Tennessee slips past Arkansas

At halftime – a session Pat Summitt described as "intense" – she informed her team that its defense was unacceptable. Tennessee fixed that issue in the second half and came from behind to beat Arkansas, 76-67. After the game the coach advised her players to convene a meeting to figure out how to play a complete game.

"They're driving me crazy," Coach Pat Summitt said in her post-game press conference. "It's driving me nuts. I like what they can do in the end but think if they were really focused on being a 40-minute team and we're not living on the edge?

"Hopefully they'll get there. Maybe that's youth. I think a lot of it is they don't compete hard for 40 minutes and as someone that's competitive off the charts it's hard sometimes. It's hard for our coaching staff. We want it for them, but we can't give it to them.

"They've got to be to take ownership and that's what I challenged them to do in the locker room. I said, ‘Y'all need to have a team meeting and you need to figure out how you're going to commit to playing 40 minutes of quality basketball and Tennessee basketball.' So we'll see if that makes a difference."

Tennessee (15-3, 4-1) will next take the court on Sunday afternoon against Auburn (19-0, 4-0) on the Tigers home floor. Auburn held a slim three-point lead at the half against Alabama (12-8, 0-5) but surged in the latter part of the second half to secure an 84-66 win.

Auburn's DeWanna Bonner conceded after the game, "You can't help to think about (Sunday). It's Tennessee … . "

Summitt said if her team plays Sunday the way it did Thursday against Arkansas (11-8, 0-4), the Lady Vols would bus back to Knoxville with another league loss.

Tennessee will remain in Fayetteville, Ark., overnight and then leave Friday for Auburn by plane instead of coming home between games. The Lady Vols will take a bus back to Knoxville after Sunday's game (3 p.m. Eastern, CSS).

That itinerary saves travel money at a time of tremendous budget shortfalls for state education. The players will miss another day of class on Friday, but they will be immersed in a basketball setting.

"It is a long trip (away from home), so no question we'll have time to prepare," Summitt said.

Step one of the trip was to get a win at Arkansas – Summitt now has notched No. 998 – and the Lady Vols succeeded after a sputtering start. Actually the initial start was good for Tennessee. Shekinna Stricklen hit her first three, and then the teams stood on the sideline for a few minutes while the shot clock was fixed.

Stricklen, who had family, friends and former high school teachers and teammates in attendance among the crowd of 3,916, said hitting her first shot settled her down a bit.

"It felt good," Stricklen said.

"It relaxes you," Angie Bjorklund said.

Tennessee built a 7-0 lead when Briana Bass hit a three-pointer and Glory Johnson connected on one of two free throws. The lead increased to 9-2 after Alyssia Brewer hit a jumper with 14:50 left in the first half on an assist from Bjorklund.

But then the game turned into a foul fest by Tennessee, and the Razorbacks, led by sensational freshman Ceira Ricketts, tied the game at 11-11. Tennessee got layups and free throws from Johnson and a jumper from Alicia Manning to take a 26-19 lead with 3:45 left but Arkansas wiped out the deficit by driving to the paint and either converting or getting fouled. The Razorbacks were 12-13 in the first half from the stripe.

"I think it just came down to we got a little lazy on the dribble drives," Bjorklund said. "They took it in, and we fouled them. It came down to playing solid one-on-one defense and once we started to doing that in the second half, that is when it really started to pick up."

Sydney Smallbone hit a three-pointer to give Tennessee a 32-29 lead, but Arkansas' Shanita Arnold immediately answered on the other end, and the game was knotted at 32 at the break. Summitt was none too pleased with the overall effort in the first half and let her team know it in the locker room.

"It was pretty intense," Summitt said. "I just told them their defense was unacceptable and they're living on the edge, and they had to take it one possession at a time. We couldn't get everything back all at once. We had to share the ball more and we had to get inside touches. We had to penetrate from the guard spots as well.

"I challenged Angie Bjorklund to really step up. I thought Angie did that. Of course, Shekinna. Briana was probably the one I was the toughest on. She's got to be a little bit more focused when she starts a game."

