No. 7/10 Tennessee, 6-1, takes on Middle Tennessee, 5-3, on Thursday at 7 p.m. Eastern (Lady Vol Radio Network; TV: SportSouth) at Thompson-Boling Arena. It will be the first game for the Lady Vols since they broke for exams following a road win Dec. 2 over George Washington.
The nine-day gap was used for some intensive practice sessions sprinkled with some off days for exam preparation and finals. The players are ready to tip off a game.
"We were just talking about that in the locker room," freshman wing Shekinna Stricklen said after Wednesday's practice and scouting session. "Everyone is excited for (Thursday)."
"We're extremely ready just because it has been so long since we played," Fuller said. "We've had hard practices so now it's time to carry over what we've done in practice to the games. I think we are anxious to finally start playing again."
Stricklen finished her finals Wednesday morning, capping the completion of her first semester in college. She is leaning towards a degree in sports management but remains undecided.
"My first semester was difficult adjusting to things, but I still came out with good grades so that's good," Stricklen said. "I'm happy it's over. Class, studying, practicing for three hours, lifting weights, then you've got to go to Thornton and get eight hours a week."
Thornton is the on-campus academic center for student-athletes, and Pat Summitt requires freshmen to attend mandatory study hall sessions.
"I really think it helps a lot," Stricklen said. "It helps the freshmen out. It makes sure we study. It keeps us on track."
Fuller is one of those players who have stayed on track and her reward comes Saturday – along with former Lady Vol basketball player Alberta Auguste – when she participates in commencement. Her extended family, including parents Debra and Troy Price and younger siblings Aliah and Alandon, will make the trip to Knoxville for the event.
"It feels good," Fuller said. "I think it's exciting for my family more so than me. I'm not too overly excited. I'm mellow."
Staying on an even keel has been a trademark of Fuller. She has been used at three positions, has started when called on and come off the bench. Throughout it all she has never complained about playing time, challenged the coaches' decision or sulked in practice.
"It's not me," Fuller said. "There's not ‘Alex Fuller' on our jerseys. There's Tennessee Lady Vols. It's not about me at all. Pat's been in this for 35 years. I've been here five. I can't say much because that's my coach and that's who I listen to, so whatever she says, whatever she thinks is best for the team, then that's what goes."
Summitt has lauded Fuller's leadership this season and her willingness to shepherd so many freshmen and sophomores on and off the court.
The team held a players-only meeting before practice Monday to emphasize the commitment required to play at Tennessee.
"That was just us talking," said Fuller, who returned for a fifth year "not only for myself but for everybody else, for all the freshmen and sophomores that we have."
"I feel like I've helped the freshmen since they've stepped on campus," Fuller added. "It's a huge demand on anybody coming in to something new and not knowing what to expect. I think now with these days of practice they've kind of gotten it in their heads what we have to do and how hard we have to work."
Both Stricklen and Fuller think the break helped a young team.
"I think so just so we could learn what we needed to get better at," Fuller said.
"If we just keep working hard everything will be all right," Stricklen said.
The players get their first chance to show if that work paid off tonight against the Blue Raiders. The practice sessions since the last game were used to focus on defense and emphasize on-court communication.
"Great effort," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said when asked what the staff wanted to see against Middle Tennessee. "Against George Washington we didn't feel we were consistent. It's not that we were holding back effort or they were lazy, but we didn't see the high intensity from offense to defense to offense for six, eight or 10 straight possessions. Didn't see that.
"And we had some execution things that suffered because of that. We gave in at times to mental breakdowns. We got mentally lazy. We need sustained high-level effort and energy. That's what we're looking for."
PROBABLE STARTERS: Pat Summitt met with her staff after practice Wednesday to decide on a lineup for tonight's game.
Several combinations got first-team reps and the coaches decided to delay the move of freshman Glory Johnson (16.4 points per game, 8.6 rebounds per game) to the small forward spot. Instead, Johnson will remain inside with sophomore Vicki Baugh (8.6 ppg, 10.0 rpg).
Freshman Briana Bass will get her first career start at point guard (5.4 ppg, 3.4 assists per game). The wing spots will be filled by freshman Shekinna Stricklen (11.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and sophomore Angie Bjorklund (6.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg). Bjorklund, who missed most of November with a lower back injury, will be making her first start of the season.
Bass has earned a start with improved play in practice and her performance in games. Sophomore point guard Cait McMahan has also been limited this week because of pain in her surgically repaired right knee – it's an ongoing condition for McMahan – so resting her is a priority. Stricklen and freshman Alicia Manning also could get reps at point.
Johnson practiced at the small forward position this week, but Summitt decided to open tonight's game with players at familiar spots.
"I want her to start where she's been playing the most," Summitt said.
Depending on how the game unfolds Johnson could get repetitions on the perimeter. Under the same line of reasoning, Summitt wants to bring Alex Fuller off the bench and into the four spot, where her shooting comfort level is higher.
