First up for No. 6 Tennessee (6-2) is UCLA (5-3) at 5 p.m. Eastern (Free webcast at UCLA Basketball website) on Saturday at the cozy Wooden Center (2000 capacity and long sold out ) because Pauley Pavilion is undergoing a massive makeover.
"This is the road trip I am looking forward to," redshirt senior forward Vicki Baugh said. "This is the best road trip. It's been a long time since I got to go home. I don't often get to play in front of my family. I am excited to get to see them and just for them to have the opportunity to see us play.
"I am just excited to be in California. I miss it. I miss the atmosphere, the weather, the diversity, just everything about it. I am just excited to go home."
The team had two days off from the basketball court - one planned in Knoxville as a rest day and the other on Thursday because of a long day of traveling to get to Los Angeles.
Strength & Conditioning Coach Heather Mason took over a ballroom at the team's Marina del Rey hotel for a stretching regimen to loosen up the players after lengthy flights via commercial airlines, instead of the usual, charter, since they will scatter in different directions to go home for Christmas after the road trip.
The Lady Vols were back on the practice court Friday morning on the UCLA campus at the John Wooden Center, which is also the student recreation facility.
It's a bit of a change for the program to go from the bustle of the big city and Madison Square Garden to a small gym in a laidback region of the country.
"It's a little different," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said after Friday's practice session ended. "I think this is like our Pratt Pavilion. I think we are comfortable here."
The team held a two-hour session to go over the scouting report and get in shots in the paint, on the perimeter and from the free throw line. They also had film sessions scheduled - one of UCLA and the other at a theater to see the new Chipmunks Christmas movie.
Baugh's road trip starts in Southern California, and then the team departs for Northern California – it might as well be two different states in terms of culture and weather – where Baugh will be closer to her home of Sacramento and the chance to see her Miniature Pinscher mix, Max, the dog she rescued from a Knoxville shelter and who now lives with her grandparents in Sacramento.
I miss my dog, Max," Baugh said. "He's awesome."
Stanford is the second game on the West Coast trip on Dec. 20 in Palo Alto – Tennessee has not won there since 2005 when Candace Parker was a redshirt freshman – and then the team will get a five-day break for Christmas before reporting back to Knoxville.
The Lady Vols want to set the tone for the trip in the first game.
"UCLA is a very important game," senior forward/guard/post Shekinna Stricklen said. "Then we just have one more before Christmas break. I think everyone is going to be excited for the Stanford game."
The Lady Vols swept the Big East schools on the East Coast road trip and will look to do the same with the Pac 12 schools on the West Coast.
Tennessee won the two games in two different ways – 50 points in the paint in the 84-61 win over DePaul and nine three-pointers in the 67-61 win over Rutgers. It is a source of comfort to the coaches that they can win in two different ways with essentially the same personnel on the floor.
"Absolutely," Warlick said. "It's always better to win, and we had to do it two different ways. It just shows the depth of our team and who can step up at different times so it's not a one-dimensional team.
"We rely a lot on our defensive effort and then to be sure we make plays on the offensive end."
The coaches would be a lot more comfy, too, if the Lady Vols were more consistent from the stripe. They missed three straight free throws at the end of the Rutgers game to make matters much more interesting, and Stricklen, who was limping because of leg cramps was hustled back in after about 10 seconds on the bench. She hit two freebies with six seconds left to secure the game.
When asked for the team's approach on the opposite coast, Stricklen said, "We are just going to go down there and play our game and really focus on our defense and making our free throws and making easy shots."
That would make the road considerably less bumpy for the Lady Vols, as would the team effort on display during the East Coast games.
"It's important that we have everybody as we saw from (Tuesday's) game against Rutgers," Baugh said. "People stepped up at different times. We just have to come ready to play as a team.
"I don't think there are many, if any, teams that can beat us in the country once everyone steps up."
Baugh stepped up on the defensive end of the floor when the Lady Vols were clinging to a four-point lead against Rutgers with 4:20 to play. She rejected a layup offering, and Glory Johnson grabbed the defensive rebound.
"That was very big," Stricklen said. "That really helped momentum and then Taber and Meighan's threes really put the game away."
