Lady Vols to tangle with MSU

The Lady Vols are on the road this week with the first stop in Starkville and a matchup with Mississippi State. Go inside with Inside Tennessee for the pre-game story, Taber Spani interview and video coverage of Pat Summitt.

The Lady Vols departed for the state of Mississippi on Wednesday and will remain there the rest of the week with games scheduled in Starkville and then Oxford.

No. 13/10 Tennessee (18-7, 9-3) takes on Mississippi State (14-10, 4-7) at 9 p.m. Eastern (TV: CSS) Thursday at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville.

With such a late tipoff, rather than return home in the wee hours of Friday just to return to the Magnolia State the next day, the Lady Vols will travel from Starkville to Oxford, where they play Ole Miss on Sunday to complete the road schedule in the SEC regular season.

The Lady Vols take considerable momentum into the game after the 91-54 wipeout of Kentucky at home, and they are likely to need it against the Lady Bulldogs, who have a knack for creating a knock-down-drag-out battle but have a history of futility against Tennessee.

Tennessee is very much hoping to tap back into its energy well, as it did to start the game against the Wildcats.

"It's a mindset," junior Taber Spani said. "Coming in high energy, ready to go. It is such a cliché thing to say, ‘You have to have high energy,' but it really is with our team.

"Because X- and O-wise we're fine, talent-wise we're good. It's all between the ears."

Spani has some physical limitations right now because of a bone bruiser in her knee, so her mental approach to the game has become paramount.

Spani got to the rim against Kentucky with a drive that started at mid-court, took a tight-rope path along the sideline and ended with a scoot across the baseline, but the lefty needed to switch hands – even though she was on the left side of the basket – and didn't finish the play.

"We worked on that," Spani said, referring to drills to simulate the driving conditions. "We definitely worked on that. It was one of those few times where you need to finish with your right hand on the left side.

"We were working on footwork. I love to attack my weaknesses. I am going to work on everything that I need to get better at."

That Spani, who is limited because of her knee, got to rim against the speedier Wildcats was significant.

Spani is compensating for what the knee issues take away – some mobility and lift on her shots – by seeking an edge somewhere else.

"It's want to, it's wanting to be there for my team," said Spani, who averages 15.0 points per game against Mississippi State. "I understand I am not going to be healthy until after the season. It is just not going to happen. So for me it's all about a mindset."

Spani certainly has experience with this in college. She played her freshman year with a painful foot injury that required a summer of rest. She played her sophomore season with an elbow condition that ended up needing surgery last fall. Now, her junior year has been affected by the bone bruise.

"It's difficult, because I never had this before (college)," Spani said. "I've been very healthy. And for me who likes to get in the gym it's been very difficult.

"I think it's going to help me be that much tougher mentally, and I think that will help my physical game."

Spani's injuries have been unusual. Turf toe is very uncommon among basketball players. She popped out the bursa sac in her elbow while diving for a loose ball in preseason. The bone bruise occurred when an opposing player celebrated a basket, slammed into Spani and knocked her to the floor last November.

"It has gotten slowly better," Spani said of the knee. "It hasn't gotten worse. But it's going to be a process thing, and it will have to be after the season to get fully healthy.

"When you know you're not going to be healthy it's actually good because then you can adjust from there. When you're kind of in the unknown that's the hardest part."

Meanwhile, Spani will get herself on the court with a Pat Summitt-like sheer force of will. She also will tinker with any aspect of the game to find any advantage.

"I am studying more film," Spani said, with the intent being to pick up player tendencies that would help her offensively and defensively.

"Whenever I am on the floor I am going to give you 100 percent of my heart and effort."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Ariel Massengale, 5'6 freshman guard, No. 5 (8.1 points per game, 2.6 rebounds per game, 5.4 assists per game); Meighan Simmons, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 10 (11.5 ppg, 2.2 rpg); Taber Spani, 6'1 junior guard/forward, No. 13 (9.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 (15.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg); and Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (13.6 ppg, 9.2 rpg).

The three spot – Spani is slotted there in this lineup – is where the juggling takes place. That small forward starting spot also has been filled by freshman Cierra Burdick and senior Alicia Manning.

