Tennessee takes tourney opener

N. LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Kelley Cain lowered herself into a frigid whirlpool after Thursday's game, pondered the question, smiled and then nodded. She should send Candace Parker a text with some friendly smack talk after tying her freshman record for blocks. Cain, a gentle giant for the Lady Vols, has developed some swagger in the latter part of the season – a welcome sight for Coach Pat Summitt.

"Yeah, I should," Kelley Cain said, extending her legs across the frigid water, which had just been emptied of four Lady Vols to accommodate the 6'6 freshmen center. "I didn't even know. That's just what I do. I like to block shots."

Candace Parker set the freshman record for blocks with seven against Michigan State in 2005, and Cain tied it with seven swats against Alabama in Thursday's 68-49 win in the Lady Vols' opening round game at the SEC Tournament.

The tourney record for blocks is eight by Angela Gorsica of Vanderbilt in 1995 and Wanda Holloway of Georgia in 1981. Cain now shares second place on the blocks list at the SEC tourney with Sylvia Fowles of LSU (2006); Marita Payne of Auburn (2005) and Dee Dee Franklin of LSU (1989).

"She's our anchor," said senior forward Alex Fuller, who had one block. "That's what Kelley does. She's 6'6 so of course she's going to be blocking shots and just hanging it down in the inside."

"I think I should," Cain said. "God blessed me with height so I'm using it."

Cain is a gentle giant and one of the nicest Lady Vols to ever wear orange, but she is developing some swagger in her game on the court.

"She's not that nice," Pat Summitt said in the post-game press conference while Cain, who had been suffering from nausea and stomach discomfort during the game, lowered her head and laughed. "No, I think Kelley, when she first got to Tennessee, obviously very soft-spoken and her game was not as impressive as it is now.

"I think our staff has done a great job of challenging our post game, and there is a toughness to it now. Kelley has a toughness. You know, she takes a lot of licks in the paint."

Cain is in her comfort zone in the paint – or along its edges – and she communicates with the perimeter player with a shake of her head if she thinks she is not in place to receive the ball. She also can scan the perimeter for an open player – much like a quarterback going through a progression of reads – if she doesn't think she's in good position to take a shot.

Against the Crimson Tide she looked to the corner, wing and then the opposite wing from her spot on the low block to find Shekinna Stricklen uncovered. Stricklen missed the three-pointer – Tennessee was 7-21 from long range as a team – but the play showed the ability of Cain to pass out of a double team and find the open player.

"She draws attention from more than one player at a time, and a lot of times she is caught in double teams," Summitt said. "I just like her fight, and I just like the development of her game."

Tennessee, 21-9, also got solid post play from freshman forward Alyssia Brewer, who was 4-7 from the field for eight points and pulled down eight rebounds. She also added two steals and a block.

Brewer had struggled for the past two months on both sides of the ball, but she unleashed her power game Thursday with a deft touch, especially on a turn-around deep in the paint to give the Lady Vols a 51-41 lead with 10:43 left in the game. She had a Vicki Baugh-like drive to the basket in the first half off a high post pass from Briana Bass to give Tennessee a 25-23 lead in the first half and stroked a 15-footer on the next possession.

"It's just time to step up," Brewer said. "No more playing around. It's do or die now. Everybody has to step up and I think all of us did a good job of doing that."

"We've been waiting a long time to see that," Summitt said. "So glad to see Lyssi come to play in the paint as well."

"When she puts her mind to something she can do it," fellow freshman Alicia Manning said.

Manning had eight points off the bench for Tennessee – part of 35 points the Lady Vol bench scored – and logged 10 minutes of playing time. Every Lady Vol hit double figures in minutes in a game plan intended to preserve as much energy as possible for what Tennessee hopes is an extended stay in Little Rock.

"That definitely helps," said Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine.

Moshak led a parade of players from their small locker room to a large training room in the Alltel Arena and plopped them into cold whirlpool tubs amid assorted protests and shrieks at first contact with the water.

Fuller, however, seemed relaxed and calmly answered questions while the freshmen shivered or declared themselves beyond the status of numb.

"That was good," Fuller said of the minutes logged by all 10 players on the roster. "We were subbing in and out. Everybody got their minutes. Everybody got to play and everybody gave us something good throughout the game."

Stricklen led Tennessee with 16 points and got on track from behind the arc with 3-5 from long range. Cain scored 12 points on 5-8 shooting, and Glory Johnson, who started the second half, added 11 points on 4-5 shooting.

Johnson had a highlight-reel baseline move in the first half with a first step to the basket that smoked her defender. She soared above everyone on the floor to rebound a missed three-pointer by Angie Bjorklund to draw Tennessee to 13-10 in the first half after Alabama jumped out to a 9-2 lead.

