Lady Vols open SEC tourney today

NASHVILLE - It is not at all unusual for Pat Summitt to have one-on-one conversations with players at practice and they are usually brief and to the point. One such chat earlier this season with Shekinna Stricklen was pointed but not brief, and it turned around the season for the talented junior, who was selected as the SEC Player of the Year.

It was near the end of practice the day before Tennessee was to host Ole Miss in the third SEC game of the regular season, and Pat Summitt wasn't pleased with the overall play of Shekinna Stricklen, a junior guard/forward who can competently handle all five spots on the court but sometimes played far too passively.

The conversation started with Summitt quietly saying a few words and Stricklen offering a reply while they stood beside each other. Those few seconds usually ends the chat, but this time Summitt moved in front of her star player and took over the exchange. Stricklen's focus zeroed in on her head coach and she listened without response, except to nod on occasion. Summitt finished the conversation within a few minutes, and Stricklen returned to practice.

The content of that conversation was later revealed by both Summitt and Stricklen. Summitt told the junior from Morrilton, Arkansas, that she was recruited to be an All-American at Tennessee and she had to play to her capability.

Stricklen didn't pout or dispute the assertion. Instead, she changed her game - as underscored in the stats - over the next 14 games.

In the first 16 games of the season, Stricklen averaged 10.0 points and 6.4 rebounds. She connected on 45.9 percent of her shots overall and 25.8 percent from long range with a 71.4 mark from the free throw line.

In the 14 games since Summitt challenged Stricklen at that January practice session, the junior averaged 14.9 points and 9.2 rebounds. She connected on 48.7 percent of her shots and 43.6 percent from long range with a 79.1 percent mark from the line.

Her teammates will need to be mindful of getting Stricklen the ball.

"We've got to know when to hit Shekinna Stricklen," junior Glory Johnson said. "She's not off very often. When she gets the ball she normally produces. We know that she's a producer and she can produce off the dribble, she can hit a three-point shot, she can post up. We have to get her the ball.

"I know that she hasn't been taking too many shots and she doesn't want to seem selfish, but our team has to know when to hit Shekinna Stricklen."

Tennessee, 28-2, will need Stricklen to be at her best in the 2011 SEC Women's Tournament when the Lady Vols face Florida, 18-13, at noon Central (SportSouth, Lady Vol Radio Network) in their opening game.

The Gators earned the right to face Tennessee with a 68-59 win over Arkansas on Thursday to start tourney play. Head Coach Amanda Butler and guard Jordan Jones said afterwards that Florida is playing much better now - the Gators have won four consecutive games - than during the initial matchups with the Lady Vols.

"I think we're a lot different team than we were even two weeks ago," said Jordan, who had 11 points and six rebounds in the win over Arkansas. "I think the game that we gave them at home, the game we gave them at their place is going to be a different game than we give them (Friday).

"We're a much more confident team. We're playing aggressive. We're playing our best basketball right now."

Tennessee won the two regular season matchups with Florida - 83-40 on Jan. 13 in Gainesville and 61-39 on Feb. 10 in Knoxville - and now faces the challenge of defeating a team three times in one season.

"I agree with everything Jordan said," Butler said. "I thought that was very well put. We're playing better than either of the times we played against them. The second time we played them in Knoxville we held them to their third-lowest point total. We made some strides defensively."

Butler added it would be a formidable challenge against the best offensive team in the league but "there's one way to become a championship program that's real certain in this league, and that's you have to go through Tennessee."

The 2010-11 Tennessee team became the ninth in program history to finish an SEC season undefeated and the first ever to do so since the league expanded to 16 games. However, of the eight previous teams to do so, only two went on to win the SEC tourney in 1994 and 1998, a feat that hasn't been accomplished in over a decade by the Lady Vols.

Summitt believes a team can develop a false sense of security after beating every team in the league.

"We know that we can't have a mentality like that going into the tournament," Johnson said. "Every game is an opportunity for one team to succeed and one team to fail. Take every game like it's your last and play as hard as you can no matter who the opponent is."

