Lady Vols wipe out Wildcats

The Lady Vols didn't just steady their ship in the SEC. They delivered a resounding win to a program that needed to restore its luster with a 91-54 rout over Kentucky. Go inside for the game story, Inside Tennessee's Take and video coverage.

From the Lady Vol players entering the court via the stands to the light shade of pink uniforms they wore for the "Play for Kay" game, not much about Monday resembled the last time Tennessee played at home.

That was even more so the case when Tennessee (18-7, 9-3) rolled over Kentucky (21-4, 10-2) in a game that was essentially over at halftime.

"What a great performance by Tennessee," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Very energetic and firing on all cylinders tonight, and they were impressive.

"Our team is not feeling good, embarrassed, down after that kind of performance."

Coach Pat Summitt also used the word energy, specifically the surge of such unleashed by senior Shekinna Stricklen and sophomore Meighan Simmons.

"Meighan and Shekinna opened the game with high energy, and that's what we need from them every night," Summitt said. "Both of them have been struggling a bit, and it was good to see them have this kind of game.

"It was fun watching us play such an up-tempo game."

Tennessee let Kentucky set the tone in the first game in Lexington – a 61-60 loss for the Lady Vols on Jan. 12 – but the team in pink dictated the pace in the rematch.

When we run the ball, it gives us energy; it gives us a lot of confidence," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "When Shekinna Stricklen's sprinting down the floor and we shoot layups, and Glory Johnson's shooting layups, we're a great team. We really are.

"But it starts with our defense, and I thought our defense started everything for us and got us playing. I thought (Ariel) Massengale handled the ball tonight. We've been pretty tough on her as well."

Ariel Massengale took the game plan – push the ball every chance she got – and, literally, ran with it. Stricklen got a defensive rebound and fired an outlet pass to Massengale, who found Johnson at the rim for the game's first basket.

When Johnson had to watch the majority of the proceedings because of foul trouble, the pace never slowed, as Stricklen, Simmons and Vicki Baugh attacked the teeth of Kentucky's defense and took the ball at the Wildcats, instead of playing tentatively.

Simmons hit back-to-back threes – one on a scramble play, the other in transition – and Stricklen did her work in the paint to give the Lady Vols a quick 12-4 lead.

Massengale engineered the next three baskets by finding Johnson at the rim and then Stricklen in transition, and then executed a spin move and banked in her own shot for an 18-6 lead at the 13:32 mark.

But on the next play Johnson tried to save a possession by tossing the ball off a Kentucky player who was out of bounds – she missed – and was called for a technical foul. Tennessee's entire coaching staff erupted, as did the crowd of 14,807, which rained boos even after a timeout.

Kentucky made one of two free throws and then Stricklen and Taber Spani forced a shot clock violation, and the crowd erupted in celebration. That was followed by Spani draining a corner three for a 21-11 lead at the 11:14 mark of the first half.

Kentucky trimmed the lead to single digits on a three-pointer and lay-up from Bernisha Pinkett, but Baugh got two consecutive stick-backs and Massengale and Simmons connected on two free throws each, and the Lady Vols extended the lead to 31-18.

Simmons found Kamiko Williams inside with a precision pass and Williams got a steal and found Simmons on the next play for a 35-18 lead at the 5:21 mark, and Kentucky called its third timeout of the first half.

The Wildcats missed their next shot, and Stricklen grabbed the defensive board and went directly to the other end for a 37-18 lead. Simmons found Stricklen after a turnover for a 39-18 lead at the 4:36 mark.

Before halftime arrived, Stricklen had connected on two free throws, Simmons swished a wing jumper, Williams stuck a putback, and Briana Bass hit a free throw for a 46-26 lead at the break.

The halftime message to Tennessee was to not let up.

"We told them it was a great half but it was in the books," Summitt said. "As far as we were concerned, the score was 0-0 to start the second half. We weren't pleased that Kentucky had 12 offensive boards, so we asked them to do a better job boxing out.

"We asked them to refocus and to continue to play with high energy."

Tennessee got to the line to start the second half – Johnson misfired on two, Spani hit one of two – and then got back on track after Massengale fired a pass to Stricklen, who found Spani for a baseline jumper and a 49-32 lead with 17:27 left.

From there, the Lady Vols built the lead basket by basket – 24 points on a Stricklen no-look pass to Johnson for a 60-36 lead; 28 points on a Johnson putback for a 64-36 lead; and then a score in eight seconds after a made Kentucky basket – Bria Goss hit a trey – when Massengale took the in-bound pass, weaved past her defenders and found Stricklen for a layup and a 66-39 lead at the 11:41 mark.

