Lady Vols open SEC tourney Friday

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Lady Vols are the defending SEC tourney champs but not the favorite in the Music City this week. Go inside with Inside Tennessee to get ready for the Lady Vols' first postseason game of 2012.

When Glory Johnson was asked about Briana Bass joining the starting lineup, a huge smile broke across her face.

"Huge, really excited," Johnson said. "We seniors want to be out there together. We want to play together. We want to show people we can make a statement. We can start off strong and let the underclassmen finish.

"We want to start off as strong as we can until the end."

The first chance for Tennessee (21-8) comes Friday against Vanderbilt (22-8) in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. Tipoff at Bridgestone Arena is set for 3:30 p.m. Eastern (TV: FSN).

Vandy advanced to face the Lady Vols after beating Mississippi State in the first round on Thursday.

"I've always said that it's not the end of the world if you don't have the bye because you do get the opportunity to play on this court, and it is a different court," Vandy Coach Melanie Balcomb said after the win over the Lady Bulldogs.

"Sometimes not getting that bye gets you more comfortable with the floor. I don't know if it will be an advantage, but we've already shot on it twice and played on it once, and there is a comfort level there that our players will have."

Tennessee's first chance to get on the floor at Bridgestone Arena will come early Friday morning at shoot-around.

Back at home, the five Tennessee seniors had been slipping onto the practice court in drills - the Lady Vols use various combinations to get ready for game situations - to send the hint that perhaps the veteran lineup would work.

"We try to run out there to try and get ready," Johnson said.

They got their chance for Senior Day against Florida and performed well - especially with the game's start - and the coaches are now inclined to stay with it.

The five seniors have been through a lot in their four years - five seasons for Vicki Baugh, who had two knee operations - and putting the opening of their game in their hands sends the message that they control their fate now.

They are also one of the closest classes to ever play at Tennessee. Bass said one benefit of that is they can call each other out, if needed.

"I think that we have that chemistry, and I think we actually know how to hold each other accountable," Bass said. "We're not going to take anything personal because we want the best for each other. I think it's definitely an advantage."

Bass has been grading out well on film because of her ability to hound the ball. In the loss to Arkansas in the penultimate game of the regular season Bass was the one guard who disrupted C'eira Ricketts, who got so frustrated once with the sticky defense that she shoved Bass to the floor and was called for a foul.

"Being the small player that I am I have to bring that extra something," Bass said. "I just give it my all for my teammates. I know this is it. Time is ticking."

The very finite amount of time left for the seniors is another factor that the coaches hope to exploit - by putting the responsibility of a good start on the seniors, the staff hopes it is something they embrace.

"Willingly we'll take that," Johnson said. "It's our turn now, and it's our responsibility. I love the responsibility."

Johnson also loves the lineup.

"It's a big lineup," Johnson said. "I want to play with Vicki Baugh. I want to play with Stricklen, and I would love to start off with Alicia Manning.

"Bree has been a point guard since she's been here. She's been working on her point guard skills since we were all freshmen. She has experience."

The lineup means three frequent starters, junior Taber Spani, sophomore Meighan Simmons and freshman Ariel Massengale, will come off the bench.

Spani's mobility is limited by her knee, but she will still log minutes as her health allows. Massengale and Simmons remain key pieces of the game puzzle.

"They know how much pressure is put on the team to start off well, and the seniors did it pretty well," Johnson said.

The seniors have another trait that should be helpful - they can correct each other without causing any tension.

"I love holding my own seniors accountable because I grew up with them," Johnson said. "(Yell) and they'll take it the right way."

The seniors also followed the scouting report on both ends against Florida, and that hasn't always happened at all five spots on the floor to start games.

"I think we had really good energy in the Florida game," Alicia Manning said. "We really shared the ball well. We had seven, eight, nine passes before someone shot the ball. We were very unselfish. We get the ball where it needs to be.

"But our focus is on defense. Our focus is on rebounding. Our senior class gives us a rebounding advantage."

Manning is in the game precisely for those reasons, but she hit shots against Florida and that kept the defense honest because they had to account for her, too.

