Lady Vols outlast Ohio State

DAYTON, Ohio - Shekinna Stricklen sat in the locker room, smiled and said the players must just like to get yelled at by Pat Summitt. She was only sort of kidding, because there is some truth to the remark as the head coach has had to unload on her team at halftime throughout the season and on Saturday it led to an 85-75 win over Ohio State and an Elite Eight berth.

The players on the dais at the post-game press conference also mentioned their tendency to be in Coach Pat Summitt's crosshairs.

"At half, we were not excited about our play," redshirt junior center Kelley Cain said. "We knew we weren't playing Tennessee basketball, and we knew we were going to get it once we got in the locker room."

Summitt was asked to rate her halftime speech on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being peeling paint off the walls.

"From one to 10, I was probably an eight and a half," Summitt said with a smile. "I wasn't real happy but that's sometimes what we have to do at halftime. The one thing about this team is that they do respond, and I think sometimes they enjoy us going off as coaches."

That is clearly this Tennessee team, which has been subjected to Summitt's thunder all season and typically responds afterwards.

"I think we just love her yelling at us," junior forward/guard Shekinna Stricklen said. "It's motivation. I think a lot of us are used to being yelled at when we were younger by our parents. Not really bad (children) but more hardheaded I would say."

"She was happy (about the win). She said, ‘Great second half and can we please put both halves together?' She was very positive, and she was encouraging. We needed that, too."

Stricklen led Tennessee, 34-2, with 20 points to eliminate Ohio State, 24-10. The Lady Vols will next face Notre Dame, 29-7, which defeated Oklahoma, 23-12, in the second game, 78-53. The two teams will square off Monday at 7 p.m. Eastern for the right to go to the Final Four in Indianapolis.

Stricklen is part of a five-member junior class - the sixth member, Amber Gray, was in the stands pulling for Tennessee; after not being medically cleared at Tennessee, the Ohio native transferred to Xavier to be closer to her doctors after suffering a stroke brought on by an aneurysm - that had never been past the Sweet 16. That fact did weigh on the team, and there was a visible show of relief when the juniors were asked about it.

"It is, but we've got to keep on truckin'," junior forward Alyssia Brewer said. "I am not going to lie. I was thinking about it. I was like, ‘We can't put ourselves in the same position that we did last year.' Last year it was a one versus four seed. It was kind of like déjà vu, but … "

"We made it happen," sophomore Kamiko Williams said, finishing Brewer's sentence.

The biggest play of the game, though, came from a freshman.

With the game tied at 46, Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis got a long rebound off a block by Jantel Lavender, and nobody was back for Tennessee. Prahalis had nothing but open court in front of her, slowed down at the rim to softly lay-up the shot, and got swatted from behind by Meighan Simmons at the 16:42 mark of the second half.

The crowd of 8,867 - the third-largest in a regional at Dayton Arena and orange-clad - roared its reaction, as did the Tennessee bench. Lavender missed a jumper off the in-bounds play, Angie Bjorklund got the defensive rebound and fired the ball in transition to Simmons for a layup and the lead, 48-46, just nine seconds after the block.

Instead of being down, Tennessee was up and had seized something more important - momentum. The Lady Vols also never trailed again in the game, although the lead twice fell to one point.

"I almost said, ‘She a blocker!' Brewer teased, which would be the ultimate compliment from a post. "But, nah, I ain't going to take it that far. But that definitely was a momentum swing our way. Meighan came out of nowhere. Meighan came from the other side of the court."

"I was so hyped," junior guard Briana Bass said. "I don't think I've jumped that high off the bench celebrating for my teammates. That was definitely a game-changer. I told her, ‘That's the way that you get back on defense and help this team win.' "

"I told her, ‘Now, that's heart," said Vicki Baugh, who knows quite a bit about the word.

It was her rousing "Let's go, y'all!" as she had to be helped off the court in Tampa in 2008 with a torn ACL that energized Tennessee in the national title game.

"It was nothing but heart," Baugh said. "You can't practice that. Just very proud of her, not only offensively but she showed her defensive side today."

"She came from the other end, sprinted as hard as she could and got a block and saved two points," Stricklen said. "It changed the whole game, and it gave us a lot of momentum.

"When she did that, it pumped us all back up."

"It definitely got us excited and pumped," Taber Spani said. "We heard defense all halftime, and so we definitely wanted to come out and change that.

"I think that was a maturity play. She wouldn't have made that a couple of months ago, probably even a couple of weeks ago. But she's obviously committed to defense."

The bench erupted as Simmons sent the ball into a row of baseline seats.

