Lady Vols race to exhibition win

Tennessee's point guard experiment was a success and combined with post reinforcement off the bench and a solid performance from Sydney Smallbone the Lady Vols scooted past Love & Basketball, 85-50, on Sunday. Pat Summitt is still seeking better defense, but there were improvements and, once again, film footage for teaching purposes.

Tennessee's running game got loose in the second, and final, exhibition of the season – the games count starting next weekend – as the freshmen have demonstrated an ability to run the floor, move without the basketball and take it away from opponents.

Pat Summitt lauded her team's overall play, but lapses on defense continue to draw her attention. The team was much improved in its man to man in terms of communication and help-side principles, but there were breakdowns in the zone and full court pressure.

"I think as a team overall we did a lot of good things," Summitt said. "I think we had our lapses when we got up and I think that's one place that we didn't maintain intensity five players deep. We talked about that. Also, when we switched and started working on our zone I thought we had a lot of people that did not do a great job out of the zone.

"I know it's early as far as us looking at a matchup, but we need a changeup so I think we'll have some good footage and hopefully we can learn from it."

There was plenty in the box score for Summitt to be pleased about, too. The Lady Vols out-rebounded a team with some size – Love & Basketball started a 5'9 guard and four players ranging from 6'0 to 6'4 – by a margin of 54-36.

Despite youth at nearly every position – three returning players were held out for medical reasons and a missed class – Tennessee kept turnovers to a manageable number at 16 while forcing 24 from the opponent and collecting 12 steals. Every Lady Vol player had at least one steal.

The Lady Vols had 24 assists on 32 baskets, none prettier than the behind-the-back bounce pass from Amber Gray to Shekinna Stricklen that even got some applause from Summitt.

"That's why I applauded," Summitt said. "It was under control."

The play came with 1:08 left in the first half on a fast break with Gray out in front. Stricklen was trailing the play on the left side.

"She was looking at me and I was like, ‘Oh, she's about to do something,' " Stricklen said. "I was kind of ready for it."

It was a perfectly placed pass, and Stricklen easily converted to push the score to 38-13.

"It just happened," Gray said. "A lot of people think it's a fancy pass but what you don't know is at that time it's the easiest pass to make if you know that you guys are running side by side. If (you come to a stop) it's a harder pass to make so it's just quicker to go behind the back. It's something I used to practice all the time in high school."

Tennessee had five players in double digits led by 16 points by Stricklen, 12 apiece from Kelley Cain and Sydney Smallbone, 11 from Alyssia Brewer and Gray with 10.

All nine players who saw action scored, except for Alex Fuller, who played 14 minutes and had five rebounds, four assists and two steals generated by nifty footwork in her post defense. Fuller attempted a 3-pointer in the second half, and hit the floor holding her chest and head. After a few minutes she left the court under her own power and later returned to the bench but did not return to the game.

"I think she's feeling a lot better," said Summitt, who can't disclose specific medical information.

Love & Basketball was led by Charlee Underwood with 16 points and Jessica Cheeks with 15. Amber White and Denise Woods had seven rebounds each.

Three Tennessee players missed Sunday's game. Vicki Baugh was serving the second of a two-game suspension for missing class, Cait McMahan was resting her surgically repaired knee and Angie Bjorklund was being treated for back spasms.

Smallbone stepped into Bjorklund's spot in the starting lineup and added four assists, two steals and two rebounds to go with her 12 points. Smallbone is noticeably quicker this season – both of foot and with her shot release, results she attributes to off-season work.

"I think just the off-season I worked on getting the shot off quicker," Smallbone said. "I did a lot of shooting on the Gun, which helped with the quick release when you turn the speed up. Also I feel like we move the ball well on offense and that helps. We've been practicing a lot of that. I play with my teammates and that's got to be a role that I've got to have. I've got to get that shot off quick, especially in the SEC."

The Gun is an automatic ball feeder that is placed under the basket and can be set to spit out basketballs at the shooter at various speeds. With balls coming quickly a shooter must release faster in order to be ready to catch the next ball. The chute also can rotate to different spots on the floor, forcing the shooter to move.

