Lady Vols outlast Rutgers

PISCATAWAY, N.J. - The Lady Vols needed a signature win on the road, and they got it Tuesday with a 67-61 victory against Rutgers. Go inside with Inside Tennessee for game coverage of Tennessee's East Coast swing.

Shekinna Stricklen limped into the post-game press conference room with ice bags on her legs and a smile on her face.

The senior forward has been a thorn in the side of the Scarlet Knights, especially on their home court, and she came through again with a 22-point, nine-rebound effort in the 67-61 win at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.

Three years ago Stricklen stroked NBA range threes to spark the biggest comeback in Tennessee history after being down 20 points at halftime against Rutgers.

She eased her way into a chair at the press conference and grinned when asked if she could have played much longer in the game.

"I would have," Stricklen said. "I would have fought through the pain. I am kind of hardheaded."

Stricklen had considerable help, including two clutch three-pointers from Meighan Simmons - one wide open, the other with a hand in her face - a long ball from Taber Spani and a pivotal block from Vicki Baugh in the final minutes.

"I feel like there is a time and a place for everything," Simmons said. "It was a moment where we had to score. I was open so I happened to take the shot and thank God it went in. God is good. …

"I was very focused on hitting those two threes. I knew we needed a basket right then and there."

Stricklen logged nearly 40 minutes - she left for a few seconds with 34 seconds remaining because of lower leg cramps - and Simmons also went the distance. The two joined Taber Spani, who logged 31 minutes despite a still healing knee, in the post-game press conference.

The three looked weary but happy and when Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick completed her remarks, she said she felt as if she had gone the distance on the court.

"I thought it was a typical Rutgers-Tennessee game," Warlick said. "It was very physical. It was very hard fought, very athletic play. … I am proud of our effort. We've been on a pretty long road swing, and we wanted to get this game. We played tough.

"Rutgers makes you play hard."

Tennessee (6-2) headed home after the win over Rutgers (9-2) and will take the day off Wednesday before traveling Thursday to Los Angeles to get ready for the two-game swing on the West Coast against UCLA and Stanford.

It was the game on the East Coast road trip that was the least suited to having point guard Ariel Massengale on the bench with a dislocated finger on her left hand. Rutgers deploys a trapping defense and extends its pressure, and it was worrisome for the coaches as they prepared for the game.

Stricklen and Simmons tag-teamed at the point with Simmons playing there most of the first half and Stricklen taking it most of the second half. Spani also stepped in a couple of times to set up the offense.

"It's a tribute to those two young ladies," Warlick said. "We were concerned that Massengale was not with us (on the floor) but confident that Shekinna and Meighan could make a great effort at point.

"I thought tonight they did an outstanding job. They handled Rutgers' press. We limited our turnovers, which we were concerned about. Just proud of those two young ladies and actually I saw Taber bring it up a couple of times as well.

"That is the strength of our guard play, and we are very fortunate to have those young ladies with us."

Rutgers picked its spots with the pressure, especially early in the game, and seemed a little startled when the 6'4 Vicki Baugh took the in-bounds pass and took it all the way down court to the rim, where she was fouled and hit both free throws for a 4-2 Tennessee lead.

Baugh didn't do that again - though she did get a steal out of half-court pressure and lead the break where she dished to Stricklen for a 9-2 lead - but it did show Rutgers that Tennessee would use all five players on the floor to break the press.

Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer said a concern was how quickly the Lady Vols in-bound the ball and how much they look for three-ball shooters in transition.

"Our 55 (full court) defense generally yields points," Stringer said. "I was a little uncomfortable initially because I know they take the ball out extremely quick. I thought we fought hard to apply the kind of pressure that we're capable of applying.

" … Tennessee is a great team, and it speaks to their poise and being able to do the things that they did."

One game after scoring 50 points in the paint, the Lady Vols got just 18 there against Rutgers. Part of the game plan was to keep the Scarlet Knights out of the paint, but they tallied 38 points there.

Rutgers' senior April Sykes led all scorers with 27 points and Tennessee rotated different defenders on her without a lot of success.

"At times we didn't have an answer for April Sykes," Warlick said. "She was pretty special tonight. We tried just about everybody on her."

Stricklen ended up guarding her down the stretch and handled the assignment fairly well, despite her fatigue and offensive duties.

