Stricklen led the Lady Vols with 20 points, and sophomore guard Angie Bjorklund scored 16 points, including two three-pointers. Freshman Glory Johnson added 11 points on 4-6 shooting and showed her ability to hit from the outside.
Middle Tennessee, 5-4, was led by Alysha Clark with 28 points and eight rebounds. It was the Blue Raiders third consecutive trip to Knoxville in a series that Coach Rick Insell eagerly sought to get reinstated.
"I'm just glad y'all are coming to Murfreesboro next year," Insell said. "I'm tired of coming up here."
Insell then saw Tennessee Women's Athletic Director Joan Cronan in the back of the room and smiled.
"I'm really not tired of coming up here, Joan. I hope y'all reschedule us," Insell said to laughter.
It was a game in which the Tennessee coaching staff once again tried various combinations on the floor to get extended looks at some players. No Lady Vol played more than 28 minutes – Pat Summitt went 11 deep and would have gone 12 had Cait McMahan's knee not been so sore – but the coach indicated afterwards she would start paring the minutes.
"What I told our basketball team in the locker room after the game is that they are defining, right now, their roles," Summitt said. "And tonight we had some people that came off the bench and just didn't sprint the floor as hard as they have to and didn't have the toughness on the defensive end that they have to have.
"What we're going to do is just really challenge them and we'll find out. Right now I don't see us playing 12 deep. So they will determine individually their minutes."
Summitt and her staff have been tinkering with the starting lineup and combinations on the floor. On Thursday they started the youngest lineup in Lady Vol history with three freshmen, Stricklen, Johnson and Briana Bass, and two sophomores, Bjorklund and Vicki Baugh. It surpassed the youth 10 years ago of rookies Semeka Randall, Tamika Catchings and Teresa Geter and juniors Kellie Jolly and Chamique Holdsclaw during the 1997-98 season.
When told of the record, Stricklen and Bass got visibly excited.
"I think that we, as a team, we're about to shock the world," the 5'2 Bass said as Stricklen and Bjorklund looked on with both amusement and incredulity. "Even though we're young, we're about to bring some heat, so they need to get ready for us."
The declaration was delivered with Bass' innocent smile – and a sweet "thanks y'all" as she left the interview area – so it doesn't even sound like smack talk.
Thursday was Bass' first career start for Tennessee, and she was ready and anxious.
"I was a little bit of both," Bass said. "I was nervous and excited, but I was ready to go out and run the team, push the tempo and just get everybody else involved. It is different (running out of the tunnel as a starter) because you finally know that you are actually going to start this game, so you've got to bring your all and just give it your all."
Bass' stat line – three points, two rebounds, one assist, three turnovers and four steals – doesn't particularly stand out, but she did what Summitt asked – get the ball up the court in a hurry.
"Briana Bass definitely demonstrated a will to push tempo and run the offense," Summitt said. "Also, she played really tough defensively."
One of Bass' four steals brought the crowd of 14,327 to its feet when she swiped a cross-court pass and took off down court. A bounce pass to Stricklen resulted in a foul with Stricklen going to the line. The speed with which Bass got to the ball electrified the fans.
"I love the crowd," Bass said. "I love how they support me and continue to cheer me on. That gets me pumped up and helps me to continue to get my teammates involved."
Tennessee set the tone early with four consecutive offensive boards, and the lead was 12-2 in less than four minutes with baskets from Vicki Baugh, Johnson, Stricklen and Bjorklund.
Stricklen had 17 points by halftime and she scored in an assortment of ways – off steals, in transition, mid-range and in the paint. But it was her three-pointer as the clock expired to end the first half that put the Lady Vols ahead 41-23 and fired up her teammates with Amber Gray wrapping her in a hug as they ran off the floor to the locker room.
Tennessee got the ball back on a turnover – brought on by some stiff sideline defense – and Alicia Manning dribbled the ball across the half-court line and found Stricklen on the wing well behind the arc.
"Well, I was suggesting that she get a little closer," Summitt said with a smile. "Just watching Shekinna in high school she does have deep range. But we're not going to practice that shot in practice very often … . . .maybe just game day when we do our half-court shooting."
The Lady Vols launch shots from half-court after practice on the day before a game and at the shoot-around the day of the game.
"I like that range," Stricklen joked. "I don't think Pat will go for it. I knew I had to shoot it. I usually think about my shots before I shoot, but I knew I had to shoot it, so I just let it go. I think it really did (give the team a boost). We went into the locker room and everybody was fired up about it."
The Lady Vols shot 48.6 percent before the break and an eye-popping 56 percent in the second half. Kelley Cain was 3-5 with eight points. Alyssia Brewer was 3-4 and had two coast-to-coast drives off back-to-back steals in which she dished a no-look pass to a wide-open Stricklen and then went in for the score.
