Lady Vols set to open SEC play

Tennessee starts SEC play this Sunday against Auburn. Go inside with Inside Tennessee to read what the players and coaches have to say about embarking on another conference campaign.

Shekinna Stricklen raised her eyebrows in surprise at the question.

The senior has two conference championship rings after what amounted to a scorched earth approach across the SEC the last two seasons. Over the past two years, Tennessee went 31-1 in the league in the regular season and 6-0 in the conference tourney.

No. 7/8 Tennessee (8-3) tips off the 2012 SEC season against Auburn (8-5) on Sunday at 3 p.m. Eastern (TV: CSS) at Auburn Arena.

So how does a senior get motivated for the final run?

"For us everything," Shekinna Stricklen said with a look that was both quizzical and amused. "We need to improve a lot and trying to three-peat in the SEC will be a big test for us, especially for this class."

The returning players got their 2011 SEC title rings – the league recognizes the regular season winner as the champion, and Tennessee went 16-0 in 2011 after a 15-1 campaign in 2010 – after they returned from Christmas break. That likely stoked their anticipation of embarking on another campaign.

"My motivation is getting a three-peat," Stricklen said. "And it feels good to have that ring that says 16-0. It's good to have the zero on the other end when you get that ring."

"I like that, too," senior Glory Johnson said. "It looks good. That is motivation. I think when the freshmen saw our rings they were really motivated. They said it's their turn, so we'll try to bring them back one."

Newcomers Ariel Massengale, Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison are about to start their first trip through the league.

"I am very excited," Massengale said. "Everyone just got their rings from last year and when you come to Tennessee that is what you want to accomplish. That's our goal for this year."

Fifth-year player Vicki Baugh has seen a lot of SEC seasons, most of them from the sideline. She missed most of the 2009 season after tearing her ACL a second time, the entire 2010 campaign to recover from that surgery and then still needed additional rest at times because of knee pain during the 2011 SEC season.

Baugh is full go for her final shot at SEC teams and is eager to get started.

"I realize that I have the most experience as far as being a Lady Vol but on the court, what am I, like a sophomore and a half?" Baugh said. "I am excited about SEC play and I know SEC is tough.

"I learned a lot from the Stanford game, and I learned to appreciate it more, because I can apply that to SEC play. Every team is going to be ready to play us. Now I know I can't kind of be selfish with my own emotions."

Baugh was angry with herself for her poor play in the Stanford loss, something she stewed over during the holiday break. She got in foul trouble, got mentally frustrated and never recovered. Baugh bounced back against Old Dominion on Wednesday with 11 points and 12 rebounds.

Tennessee needs Baugh to be efficient on offense and tenacious on defense as she is the only player with size at 6'4 and strength honed through so much conditioning off the court while in rehab.

Tennessee has a veteran team with five seniors and a savvy junior in Taber Spani, though she remains on knee rest and will miss Sunday's game.

"One thing I like about this team is they're taking one game at a time, and they're motivated by each game," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "I don't think we've said a whole lot about us going undefeated. We've brought it up but that's not our emphasis.

It's what we're doing defensively, what we're doing offensively."

Tennessee is young at the most vital position on the court since Massengale is a freshman point guard. But she is not typical – for a freshman or for a point guard and her transition to the team has been rather seamless.

"I love it," Stricklen said. "She reads the floor so well. I just love it when she's out there, and she's going to push it. If you're running with her, you're going to get the ball."

Stricklen ran the point for two years despite being better suited at small forward out of necessity because of injuries. She has had to step into the role as a senior – and played the majority of her minutes against DePaul at the point while Massengale missed two weeks to recover from a finger injury – so she has appreciation for its demands.

She also wants the ball in Massengale's hands.

"She is really gifted," Stricklen said. "She is a true point guard. That is not me. Do we have to get her ready (for SEC)? No, she is ready.

"She's focused, she's committed, and she's ready for the SEC."

Stricklen is the reigning SEC player of the year and was also the preseason selection for the award.

"I really don't think about it," Stricklen said. "I go out there and do the best for my team – be a leader, step up and do the things my team needs me to do.

"I think I've been doing that the last few games and if I just carry over to SECs I'll be all right."

Johnson's preview of the SEC is that the Lady Vols need to get better on defense.

"I think we probably played a 35-minute game, maybe a 30-minute game," Johnson said of the last time out against ODU. "We're still working on that 40-minute game and playing good defense the entire game, not every once in awhile.

"We want to play really good defense. We want all of our defenses to be effective. When we can do that, I think we will be real successful."