Stricklen led Tennessee with 22 points and was 3-5 from behind the arc. She also had two assists and three steals.

"We put a lot of responsibility on her, and she has stepped up big time," Warlick said. "We don't want Shekinna Stricklen to be an All-American just on paper. We want her to go out and prove it every night, and I think tonight she did.

"As Shekinna plays is how our team goes. I was proud of her. We are putting a lot on her shoulders, and she is handling it. We had Shekinna step up and try to be a defensive stopper, and we are asking her to rebound, handle the ball, make plays.

"We are putting a lot on her, but she is responding. As long as she responds, we are going to keep going to her."

Stricklen is responding in perhaps one of the most emotionally charged seasons of her career. Pat Summitt's announcement that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia has meant even more attention on the program, and especially on the road where reporters covering Tennessee for the first time this season are naturally gravitating to that storyline.

Rutgers put out the welcome mat from students selling Summitt's orange-and-purple "Fierce Courage" bracelets on the concourse to the scorer's table signage promoting her foundation to raise money for Alzheimer's to the Scarlet Knights wearing "We Back Pat" shooting shirts.

As soon as the 6,368 fans in attendance saw Summitt coming around a corner of the stands with her team, they came to the feet with a sustained ovation and roar.

"I am proud of them," Stringer said. "I wouldn't have expected anything less than that. I think the Scarlet Knight fans are classy people. … I know that Pat appreciated that."

Stringer and her staff walked to Tennessee's bench and when Stringer hugged Summitt, the applause somehow got even louder.

"It was awesome," Warlick said. "It's just a tribute to the fans here and how they've appreciated Pat every year we've been up here. We knew the people in orange were going to stand up but everyone in red (did, too).

"Everybody in the whole arena was so positive, and Pat is so appreciative of that. It was a little overwhelming when we came out."

After the game ended, Summitt walked to the baseline, where Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed in a game last season, was waiting. The two spoke briefly, and that brought more appreciation from the fans who witnessed the exchange.

After the game ended, a pocket of Lady Vol fans belted out "Rocky Top," and while they got some odd looks, there were no catcalls.

The Lady Vols and Scarlet Knight players assembled at center court for a post-game prayer - it is something Tennessee has been doing on a regular basis and always invites the opposing team.

"A lot of us know each other, we're real good friends," Stricklen said. "Praying together just shows that we're playing ball, but we're giving God the glory."

None of this kept the game from being a typical Tennessee-Rutgers matchup, which are usually close and always physical.

Tennessee got off to a great start with Glory Johnson making her first two free throws followed by Baugh twice getting fouled inside and making four straight from the stripe for a 6-2 lead.

Stricklen rebounded a missed Simmons jumper for an 11-4 lead with 14:21 left in the first half. Tennessee raised its defense a notch and Simmons found Stricklen behind the arc for a 14-6 lead, and Stricklen pushed that to 16-6 with another offensive board.

Simmons stroked a trey off an in-bounds pass for a 19-8 lead, made one of two free throws after getting fouled and then Alicia Manning made two from the stripe for a 22-12 lead with 10:55 left before the break.

The Lady Vols continued to attack the paint with Spani faking a three in the corner, driving baseline and flipping the ball to Stricklen for a 24-12 lead.

"We've tried to get them to be not just one-dimensional," Warlick said, referring to the trio of shooters in Spani, Stricklen and Simmons. "They have the capability of shooting the three.

"But we've really worked on their midrange game and getting to the basket. That is what makes these two difficult to guard. When they can do both, they are very difficult to guard."

Tennessee continued to attack - Stricklen got an offensive board and found Spani for a three and then Stricklen sent an entry pass inside to Johnson, who was fouled and hit both free throws for a 29-18 lead.

Simmons hit a pull-up in transition, and Stricklen started behind the arc, crossed over her defender and stepped in for the jumper, and Tennessee led 33-20 with 5:53 left before halftime.

While building that lead, Tennessee took some quick shots, rather than continue the offensive execution that led to the lead and Rutgers took advantage of it to close the half. After building the 13-point lead - which should have been approaching 20, ironically, given the 33-13 lead by Rutgers on the same floor nearly three years ago - the Lady Vols had gotten out of sync and instead closed the half with six turnovers and four missed shots.

Tennessee still led at halftime,33-28, but the momentum had shifted to the Scarlet Knights.

