Lady Vols get ready for tourney

The Lady Vols returned to the practice court Monday afternoon for a relatively short two-hour session after the win over Vandy and will take off Tuesday, as the team needs the rest. Several players are battling chest colds – two shot very well Sunday despite the ailments – but their voices Monday indicated they remain under the weather.

"What we wanted to do was go over a lot of offensive sets and work on our defense in the half-court, put in some looks offensively, some little wrinkles that might help us out," Coach Pat Summitt said after Monday's session ended. "We did some transition, didn't want to do a lot (up and down). Tomorrow we'll have off and we'll go real light on Wednesday."

After a short session in Knoxville on Wednesday the team will depart for Little Rock, Ark., for the 2009 SEC Women's Basketball Tournament at Alltel Arena.

"Long way away from Knoxville," Summitt said with a smile when asked for her first thought about the SEC tourney.

Tennessee (20-9) is the No. 5 seed and will face Alabama (13-16), the No. 12 seed, on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern (FSN).

The presence of Tennessee on the first day could set or approach an attendance record for Session 2 of the tourney. (Session 1 is the afternoon games; Session 2 is the evening ones.) The previous record is 6,321 that was set in Chattanooga in 1997. That was also the last time the Lady Vols played on the first day.

But the distance from Knoxville could also cut into attendance, although area fans could turn out to see Tennessee, Summitt and Shekinna Stricklen, who hails from nearby Morrilton, which is about 30 minutes from Little Rock. The tourney was last held in Little Rock in 2006, when Tennessee beat LSU for the title.

"They do a great job there," Summitt said. "I don't know how many fans we'll have, but just in terms of the setup and the hospitality it was a good arena for us."

Stricklen's family and friends will do their part, as they did when Tennessee played in Fayetteville during the regular season and they needed to charter a bus to accommodate the number that wanted to attend.

"They will be there," Stricklen said. "Everyone will be off work (since Tennessee plays in the evening). That helps a lot."

Summitt used her 12th starting lineup of the season Sunday in the 75-66 win over Vanderbilt when Sydney Smallbone, a sophomore, replaced Glory Johnson, a freshman, and the coach had not yet determined which first five will get the nod for the next game.

"I haven't decided yet," Summitt said. "I thought she (Smallbone) did fine. She didn't feel well today. She's fighting some bug. But the one thing that I liked about it is that gave us more veterans on the floor and also to give her a chance because I hadn't played her that much to see how she was going to do early."

Seven players reached double-digit minutes in an indication that Summitt is shortening the bench's minutes as postseason beckons.

"I put Lyssi (Brewer) in for a short period of time, Amber (Gray) in for a short period of time," Summitt said. "I really anticipated going into that game that I would shorten the bench just because of how Vanderbilt plays and I thought we needed people who would keep people in front of them and obviously sprint the floor hard. I thought what we did was pretty effective."

Summitt also wanted rebounders, and Johnson grabbed six in her 20 minutes on the floor. She would have logged more minutes if not for fouling out with 4:33 left in the game.

Johnson knows that changes in the starting lineup are part of the learning process for freshmen.

"Of course but being young isn't really an excuse," Johnson said. "She talked about coming off the bench playing hard. She was happy with me yesterday but there are those days when I struggle coming off the bench. If my shots are not falling on offense my defense has to be there. Otherwise I am going to struggle the whole game.

"I drew my first charge. I was happy. I was very, very happy."

Johnson also had a highlight-reel block after a Vandy player got loose in transition in the first half.

"I was trying not to foul her, but at the same time I did not want her to score," Johnson said. "They were beating us on transition layups at the beginning of the game and that was hurting us, and knowing I could stop a transition layup I went for it, and it was clean. I know it energizes my teammates."

Johnson also had her eye on another basketball game this past weekend. Her high school alma mater, Webb School of Knoxville, played Saturday evening in Nashville for a state title.

"Yes, state champs!" Johnson said. "I couldn't go because we had an 11 o'clock curfew, so I said text me and let me know how they're doing. I'm so happy and they beat the team that beat us by two last year, my senior year."

Revenge can be a powerful motivator, as Tennessee found our Sunday. After losing to Vanderbilt in Nashville last January, the Lady Vols didn't want to allow a sweep. They also were playing for Alex Fuller's senior night, Associate Coach Holly Warlick, who always wants to beat Vandy, and the fans.

"We had a whole list of people," Angie Bjorklund said. "That's all she (Summitt) had on the board. When you're doing something, working hard for someone else, for your teammates, your fans, it's almost like you want to work harder.

"She went in at halftime and she was like, ‘We're not losing this game.' I think that was it. We were like, ‘All right, we're not losing this game.' When Coach has a lot of confidence in us that really helps us out."

Bjorklund and Stricklen combined to shoot 7-11 from long range despite the fact both players are fighting colds.

"We both were feeling it last night and we shot well," Stricklen said.

She meant feeling it with the ball in their hands, not the fact both felt poorly. On Monday, they both sounded hoarse.

"It's something going around our team," Bjorklund said. "It starts in the head and works down in the chest and coughing. When you have that chest cold it really is hard to breathe out there, but we should be good."

Stricklen had some breathing issues in the first half, but Summitt challenged her to play through it in the second half.

"There are no excuses with Coach," Bjorklund said.

"She still cares," Stricklen said Monday with a smile. "She's just going to get the best out of you no matter what. You're sick or you're having a good day or a bad day she's still going to get the best out of you."

Stricklen and Bjorklund looked their best on offense – they combined for 34 points – and shot 11-22 overall from the field. They also combined for 13 boards and 10 assists.

"We're trying to click more on offense," Bjorklund said. "We're starting to figure out how to work better together and I think now with Kelley (Cain) inside and our dominant inside it's starting to open things up outside, too, so that's nice for me."

The result was the 20th win of the season for the Lady Vols to continue the streak of 33 consecutive seasons with 20 or more wins for Summitt.

"Whew, I'm glad we got there," Bjorklund said.

The win also ensured that Tennessee, which lost to LSU last Thursday, remained in the AP poll. The Lady Vols dropped just one spot to 19th.

"Really?" Summitt said. "That surprises me. What matters is that we go to this tournament ready to play."

Summitt did her part to get Sunday's win with her attire. She wore an orange pantsuit and her staff wore matching orange blazers.

"I loved it," Bjorklund said. "She needs to wear that every game. We had no idea the assistant coaches were going to walk out like that. We were like, ‘What?!' It was great."

The crowd of 14,157 roared when Summitt entered the court and then really let loose when they saw the assistants. The outfit also prompted a phone call from Villanova Coach Harry Perretta, a friend of Summitt's.

"Harry Perretta called me, and he was dying laughing and he goes, ‘I had to wear sunglasses today,' " Summitt said. "I said, ‘Sunglasses? For what?' He said, ‘That orange outfit.' "

Summitt vowed after the game to remain in orange, and she reiterated that Monday. But the assistants might not all don orange jackets. Dean Lockwood has agreed to wear an orange tie.

"I think he's going to go be Dean," Summitt teased. "That's OK. Doesn't bother me. I can go anything alone when I have to. I'll just go alone in my orange."

Summitt estimated she had six or seven different orange outfits, and she was ready to unveil them in the postseason. Orange shoes, however, would be a game-day decision.

"I've got it covered," Summitt said.


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