Lady Vols back in SEC title hunt

The Lady Vols got back on track with a team-wide effort against Auburn that led to an 82-61 win Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena. Go inside for the game story, Inside Tennessee's Take and press conference videos.

The Lady Vol players were smiling after the game. They also were smiling while playing Auburn in stark contrast to the meltdown against South Carolina.

"It was really slow, with low energy," Glory Johnson said of the game against the Gamecocks. "There were a lot of mess-ups. We were messing up a lot on small things and having a lot of negative energy on the floor. We were yelling at each other.

"That's not how Tennessee plays, and that's not a good way to come back. Having positive energy on the floor helps so much. You can see we're out there smiling. If you make mistakes, somebody else picks you up. It's a lot better that way and a lot more successful."

The result for Tennessee (17-6, 8-2) was the 82-61 win over Auburn (11-13, 3-8), one game after the 64-60 loss to South Carolina.

"I liked our focus," Coach Pat Summitt said. "We also came out with a lot of energy, and we were able to spread the minutes around. When you are able to do that it is a feel-good game for everyone.

"I know our staff was pleased overall with the way this team responded."

The Lady Vols did it by getting the ball inside – the three-ball is still not falling for Tennessee – and ratcheting up the defense.

"Three stats jump off the page this afternoon … our points in the paint (52-28 in Tennessee's favor) and our points off of turnovers (21-2)," Summitt said. "Those are on the positive side.

"On the negative side, I don't like the fact we were outrebounded by Auburn (42-39)."

The Lady Vols spotted the Tigers a five-point lead, 9-4, less than three minutes into the game.

"Auburn came out strong and really attacked us from the jump," Summitt said. "When they got a five-point lead, I just said we need to settle down and answer their quick lead."

Tennessee scored the first basket when Shekinna Stricklen raced to the rim after getting the opening tip from Johnson, and Alicia Manning cleaned up the miss with a stick-back.

But when Auburn went ahead 9-4, Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick wasted no time in calling a timeout at the 16:59 mark of the first half.

After the timeout, Johnson got to the rim for a layup and foul and converted the free throw to cut the lead to 9-7 at the 16:47 mark. Meighan Simmons got a steal and went right to the rim to tie the game at 9-9 at the 16:35 mark of the first half, and Coach Nell Fortner called timeout to talk to her Tigers.

Auburn got the lead back on a three-pointer from Camille Glymph, but the Lady Vols got in gear with Ariel Massengale firing a pass to Stricklen that she had to leap for and, while falling backward, found a cutting Johnson to pull the Lady Vols within one point, 12-11.

Simmons drained a three after Massengale recovered a loose ball to tie the game at 14, and Manning scored in transition to give the Lady Vols a 16-14 lead at the 13:51 mark of the first half.

Tennessee never trailed again in the game and used a swarming defense to harass the Tigers and force them deep into the shot clock.

"We wanted to be more aggressive," Warlick said. "After the game the kids said, ‘That was actually fun.' When they think it's fun, we're going to do it more often, but they've got to buy into it. I thought they bought into it.

"We got success, and when you have success with something you do, it seems to give us more energy. We wanted to extend. We wanted to speed the game up, and our man- and full-court press was a little bit better than our zone press, so we went with it."

Tennessee extended its lead to 24-18 after Taber Spani used a Johnson screen to hit a jumper, Simmons scored on a scoot to the basket, Kamiko Williams got to the rim and Stricklen swished a turn-around shot in the lane.

Williams was inserted midway through the first half by Summitt, who handled several substitutions during the game.

"Pat is Pat," Warlick said. "I'll say this: She still gets up and has a voice when we need to make a point, and that's what I love about her. She gets in the huddle, and she gets on them pretty heavily.

"She may pick and choose when she does, but when she does, it's pretty powerful."

Some power was delivered in a small package, too, when Briana Bass entered the game to bring some defensive pressure against Auburn's point guard, Najat Ouardad.

Bass brought the crowd of 16,361 to its feet when she stole the ball near the scorer's table out of a trap and passed ahead to Stricklen while falling out of bounds. Stricklen hit the layup for a 27-21 lead at the 7:15 mark of the first half.