"I think we were just as shocked as Sammy was when she got it blocked," Sydney Smallbone said. "For her not to give up on the play and to give everything she had to get back really showed a lot of heart. That's what we want to bring. It was awesome."

"Sammy was at the low block, and I swear Meighan came from the half-court line," Alicia Manning said. "That was just a huge play for a freshman to make. It was huge for us. Our fans got into it."

Simmons said she was also motivated by the fact that she was supposed to be back, and her teammates had just pointed that out to her.

"My teammates had told me to get back," Simmons said. "(Right before Tennessee's shot in the paint), they were yelling, ‘Meighan, get back!' I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, I need to get back.' I had a burst of speed. I really can't even explain it. Once I saw it and I felt like I could get it, that's when I went up and got it."

"She came out of nowhere," Cain said. "All of us were like, ‘Man, we've got to get back and catch up,' and then all of a sudden we see Meighan blocking. That got us fired up and ready to go.

"She came out of nowhere. We don't call her Speedy for nothing."

"I was in front of Meighan there for awhile," Angie Bjorklund said to laughter, "and she came out of nowhere. I thought I had her there for awhile."

"That was amazing," fellow freshman Lauren Avant said. "It was just an amazing play of athleticism and quickness."

Tennessee needed a defensive spark, because the Lady Vols had absorbed a boatload of Buckeyes offense to that point. Tennessee trailed at halftime, 42-40, after Ohio State shot a scorching 66.7 percent in the first half.

The Lady Vols were down just two because Kelley Cain was 4-5 to start the game, and Simmons and Stricklen were each 3-6, each route to Tennessee shooting 48.6 percent before the break. Tennessee's bench had outscored Ohio State's, 12-2, and the Lady Vols had nine second-chance points to zero for the Buckeyes.

Cain scored the first six points for Tennessee, with her first bucket coming on a short jumper after she slipped to the basket and received a nice pass from Simmons. Bjorklund found Cain for the next two baskets.

"She looks for her teammates, and she can create and get them open, too," Stricklen said of the senior.

Glory Johnson got the next points for Tennessee when she drove, was fouled and connected on both free throws for an 8-4 lead at the 18:14 mark of the first half.

It was clear the Lady Vols intended to establish that they could score inside.

"Our game plan from the beginning was to work inside out, as it is every day, and the guards took on that role, trusting me to go to work with the ball," Cain said. "I give all the credit to the guards for making great passes.

"The whole team told me they needed me and said if it was going to be any day, today was the day."

Simmons' first points came from a Cain screen, and the freshman used it and buried the jumper for a 10-8 lead at the 16:50 mark. Simmons followed that with a three-pointer in transition for a 13-10 lead at the 15:42 mark.

Simmons got a steal and got the ball to Johnson in transition for an assist and the layup for a 15-12 lead at the 14:31 mark.

Baugh got a stick back and Johnson was blocked, got the ball back and found Spani for a jumper and a 19-15 lead at the 12:56 mark.

But Ohio State was answering on its end and getting points inside from Lavender and threes from Tayler Hill and Brittany Johnson. When Lavender hit a jumper at the 11:19 mark, the Buckeyes took a 20-19 lead.

Manning got the lead back, 21-20, for Tennessee with a drive and short shot at the 11:19 mark and less than nine minutes in to the game, Summitt had used eight players to take advantage of Tennessee's depth and would play 11 by halftime.

"You look at a team and you try to figure out how to scout them or what to do," Brewer said. "A team has got to scout the whole entire team. That's good for us."

The first half remained a back-and-forth game with five ties and five lead changes. Prahalis got off to a slow start offensively - she had two points nearly midway through the first half - but finished with 13 by the break.

Tennessee got offense from nine players in the first half - and that was without any points from Bjorklund - and needed all of it. After back-to-back buckets from Prahalis plus two free throws, Tennessee trailed 26-21, at the 9:42 mark with Ohio State shooting 76.9 percent.

Williams got to the rim for Tennessee, and Bjorklund faked a shot, spun and got the ball to Brewer to bring Tennessee to within one point, 30-29, and then Brewer drove and tied the game at 31 with 5:03 to play before halftime. Simmons got the lead for Tennessee, 34-33, with a three-pointer off the in-bounds pass following a Prahalis layup, but Ohio State kept making shots.

Ohio State got its biggest lead of the game at six points, 42-36, on a three-pointer by Brittany Johnson with 1:17 left before halftime.

Cain got to the rim to trim the lead to 42-38, and then took a charge on Ohio State's next offensive possession. Stricklen hit a well-defended wing jumper at the buzzer to pull Tennessee to within two, 42-40, at halftime.