The lead reached 30 points, 69-39, after Kentucky missed a layup and Baugh rebounded and fired a pass to Massengale, who found Simmons for a layup at the 10:06 mark.

After a missed Simmons' shot and a battle under the basket for the ball, Johnson got her right hand on it but was falling away from the play. Her left arm hit A'dia Mathies in the face – Johnson was turned to the basket and never saw Mathies on her left side – and Simmons grabbed the ball and hit the stick-back for a 71-40 lead with 9:27 left.

A review by the officials of the play showed no wrongdoing and no foul on Johnson, but the crowd booed anyway during the review process – they remained peeved over the technical foul – as the replay was shown on the scoreboard.

"Took a tough flying elbow, wild play under the basket and we're just checking to see if anything is in bad shape," Mitchell said. "She's being checked right now so hopefully that is not too bad and hopefully she'll be able to bounce back.

"She's a pretty tough kid, so we are certainly hopeful for the best there."

Mathies torched the Lady Vols in the last game for 34 points. She had 10 at halftime and scored a stick-back basket at the 19:29 mark of the second half, but she didn't score again in the game over an eight-minute span after that bucket.

"Mathies had a lot to do with our defeat against Kentucky, so she was a focal point for us," Warlick said. "We were pretty upset at halftime that she scored the last four points going into the half. We've had a tendency of letting great players go off.

"We wanted to make sure she didn't have that game she had against us (earlier). We were aware of her, where she was, and wanted to make sure she took tough shots. For the most part, except for that stretch at the end of the first half, we did a good job on her."

The lead reached 40 points, 84-44, when Williams hit a jumper assisted by Bass with 4:34 left.

Simmons had left the game 30 seconds earlier, and the crowd gave her a standing ovation in a show of appreciation not just for her offensive output – she led all scorers with 25 points – but for her overall effort on both ends.

"Meighan played with so much confidence tonight," Summitt said.

Bass, Cierra Burdick and Isabelle Harrison finished the scoring for Tennessee, and Bass dribbled out the final 21 seconds as the crowd roared its approval of the 91-54 final.

"Great night for Tennessee, poor night for us and we'll have to see what we are made of and see if we can bounce back," Mitchell said.

Kentucky was led by Goss with 15 points. Mathies tallied 12, and Pinkett chipped in with 10 points. Samarie Walker added six points and four boards. Mathies also had four rebounds.

The Wildcats shot 33.3 percent (21-63) overall, 21.1 percent (4-19) from long range and 61.5 percent (8-13) from the line.

"Everything looks better when shots go in the basket," Mitchell said. "That's a tough thing to go through in offensive struggles, but we still have a good team. We still have a lot of talented players. I need to do a better job of coaching and trying to prepare them.

"This was a very disappointing game, and I am very disappointed in my effort getting them prepared. We should have done better than we did tonight. You have to give a lot of credit to Tennessee in the way that those kids competed and played. They did a great job."

Kentucky had six assists, 20 turnovers, two blocks and nine steals.

Tennessee outscored Kentucky in the paint, 42-28, dominated the glass, 45-27 and tallied 22 fast-break points to just four for the Wildcats.

Mitchell was inclined to destroy the evidence and move on to the next game on Thursday.

"At this point in the season, I think that is probably the most valuable thing we can do is get the DVD and try to shatter it into a thousand pieces and get our mind focused," Mitchell said. "We don't have much time. We really have to get focused on Alabama.

"It is embarrassing tonight. We feel terrible. I wish Kentucky had played better, but we have a lot to play for and I think that would be the best thing for us to move forward and see if we can play a tough Alabama team that played us tough in Lexington."

The Lady Vols stayed in their 2-3 zone throughout the game, and Kentucky never gave them a reason to come out of it.

"I think the last time we played 40 minutes of zone was against Georgia here last year," Warlick said. "As we say, we're a man-to-man team, but we're going to go with what's going to win the game, and tonight our 2-3 was very good."

It is a defense the Wildcats have seen in their two SEC losses to LSU and Tennessee.

"Active, big, athletic zones, they just stand in the paint and force you to make really tough decisions and tough plays," Mitchell said. "I thought we did a decent job of getting the ball inside early. It was real physical around the basket, and we just didn't do as good of a job finishing as Tennessee did when they got inside.

