UT, Virginia to tangle Sunday

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – It is not an official game stat but one the Lady Vols could have kept the past three seasons – circumstantial minutes not necessarily earned but played because of a roster handicapped by injury. The age of accountability has returned to Tennessee.

"We are very aware we have leverage now," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "We do have more options this year than I know we had last year."

That would include the two years before that, too, but DeMoss was on the sideline for Texas during that time. She rejoined the Lady Vols staff for the 2010-11 season.

No. 3 Tennessee (2-0) next takes on Virginia (3-0) on Sunday at 2 p.m. Eastern (espn.go.com/watchespn) at John Paul Jones Arena. The team traveled Saturday to Charlottesville and held a practice session on the Cavalier's home court.

"Every team that we are going to play is going to play the best, probably the best that they'll play all season just because a lot of teams respect us and are going to play up to us," junior guard/forward Taber Spani said. "So we are expecting them to have a great crowd and be very intense and hopefully be a hard-fought game."

If the coaches don't like what they see on the court, one thing has become abundantly clear in the first two games of the season: They will use a seat on the bench to let the message soak into the player.

The first two players to fill the effects were sophomore guard and 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year Meighan Simmons, who has come off the bench in the first two regular season games, after struggling on defense in the exhibition games, and senior All-American Shekinna Stricklen, who was on the bench for the start of the second half against Miami – Simmons replaced her – after an ineffective first half.

The decision was made by Coach Pat Summitt at halftime.

"It was her idea not to start Stricklen in the second half," DeMoss said. "We were in the locker room looking at the stat lines and we were really struggling on the boards, and she had played the four (power forward) a lot of the time, and you can't have your four player, particularly, not rebounding. That was her call."

Stricklen, for her part, sat and learned.

"I agree with Coach," Stricklen said. "First half I really wasn't doing anything, and Meighan and Taber both were hitting and needed to be in. I deserved it."

The coaches want to send a message, but the lesson isn't intended to be punitive. Stricklen took the court four minutes later and ended with a stat line of 15 points and seven rebounds.

"She's our All-American," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "We need her to put up big numbers, she needs to get rebounds and she needs to be one of our defensive stoppers. That's what comes along with being an All-American and once you're named that, our expectations are higher for Shekinna Stricklen."

Simmons was forced into the point guard spot last season – she was a shooting guard in high school – and with her basketball plate overloaded with that responsibility, the coaches had to overlook shortcomings, especially on defense.

Stricklen also was shoehorned into the point guard slot as a freshman – she was a wing who had never played the one position in her career – because of injury.

It has been the script for the past three seasons – the Lady Vols had a roster of top-quality players with key ones, especially in the post and at point guard, either hobbled or out with injury. It forced the coaches to go with what they had, play people out of position and live with the mistakes.

That changed this season with the arrival of freshman point guard Ariel Massengale, the return of a healthy Vicki Baugh, an early emphasis on defense and the demand for accountability.

"We have to establish it early in the season," DeMoss said. "We didn't have a meeting about it, but we talked, ‘If they do this and this, we've got to get them out of the game' or ‘they're not going to start the second half.' "

Simmons struggled in the exhibition games to get into offensive sync with her teammates – she moved to the wing and had to get used to not having the ball in her hands after a year at the point – and her habits on defense needed to be honed considerably.

Simmons came off the bench against Pepperdine and was noticeably more active on defense.

"Mentality," Simmons said with a smile. "More of a defensive mentality. Once my defense got better I feel like the scoring came in flow and I feel like the more and better defense that I played, the better shots I got, the more calm I was on offense.

"I didn't have to rush anything, I was able to relax and be able to keep my composure."

Simmons was surprised by the change in the season opener, but she didn't sulk about it.

"I have to change my mentality quick," Simmons said. "I really did that. Once you get out there, handle your business. It's motivation. I don't feel like it's a way of trying to bring us down. I feel like it's a way of working on certain aspects that they want us to work on.

"I feel like that pushed me. I feel like once I got to the Pepperdine game and the Miami game, my defense excelled a lot better than what it did."

Coaches can inspire, motivate, cajole, yell or speak softly. The tried-and-true method to get a player's attention in any sport is the bench.

"They would have to be in a coma to not get it," DeMoss said. "You've got to get the job done. Everybody has got a big circle around Tennessee on their schedule."

"It got delivered to me," Simmons said. "And I take it as being able to take the defensive mindset and use it to help me with the offensive end. Because defense wins basketball games, and Pat says that all the time.

"I feel like the whole defensive aspect of it is really going to be important. It really is. Defense and rebounding is going to be the key."

Players typically want to start. A sign of maturity is when a player's performance doesn't falter whether starting or coming off the bench. Stricklen, a senior, readily passed the test. Simmons, a sophomore who had started the past 36 games before the season opener, also handled it well.