Bjorklund led Tennessee with 18 points and filled out the stat line with five assists, four steals, one block and two rebounds.

"Two rebounds?" Bjorklund said on the post-game radio show. "I need to work on that."

Johnson had 15 points, seven boards, three assists and a steal. She was 9-14 from the line.

"First of all she had a lot more composure and shot better at the free throw line and defended," Summitt said. "She is without a doubt one of the best athletes on our team, if not the best. She was so active, got a lot of tips, got involved in everything we were trying to do. I just think that she's a different player right now than she was early on. She's got a lot more composure, just really more confident and more settled."

Stricklen was hindered by foul trouble in the first half – "The fouls kind of got me out of game, but we just stuck together," she said – but she was solid in the second half and finished with 11 points, four rebounds and one assist. The one dish came on a feed to Bjorklund when Tennessee was trailing by two. Bjorklund buried the three-pointer to give Tennessee a 60-59 lead with 6:01 left to play, and the Lady Vols never trailed again.

"When you've got a great shooter like that I look for her a lot," Stricklen said. "That took a lot off her when I drive and it helps her out, and when she's shooting it I'm going to give her the ball."

Tennessee scored first in the second half on a Stricklen layup, but Arkansas found its rhythm led by Ricketts, who scored 22 points.

"She's tough. She's competitive. She's skilled," Summitt said. "She plays with a lot of confidence. She's a player."

The teams traded leads to start the second half – for the game there were nine ties and 10 lead changes – but then the Razorbacks put together a run and led 44-38 four minutes into the second half. From there the game seesawed until Bjorklund connected on the three-pointer.

Tennessee switched up its defenses in the second half to get some stops and then hit some shots late to get some breathing room and pulled away in the final three minutes.

"We mixed up our defenses," Summitt said. "We went with our man and then we went with what we call our five. When Briana wasn't in there we had all five people switching to keep them in front of us, because they were doing a good job with their dribble drives and getting inside.

"We went with a 2-2-1 and played a matchup, which is what we call our 13 defense. It's just really a matchup zone. I thought, again, we did a better job of keeping them in front of us. If we had just defended the three ball a little bit better that would have helped us even more."

Arkansas was 5-15 behind the arc for the game and shot 40.4 percent overall. Tennessee was 5-13 from long range and shot 44.8 percent overall. The Lady Vols had 11 assists and, once again, took care of the ball fairly well with 13 turnovers.

When crunch time arrived Johnson was solid at the line – she hit 3-4 when Tennessee had to have points late – and Bjorklund connected from long range. Her second three of the game gave Tennessee a 71-61 lead with 1:14 left and snuffed out any chance of an Arkansas comeback.

"When the score is so close and you have Angie Bjorklund on your team, who else to give the ball to? I am pretty confident in both of these two," Johnson said, referring to Bjorklund and Stricklen. "I'm going to give them the ball. They're great shooters, and they can hit shots and we really need them."

Stricklen had her own cheering section – it sounded like a home game over the radio broadcast whenever she hit a shot – as her hometown of Morrilton, Ark., made the trek to Fayetteville for the game.

"I asked her, ‘Is anybody left in Morrilton? I think everyone was here. I think they shut down the place.' " Summitt said. "They love her, and we do, too."

A group of teachers spelled out Stricklen's name in large letters that they held up in the stands.

"Those were my teachers," said Stricklen, who noticed the display right before the second half started. "I did not know that (they were going to do that). When I looked up all I could do was just smile.

"It was great. I was a little nervous, but it was good to be back home and see a lot of my family and teachers and friends and old teammates."

With Arkansas in the SEC it means an automatic homecoming game for Stricklen. The last time Tennessee played in Fayetteville, the Lady Vols needed overtime to get a win in 2007. A return trip should be on the schedule in 2011. Summitt will likely hope for a less-stressful game.

"Obviously Arkansas out-played us in the first half," Summitt said. "Don't ask me why. All I can tell you is that team has yet to be a 40-minute team. This Tennessee team. As I told them they live on the edge and we were fortunate to win this game. But I thought the second half we executed so much better, we defended better, we rebounded better.

