Lady Vols put extra off day to good use

When Shekinna Stricklen got a text message Tuesday evening that Wednesday's practice had been cancelled, she thought it was a joke. She welcomed the extra rest time – though she contacted an assistant coach for a shooting workout anyway – as did some of her teammates, though several were still sidelined Thursday due to ongoing injury, illness or concussion.

Coach Pat Summitt said after Thursday's practice – when just eight players took the court – that she didn't plan for two consecutive off days but Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, recommended it.

Tuesday had been a scheduled off day and after Moshak outlined the list of players needing more time off, Summitt and the staff opted to take off Wednesday, too.

The five players that still missed Thursday were: Angie Bjorklund, ongoing issue with her right foot, although she had a vigorous bike workout on the sideline; Taber Spani, maintenance day to rest her left foot – she suffered turf toe and related complications last season and will always have to be vigilant – and to treat her right shin; Kamiko Williams, concussion protocol, an injury thought to have occurred at some point in the Arkansas game last Sunday; Lauren Avant, ongoing illness; and Sydney Smallbone, personal family matter.

Thursday is usually a game day in the SEC, but Tennessee had a bye this week and apparently the timing could not have been better. Eight players took the court Thursday, including Kelley Cain, who had been ill last week, and Vicki Baugh, who always remains day to day because of her knee.

With the three-point firepower side by side on stationary bikes – Bjorklund's workout and a lengthier pedaling one by Spani – Shekinna Stricklen shifted in shooting drills from the posts to the guards, leaving the paint to Cain, Baugh, Glory Johnson and Alyssia Brewer.

Stricklen got the text Tuesday evening about Wednesday's cancellation and immediately send texts to teammates asking if it were true and found out it was.

"Woo, loved it," Stricklen said. "It threw us off. We screamed like crazy. We were like, ‘This has got to be a joke. This has really got to be a joke.' But it wasn't."

February is a tough month for basketball players as their bodies really feel the cumulative effects of aches and pains since workouts began in August, and they are trying to close out conference play and not look ahead to postseason.

A sign of maturity for the team is that although the players celebrated not having a rigorous mid-week practice, several headed to the gym anyway.

"I went and shot," Stricklen said. "Me and Holly (Warlick) did a good shooting workout on Wednesday. The ones that weren't hurt still worked on their game."

Cain, Baugh and Johnson all found Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood for a court workout. Stricklen said the mental break from basketball was beneficial to her, too.

"I really think so," Stricklen said. "It's helping out because we have a lot of injuries right now and we've been a little behind on school since school started so it helped out to get those two days off for study days, getting more treatment with JMo. I think those two days really helped."

Some players who didn't take the court instead watched film with coaches.

"People were excited, but I think it was just because our bodies needed it," said Spani, one of the ones who opted for film because she was under orders to rest. "I think this team is past the point of just to get a break. We don't want off days just to have off days. We want off days to get productive, get better, get rest. From that standpoint everybody's bodies were probably screaming, ‘Yes, thank you.'

"But a lot of people got in the gym and if not, they watched film. Our off days aren't going to really be off days. We're still going to be focused and we're still going to get better, even if it's not necessarily in practice."

Resting was actually a major step for Spani, who downplayed the pain in her foot last season and took the court when she likely should have been off of it.

"I learned. I matured," Spani said with a smile. "It's like a sad thing because I hate it but I also realize what's most important."

It wasn't an ideal situation from the coaches' standpoint – consecutive off days at this stage of the season is rare – but they accepted it.

"Jenny felt like they needed it," Summitt said. "I think the rest that some of them got was much needed. We don't like looking at all of them over here (Thursday), but it is what it is. We still wanted to get in some good reps, offensively, defensively."

Stricklen worked out with the perimeter players, and that's a spot the staff would like to leave the 6'2 guard/forward, but the fact she can line up all over the court won't be overlooked.

"We like her versatility," Summitt said. "There is no doubt about that. (But) Glory and Kelley, if they can lock down the post game inside, (the coaches like having Stricklen outside)."

Lockwood smiled and said it was out of necessity, too, on Thursday with Spani and Bjorklund pedaling on the sideline.

"That arc doesn't mean a whole lot with those two sitting down," Lockwood said.

Stricklen played the entire game against Arkansas on the perimeter at the small forward position and tallied 26 points, including a career-high six three-pointers.

"I was at the three (small forward) the whole entire game," Stricklen said. "I didn't move from it. It felt really good. I think I was in a zone. It just felt great."

Bjorklund was sidelined for the second consecutive game, and Spani scored 18 points, including a 3-5 line from behind the arc.

Both players had a family presence. Stricklen was playing in her home state of Arkansas and estimated she had several dozen family and friends in attendance.

Spani's parents, Gary and Stacey, had driven from Missouri to Knoxville for the Jan. 27 home game against Mississippi State, left Tennessee at 5 a.m. Jan. 28 to get home in time to coach their younger daughters in Lee's Summitt, Mo., left Saturday for Joplin, Mo., for another basketball game involving their daughters and then arrived in Fayetteville, Ark., for Spani's Jan. 30 game before heading back home to Missouri.