"She rose to the challenge," DeMoss said. "You find out who your competitors are. If you want to compete and you want to win then you find a way to put yourself on the court. You find a reason for the coaches to play you."

In the Pepperdine game, Simmons played 20 minutes with 13 points and three rebounds and a monster block. She also stuck to her defensive assignment.

Simmons played 36 minutes against Miami with 18 points, four rebounds and three assists. She filled in well at point guard when a leg-weary Massengale had to exit near the end of the game.

"I have to just go out there and play whether I start or whether I don't start," Simmons said. "It is just a matter of what's best for the team and if the coaches believe that me not starting is the best for the team then that that's what I have to do.

"I have to get over myself because the more I think about me starting the more it makes me seem like I'm selfish, and I am not a selfish person. I am team player and I want to do what is best for the team.

"I am not going to worry about it. I just use it to motivate myself to play my behind off no matter what the situation is."

Stricklen has the same attitude in the age of accountability.

"I think everyone is responding," Stricklen said. "They do it and if you come in and don't respond that says you're not living up to what their expectations are or you're taking it in a negative way.

"That is something I didn't do. It is more about this team than me and when I came in in the second half I did what I needed to do."

Spani said players welcome the clear parameters.

"As players you love that because it's something you can understand, and you understand if you come in every day and work hard and produce then you are going to be rewarded for that," Spani said. "It takes out the emotions behind it. You understand it's cut and dry. These are the facts and if you produce you are going to play.

"I think the great thing is this team is really all about team. Whether you play all game or get in a few minutes, it's all about the team's performance, the team winning, the team accomplishing its goal."

Spani has entered the starting lineup because of her offensive ability – she is shooting nearly 54 percent from behind the arc – and Tennessee's up-tempo style of play has benefited a long-range shooter.

"Anytime you attack the basket and as quick as we are, teams are going to collapse, it's going to give Taber Spani a lot of looks on the 3-point line, and that's the style we want to play," Warlick said.

Spani also has been on the court for extended periods – she played 39 minutes against Miami – because of improved defense, which had been a work in progress during her first two years on campus, because of injury to her foot and having to adjust to the demands of the college game.

"Hard work, a lot of hard work," Spani said. "I think it's a mind-set but it's hard work. It's being able to get better, quicker, being healthy, that all plays into it. But it's really understanding that, ‘Look in order for me to be on the floor I don't want anything to ever be a doubt in a coach's mind to take me out or to not be able to bring everything that I can be.'

"Defense and boards, this is what this program is about and I have bought into that. That is what I want to do."

Spani played 27 minutes against Pepperdine in a fast-paced game and followed that with nearly going the distance against Miami, despite just one day between games.

"Heather Mason had a lot to do with it because our conditioning played a big role," Spani said. "It was awesome. It was a fun three days."

None of this means Spani will stay in the starting lineup – or anyone else for that matter, though Massengale looks like a lock right now – and the players know it. Summitt will tinker with her starting lineups if she feels the need because of performance, health or opponent matchups.

"Pat has never been one to lock in and settle on a starting lineup," DeMoss said. "I kind of like keeping that little edge there. At any time you can get taken out of the lineup. You have three bad days of practice or two bad days, don't think that you're automatically going to start."

The flip side of that is it also keep the reserves thoroughly engaged because they know the chance to start remains viable.

Also, Tennessee wants to have a deep bench. The Lady Vols had hoped for such last season, but injuries meant the coaches had to wait, sometimes the day of the game, to know who would be available.

"That is something that we really haven't had, to have a powerful bench and anyone can come in and play," Stricklen said. "That's a good thing."

DeMoss added, "Last year we would say our bench versus their bench, we're going to keep that score, too. This year is the same thing. Who has the best bench in the country? I think they take a lot of pride (in outplaying the other bench).

"If we keep playing the style that we're playing, the up and down and the pressing, you need the bench. You cannot play seven players and play that style for 40 minutes. You just wear down. If we can keep our rotation and keeping people fresh …

"We are very alert to using our bench and using it as early as we can use it so we can keep everybody fresh in there."

The best news for the coaches is that the players are on board, whether they start the game on the court or on the bench.

"No matter what it takes for us to get to the Final Four I am willing to do anything to get there," said Simmons, who needs to stay ready to start or enter as a substitute. "It's me understanding what I need to do. It's an adversity-type thing.

"When adversity hits am I going to pout about it or am I going to learn from it and use it as motivation to go ahead and move forward."

STARTING LINEUPS

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5'6 freshman guard, No. 5 (6.5 points per game, 3.5 rebounds per game, 7.0 assists per game); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 (14.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg); Taber Spani, 6'1 junior forward, No. 13 (15.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.0 apg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (16.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg); and Vicki Baugh, 6'4 senior forward/center, No. 21 (7.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.5 blocks per game).