Warlick wasn't too surprised to see the lead evaporate.

"No, because I know Rutgers, and I know they have runs in them," Warlick said.

The message at halftime was composure and better shot selection.

"It's difficult in this environment," Spani said of the momentum shift. "They had a great crowd and I think they were getting excited. But I think this team is mature enough now to understand if we go back to the basics, playing defense and rebounding, go back to Tennessee basketball, we're going to be fine.

"I thought the coaches did a great job of continuing to be calm."

Tennessee started the second half with a turnover with a forced pass inside that led to a steal by Monique Oliver and a layup by Khadijah Rushdan to trim the lead to just three, 33-30. The Lady Vols lost it on an Sykes layup off a Tennessee turnover, and the Lady Vols wanted a timeout.

At that point, it became a back-and-forth game with five more lead changes, two ties and clutch shots.

Spani somehow wiggled out a double-team trap on the sideline and hit a baseline jumper and then snared a pass thrown behind her while heading to the rim and converted the layup to keep Tennessee within one point of the lead of 45-44.

Tennessee got the lead back, 47-45, on a Stricklen three - Spani found her alone in the corner - and then Oliver tied it for Rutgers with an and-one layup and went ahead with the free throw, 48-47, after a foul by Alicia Manning

Manning got the points back with a spin move, bank shot to give Tennessee a 49-48 lead and then Johnson drove to the basket for a 51-48 lead with 9:39 remaining.

Rushdan and Sykes got Rutgers back in front, 54-51, with 8:33 left, and Baugh pulled Tennessee to within one with a drive that made it 54-53.

Baugh played a role in the go-ahead layup when she got clothes-lined on the way to the basket and the ball popped out to Johnson, who converted the layup for a 55-54 Tennessee lead.

Tennessee didn't trail again, but it was a tough stretch to get there and a tough road to the finish.

From the 9:39 mark to the 5:42 mark, Tennessee scored just four points. In that same stretch, Rutgers scored six, and the Lady Vols were clinging to the one-point lead.

Simmons was left alone in the corner and nailed the three ball on a feed from Spani for a 58-54 lead.

"It looked like they started on the right and came back left, and we forgot and we didn't bump over," Stringer said. "I'll be anxious to look at the tape and break it down."

That was followed by Baugh's block of Oliver's layup, and Johnson grabbed the ball.

"It was huge for us," Warlick said. "We needed a stop. Vicki just came up big. She made a play. Great block. And we needed it at that time."

Simmons hit a three on the wing, followed by Spani draining a trey after Baugh got doubled-team and fired the ball back out, something Baugh does well for a post player, because of her court vision.

"We went through several minutes when we didn't score, and these two hit big threes," Warlick said. "That is what they are capable of. They hit big shots for us to give us a little comfortable lead."

That increased Tennessee's lead to 64-54 with 1:53 to play.

"Identifying shooters," Rushdan said when asked how the game got away from Rutgers. "We were right in there and the next thing I know I turned around and we were down by 10.

"We're going to have to a better job of knowing time, situation and score and knowing who the shooters are and being able to keep our focus towards the end of the game."

Rutgers didn't let up and continued to press and then foul to send Tennessee to the line.

Stricklen and Simmons both missed the front end of one-and-ones, and Rutgers cut the lead to 64-59 with 27 seconds to play.

Simmons was fouled again and made one of two, and Stricklen, who briefly left because of leg cramps and then returned, hit both free throws for the final 67-61 score.

"Now, I would rather us hit some free throws at the end," Warlick said. "Maybe we can move the free throw line back to the three-point line. Outside of that we need to put the game away with free throws, and we almost let it slip away."

Rutgers led by Sykes with 27 points and is still seeking a win over Tennessee.

"As seniors we take everybody we've lost to personally," Sykes said. "We want to beat them. We don't want to leave Rutgers a legacy of losing to those teams. That puts pressure on the people after us. … I hate losing.

"We lost again, and I just want to win for the team and Coach Stringer. She wants to be able to beat Pat Summitt. We just didn't get it done."

Rushdan also reached double figures with 16 points. Erica Wheeler added six with Oliver chipping in with five points.

The Scarlet Knights shot 40.3 percent (27-67) overall, 17.6 percent (3-17) from long range and 50.0 percent (4-8) from the line.