Spani indicated Thursday that her rest day was precisely that, and she expected to be back on the court soon.

With three games next week – at Kentucky on Monday, at home against Florida next Thursday and then at Vanderbilt the following Sunday – the respite was well timed.

"It was huge," Spani said. "I think our schedule fell great. At Vandy and at Kentucky are two of the toughest games remaining on our schedule."

The Lady Vols have been on the road quite a bit in SEC play of late – three of the past four games and two of the next three. Tennessee does close at home with three of the final four in Knoxville with a trip to Ole Miss the penultimate game of the regular season.

"I think it was great and I think it was a smart move by everyone involved," Spani said of some extended rest. "Right now it's most important to be healthy.

"Just recharging your mind, your focus, everything, that all helps with an off week. We're ready to go now."

Stricklen enjoyed her extended time at small forward, but she is prepared to play inside or out. The junior had started out strong while playing inside – she logged significant minutes in the paint against Old Dominion, Stanford and Rutgers – but then she slipped once SEC play started after she was encamped at the power forward slot.

"At the beginning it kind of threw me off, especially when she put me at the four spot. I was like, ‘Wow, I am going from the one to the four,' " Stricklen said.

The drop-off was steep enough to warrant a one-on-one conversation during practice with Summitt that was really one-sided as the head coach challenged Stricklen to elevate her play.

"She was right," Stricklen said. "I hadn't been playing my game. And finally I have been playing my game with more confidence, looking to score and create more things for my teammates, too. My whole game has turned around.

"She shouldn't have to motivate me or tell me to do that, but I am glad she did."

Stricklen's versatility also is likely to being noticed by WNBA teams – she literally has played all five positions at times this season – although she won't become a pro until after the 2011-12 season.

"I hope so," she said.

When Stricklen found herself logging more time inside than out, her offensive game stalled.

"It kind of threw me off but then I was like, ‘Pat knows what she's doing,' " Stricklen said. "I really do like it. It's hard for other teams. They don't know if I'm going to be a four one game or if I am going to move to the three or the point. They just don't know."

"When she switched me to the four spot I thought my role had changed. I didn't think I was supposed to create for my teammates. I didn't think I was a scorer anymore. We had a talk and she said, ‘No, you can play every spot. I don't want your game to change. You can still look to score. You can look to create for your teammates. You can do it all.' "

With just three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Lady Vols are aware of the importance of every remaining game both on the SEC and national levels.

"Definitely, absolutely," Spani said. "For this team now – last year we were just excited to be where we were (after the ultimate futility, by Lady Vol standards, of the 2008-09 season) – but this team now I think it's a different mindset.

"We understand and we embrace the fact that it's a challenging week next week and we love that and we also want to prove a point. Not just to other teams, but we want to prove a point to ourselves that we're one of the best teams in the nation."

"Everything," Stricklen said when asked about the importance of the next three games. "I think that's kind of why they gave us two days off. Everyone has to come in here really focused and ready to play.

"(Next week) is going to be a hard week for us. I think if we keep playing like we've been playing we keep committing to defense and rebounding and have each other's back I feel like we will get through it."

Spani said the notion of postseason seeding does rattle around in players' minds "a little bit just because it's exciting, and we understand the importance of seeding. We understand the importance of getting (a top seed) and how that affects the rest of the tournament.

"It is in the back of our minds, but it's definitely not the forefront. We want to focus on finishing out the SEC and right now all we care about is Kentucky."

ACADEMIC HONORS: Three Lady Vol basketball players were selected to the District 4 Capital One Academic All-District team as selected by CoSIDA on Thursday.

Senior guard Angie Bjorklund captured Academic All-District First Team honors for the second consecutive year, while junior forward Glory Johnson and sophomore guard/forward Taber Spani were named to the Academic All-District Second Team.

Bjorklund, a 6'0 sharpshooter from Spokane Valley, Wash., is averaging 11.3 points per game and became Tennessee's career leader in treys with 283. She has a 3.63 GPA and is majoring in psychology

She was selected as one of just five CoSIDA Academic All-America First Team honorees in 2009-10, and also earned Academic All-District Second Team laurels in 2008-09. By earning All-District First Team honors again this season, Bjorklund is eligible to be named to the Capital One Academic All-America Team for a second time later this month.

Johnson and Spani earned their first CoSIDA/Capital One Academic All-District honors.

Johnson, a 6'3 post and native of Knoxville, is a three-time SEC Player of the Week selection this season. She leads UT in scoring (14.7 ppg) and rebounding (10.7 rpg) in SEC play and has seven double doubles in 2010-11. Johnson has a 3.50 GPA and is majoring in global studies. She is on pace to graduate in just three years this May.

Spani, a 6'1 guard/forward, is averaging 9.3 ppg and 4.4 rpg this season, while starting 14 of 23 games. A native of Lee's Summitt, Mo., she became just the 13th Lady Vol ever to start her very first collegiate game last season. Spani maintains a 3.86 GPA and is majoring in communications studies.

VIDEO COVERAGE: Video clips from Thursday's practice.

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