"If I were a coach and I had a zone available, that is probably what I would do right now."

Tennessee was led by Simmons with 25 points while Stricklen tallied 18 points. Johnson reached double figures with 10 points, and Baugh added eight, with both shooting 4-5 from the field. Spani and Williams chipped in with six points each.

Baugh and Johnson both had seven boards, while Stricklen grabbed six, and Burdick and Williams had five each. Massengale had a pair of sevens – assists and points.

The Lady Vols shot 59.0 percent (36-61) overall – 60 percent in the first half; 58.1 percent in the second – 46.2 percent (6-13) from long range and 61.9 percent (13-21) from the line.

Tennessee had 22 assists, 19 turnovers, eight blocks – two each from Johnson, Stricklen and Williams – and seven steals.

The Lady Vols, despite sticking to the matchup zone – in football terms, it's a prevent defense, not intended to force turnovers – had 32 points off of Kentucky's 20 miscues.

"I am surprised," Warlick said. "We never used our press. I kept thinking, ‘We need to press; we need to press,' but we didn't want to open up the floor. From that standpoint, I was surprised.

"But when our zone is active, we create turnovers and it worked for us tonight."

The Lady Vols will take off Tuesday and then return to practice Wednesday to get ready for Mississippi State in Starkville on Thursday night.

"I'm just very proud of this team," Warlick said. "They've been beat up and coaches have been hard on them, but they responded like a team we know can come on the court every night.

"I'm just extremely proud of them and their effort tonight."

INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE

It was a game that required rubbing one's eyes to adjust to the images – no, not the Lady Vols running roughshod over a team ranked above them, but the clash of pink and orange.

Every shade of pink in the color spectrum was on display Monday from new T-shirts designed for this game to older models from past years to the cheerleaders' pompoms to the officials' whistles to the coaches' attire to Tennessee's uniforms to Kentucky's shoes.

Mixed in were fans in traditional orange and "We Back Pat" T-shirts and the regular orange outlines of the arena, and it was a Crayola moment.

But a work of art ended up being painted by the Lady Vols, who, one game after looking inept at times against Vanderbilt, scored the first basket of the game on a long pass from Ariel Massengale to Glory Johnson and never looked back.

That the Lady Vols did so with Johnson almost immediately planted on the bench in foul trouble in the first half – her first foul appeared to be a clean block; her second was a technical when she tried to save a possession by throwing the ball off a Kentucky player (and missed) – made the result even more remarkable.

When Johnson has had to leave the game – she logged just four minutes in the first half – the Lady Vols have often unraveled this season because energy and competitiveness have exited with her.

But this time with an effective Vicki Baugh and additional help from Cierra Burdick and Alicia Manning off the bench, the Lady Vols summoned their inner Glory.

"Honestly, being physical like her," Shekinna Stricklen said. "She brings a lot of physicality to this team. When she goes out, you have to rebound. You have to be physical because she really brings rebounding to this team."

Baugh picked up the slack on the boards with five in the first half, including three on offense. Two came early in the first half when the lead remained in single digits. She got an offensive board, hit the stick-back and was fouled for a 27-18 lead. Baugh missed the free throw, got the rebound and hit the layup for a 29-18 lead, and the lead never fell from double digits.

"Glory, we had to take her out with two fouls, and Vicki came in and Cierra came in and everybody came in and held their own," said Holly Warlick, who received a $25,000 check before the game for her foundation, Champions for a Cause, which raises money for breast cancer research and treatment.

"We rely on Glory to get us going, and she wasn't in the game, wasn't able to play.

"I was proud of people coming in and taking up the slack and making sure the team stayed focused and competing. Usually, Glory's the one who's our competitor, and tonight, we all competed."

Burdick tallied three boards in five minutes of first half-play. Kamiko Williams grabbed four rebounds in the first half. Added to Baugh's five, that accounted for 12 and allowed Tennessee to wipe out a 15-9 deficit on the glass and finish the half up 20-18, a surge that typically would be unheard of with Johnson reduced to spectator status.

"Everyone came in and contributed and that is the kind of effort I expect from a Lady Vol team," Pat Summitt said. "We lost Glory early to fouls and no one hit the panic button.

"Instead, we had players step up to get the job done. I can't tell you how pleased I was to see that response from our bench.

It pleased the crowd, too. They erupted with each basket and clamored for more. They started chants for defense and booed some calls – especially the technical on Johnson – even taking a break for the timeout and restarting their original objection when the game resumed.

