Inside Tennessee's Take on Lady Vols

PALO ALTO, Calif. - The Lady Vols road trip win streak came to a screeching halt inside Maples Pavilion with two Stanford players posting career highs and Tennessee fell 97-80 under an onslaught of offense. Go inside for Inside Tennessee's take on the game.

Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick stood in a back hallway at Stanford's arena - minutes before the Cardinal fans had had a rollicking good time watching Nneka Ogwumike and Toni Kokenis run roughshod over the Lady Vols - and shook her head.

In a few minutes Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer would enter the interview room and declare that Ogwumike had been "a woman with girls out there" - a remark that should wound the pride of and then inflame Glory Johnson and Vicki Baugh, but which included players on both teams.

Warlick had already had her turn with the media at large and had tried to explain what went awry against Stanford. A weary Warlick told two beat writers from Knoxville that one-on-one defense would top the priority list after the Christmas break.

Tennessee (7-3) had traversed the country on a winning streak with two victories on the East Coast and another on the West Coast. The Lady Vols wanted to notch a fourth one against Stanford (8-1), but there had been warning signs against UCLA - tepid defense and weak board play.

The game started in Tennessee's favor with the Lady Vols opening a 10-3 lead within the first three minutes and even boosting it to 16-7 at the 13:21 mark of the first half despite the fact Baugh had left with her second personal foul at the 14:33 mark on what was called an illegal screen - an utterly bizarre call that left Pat Summitt and the coaching staff staring at the official in disbelief.

Baugh, who can get in a funk when she gets in foul trouble, went into a deep one. She played just five minutes in the first half, and the Lady Vols lost their one post player with size, leaving the undersized Glory Johnson and Alicia Manning to try to handle the tall trees of Stanford.

Freshman Isabelle Harrison played a stretch of basketball she likely wants to purge from memory as she tossed an errant shot towards the rim and then went to the floor. She rose slowly and was at center court when Stanford - now playing five on four - scored an uncontested layup to pull to within three points, 16-13, of Tennessee.

That led to a Tennessee timeout and Johnson was sent to the scorer's table to check back into the game. But when the Lady Vols broke the huddle, Harrison headed to the floor, and Tennessee had six players on the court. That led to a technical foul on Harrison, and Bonnie Samuelson sank both free throws to pull Stanford to within one, 16-15.

The Lady Vols managed to maintain the lead thanks to Shekinna Stricklen and Manning, but then Samuelson buried a trey for a 27-24 lead with 8:16 to play, and the Cardinal never trailed again.

Ogwumike nearly had her average by halftime with 19 points and nine boards, but the game was still far from over - Tennessee trailed by just seven points, 48-41, at halftime - because neither team was playing much defense.

Stanford, however, was getting on the offensive glass - nine boards that converted to nine points - in a replay of the UCLA game.

It was a typical Pac-12 road swing and a style of play that Tennessee likely won't see again. Drives that are travels on the East Coast became baskets for both sides - it was the same way against UCLA - and contact in the paint was limited, as if a protective halo was around the ball handler.

But a charging foul against Stricklen in the first half that looked like an and-one play with the basket - Joslyn Tinkle was bunny hopping into place when Stricklen arrived - was waved off, and an incredulous Summitt nearly walked to center court to challenge the call.

It mattered none - Stricklen got hit with the same call in the second half and she just walked to center court laughing.

It is notable only because it made Tennessee tentative to drive and with the three ball not falling - the Lady Vols were 6-20 from long range - and Baugh never getting on track, Tennessee never got comfortable on either end of the court.

Still, the Lady Vols scored 80 points - usually enough to win any ball game - but Stanford scorched the nets for 97 behind career highs from Ogwumike at 42 points and Kokenis at 26.

If Ogwumike beats out frontrunner Brittney Griner for national player of the year honors, Stanford should send flowers of thanks to the Lady Vol basketball office.

Ogwumike is a special talent, and the performance against the Lady Vols should resonate on a national level. Warlick cited Ogwumike's heart and desire after the game while lamenting the fact that Tennessee played in spurts.

It was still a six-point game with Tennessee trailing, 61-55, with 12:09 to play, but, in the span of three-and-a-half minutes, the Lady Vols had three turnovers and had missed a layup, a jumper and two free throws and trailed by double digits, 65-55, for the first time in the game with 11:02 left to play.

