Lady Vols to take on Rutgers

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — InsideTennessee is on the road covering the Lady Vols through the Northeast corridor. After a successful game in the Garden, Tennessee next faces rugged Rutgers. Go inside to get ready for the game.

Ask senior Shekinna Stricklen what she remembers about the last time she played at Rutgers, and the senior forward doesn't hesitate for a second.

"I remember we didn't score until seven minutes into the game and then going into halftime down by 20 and Pat going off and saying, ‘I promise you, you don't want to go back on a plane with me if we lose this game,' " Stricklen said. A post-game photo showed an exuberant Stricklen heading off the court with Summitt beaming just as big as the freshman. It was a signature win that season for a very young team.

Stricklen was a newcomer when Tennessee set three records - fewest points scored in a half at 13, largest deficit at halftime at 20 points with the score 33-13 and then the biggest comeback in school history - the gap went to 23 points to start the second half - with a 55-51 win on Jan. 3, 2009.

"Just seeing a different team coming out in the second half and freshmen at that," Stricklen said. "We came out and gave it all we got and ended up winning the game."

No. 6 Tennessee (5-2) renews the series with No. 11 Rutgers (9-1) at 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN) on Tuesday at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, commonly called the RAC.

Rutgers' Khadijah Rushdan also was a freshman that 2008-09 season, and she also has instant recall of the game.

"We didn't have a good grasp on things or how to hold a lead," Rushdan said. "We were playing to hold a lead, not to win the game. … That freshman group didn't really understand."

That group of freshmen, like Tennessee's then callow group, are now seniors, and they have embraced their five newcomers. Briyona Canty, a 5'9 guard, averaged 10.0 points over the past two games, and Betnijah Laney, a 6'0 guard/forward, had a pair of 10s in points and boards in a win over Florida.

The three other freshmen, Syessence Davis, a 5'7 guard, Christa Evans, a 6'3 post and Shakena Richardson, a 5'4 guard, have played in every game this season.

"They've been great," Rushdan said. "They give us depth, which is something we haven't had in a couple of years."

That depth has allowed the Scarlet Knights to resurrect their suffocating defense and get their running game on track.

"I think this is one of the quickest teams that we've had since I've been there," Rushdan said.

The Jan. 3, 2009, game hasn't been erased at all from the memories of the Rutgers' players, and while the two teams have played twice since then - at Madison Square Garden in the 2009-10 season and in Knoxville during the 2010-11 season, both Tennessee wins - this is the Lady Vols first trip back to the RAC since the Rutgers' collapse.

"It definitely comes up in conversation," Rushdan said.

The Scarlet Knight seniors also have yet to beat the Lady Vols. Rushdan acknowledged the game is both a circled one on the schedule and one to be kept in perspective.

"A little bit of both," Rushdan said. "A little more important because of the history that we've had. You definitely want to go out with a bang and get at least one win, but it's also one game at a time. We want to stay within ourselves."

The Lady Vols practiced late Monday afternoon on Rutgers' home court and went over the scouting report for the Scarlet Knights. A key player, Ariel Massengale, watched from the sideline with her left hand in a hybrid cast - it is both rigid and soft - and encouraged her teammates.

Massengale, a freshman point guard and a key cog in the Tennessee system, dislocated the middle finger of her left hand in practice last week and will miss the games before the Christmas break.

The coaches intended to stick with the same starting lineup and have sophomore Meighan Simmons at the point spot. Stricklen will be ready to slide over and help if needed.

Even if Massengale was available the game promised to be a stiff test for Tennessee, especially at the guard spots. The degree of difficulty increased even more when the poised ball-handler went down in practice last Thursday.

"That Ariel Massengale is a special talent," said Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer, who could tell from film study on Tennessee that the freshman brought calmness to the team. "If you don't have someone who is going to be your (floor) leader, you're going to struggle."

But Stringer also noted Tennessee's depth - it was with Stricklen and Briana Bass at point nearly three years ago that the Lady Vols made the epic comeback - and said the game plan doesn't change.