Johnson also wants the offensive decision making to improve going forward, especially since SEC teams are so familiar with each other and player tendencies.

"No matter who our opponent is we know that we have to play Tennessee basketball," Johnson said. "If we don't play really good defense and score like we should be scoring taking great shots instead of good shots, when we don't do that we might win with lower teams, but when we play a tough opponent that stuff is not going to work."

The coaches are identifying two or three categories for every game and setting goals for the team "that are very telltale about your defensive performance and effectiveness," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said.

Two such categories are field goal percentage defense and rebounding margin. The staff also wants a minimum of 25 deflections.

"We will look at specific things to have a barometer for them and also challenge them," Lockwood said.

The way the Lady Vols have marauded through the league – though there were some close calls, especially on the road last season against Kentucky and Vanderbilt – can work two ways.

One, it was in the past.

"That was last year and two years ago, and we're very proud of that, and we're proud of this group," Lockwood said. "But no one (we play) cares. That's old news. Now is now. That is always going to be in the record books, but at the same time Auburn could care less about that.

"They know it's about the present moment. They know that there are new teams and there are new threats on the face of the SEC earth. The two years were great. Now, you can go through and finish your run. You can assert some dominance and really make an impression.

"I hope this team really embraces the fact that, ‘Hey, we want to really make an impression on this league and go out and really, really make a statement about who we are.' "

Two, the target on Tennessee's chest somehow grew bigger. It's been nearly two years since an SEC team walked off the court against Tennessee with a W. The last time was at Georgia, a 53-50 loss for the Lady Vols, on Jan. 21, 2010. Since then, Tennessee has gone 33-0 in league play, including postseason.

"With a record like that every team is coming for us," Johnson said. "We have to know that. We have to be ready for that."

"There is no question," Lockwood said. "They know they have always been the hunted. They've experienced it. And Virginia taught us a pretty good lesson back in November. It's about embracing the challenge.

"Our hope as a coaching staff is that they look at that not as something to protect but this is a challenge to embrace and say, ‘Now, we have to go answer because there will be people trying to take us down.' The bull's eye on our back is even bigger. Every game you win it gets bigger."

Stricklen is poised for her final run through the SEC and seems ready to stay in the moment.

"It has not hit me," Stricklen said. "It really hasn't hit me that this is my last year. I am having a lot of fun, especially with this team. It's great."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5'6 freshman guard, No. 5 (6.8 points per game, 2.6 rebounds per game, 5.1 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 10 (10.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 (16.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg); Alicia Manning, 6'1 senior guard/forward, No. 15 (4.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg); and Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (13.9 ppg, 8.5 rpg).

Tennessee is staying with the same lineup that started against Old Dominion, meaning Vicki Baugh, a 6'4 forward, comes off the bench.

Auburn Coach Nell Fortner is expected to start: Morgan Jennings, 5'8 senior guard, No. 2 (5.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg), hails from Atlanta, Ga., started all but one game this season, dished career-high nine assists in season opener against Belmont, tallied career high 16 points against Kentucky last season; Parrisha Simmons, 6‘0 senior guard, No. 4 (4.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg), hails from Macon, Ga., came off bench in first four games of season and started the past nine, had a career-high 16 boards this season against Purdue; Hasina Muhammad, 6‘1 freshman guard/forward, No. 0 (10.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg), hails from Memphis, Tenn., first-year player leads team in scoring, named SEC Freshman of Week on Dec. 26, tallied career-high 19 points against Temple; Blanche Alverson 6'3 junior forward, No. 14 (9.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg), hails from Andalusia, Ala., played at Buford High School in Georgia, has averaged 8.5 points, 3.5 boards against Tennessee, scored season-high 20 points against Marist, has connected on 113 career treys; and Chantel Hilliard, 6'2 senior forward/center, No. 23 (6.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg), hails from Biloxi, Miss., graduated Dec. 12 with a degree in political science, scored career-high 22 points against Charlotte on Thursday, has connected on 57.7 percent of her shots.

The key word is probable when listing starters for the Tigers. Auburn has used several starting combos this season.

Three key players are Tyrese Tanner, a 6'1 sophomore guard/forward from Birmingham, Ala.; backup point guard Najat Ouardad, a 5'1 junior from Orleans, France, by way of Pensacola State College; and Camille Glymph, a 5'10 sophomore guard from Greenville, S.C. All three have started games this season.

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

Offensively, the Tigers have an established plan of how they want to execute.

"They do a lot of four-out, one-in motion," Lockwood said. "They have perimeter-oriented kids and they will play with one post player. They will play with two, but the play a lot with one."