Virginia Coach Joanne Boyle is expected to start: China Crosby, 5'6 junior guard, No. 1 (6.3 ppg, 2.0 apg), hails from New York, N.Y., listed as day-to-day after left knee injury in Wednesday's game, didn't log minutes in the Nov. 18, 2010, game in Knoxville, career high is 25 points against Charlotte last March; Ariana Moorer, 5'7 senior guard, No. 15 (10.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.0 apg), hails from Woodbridge, Va., tallied 24 points, six assists in Tennessee game last season, 2011 ACC Sixth Player of the Year; Ataira Franklin, 5'11 sophomore guard, No. 23 (8.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg), hails from Bowie, Md., scored five points with one assist in Tennessee game, career high is 19 points against Wake Forest, tallied four treys against Clemson last season, named to 2011 ACC All-Freshmen team; Chelsea Shine, 6'2 senior forward, No. 50 (8.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg), hails from Wayne, Pa., had four points, four rebounds, two assists and three steals against Tennessee, career high 27 points versus South Carolina Upstate in 2009, will be playing in 104th game as a Cavalier on Sunday; Simone Egwu, 6'3 junior center, No. 4 (6.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg), hails from Odenton, Md., tallied two points against Tennessee last season, career high is 19 points against South Carolina Upstate, grabbed 16 rebounds against Longwood.

A key player off the bench is Telia McCall, a 6'1 junior forward from Marietta, Ga. McCall is averaging 4.7 points this season and tallied 10 points and eight rebounds against Tennessee last season.

Lexie Gerson, a 5'11 junior guard from Fort Washington, Pa., is averaging 6.3 points a game.

The Cavaliers' leading scorer is Jazmin Pitts, a 6'1 sophomore forward from Mosely, Va., who is averaging 12.0 points and has come off the bench for the first three games. Pitts is the second-leading rebounder at 6.3 boards per game.

SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scout for the Tennessee-Virginia game. Here is his assessment of the Cavaliers on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, Lockwood is expecting Virginia to work through their sets.

"They are a little bit more deliberate, at least in the first three games that they've had," Lockwood said. "They are averaging 67 points a game so they are a little bit more deliberate than what they were a year ago."

The game in Knoxville a year ago was fast-paced with the Cavaliers opening up a 17-9 lead to start the game, and Tennessee leading at halftime, 41-39. The Lady Vols built an 18-point lead in the second half and withstood a Virginia rally to win, 85-73.

"They are running some half-court offenses," Lockwood said. "They have offensively rebounded extremely well. They have gotten to the free throw line and their offensive rebounds (account for about) 18 points a game. They have done those two things extremely well.

"They've got smart players. They play roles very well. They have a very good point guard in China Crosby. Chelsea Shine is a good player, can shoot the ball. She can stretch you out and shoot the ball, the midrange jumper very, very well. They are a team that is little bit more deliberate.

"They are going to try to run sets. They are not going to want to make it a track meet. They want to make it a more deliberate tempo."

Defensively,, Lockwood saw a lot of zone looks in the first three games.

"So far they have been primarily zone," Lockwood said. "They did 1-3-1. They did 3-2. They show some 1-2-2, half-court trapping, back into a 3-2. They do some 1-3-1 half-court. They really do mix it up.

"I think at some point we're going to see man from them, but I do anticipate seeing a lot of zone."

SEC ACTION: Four other SEC teams are in action today in the following matchups: Utah at Arkansas; Southern Cal at Georgia; Mississippi State at Texas A&M; and Penn State at South Carolina.

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Virginia, 13-2. The Lady Vols are 2-0 on the road against the Cavaliers. Tennessee last played in Charlottesville on Nov. 22, 2009, when 11,895 packed John Paul Jones Arena, the largest crowd ever for a Virginia women's basketball game. Virginia likely will be glad that Angie Bjorklund has departed Tennessee. The sharpshooter scored 50 points against the Cavaliers in the past two games. … Tennessee is 3-1 in games played on November 20. The last win on this date was against Stetson, 83-33, in 2005. The first win on November 20 came against Western Kentucky, 70-62, in 1984. The lone loss on this date was against Louisiana Tech, 66-64, in 1996. … Kamiko Williams has continued her remarkable comeback from ACL surgery on her left knee. The junior guard, who had surgery last July, was cleared this week for non-contact/non-live action drills. That allows her to do shooting, passing and dribbling activities as long as it does not involve contact or game-like situations. It is similar to what Taber Spani (elbow) and Ariel Massengale (concussion) were allowed to do as they made their way back to full go. … Virginia's first three opponents are averaging just 42.3 points per game. Appalachian State tallied 48 points, while High Point managed 41 and Providence mustered 38. The Lady Vols have played two games and are averaging 90.5 points with foes scoring 66.5.


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