"We've got our hands full trying to handle everybody at Tennessee," Stringer said. "So we won't make any changes."

Senior forward Alicia Manning also was a freshman when the Lady Vols last played in Piscataway.

"I remember being down," Manning said. "I know we made history from a bad way to a good way. I remember a hostile environment and I remember seeing a different side of our team that we hadn't seen before that – that heart and desire that we weren't going to give up.

"And we didn't. Hopefully that's not how we start the game again."

Stricklen also is hoping for a much better beginning in the 2011 edition of the series.

"A better start," Stricklen said. "Come out with us leading. Just a better start. Way better than freshman year."

Stricklen and Manning - both of whom were key factors in Sunday's 84-61 win over DePaul - now have an abundance of experience to call upon when thrust into tough situations on the hardwood.

"I feel like it's so much easier being a senior," Stricklen said. "You have learned a lot and are more focused and more prepared."

Manning is road-ready, as she showed in the DePaul game at Madison Square Garden with a pair of 12s in points and rebounds and an infusion of energy into the team that is unquantifiable.

"Any away game you have to bring your own energy," Manning said. "A lot of times you're outnumbered. You've always got to bring your defense and rebounding because your shots aren't always going to fall."

This is the second of four games on the road. The Lady Vols return home for a day and then depart Thursday for the West Coast with games against UCLA and Stanford before taking a break for the holidays.

"Rutgers is going to be a great environment," junior Taber Spani said. "For us it's about us being unified and not letting outside stuff affect us. It will be a great test for us."

STARTING LINEUPS

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Meighan Simmons, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 10 (8.6 points per game, 2.3 rebounds per game); Taber Spani, 6'1 junior guard/forward, No. 13 (11.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 (16.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (13.3 ppg, 9.4 rpg); and Vicki Baugh, 6'4 redshirt senior forward/center, No. 21 (9.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg).

Baugh had a very un-Baugh-like stat in Sunday's game against Rutgers with zero boards in 12 minutes. Baugh played just five minutes in the first half because of foul trouble.

"I think teams know we're big rebounders, and I was the biggest one of the floor," Baugh said. "I think they executed and make sure that they boxed me out every time. There was not once where I didn't get hit. It happens. I was still trying."

With Baugh otherwise engaged with DePaul players, teammates Johnson (nine boards), Stricklen (eight) and Alicia Manning (12) picked up the slack.

"We still came away with the ‘W,' and a lot of my teammates were able to get in and grab the rebound," Baugh said.

Baugh missed the last game against Rutgers in New Jersey because she injured her knee in a practice on Jan. 1, 2009, two days before the game. On Monday, Baugh was on the practice floor at the RAC getting ready for Tuesday's game.

"This will be my first time playing on the Rutgers' floor," Baugh said. "It's just good to be able to be involved this year.

"I feel like every team plays their ‘A' game when they play us. Rutgers is a fast, transition team, and they like to penetrate, kind of like a Miami. It's just going to be fun."

Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer is expected to start: Khadijah Rushdan, 5'9 redshirt senior guard, No. 1 (12.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg), hails from Wilmington, Del., didn't play in last season's game against Tennessee because of injury, has 395 career assists and 1,019 career points; Erica Wheeler, 5'7 junior guard, No. 3 (8.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg), hails from Miami, Fla., scored 10 points against Tennessee, has 76 career treys; Nikki Speed, 5'8 senior guard, No. 11 (2.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg), hails from Pasadena, Calif., tallied 11 points against Lady Vols; April Sykes, 6'0 senior guard/forward, No. 24 (13.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg), hails from Starkville, Miss., scored 15 points against Tennessee on 6-9 shooting with the three misses coming from long range, bothered by leg cramps in game and had to leave in second half, has 113 career made treys, and Monique Oliver, 6'2 junior forward/center, No. 34 (13.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg), hails from Las Vegas, Nev., tallied eight points, six boards against Lady Vols, earned Big East weekly honors on Monday after averaging 18.5 points and 12.0 boards over past two games, has 111 career blocks.