Bass also stole an in-bounds pass near Auburn's bench and found Spani for the layup and a 31-23 lead at the 6:36 mark, which caused the crowd to erupt again.

"I thought she did a really nice job with Auburn's pressure defense and guarding Najat Ouardad," Summitt said. "Bree is feisty and her teammates love her energy and feed off of it.

"She plays with a great deal of heart."

Massengale re-entered the game and catapulted Tennessee to two scores by rebounding her own miss and firing the ball to Williams, who found Spani for a three-pointer and a 34-25 lead. That was followed by a long pass from Massengale to Johnson, who converted at the rim.

Tennessee led 44-31 at halftime after four more layups – one by Vicki Baugh, two from Massengale and one by Williams – and started the second half the same way by attacking the paint.

"Any time you score 52 points in the paint, you're doing something right at Tennessee because that's our goal – to score in the paint and score off transition," Warlick said.

"The only problem is the first four minutes of the second half we turned the ball over three times in a row, and that's just not acceptable. We called a timeout and got a couple of things straight, and I thought we got their attention, and we went on to play a very good second half."

Tennessee maintained a double-digit lead – the largest was 17 points after Massengale hit a layup assisted by Stricklen to put the Lady Vols up 56-39 – until the 6:51 mark when Auburn's Hasina Muhammad hit a short jumper to pull the Tigers to within eight points at 61-53.

"We just knew that we had to pull it together," Massengale said. "We knew that we weren't really hitting shots on offense that well, but we had good stops and rebounds.

"Coach Summitt told us in the huddle that defensive boards would win this game for us, and I think we approached it from a defensive end and got stops when we needed to."

Tennessee restored order within two minutes and got the lead back to 17 points with a Simmons baseline drive, a Johnson stick-back, two free throws from Isabelle Harrison and an and-one play from Harrison after she hit a jumper and was fouled for a 70-53 lead with 4:52 left to play.

"We're shortening our gaps," Warlick said. "They used to be pretty wide where we would have lapses. Now they're getting smaller. We're going to continue to make sure that we close the gap on that. We can't have lapses, and we did.

"They shot three or four layups, and we can't do it if our bench comes in. We've got to maintain that pressure, that ability to play hard all the time, and I think sometimes when players come in, they lose a little bit, it takes them a little bit longer to get going."

Fortner saw a familiar pattern from her team when the Lady Vols put the game away for good.

"We play good for about 34 minutes and then kind of break down," Fortner said. "It was an eight-point game with 6:51 left, and I think we only had eight turnovers in the half at that time, and it just kind of fell apart on us.

"That is a tough stretch for us, and we really need to work to get better during that time period."

Auburn accelerated the pace of the game and also attacked the paint against Tennessee, but the Tigers misfired too often once they reached it.

"I thought we had good looks at the basket," Fortner said. "I don't know how many layups we missed, but there were way too many. We got to the basket.

"We tended to find some gaps and seams in things they were doing but still had a difficult time finishing the shot. That comes from their size. We might have gotten around them; we might have gotten in there, but their size. Man they can get big fast.

"When you've got Burdick and Izzy and Glory and Baugh, I mean that's big. Stricklen. They can get so big, and I think that intimidates people when they get in there. They get a little worried about what is coming when they get the shot off."

Baugh had a block late in the second half that wowed the crowd – Tennessee had seven for the game with Johnson accounting for four swats.

"I think she is one of the best players definitely in our conference," Fortner said of Johnson. "I think she is one of the best post players in the country because she is so physical.

"She is just so physical. You always know she is guarding you, and you know to go against her is incredibly hard. She is just an incredibly physical player, and she is dangerous anywhere on the floor."

The Lady Vols continued to get the ball inside and Simmons ended the scoring at 82-61 on a drive. Simmons was 6-9 and found most of her offensive success by putting the ball on the floor.

"She's the quickest kid with the ball that I've seen in a long time," Warlick said. "I love that she attacks the basket, and I was proud of her. I thought once she settled down in the first half, she came in and played better defense.

