Tennessee survives SEC opener

The Lady Vols got a career effort from yet another freshman – this time it was Alicia Manning – and they owned the boards, especially on the offensive end, to hold off an red-hot Kentucky team, 69-64, on a cold Thursday night in which the crowd of 12,640 didn't warm up its vocal cords until Tennessee trailed late in the second half.

Kentucky (10-6, 0-1) shot 57.1 percent from three-point range with Carly Morrow hitting 4-5 and Brittany Edelen knocking down 3-5.

"When people play against us they tend to play that way," Coach Pat Summitt said. "I expected them to come in and try and get some threes. I am really disappointed we didn't guard Morrow any better than we did. Carly kind of had her way with us. We identified the two that we thought could hurt us, and both of them hurt us. Are we pleased with that? No.

"When you're 8 for 13 from the three-point line, your defense is really, really not respecting the three-ball. And I don't think we did consistently. We kept dropping to the paint. We got confused in our matchup at times. We'll have to learn and grow from this, but it's a W, and we move on."

Tennessee (12-2, 1-0) answered with Alicia Manning hitting 3-3 from behind the arc and Shekinna Stricklen nailing 2-4 from long range, with one in the first half coming from 23 feet.

The efforts of the freshmen were needed on a night that Angie Bjorklund struggled through a 2-14 performance from the field, but the sophomore did grab three boards and had three assists, no turnovers, two steals and a block. Bjorklund also was assigned late in the second half to blanket Morrow, who scored her 16th point at the 13:47 mark of the second half to knot the score at 44, and did not score again in the game.

With Bjorklund, Manning and Stricklen on the floor Tennessee has three players who must be guarded behind the arc.

"It makes it so much harder (to defend us)," Stricklen said. "It took a lot off of Angie, too. Coming into conference everybody knows Angie is one of the best shooters in the country and this conference. With the three of us out there shooting, we penetrate and kick it to each other. That helps a lot."

"Obviously Angie is such a great shooter like Kinna was saying, so teams know that; they know that that's her game and they know to shut it down," Manning said. "Of course, Angie is going to have one of the best defenders on her at all times. Having that locked down on her opened it up for me and Kinna and some of the posts to get open and move the ball around."

Post player Alex Fuller was 5-7 from the field and scored around the rim – she had a key putback on an Bjorklund miss to put Tennessee up 59-58 with 3:18 left and the Lady Vols never trailed again in a game that recorded 10 ties and 14 lead changes – and hit a 15-footer.

Fuller logged 25 minutes – she started for the injured Vicki Baugh – and had six rebounds and an assist to go with her 10 points.

"I thought Alex Fuller had her best game of the year," Summitt said.

But Summitt was disappointed with how her young team defended the Wildcats.

"Well, my first thought would have to do with our scouting report defense," Summitt said. "I'm not sure that they paid attention. I'm just looking here (at the stat sheet) and they had 8 for 14 from the three-point line. We identified three-point shooters, we talked about it, we defended all their sets coming into our preparation. Just very, very poor on the part of our perimeter game not to be more committed to scouting report defense."

Tennessee got defensive when it needed to with Kentucky up 58-54 with 5:10 left in the game. The Lady Vols, despite their youth, were surprised to find themselves trailing in the SEC opener at home.

"I really was," Manning said. "Coach really stresses to go out and play a 40-minute basketball game. At Rutgers, we came out the first half slow, second half strong. This game … we've got to put it together and be a 40-minute team. That's going to make us hard to beat."

Tennessee went on a run with a layup by Johnson on a feed from Manning, a free throw from Johnson and Fuller's putback. Stricklen got a defensive rebound and fired the ball ahead to Johnson, who finished at the rim.

"Glory did a great job of running to the rim," Summitt said. "Again, aggressive, but also had a combination of aggressive-ness and composure. Alex, it helped to have two post players that were making baskets and stretching the defense in the high-low. That was big."

A 20-footer from Manning put the Lady Vols up 64-58 with 1:59 to go and capped a 10-0 run for Tennessee.

