Summitt had three true freshmen on the floor late in the second half when Tennessee (13-3, 2-1) surged from behind over Mississippi State (13-4, 1-2). That trio, Briana Bass, Alyssia Brewer and Stricklen, joined senior Alex Fuller and sophomore Bjorklund, who is a second-year player for chronological purposes only on this team of neophytes, to erase a five-point lead, 54-49, for the Lady Bulldogs with 6:13 to play and send the Lady Vols to a much-needed win on the road.
The victory deprived the 4,629 in attendance – the fifth-largest crowd to see a women's basketball game at Humphrey Coliseum – of seeing history made since Mississippi State had never beaten Tennessee and is now 0-29 in that quest. The Lady Bulldogs remain the only SEC team to never record a victory over the Lady Vols. They will get at least one more shot this season when they come to Knoxville on Feb. 22.
"I have to give credit to the players who played extended minutes," Summitt said, referring to Stricklen and Bjorklund. "Lyssi Brewer was terrific. I thought Alex Fuller was terrific. I thought Bree was really terrific and took pressure off of Stricklen. Bree was just really solid for us."
Bass is now the only true point guard on the team with the loss of Cait McMahan and the injury woes continued to pile up for Tennessee on Thursday. In last year's game in Starkville three players were injured – Candace Parker (knee); Alberta Auguste (shoulder); and Bjorklund (broken nose).
On Thursday, freshmen center Kelley Cain went down shortly before halftime and re-irritated her right kneecap. Cain was unable to return to the game. Fuller took a hit to the eye but was able to come back. Stricklen landed hard near the basket support and a sideline camera and suffered a rib contusion in the second half. Although in pain she returned the game and said on the post-game radio show that her team needed her.
"I'm in pain," Stricklen said afterwards. "We knew it was going to be a physical game."
Bjorklund got her first point of the game by driving to the basket and getting fouled by the player, Mary Kathryn Govero, whose forearm to Bjorklund's face broke her nose a year ago. Bjorklund hit one free throw and that's where the score stayed, 1-0, for more than three minutes in what resembled a soccer scoreboard.
But then Alexis Rack got on track for Mississippi State and hit two three-pointers and the Lady Bulldogs built a 13-5 lead. Bass and Bjorklund chipped away at it with back-to-back three-pointers to keep the Lady Vols from falling too far behind.
Sydney Smallbone was inserted into the game for Tennessee and did what she had done Monday and Wednesday before practice – she is usually the first one on the floor – by knocking down two three-pointers.
Smallbone's defense also was solid as she got a five-second call on Govero with tight pressure on the sideline. That gave the ball back to Tennessee, and Bass drove to the basket to cut the lead to 19-18.
On Tennessee's next possession, Smallbone drove on the right baseline and fired back to Bjorklund, who drained the three for a 21-19 Tennessee lead. Bjorklund faked and then took a step forward and a dribble to shake her defender so Smallbone didn't get an assist, but she had a hand in setting it up. Smallbone played inside-out with Fuller and stroked a three from about 22 feet to give the Lady Vols a 28-23 lead with 2:35 left in the first half.
At halftime Tennessee was leading 32-30 – the Lady Vols were down seven at the break in Starkville a year ago – and had scorched the nets from behind the arc at a 71 percent clip (5-7) while Mississippi State was 50 percent (4-8).
Both teams needed that long-range production as they were misfiring from other spots on the floor. Tennessee shot 33.9 percent overall and 53.8 percent from behind the arc for the game. Mississippi State shot 36.2 percent overall and 35.7 percent from long range.
The Lady Bulldogs were led by Rack and Chanel Mokango, who had 15 points each, and Robin Porter, who had 12 points and nine rebounds. Mokango also had seven blocks and seven boards. Tysheka Grimes added eight points off the bench and was 2-4 behind the arc.
"When you look at the film, you evaluate every single possession and figure out what we can do," Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning said. "I told the kids we are going to coach better, and they are going to play better. We cannot lose focus. Everybody wants to win, and I think we played hard, but it comes down to every possession. You have to play every possession."
Tennessee was led by Stricklen with 15 points – she went over 200 points for her career and now has 203 – and Bjorklund with 14. Brewer added 10 off the bench and now has 107 career points. Bjorklund and Stricklen had four assists apiece. Fuller was the leading rebounder with nine and also chipped in with six points, two steals, an assist and no turnovers. After recording 14 first-half turnovers as a team against Vanderbilt, the Lady Vols had just 15 for the game Thursday.