"Like you said they took away her three, and she drove to the basket. Those are things we need from Meighan."

Spani connected on one long ball and was 3-7 overall in 21 minutes of play as she tries to get back to game speed after missing the last month to rest a bone bruise in her knee.

"Being out for a month … you don't forget how to play, but you just have to get back into it," Spani said. "The most important thing is just getting my legs back underneath me and getting multiple practices in a row and game tempo. Every day I get a little better.

"Defensively, my legs were a little gone today, but I know that's not me. I'm trying to get back into the flow of things. With my shot, it's not great because I can't shoot extra, per (Jenny Moshak's) orders, but you have to go in with confidence. … I know that if one person doesn't shoot well, everybody else … look at what Glory and what Ariel did.

"It's a total team effort, and I think that's how it's going to be from here on out."

Auburn was led by Glymph with 13 points. Tyrese Tanner also reached double digits with 11 point as did Muhammad with 10. Morgan Jennings added eight by getting to the paint and was 3-3.

"Coaches were forcing the issue to get into the middle, penetrate the zone, so I tried to penetrate the zone to get the easy basket, kick it to the post," Jennings said.

The Tigers shot 39.7 percent (23-58) overall, 33.3 percent (4-12) from the arc and 61.1 percent (11-18) from the line. Auburn had 11 assists, 23 turnovers, seven blocks and five steals.

Tennessee was led by Johnson and Massengale, who both tallied 14 points. Johnson got the double-double with 11 rebounds, as did Stricklen with 11 points and 10 boards. Simmons also reached double figures with 13 points.

The Lady Vols shot 47.1 percent (32-68) overall, 23.1 percent (3-13) from long range and 65.2 percent (15-23) from the line.

Tennessee had 15 assists – four by Massengale to give her 104 on the season in 20 games. That matches the team leader a year ago over 37 games.

The Lady Vols had 13 steals – Massengale led with four thefts for the game while Stricklen added three and Simmons and Bass had two each – 11 turnovers and seven blocks.

While the Lady Vols were happy with the win, their overall record is 17-6 with two SEC losses, well below program standards.

"It's absolutely not sitting well with us," Spani said. "I think the biggest thing going forward is, in the next month, to come together as a team. We have a month to be united, not only on the court, but off the court. We have to get our chemistry down.

"It's about the month of March and the results. I think that's what people are going to remember this team by, so that's exciting for us.

"Obviously we're going to go every day, and just get better. That's all our focus is: to get better every day. If we do that, this team has a great chance to come together and do something special."


Briana Bass, one of the smallest players on the floor gave the Lady Vols a much-needed jolt of energy. Usually, the 5'2 Bass would be the tiniest one on the court, but her Auburn counterpart was the 5'1 Najat Ouardad.

"Bree finally found somebody she's taller than today," Holly Warlick said.

Bass, who entered to apply ball pressure and give Ariel Massengale a break, did just that.

"I'll say this about Bree: She plays her role," Warlick said. "Today, she came in and played hard. We've asked our guards to force their players left. She did that. She never strays away from the game plan, and I appreciate Bree so much.

"Her work ethic is so good, and she sticks with what the coaches say. I'm glad she got the minutes. I'm proud of her effort. I thought she held her own, and she got some good minutes. I was excited to see her get in there."

As Bass smothered Auburn's ball handler the 16,000-plus fans cheered their approval, and the energy filtered to the rest of the team.

"As soon as she came in, not only did the crowd go crazy, but our energy level picked up, and we were playing high-pressure defense," Taber Spani said. "Bree was the point person on that, and we love it for her, and she's had such a great attitude throughout everything."

"Everything" could mean quite a lot for this team this season from the realization it's already taken on six regular season losses to the fact that its iconic head coach has had to adjust her daily role as she deals with early onset dementia.

But when Shekinna Stricklen, whose play of late has been shaky on both ends, wanted to address the slippage in her game, she sought out Summitt.

