Lady Vols reach SEC semifinals

N. LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – When Holly Warlick and Daedra Charles-Furlow walked into the training room with shorts in hand after the 71-67 win over Florida, the players already in the frigid whirlpools let out a loud cheer. The coaches, fulfilling a promise, changed into shorts but kept on dress shirts and climbed into the tubs. If Tennessee wins today against Auburn, Pat Summitt will take the plunge.

Tennessee, 22-9, took it to Florida, 23-7, to open the game and then held on despite 14 second-half turnovers in the face of withering pressure from the Gators.

"This is a huge accomplishment because we were looking for payback, and this was a huge accomplishment for us to go out here and play as a team," said Briana Bass, who came off the bench to play a much-needed 26 minutes to help break the Florida pressure. "We had some ups and downs at time in the game, but we held our ground, and we ended up winning."

The rematch with Florida was part of what has been dubbed the "Revenge Tour" for the Lady Vols in Little Rock as the brackets lined up for Tennessee to face teams on Friday and Saturday that it lost to in the regular season.

"It's kind of ironic the path that we are having to take through this SEC Tournament," senior forward Alex Fuller said. "We lost to them earlier in the season, and we know that we don't want a team to beat us twice in one season."

First up was Florida, which defeated the Lady Vols, 66-57, on Feb. 8 in Gainesville. Next is Auburn, which defeated the Lady Vols, 82-68, on Jan. 25 in Auburn.

"I think when you play a veteran team, you're playing a team that obviously they have a good feel for each other," Coach Pat Summitt said. "I think this Auburn team has great rhythm on offense, they defend well. I think it's going to be a real challenge for us, and we know they've got great inside-out and they play off the bounce so well. … We've got to take care of the basketball and run what we want to run, both offensively and defensively, and just play to our strengths."

But for Tennessee to get to a Saturday semifinal it first had to get past Florida in the quarterfinals. After spending the month of February starting most ballgames in sluggish fashion, the Lady Vols allowed Florida to score first – a three-pointer by Sha Brooks – but then got four straight points from Kelley Cain to take a 4-3 lead that it never surrendered.

The 23 turnovers for the game is a stat that will have Summitt's eye – she will break down the film and decide overnight what to show the team before Saturday's game – but the coach applauded her team's ability to close out the game in what amounted to a brawl with bodies sprawling onto the court all evening at the Alltel Arena.

"I think they've taken several steps forward," Summitt said of the youngest team she has ever assembled in 35 years. "We got a little tougher, and they're playing a little harder and playing better together.

"A couple of them tried to give in to (fatigue) and we weren't having it. I was like, ‘Not now.' "

As the Lady Vols took turns filling up two whirlpools in a training room – Jenny Moshak's method of recovery of their legs – it also soothed the assorted bumps and bruises sustained by everyone who took the court.

Cain limped her way into the water but declared herself OK for Saturday.

"It's just something that I've got to play through and play for my team," said Cain, who maintained her sense of humor when asked how her knee was feeling.

"It's kind of cold right now," said Cain, who was conducting the post-game interview with her lower body submerged in water. "But it will be fine."

Angie Bjorklund, who went the entire 40 minutes, had scrapes and marks on her arms. Shekinna Stricklen got into the whirlpool with an icepack on her sore left shoulder, which she injured during the game after crashing to the floor. She became very familiar with the hardwood in her 31 minutes on the floor

When asked if she spent more time upright or sprawled on the court Stricklen said, "I'm going to say on the floor. But I've just got to stay tough and get right back up."

Stricklen did, minus one trip to the locker room in the second half for treatment of the shoulder. She also had to go to the sideline once to get some wrap on her arm because it was bleeding. But Stricklen likely led the team in floor burns as she hit the deck on offense and defense.

As she got ready to take her turn in the whirlpool Stricklen outlined the aches – hamstring, knees, elbow and shoulder.

"They all hurt," Stricklen said. "That was the most physical game I can ever remember."

Even Glory Johnson, a player whose game is predicated on physicality, noted how tough the going was in the paint and open floor. Florida's Sha Brooks fouled out with 2:30 left in the game and Tennessee clinging to a seven-point lead, 64-57, after she rode Johnson out of bounds on a breakaway attempt. Johnson hit one of two free throws, and Florida lost its deadliest long-range shooter and scorer.

"Some of those fouls were probably unnecessary on the other team's part," Johnson said.

