Lady Vols win SEC opener over Auburn

AUBURN, Ala. – Tennessee got the New Year started off with a 73-52 win over Auburn in the SEC opener for both teams. Go inside with Inside Tennessee for the game story, Inside Tennessee's take and videos of the post-game press conferences.

The first road game of 2012 looked similar to Tennessee's first road game of 2011 even down to the color scheme of the opponent's arena and uniforms. The orange and blue of Auburn started like the similarly hued Cavaliers of Virginia.

But the difference – besides, of course, the win this time for the Lady Vols – was the performance at the line and on the boards.

Tennessee (9-3, 1-0) got the SEC victory in its league opener over Auburn (8-6, 0-1) at Auburn Arena in front of 4,269 fans – the Tigers played a New Year's Eve football bowl game against Virginia in Atlanta the night before Sunday's early afternoon tip, which likely cut down on attendance – and the Lady Vol fans who filled two sections across from the visitor's bench let themselves be heard.

They saw the Lady Vols misfire in the first half – Shekinna Stricklen was 2-11 despite having wide-open looks – lead at the break by just two points and bounce back in the second half to beat the Tigers by 19 points, 73-52.

"I was so frustrated," Stricklen said. "I was so wide open with the shots I was taking, but I kept hitting the front of the rim. It's something I think I adjusted to in the second half."

Stricklen was the second-leading scorer with 17 points – Meighan Simmons led the Lady Vols with 20 points – and was a perfect 5-5 from the free throw line.

Three other players didn't miss from the stripe – Alicia Manning, 4-4; Vicki Baugh, 4-4; and Cierra Burdick, 2-2 – and the Lady Vols went 28-31 (90.3 percent) as a team.

"I think it showed that we were mentally focused," Stricklen said. "Free throws are really just focusing and putting it in."

The Lady Vols also got on the glass led by Glory Johnson, who led the team with 13 rebounds. Tennessee dominated the boards, 49-31.

"That was big," Stricklen said, referring to the stripe and glass work. "That's really what won the game for us. I think this was one of the best games we ever had shooting free throws, and we just need to keep it going."

Tennessee didn't shoot well – Stricklen and Simmons were a combined 11-33 with Stricklen 2-9 from long range and Simmons 1-5 from the arc – but the Lady Vols grabbed 23 offensive boards. Johnson had six while Baugh and Manning had three apiece, and the trio cleaned up teammates' misses.

Tennessee had 30 second-chance points to 14 for Auburn.

"We've got to become a better defensive rebounding team when you are playing against the size and aggression of Tennessee," Auburn Coach Nell Fortner said.

The Tigers also let the ball squirt free when they had it with 25 turnovers for the game, which Tennessee turned into 27 points.

"Turnovers. Rebounding. Free throws," said Fortner, who was frustrated with her team after the game. "Tennessee didn't have to run much offense.

"We made it pretty easy for them in the second half. That was disappointing. If we could just play 40 minutes like we play 20 minutes … that would be nice."

Auburn shot 40 percent in the first half and hit four three-pointers while the Lady Vols went 1-11 from long range to trail by just a bucket at halftime.

Tennessee, on the other hand, was happy with its shots. They just weren't falling.

"I loved the shots we were getting," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "I thought Shekinna had great looks. I thought Glory had good looks. Vicki Baugh. They just weren't going down."

Tennessee's defense, on the other hand, had Head Coach Pat Summitt steamed. It started well with the Lady Vols getting a 7-0 lead jump-started by a trapping press, but then the shots didn't fall, and Auburn got some easy looks after getting past the initial wave of the press.

Summitt had quite a bit to say to the team at halftime. The Lady Vols quickly stretched the lead to 40-29 to start the second half, and Fortner called timeout. Summitt went to the players' huddle – before joining her assistants – and spoke emphatically to them.

"Basically if we don't get it together, then we're walking home," Johnson said, in summary of the halftime speech. "And it's a long walk.