Blanche Alverson is a good example of this approach because she will line up at power forward, but is a threat from the arc, and has deep range. Lockwood queued up game film for the team that showed Alverson, using a normal shooting stroke – it wasn't a last-minute heave – draining a three ball while positioned about 10 feet behind the arc.

Hasina Muhammad, the leading scorer at 10.8 points per game, is a threat to score off the dribble.

"She's probably got the best one-on-one skills of any of their players," Lockwood said. "She is very good. She can drive it, post it. She doesn't shoot as many threes as Alverson or (Camille) Glymph, but she's 53 percent. I told the team she takes very good threes – open, feet set."

Lockwood said Parrisha Simmons reminds him, in terms of rebounding ability, especially on the offensive end, of a smaller version of Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike.

"She goes after every board," Lockwood said. "She's like a battery-charged rebounding machine. What she does that other people don't do is she tries to score right away. She'll get a rebound and if she's anywhere close she goes right up, and she's getting fouled a lot doing that."

The Lady Vols prepared for players who drive the ball, a list that includes Tyrese Tanner, Parrisha Simmons, Najat Ouardad, Jennings and Muhammad, and they could start or come off the bench.

"If you let them get to the paint and collapse your defense, they can be a very big thorn in our side," Lockwood said.

Auburn has used an assortment of starting lineups, so Lockwood prepared the Lady Vols accordingly.

Defensively, Lockwood expects Auburn to vary its looks.

"They're going to do some man," Lockwood said. "They'll mix in a 2-3 (zone). They'll press, a 1-2-2 (zone). They will mix their defenses, and I think they will press us some."

Keys for Tennessee: "We want to push the tempo," Lockwood said. "The game needs to be a faster game. We want to get the ball inside. We still feel like we can take advantage of our post players inside.

"We want to make them guard some specific actions. Without going into detail, we feel like certain actions can be effective, and we want to make them have to guard. If we have layups or quick open shots, we'll take them, but we don't want to have quick average shots, because that plays very much into their hands."

AUBURN BACKS PAT: The first 500 fans will receive "We Back Pat" rally towels, an unusual giveaway for a road game but it has become a regular feature of this season after Pat Summitt announced last August that she had been diagnosed with early onset dementia.

Rutgers and Stanford also broke out the welcome mat for the visitors by highlighting Summitt's foundation to raise awareness about Alzheimer's and funds for research, patients and caregivers.

"Pat has been a mentor and a good friend of mine for over 20 years and whatever we can do or I can do personally to support and bring attention to this cause is very special," Auburn Coach Nell Fortner said.

"She is women's college basketball. I would credit her for putting women's college basketball on the map and continuing to move it forward. She is the matriarch, and there just aren't enough good words to say about her."

SEC PLAY: Eight other SEC teams are in action Sunday in the following matchups: Alabama at South Carolina; Arkansas at Georgia; Kentucky at Florida; and LSU at Ole Miss in the debut of league games. Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are idle.

ODDS AND ENDS

Tennessee leads the series with Auburn, 34-10. The Lady Vols are 10-4 on the road. Auburn had not won in the series since 1997 until 2009 when the Tigers twice beat the Lady Vols - once at Auburn and again in the SEC tourney in Little Rock, Arkansas. The two teams will play twice this regular season. Auburn comes to Knoxville on Feb. 5. … Tennessee is 2-0 in games played on January 1. The last win on this date was against Alabama, 88-58, in 1998. The first win on New Year's Day came against Western Michigan, 84-39, in 1989. This will be just the third time Tennessee has played on the first day of a new year and the first time away from home. … Pat Summitt is in her 38th season at Tennessee. The other 11 SEC schools have had 69 coaches during her tenure. The Lady Vols are 27-5 in league openers since SEC play began in the 1979-80 season and 13-3 on the road in their debuts. Auburn twice beat the Lady Vols in SEC openers in 1988 and 1989. Tennessee last lost on opening day against Georgia in 1996.The Lady Vols' all-time record against SEC teams is 446-66 with a winning record against each program. … Auburn is 89-2 when scoring 70 or more points in the Nell Fortner era. The two losses came on Jan. 20, 2005, against Tennessee, 71-81; and Feb. 19, 2009, against Vanderbilt, 70-73. When scoring less than 70 points, Auburn is 51-92 during the Fortner era.

VIDEO COVERAGE Inside Tennessee was at SEC Media Day last October and asked player representatives from the other 11 SEC schools some offbeat questions.

Here are the responses of Auburn's Blanche Alverson.


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