"Obviously our defense had to pick it up and I just said that's where we have to invest our energy," Summitt said. "I thought we did a great job of that and our board play was a lot better. I thought we pushed tempo a lot better.

"The first half we didn't have the same energy level. Halftime came at a perfect time so we could let them know that what they were doing was not going to win them the game."

Tennessee wasted no time tying the game once the second half started.

Simmons found Stricklen and Johnson in transition, and Cain scored at the rim to tie the game at 46 with 17:42 remaining. That was followed by Simmons' block - it was this same venue that led to the Candace Parker "Are you serious" declaration in 2007 after a swat - and Simmons' effort was even worthier because of how much distance she closed.

"Ridiculous," Williams said, needing just one word to describe the block. "Make sure you put ridiculous."

Tennessee took the lead on the next possession when Bjorklund got the rebound and the ball out to Simmons. The guards then turned to Cain again with Simmons playing a game of inside-out catch and hitting the jumper and then Bjorklund driving and dishing to Cain followed by Stricklen getting doubled and finding Cain for a 54-50 lead with 13:43 to play.

Tennessee's defense improved - Ohio State shot 66.7 percent in the first half and 39.5 percent in the second - but the game remained closely contested and the Lady Vols didn't get the lead to double digits, until Williams hit a baseline jumper for a 73-62 lead with 5:08 left.

"I thought we got into a quick-shot mode," Ohio State Coach Jim Foster said. "It was probably the emotion of the game, the significance of the game, etc. When we executed our offense and moved the basketball we got terrific shots.

"(Tennessee) had to play defense longer and they couldn't get the run-outs. When you take quick shots it gives the opportunity to run presenting itself more often. It wasn't real smart on our part. I thought for 33 minutes we played sound, smart basketball and for seven minutes we didn't. That seven minutes really cost us."

The transcript of the Ohio State press conference can be read here.

Tennessee held off Ohio State to close out the game, and Stricklen kept the ball in her hands when the Buckeyes were forced to foul to stop the clock. However, the trend of swallowed whistles in postseason continued, and Ohio State committed just its third team foul of the second half with 2:35 left.

It took four more fouls, all committed within 30 seconds, to send Tennessee to the line for a one and one.

Stricklen hit both for a 79-68 lead with 1:03 left to play and hit 3-4 more by keeping the ball in her hands so Ohio State had to foul her.

"I wanted the ball in my hands," Stricklen said. "My teammates were telling me go get the ball so they wanted the ball in my hands, too. They had trust in me."

Glory Johnson finishing the scoring for Tennessee with an offensive board and layup after Simmons hit one of two free throws. The Lady Vols dribbled out the last six seconds and then broke into huge smiles.

The junior class' two previous trips to the NCAA tourney had ended with first round and Sweet 16 losses. Both of those exits led to the team going back to practice in Knoxville soon thereafter.

A Sweet 16 win was special for this group and much needed for their overall psyches.

"Oh, goodness, so happy," Johnson said. "This is nothing compared to what we would have been doing back home. Play as hard as you can because you know if you're not playing in the game, when you get home it's going to be 10 times harder going against ourselves.

"I know they don't want to go against me, and I don't want to go against Kelley Cain. Put it all out there."

Cain started for the first time this postseason and was a major factor on both ends.

"My teammates told me in the beginning when we first found out we were playing Ohio State, ‘We need you. We're going to need you in this game,' " said Cain, who has dealt with hip and back issues all season. "They kept telling me that. When my teammates tell me they need me, I have an obligation to give them what they need.

"Jantel is such a great player and an All-American, and they gave me the challenge of, ‘Can you guard her and can you go to work?' "

Tennessee used all four post players against Lavender, who played 40 minutes.

"I love it when we have so many, and we had options rolling in and out," Johnson said. "Lavender was getting tired. If I was in her position, I would have been getting tired, too. We had to take advantage of that. Keep on pushing her out of the paint and running in transition."

Lavender, who Summitt said was one of the best post players Tennessee had faced - and the Lady Vols have faced Baylor's Brittney Griner and Stanford's frontline - scored 19 points with 10 rebounds, five assists and four blocks.

"They definitely have a lot of post players," Lavender said. "I've played 40 minutes in a lot of games. It was nothing different than normal. I've played against guards, post players; that wasn't really a factor. We just didn't execute at times we needed to."

Lavender also changed the way Tennessee had to defend, and it was troublesome in the first half.

"We weren't guarding the three-point shooters and were letting them get uncontested shots and getting beat on penetration," Johnson said, outlining the breakdowns. "The posts normally help when guards get beat on penetration, and we can't help off Lavender.