The Lady Vols will have to avoid the letdowns that plagued the 1993, 1995, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2007 teams, which lost in the quarterfinals (once), semifinals (three times) and finals (twice).

"That's not our mindset of going there and losing," Stricklen said. "We're still going to take every team like they're going to have their best game against us. And we're a class that really hasn't won nothing. Yeah, we went undefeated, but we still haven't proven anything yet. Our mindset is focused on going in there and winning the SEC Tournament again. We are really trying to prove something."

Tennessee is the defending tournament champion, too, after a 15-1 regular season in 2009-10. If the Lady Vols are to pull off the double-double again, Stricklen, the 2011 SEC Player of the Year, likely will have to play a big role.

Summitt thinks the award will boost the confidence of Stricklen.

"I think she knows she can be very good," Summitt said. "The other day I started to say, ‘Stricklen …' and she said, ‘I got it, Coach.' … She has to be a player of impact. As a freshman would she have responded? No. Not even as a sophomore. She knows that she has to be a strong voice for this team."

The Lady Vols have a junior class that has been in the trenches since they were freshmen because of graduation and injuries. The evolving maturity has become evident in their third year on the court.

"Freshman year, sophomore year you hit a wall that you definitely don't expect by the end of the year, and I've grown past that and now I'm a junior and I can handle it and I can play through it and I should be ready for it," Johnson said.

The juniors also are more comfortable with playing with a perpetual bull's eye on their jersey - something that startled them as rookies as opponents didn't play on the court like they looked on film in scouting sessions.

"People tend to play their best when they play against us all the time," Johnson said. "We have to be ready for that."

The top four seeds in the tourney, Tennessee, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Georgia, are presumably in the NCAA Tournament. Several others are fighting for a berth or even consideration, and the first two days of the tourney are crucial to their chances.

"We know every team is going to come out with great energy," Stricklen said. "It's a team going 40 minutes a game, playing the whole 40 minutes. And I think that's where we have improved. We kind of have little letdowns but we really get into that 40-minute whole game, and when we play the whole game I really don't think there's a team that can beat us if we play the whole 40 minutes."

That energy - coupled with communication - is key for Tennessee, and that approach is what the Lady Vols remember about their successful run last year in Duluth, Ga.

"As a team, energy," Stricklen said. "We were focused from the get-go. We were focused all the way there. Everyone was communicating and talking. We had people stepping up at the same time. Alicia Manning, her hustle, her energy. You have people coming off the bench bringing the same energy, and we were playing together as a team.

"Right now we all know it's tournament time. It's really do or die. And we want to get to the Final Four, and we're going to have to play every game like it's our last."

That energy starts on defense, and Alicia Manning, a critical player for Tennessee off the bench who can line up on the perimeter or in the paint, said LSU cut into the Lady Vols' sizable lead in the final regular season game - and eventually whittled it to 10 points late - because the team had lapses and fell silent.

"The LSU game the time when our energy was low, and we weren't communicating is when they went on their little run and I can name countless other times when that was an issue," Manning said.

"We were playing really well and then we had a few defensive lapses and energy level got low and they went on a little run. So just being able to keep that high energy and have that leadership out there on the court. It just keeps everyone alert to what is going on and on the same page. That's a big thing for our defense."

Johnson said the team benefits from both encouraging communication and a short memory about mistakes.

"It does as long as it's positive encouragement and if you make a mistake you take it as constructive criticism rather than everyone being negative on the floor," Johnson said. "If I turn the ball over don't dwell on it. Focus on the next play.

"When we keep that mentality and we stay positive with each other we have a lot of positive energy flowing with the team."

Johnson has improved her game of late with a solid turn-around jump shot that she didn't have consistently in her repertoire just two weeks ago, an example of the benefit of getting extra reps in the gym.