The physicality of the game also took its toll on the Gators.

In the first half, Brooks slid under the 6'6 Cain as she went up for a rebound and took the worst end of the deal when Cain, with her feet now out from under her, tumbled over and landed on the 5'7 Brooks. The senior guard left the game periodically during both halves to get treatment for her neck.

"She fell on my neck and I just had to get over that," said Brooks, who still torched Tennessee with 22 points. "The coach said we had a ballgame to play. I did kind of let it take me out of my game, but I'm fine right now."

Cain also was hacked by Florida's Marshae Dotson in the second half, and the two post players exchanged some words. Cain chose her words carefully after the game, but she has been a target for rough play since establishing herself as a go-to player for Tennessee.

"I thought it was an unnecessary foul," Cain said. "It was just one of those heat-of-the-moment things. I don't like getting that way, but sometimes people push my buttons."

Tennessee at least got to the free throw line in the second game against the Gators and hit 14-21. Florida was 14-20 from the stripe.

Dotson had 20 points for the Gators, to complement the 22 provided by Brooks as the senior inside-out combo nearly brought Florida back. As a team the Gators shot 42.1 percent.

"Our game was very physical, and these two guys battled," Florida Coach Amanda Butler said. "Marshae seems like she gets fouled on every single play. There is going to be bumps and bruises and falling down, and sometimes somebody lands on your head and sometimes they land on your neck, and that's one of the things that makes these two so special is they do get back up and keep fighting."

It's also what made the win special for Tennessee, which has seven freshmen on the roster and five who played significant minutes on Friday. They didn't back down from the physical play.

"I think we handled it very well and in crunch time we came together," forward Alyssia Brewer said. "Earlier this season we might have fallen apart and given them the lead back, but we didn't do that. We stayed together as a team, and we won."

Tennessee was led by Bjorklund with 25 points on 9-15 shooting – including 6-10 from behind the arc – one night after she was held scoreless for the first time all season. She moved into eighth place on Tennessee's all-time list for made three-pointers with 125, passing Tamika Catchings (122) and Abby Conklin (124).

"You can't let what happened yesterday affect today," Bjorklund said. "Just come in with a scorer's mentality all the time. I moved a lot more without the ball."

"Awesome," said Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick of Bjorklund's job on the perimeter. "Worked hard to get the ball, and that's what she's got to do. She's got to play before she gets the ball, and that's what she did tonight."

Also reaching double digits were Stricklen with 18 points and Cain with 10.

The guard combo of Stricklen and Bjorklund accounted for 43 points on 15-29 shooting, but the pair also combined for 11 turnovers – seven from Stricklen and four from Bjorklund.

"Florida came at us," Bjorklund said. "We had way too many turnovers, but we just need to clean that up. We played through it, and we just have to be more composed in that situation next time."

Cain also had four turnovers, and Johnson and Brewer had three each as the ball was squirting free from all positions on the floor in the second half.

"We could have controlled that," Brewer said. "There were just some mental lapses we had in the second half."

One player who was able to take care of the ball was Bass, who had three assists to just one turnover and also played solid defense, including pressuring Brooks during her minutes on the floor.

"She said she was going to get her defense better, and she did," Warlick said. "We've been waiting for her to be consistent, and she's been consistent the last two games."

Bass told her teammates before the postseason started that she was going to be a better teammate on the floor.

"I told my team that I was going to step up for them and I try to keep my word," Bass said. "I told them I was going to play better defense and box out and just give them all I've got and leave everything out of the court."

"Before the tournament started Bree told us that she was going to get down, play defense, play hard all the time, and she kept her word so what more could you ask for," Cain said.

Bass' newfound ability to keep Brooks in front of her – she even drew a charge on the wing after a push-off – and her already-solid ability to push the ball down the floor meant additional minutes for the freshman point guard.

"We needed guard play," Summitt said. "That's one of the reason I shortened my bench. I needed her to break the pressure. I think guard play is so important for any team to be successful and right now those three (Bass, Bjorklund and Stricklen) are the most efficient. I think eventually Alicia (Manning) will be ready, and I think with Amber (Gray) she's probably going to wind up having to play more inside than out."

The first half featured three-point shooting from Bjorklund – she was 3-5 from behind the arc at the break – and solid defense at all five spots on the floor as the Lady Vols built a 17-point lead to take a 38-21 lead into the locker room at halftime.