"The guards were getting beat. Second half we picked it up a little bit. We kind of slowed down their penetration."

Tennessee has three true bigs and none is healthy. Cain deals with back/hip pain, although her mobility had been much better in the practices leading up to Dayton. Baugh is still recovering from two ACL surgeries in terms of game conditioning and comfort level - she expects to make a bigger leap next season - and Brewer missed most of the season after Achilles tendon surgery.

But all three logged effective minutes for Tennessee with Cain leading the way with 16 points and Baugh and Brewer scoring four each.

"In order for us to win our posts are going to have to step up," Baugh said. "We're not always going to get the calls. We've just got to continue to go up strong and play our game and not let it get to us."

Baugh had five boards in 11 minutes of play while Brewer had one and Cain tallied two. The bulk of the post board work was done by the smallest one, Johnson, who had 11 boards. Johnson was 3-10 from the floor for nine points but had six offensive rebounds.

"I have my defense, and I have my rebounding," Johnson said. "As long as I can do that I know I am helping my team somehow. Offensively I am not always there. Sometimes I feel like I am getting fouled, and it's a little frustrating. But on defense and rebounding, not at all."

The post players on both teams engaged in a little chatter in the game, but Cain said it was tame.

"It wasn't that bad," Cain said. "A few words here and there, nothing hurtful. Just competitive nature for both teams. I guess it looks bad when you see everyone's head going from side to side."

"Ponytails were swinging," said Manning, which made Cain laugh.

A player prone to sometimes play too fast was the epitome of poise Saturday in Simmons.

"She played hard," Johnson said. "Her defense picked up more and more all game. Offensively, especially when she hits her shots, her defense is going to (rise, too). That's what happens. She is huge for our team.

"She knows she can shoot it, and she knows she can hit them. She has that confidence. I am glad she is on my team."

Simmons had a plate of food in the locker room - and after logging all 40 minutes she needed the nourishment - but she didn't have much time to take bites because of the media questions.

"There was a time where I felt like I was getting tired, but then at the same time I was like, ‘My team needs me to be out here and play hard. Meighan, you've got to keep going. Keep pushing through everything,' Simmons said. "Fatigue started to get to me, but I have a second wind and I can go out there and use it."

Simmons' staying power for a freshman impressed Stricklen, who logged 36 minutes.

"One time I did hit the wall very hard," Stricklen said. "For her to go 40 minutes, she can do it, and she did great at it."

Simmons logged considerable time at the point with relief from Williams, who played 10 minutes, and opened the game getting the ball inside and then looking to score.

"I felt pretty good from the beginning to end," Simmons said. "My teammates explained to me that we need to take better shots and have better shot selection. I think starting out to get in to Kelley on the inside was a lot better and going in-out worked for us as well.

"Kelley is an amazing player. When Kelley gets her touches and she gets going, and she makes her first couple of baskets, she wants it back."

Tennessee got balanced scoring with Cain inside and Simmons and Stricklen from the wings. Stricklen had six points at the break and scored 14 in the second half.

"Coach came up to me and said, ‘We need you. We really need you to step up and play like a leader,' " Stricklen said. "My teammates were coming up to me, ‘We need you.' When your teammates are telling you that, you've got to step up and I think I stepped up big."

Stricklen did indeed with 20 points and seven boards.

"She's the type of player that if you don't ask her to score, she can kind of blend in," Summitt said. "The thing I wanted her to do was to step up and I told her that. She responded immediately.

"That's typical of her, sometimes you have to remind her but she knows that she's the go-to player and one of the best on our team. I thought her energy level in the second half was good. She responded in the way coaches love."

With Stricklen's three-pointer with 9:15 left in the game, which put Tennessee up 61-57, the Lady Vols connected on the season's 238 trey, breaking the old record of 237 set in 2007-08 when Shannon Bobbitt and Bjorklund, then a freshman, were firing away from outside.

Bjorklund, who holds the career mark for threes at Tennessee with 305, didn't score in this game. She was 0-4 from the field with seven assists and no turnovers.

"That shows a lot from Ang," Stricklen said. "People know her as a shooter, and they were covering her today. She wasn't able to get shots up, but she had seven assists."

Bjorklund knows, however, that she needs to score going forward, starting with the regional final on Monday against Notre Dame.

"The team relies on me to score, and I didn't do that," Bjorklund said. "I need to do that every single time. But at the same time I am proud of everyone else for stepping up - Strick and Meighan for stepping in and hitting shots, and our post game was unbelievable.

"When Kelley is hot I am going to feed her the ball. I focused on getting the ball inside, but at the same time I need to hunt for shots."