With the preseason shoulder injury to senior post Chelsey Lee - she is out for the season - the Scarlet Knights have essentially gone to a four-guard lineup. They lost size inside but have quickness on the perimeter and speed in the open floor.

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

Offensively, the Scarlet Knights are athletic and quick. Tennessee will need to be alert and engaged on defense.

"They are very good with the dribble drive," Lockwood said. "They run a series of sets and play actions, some of which we have seen before, some of which are new. They are very good in the paint.

"They really feed off their defense first and foremost. They're forcing about 20 turnovers a game, and they are really getting some good point production from that.

"They drive it well. They offensive rebound well. They get the ball to the paint well. They are just a very good attacking team. A number of their players are very good off the bounce. At any given time three or four players on that floor can attack you one on one."

Defensively, Tennessee expects Rutgers to bring its trademark pressure.

"They've been primarily man from what we've seen so far," Lockwood said. "They have mixed in some zone. They'll pick you up man to man full court pressure and really get into you, really pressure you, trap you.

"They need to generate points from their defense. That is very important to them. It's physical. They'll get out in the passing lanes. They bump you. It's getting back to the old Rutgers that so many people remember of the Final Four eras when I first got on board. It's that kind of defense again."

RUTGERS REACTION: C. Vivian Stringer, the loquacious Rutgers coach, was at a loss for words when she heard that Pat Summitt had been diagnosed with early onset dementia.

"I was stunned, hurt. Wow," Stringer said of her initial reaction. "I've thought so much of her. We go back such a long time. … When I heard that I was devastated. I didn't know what to do. I've never been one that's been good with words."

Stringer cited Summitt's courage to go public with the diagnosis knowing that it would come with incredible scrutiny of her every move on the sideline and every utterance to the media.

"Pat is selfless," Stringer said. "The vast majority would not want anyone to know. She has taught me something. It goes well beyond sports."

The Scarlet Knight players will wear "We Back Pat" shooting shirts and Rutgers Athletics Director Tim Pernetti will present UT's Women's Athletics Director Joan Cronan with a commemorative jersey for Summitt.

Rutgers also will be selling the Pat Summitt Foundation bracelets on the concourse with the proceeds going to that fund.

SEC PLAY: Only one other SEC team is in action today with UCLA at LSU, which, ironically, brings Nikki Caldwell's former team, the Bruins, to her current team, the Lady Tigers. LSU played at UCLA last season, and this is the return game. UCLA is Tennessee's next opponent after Rutgers.

ODDS AND ENDS

Tennessee leads the series with Rutgers, 17-3. The Lady Vols are 2-3 on the road against the Scarlet Knights. … Tennessee is 6-4 in games played on December 13. The last win on this date came against Rutgers, 68-54, in the Garden in 2009. The first win on December 13 was against UCLA, 80-77, in 1979. The four losses on this date were to Stephen F. Austin, 72-68, in 1980; Long Beach State, 56-51, in 1983; Louisiana Tech, 73-57, in 1984; and Southern Cal, 85-77, in 1985. … Rutgers was picked to finish fourth in the Big East by a preseason votes of the coaches. Notre Dame was the choice to win the conference, followed by Connecticut and Louisville. DePaul, the Big East team that Tennessee defeated Sunday, was picked sixth. … Rutgers' only loss this season was on the road against Miami in a double overtime thriller. The Hurricanes scored 92 points to Rutgers' 81 over the 50-minute contest, and it was the first time a team had scored 90 or more points against Rutgers in nearly nine years. Texas Tech last did it with 94 points on Jan. 2, 2003. Going into the Miami game, the Scarlet Knights were allowing just 50.9 points a game. Rutgers' last double OT game occurred March 7, 2010, in a 63-56 defeat of Georgetown.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Dean Lockwood


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