Prior to the block, Meighan Simmons had drained a three from the corner on an assist from Taber Spani. On Tennessee's first possession after the swat, Simmons nailed another one on a pass from Johnson. Tennessee then pushed the lead to 10 points when Spani nailed a three with less than two minutes to play.
"We came together as a team," Simmons said. "We told each other, when there was a timeout, ‘Y'all, we are not going to lose this game.' "
The block infused energy in the team and shifted momentum solidly in Tennessee's direction.
"It was just good to see I only had one foul, and I wasn't in foul trouble," said Baugh, who spent the DePaul game languishing on the bench because of fouls.
"I was just going to give it my all to try to stop that ball from going in the net. It happened at the right time. We are all about defense. We have to always help the helper and rotate. That's what occurred at that moment."
Baugh was instrumental in the critical stretch when Tennessee, having squandered a first-half lead, stayed within a bucket or two of Rutgers, which had seized its own momentum, backed by an enthusiastic crowd.
She drove and got the basket to pull Tennessee within one point and then on her next trip to the rim, Baugh was clothes-lined and the ball flew out and went to Johnson, who hit the layup for a one-point lead, and Tennessee never trailed again. Baugh didn't get the assist and didn't see the basket as she rolled across the floor from the impact.
Immediately before those two plays, Tennessee trailed by three with 8:33 to play, and Johnson grabbed an offensive rebound. A Rutgers player reached over Johnson to tie up the ball and flung Johnson, who had a death grip on the ball, to the ground in a collision that knocked out a contact. It could have been a foul, but instead it was a deadball rebound for Rutgers and a turnover for Johnson.
The play inflamed Baugh, and the two combined to give Tennessee the late lead that it would not lose.
"Most definitely," Baugh said. "Especially coming from injuries of my own I don't want to see any of my teammates get hurt. So I take it personal when I see them taking a hard foul."
Baugh had come back from two ACL surgeries and a third one to repair the meniscus in her left knee. While warming up in the Garden before the DePaul game, Blue Demons Coach Doug Bruno motioned to Baugh, and the two spoke briefly.
"He was my USA coach," Baugh said, referring to her stint with the 2007 USA U19 World Championships team when Bruno was the head coach. "It was good to touch base with him.
"He was saying that it's good that they have me back and he's glad to see I'm healthy. He said I was a difference maker on the team, and he just wished me the best.
Baugh is back in her home state and will need to be just that for Tennessee.
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Meighan Simmons, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 10 (9.1 points per game, 2.8 rebounds per game); Taber Spani, 6'1 junior guard/forward, No. 13 (12.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 (16.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (12.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg); and Vicki Baugh, 6'4 redshirt senior forward/center, No. 21 (8.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg).
UCLA Coach Cori Close is expected to start: Thea Lemberger, 5'7 sophomore guard, No. 1 (9.8 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.0 assists per game), hails from Santa Monica, Calif., has reached double figures in five games this season, tallied four assists against LSU, missed 13 games last season because of a leg injury; Rhema Gardner, 6'1 sophomore guard/forward, No. 20 (6.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg), hails from Upland, Calif., tallied career high 10 boards against Colgate, sister also plays for Bruins; Rebekah Gardner, 6'1 senior guard/forward, No. 35 (15.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg), hails from Upland, Calif., leads team in scoring, tallied 21 points and 10 boards against Tennessee Tech for first career double-double, lists Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks as the athlete she admires; Atonye Nyingifa 5'11 redshirt junior forward, No. 11 (15.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg), hails from Torrance, Calif., leads the team on the glass, had a career-high six steals against LSU, missed the 2009-10 season to recover from a torn ACL, selected in 2008-09 to Pac 10 All Freshman Team, participated in high jump, long jump, triple jump and 200m in high school; and Markel Walker, 6'1 junior guard/forward, No. 23 (11.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg); hails from Philadelphia, missed first seven games of the season because of an off-season thumb injury, debuted off the bench against LSU, played in 33 games last season with 21 starts, sister Marcedes Walker played basketball at Pitt.