"We've got to find a way within our offenses to get to the free throw line more and then maybe we can get some points off of that," Stringer said.

Rutgers had just nine turnovers with 13 assists, eight steals and one block.

"We didn't give up," Stringer said. "We don't know how to quit, and I was extremely proud. I am not disappointed with the effort."

Rutgers went on a 10-2 run over the final 6:05 of the first half and outscored Tennessee, 12-5, in the first four minutes of the second half. The downfall was a scoreless stint over a 5:04 span late in the second half.

"We do know what we need to do in terms of cleaning up about three to four minutes," Stringer said.

Tennessee had three players in double figures led by Stricklen's 22 points. Simmons and Spani both added 13, and Johnson, who went 5-6 from the line, added nine points. Baugh had six points on the strength of 4-5 from the line, and Manning added four to complete the Lady Vols scoring.

The Lady Vols shot 38.2 percent (21-55) overall with a 46.2 percent showing (12-26) in the second half, 50.0 percent (9-18) from the arc and 64.0 percent (16-25) from the line.

Tennessee won the battle of the boards, 45-38, with Stricklen leading the way with nine. Baugh tallied seven rebounds while Johnson, Simmons and Manning had six each. Spani grabbed five boards.

The Lady Vols had 11 assists, 16 turnovers, five blocks and five steals.

Tennessee had a flurry of turnovers to end the first half, but kept them under control for the most part, especially Simmons and Stricklen, who combined for six but also played the entire game and had to handle the ball.

"It is a test to see where my mentality is," Simmons said. "When the coaches told me ahead of time that they were going to put a lot of pressure on me, I knew that I had to be mentally ready.

"My mentality was all positive. There was no negativity at all."

The vibe was all positive after the game, too.

"We tried to keep our composure, don't panic and I think for the most part we did," Warlick said. "We haven't played really in this environment on the road.

"These young ladies have been there; they just haven't been there this year. They stuck it out and figured out a way to win."

"I can see that they're playing in her image, and that's a real tribute to her," Stringer said of Tennessee and Summitt.

Tennessee went 2-0 on the road trip to the Northeast against Big East schools and will look to do the same on the West Coast against two Pac 12 schools.

"I feel good about what happened in New York," Summitt said. "Obviously, I hope we can keep our momentum and keep it going and keep focused. We are going to be back on the road real soon."

The Lady Vols will be on the opposite coast in less than 48 hours with time at home to unpack and repack. The cross-country flight will be more enjoyable given the start of the December road trips.

"It was a great win for us," Warlick said. "It was a great win against a very good team, very well-coached team, great environment.

"We'll take the win. When we needed to we made big plays. As coaches, tremendous effort, and that's all we can ask for.

"That is what we've been asking these young ladies to do - play with a lot of heart and a lot of emotion, and I think they did that."

INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE

Point guard by committee is never an ideal situation for a team, but Tennessee certainly has experience with the setup.

That came in handy Tuesday evening when Shekinna Stricklen and Meighan Simmons handled the bulk of the duties and will have to continue to do so until Ariel Massengale returns from a finger injury.

Stricklen and Simmons had just three turnovers each - a low number considering they were facing Rutgers and the fact both played the entire game, minus a few seconds for Stricklen when the game was nearly over.

The game was physical and tiring because the teams were either scoring in transition or working deep into the shot clock, which requires maximum effort on defense from all five players on the floor.

It is a game where freshmen learn how different college basketball is from high school.

Tennessee's two freshmen, Isabelle Harrison and Cierra Burdick, got into the game. Harrison went two minutes with a rebound. Burdick went nine minutes with a rebound and a block.

Two of Rutgers' highly regarded freshmen, Briyona Canty, who started to try to counter Tennessee's athleticism inside, and Betnijah Laney, logged longer minutes - 28 for Canty and 16 for Laney - but combined to shoot 1-9.

They are the future of this series and got an up-close look at how rugged the college game can be. Nearly every shot was challenged and bodies were hitting the floor after forays to the rim and battles for the boards.

Vicki Baugh got clothes-lined on the way to the basket - no foul was called - and Glory Johnson scooped up the ball as it flew out of Baugh's hands and scored the layup.

It was a game that required will to fight through fatigue and it was a game that Tennessee lost just a month ago when on the road at Virginia.