Florida came charging back in the second half, but Summitt didn't take issue with her players' effort, as she did in the sluggish first half against Alabama in the Lady Vols' tourney opener.

"I don't think we were laidback," Summitt said. "We may have missed some defensive assignments and had some turnovers, but I think they were focused, and Angie and Shekinna did a great job with the guard play."

Tennessee's game plan was to get the ball inside – Summitt was peeved after the Gators got to the line 29 times to eight for the Lady Vols in Gainesville and still enough so that she brought up the numbers unprompted in her post-game press conference in her opening remarks after Friday's game.

"I was like we're going to the paint, and we're going to be aggressive," Summitt said later as she stood in the training room and watched as two of her assistants nearly froze in the whirlpool.

"I won a bet," Warlick said with chattering teeth. "We said, ‘If they win' – they're complaining about the whirlpool – I said, ‘That's nothing. I'll get in if y'all win. No big deal.' "

Bass had smiled and offered her whirlpool to Warlick when the coach walked in. She didn't tell her it was much colder than the larger one, which Charles-Furlow shared with three clearly amused players, until Warlick was submerged.

"Now you tell me!" Warlick said in mock outrage. "It's cold!"

If the Lady Vols beat Auburn and make it to the title game, Summitt said she would endure the whirlpool on Saturday after the game.

"Pat is getting in," Warlick said.

What about Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood?

"He's too hard-core," Bjorklund said. "He would dive in head-first probably."

"Dean is too smart," Warlick said.

"I'll make Dean get in, too," Summitt said as the players laughed.

It's been an interesting season in terms of motivating the team for the coaches, and the whirlpool baths were another component and a fun way to connect with the players after taking away their plush locker room and practice gear.

For the coaches the cold baths were lighthearted fun. For the players it's to help ensure they can play another game and, if need be, a fourth one.

"It's the coldest whirlpool I've ever been in," Bass said. "It works, but it's the coldest whirlpool I've ever been in. I do it all the time back in Tennessee, but it's never this cold."

"It makes my legs feel fresh and new," Johnson said. "It's horrible while you're in it, but afterwards you feel great. It definitely does work."

"It's a lifesaver," Brewer said. "No pain, no gain."

Bjorklund took a turn in the designated coldest one – the sophomore sharpshooter likely needed it after playing the entire game – and earned praise from Summitt, not so much for her shooting but her defense.

"Her three-point shooting was really good, but her defense has been solid," Summitt said. "A lot of times when you're a great offensive player and you're expected to score a lot of points your defense isn't worth anything, and she has been solid, even when she couldn't make a shot (in other games). I'm really proud of that. Tonight to have the complete package she was the best thing we had going on the perimeter, and Shekinna was next."

Tennessee shot 53.2 percent as a team and 50.0 percent from long range.

Bjorklund and Stricklen took advantage of the bottled-up paint area to find open spots on the perimeter. Bjorklund was particularly effective as she went 3-5 from long range in both halves.

"Angie is incredible," Johnson said. "I wouldn't have it any other way. I am glad she is on my team, and I am just going to keep on feeding her. If they double team on me or Kelley we're just going to kick it out to Angie because we know what she can do. We know what she is capable of and when she knocks down the shot it just helps the team so much more."

"As much as we could," Cain said, when asked how much they were looking for Bjorklund. "Because she was hot. Get her the ball."

Bjorklund hits threes within the offense, in transition and off an in-bounds play. Her last two were aided by Cain, who stole the ball on Florida's end. It ended up with Bjorklund in transition. The other came off an in-bound play when Bass received the pass and found Cain, who fed it to Bjorklund. She didn't limit herself to long-range shots and also banked in a drive in the second half.

"She saved us," Bass said. "Without Angie I don't know where we would be. I'm grateful that Angie stepped up for us big time and hit some big-time shots."

The attention paid to Cain helped free up some slivers of space for Bjorklund. Cain was 4-4 from the field and got inside help from Brewer, who was 1-3 from the field and 3-3 from the free throw line to finish with five points. It's been a tournament in which Brewer has been able to effectively relieve Cain or play alongside her after struggling through the last month of the season with consistency on both ends.

"Words can't describe how much it's helping, just a lot," Cain said. "It's one of those things that it's like it's about time because we know she can do it. It's just a matter of her going out in a game and doing it."