"The ability of Sydney Smallbone to catch and shoot was impressive," Love & Basketball Coach Colleen Matsuhara said. "In fact she reminded me a lot of Sidney Spencer, a little bit smaller version. She's got a quick release there. She's going to be providing a lot because I know a lot of the teams probably will pack it in against your post players."

Matsuhara is well-known in West Coast basketball circles – she has been a head coach at UC-Irvine and assistant coach at Cal State-Fullerton, UCLA, Long Beach State and Southern Cal – and has known Summitt since "Matsu," as she is called, served as the secretariat, a coordinator position, for men's and women's basketball at the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. Summitt coached the USA team to a gold medal that year.

"I've known Coach Summitt for a long, long time," she said. "We go way back. I was hoping she'd give me 25 points but obviously she did not cooperate. I am going to have to get after her about that."

The players from Love & Basketball have ties to the region of Southern California and apparently enjoyed their time in Tennessee.

"It was a honor to be on ‘The Summitt,' " Matsuhara said. "They're acting like tourists (Saturday) night running around taking pictures on the court."

Love & Basketball was without Alexis Kendrick, a former Georgia star who was looking forward to playing in Knoxville, because of a death in the family, and was also down a point guard and a post player. Sunday was the team's final game in its collegiate tour.

"I thought we did the best we could," Matsuhara said. "This is our seventh game in about 12 days, and we just came off four games in a row last week, but that's not an excuse. Our theme song is, ‘The old gray mares they aren't what they used to be,' so that's how we travel. I felt like our post players got a little bit tired. I was hoping to give the Lady Vols a little bit more run for their money."

Matsuhara, a former assistant for the Los Angeles Sparks, joked that she tried to get another player that now has ties to Southern California.

"I was hoping we could add Candace Parker to our roster, but we weren't able to find her," she said.

The loss of Parker and four senior postseason starters from Tennessee's 2008 national title team was supposed to put the Lady Vols in major rebuilding mode, but the first two exhibitions – attendance was listed at 11,149 Sunday – have caused that outlook to be reassessed.

"I think they're underestimating the Lady Vols," Matsuhara said. "Because to start off they have Pat and her staff on the bench, so that's worth a lot of points right there just in terms of mental preparation.

"I think maybe it's a good year to sneak up on people – when people don't give you a lot of respect that you're used to or what you should get, that's the best time to surprise them. I think it's only natural that teams will lick their lips and want to get revenge but it's going to be very difficult for them to do so, in my opinion, from what I saw today."

Summitt was already focused on what needed to be corrected when she got to the post-game press conference, and her expectations for this team may be increasing with each minute she sees them on the floor.

"Our offense has been ahead of our defense, and we're playing catch-up right now, but once we started to really identify the ball earlier and get extended in the passing lanes I thought we were a lot better," Summitt said. "We got to playing behind the post some. For me right now and for our coaching staff the big thing is repetition, repetition, commitment to our system, knowing, so they're a play ahead or thinking ahead as to what they need to do.

"The only thing we can do is go back to practice. I told them we have some great footage of our matchup zone, but we also have man footage. That should help us. And our presses we didn't have five people know where they needed to be at times."

Love & Basketball got out to a 4-0 lead and the crowd, instead of getting restless, opted to cheer louder, and a Brewer bucket in the paint and a long-range shot from Smallbone got Tennessee to 7-5. Brewer, who had entered the game quickly with Gray off the bench, hit a short jumper to knot the score at 7-7.

With 8:16 left the score was 20-13 in Tennessee's favor and then the Lady Vols erupted on a 22-0 run to end the half at 42-13. It was a display of fast-break basketball fed by steals in the open court and the point guards pushing tempo.

"We had some players play really well for us," Summitt said. "I thought Kelley Cain, again very efficient. Sydney Smallbone shot the ball really well today. I thought Bri came in and did a nice job of pushing tempo and finding open players. She's very unselfish. Lyssi Brewer is continuing to come in and be very efficient at the post. I really like what I'm seeing from her.