Between Johnson's fast-break basket and Manning's three-pointer, Johnson got the ball back for Tennessee by wrestling on the floor over a loose ball with Kentucky's Victoria Dunlap. Twice the ball squirted loose, and twice Johnson managed to get a hand on it.

"We didn't want to lose and I was going to put everything that I had out there just to ensure that we weren't going to lose," Johnson said. "I think we brought a hard game, but we weren't playing up to par. We were playing with intensity but we weren't playing our game."

Tennessee had played in spurts but chose the right moment to ratchet the intensity level by running the floor and dominating on the boards. Kentucky got the late looks it wanted, but it was one and done on the offensive end.

"It looked to me we were able to get some good looks there right around the basket," Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I thought Tennessee got very aggressive and I was very pleased we responded. We got to the basket and we just missed some shots, and they were close.

"It fueled their transition. I think that was basically what happened. We were really doing a good job executing there at the end and just didn't put the ball in the basket. I thought a few missed shots on our end and then them being aggressive going to the basket, being able to get to the line, being able to get it inside was too much for us to overcome there at the end."

Tennessee was 6-7 from the line in the first half and 19-25 (76.0 percent) for the game. Summitt had called out her team for its free throw performance and on Thursday night Johnson was 6-7 and Stricklen was 8-8.

"Much better," Summitt said. "We spent time on it. I told them, ‘We've got Pratt Pavilion; you need to invest in your free throw shooting, because that's all about having a commitment to not only to yourself but more importantly to our team.' I know a number of players went and spent a lot of time working on their free throws, and it was obvious tonight."

Summitt was fairly circumspect after the game – she calmly outlined her evaluations – but she was clearly displeased with the defensive effort.

"I thought Glory Johnson came in and did a lot of great things," Summitt said. "Kelley (Cain) helped us some. Lyssi Brewer was not very inspired and not very good. Guard play, you've got to give Alicia Manning a lot of credit. She came in, she defended, she scored, rebounded. She had a lot of toughness about her. I didn't think Angie showed up to play the way she has to play for us. Very disappointed that we didn't get more from Angie. Or really from a number of players off of our bench.

"But we won. The one thing I told them is sometimes you're fortunate enough to win a game when you don't play well, and we were fortunate in this particular game. And hopefully we can learn from it. We can learn from it."

The Lady Vols had four players in double figures – Stricklen led all scorers with 18 points, Johnson added 14, Manning had 13, and Fuller chipped in with 10. Bjorklund was scoreless in the first half but added seven points in the second half and got her first bucket by curling around the defense on an in-bounds play.

"I do think that when they've had their backs against the wall they've really stepped up," Summitt said. "I think Shekinna Stricklen has really been terrific in making that happen, I think moving her to the point, had a little more size. Bree had a tough time defending tonight. I think they picked on (Briana Bass) early and throughout the game but obviously you've got to take into account that we did what we had to do to close out and win the game.

"I told them after the Rutgers game our desire right now and our commitment should be to being a 40-minute team. I think the watch stopped in the first half. We'll get there."

Summitt has used an assortment of lineups this season – and she used all 10 available players in the first half; Cait McMahan was out with a sore knee – but she stuck with Stricklen, Bjorklund, Manning, Johnson and Fuller for the majority of the second half. She opted for Manning because of her size and performance of late in practice.

"As you look at our bench I thought she was probably one of the most athletic guards and she's proven that with her work ethic in practice and we've seen it from game minutes," Summitt said. "As long as she doesn't try to do too much and I thought tonight she made some really good decisions so I was very comfortable with having her on the floor. And I thought we needed the size, in particular.

"She was 3-for-3 from the three-point line, so that was big for us. I'm gaining a lot of confidence in what she brings to our team because she plays with a lot of confidence. And as a defender she's really a lot quicker and longer and rangy and more athletic so when we want to go with a bigger lineup she's probably the best choice off the bench, as far as the perimeter players are concerned."

Manning is proof of why the freshmen need to be ready as Summitt has been willing to try various lineups this season to see what works from game to game.

