Lady Vols fall short against Baylor

More than two dozen former Lady Vols, four future players for the orange and white and five recruits were in the arena Sunday to watch Tennessee – led by Shekinna Stricklen and Vicki Baugh – give top-ranked Baylor all it could handle before falling 76-67.

They had a lot of company as 16,623 fans turned out on a rain-soaked Sunday afternoon to see how Tennessee, which took its first loss of the season a week ago, would do against the No. 1 team in the country.

The outcome was the same – Tennessee (2-2) lost to Baylor (6-0), but the Lady Vol coaches could swallow this defeat and not be left with a bitter aftertaste.

"It was a great women's basketball game," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "You had two teams competing. We asked our team today, ‘All we want you to do is have a lot of heart, play with a lot of emotion and compete.' I think we did that.

" … We rebounded the basketball, offensively and defensively. Just when we needed to make a play, make a shot, down the stretch, we didn't. We'll get better at that as a team, but I loved how we competed and I loved how we were in the game and I'm just proud of our young ladies."

What a difference a week makes. Last Sunday the Lady Vol coaches were left to wonder how a veteran team could take the court and not be ready to compete.

"I was proud of how hard our team played," Head Coach Pat Summitt said. "We didn't come out with a win, but I saw us do some really good things. This is a game we can certainly grow and learn from, and we will."

The game was a human tribute to Summitt as thousands of fans wore "We Back Pat" T-shirts, and the teams wore purple shooting shirts with the same message. Purple is the color associated with Alzheimer's awareness and last summer Summitt revealed that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia.

A group from Chattanooga spread a huge banner across the upper deck expressing support for Summitt.

At halftime Summitt assisted in the check presentation of $75,000 each to UT Medical Center and Alzheimer's Tennessee Inc. in proceeds raised from the shirt sales.

Her son Tyler Summitt announced the formation of the Pat Summitt Foundation that will boost education and awareness, raise money for research and help provide support for patients, families and caregivers.

A letter from Summitt can be read HERE.

"Put away your hankies," Summitt wrote. "There's not going to be any pity party. We're going to fight, and we're going to fight publicly."

It has been that willingness to go public when Summitt could have chosen privacy that has earned her praise from all quarters.

Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey was unequivocal in her support and spoke Sunday about a phone call she placed to Summitt shortly after the announcement in August.

"I wanted her to make sure she had people that would protect her, and she does," Mulkey said. "This university should protect her until the day she wants to step off that floor."

The Lady Vols past was scattered throughout the arena with former players in attendance that included Kelley Cain, Alexis Hornbuckle, Chamique Holdsclaw, Michelle Marciniak, Shelia Collins, Sheila Frost, Jill Rankin, Liza Graves and Zandra Montgomery.

The future of the Lady Vols also was sitting in the stands about halfway up the section behind the Tennessee bench. The signing class of 2012, Andraya Carter, Bashaara Graves and Jasmine Jones, was in attendance, along with juco target Uju Ugoka, a 6'2 guard/forward from Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, Fla.

Kaela Davis, a 2013 verbal commit who plays with Carter at Buford High School in Georgia, also was in the stands.

Four 2013 recruits watched Sunday's action: Diamond DeShields of Georgia; Kristina "Koko" Nelson, who is a teammate of Davis and Carter; Taya Reimer of Indiana; and Tyler Scaife of Arkansas.

Those in attendance were treated to a game that measured up to a matchup of No. 6 Tennessee and No. 1 Baylor, which is led by the incomparable Brittney Griner, a 6'8 force who affects shots just by being in the vicinity of them.

"Brittney is a shot blocker," Lady Vol senior forward Glory Johnson said. "We all know that. We've all seen her block shots, and we've experienced it. Just trying to make sure you're not changing your shot against her because she might block it."

Lady Vol Vicki Baugh wasn't deterred. Her mobility allowed her to pull Griner away from the basket, get the ball just outside the paint and then drive, leading to a foul on the Baylor post just 62 seconds into the game. Baugh made both free throws for a 2-0 lead and then Shekinna Stricklen hit a deep three-pointer with two seconds on the shot clock on a pass from Johnson for a 5-0 lead.

At the first media timeout at 15:58 – the volleyball team was honored for its first outright SEC regular season title at that break in action – the Lady Vols led 5-4.