"My hook shot wasn't really working like it used to and now it's face-up," Johnson said. "You'll see Lyssi's hook shot, and you'll see Kelley's a lot more and I'm not really too comfortable with it so I'm going to face up and shoot my jump shot, something that I'm comfortable with and now my release is soft."

Kelley Cain, who has practiced for the past three days and is cleared to play in the tourney after missing the last three games to rest a sore hip and back, has a nifty hook shot, as does Alyssia Brewer, a lefty who can also hit it right-handed.

Johnson has improved her turn-around jumper by softening her release and shooting as she elevates with the ball kept higher and away from defenders.

"Me and Dean have watched it and we've looked at it and we've talked about it," Johnson said. "Deans wants me to do what I feel comfortable with, and it's not a hook shot. So just being more precise, having two hands on the ball rather than one when I turn around and face my defender."

The offensive addition to Johnson's game has not gone unnoticed.

"Her and Dean have been working on it a lot, and she has stepped her game up to another level," Stricklen said. "Usually other people just saw her for her rebounding and being physical but now her offense she is shooting jumpers at the free throw line, face-up moves, turn-around jump shots and that just shows that she's been in the gym.

"She's been working on her weakness. Our whole team has been getting in the gym. Coach stays on us about it, and we haven't won nothing and we need to commit and get in the gym and it really helps."

Although the Lady Vols want to shoot well in every game sometimes they can connect on shots too well for their own good - the LSU game being the perfect example last Sunday. Tennessee started out shooting 70 percent-plus from the field, but the defense took a dip.

"(Because we) forget about playing defense?" Manning said with a smile. "I think that LSU game was a good example of that. We went on a run at the beginning and then we kind of just like, ‘Oh, they scored one or two. That's no big deal because we're scoring 15, 20.'

"I don't think that's going to be the case when we play in the tournament from here on out."

Manning agreed with her teammates that chatter and enthusiasm were key factors for the Lady Vols.

"I think they do because just personally when the energy is up through all five on the court it's a really big deal," Manning said. "All of that stuff kind of brings everyone to focus together if we're talking and communicating. Energy is high. Our defense is invested the whole possession. It really pays off."

Tennessee shouldn't lack for inspiration with the tournament in Nashville - the Lady Vols won here in 2008 - and the orange-clad fans should be present in abundance. They were the largest fan base Thursday, and Tennessee had a first round bye. The attitude the Lady Vols used to close the regular season with a clean slate in SEC play will need to be on display at Bridgestone Arena.

"Just how we ended this year – we changed our mindset to really focus on defense and holding each other accountable and doing the dirty work," Manning said. "It's paid off and it's worked really well for us. So having that mindset and just being on a mission all the time and every game, every possession, that's really what's going to help us."

Johnson added, "Know that every team is going at you especially if you win SEC regular season, you're going to have a target on your back. Play your game. Don't focus on the teams that you are playing. Focus on how you need to play and how you need to perform for your team."

Stricklen said high energy at the opening tip is a must for Tennessee.

"Yes, especially on defense," Stricklen said. "That's the main thing. When we do mess up on defense we're not communicating. We've got to have energy from the get-go. You can't come out with low energy and expect to jump out on a team.

"And especially what Coach always stays on us about – rebounding and defense. That's the main key and I feel like last year (in Duluth) that was a big key at tournament time. We had great defense, and we rebounded the ball."

The Lady Vols are a veteran team now and do know how to win, though they start a freshman, Meighan Simmons, at the most critical spot on the court at point guard. The speedy rookie has a tendency to sometimes motor too fast and calming her down will be a team directive.

"Meighan is like me a lot," Johnson said. "She goes fast and sometimes there's no slowing down with Meighan. But staying positive with her. She's a freshman. She's getting used to it. I dealt with that as well. Know when to go and when to whoa. you don't have numbers you've got to slow down. Ball security.

"She's a great player, and we really need her. We'll take care of her. She'll be ready to play."

Summitt said she would also have a few words before tipoff with the freshman, who was already anticipating postseason before the team even left Knoxville.

