Tennessee falls to Kentucky

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Lady Vols traveled north in dire need of an SEC win and returned south to Tennessee in a direction that was ultimately apropos – dropping back-to-back games for the first time in three years and leaving the coach and two players who performed well exasperated with the 66-56 loss to Kentucky.

A game that started out promising with a 10-0 lead – Alex Fuller went 3-3 with assists on all three baskets from Angie Bjorklund – spiraled into what has beset the Lady Vols of late – shooting woes, porous defense and spotty board work.

Pat Summitt showed every mood Thursday evening – angry, encouraging, pensive and finally baffled – as Tennessee (18-8, 7-4) dropped an SEC game to the Wildcats right after Monday's loss to Duke in what was, ironically, an exact repeat of what happened in January 2006, the last time the Lady Vols lost back-to-back games.

It is that kind of history that had Kentucky (14-12, 4-7) celebrating after the game in what was the Wildcats first win in Memorial Coliseum since 1986. The 2006 victory was at Rupp Arena.

"Pat Summitt got her 1,000th win this year," said Eleia Roddy, who finished with 18 points and got Kentucky back in the game with 12 first-half points. "Great coach, great program, same feeling. I think it's even greater because Tennessee, they were the defending champs."

The team on the floor for the Lady Vols was the defending champ in name only – five senior starters were drafted by the WNBA the day after the 2008 title game in Tampa – but it should be instructive for Tennessee, especially the freshmen, to fully realize why a defeat of the orange is the opponent's signature win.

"It means a lot and just beating Tennessee it means a lot more," said Amber Smith, who tallied 10 points and got to the rim repeatedly. "We've just got to build on this. It's a big win for us. We are going to celebrate until practice (Friday). We have to start getting ready for LSU. We're going to get a lot of momentum from this because we know what we're capable of doing. I can't even put it into words."

"We just beat Tennessee," said Carly Morrow, who is from Chattanooga, and broke out of a shooting slump by hitting 3-5 from long range and scoring 13 points, including two late free throws to snuff out any chance of a Tennessee comeback.

"It was something about growing up in Chattanooga and being around Knoxville that I just dreamed about every day I played basketball. Anytime anyone mentioned Tennessee that's all I thought about is just beating them. I'm really excited right now for our team and our coaches, especially Coach Mitchell for believing in us and not giving up on us this season."

Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell, a former graduate assistant under Summitt, seemed more relieved than excited after the win.

"We were in desperate need of a win tonight, and I thought our players played with a lot of fight and a lot energy, and it was a great, great effort for us especially going down early, didn't get off to a very good start, and just battled our way back," Mitchell said. "Probably the thing that I'm most proud of is how we just attacked the basket all night long. That was a big emphasis for us. So it was a tremendous win for Kentucky and I just give all the credit to the players. They did a great job."

Tennessee's start was perfect as Fuller went 3-3, Glory Johnson hit a layup and Bjorklund hit a midrange jumper that bounced twice and settled through the net.

"We started the game off very well getting the ball inside and then we switched up what we were doing for whatever reason," Fuller said.

Mitchell reminded his team to get the ball inside to Roddy.

"What was happening was we were getting some good looks and so I just tried to remain calm with that part of it," Mitchell said. "If we would just settle down and make some shots we would be OK. I thought we were inflicting most of our damage there early on with some poor plays. It was not a situation where you're in desperation mode. I have been there before and it wasn't that kind of feeling, definitely."

Tennessee started to foul, turn over the ball – Briana Bass had five in the first half, though one was the result of her trying to help Alicia Manning get out of a trap at center court – and miss jump shots as Manning, Sydney Smallbone and Alyssia Brewer misfired from outside.

At the same time Roddy was unstoppable inside and also stroked short jumpers as she tallied the 12 first-half points and tied the game at 17 with 6:48 left in the first half.

"Got us back into it, no doubt," Mitchell said. "She was tremendous, 6-7, in the first half. Coming off that poor start we really felt that we needed to get the ball inside … and she responded. And then we had some real bang-bang plays in there, some loose balls, she was able to come up with and put it in the basket. She has been a real tough player all year long."

Tennessee did find some offense before the break from Bjorklund (six points), Smallbone and Brewer (four points each) and Cain (five points), and the teams went into halftime tied at 29.

The second half, however, belonged to the Wildcats as they methodically built a double-digit lead – and did so with Roddy on the bench in foul trouble.

"It was disappointing to have to go sit on the bench, but they took care of me out on the court and that's what every player wants – it's not just about me as a player, it's about my team making it happen," Roddy said. "That's what they did. I had a lot confidence on that bench that we were going to get it done."

Kentucky went to a smaller lineup – the 5'11 Morrow replaced the 6'3 Roddy – and attacked the basket off the bounce.

"That was when we were able to spread the floor a little bit," Mitchell said. "Those situations there're mismatches on the floor, and you have to make it turn your way or the other team is going to make it turn their way. They were very big at the time and we were just able to make it work to our advantage.