Amber Gray was 3-3 for eight points in eight minutes of play. Her three-pointer with three seconds left came with some fans shouting, "We want chicken!" A Chick-fil-A promotion gives fans a free sandwich with their game ticket if the Lady Vols score 80 or more points and when Alicia Manning got a steal deep in Middle Tennessee's end, the crowd roared. Her no-look assist to Brewer under the basket had made the score 78-52, and the crowd sensed it could happen. Manning passed ahead to Sydney Smallbone, who found Gray behind the arc for the assist, one of four for Smallbone, and the final basket of the game.
Outside of two lapses – one in each half – in which Tennessee allowed Middle Tennessee to whittle a substantial lead, the Lady Vols put together a passable performance by Summitt's standards.
"I thought in the early stages of the first half we played some really good what I call scouting report defense," Summitt said. "I thought we had great preparation to play against a team that can spread you out and obviously players that can play off the dribble. Certainly we knew going into it that they like to shoot the three. Statistically, I think we did a pretty good job if you look at how we defended them. I didn't think they got as many threes as they would have liked to have had."
The Blue Raiders were averaging 9.1 made three-pointers and 25 attempts per game. On Thursday they were 4-12 with Jackie Pickel hitting 2-4 to account for her six points.
"When they can move Glory Johnson out on the perimeter to guard Jackie Pickel you're looking at a 6'3 kid out there that's just extremely quick," Insell said. "That's tough. I'm glad it was Jackie and not Rick. I'll just be honest with you."
Johnson had one block so her stat line doesn't reflect her smothering defense on the perimeter. But her pressure was one of the reasons for Middle Tennessee's 23 turnovers. The Blue Raiders also were getting deep into the shot clock to try to find an open shot.
"One thing about Glory she brings a lot of energy at both ends of the floor," Summitt said. "I've wanted her to channel her energy to the defensive end. I think she's done that.
"Being able to defend on the perimeter is a distinct advantage for us because then we can play two big post players as well and play her some at the three. We worked on that in the last week and I thought she did a nice job. Her quickness, her lateral movement it's pretty special. Our team benefits tremendously from it."
Blue Raider Brandi Brown got into the paint for most of her 11 points and also hit a three-pointer. Clark, despite her lack of size for a post at 5'10, got loose against an array of Tennessee defenders. Six different Lady Vols tried to guard her and none had much success.
"We knew she was going to be tough to defend," Summitt said. "She's tough-minded, she plays really well without the ball, she's tough with the ball. She's a player that keeps them in the game. They go to LSU – I watched that game; they beat LSU at LSU – and they made shots.
"I knew we were going to have to defend them because they spread you out so much and then they play off the dribble. They have a plan. They have a distinct plan, and obviously Clark is their go-to. It doesn't matter who they're playing. Every time I've watched them on tape she's their go-to."
Clark was 11-21 from the field and as Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood had pointed out in his scouting report she never stops moving.
"Cagey, isn't she?" Insell said. "She's got tremendous body control and she's got great footwork. You have to give the players who are giving her the basketball credit, too. … She's got a big motor, she's very tenacious and she's not going to quit. I wish we didn't have to play her there, but we have to play her there, and we get the most out of her. I'm real proud to be her coach. Again you've got to give those young ladies that are entering the basketball to her, you've got to give them credit. They are working hard to get her the basketball, and they're unselfish."
Clark nodded when Insell mentioned her teammates working to get her the ball, but Clark also never stops working to get open. Once she received the ball, she slipped under and around the taller Tennessee defenders.
"We played against Oklahoma and LSU, against other big girls," Clark said. "I know what to expect; I've always played against bigger girls. I know that I can't shoot over them so I have to use my quickness and my mind to work around them and go around them. It's hard because I can't have a clear, open look to the basket. I'm having to know where they're playing me, and I have to think about a lot of things."
Clark carried the scoring load inside but with the Lady Vols harassing the shooters on the perimeter the Blue Raiders couldn't generate a lot of offense from their preferred spots behind the arc. However, Tennessee did have lapses and Middle Tennessee took advantage – cutting the first-half lead to 20-19 and the second-half lead from 53-27 at the 16:06 mark to 55-44 at the 9:11 mark.
Both times Tennessee reestablished its lead by turning up the pressure.
"I thought my kids played pretty good," said Insell, who picked up a technical foul after arguing a blocking call in the open floor that caused Chelsia Lymon to foul out with 7:43 left to play.
"The 23 turnovers – we've got to do a better job. I looked at the stat sheet, 27-17 points off turnovers. The last three years we've averaged around 13 turnovers a game and for some reason this season we're not taking care of the basketball. If we get back to where we need to be, 13 to 14 turnovers a game, I don't know that we can beat a Tennessee, but it won't be a 30-point game."