"Glory Johnson was big for us on the inside and then Angie Bjorklund got involved and obviously got more touches and more opportunities. I thought Stricklen did a good job. Our guard play was very sporadic in the first half, got in a little foul trouble. Second half, a lot better. Bree came in and did a lot better as well. And when you've got good guard play your post people seem to get more touches. This Arkansas team is much better. I knew we were going to have a battle. I knew this was going to be a tough game for us and in particular because we're not a 40-minute team. I don't know how we're going to get there."

Arkansas Coach Tom Collen has watched his team lose to two top SEC teams by just nine points in back-to-back games, and he knew his team was in for a fight down the stretch in this one, too.

"I wasn't getting the bighead I can tell you that," Collen said. "Tennessee is awfully good. They've played a lot of good opponents. They've played a lot of close games. A lot of people have played Tennessee very, very tough this year, and Tennessee has found a way to win all those games down the stretch.

"I don't know whether that's Pat Summitt because she has been there so many times before. I don't know whether it's because she's got more talented players. But bottom line was they executed down the stretch and we didn't and that was a big difference in the game.

"Sometimes that's the difference in a program. A team that's been there so many times they expect to win. They didn't panic. They just kept playing. They surged. Every time they got the ball back they surged and every time we lost another basket we slipped. We just couldn't grasp it."

Collen said his team knew what to do against the zone – which turned the game for Tennessee in the second half – but didn't always make the right decisions.

"I think down the stretch we just didn't execute," Collen said. "Everybody in the SEC has jumped into zones on us late in the game and we handled it well in stretches, but there are some things that I thought we could get to that we didn't get to and I was a little bit frustrated. We can take advantage of it. We've just got to learn. We're a young team. We've got young guards. They're the ones with the ball in their hand and they're the ones who needed to make great decisions. We just didn't make the great decisions down the stretch. It was frustrating. I thought it was within our reach."

Both teams are very young, and Collen didn't want to use fatigue as an excuse for why his team couldn't finish at the end.

"I guess fatigue could have played a factor if fatigue wasn't letting the blood flow to their brains, but to me what we did down the stretch was really more mental than it was physical," Collen said. "It wasn't hard what we were trying to get to. It just simply broke down and didn't get to the looks that I thought were wide open."

Collen also knows the close scores send a signal to opponents that Arkansas should not be viewed as an easy win.

"It doesn't mean a thing playing Tennessee close when you're getting ready to go on the road to Mississippi State and Vanderbilt," Collen said. "All it does is it gets everybody's attention and lets you know Arkansas is good enough to beat you if you don't prepare. It's good that we played them close but the downside of that is everyone is going to take us pretty dadgum seriously."

Tennessee will next get ready for Auburn and will have its hands full with the 6'4 Bonner. The two players best suited to guard her, 6'6 Kelley Cain and 6'4 Vicki Baugh, have rarely been able to play of late.

Baugh entered in the first half and was immediately hit in the knee on the baseline. She left the game and did not return.

"One of the players fell into her brace on the outside," Summitt said. "I think she'll be all right. She just got hit from the side."

Cain did not play Thursday and in a game that seemed to resemble a physical rugby scrum at times, especially in the paint, that could have been done to protect her knee from further blows.

Regardless of who is available to play Sunday for Tennessee, Summitt will be seeking a sustained effort from the players on the floor.

"For some reason we have a better second half than we do first half a lot of the games," Johnson said. "I don't know what it is, but we just need to learn how to play a 40-minute game. It's tough for some of us to start off rough and end the game pretty well, but we have a tendency to do it. I guess it's the way our team is. We've got to learn and develop and learn to play a full 40 minutes."

The Lady Vols do seem to find their focus in the second half, especially when they fall behind.

"You look at the score and you just have a sense of urgency," Bjorklund said. "We just need to learn how as a team to turn that competitive switch on early at the beginning of the game before we even step foot on the court. We need to have that sense of urgency every possession and not just the last five minutes.

"But I'm proud of our team. We always find a way to win."

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