"Coach has been stressing composure a lot with me on the offensive end and just taking a step back, seeing the floor, making good passes, look inside and then hit your shot if you've got it," Manning said.

With Kentucky's defenders paying a lot of attention to Bjorklund and Stricklen, Manning found herself unattended on a few occasions.

"They left me open so I took the shot," Manning said. "That has a lot to do with our offense. The coaches did a good job, and I think all the players did a good job of cutting and getting to where we could get open and knock down good shots."

Tennessee had 14 assists on 22 baskets, led by six assists from Stricklen, who played the bulk of her 36 minutes at point. Alyssia Brewer struggled from the field – she was 1-7 – but her one basket came in transition after she caught a bullet pass from Stricklen in transition and scored in one motion. Brewer also had two assists – a feed to Stricklen, who buried the deep three, and after receiving a lob from Sydney Smallbone she dumped the ball to Cain on the other side of the lane for the basket.

The close games are forging a Lady Vol team that doesn't panic in late-game situations.

"Angie sometimes they double team her; sometimes they deny her the ball. Or me. Or Stricklen," Johnson said. "It allows our team to work with each other. If you can't score one game, you've got to play defense. Our team just has to work together and share the ball and that's what we've been doing lately, second half more than the first half. But we'll get used to it."

Kentucky was led by Morrow with 16 points, Edelen with 13, Amber Smith with 12 points and Amani Franklin with nine. Smith was effective in getting to the basket and either scoring or kicking out to the three-point shooters. She had eight of Kentucky's 13 assists.

"A lot of those were created from Amber (Smith) and Amani (Franklin) driving and kicking, and making something happen," Morrow said of her shots behind the arc. "I just try to get in their vision. They're great passers. I just try to do my job of knocking down shots because they are doing such a good job of getting in the lane and drawing in the defense."

When Tennessee threatened to open up the game with a 10-point lead in the first half, 32-22, with 2:33 left, Morrow hit a 20-footer from the baseline to pull the Wildcats to within seven points.

"It's key," Mitchell said. "It's always important to make shots, and when they're 3-point shots, and when you make a few of those, it gives you a chance to win. I thought the timing on a lot of our three-point shots was probably the biggest factor more than the number that we hit. We just hit some at key times.

"I don't think Tennessee ever got more than a 10-point lead and on a couple of those occasions – I remember one in particular – Carly was able to make three-point shot. It just lifts your team. It lets everybody know you can get back in it. The three-point shot for us tonight was a big factor in the game."

The Lady Vols led at halftime, 35-27, but Kentucky wasted no time in erasing the deficit and then taking the lead, 39-37, on a five-footer from Morrow with 16:43 to play. After that the teams were tied three times and traded leads until Tennessee finally went on the run late in the second half. A sedate crowd, perhaps numbed by the cold or fearing the forecast of snow – which didn't materialize but panics East Tennessee – finally stirred and let itself be heard.

Summitt was happy to escape with the win. Mitchell realized what slipped away.

"We're just extremely disappointed to lose," Mitchell said. "We had come down here with the intention to win and tried to get prepared to do that, and I thought our players had some good moments in the game, but obviously not enough to win the game and that's something we'll have to improve on. I think it's pretty evident that for us that it was not a lack of effort, it was lack of execution, so that's what we'll have to work on.

"In this league you don't get a lot of medals for trying; you get rewarded for doing what you're supposed to do and execution is a premium, so we'll try to work on that. But our players gave good effort. We turned it over too much (20 turnovers to 14 for Tennessee), and we gave Tennessee too many offensive rebounds. But we will try to learn from this one and get ready for our next one."

Tennessee out-rebounded Kentucky, 43-30, with 22 boards coming on the offensive end while the Wildcats, who entered the game averaging 17.5 offensive boards, were limited to 10 on that end.

"We talked a lot about our boards because we haven't consistently been able to get to the boards the way we thought we should," Summitt said. "I think tonight we saw a different commitment. The fact that we had 22 offensive and 21 defensive, that may be a record for the year. You're supposed to know that. Look it up and let me know."