"This isn't the way Tennessee plays. We know how to play; we're playing up to our own standards. When we're not rebounding, when we're not getting the ball inside, (when we're not) taking great shots instead of good shots, that's what happens, and we know the coaches need to stay on us."

Johnson logged 32 minutes and while that was under the 37 from Simmons and 36 each from Stricklen and Ariel Massengale, they were tough minutes because she took a lot of pounding in the paint.

Still, Johnson tallied 14 points on 5-9 shooting and 4-5 from the line with 13 rebounds, two assists and three steals.

"I never worry about Glory and her effort," Warlick said. "It's always there, and that's a sign of a great player to me. Glory's our catalyst for our team as far as high energy, and I never worry about Glory giving energy. She's always going to do it.

"I've never seen a game that she doesn't have that type of energy. I don't ever have to ask Glory to bring it. She does it automatically."

Stricklen was fatigued and not shooting well – the Lady Vols had a tough week of practice with no off days – but she regrouped to tally 17 points with three assists, zero turnovers and three steals.

"These two young ladies, they don't give up," Warlick said at the post-game press conference with Stricklen and Johnson.

"Shekinna struggled a little bit at the beginning with her shooting, but great players figure out a way to score. Both of these young ladies, I'm proud of them and how they played."

Warlick didn't have Virginia on her mind as the game unfolded.

"I didn't even think about it," Warlick said. "I was concerned with our team, and the whole staff was concerned with our team. We've moved on past Virginia. We've come a long way from there.

"I think we came out the second half and decided to play. We made a run in the first half, we just missed easy shots. We can't get ourselves in a situation like that again."

The game plan of the Tigers was quite similar to that of Virginia, and Auburn used that Lady Vol loss as part of its scouting report, especially the 2-3 zone.

"I just thought it was a good defense," Fortner said. "That's one of our defenses, so it wasn't hard to do that. I thought Virginia was very effective with it, so we chose to play some of that."

The pace of the game was similar, too. Auburn worked deep into the shot clock – not always by design because Tennessee's press slowed down the Tigers – crashed the boards and sent the Lady Vols to the line.

It worked for the first 20 minutes, and Auburn even took the lead in the first half, 20-16, on a layup by Jassany Williams and a pair of free throws from Tyrese Tanner.

Williams, a 6'2 sophomore forward, drew the assignment of Johnson, and the two battled in the paint. When Williams fouled out in the second half with 31 seconds left after fouling Johnson to try to keep her off the offensive glass, she first went to Tennessee's bench to shake hands with the coaches.

"She's steadily improving," Fortner said. "Hopefully, we'll continue to get more out of her. She can just be a beast.

"She's a great jumper. She's strong. We just have to get more points out of her on that block when we can."

Fortner used 11 players in the first half. The head coach is trying to find offensive production and it also kept fresh bodies on the floor.

"It's kind of typical really," Fortner said. "We haven't had a lot of consistency this year, so I'm not sure who is going to break out on any given night.

"So you give them a chance. I've got to see who it's going to be. It might not be the best way to play, but it's just kind of what we've got this year."

Tennessee opened up a 14-8 lead that was spearheaded by the defense with back-to-back steals from Stricklen and Manning to start the game. Even loose balls went Tennessee's way. After Simmons got stripped of the ball, Johnson grabbed it and fired a long pass to Stricklen, who caught the ball in stride, hit the layup and was fouled.

But Auburn started hitting shots, and Tennessee tripped up itself. Cierra Burdick went down in the paint – she came up limping and holding her left hip but came back in the game later – and Baugh fell over Burdick trying to get to the glass. Auburn grabbed the board to start a new possession.

The Tigers got to the rim on dribble penetration, and the Lady Vols went to a 2-3 zone.

"We should have been a lot better, and it was a concern for us," Warlick said.

"We should have been forcing them left a lot more than we were," Johnson said. "If I'm a player and I'm right-handed and they're not stopping me from going right, then I'm going to keep going right.

"They definitely use their strength to their advantage, and that's something we should have cut off. We cut it off a little more in the second half, but it's something we should have been doing the whole game."