"The reason we were able to do that was because Victoria Dunlap and Amani Franklin just battled those bigger players for Tennessee defensively. We talked about at halftime trying to put a lot of pressure on the basketball so they couldn't enter it in easily, so I thought that our perimeter players did a good job there. It was a case where if you could play defense then you can take advantage of them by spreading the floor, and I thought that's what they did."

It was textbook Tennessee basketball – get stops on defense while getting the ball inside – and Kentucky executed the game plan.

Dunlap scored just four points but had a career-high 15 rebounds. Franklin scored 18 points by driving to the rack or finding soft spots in the paint and converting the short jumpers.

Kentucky built a 17-point lead, 59-42, with 7:40 left in the game.

"I think it was kind of a surprise and we all know with our team once we dig ourselves in a hole it's extremely hard to get ourselves out," Fuller said.

Fuller and Kelley Cain led the way for Tennessee with 13 for Fuller and a career-high 16 for Cain. Fuller also added eight rebounds, three blocks, three steals and two assists. Cain had four boards, two steals and two blocks, with her and Fuller getting a double block on successive shots at the basket in the second half when the Lady Vols were making a late run.

But the post players had little help from their teammates as Bjorklund was 1-9, Shekinna Stricklen was 3-9, Bass was 0-7, Smallbone was 1-6 and Manning was 0-2.

"I thought they played with more fire and just got up and down the floor so much better than we did," Summitt said. "Just looking at statistically, Roddy, 7-for-9, Dunlap's not shooting the ball well, she's 1-8, but then you look at 15 boards. She found a way to obviously make good things happen when she wasn't shooting well. We can take a lesson from watching that.

"Obviously we were 5-33 from the perimeter. It's hard to win, especially on the road, but it's hard to win any games when you're not getting more production from the players that you're counting on. (Bjorklund) has really struggled. She's struggled this year to make shots and play the role that we need her to play to take a little bit of pressure off of our team."

Fuller had some encouraging words for Bjorklund during the game as the sophomore tried long-range and midrange shots to get on track.

"Throughout the game I kept telling Angie that we needed her, even when she was on the bench, that we needed her," Fuller said. "I can talk to her as much as possible – throughout every game I talk to Angie telling her what's wrong with her shot, what she needs to do differently – but when it comes down to it, it's her mind, and it her hands that are shooting the ball. And she knows she's a great shooter so she just needs to instill that in herself."

Fuller and Cain, however, seemed perturbed with several of their younger teammates.

"We have three more games and then the conference tournament, and it's win or go home," said Fuller, the team's lone senior. "That's what it comes down to. We're trying to go as far as we can in the tournament and win a national championship, but we're not going to win anything playing like that. I will just tell them, ‘It's time to grow up.' We've been saying it all season, but now it's crunch time."

"It's been past time to grow up," said Cain, a redshirt freshman, who is playing despite a sore knee that will need cleanup surgery after the season to remove two migrating screws from an operation to realign the right kneecap. "With what time we have we need to use it wisely, and we definitely need to get on it."

Summitt singled out Cain and Fuller for their effort on both ends, but the rest of the team played with a look that suggested they were both tentative and tired.

"I've seen that frequently," Summitt said. "I know what it looks like."

"I will tell you and I told them in 35 years of coaching this group has probably the lowest energy game in and game out of any team I've coached," Summitt said. "I am not really good at coaching effort. I am very disappointed in just a lack of competitiveness in a number of our players. Obviously Kelley and Alex fought really, really hard. But when you're not shooting the ball well and then you're giving up dribble drives it's hard to see anything good happening, and it's hard to make that run although we made a bit of one late."

Tennessee cut the 17-point lead to seven, 63-56, with 2:25 left to play behind the inside play of Cain and Fuller, a three-pointer from Smallbone and Stricklen's penetration to the rim. But the guards continued to misfire from long range – minus the one 3-pointer from Smallbone – and despite keeping Kentucky from scoring a field goal for the final 7:39, the Lady Vols could not wipe out the deficit thanks to free throw shooting from Carly Ormerod, who was 3-4 from the line, and Morrow, who was 2-2.

"They had plenty of time to come back," Mitchell said. "I was never comfortable in that game as far as the outcome until the last 30 seconds. Tennessee is such a great program and you knew they were going to make to make another run at us. That's why I was so happy with the production there to be able to get that big lead, because the bigger the lead got the more difficult (to come back).

"They made a heck of a run but we had created so much separation we were able to make enough free throws to win the game."

"We got that big lead and all our coaches were telling us, ‘Don't let down,' " Smith said. "We knew they were going to make a run and we just had to answer that. We had a lot of momentum and we were hot but we knew we couldn't get complacent. We knew we were going to answer it and just pull it out."

Tennessee's shooting woes continued as the Lady Vols shot 35.0 percent (21-60) for the game and 7.1 percent (1-14) from behind the arc. The performance at the line was better as they went 13-17 (76.5 percent) with Bjorklund at 4-4, Fuller, 3-3, Stricklen, 2-2, and Cain, 2-4.

But Tennessee was out-rebounded, 38-35, and had 19 turnovers, which Kentucky converted into 27 points. Bass, Stricklen and Johnson combined for 15 miscues.