But then the shots wouldn't fall for Tennessee – and at the 13:34 mark of the first half, the Lady Vols were 1-12 from the field. Baylor built an eight-point lead, 15-7, on a Griner layup after a feed from Odyssey Sims, but the Lady Vols stayed within striking range because of their defense, board play and the All-American stat line of Stricklen, who packed a game's worth in one half.

After Griner blocked a shot, Johnson grabbed the ball out of the air and fired it to Stricklen before falling out of bounds. Stricklen nailed the three to tie the game at 22 with 5:48 left in the half.

Baylor built a seven-point lead and Tennessee again battled back with Stricklen swishing a floater in the lane, a baseline jumper and then a layup on a pass-ahead from Baugh that gave the Lady Vols a 30-29 lead and brought the crowd to a frenzied level of excitement.

Griner got the lead back for Baylor with two free throws, but Taber Spani and Isabelle Harrison played inside-out, and Spani drained the three for a 33-31 Tennessee lead at halftime.

The Lady Vols managed that despite shooting 25.0 percent (11-44) in the first half because they had a whopping 34-19 lead on the boards, including 18 offensive boards.

"I'm sure Coach Mulkey chewed their butts out at halftime about offensive rebounds," Warlick said. "That's what we would do as a staff. I think they just tightened up on the defensive end.

"Defensive rebounding is a Tennessee staple, and I thought we did that for the most part, except maybe the last four minutes. We couldn't close the deal."

The Lady Vols started the second half as if they could after a Baugh block. She got the ball to Ariel Massengale, who found Spani for three. That was followed by a Stricklen put-back and a free throw from Johnson, and the Lady Vols had a 39-31 lead a little more than two minutes into the second half.

Mulkey called timeout, and Baylor went to work inside with Griner. Tennessee still had a six-point lead, 48-42, when Massengale hit a three on an assist from Baugh with 12:54 to play, but Baylor started hitting shots – the Lady Bears shot 34.5 percent in the first half and 48.4 percent in the second – and took a three-point lead, 56-53, when Odyssey Sims connected from long range with 7:27 left.

Tennessee kept the lead in single digits and three times cut it to four, but Baylor hit big shots – Terran Condrey boosted the lead back to six with 2:33 left on a baseline jumper – when it had to have them.

"We didn't make stops at the end," Warlick said. "You have to make stops. You can lead the whole game, but the most important segment of the game is the last four minutes, and we didn't finish the deal."

The Lady Vols were forced to foul in the final minute and Sims went 9-10 from the line in that stretch – part of a 14-15 performance for the sophomore from the stripe – to seal the final 76-67 score.

While the outcome was disappointing for the program – and 16,000-plus fans primed for an upset of No. 1 – the Lady Vols were encouraged by several developments on their side of the court, especially the play of Baugh.

"You see what we've been missing the last two years," Warlick said. "Vicki Baugh is a competitor. That was probably the best game she's had. I can't say enough about her and her energy and how the team feeds off her energy.

"I thought Vicki Baugh was just outstanding and being the Vicki Baugh she can be. A healthy Vicki Baugh. She was obviously upset. Her team was upset after the game. Vicki competed and brought us a lot of energy."

More importantly, the game likely boosted Baugh's confidence. She played 32 minutes without any knee issues.

"It's been a while since I've played with that much confidence in my knee," Baugh said. "I didn't feel anything. I felt just how I did my freshman year. It was great to just come and be able to jump and be explosive and push the ball and cut like I used to.

"It did feel good, but I'm still not happy with the outcome."

Baugh missed the Virginia game and explained the medical issue in Sunday's post-game press conference. Given her explanation it was easy to see why Tennessee held her out a week ago.

"When I had my IT band and hamstring lock up on me, what it does is it locks up as a mechanism to protect the knee, that had me wishy-washy, on is it my knee, or is it not?" Baugh said. "But stretching and getting back, I had complete confidence, and I haven't felt that since the national championship game."

That would have been in 2008 when Baugh was a key player in Tennessee's postseason run to the national title. She tore her ACL in that game and again less than a year later, causing the athletic forward to spend most of the past three years in rehab.

A healthy Baugh had 17 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, just one turnover, a block and a steal against the best post player in the country.

"I was so proud of how Vicki played today," Summitt said. "She was solid and a big difference maker for us. Her paint presence was great, and it was so exciting to see her so mobile. Vicki is a great leader for us, and she is an inspiration to her teammates."