The zone did impede Auburn's forward progress, and Tennessee took the lead back, 21-20, after a baseline jumper and and-one play from Simmons on a feed from Ariel Massengale at the 8:40 mark of the first half.

Tennessee's offensive board work pushed the lead to 25-20 with 8:01 left in the first half after Johnson rebounded a miss by Isabelle Harrison, hit the layup and was fouled. She missed the free throw, which Harrison rebounded and scored.

Auburn tied the game, 25-25, on a jumper and a three-pointer from Camille Glymph, both assisted by Morgan Jennings.

Glymph led Auburn with 21 points – her career high was 23 against South Florida two weeks ago – and was the only Tiger to reach double figures.

"Once I hit the first one, I just keep on shooting and they were falling for me," Glymph said.

Auburn tied the game again at 27-27 with 4:06 left before the break on a pair of free throws by Glymph.

"That was definitely a plus," Fortner said of the sophomore's overall offensive game. "If we can get that all the time, that would definitely help us. No doubt."

Tennessee got the lead back, 29-27, on a pair of free throws from Burdick, and never trailed again. Simmons shot fake jumper accounted for the 31-29 halftime lead.

"I thought the first half for us, our offense affected our defense, and we missed a lot of easy layups," Warlick said. "Then in turn, we didn't work hard on the defensive end.

"Pat had a pretty stern talk with them at halftime, and basically said they need to get their acts together or they'll be walking home, in those condensed words."

Warlick had a little trouble getting to the locker room. She was talking to Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood and then suddenly stumbled and fell to the floor.

"Thank God I didn't break something," said Warlick, whose shoe caught on the court Sunday and who broke her left hand last October in a mishap while exiting the university plane.

The team got back on solid ground at halftime and was able to take the charter flight back to Knoxville.

"I thought the second half we came out, played hard on the defensive end, got easy looks off of our turnovers, and that's what we need," Warlick said. "We need to score off of our defense."

Tennessee pushed the ball in transition to stop the second half and played an energetic defense.

"I thought their press was very good," Fortner said. "It slowed us down. By the time we got it broke and tried to run something, there was 14 seconds on the shot clock. Now, you're really out of whack to get a good look at the basket.

"They were trapping very aggressively in it before they got back into their half-court defense. It's tough. They're big. They've got Shekinna, Glory, Vicki, Alicia Manning. They can get really big on you."

Tennessee got the lead in double digits, 40-29, barely three minutes into the second half.

"They just spread out their defense better," Tyrese Tanner said. "They are all over 6-foot anyway, so wingspans were harder for us to see over. We should had just kept pushing at the sideline and kept on attacking."

Auburn stayed within striking defense, and Glymph trimmed the lead to just seven points, 53-46, after nailing a shot in front of the Auburn bench and about 26 feet from the basket with 7:59 to play.

But Baugh had entered for the first time in the second half about a minute earlier and paired with Johnson to keep Auburn off the boards.

"When they're both on, they're two difficult players to guard," Warlick said. "I thought Vicki struggled at the beginning when she went in the first half, and I think when she settled down and went back in the second half, it was a totally different player, different person.

"Vicki and Glory play really well together, and they're two similar players. They're athletic. They play around the basket. They play above the rim. When they're both clicking, then our post game is playing really well."

Baugh stole the in-bound pass and hit both free throws to expand the lead to 55-46 with 7:27 left. That was followed by an offensive board from Baugh, who fired to Massengale, who found Stricklen for a 57-46 lead with 6:44 left and it never fell below double digits.

After Johnson grabbed an offensive rebound with 31 seconds left off a teammate's missed layup, she hit both for Tennessee's biggest lead at 73-49. Glymph answered with a three ball for Auburn, which accounted for the final 73-52 score, as Tennessee dribbled out the final 19 seconds to end the game.

Glymph led all scorers with 21 points. Tanner tallied eight for Auburn while Hasina Muhammad added seven, and Blanche Alverson chipped in with six points.