"Maybe I can loosen her up a little bit," Summitt said. "I'm glad she has butterflies. She cares a lot. It's important that they don't try to do too much. I think that's where sometimes freshmen will get caught up in it. She has a tendency to play 100 miles per hour.

"I think her just changing gears, picking and choosing and that's why I encouraged her to work on pass fakes. Right now my language to Meighan is fake a pass to make a pass."

Johnson also has some advice for the team as a whole.

"Making sure we lower our turnovers," Johnson said. "Slow down when you don't have numbers and communicate when on the floor and off the floor. Coming out we need to talk about substitutions. We need to talk about who needs to guard who, talk about defense, and sometimes we're not even on the same page defensively (about called set)."

A little too much game slippage has been an issue for Tennessee, and it seems it's best addressed by the elevated voice of Summitt. While the Lady Vol juniors have enjoyed considerable success since the 11-loss campaign of their freshman season, they still seem to need regular - and loud - reminders from the head coach about intensity and focus, an indication of the players' overall rather laidback personalities.

"I think that is what I get paid to do is just yell at them," Summitt said with a laugh. "(Mickie) DeMoss will always go, ‘You need to go over there and get onto them right now.'

"It's a different voice. Dean (Lockwood) and Holly (Warlick) and Mickie do a lot of the on-court stuff, but when it comes time to pick it up a notch I think I'm the voice that they are used to listening to."

It's certainly a voice they respond to, and Summitt used it Wednesday after some practice slippage to remind the players they would much rather win in Nashville than practice in Knoxville.

"Of course," Stricklen said.

The players get in cold whirlpools after games for muscle recovery and then get to go out to eat, visit with family and friends and rest. The coaches get to work on scouting and preparing reports for the players to review before the next game.

"We play in the early games so if we win we have time to actually spend with our families and have fun," Stricklen said.

Summitt said the outcome of the tournament always boils down to one simple thing.

"Are they on a mission, or are they satisfied?" Summitt said. "That is the real question."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start:Meighan Simmons, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 10 (13.8 points per game, 2.8 rebounds per game); Angie Bjorklund 6'0 senior guard, No. 5 (10.7 ppg, 2.9 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 junior guard/forward, No. 40 (12.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 junior forward, No. 25 (11.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg); and Alyssia Brewer, 6'3 junior forward/center, No. 33 (1.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg).

That lineup should be written in pencil for now. Although Simmons, Stricklen and Johnson are likely locks, Summitt wasn't certain of her starters as of Thursday afternoon.

Bjorklund missed six games because of a foot injury so Taber Spani, a 6'1 sophomore guard, could start in her place as she did in February. Kelley Cain, a 6'6 redshirt junior center, also is available, though her status is always day to day. Cain could start over Brewer, who has played in 14 games this season after recovering from Achilles tendon surgery, but Cain missed the final three games of the season to rest her ailments.

The Tennessee coaches have shuffled the lineup all season depending on health and availability of players. It has made the Lady Vols a more difficult team to scout because opposing coaches aren't certain who will start or play extended minutes.

"Regardless, you have to have a good grasp of their personnel," Florida Coach Amanda Butler said. "I think our team does. That's the advantage of playing them now for the third time. There won't be a lot of, ‘Who is this? What does she do?' We're familiar with them, their individual strengths and weaknesses.

"As far as their depth, trying to construct a game plan, like I said, there's not going to be one way to beat them. It's going to have to be two or three different ways. I fully expect, more than anything, our team to play the best game we've played all year (Friday), and that's where I'll hang my hat."

Butler is expected to start: Lanita Bartley, 5'6 junior guard, No. 3 (7.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg); Deana Allen, 5'9 junior guard, No. 12 (6.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg); Jordan Jones, 5'9 redshirt junior guard, No. 33 (10.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg); Ndidi Madu, 6'1 redshirt junior forward, No. 14 (7.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg)); and Azania Stewart, 6'4 junior center, No. 13 (6.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg).

SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Florida game. Here is his assessment.