Tennessee trailed at halftime, 31-30, but Johnson got a putback on the first possession of the second half to give the Lady Vols a 32-31 lead and start a 12-0 run. Johnson also hit a 15-footer during that run to extend the lead to 10 points, 46-36, with 12:44 left in the game.

"Anytime Glory is playing with composure and playing with good decisions and anytime she does that it adds to our depth, and we can go with three bigs, which is not uncommon for us right now," Summitt said. "And I thought Glory had tremendous composure and did a great job on the defensive end and, again, on the offensive end I liked her reads and her decision making."

"It made us a whole lot better," Stricklen said. "She rebounded better, her composure was great. She was just finishing and making great shots."

Tennessee had a huge lineup on the floor in the first half when Summitt deployed five freshmen both because of foul trouble – Bjorklund had picked up her second – and to spread out minutes. The 6'6 Cain and 6'3 Brewer were inside, and the 6'2 Stricklen, 6'3 Johnson and 6'1 Manning were on the perimeter.

"With the perimeter play they have out there they're long and lean – 6'2, 6'3 makes a big difference in shooting the basketball," Alabama Coach Wendell Hudson said. "That affected us some. And we got the ball in the paint, and they're long and lean inside, and they're long and lean everywhere, so it makes a difference."

The most-effective lineup of the first half – the one that wiped out the deficit and got Tennessee the lead – was when Fuller played with four freshmen, Bass, Johnson, Brewer and Amber Gray.

"I didn't realize it was me and four freshmen," Fuller said. "We were just getting the ball inside. That was what was beating them and that was what they couldn't guard so we were just getting the ball inside, rebounding and getting stops."

That was when Brewer went to work inside – Gray cleaned up one miss with an offensive board and layup – and Johnson hit two free throws to give Tennessee its first lead of the game, 21-20, with 5:23 left.

Alabama got it back with a three-pointer by freshman Ericka Russell – she was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team this week – and the Crimson Tide capped off its own solid first half by taking a lead into the locker room.

"I thought the first half was a constant struggle for us, but I have to give a lot of credit to Alabama," Summitt said. "I thought they did some good things and obviously Russell had her way. She was six for 13, just didn't do a good job of defending."

Alabama, 13-17, was led by Russell with 18 points – she hit 5-10 from long range – and Varisia Raffington with 11.

"We played with energy and intensity in the first half," Russell said. "We had nothing to lose, and we wanted to come out and play hard.

Raffington was part of a four-point play right before halftime when Manning fouled her on a made three-pointer.

"In the first half I thought one of the differences was we made shots, and I think that always gives you a chance to win a basketball game," Hudson said. "Second half, we talked about it at halftime, about coming out and we needed to come out strong. And we came out with good effort, but we didn't make the shots. Had some good looks but didn't make the shots. And Tennessee was on a roll and once they started making shots it was the difference in the basketball game."

Alabama shot just 30 percent for the game and 21.9 percent in the second half. Tennessee shot 50 percent for the game and 50 percent in both halves. The Lady Vols put up that number despite an 0-7 night from Bjorklund, who has been under the weather all week with a severe cold.

"It was just one of those things," said Bjorklund, who failed to score for the first time all season and had 37 points in the last two games prior to Thursday. "I had some good looks. I think I was just rushing it a little bit."

The Lady Vols also dominated on the boards, 44-29, led by eight rebounds by Brewer and seven from Johnson. Cain and Stricklen had six each. Tennessee also got its turnovers under control – nine in the first half and just five in the second half.

Stricklen had just two points at the break but added 14 in the second half to go with seven assists, which tied a season high.

"The first half I felt like I was laidback and wasn't pushing the ball," Stricklen said. "And the second half it was something totally different, intensity was higher and our defense picked up, and everyone was just fired up, and we just got it going in the second half."

"Shekinna did a great job in her decision making and became more aggressive at both ends of the floor," Summitt said. "Exactly what we needed from her."

Tennessee also got a solid stat line from Bass, who relieved Stricklen at the point and scored 5 points on 2-2 shooting. She also had three assists, no turnovers and a steal.

"I thought we got good play off the bench from Briana, and it was important for us to have balance in our minutes, and she did a good job," Summitt said.

Assistant Coach Daedra Charles-Furlow prepared the scout for the Alabama game and she had emphasized the importance of contributions from all 10 players.

"Coach D had the scout for this game and she said if we've got four games everybody is going to have to put in those minutes so we'll all be fresh for the next game coming up," Manning said.

That is Tennessee's goal – to make it to Sunday, despite the Thursday start – and the bench players got the message, especially Brewer, who turned in one of her best games in the paint.

"Everybody is going to have to step in there and get their minutes because we have three more games ahead of us," Brewer said. "I think all of us put out a good effort and helping each other out and keeping our motivation up."