"We had some challenges, and that was good, but at the same time we had lapses that we've got to look at and improve on, but all in all what Lyssi Brewer has brought to us has been solid. I'm really pleased about her play and Kelley's play. I thought Glory was overanxious today offensively. But if you look at how Sydney shot the ball and how Shekinna shot the ball, when you have that, you really can open up that inside game and be a lot more effective."

After pouring in 33 points in Thursday's game, Johnson had nine points on 2-11 shooting after firing from the outside instead of getting into the paint, as she did in the first exhibition game. She did tally eight rebounds and was an improved 5-8 from the free throw line.

Brewer had 11 rebounds and Cain joined her in double figures with 10 in another dominating display on the glass. No player had fewer than two boards, but Summitt saw spots for more, especially from the perimeter players. Also, at times post players were extended on defense away from the basket and didn't turn to get back to the boards.

"I thought we did a pretty nice job on that," Summitt said of board play overall. "That's one thing I want to break down the film on. I thought we were good, but I also think there are some people who can get better on that. Obviously Kelley's presence is big for us. I'm going to challenge those guards to get more boards for us. I think even if you look at the defensive boards we can get a little more help out of our guard play."

Tennessee's running game has the potential to make up for shortcomings elsewhere.

Bass, who had one assist in the first half on a sweet feed to Smallbone in transition, added five assists in the second half when she found another speed.

"She went to a different gear," Summitt said. "It puts a lot pressure on the defense, and when you can put that much pressure (other teams are) going to drop people back, and that gives us better rebounding position as well on the offensive glass."

It's apparent Bass is becoming a crowd favorite – the fans ooh and ah as she scoots down the court – and the comparisons to the equally diminutive Shannon Bobbitt are unavoidable.

"I said when I saw her as a ninth grader she's the fastest with the ball I've ever seen," Summitt said. "I believe she's faster than Bobbitt was. She doesn't shoot the ball as well yet but she's trying to prove me wrong on that, too."

Bass has stroked shots in practice – like Bobbitt she can bury a three from the corner and on the wings she sometimes gets behind the men's arc and launches – but Summitt has had to remind her to shoot.

"Obviously with Briana she's got that point guard mentality, where she can definitely deliver it, but I told her she's got to hunt shots as well, with her in particular from the three," Summitt said. "She's 3-for-7 today. I want her to have the green light there, a lot like Bobbitt had. When you look at her size it's not really a factor for us as long as she gets her hands up defensively. Not many people took advantage of Shannon and I think with Bri if she'll just apply pressure defensively she's going to be efficient offensively."

Bass finished the game with nine points, six assists, a steal, a block and just one turnover.

"I shook Briana Bass' hand after the game and I said, ‘Way to go Little One.' Because she is quick on quick," Matsuhara said. "I used to think Shannon Bobbitt was very quick, but she's going to really make all the pistons go, so to speak.

"We actually played her for the pass and then she made us eat our words. She was up there for three-pointers when we were not expecting that. That was a dimension that we did not think was there. We didn't mind her to take the shot, and she accepted."

Stricklen, who started at point guard, had five assists to just one turnover. Combined, the point guards had 11 assists and two turnovers. As a team the Lady Vols had 24 assists on their 32 baskets.

"I think it proves a lot because coming in here people thought that we were going to be a team that's not going to play together," said Gray, who had three assists. "If you look at our assists from our last game and this game it proves that we do play together and that's how we're going to play all season.

"Our assists are going to continue to go up because we know we have confidence in our team and our teammates. We know they're going to make it and if not, we're going to crash the boards."

That level of camaraderie has been apparent with this team since workouts in September. The players seem to bond over the newness of the year and a genuine desire to be together on and off the court. That has translated to a comfort level on the court that defies conventional wisdom considering how inexperienced the team is as a whole.

"They've been there for me, we're there for each other, we've picked each other up, we tell each other we shouldn't be nervous," Stricklen said. "We've just got each other's back and that's what makes this team so good."

Stricklen made her first start at point guard – a position she has rarely played – and acquitted herself well, both in the half-court game and in transition.