Summitt also noted that freshman Alyssia Brewer has had a steady week of practice, and she wanted to get her into the post rotation.
"I would say Lyssi Brewer is another player that has really picked up her intensity and her practice habits are just getting better and better," Summitt said in her weekly teleconference. "That would help us tremendously because she would most likely be the first post off of the bench right now."
Dean Lockwood pointed out the progress that Brewer has made in the past eight weeks.
"She's so much better than she was in October," Lockwood said. "She's putting forth effort. We're getting more longer sustained honest effort from her."
If Johnson can play small forward that would open up more paint minutes for Brewer and Fuller. It also means Tennessee could deploy a huge frontline when the 6'6 Kelley Cain is up to speed in her conditioning and ready to start. Cain had a solid week of practice and continues to get in extra sprint work.
Johnson would be a slashing small forward, but she also showed a steady outside shot in limited work this week.
"She needs a lot of reps, practice reps," Lockwood said. "She's a long, tall athletic kid."
In practice Wednesday, Johnson made a pass from behind the arc to the low block and was on the weak-side for the offensive putback in pretty much the blink of an eye.
"Her greatest strength at the three, in addition to driving, is the way she crashes the boards," Lockwood said. "She just really attacks the glass from the three position. She just needs time in the saddle. It's a comfort level, because she spent the first five or six weeks doing nothing but the four position and then four and five a little bit. Now we're adding a third spot to the mix.
"I think she is going to need reps. And the good news is she's not one of the burden carriers when she's at three, but we do want her to function. We do need her to be comfortable and function."
Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Insell is expected to start: Chelsia Lymon, 5'5 junior guard, No. 00 (8.8 ppg, 3.1 apg), played in all 34 games last season and started the final 18 contests, her cousin, Tim Hardaway, and god-brother, Jalen Rose, played in the NBA; Jackie Pickel, 5'10 junior guard, No. 10 (6.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg), also played in all 34 games last season, played at Bradley Central High School in Cleveland, Tenn., and was a Miss Basketball AAA candidate after averaging 24.4 ppg as a senior; Anne Marie Lanning, 5'11 sophomore guard, No. 30 (13.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg), also played in all 34 games last season and started 26, led the Sun Belt Conference in three-point shooting at 48-115 (41.7 percent), won a state title as a senior at Riverdale High School in Murfreesboro, averaged 25 ppg, holds high school record for most points in a game with 45; Alysha Clark, 5'10 redshirt junior forward, No. 22 (22.0 ppg, 8.4 rpg), was the Gatorade player of the year for the state of Tennessee in high school at Mt. Juliet, redshirted last season after transferring from Belmont, scored 1,000 points for Belmont in 52 games and was twice player of the year in the Atlantic Sun Conference; had 31 points, 16 rebounds against Oklahoma this season for Middle Tennessee, leads Sun Belt Conference in scoring and ninth in country; and Emily Queen, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 3 (7.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg), played in all 34 games, started 26 last season, hit 15 three-pointers last season, played on the varsity team as a sixth grader at Rose Hill Christian School in Ashland, Ky., was a six-year letterwinner.
"I have enjoyed playing Pat and the Lady Vols," Insell said. "We have had two games with them since I've been here and both times we competed. She was happy we competed. She's out there trying to improve her team, much like what we are trying to do here. We have been a formidable opponent for them."
Tennessee played Middle Tennessee last season on Dec. 13, 2007 – which was also the first game out of the exam break – and it took 34 points and 13 rebounds from Candace Parker to subdue the Blue Raiders. Parker set a school record with 21 free throw attempts and tied the Lady Vols mark by making 17 of them. Three Blue Raiders fouled out trying to guard her.
Middle Tennessee comes to Knoxville this season with a two-game losing streak – 67-44 to Louisville and 68-59 to Western Carolina after beating LSU in Baton Rouge, 79-75.
"I feel really good about going into this game," Insell said. "We may not have shot the ball extremely well the last two games, but I am still excited about our team. I think we have some great plusses as far as upside on this team. We just need to go in and take care of business, play our game and I think we will be in the game. We can't go in there turning the ball over like we have done the last couple of games. We stress like that much like Pat stresses that with her team.
"If we shoot the ball, execute our offense and run our defensive strategies, then we will be in great shape, and it should be a good game."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Middle Tennessee game. Here is his assessment.
When Middle Tennessee has the ball: The Blue Raiders like the long ball. They will fire away from behind the arc, led by Anne Marie Lanning, who is 26-59 (44.0 percent) so far this season. They get the shots in transition and via the half-court offense.
"A lot of four out, one in," Lockwood said of their offensive positioning. "A lot of it is in transition, quick shots in transition. They space very well. They move the ball well.
"Against LSU at one point I counted eight times in a row they ran this set – and they have different options on it – it's basically a wing ball screen set where they pick and pop. They bring a shooter to screen so here's one player coming off (the screen), the screener pops and then they space out (and look for the open three-point shooters). They do a great job. They're getting threes both in transition and through their half-court offense."