"Shekinna came to me and asked to visit," Summitt said. "I told her how much we counted on her as our All-American to work hard and bring it every day and to set an example for her teammates. I told her we needed her to step up and play the way she is capable of playing.

"I was happy for her today. She played with a lot of emotion today and I think her teammates fed off of that."

Stricklen still struggled with the long ball - she was 0-4 behind the arc - but she grabbed 10 rebounds and played with energy on defense, tallying three of Tennessee's 13 steals, one game after the Lady Vols didn't have a single theft against South Carolina.

The energy was infectious and while there were lapses, the Lady Vols regrouped and allowed the coaches to go all the way through the bench for help throughout the game.

One game after Glory Johnson spoke through clenched teeth at the post-game press conference, the senior forward was all smiles Sunday about the team's overall effort.

"I love it," Johnson said. "It's so exciting and so fun, playing with this much positive energy on the floor. It's exciting and causes a lot of successful plays."

The win also put Tennessee right back into the thick of the SEC race thanks to LSU's takedown of Kentucky. The Lady Vols next travel to Vanderbilt, always a tough road game in an odd venue, especially for freshmen, with the end-line bench placement, and then they host the Wildcats on Feb. 13.

The Lady Vols coaches will still have plenty of possessions to pull up in film study, especially some defensive breakdowns with their full-court pressure.

The Lady Vols used it to excellent effect in the first half and backed off in the second half.

"I think they figured it out a little bit," Johnson said. "They figured out how to move the ball. In the first half, they tried to dribble through our press.

"The second half, they were throwing it. When they throw it in the middle, it breaks up everything."

The coaches sent the message that sticky defense was a priority. When Massengale's defense faltered, Bass replaced her in the first half.

When Meighan Simmons let Camille Glymph get loose in transition less than three minutes into the second half and drain a three, Kamiko Williams entered the game for her.

"When Meighan Simmons was guarding me, I just feel like she probably wasn't as tight on me as Kamiko was," Glymph said. "I don't feel like there was much difference. I passed up a few shots and didn't knock down the shots that I had the opportunity to."

Glymph didn't connect on another three-pointer after the 17:36 mark of the second half, and Simmons was energized on defense when she returned to the court.

"It gets a little old when we give everybody their biggest game offensively," Warlick said. We wanted to make sure (Glymph) didn't get off. (We) wanted to make sure Meighan understood the importance of making sure we get stops.

"Meighan's defensive game has really elevated, but it's still got to get better so just trying to make a point."

This game did allow the Lady Vols to knock some of the rust off the press, which they haven't deployed much for the past month. Simmons was outstanding in that scheme in the first half and used her speed to get steals and generate offense from defense.

"They pressed us in Auburn," Coach Nell Fortner said. "(But) they played more of a zone press, not that trapping or sending people at us like that. They definitely picked up the tempo here at home.

"The crowd was awesome. You all do a great job here. I commend the Tennessee fans because you all are fantastic, and I think that the team really feeds off of that, so it kind of gives them a boost of energy."

Fortner was addressing the media, but a group of fans was in the back of the room as part of Summitt's guest coaches program, which has been in place for years. People from various groups and companies are in the locker room for the pre-game and halftime talks and then listen to the post-game press conferences.

They were treated to a much better team effort than the guest coaches for the South Carolina game would have gotten, but the Gamecocks were also a stiffer test than Auburn, which has won just three SEC games this season.

However, the aftermath of the South Carolina loss could have sent the Lady Vols in a tailspin. Instead, they got their bearings and got back in the SEC title race.

The next two games will be considerably more challenging – at Vandy and the hosting first-place Kentucky. But preparing after a win is always preferable to the malaise a loss can leave.

"I feel a lot better than I did on Thursday," Warlick said. "We wanted our players to play with a lot of effort and heart, and I thought today we did that regardless of what happened on the court.

"I was proud of them."


If you are having trouble viewing the videos, right click on the video and turn the HD off. That will allow the video to more easily load and play.

Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick

Taber Spani, Glory Johnson, Ariel Massengale

Auburn Coach Nell Fortner, Camille Glymph, Morgan Jennings

Inside Tennessee Top Stories