It was a cathartic win for the Lady Vols – and seemingly their fans, too – after a trying season that reached a low point last week with a loss to Vanderbilt.

"This was a great team win tonight," Summitt said. "I can tell you our players needed it, our staff needed it and I'm sure our fans needed this win, too."

The win gave Tennessee a better grip on second place in the SEC with four games to play – two on the road this week against Mississippi State and Ole Miss and two at home next week against Arkansas and Florida.

Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell, who characterized the game as embarrassing, correctly noted that his team leaves in first place. But the Wildcats have taken back-to-back losses by teams – LSU was the first – that deployed zone defenses and forced Kentucky to execute in the half-court.

The Wildcats want to set the tempo on offense and get a team on its heels. They also want to attack the team with the ball and make an opponent uncomfortable. That worked in Lexington last month – the Lady Vols never found any rhythm – but Tennessee set the tone Monday.

The ball handlers went right at the defense and forced contact, resulting in foul calls. Meighan Simmons, who has made it a point to get in the gym this semester, has rediscovered her stroke.

"Everybody gets in the gym," Simmons said. "God is good. He has a plan for this team, and we've just got to continue to push forward. No matter what, when adversity hits, we've just got to keep going.

"I was very confident today in my shot, and I was able to just continue to hit baskets. My teammates were able to dish me out the ball, and I wanted to give them the assist, so I hit the shot when I could."

Repetition has a way of leading to confidence, and the players have been finding the gym lately outside of practice.

"The players put in a lot of work on their own to getting into Pratt Pavilion and putting up extra shots after practice since last Thursday," Summitt said. "I think you saw a lot of them shoot the ball with confidence tonight."

When Simmons is hitting shots – and she is also playing defense now – Tennessee is a better basketball team.

"She's a scorer," Warlick said. "When she scores, we're an outstanding basketball team. I tell you what I was proud with Meighan is that as coaches, her scoring sometimes becomes a given, but I thought she was committed on the defensive end. She was not a liability.

"She played probably the best defensive basketball since she's been here. I'm proud of her. She's really worked hard on it, and she's made great strides. I thought tonight she was not a liability. She was key in some aspects in our defense."

Simmons stuffed a three attempt in the first half and after she and Shekinna Stricklen – who can play passive on defense – trapped and forced a turnover out of bounds in the first half, they erupted in celebration, momentarily not realizing that Kentucky had responded by calling timeout.

That energy level from Stricklen also makes Tennessee a better basketball team.

"I feel like it's very important," Stricklen said. "Even my teammates are telling me that. That's really something I have to do every game. I feel like that's something I have let this team down.

"I just feel like this is a turning point for this team, and it's not just a one-game time. It's time to keep it going."

That, of course, will be what everyone – coaches, players, fans, and media – will be watching going forward. Was this a blip on the season or an indication of what was to come?

It wasn't the margin of victory – though a 37-point one to the first place team in the league does stand out – but the way the Lady Vols played overall that got the coaches' attention.

"Obviously, we're thrilled," Warlick said. "I thought we came out with great energy. We had confidence. We played hard. We had hustle plays."

Tennessee shot 59.0 percent for the game. The coaches obviously don't expect that every night. But there are some areas to be cleaned up – the turnovers (19) can be decreased, especially flat passes on the wing that are easily picked, and while the Lady Vols finished +18 on the boards, they started the game -7 on the glass.

The one factor that was different in this game – especially compared to the losses – was the sustained effort on defense, even when the coaches went to the bench, and the communication on defense.

Consider Simmons' take on the defensive side of the ball.

The sophomore was sometimes an observer on defense as a freshman and the coaches, not wanting a repeat of the bad habits the now seniors developed as first-year players, have demanded more from Simmons on defense all season. It finally paid off Monday.

And based on Simmons' huge smile post-game, she has bought in, too.

"We worked together as a team, but I think my mindset was just to be like a bulldog," Simmons said. "That was just really what my mindset was today. I knew defense was going to come first before anything because defense comes before offense."

If that mindset can truly take hold with this team – and instilling it in Simmons, who can be one of the team's most dynamic offensive players was a major step – then the Lady Vols can, as they have said in the past, compete with any team in the country.

They showed it Monday. And then some.

VIDEO COVERAGE

If you are having trouble loading and playing the videos, right click on the video and turn off the HD.

Holly Warlick

Shekinna Stricklen, Meighan Simmons, Glory Johnson

Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell, Bria Goss


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