Tennessee will need that Baugh going forward, and also the inspired play of Stricklen, who heated up in the second half of the Virginia game – she has been known for slow starts – but was the fuel for her team all game long against Baylor.

"Shekinna, who gets pretty hard on herself, I thought today she did not get hard on herself," Warlick said. "If she made a mistake, she didn't get down.

"Shekinna is a streaky player. She hits her first couple shots, and she's on a roll. Shekinna showed she was an All-American today. She played, she competed, she handled the ball, she was a rebounder. I thought all aspects of her game were outstanding for Shekinna Stricklen."

Stricklen had 19 points and seven boards by halftime. She finished with 25 points and 12 boards.

"I do get frustrated," Stricklen said. "It's something that I really do have to overcome. I think I'm a leader. (Glory, Vicki, and I) like being leaders of this team. We can't get down.

"We play most of the time, and we have to stay positive throughout the game."

Stricklen logged 39 minutes, while Johnson, who had foul trouble early, played all but one minute of the second half. Johnson also reached double digits in rebounds with 11 and nearly got the double-double with nine points.

"We just had a lot more energy," Johnson said. "We'd been playing with low energy and not really picking each other up. That brings a negative atmosphere, and we're just trying to stay positive, no matter if Brittney blocks a shot, and keep talking to each other and stay as positive as possible."

That was a direct offshoot of the Virginia game when the players retreated into themselves when the game got dicey. The last two times Tennessee had faced Griner, the Lady Vols had played passively. That wasn't the case Sunday as they took the ball inside – Spani drove and hit a reverse while getting fouled by Griner – and didn't allow for stationary blocks.

"We want to keep on going into her and keep shooting our shots like we do every day in practice and at every game," Johnson said. "We started off – I know I personally started changing my shot in the second half – trying to go into her and get some fouls and get to the free throw line."

"I wanted to go against her how we had to go against Sylvia Fowles (at LSU) my freshman year," Baugh said. "They're both huge post presences and you have to push them out and make them play away from the basket. You have to take them out of their comfort zone, and that's what we were shooting for tonight.

"Offensively, I was very comfortable because I was able to get back to my face-up game, and I believe that is a strong point of my game. I knew that inside, she's a huge post presence and shot blocker, so I was going to have to pull her out of the paint."

Tennessee also wreaked havoc on the boards with the frontline crashing hard on both ends. Baugh, Johnson and Stricklen combined for 33 boards, part of a 56-42 effort overall by the team to win that stat category.

"I felt like if we could control the boards that we'd have a shot at winning," Summitt said. "We did out-rebound them by a large margin and did get 28 second-chance points. We just didn't convert on our initial shots."

Mulkey noticed the rebounding numbers – it was the first time Baylor had been out-boarded since losing to Texas A&M in the Elite Eight last March.

"How many games are you going to get outrebounded as much as we did, particularly on the offensive end, and win?" Mulkey said. "In fact I think the last time we got outrebounded, we lost. How do you make that up? Where you make it up: by playing good defense. …

"They were flying to the boards; every time Griner would alter a shot, everybody on the other side was flying, and that's a great strategy to use. So, our challenge is you better keep playing great defense, and I thought we did."

Baylor had just nine offensive boards for the game to 26 for Tennessee. The Lady Vols also contained Griner in the first half – she was 3-9 for nine points with three boards. But she went 8-9 in the second half and finished with a game-high 26 points.

"(It was) just mentally knowing that I needed to help my team," Griner said. "I felt like I didn't do what I needed to do in the first half, and I knew that in the second half I needed to step up and do whatever I could to help my team out.

"I was just listening to my coaches and getting on myself, ‘Get deep. Get deep. Get the ball, and go up strong.' They were doing a great job on getting me the ball."

Tennessee, meanwhile, struggled from the perimeter where Massengale and Meighan Simmons combined to go 2-22. Simmons, who went 1-12 in the first half, played just a minute in the second half, but Warlick said that was because of how well Stricklen and Spani were playing

"Meighan just wasn't making plays and it's hard to take out Taber Spani and Shekinna when they're just making plays," Warlick said. "They're playing well defensively, they're playing well offensively, and we were just in a good rhythm, I thought, in the second half.

