Lady Vols close week with win

ATHENS, Ga. - The Lady Vols won the rematch with the Lady Bulldogs, 67-50, and will now look forward to two consecutive contests at home after a week of road games. Go inside for the game story, Inside Tennessee's Take and video coverage.

It was hard to tell what the Lady Vols were happier about after the game - the win over rival Georgia or the fact they were headed home.

Tennessee (16-5, 7-1) played it third road game of the week Sunday and downed Georgia (16-6, 5-4), by a final of 67-50 after leading by just one point at the break.

Stegeman Coliseum was sold out at 10,523, and while Lady Bulldog fans were the clear majority, orange-clad fans were clustered throughout the arena and made their voices heard throughout the game.

The Lady Vols next play two games in Knoxville - South Carolina comes to town Thursday followed by Auburn next Sunday - and the coaches sweetened the week even more by giving the players off this Monday.

They will return to practice Tuesday to begin preparations for the Gamecocks.

"If you had to vote at this point of the season, the most improved team (in the SEC) would have to be South Carolina," Coach Pat Summitt said. "They're athletic and they score the ball well. We're going to have our hands full."

Tennessee first had to deal with Georgia, a team the Lady Vols wiped out in Knoxville three weeks ago.

"You don't think about that, it's in the past," Lady Vol Shekinna Stricklen said. "We have moved on and started over as a team. We all made a lot of commitments and tried to hold each other accountable."

Tennessee held just a one-point lead at halftime, 29-28, after tallying 12 turnovers before the break. The Lady Vols were shooting 44.4 percent with eight assists on 12 made baskets, but the ball had squirted loose and allowed the Lady Bulldogs to nearly erase Tennessee's eight-point first-half lead.

"We talked about two things," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "We talked about turning the ball over, which led to eight of their points in the paint and we were very concerned with them scoring in the paint.

"Secondly, their total offensive rebounds led to eight points there, so we were giving up 16 points on turnovers and offensive rebounds. So we were really concerned and focused on those two things at halftime."

The Lady Vols started the game well with Glory Johnson winning the tip, and Stricklen taking the ball right to the rim before the Lady Bulldogs really reacted. Johnson hit a turn-around in the lane, and Cierra Burdick, making her second start of the season, got the ball inside to Stricklen, who converted for a 6-2 lead.

Burdick faked a pass and drained a jumper, Meighan Simmons scored in transition with Ariel Massengale pushing in transition and then Burdick grabbed an offensive rebound and hit the stick-back for a 12-6 lead less than six minutes into the first half.

"We thought that Cierra had done a pretty good job for us the last couple of games," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "She kind of settles us down a little bit offensively. If she's open, she's been really good at knocking down shots.

"We moved Stricklen to the four, so she was able to get some good inside looks early to get her settled down. It was a good combination for us. It worked well for us tonight, and we may look at it a little bit in the future."

Stricklen is listed at all three spots on the roster, and that versatility was on display Sunday. With Stricklen at the four spot, that also allowed Taber Spani to play on the perimeter with Simmons and Massengale.

"It feels good when you have everyone healthy and no one sitting out a game injured," Stricklen said. "She came back and we are trying to get her back in the rhythm and get her shot back."

Massengale and Spani hit back-to-back threes to give the Lady Vols a 19-11 lead at the 10:45 mark of the first half, which led Georgia Coach Andy Landers to call timeout.

Tennessee got two good looks inside but missed them, and Georgia cut the lead to two points, 19-17, at the 8:05 mark, but Stricklen got to the rim on a feed from Simmons, and Spani drove baseline and found Vicki Baugh inside for a 23-17 lead at the 6:42 mark.

Tennessee pushed the lead to seven points, 27-20, on a jumper from Simmons and Spani again finding Baugh inside, but five turnovers in the final three minutes - two from Baugh, one from Massengale and two from Isabelle Harrison - allowed Georgia to trim the lead to just one at the break.

Tennessee started quickly in the second half with Simmons draining a three on a pass from Johnson, and Stricklen driving relatively unimpeded to the rim for a 34-28 lead, leading Landers to call timeout at the 18:40 mark.

"Defensively, I thought we stood around for the first two minutes of the second half," Landers said. "I didn't see the intensity that I would have liked to have seen. We broke down and they got some driving, wide-open layups."

Tennessee plowed a path to the paint in the second half led by Stricklen and Massengale, who either got to the rim or got fouled. Massengale was 6-8 from the stripe while Stricklen was 5-7.