Tennessee stayed within striking distance - with nearly eight minutes to go the Lady Vols trailed by 11 points, 75-64, after a trey by Meighan Simmons - but Ogwumike kept pouring in points and Tennessee could not stop her. The onslaught ended when Ogwumike went to the bench with 57 seconds to play and Stanford leading 96-78.

The only question then is would the Cardinal hang a hundred on the Lady Vols - the answer was no, but Stanford came close at 97.

So what went wrong?

The staples of Summitt's program - defense and board play - were substandard to say the least.

Stanford shot 53.6 percent overall and out-rebounded Tennessee, 35-29.

Tennessee also shot well at 49.1 percent, and, as noted before, neither team will watch the game tape for a tutorial on defense, though Tinkle had four of Stanford's seven blocks.

Tennessee had a very manageable 13 turnovers while Stanford had just nine. The Lady Vols swiped the ball six times, while the Cardinal had four thefts.

It was not a game for the defensive-minded, but aficionados of offense likely enjoyed it.

Stricklen tallied a career-high 27 points on 10-17 shooting and went the distance. Johnson had 18 points and hit 10-12 from the free throw line. Simmons also reached double figures with 13 points, and Taber Spani, who adjusted well to the charging calls by driving, pulling up and firing to an open teammate, finished with nine.

Offensively, Tennessee had a lot to like about its California road swing. Defensively, the Lady Vols need to get back on the practice court.

Warlick was gracious after the game - she saluted Ogwumike and noted that Tennessee played well in spurts, but could not maintain any rhythm.

She also correctly noted that the Lady Vols have been on the road for two weeks and have essentially not practiced. A coast-to-coast road trip means little time in the gym and when the Lady Vols did take the court, it was for specific game preparation with a need to ensure the players had their legs.

The last time the Lady Vols had a full-court, full-scale practice was Dec. 8, the day before they left for New York and the same day freshman point guard Ariel Massengale dislocated a middle finger, causing her to miss three games on the road and enter in the second half against Stanford because the Lady Vols desperately needed someone to put pressure on the ball.

Massengale had not played since the Texas game on Dec. 4 and had just been cleared to return to practice to test the hand on Monday. The coaches said after that practice that she remained questionable to play.

But she logged 11 minutes with an assist and a rebound - Massengale's ability to quickly find her stride has been impressive for a freshman - and Tennessee needs her going forward. That will allow Stricklen to get a breather on the bench with Spani and Simmons rotating on the wing spots.

That would be the good news for Tennessee. They enter the Christmas break with a team that will be significantly enhanced by the return of Massengale, the possible return from ACL surgery of Kamiko Williams - she looked like she wanted to dash to the scorer's table on Tuesday and practiced with the team Monday - and the improved knee health of Spani, who has been compromised by a bone bruise in her knee.

Massengale and Williams are the team's best on-ball defenders and Stricklen, whose defense has improved exponentially in her senior year, will be more effective on that side of the ball if she can get a few minutes of rest here and there.

The version of Baugh that was on the court against Texas and Baylor will also need to appear on a consistent basis. Outside of her offensive output against UCLA, it was an unmemorable road swing for the fifth-year player.

The team relies on her energy and when Baugh is fully engaged, the Lady Vols are a different team.

It has been a bizarre season in terms of hand and wrist injuries. Manning injured a thumb in preseason and was in a cast for a few weeks, Warlick broke her hand after SEC Media Day in a plane mishap, Massengale dislocated her finger trying to scoop a loose ball and Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss fractured her wrist Monday after getting a loose shoelace stepped on, which led to a tumble the day before the Stanford game. She was in a cast on the bench.

If the Lady Vols can get healthy, they remain a formidable team and a championship contender.

But it will happen only if they improve their defense. They have the personnel to do so and, it would seem, the wherewithal.

Stricklen spent three seasons in Knoxville as a lukewarm defender. But after the Stanford game, she placed the blame for the loss on the guards and the lack of one-on-one defense.

It would have been easy to point to the paint - where Ogwumike seemingly had her way - but Stricklen explained that the posts had to leave their player too often to help on a penetrator that the guards should have handled.

The team will break for the Christmas holidays and then return to Knoxville to prepare for Old Dominion on Dec. 28 and then the Jan. 1 start of SEC play.

Warlick seemed ready to get to work on defense. If the Lady Vols plan to be in Denver, the site of the 2012 Women's Final Four, it must start on that end of the floor.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Pat Summitt walking onto court

Holly Warlick, Shekinna Stricklen, Glory Johnson

Post-game press conference via Stanford Athletics


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