"I think it's a matter of we weren't sure where we were going to put Meighan in that spot when the other two were producing."

When Simmons left the game seconds before the game ended, Summitt met her on the sideline and delivered a few words that appeared to be instruction-oriented while Simmons nodded.

Going forward Tennessee likely will want to find more minutes for Simmons – and Alicia Manning, too, who provides a jolt on defense and who could have spelled Stricklen – but it's early in the season and rotations are still in flux.

Both teams had three players in double figures: Baylor's Griner with 26 points, Sims with 23 and Jordan Madden with 11 while Stricklen led Tennessee with 25 points, Baugh had 17 and Spani added 10.

Baylor shot 41.7 percent (25-60) overall, 26.7 percent (4-15) from long range and 91.7 percent (22-24) from the line. The Lady Bears had 17 assists, nine turnovers, 10 blocks and five steals.

Tennessee shot 29.3 percent (24-82) overall, 33.3 percent (8-24) from long range and 73.3 percent (11-15) from the line. The Lady Vols had 15 assists, 11 turnovers, five blocks and five steals.

"I know we're disappointed," Warlick said. "I'm disappointed. The Tennessee fans are disappointed. But this is early for us, and as long as it's a learning experience for us, we can learn from a loss. As long as we do that, we'll be in business.

"We didn't play like this and compete like this against Virginia. If we compete like this every game, we're going to make a difference in our basketball team and get some great wins."

INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE

The Lady Vols might be the most schizophrenic team in the country. The key for the coaches is to figure out how to keep the current incarnation on the court.

A week ago Tennessee went to Virginia, seemed unengaged in the game until it was too late to recover and left Charlottesville with a loss that selection committees tend to salivate over when seeding teams in postseason.

On Sunday, the Lady Vols play inspired on both ends of the court but came up short against the No. 1 team – and right now there appears to be a decent-sized gap between Baylor and the rest of the country but a lot of basketball remains to be played – in a game that the coaches can accept the outcome of because the team gave effort.

As Holly Warlick noted after the game, the Lady Vols couldn't get shots to fall at key moments. It wasn't an execution issue – they got some open looks – but a matter of misses. Coaches can live with that.

After the Virginia loss, the coaches used a film session to point out the errors and breakdowns and then flushed the game. That was the right approach with a veteran team. The players knew what they did wrong and they showed in the Baylor game that they have the maturity to absorb the lessons and correct the problems.

It does have to be rather maddening for the coaches, though, that a team that can play that well against the best team in the country can play so poorly against a lesser opponent.

Tennessee passed its test Sunday. It wasn't an ‘A' grade because the Lady Vols didn't get the ‘W,' but it gets much higher marks than the game from a week ago.

The next test is Tuesday in a short turnaround when unranked Middle Tennessee comes to Knoxville. The Blue Raiders have a savvy coach and enough talent to be competitive, but on paper it's still a mismatch. Will Tennessee play its game or let Middle Tennessee set the tone as Virginia did?

The coaches didn't seem upset after the Baylor game. They were disappointed in the outcome but not in their players. The players, especially Vicki Baugh, did seem upset. That is actually a big step. In the past, the coaches had wondered if they cared too much and the players didn't care enough.

The senior class has been much maligned during its time on campus, but if Tennessee plays with that attitude and effort all season long, the Lady Vols are back on the big stage that has eluded them for three years.

Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey likely meant it as a compliment when she said in the post-game press conference that she told the UT players they would win the SEC with that effort. While not a given, that is already expected.

Tennessee, despite its shortcomings the past two seasons and injury list that could have merited a pay raise for Jenny Moshak for overwork, has gone 31-1 in the SEC with regular season and SEC tourney trophies in 2010 and 2011.

While a team always wants to win its conference – another factor for the selection committee – Tennessee's sights are set beyond the SEC.

Mulkey also noted the two teams could cross paths again this season. That is more of what Tennessee has on its mind and after Sunday the players and coaches are likely more encouraged by their chances at postseason success.

"If they play as well from here on out as they did today, we'll probably see each other again somewhere down the road," Mulkey said. "I hope not until Denver."

The players would second that motion.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Pat Summitt's entrance and halftime

Tennessee Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick

Lady Vols Glory Johnson, Shekinna Stricklen, Vicki Baugh

Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey with Brittney Griner, Odyssey Sims


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