"She's a great player, and she's really creative with her outside shooting and posting up she was pretty powerful," Johnson said. "So just getting her in foul trouble pretty early helped all of us. We were all kind of attacking her at the same time."

Watkins had four fouls, and although she logged 30 minutes, the Razorbacks missed her post presence when she wasn't on the court.

"It's always a factor when Sarah's not on the floor," Collen said. "We're not deep in the post position. We need a couple of more kids like her, and fortunately I think we've got some help on the way. … If she goes off the floor we're not as good."

Watkins was off the court when Tennessee made its run to close the first half.

"That run was us breaking down on defense," Harris said. "We weren't finding shooters in our zone. We messed up defensively. Had our defense held up we could have stayed right with them."

On the offensive end, though Arkansas had just 11 turnovers – Tennessee capitalized with 10 points – the length of the Lady Vols was disruptive.

"Because they're tall and long it's harder to take care of the ball," Harris said. "But really they were just switching everything. We tried to get mismatches, but they're all tall and they kept switching on our ball screens, and we couldn't get what we wanted offensively."

Harris also reached double digits for Arkansas with 12 points, as did C'eira Ricketts. Peak added eight points off the bench. The Razorbacks shot 33.9 percent (19-56) overall – the 11th straight Tennessee opponent held under 40 percent – 22.7 percent (5-22) from long range and 90.9 percent (10-11) from the line.

The Razorbacks had 11 assists, 11 turnovers, eight steals and two blocks.

"We're disappointed with the loss," Collen said. "I think there were times when we played well, when we competed. … They're a great basketball team and it's a hard team to measure yourself by. I know people talk all the time about they're the measuring stick of the SEC, and I don't believe that.

"I believe they're the measuring stick if you want to win a national championship. Certainly they teach you a lot about your team, they tell you what you need to work on, what you need to do better if you're going to win an SEC championship. That's what we want to strive for here."

Harris noted, "We wanted to play hard. We never once thought that we were incapable of beating this team. I think we showed at times that we could keep up with them. We had chances to win and I think late in the game we lot a lot of stuff slip away from us as far as on our defensive side.

"Offensively, we just couldn't execute. Coach told us not to measure our greatness against this team. We're not through yet. We'll move on."

Watkins, who is from Germantown, Tenn., and attended Summitt's basketball camps, said, "I think we came out and played hard. They are a really great team so it's hard to beat ourselves up over this loss. I'm sure we wanted it to go a little closer, a little more down to the wire than this, but we understand that we're playing a team that has a great history.

"We can't beat ourselves up over this. We've just got to go to the next game and keep working hard."

Summitt was apprehensive about the game beforehand because of the aggressive attack of Arkansas guards, led by Ricketts and Harris.

"They're tough, their guard play was really solid, their inside play," Summitt said on her post-game radio show. "They do a tremendous job. We knew coming into this game that their athleticism would potentially give us problems, but I like how we defended the guard play."

She added at the post-game press conference, "I thought they battled really hard. I thought our depth was a factor. We played a lot of people, and I think that helped keep us fresh."

Tennessee was led by Stricklen with 26 points. Spani also was in double digits with 18 and Williams added 10 points. Johnson completed the double-double with 12 points and 14 rebounds. She also had three of the Lady Vols' five steals.

The Lady Vols shot 47.5 percent (28-59) overall, 47.4 percent (9-19) from long range and 87.5 percent (7-8) from the line. Tennessee had 11 assists, 17 turnovers, five steals and three blocks.

"I feel good about this team," Summitt said. "They seem to be a real close-knit team. They know at any point in time they can have their name called to go in the game, and they've got to be ready.

"Our depth is key. The depth we have this year has allowed us to have this level of success to this point in time. I like our depth."

Collen went significantly further when talking about Tennessee.

"I think this is the best Tennessee team since (Candace) Parker," Collen said. "The past few years I am sure were very, very disappointing to them not reaching the Final Four, but this junior class that she signed, as freshmen, as heralded as it was, they were freshmen. They just needed to grow up. Now, that is what's happening.

Glory Johnson has turned into one of the better rebounders in the country. Stricklen, my gosh, she's played everything from one through five for them, and she is such a versatile kid. She's hard to guard at the four. This is the most complete team they've had.

"I think this is a team that can probably make a run to the Final Four and anytime you get there you've got a chance to win the national championship. The good news for Pat is most of these kids come back for another year after that.

"I don't think this is the Tennessee team from the last two years. I think this is the one that we're going to be talking about probably in Indianapolis."

VIDEO COVERAGE The Arkansas women's basketball website shows the post-game press conferences at this link.


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