Tennessee had a better start against Rutgers, got a double-digit lead, let it dwindle to single digits and then lost it entirely in the second half. The Lady Vols could have folded then.

"Obviously, we don't want it this close, but I think it was a great opportunity for our team to show some mental toughness," Taber Spani said. "That is really one of the things that we pride ourselves on is being tough no matter what.

"The coaches just kept saying, ‘Composure, composure, composure,' and we just tried to really not freak ourselves out and get panicky."

That is exactly what Tennessee has done at times in the past. It is also why a player like Spani is on the floor so much even if the bone bruise in her knee is still healing.

It was Spani who called the team huddles on the floor and she took Simmons under her wing a couple of times to deliver some reassuring words and a pat on the back.

"We understand this is a veteran team and we just have to turn the momentum, and once we get the momentum, we're going to be fine," Spani said.

The players on the floor regrouped like veterans after halftime.

Tennessee had a 13-point lead that had dwindled to five by halftime, in part because of poor shot selection.

The coaches told Spani, Stricklen and Simmons to keep shooting with one requirement - open looks.

Simmons was 2-9 in the first half and 1-5 from long range. A few shots were questionable mostly because Simmons was forcing them in traffic or shooting too quickly and off balance.

"The first half, I think she took a few questionable shots, but she had two big threes when we desperately needed some offense," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "You just have to take the good with the bad with her sometimes."

Stricklen was 6-12 before the break, while Spani had taken just three shots and hit one, a three-pointer.

"These three young ladies are shooters," Warlick said. "And we said, ‘If you're open, take the shot.' It doesn't take a genius to tell these guys that they have the open look.

"We have faith in them that they are going to make great decisions, and they did tonight."

Simmons went 2-3 in the second half, Spani was 2-3 from behind the arc after the break and Stricklen was 2-6 after halftime, the fatigue of guarding Sykes catching up with her.

"First half I was hitting and second half these two were hitting," Stricklen said.

All of the second-half looks by the trio were good shots and teammates were well-positioned for offensive rebounds. One of Spani's treys came after Baugh grabbed an offensive board and fired the ball to the perimeter.

"We don't want Meighan Simmons to stop shooting the basketball," DeMoss said. "She's a great scorer, she's a great player and shooters go though slumps.

"Anybody who has watched basketball or any sport, you know that great players, at times, will go through some tough times."

Simmons took a step forward in this game. She handled her duties at point guard and moved well without the ball, as did Stricklen and Spani.

Tennessee's offense bogs down when players don't cut and move without the ball or one player holds it too long or takes shot that teammates aren't expecting to go up.

The Lady Vols ran a nice play against Rutgers in which Simmons started at the top with the ball and passed to Spani in the right-side corner. Simmons then moved to the left, and Spani moved up along the arc, bringing the defense with her.

Stricklen, from the other side of the floor, used the baseline to cut to the corner vacated by Spani and had an open three on the pass from Spani. When the defense adjusted and covered both shooters, Tennessee swung the ball to the opposite side, where Simmons was now waiting.

With a trio of shooters like Simmons, Spani and Stricklen - all Ss, which is screaming for a nickname of some kind - they all benefit if the defense has to move. That means moving the ball and getting it to the open shooter.

Tennessee did that in the second half - and kept Rutgers off balance with enough drives to the paint - and the result was a win in a game that could very well have been a loss.

"I think they have learned to play really well together," Pat Summitt said. "They have that chemistry with the leadership that we have.

"They have really taken on the ownership and we just have to keep our focus and keep winning."

The Lady Vols played nationally ranked DePaul on Sunday in Madison Square Garden and then faced another ranked team with one day between games in Rutgers.

The big city was hectic with shopping, a Broadway play and holiday crowds everywhere. Add the emotion of Summitt getting the Courage Award, and the players were fatigued by the end of Sunday.

The coaches held a short practice Monday in New Jersey, and the players went to dinner and then went to bed.

"They said they slept 10 hours, and I thought, ‘Thank goodness,' " Warlick said. "I thought we needed the rest.

"To come over with two wins on this road trip, we're thrilled. The team is thrilled, the coaching staff is thrilled."

VIDEO COVERAGE

Holly Warlick, Taber Spani, Meighan Simmons, Shekinna Stricklen

Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer, Khadijah Rushdan, April Sykes


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