For the record, Tennessee had 35 offensive boards against Carson-Newman and 22 against Love & Basketball, but those were exhibition matchups and don't count in the season stats.

Tennessee twice has had 22 offensive boards this season – against San Francisco and Chattanooga. The Lady Vols grabbed 26 on the offensive end against Old Dominion and the season-record to date was 27 offensive boards against Louisiana Tech. But Thursday against Kentucky was the first time this season that Tennessee had more offensive boards than defensive boards and without that effort the game could well have ended in a loss for the Lady Vols.

Manning, Fuller, Stricklen and Johnson each had six rebounds. Kelley Cain added five in 12 minutes of play and contributed five points. Her first basket came on a putback to give Tennessee a 12-10 lead in the first half.

"Rebounding is very big and that is one thing that Coach always stays on us about," Stricklen said. "Rebounding really wins games. She's been telling us – the guards – that we've got to crash the boards. We've just got to do it."

The Lady Vols shot 36.1 percent overall and 42.9 percent from behind the arc. Kentucky shot 45.5 percent overall and the robust 57.1 percent behind the arc to continue its trend of shooting better of late.

"I think we have enough evidence now over the last six games, we have improved," Mitchell said. "Our players played with confidence on the offensive end. That's what we need to do. We just have to make certain that we put this one behind us.

"Our team needs to play a certain way to be successful in this conference. We have to play together, we have to play extremely hard with a lot of passion and we have to focus and break it down in one-game segments. We have to put this one behind us. We won't be happy riding back to Lexington, but we'll have to get up tomorrow and get our focus pointed toward a good Arkansas team. Every game is important in this league."

Tennessee's freshmen nodded when they were asked about SEC play being an eye-opener. The Lady Vols next go to Vanderbilt for an afternoon matchup on Sunday.

"It's like a whole new season now," Manning said.

CHIHUAHUA CHASE UPDATE:: The Kentucky media guide lists Amber Smith as saying the craziest thing to happen to her last summer was being chased by a Chihuahua. After the game Thursday, Smith was kind enough to take a few moments to explain what happened.

Smith tore her ACL last season in the Feb. 3, 2008, game in Knoxville against Tennessee and missed the rest of the year. She spent time over the summer at her home in Winter Haven, Fla., and went for a run one evening with her mother, Robin Smith.

"I was at home and I was trying to get back from my knee injury," Smith said. "I was trying to get some conditioning in, trying to get my running back. It was dark at night and I'm running with my mom."

Smith may have been recovering from a major knee injury, but she was still, fortunately for a Division I athlete, faster than her mother.

"I left my mom and out of nowhere this Chihuahua comes chasing me," Smith said. "I am just sprinting. I hadn't run that fast since my injury happened. It was crazy. It finally stopped running after me, so everything was all right. It just came out of nowhere."

This was Smith's first game in Knoxville since the injury occurred – she was going in for a breakaway layup last year when her knee buckled.

"I tried not to think about it," said Smith, who wears a brace on the knee but had no trouble getting to the rim Thursday. "I thought of it as our coming out party, and I thought we competed hard."

"There are a lot of positives that we can go back and look back on. It wasn't a lot about what they were doing, but it was mostly about us. We missed a lot of easy shots. We got the opportunities, but we didn't make them in the end. There are a lot of positives and I think we are going to just get better after this."

Smith played 39 minutes against Tennessee and showed no signs of fatigue.

"I didn't think we ran out of gas," Matthew Mitchell said. "I thought we played an excellent team in a tough environment on the road. I thought that we missed some shots and then had some poor execution. I was very pleased.

"Amber played 39 minutes, and she made one there at the end to cut it to four. She didn't look fatigued to me."

Smith stripped Shekinna Stricklen in the open floor and drove for the layup to cut the lead to 64-60 with 1:36 left.

"I'm sure they were tired, but I don't think that was why we lost the lead," Mitchell said. "I was very pleased with our players' physical effort."

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