"This is such a mental game," Manning said. "It's not just physical. It's a very mental game. I think second half we put a lot of stuff together and looked pretty good. We feel relief (to get the win), but we know we've got to come out every game like it's our last from here on out because we can't have a first half like that again."

The sluggish start in the first half followed by an energetic second half has been a familiar pattern for Tennessee this season.

"I think with this team sometimes we get off to slow starts," Summitt said. "Obviously it can cost us against most teams. (Thursday) we managed to pull together at halftime and I thought they came out with just a different commitment and a different focus. But that's part of youth.

"I don't know how you fast forward it, but I always go back and think and would I rather have talent or experience? And I would rather have talent. But right now they should be a little more experienced than they play sometimes early."

Florida, 23-6, is next up for Tennessee at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on Friday (FSN-South), and the Lady Vols want to avenge a 66-57 loss in Gainesville in which they held a lead late but allowed Sha Brooks to single-handedly wipe it out. The senior guard from Jackson, Tenn., has averaged 21.8 points a game against Tennessee in her career.

"If you have an opportunity, you've got to seize that opportunity at that moment in time, and we didn't," Summitt said. "We couldn't make shots, didn't make shots, turned the ball over, didn't rebound. We played probably the worst in that last probably six, seven minutes of the game. The good thing is that we have a chance (Friday) to see where we are. We play this team again on a neutral floor instead of on their home court."

The Gators lost three straight games after the win over Tennessee but have regrouped, according to Florida Coach Amanda Butler. Florida finished at 9-5 in conference play – same as the Lady Vols – and earned the No. 4 seed to get a first round bye in Little Rock.

"The two things that I want to know are: Can I trust you and how hard are you going to work?" Butler said. "And conversely I'm going to try to show you those two things, too. They've built tremendous trust amongst themselves, and they've worked very, very hard, and I think that's why we've even exceeded expectations. I think this team has known from the beginning that they had a chance to be special, that they've had a chance to be one of the best teams that's ever played here, and they chose to set their expectations higher."

Florida was delayed getting out of Athens on Sunday on the last day of the regular season – a resurgent Georgia team won that game – because of a "random snowstorm," Butler said.

"It's another advantage of not having to play on Thursday that we have that extra day of preparation," Butler said. "There aren't going to be second chances; there aren't going to be next games. This is the win and advance mentality. I'm really confident that they'll be ready for it."

Tennessee took the approach that with such a young team perhaps the Thursday game could be to its advantage because seven players got their first postseason experience.

"I think it was real important," Fuller said. "I think it was good for us to have to play on Thursday, maybe not good for our legs, but good for our mental state as far as what we have to do to win."

"That's the good thing," Stricklen said. "It gets the nerves out and everything – just come back fresh and ready to go."

"It feels great to have one under our belt," Brewer said. "We're just hoping for three more."

Fuller, a fifth-year senior, is playing her last postseason for Tennessee, and has a well-balanced outlook on her final journey as a Lady Vol.

"That's all you can do – enjoy it and keep winning," Fuller said.

ODDS AND ENDS:

LOUDEST CHEER: That for Tennessee's Shekinna Stricklen during the player introductions. The 6'2 freshman is from nearby Morrilton.

"It felt great," Stricklen. "It felt like the state following you in high school when you're at home and in your hometown. It just felt great."

DEFYING PHYSICS: The shot by Alicia Manning in the first half that hit the back iron. Instead of the ball caroming for a long rebound, it deadened – think sticking a putt on the green in golf – and then rolled slowly through the net. Manning just shook her head as she headed down court.

Asked later if she had ever hit a shot like that, she thought for a few seconds.

"I think … no, never," Manning said. "I shot it, it was looking good and it hit the back and just kind of died and just rolled in, so I was kind of happy. It was just one of those shots you know you lucked out, really."

WATERED DOWN: When Kelley Cain was asked if cold whirlpools were the worse part of being a Lady Vol, she said, "There are other things that are worse."

When Shekinna Stricklen was told that an interview would help take her mind off the temperature, she shook her head and winced.

"I hate it, but I trust her, even though I hate it," Stricklen said.

Stricklen was referring to Jenny Moshak.

"Recovery," Moshak said, and added it would be supplemented with leg massages. "It pulls out the lactic acid. It stops any micro-trauma. It aids with any residual swelling. We'll also go back and have them elevate their legs. We'll get them hydrated and get them fueled so they can go three more in a row."

BEST QUIP: That by Tennessee's Alyssia Brewer when asked how she was enduring the pain of a cold whirlpool immediately after the game.

"It was painful earlier, but now I can't feel my legs so I'm good," Brewer said.

SECOND-BEST QUIP: When a reporter reminded Pat Summitt that she was the maddest she had been all season after the loss to Florida, she responded, "That was true until we lost to Kentucky."


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