The Lady Vols won the battle of the boards, 42-38, and got some key offensive ones in the second half to either score on a putback or keep a possession alive. But the Lady Vols also surrendered boards they could have secured by boxing out. Both teams got 12 points off second-chance points.
"That's disappointing," Summitt said, citing her team's size and athleticism. "We should be so much better in that aspect."
Summitt was pleased with the defensive effort – "Absolutely," she told Mickey Dearstone – and she praised the transition defense in particular, especially after the fiasco at Vandy.
"I'm dreaming about that one," Summitt said. "That's nightmare material."
The Lady Vols mixed their 2-3 zone with man looks in the second half. Rack, who torched Tennessee for 32 points a year ago, was 6-17 in this game and kept in check in the second half by Bass, who had been chided by Summitt for her defense in the past three games.
Bjorklund was always back on defense and directing traffic, and Bass intercepted a long pass like a free safety on one breakaway by the Lady Bulldogs.
Summitt also noted that Stricklen didn't let her offense – she was 2-11 from the field – affect her defense. Stricklen did hit one of the biggest baskets of the night when Bjorklund drove the right baseline and Stricklen moved to the left wing to a spot where Bjorklund had a clear sightline to find her. She drained the shot, and Tennessee led 59-56 with 1:45 left.
Tennessee's movement on offense was also much improved from the last game, especially Bjorklund, who got her points in a variety of ways – 3-5 from behind the arc, drives and a 15-footer. Bjorklund also penetrated into the paint, sucked the defense to her and found Brewer alone under the basket to tie the game at 54 with 3:23 left. Brewer had just drawn Tennessee to within two points in the previous possession with a soft turn-around shot in the lane.
Before SEC play started Summitt had called out her team for its poor performance – minus a couple of players – at the free throw line. Stricklen was taking extra shots at the line as Summitt spoke that day. Since then the freshman has gone 18-18 from the line, and Stricklen hit four in the final minute Thursday to secure the win.
"Coming into this game, we anticipated a real, real challenge," said Summitt, who got her 996th career win and is now just four away from an unprecedented 1,000 collegiate victories. "We have to give Mississippi State a lot of credit. It was a hard-fought game on the part of both teams. I thought both teams had good plays and made significant runs. This Mississippi State team is one of Coach Fanning's best teams. Watching them, coming in, I thought it could go down to the wire and, obviously, it did."
The win kept the Lady Vols from losing back-to-back contests. The last time that happened was in January 2006 with defeats at Duke and at Kentucky. The last time Tennessee lost back-to-back SEC games was nearly 23 years ago – Feb. 5, 1986, at Ole Miss, and Feb. 8, 1986, against Auburn in Knoxville.
It was the fourth consecutive game without sophomore forward Vicki Baugh – she was one of the first to console Cain on the sideline – who is out with a knee ligament sprain after suffering an injury in practice Jan. 1. Baugh is expected back soon.
"We miss her intensity and what she brings to the game, her ability to jump and run the floor and rebound and score," Assistant Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow said. "She's missed tremendously but one things I always tell the kids, ‘Well, we've got one person missing. Does that one person make that big a difference on how you play? Can we not rally and make up her points?' "
Fuller made up for Baugh's absence on the boards with nine – a career-high for Fuller in SEC play – and Glory Johnson, who was out of sync offensively and played just 13 minutes, grabbed eight rebounds. But the return of Baugh will be a major boost for a young team.
"We can't wait until she comes back full throttle because it's real exciting to watch her – her passion and her intensity," Charles-Furlow said.
The freshmen did acquit themselves well – Alicia Manning had a drive to the basket in the first half when Tennessee really needed points – and three of them were on the floor when the outcome was very much undetermined. The Lady Vols are excessively young, but the coaches think they can come together.
"The potential is always there," Charles-Furlow said. "It's up to them to want it. We want it as coaches, and we understand how hard you have to work and how much time and preparation you put into each scout.
"Ultimately it's up to them to choose how they want to play, what kind of style. We know what kind of style we want to play but are they going to do that? Are they going to buy into that? And I think that they have; it just hasn't been consistent. They know if they buckle down on defense we can look really good. They know if they take their time and run their sets and set their screens we can look really good. And then on the flip side when we don't do the little things we can look really bad. I think they have to make up their minds and be committed to, ‘This is the way we're doing it, and that's the way it is.'
"It's a process and we've got to be willing to let them grow and develop, but it's like, ‘OK, y'all are the bulk of our team so we need y'all to grow up quicker. When are you guys going to play consistently?'
"And when that happens there's no telling what can happen for this team."