Auburn shot 37.3 percent (19-51) overall, 43.8 percent (7-16) from the arc and 58.3 percent (7-12) from the line. The Tigers had 13 assists, 25 turnovers, nine blocks and seven steals.

Tennessee had four players in double figures led by 20 points from Simmons. Stricklen tallied 17, Johnson had 14, and Manning chipped in with 10 points.

The Lady Vols shot 32.3 percent (21-65) overall, 18.8 percent (3-16) from long range and 90.3 percent (28-31) from the line.

Tennessee had 12 assists – three each from Manning and Stricklen – 18 turnovers, 12 steals and one block.

Fortner is still seeking a full 40 minutes from her team.

"When I figure that out, I'll be really happy," Fortner said.

Tennessee filed away the Auburn game and will get ready for Chattanooga on Tuesday. To preserve the players' legs – Georgia also will be in town Thursday – Monday will be limited to film session without court work.

"We focused on Auburn while we were playing Auburn, and now we'll focus on the next team," Johnson said.

INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE

Vicki Baugh needs to get her groove back.

The fifth-year player went into a bit of a funk beginning with the December road trip and it has spiraled into a full-fledged slump, the cause of which seems to be mental.

In an odd way, that's an improvement for Baugh, whose physical battles – three knee surgeries, two ACL, one meniscus, IT band tightness – are well documented.

Baugh is moving well on the court – she closed the first half with some energy and was one of the few players in full sprint mode for the final minutes – and seems physically comfortable. Her unease seems to stem from trying to mentally get in sync.

Baugh missed the Virginia game because of the aforementioned leg tightness issues, but she was on the court against Auburn when the game was put away the good.

The lead was 10 points, 53-43, when Baugh entered with 8:55 left to play. She teamed with Glory Johnson inside, and the paint became impenetrable. The lead grew to 15 points and then 20 points – largely because Auburn was one and done on its shots because of Johnson and Baugh grabbing boards and discouraging any more dribble forays into the paint.

Baugh teamed inside with Johnson is a formidable post game with two primary benefits: A 6'4 Baugh brings legitimate post size, and Johnson clearly is more comfortable having Baugh inside with her.

The two also can venture out to the wings – once they swarmed in tandem to the perimeter and switched on a screen, causing the two Tigers to not even be able to see the basket. Auburn lofted an off-balance shot and Baugh sprinted back to the paint and smothered the rebound.

Baugh has been coming off the bench since her funk reached its apex against Stanford before Christmas, and she still seems to be shaking off that game.

The sooner Baugh is able to do so, the better it will be going forward for Tennessee as a whole. Baugh appears to have sustained a dip in confidence. The best cure for that is quality time on the court – such as the final nine minutes of Sunday's game.

If Tennessee is going to succeed in postseason, Baugh has to play well for the Lady Vols on both ends. Getting Baugh back on track in January should pay dividends in March.

"She's their ‘X' factor," Auburn Coach Nell Fortner said. "She is their ‘X' factor."

Baugh combined with Johnson made it even tougher for the Tigers.

"It is very, very hard," Fortner said. "Their press is big. They are big on that backline of the press, and that gave us fits the whole second half."

Tennessee is still trying to find its defensive identity and has inserted Alicia Manning into the lineup to accelerate the process. That has been beneficial for Tennessee because Manning got mired on the bench at times in the early part of the season.

Manning helps set the tone on defense and was a reason why Tennessee jumped out to an early lead Sunday – she inspires teammates to play hard on the defensive end.

Baugh is another key piece to this evolving process and has become a spectator at times from the bench. Tennessee needs her on the court.

The final stretch of Sunday's game was a good step for Baugh.

A frontline of Johnson, Baugh and Manning won't lack for defensive intensity and the rest of the team enters their slipstream.

The coaches can sort out who starts, and it is not at all unusual for the combinations to vary throughout the season.

As Baugh showed Sunday, it's how you finish that really matters.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Holly Warlick, Shekinna Stricklen, Glory Johnson

Auburn's Camille Glymph, Tyrese Tanner

Auburn Coach Nell Fortner


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