When Florida has the ball: The Gators can score on the run or in the half-court sets.

"They're a team that mixes transition with half-court offense well," Lockwood said. "They will push the ball. They've got very good perimeter players that will really get up and down the floor, and they can handle and penetrate, and they've got shooters.

(Deana) Allen has really come on in the SEC season. Jordan Jones has always been one of the top shooters in the conference. (Lanita) Bartley and (Jaterra) Bonds are two quick penetrating guards. That's really a concern for us is to stay in front of people and make sure that they don't get to the paint easily, and they don't have open shots."

Allen was 5-10 from the field for 12 points in the Thursday win over Arkansas while Jones hits three treys and two free throws for 11 points. The Gators outscored the Razorbacks in the paint, 32-14.

"With their inside game (Azania) Stewart is somebody you definitely have to keep a lid on, because she is getting a little bit more confident in there," Lockwood said. "(Jennifer) George is a player that's athletic and strong. And (Ndidi) Madu, I've always liked her. She is very, very good.

"They have as solid a team and solid depth as there is out there as far as playing a lot of players and showing you a lot of different things."

Defensively, Lockwood expects different looks.

"They're going to mix up," Lockwood said. "I think we'll see man and zone. I think they'll take the approach that we take - see what's effective, what is working best. But they are typically a team that plays multiple defenses.

"They do a lot of trapping on the wing, especially when they're in their 2-3 (zone) and that's something we're going to have to handle. We're going to have to handle their full court and their half court pressure."

When Tennessee has the ball: For the Lady Vols the question often is which five will open the game but the offensive philosophy doesn't change with the personnel.

"We want to push first of all," Lockwood said. "We want to keep a tempo that is fairly quick, and we do want to play through our inside and at least establish that we can get some inside touches and make people play off of that. Kind of see what they're going to do. Are they going to be doubling? Are they going to be giving us single coverage in there?

"So we don't want to get touches in there but, again, for us, pull our stat sheet out. At this time of year you don't need MIT grads to look at what people are doing. We want to play a balanced game. Strick and Glory (Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson)) have been kind of our main players but certainly with Angie (Bjorklund) back now and Meighan (Simmons' offense), for us a balanced attack is a much better attack."

The task for the Tennessee coaches is to determine which of the Lady Vols pieces of the puzzle will interlock for the game at hand.

"It is," Lockwood said. "As long as we're getting touches and playing through our middle, that's OK."

Defensively, Tennessee will continue to adapt to what works during the game, and can shift rather seamlessly from man to zone and back.

"Mix, mix," Lockwood said. "It is good, and that gives opponents more to prepare for and it gives us more in our weapons' bag. That part of it is good. The key is doing it well. You can do a lot of things, but if you're not doing any particular thing well it doesn't help you to have a lot of things.

"So our key is trying to do what we're doing well."

ODDS AND ENDS

Tennessee leads the series with Florida, 42-3.The Lady Vols have a 6-0 record over the Gators at neutral sites and last played Florida in the SEC tourney on March 6, 2009, a 71-67 win to avenge a 66-57 regular season loss on Feb. 8, 2009. … Tennessee is 11-5 in games played on March 4. The last win on this date was against Georgia, 89-79, in 2006. The first win on March 4 was against Maryville, 24-12, in 1924. The five losses on this date were to Maryville, 24-12, in 1905; Tennessee-Martin, 39-26, in 1971; twice to Tennessee Tech, 91-76, in 1976, and 76-70 in 1977; and LSU, 80-75, in 1991. … Tennessee has won the SEC regular season title 16 times and the tourney 14 times. The Lady Vols have pulled off the double-double six times in 1994, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2010. Tennessee's overall record in the SEC Tournament is 63-17. … Three Lady Vols have averaged double-digits against Florida this season. Angie Bjorklund, who didn't play in the second game because of her injured foot, tallied 16 in the first contest. Shekinna Stricklen and Glory Johnson played in both games and averaged 14.0 points.


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