"These past games there was a little frustration for me," Manning said of her earlier struggles in February. "I just made a pact with myself to when I'm out there have fun.

"You never know if it's going to be your last game, last possession. You never what is going to happen. I am going to have fun, play confident and play my game within the system."

The fact that Bass has been able to hold her own on both ends during her stints on the court this season allows the coaches to try the all-senior lineup again.

"I focus on bringing energy and making sure there is no confusion all there on the court," Bass said.

"We really know the philosophy," Manning noted. "We know what we have to do. Defense and rebounding we really make that a top priority."

While the seniors are still seeking their first Final Four, they have had considerable success in the SEC tourney and won the event in 2010 and 2011.

"I think you bring it up, but we're trying our best to get them to play in the now and get focused on who we're going to play and let things take care of themselves," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said.

"But all we care about and all I care about is getting off to a good start and playing with a tremendous amount of effort."

The coaches also hope to tap into the seniors' sense of urgency. Players in their final year can be jolted by the realization that postseason is it for them.

"Take one game at a time and play hard," Manning said. "Leave it. There is no taking possessions off. You are not going to get that possession back. Play hard and consistent and high energy and create havoc.

"I think we have a special love for one another, and we have a great deal of urgency. We want to leave our mark in a very positive way. I think this senior class has that passion that we need."

Tennessee also could have an element of revenge - or at least redemption - for Friday's game. The Lady Vols will face the Commodores, who poured in 93 points three weeks ago in the regular season matchup in Nashville. Tennessee scored 79, which should be enough to win an SEC game, but the Lady Vols could not keep Vandy out of the paint.

"There are a lot of things each game that we have something to prove," Warlick said. "We are not coming in as a dominant team. If that's what they want to be in this tournament then they've got to bring it.

"If it's a revenge factor, if it's a pride factor, whatever gets them motivated, then that is what they need to use."

Johnson is motivated by the countdown on the scoreboard. The Lady Vols have a minimum of two games and a maximum of nine left in the SEC and NCAA tourneys combined.

"We're at the point where every time you play it could be your last," Johnson said. "It's something that you have to cherish. Play as hard as you can.

"I am not ready for my season to be over yet. I am still trying to make a statement."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Briana Bass, 5'2 senior guard, No. 1 (2.2 points per game, 0.6 rebounds per game); Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 senior guard/forward, No. 40 (15.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg); Alicia Manning, 6'1 senior forward, No. 15 (4.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 senior forward, No. 25 (13.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg); and Vicki Baugh, 6'4 senior forward, No. 21 (7.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg).

Summitt said this week that personnel changes would be made immediately, if need be, once the game got under way, but she also liked the idea of letting the seniors open the game.

Vanderbilt Coach Melanie Balcomb is expected to start: Jasmine Lister 5'4 sophomore guard, No. 11 (12.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 5.4 assists per game); Kady Schrann, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 5 (7.1 ppg, 1.9 rpg); Christina Foggie, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 10 (17.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Tiffany Clarke, 6'0 junior center, No. 30 (11.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg); and Stephanie Holzer, 6'4 redshirt sophomore center, No. 21 (11.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg).

In Thursday's game, Balcomb didn't start Schrann and Clarke and instead went with Jordan Coleman, a 5'11 senior forward, and Elan Brown, a 6'0 junior guard. It was Coleman's second start of the season. Brown has opened 20 games.

COMMODORES QUOTES

After the first round win over Mississippi State, Vandy was asked Thursday about the rematch with Tennessee.

"It's not really who we're playing, what the jersey color is going to be, what it's going to say, it's going to be about our game plan and how well we execute it," Coach Melanie Balcomb said.

The Commodores indicated that they need to execute better Friday.

"We had the chance to get that out of our system (Thursday), so (Friday) we're going to approach Tennessee as, ‘OK, we're going to settle down, be patient, we know this court, we know this team, let's get back to executing our game plan," post Stephanie Holzer said.

The Commodores got on the boards and scored in the paint in the last game against Tennessee.