My outside shooting, three-pointers haven't been good for the last couple of games," Stricklen said. "Also, just getting to the basket and getting to the free throw line.

"This is the most I have been to the free throw line in a game and that's really something I have been trying to improve on."

Johnson hit a turn-around shot in paint on a bounce pass from Burdick, Stricklen was fouled on a drive and hit two free throws and then Stricklen stole a pass and hit the layup for a 40-28 lead at the 16:41 mark.

"It was a tough defensive game until the start of the second half," Landers said. "They made a couple of layups and to defend that, we played zone.

"Then they hit a three, and before we knew it, it was a 10-point game. When we came down to our end, we just didn't make enough shots."

The Lady Vols also switched up their defenses, morphing from man to zone and back again.

"We're just mixing it up," Warlick said. "We can change. We run two different types of zone and two different types of man and I was surprised we didn't press as much as I thought we would have to.

"Our players have been really in tune and focused on what we're calling and making sure we are executing what we're calling. That's a sign of a good team."

The Lady Vols continued to build their lead in the second half, and it remained in double digits and reached 16 points, 53-37, on a layup from Stricklen with 8:33 remaining.

Georgia got within 10 points, 53-43, on two free throws from Anne Marie Armstrong with 5:28 to play and then nearly stole a pass.

But Massengale drained a three-pointer to push the lead to 56-43, with 5:06 to play and Tennessee closed out the game with Massengale getting to the rim - she set up the play from the upper right corner and wrapped her way left - and Stricklen hitting her one long ball of the game.

That trey ended the scoring at 67-50 as Georgia missed a three-pointer, and Massengale dribbled in place for the final 22 seconds.

Massengale had been frustrated after the first half - she had one assist and two turnovers and noted the ball seemed slippery - and Stricklen and Johnson had a chat with her.

"Strick and Johnson told me to shake it off, first half was over, we've got 20 more minutes to play," Massengale said. "I just took that and went out there with a new mindset for the second half.

"They told me to take care of the ball. They know I can handle it and they have faith and trust in me."

Georgia was led by Meredith Mitchell with 13 points. Jasmine Hassell also reached double figures with 11 points, while Armstrong added nine points.

The Lady Bulldogs shot 28.8 percent (17-59) overall, 11.1 percent (2-18) from long range and 73.7 percent (14-19) from the line. Georgia had 14 turnovers, eight assists and 10 steals.

Tennessee was led by Stricklen with 24 points, who was 9-18 (50 percent) from the field and also grabbed seven boards while going the distance. Massengale shot 4-6 (66.6 percent) and added 16 points with four boards.

Simmons chipped in with nine points, and Baugh tallied six points with eight boards. Burdick added four points and grabbed six boards while Johnson added five points and eight boards.

The Lady Vols shot 48.9 percent (23-47) overall, 41.7 percent (5-12) from the arc and 76.2 percent (16-21) from the line.

Tennessee had 19 turnovers - 12 in the first and seven in the second half - 12 assists, seven blocks and seven steals. The Lady Vols edged the Lady Bulldogs on the boards, 37-34.

The Lady Vols got 32 points in the paint, nearly half of their 67 total for the game.

Stricklen was a big part of that effort, as she repeatedly got to the rim, including in the game's first two seconds off the opening tip.

"I like it a lot," Stricklen said of the power forward spot that she played for much of the game. "I feel like I am more physical at the post than I am at the guard. I look to attack more.

"I feel like it's a good spot because my outside shooting is not working at all right now. It feels good to work around the basket."

INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE: The impact of the absence of Taber Spani can't be overstated. That became readily apparent in the month of January.

The most impressive number in the box score for Spani was the number of minutes played - 21. And while Spani connected on just one of five shots - she swished her first three - that will come with repetition, something she hasn't been able to do for weeks.

That first three, however, changed the way Georgia guarded Tennessee. It came right after Ariel Massengale drained a trey - the freshman has been told to look to score - and with two shooters to track, the Lady Bulldogs increased the perimeter pressure.

That opened up driving lanes whether Spani connected or not, and Shekinna Stricklen took advantage, especially in the second half. She got to the rim and led all scorers with 24 points.

Spani's defender would not leave her, because Spani's step-back three means the defense has to stay close. Stricklen, who moved seamlessly Sunday from the perimeter to the paint, took full advantage and headed to the rim.