Tennessee also was connecting from the field, especially Bjorklund, who scored on a putback of a missed free throw, from long range and also with a nifty step-back move after faking a baseline drive.
"I think it's just getting back into the swing of things and, number one, getting back in shape," said Bjorklund, who missed most of November because of a bulging disc in her lower back. "Heather Mason always helps with that and Jenny (Moshak) with my back. The rest of it is mental, just coming ready to play, ready to shoot."
Summitt also credited the day of practice set aside this week on Tuesday to just take shots – the posts worked for an hour followed by the wing players.
"Obviously, I think shot selection was a lot better," Summitt said. "We devoted one whole practice this week just to shooting. We got in a lot of reps. We got some shooting in again today. We've been doing so much teaching that I think we've suffered a little bit time-wise not having as many reps."
But Summitt also noted that the players have an obligation to find time outside of designated practice sessions.
"I think it's their responsibility," Summitt said. "We've got Pratt Pavilion. They can get in a lot of shots, and there's no excuse for them not only taking but making a lot of shots."
One player who couldn't do so of late – and one who is likely to now – was Bjorklund, who was sidelined because of her back.
"I thought it was just a matter of Angie having more minutes and more reps and getting in more shots," Summitt said. "She's missed a lot of practice time and a lot of opportunities to be able to get in and shoot because she was limited. But certainly she made a lot of good shots tonight and I thought made good decisions with her shot selection. That takes a lot of pressure off the team and obviously opens up our inside game as well."
Tennessee wasn't completely healthy for this game but did get Gray back after she missed the past week of practice with a concussion. McMahan sat out to rest her knee, and Baugh pulled herself in the second half after four minutes because of knee pain. Baugh is coming back from ACL surgery last May. Both Baugh and McMahan kept ice on their knees in the second half.
"She just told me that she needed to come out," Summitt said. "It's a situation with her if she's feeling any pain whatsoever then she has the option to pull herself. Just like I asked Cait if she wanted to play and she said, ‘If you need me to.' I said, ‘Are you feeling any better?' And she said, ‘About the same.' So that's the reason those two sat, and the reason I didn't play Cait at all."
Tennessee has relied heavily on its freshmen class, especially Johnson and Stricklen.
"I thought with this class coming in that Glory and Shekinna were the two prize catches out of that group, if you will, in talking about the best players being recognized across the country," Summitt said. "I thought they were definitely two of the best, if not the best.
"I'm very pleased with what they're bringing to the team, but I think there's more that we can get from the teammates in that freshman class. We've just got to realize that they are freshmen, but that should not affect how hard they play. I knew in recruiting we had a couple of them that thought jogging was sprinting. But we're trying to change that. Hopefully we can."
The players were glad to get back on the court after a nine-day layoff that was filled with practice sessions, study hall and final exams.
"It was great to come back and be able to play in a game," Bass said. "I feel like practices are harder than games for me, so when we were able to get back out on the court it was nice."
"It was very exciting," Stricklen said. "We had worked hard the whole week we were off. We worked hard and pushed each other. We played as a team and everything went well.
"This game really gave us a lot of confidence. We shot well and I think we had good defense, rebounding. I think everything went well. I think we just really needed a confidence boost getting ready to go to Texas."
The Lady Vols play in Austin on Sunday – of the next five games, four are on the road – and the Longhorns should be the stiffest test to date for a young squad.
Insell came away pretty impressed with the Lady Vols.
"We won't play anybody like Tennessee the rest of the year," Insell said. "Their size, we couldn't score down low. They were able to put those big kids in and just isolate inside. It was tough on our kids. I was real proud of the way we played. We played hard, didn't quit all the way through the game.
"Of course I'm disgusted with the loss, but you're playing a team that is very much one of the best teams in the country. One of the youngest teams in the country but tonight I thought they played a lot better than what I've been seeing on film. I'll tell you that."
In previous games Tennessee had struggled with its outside shooting and been inconsistent on defense. The break between games was used to address both deficiencies.
"They shot the ball extremely well tonight," Insell said. "Some of those looks that they got they weren't as open as they looked. We had a hand on the ball and in their face, and they were able to go up and make shots. They're young. They're going to make some mistakes like they've been making, but with the schedule Tennessee plays and Pat's coaching staff and the athletes that she's got, they're going to be all right.
"They haven't got a Candace Parker or an (Nicky) Anosike, but they've got some young kids that are going to be tough by the end of the year. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see them back in the Final Four. Not at all. I felt like Tennessee gave us more problems and challenges than Oklahoma. They ran more people at us. Alysha was having to fight four kids in there that were 6'4, 6'5 – that's tough. When Pat's able to do that, by the end of the year and the experience that she's given those kids and the schedule, I see great things on the horizon."