"I think without question when I look at Shekinna, as I've said, she's a great player," Summitt said. "She's got a great feel for the game. I watched her at a very young age and I thought her composure was exceptional, even as a ninth grader. She's not a player that gets rattled. If she makes a mistake she typically is going to follow up with something more efficient and effective for us.

"The one thing we're working on with Kinna is to get her to be more vocal and I thought today we communicated as a team a little bit better overall. The fact that she can shoot the three, take it to the floor, unselfish passer, good rebounder. She's just a player."

Stricklen credited her teammates with making her look comfortable in the position.

"In high school, I really didn't play the point much," Stricklen said. "I played a little bit the first game, but today I started out played the point. I'm really getting comfortable with it. I have great teammates, and when I am pushing the ball, they're running the floor, they're open and so it's making it easy."

Tennessee's pace didn't slow in the second half as the Lady Vols extended the lead to 40 points with the score 67-27 with 9:18 left in the game. The Love & Basketball team was tiring, but so were the Lady Vols, who were down to eight available players. Summitt also shifted to the zone defense – the team has barely practiced it yet – and Cheeks loosened it even more with her perimeter shooting. Love & Basketball also got some easier looks inside.

But Tennessee finished with consecutive three-pointers from Stricklen, Bass and Alicia Manning, who had six points and five boards, to push the final score to 85-50.

The Lady Vols got 44 of their points in the paint and 25 off of turnovers. The bench added 36 points in stark contrast to last season when the starters handled the bulk of the offensive load.

Brewer and Gray are a one-two punch off the bench and were Summitt's first subs on Sunday.

Gray had two setbacks in preseason with a strained quad and a sprained ankle, but she has made strides in conditioning, especially in the last 10 days.

"Amber's finally got her get-up-and-go," Summitt said. "I think Amber has had to find a different gear and a lot of that is just style of play coming out of high school. I will give her credit. I've probably watched film with her more than anyone else, because I've pretty much challenged her and said she had to pick it up or sit and watch.

"I think she is one of our most skilled players. If you talk about a player who's got a good package skill-wise, she has that. She can shoot the three. She's got some really nice post moves and obviously a nice passer as well."

Tennessee can go small at point with Bass and McMahan or Summitt can use her big lineup with Stricklen. Matsuhara had another idea – play a combination at the same time.

"It does give you a different look, because you've got a small, quick one and then you've got a longer-limbed one," Matsuhara said. "I think Pat can do a lot of things with that. She could even play them (at the same time), but who am I to tell Pat Summitt who to play?"

That drew laughter from the room, but Matsuhara was in a good position to compare two teams in the SEC since Love & Basketball played Vanderbilt on Friday evening in a game won by the Commodores, 83-74.

"They jumped on us from the very beginning, 11-0, and then we dug ourselves out of a hole," Matsuhara said. "Second half we actually came back and came within one point and it went back and forth, and we ended up having to foul.

"I did read that Vanderbilt was picked to win the SEC. I think it's a very interesting selection. They are very talented. I think the Lady Vols probably go a little bit deeper in terms of athleticism and quickness. Vanderbilt, when they came down and ran their offensive sets they were very well executed. I love some of their out-of-bounds plays. They seem to score every time they have the ball out of bounds."

Matsuhara said she would be watching from the West Coast to see how the SEC plays out this season. Both the coaches and the media voted Vanderbilt as the preseason No. 1 team in the league.

If Tennessee is going to challenge for the league title the freshmen will have to grow up quickly. Fuller, the lone senior on the team, was missed when she went out in the second half, not for offensive reasons, but because of her ability to keep the team calm and on course. At times there were five freshmen on the floor, but their comfort level seems to be increasing with each minute they play.

"I was really nervous, especially the first game, but I have great teammates," Stricklen said.

"I think for me it's definitely getting there," Gray said. "We were nervous at first but the more we play together the more comfortable I am on the floor playing with these girls. We're in practice working hard every day so I think we're definitely getting there.

"We still have a lot of things that we need to work on, but we're taking baby steps and getting there."


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