The coaches also can opt to move Stricklen from power to small forward and start the 6'4 Vicki Baugh inside if more size is needed, as could be the case Thursday.

Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis is expected to start: Diamber Johnson, 5'7 senior guard, No. 3 (16.0 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 3.7 apg), hails from Pontotoc, Miss., has shot 42.1 percent in the team's 14 wins, averaged 18.4 ppg, went over the 1,000-point career mark against LSU on Feb. 9, tallied 19 points in 2011 matchup against Tennessee; Porsha Porter, 5'6 senior guard, No. 4 (13.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg), hails from Chicago, Ill., tallied 18 points against Ole Miss, scored 19 points against South Carolina, leads SEC with 3.3 steals per game; Kendra Grant, 5'11 freshman forward, No. 14 (7.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg), hails from Richland, Miss., started first career game for Lady Bulldogs, tallied career-high 15 points against Auburn, grabbed career-high eight boards against Tulane; Martha Alwal, 6'4 freshman center, No. 10 (5.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.0 blocks per game), hails from Worthington, Minn., grabbed 10 boards in last game, a win over in-state rival Ole Miss, nearly had a triple double against Mississippi Valley State with 17 points, 12 boards, eight blocks, standout volleyball player in high school; and Catina Bett, 6'5 senior center, No. 34 (5.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg), hails from Gadsden, Ala., tallied career-best 16 points against Vanderbilt on 8-14 shooting, grabbed seven boards against LSU.

SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Mississippi State game. Here is her assessment.

Offensively, the Lady Vols should be ready for an accelerated pace at times.

"They have really good team speed and quickness," DeMoss said. "They are going to push in transition. They've got really good one-on-one type players. They'll run a quick set, but it all boils down to them going one on one.

"They've got two guards that can really put up some big numbers in Diamber Johnson and Porsha Porter. And they've got good size."

Catina Bett is a 6'5 senior center who began her SEC career with Kentucky before transferring to Mississippi State after two seasons in Lexington. Ironically, the coach who signed Bett to be a Wildcat was DeMoss, who was at the helm of Kentucky at the time.

Defensively, the Lady Vols should be ready for an attack mode.

"They get out in the passing lanes, apply ball pressure," DeMoss said.

The Lady Bulldogs have typically played a lot of man but they have shown quite a bit of zone, including a 1-2-2 that they will extend. They also have played a 2-3 zone.

"They randomly trap on the wings," DeMoss said. "They really try to speed you up. I've seen about 60-40 man to zone."

Keys for Tennessee: Ball security and defense.

"We've got to take care of the ball, because they do apply a lot of pressure and try to turn you over," DeMoss said. "We've got to defend them. We can't let them shoot a high percentage from the floor.

"Whatever defense we are in, whether it's a man or a zone, we've got to really do a good job of keeping them in front of us and contesting shots."

SEC PLAY: Eight other SEC teams are in action Thursday in the following matchups: Kentucky at Alabama; LSU at Arkansas; Florida at Vanderbilt; and Georgia at South Carolina. Auburn and Ole Miss are idle.

ODDS AND ENDS

Tennessee leads the series with Mississippi State, 32-0. The Lady Vols are 14-0 on the road against the Lady Bulldogs. Tennessee has won going away, in close games and with great escapes but has not lost in a series that began in 1986. … Tennessee is 16-1 in games played on February 16. The last win on this date came against Georgia, 58-55, in 2006. The first win on Feb. 16 was against Central High School, 28-0, in 1907. The lone loss on this date was to Duke, 62-54, in 2009. … Mississippi State has one Tennessean on the roster.Carnecia Williams, a 6'3 redshirt freshman forward from Memphis, has seen action in 13 games this season for the Lady Bulldogs. She logged a season-high 12 minutes against Texas A&M. The Lady Vols have had just one player all-time from the Magnolia State. Pashen Thompson (1993-97), who is from Philadelphia, Miss., won two national titles as a Lady Vol.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Pat Summitt

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 Mississippi State's Diamber Johnson.


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