"Every time you play Tennessee you better be ready to rebound," Balcomb said. "They're big. They're athletic. That's one of things why our record is what it is against Tennessee. A lot of it's been rebounding.

"So far I think this is the best rebounding team I've had in the SEC."

Christina Foggie said the board play will take a team effort.

"I think definitely as a focus we have to team rebound and that means not rely on the post rebounding," Foggie said. "We want to get guards in there and rebound a lot more.

"It's going to be important that all five of us check out and all five of us get in there and rebound."

SEC HONORS: Three Lady Vols were selected for postseason league honors. Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen were First Team All-SEC members, and Ariel Massengale made the All-Freshman Team.

Johnson also was honored as the league's Defensive Player of the Year.

"Oh my, gosh, I love it," Johnson said. "I love the fact that I am able to play defense on the post and the guards. If I get beat once my mentality is, ‘OK, I have going to try my hardest, I am going to do whatever I can not to get beat twice.'

"Whatever my coach needs me to do, I'll do it. I might be tired but if she thinks I can do it, then it's in my mind that I can do it."

EACH ONE TEACH ONE: Former Lady Vol Shelley Sexton-Collier gathered the team in a circle after Wednesday's practice session and spoke just to the players while they sat on the court.

Sexton-Collier, the girls' basketball coach at Webb School of Knoxville - Glory Johnson's high school - also was on the first Tennessee team to win a national title in 1987.

"She is a great motivational speaker," Johnson said. "She said she was going to make it a point to make sure she said something to us so she doesn't regret it afterwards."

Sexton-Collier knew that the losses can cause some erosion of support - though not the crowds at Thompson-Boling Arena all season - and she wanted the players to know she remained in their corner.

"She wants to let us know that she is there for us, through thick and thin, through wins and losses, she will always be on our side," Johnson said.

Sexton-Collier had a basic message to deliver: "It's not over. The season is not over," Johnson said. "We've made mistakes. We've lost games, and we're not doing the little things. It's going to take the little things.

"And she know it's just the Tennessee Way. It's going to take defense and rebounding."

The speech held Johnson's attention.

"She was just trying to inspire us and motivate us and keep working hard for Pat," Johnson said. "She got a little emotional when she started talking about Pat because she knows Pat. She's been there with Pat when she was completely OK, and now she's dealing with it."

Sexton-Collier wanted the players to hear her voice in what was also therapeutic for her it would seem.

"It's a lot harder for her to watch so she decided to come say something to us," Johnson said. "And she is going to say something to the coaches later. It's her trying to keep us as strong as she is. It was very helpful. I hope it motivated other people because it motivated me.

"Yes, she's my high school coach, but she's watching. She's a coach. She's a former Lady Vol. She has experience. She knows how Pat is. She's been here. She's played and she's won a championship."

ODDS AND ENDS

Tennessee leads the series with Vanderbilt, 59-8. Six of Vandy's wins have come in the city of Nashville at Memorial Gymnasium. The other two were in the SEC tourney - 1995 in Chattanooga and 2001 in Memphis. The Commodores were the first team to face the Lady Vols more than 50 times and then 60 times in a series. The series is closing in on matchup No. 70. This will be the 67th game between the in-state rivals. … Since the SEC tourney began play in 1980, the Lady Vols have posted a 66-17 record. Tennessee has been the two seed on seven occasions and won the title in 1988, 1989, 1992, 2005, 2006 and 2008 as the two seed. Tennessee lost in the quarterfinals as a two seed in 1984. … Tennessee is 11-3 in games played on March 2. The last win on this date came against Georgia, 72-63, in 2008. The first win on March 2 was against Middle Tennessee, 47-39, in 1972. The two losses on this date were to Tennessee Tech, 54-51, in overtime in 1974; and Auburn, 61-59, in 1997. … Former Lady Vol Chamique Holdsclaw will be honored at halftime Friday as the SEC Great from Tennessee. Standouts from each school are honored at halftime of their school's game on the first two days of the tourney. Vanderbilt's Carolyn Peck was honored Thursday.


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