Chelsia Lymon and Jackie Pickel also will launch from behind the arc and the two post players, Alysha Clark and Emily Queen, will take the occasional three-pointer. For Tennessee that means identifying shooters quickly.
"We've had games where we've not done well, UTC; we've had games where we've done very well, DePaul; and we've had in between," Lockwood said. "I'd like to believe that they all have an awareness level. If you give Lanning an open shot she'll make it. Lanning is the key. You give Pickel a wide-open shot, she's making it. Pickel is good enough to beat you from out there. Lymon is another one. She will make an open shot. We've got to go guard the arc."
Defensively, Lockwood expects Middle Tennessee to bring some pressure in the full and three-quarter court.
"They use a 2-2-1 and what we call a 12 back, a 1-2-2 about three-quarters of the way back," Lockwood said. "They'll trap with their two guards and they'll also trap with a guard and a forward on the sidelines."
When Tennessee has the ball The Lady Vols want to take advantage of two things – their size and their speed.
"Take a look at their biggest starter and you tell me," Lockwood said.
That means Tennessee wants to pound the ball inside where the 6'4 Vicki Baugh and the 6'3 Glory Johnson will start and the 6'6 Kelley Cain, 6'3 Alex Fuller and 6'3 Alyssia Brewer can come off the bench.
"We also want to make the game a fast tempo," Lockwood said. "You've got six players (for Middle Tennessee) playing in double-digit minutes and the next player is playing six. We'd like to make it an up-tempo game."
Defensively, the Lady Vols plan to deploy their man with the matchup zone available if need be.
"Man is our bread and butter, and we'll see how that goes," Lockwood said. "We'd like to say that we could start out man and have some success."
Lockwood sees some parallels between the two teams as both programs are seeking some early season consistency.
"You can beat LSU at LSU by four and go to Western Carolina and lose," Lockwood said. "They're probably a little bit like us right now – trying to find out who they are and how consistent they can put together a 40-minute game."
Lockwood raved about Clark, an undersized player in the paint whose video clips he intends to add to his post collection.
"If she were 6'2 she'd be an All-American," Lockwood said of the lack of national media attention for Clark. "Her footwork, her sealing, how active she is inside I'm thinking about putting clips in my post library and keeping them because she is so good and so active and just does a tremendous job.
"Guys who train fighters say, ‘Stay busy.' She stays busy. You can never stop guarding her or relax because she's always either doing something or setting you up to do something. She reminds me of a jujitsu fighter. You think that everything is OK and all they're doing is tugging and pulling, the next thing you know your elbow is ready to pop. You wonder how that happened in a split second.
"That's how she is. You think nothing's going on, and she reverses pivot or she seals at a different angle and boom."
Alex Fuller played against Clark when she was at Mt. Juliet High School, and said the best strategy was to try to not let Clark get the ball in the first place.
"Don't let her catch the ball," Fuller said. "Keep her a no-touch player. I played against her in high school but that was a long time ago. She's real physical so just not letting her catch the ball and not letting her get on the block."
ON TAP: Tennessee is the only SEC school in action tonight. On Friday, two conference teams are on the court: Florida A&M at Florida; and East Tennessee State at Kentucky.
On Sunday, the Lady Vols travel to Texas. Four other SEC schools in action that day are: Alabama at Middle Tennessee; Kentucky at Louisville; Ole Miss at N.C. State; and Memphis at Mississippi State.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Middle Tennessee, 16-0. The series began in 1971 and was played on a regular basis until 1984. Coach Rick Insell approached Pat Summitt to reinstate the series, and it began anew in 2006. Thursday will be the third straight game in Knoxville, and the Lady Vols will play in Murfreesboro next season. … Tennessee is 2-1 in games played on December 11. The last win on this date was over Rutgers, 59-49, in 2003. The first win was against Stephen F. Austin, 76-67, in 1982. The lone loss was to Texas, 91-60, in 1984. … Middle Tennessee Coach Rick Insell is in his fourth year for the Blue Raiders. Prior to the collegiate post, he was the head girls basketball coach at Shelbyville Central High School in Shelbyville, Tenn., a basketball powerhouse. He led the Golden Eaglettes to 10 Class AAA state championships and 23 district championships and produced six Tennessee Class AAA Miss Basketball Award recipients. Five Lady Vols played for Insell in Fuller (current player), sisters Abby (2004-05) and Amanda Canon (1998-2002), Michelle Johnson (1993, 1995) and Tiffany Woosley (1991-95). … Tennessee freshman forward Amber Gray is expected to be cleared for tonight's game. Gray sustained a concussion a week ago after colliding with a practice player but was able to practice Wednesday. She must be examined again before tonight's game by protocol. Gray was the fourth Lady Vol to suffer a concussion this season. The others were Shekinna Stricklen (the blow also broke her nose), Kelley Cain and Alicia Manning. Amazingly, the players haven't become head shy. "I think it's just wrong-place, wrong-time type thing. Nobody is scared," Alex Fuller said.