The fact that Tennessee got 85 points without a single one from Bjorklund is an emphatic declaration of this team's depth.

"We definitely have scorers," Johnson said. "(Summitt) recruited that many, and we're taking advantage of that. She (Bjorklund) helped a lot. Defensively her game was great. She might not be on this game, but she is going to make sure that she plays defense."

When Stricklen or Bjorklund struggle it can sometimes cause a ripple effect on the other, but Stricklen motored on, especially in the second half.

"She held it down," Bjorklund said. "She was back on the wing, and that's her primary spot where she plays the best. I knew she was going to have a great game. She hit some key free throws at the end. She played a lot of minutes, and she did a great job."

Tennessee also left quite a few points off the board after missing point-blank shots.

"We missed probably 10 or 12, and that can't happen," Spani said. "Championship teams don't do that. We've got to make layups. Those are focus and commitment."

The coaches used 11 players in the game and all of them except Bjorklund and Lauren Avant, who was brought in late in the first half for defense, scored.

Williams said the players get scouting reports on other teams and the minutes logged by opponents seem to stay consistent game to game.

"You can't do that on our team," Williams said. "You never know on any given day. She might play 30 or she might play two."

Ohio State was led by Prahalis with 22 points, Lavender with 19 and Brittany Johnson with 16. Hill also reached double figures with 12 points. The Buckeyes shot 50.0 percent (31-62) overall, 43.8 percent (7-16) from the arc and 75 percent (6-8) from the line. Ohio State had 20 assists, 13 turnovers, nine blocks and three steals.

Tennessee was led by Stricklen with 20 points, Simmons with 18 and Cain with 16, all starters. The Lady Vols' bench outscored Ohio State's, 22-2, with Williams and Spani tallying six each, and Brewer and Baugh combining for eight points.

Tennessee shot 46.8 percent (36-77) overall, 37.5 percent (3-8) from the arc and 62.5 percent (10-16) from the line. The Lady Vols had a 15-12 edge on the board at halftime but finished with a dominating 46-29 performance, led by 11 rebounds from Glory Johnson. The Lady Vols had 20 assists, nine turnovers, five steals and three blocks.

The players were all smiles in the locker room after the game as they took bites of sandwiches and pizza between questions from the media.

"I can't even explain it right now," Simmons said. "I always dreamed of being at the Elite Eight and going to the Final Four, and we just have to work twice as hard."

"Meighan and I haven't been through everything that everyone else has, so this means a lot definitely," Avant said. "It means a lot to us because it's all so new."

The motivation to not leave Dayton on Saturday afternoon was a powerful one for the team.

"Last year we got stopped here, and we went back to work," Cain said. "We took it upon ourselves that we're not going home, and we made it happen."

Bjorklund was thrilled to be able to put on her No. 5 jersey again in Dayton.

"Absolutely," Bjorklund said. "We were not going to leave tonight. That is what we kept saying, ‘We are not going home. It's not time.' "

"I think we are really happy we're still playing because we know if we would have lost this game we would have gone back home and went back to work," Stricklen said. "We know that's not a great feeling."

"Oh, gosh, no," Spani said at the thought of another loss in the Sweet 16 and a return to practice anyway. "It's a relief to get into the Elite Eight. But we're hungry, and we're ready for the next game. We don't want to stop here. This is a team who's on a hunt for a championship."

"We're not content with this," Manning said. "We want to get to a Final Four. I'm sure we'll try to pull together a 40-minute game this time."

It would make halftime quieter but not as entertaining apparently.

"As long as they respond, and we keep winning, then I can yell forever," Summitt said.

ORANGE CRUSH: Despite the game being played in the state of Ohio, a large number of the 8,867 fans in attendance - included among them was Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who hugged Pat Summitt after the game - were cheering for the Lady Vols.

Even two people in Georgia T-shirts were cheering for Tennessee and likely enjoyed the UT Pep Band's chant of "SEC, SEC," right before the end of the game.

Ohio State was well represented, and Notre Dame had a nice contingent with Oklahoma fans showing up, too, but the loudest fan base was those in orange.

"They will come anywhere - the moon, Mars," Alyssia Brewer said.

"Even to the sun," Kamiko Williams said.

"They would buy some (thermal) suits," Brewer said.

"Pluto would be orange," Williams said.

"If we were to play in like, Asia," Brewer said.

"If we played on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean," Williams said.

"They would scuba dive," Brewer said.

"On top of Mount Everest, they would hike," Brewer said. "They're used to the mountains out in Knoxville."


The Sweet 16 press conferences are available to view online here.


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