"That's the best part about it," Stricklen said. "You go to her side and if you just beat your man, you've got a wide-open layup, because people are not going to help off of her.

"She brings a lot to her team just by her presence. A lot of teams were playing us a lot of zone because of (Spani's absence). Our best shooter has not been playing."

Glory Johnson has done a good job of adjusting all season to a different player inside the paint with her from Alicia Manning to Vicki Baugh to Isabelle Harrison to Stricklen, depending on assorted combinations.

Stricklen handled the physicality of the four spot, something that brought a smile to Johnson, who knows firsthand that the paint is combat.

"She was able to drive so that helped her a lot," Johnson said.

Johnson has made it a point to not change her game regardless of who joins her in the paint.

"I really just keep doing the same things," Johnson said. "Keep posting up, try to get as many touches as I can and when I get doubled down, kick it out and hopefully my guards are ready to shoot it."

That was the case Sunday. Johnson had three assists after finding Cierra Burdick (jumper), Ariel Massengale (trey) and Meighan Simmons (trey).

"It's basically the same thing," Johnson said. "I am crashing the boards just as hard, getting rebounds."

Stricklen's ability to play inside and, if needed, drift to the perimeter and take her defender with her, could be a major strength for the Lady Vols going forward because it allows Spani to stay on the perimeter when she enters the game.

Spani's teammates missed her, to say the least.

"Too much," Johnson said. "Her little step-back three. It didn't fall today, but I wouldn't underestimate her at all. Taber is a powerful player. She is a powerful guard.

"Taber is a great asset to our team. When she hits that shot (the three ball), it changes the game and makes things easier for me. I am happy to see Taber out there."

Johnson also is happy to see Baugh enter the game. The fifth-year player has dealt with knee issues but logged 20 minutes Sunday.

"That makes it easier on me, too, because they've got to play us both," Johnson said. "They've got to put their dominant post on one of us and Vicki is a great, great player."

The coaches have worked all season with an assortment of lineups with combos often driven by health. Baugh has been limited at times, Spani was completely unavailable for eight games in the past month and Kamiko Williams is still working her way into shape.

Burdick has picked up more minutes of late, though she was limited Sunday after picking up her second and third fouls in the first two minutes of the second half.

"She kind of got down (about not playing much earlier) and we talked to her and said, ‘Keep your head up. Everyone has their time and you keep working hard and your time is going to come,' " Massengale said.

"It's here for her, and her hard work has paid off. She can't get complacent and I highly doubt that she will because Cierra is a gym rat. You can find her at 2 o'clock in the morning in the gym getting shots up."

Tennessee also needs what it got from Massengale on Sunday - points or at least the threat that she will score. That ensures that the defense has to guard all five spots on the floor.

"Coach Warlick and I have been getting a lot of extra shots after practice," Massengale said. "She tells me, ‘You can't score points if you don't shoot.' For this team to be as good as we can be, all five of us have to be a threat on the offensive end.

"They started doubling Glory early tonight and so that opens it up for us. We got open shots on the perimeter, and we've got to knock them down."

Tennessee now enters the month of February, the last one of the regular season, with a chance to solidify its lineup and rotations.

A healthy Spani could start or come off the bench but one thing is certain - she changes the game once she enters it.

Alicia Manning seems to have hit a low energy cycle and that needs to change because she can be a difference maker on the glass and has made her living as Lady Vol bringing energy to the court.

Kamiko Williams didn't play Sunday and that needs to change as Massengale logged 35 minutes and Meighan Simmons went 38, and she can relieve at either spot.

The coaches may finally get all 11 of their players to work with and they have this coming month to fine tune all the pieces.

A healthy Spani brightens the outlook considerably.

"Taber felt great," Warlick said. "Jenny (Moshak) reminded us before the game, ‘Taber's ready.' I don't think she is in game shape where she can go 30 minutes, 40 minutes, but she is moving better.

"We've missed that threat. When Kinna is not hitting the three ball, we've missed that threat."

Sunday put a nice ending to a week that had a miserable start for Tennessee with the loss at Notre Dame.

"We've moved on," Stricklen said. "We watched the tape. We learned from it, and that's something that won't happen again."

Inside Tennessee had suggested burning the tape, but Stricklen smiled and said the team had to view it.

"It's horrible," Stricklen said.



Holly Warlick, Glory Johnson, Ariel Massengale

Georgia Coach Andy Landers

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