Mariah Williams, a 5'4 junior guard from Colorado Springs, Colo., has started six games this season and is second on the team with 22 assists. She averages 27.3 minutes per game and is hitting 46.7 percent of her shots.
Moriah Faulk, a 5'10 freshman guard from Phoenix, Ariz., has come off the bench in all eight games and averages 17.6 minutes. She is second on the team in trey attempts at 26 behind Lemberger's 28 and has connected on 46.2 percent from long range.
UCLA is without senior forward Jasmine Dixon this season. She ruptured her right Achilles tendon in September and is expected to sit out the 2011-12 season.
Close, who served as a Bruin assistant in 1994 and 1995, replaced former Lady Vol Nikki Caldwell, who accepted the head coaching position at LSU, last April. Prior to her arrival in Westwood, Close was the associate head coach at Florida State.
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-UCLA game. Here is her assessment.
Offensively, "they're a transition team," Warlick said. "They are up-tempo, run the basketball, rely a lot of scoring out of steals."
UCLA lost to LSU and its stingy defense, 58-41, but the Lady Tigers had 29 turnovers, which the Bruins converted into 15 points. UCLA tallied 12 steals but had 24 turnovers of their own.
"Their post players run the floor really, really hard," Warlick said. "It's going to be a challenge for us to make sure they don't get easy baskets in transition."
Defensively, "I think they will run a switching man to man and then they run a 2-3 (zone)," Warlick said.
Keys for Tennessee: "We've got to take care of the ball, because that is where their transition offense starts," Warlick said. "And we've got to get back."
Tennessee also needs to continue its board work. The Bruins average 38.5 rebounds a game. Tennessee grabs nearly 10 more a game at 48.1.
"Offensively, we've got to pound it inside," Warlick said. "We've got to get second and third-chance points. Against their zone we've got to move the ball. We've got to attack the high post. We've got to have a little bit more ball movement than we've had against a zone.
"Defensively, we're going to switch up our defenses."
Tennessee also needs to focus on this game. UCLA is unranked, though the Bruins were ranked to open the season, and No. 4 Stanford looms at home next Tuesday.
"We've got to come with a high amount of energy from the very beginning," Warlick said. "We know we can't fade in and out."
The team got a boost from its performance on the East Coast, especially losing the lead to Rutgers in a hostile environment and then getting it back late in the game.
"We need to maintain a lead, so they understand that," Warlick said. "But I think they understand if they get down, how they can fight back. I was proud of them for keeping their focus."
SEC PLAY: Only one other SEC team is in action Saturday with Alabama at Alabama State.
The conference is busy Sunday with Purdue at Auburn; Kentucky at Notre Dame; Lamar at LSU; South Carolina vs. North Carolina in Myrtle Beach, S.C., at the Carolinas Challenge; and Vanderbilt at North Carolina State.
ODDS AND ENDS
Tennessee leads the series with UCLA, 17-1, with an 8-0 record in Los Angeles. The Bruins' lone win against the Lady Vols was in Knoxville, 65-62, in 1981. Tennessee last played in Westwood on Dec. 19, 2007, an 82-70 win for the Lady Vols. … Tennessee is 11-2 in games played on December 17. The last win on this date was against Texas, 67-46, in 2006. The first win on December 17 came against Clemson, 87-61, in 1976. The two losses on this date were to Delta State, 74-63, on the same day as the Clemson win in 1976; and Ohio State, 83-82 in double OT, in 1981. … Former Lady Vol Alyssia Brewer, who transferred from Tennessee to UCLA in October, will be on the bench for the Bruins. Brewer, who will sit out this season, still maintains contact with her former teammates. "I talked to her before we even came out there," Tennessee senior guard Briana Bass said. "Nothing changed even though she is across the country. She is still our sister." … Freshman point guard Ariel Massengale has been able to shed her cast. Massengale now has her fingers taped on her left hand - she dislocated the middle finger last week in practice the day before the team left for New York - and used a side court at the Wooden Center to take some midrange jumpers, shoot free throws and dribble. She also ran some sprints. … UCLA was picked to finish fourth in the Pac 12 in a vote by the league‘s coaches. Stanford was picked first, followed by USC and Cal.