"Totally a lack of passion," Summitt said. "That's probably the biggest thing that our coaching staff struggles with. You're talking about four coaches that have just a competitive drive in everything that we do and the fact that they don't have it. I don't know that you can give that to a player. I think they have to decide who they are and what they are willing to invest in their game and in this program."

Summitt had put the team through a grueling practice Tuesday – Fuller and Cain missed it because of illness – but the coach and Fuller said that was no excuse for what happened Thursday.

"I haven't been inside their head," Summitt said. "I don't know what they're thinking. It's not basketball most of the time. I can assure you of that."

"Whether or not it was a hard practice or not that's not an excuse to play how we did," Fuller said. "Nobody mentioned being tired from that practice. We had off (Wednesday), so, yeah I do (think the team had their legs)."

Kentucky's ability to get to the basket at will suggested something was amiss, but it has been a season-long weakness for Tennessee.

"I think when they were making their run we needed to cut into it with a stop, and we couldn't get it for whatever reason," Fuller said. "They kept penetrating on us and that was basically what was hurting us the whole time, and they knew that. They took advantage of it."

Mitchell said it was a key part of Kentucky's offensive strategy and a perusal of Tennessee game film would expose the weakness to anyone scouting the Lady Vols.

"Just offensively when we were able to stretch the lead out there in the second half I thought our players were very aggressive," Mitchell said. "Tennessee puts a lot of pressure on you on the perimeter and the best way to combat that is to be aggressive yourself and we were able to make enough plays tonight going to the rim."

Smith led the way for the Wildcats as she torched every defender on the perimeter.

"I tried to get them off the dribble," Smith said. "They couldn't contain me so I just wanted to attack."

Stricklen, who subluxed her kneecap a week ago and tweaked an earlier groin pull Thursday, was repeatedly victimized by penetration.

"Her (defensive) stance," Summitt said. "It had nothing to do with knee, groin. Stance. No stance, no chance."

"They beat us off the dribble drive over and over and over," Summitt added. "They did a great job of getting the ball inside. They're a small team. They play big. They defended well. We got out-rebounded by this team and the team's a lot smaller, but they were a lot tougher than us. They were tougher mentally. They beat us to a lot of loose balls. That's all about heart and desire.

"Matthew had them ready to go. They laid it all on the line. We're a team that will pick and choose when we want to play hard, and we had a hard time getting five people to make that commitment."

Summitt indicated more tough practices were on the way until the team learned how to play in a game.

"We go back to Knoxville and have practice (Friday), and trust me we will have a healthy practice," Summitt said. "Maybe at some point in time they'll realize that if you don't play hard in the game then you will have to practice much harder than you played the game."

Summitt is searching for this team's identity and so far sporadic and unpredictable play is the only constant.

"I think when you have players that aren't invested in your program, it's hard to really arrive at the identity of a team," Summitt said. "I can't say defense is our thing. No. I can't say rebounding is what we do best. And obviously scoring is not what we do best. I am kind of looking. Did you see anything tonight that you think you can share with me?"

When a Kentucky writer noted that Summitt seemed at a loss with seven minutes left, she responded, "Absolutely."

However, she had no intention of surrendering and noted the team's run, which also annoyed her since the deficit underscored a lack of sufficient effort earlier in the game.

"They made a run but we've have done that a number of times," Summitt said. "We've come from behind five times this year and won, so they think that they can flip the switch and win and you're not going to do that when you have a team like Kentucky playing the way they're playing. They probably thought, ‘Well, this is a game we ought to be able to win,' but you've got to go win it. And maybe it would have been winnable if were focused on being a 40-minute team."

Kentucky, meanwhile, thought it could win the game and Roddy shared the transformation of a team that played Tennessee to five points, 69-64, in Knoxville on Jan. 8, to the one in Lexington on Feb. 19.

"We were like, ‘Let's just stay in game,' " Roddy said of the first matchup. "And once we saw we could beat them it was like, ‘Let's take this one over.' And this one we were like, ‘Let's beat this team. Not just stay in the game. Let's beat them. ' "

"We wanted it more," Franklin said. "That's the bottom line. We wanted it more. When we were at Tennessee we lost by five but we took that and we knew that we could beat this group of players and that's what we did."

When Roddy got in foul trouble in the second half, Kentucky managed to extend its lead, and Summitt considered inserted Cain into the game sooner to take advantage of her absence. But Cain had not started because of the lingering effects of a stomach illness, and Summitt opted for caution.

"Looking back that could have helped us," Summitt said. "But I thought Kelley did a great job when she was in there. She hasn't been feeling well the last couple of days so I didn't know how long to play her or how much she could go, but she obviously didn't seem to let that bother her when she was in there."

Cain was 7-11 from the field and logged 23 minutes.

"Every game I'm giving my all no matter what," Cain said. "I will go out there and do what coach asks me to do."

She sounded as if she wanted a few more freshmen to join her as the team tries to finish the season strong.

"I believe we can get them there; it's just a matter of them being receptive and jumping on the bandwagon and going," Cain said.

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