Brewer was sitting beside Cain in the whirlpool while she spoke and nodded her head. Brewer had been taking rushed shots at the goal. In Little Rock she has been physical to the basket but with a deft touch once she arrives there.

"I need to go hard getting up and down the court, but whenever I get the ball I need to have composure," Brewer said.

Composure is also a word that Johnson has heard since last fall from Summitt and the other coaches.

"I'd be a millionaire, yes I would," Johnson said when asked of total riches if she had $1 for every time she has heard that word for the past six months. "I've definitely got to slow down because me rushing my shots isn't going to help my team any."

Johnson also had heard the word from her teammates.

"It helps us and it helps her as well offensively and defensively," Fuller said. "Coach has been stressing to her composure and we all kind of try to tell her that also, and she's been doing a really good job of having composure."

Johnson was 3-6 from the field and 2-4 from the line to tally eight points. She also had eight rebounds – as did Cain – and added a block.

Two of Johnson's baskets came on full-court moves to the basket – one of the advantages of having Johnson guard on the perimeter because it gives her a head start. Johnson with a head start means a clear path to the rim.

That could be deployed more often "as she gets more and more comfortable with it," Summitt said. "I think for her right now she is still trying to find what she wants to do offensively. Her pull-up game is good. I think her face-up game is better than back to the basket, but she still finds a way to get to the rim."

Johnson also doesn't need a head start. She got a defensive rebound in the first half, went coast to coast and finished with a finger roll. She also cut to her left at the last second to avoid the charge. A week ago that play would have ended in an offensive foul.

"I can go crazy on defense, but when it comes to offense I just need to slow down a whole lot more and that's what I've been trying to do," Johnson said.

Johnson also found Bjorklund in the first half to assist on a three-pointer by kicking the ball out of the paint. The half ended with Bass assisting on a Bjorklund jumper – the Lady Vols had 10 assists on 15 first-half baskets – and just 21 points for the opponent, a season low for Tennessee since allowing just 20 points to Ole Miss on Jan. 29.

"Angie stepped up for us," Fuller said. "She knew we needed her, and she stepped up."

But Florida didn't go quietly in the second half and the lead dipped into single digits, 45-37, with 12:04 left in the game.

"I was very proud of our second-half effort," Butler said. "I think we had opportunities. They battled and fought and weren't going to go down easily. And obviously we won the second half, but the ballgame is two halves."

That's a lesson Tennessee has learned the hard way this season, but despite being out-scored 46-33 in the second half and letting the lead fall to three points, 60-57, with 3:50 left in the game, the Lady Vols held on. Cain, who has struggled from the line, hit both free throws after the Dotson foul to push the lead to five, and layups and jumpers from Stricklen padded the cushion to 10 points, 69-59, with 1:13 left. Two Gator free throws and a jumper left the final margin at four points, 71-67.

Tennessee now has a 60-16 record in the SEC tourney overall and a 26-4 one in second round play. They got it with Lady Vol staples – stops when they had to have one to hold the lead and rebounding by prevailing on the boards, 35-26.

"We knew we had it in us, and we had revenge," Johnson said. "We knew we needed to show them what we were all about because the first game we didn't come strong."

The fact Tennessee never lost the lead and closed out the game provided a young team with some much-needed confidence.

"It boosts it a lot because we knew that they were going to make a run at some point in the game, but we answered their run with our defense," Fuller said. "And not buckling in adversity."

"It's a big confidence booster for us, but we can't let that get to our heads," Brewer said. "We've still got to play the game like how we need to play it."

"That means a lot because it means that we're growing up and we're coming to our peak and it's time to step up and leave everything out on the court," Bass said.

Tennessee also will have to repeat the performance in less than 24 hours. Auburn's starters also logged a lot of minutes in the 71-65 win over Ole Miss – DeWanna Bonner and Sherell Hobbs played 39 minutes while Whitney Boddie went 38 minutes – but the Tigers will be playing just their second game to a third one for Tennessee.

"I think right now it's more of what's in your head and your heart, you know?" Summitt said. "You've got to be mentally strong and not give in, and you've got to have the heart and desire to go play every possession.

"Playing them, if we could get a win, it would be great for this young team and that would mean obviously we would move toward a championship. There is a lot invested for Auburn; there is a lot for Tennessee."

Johnson and her teammates still have revenge in the back of their minds.

"They have more to lose than we do – they beat us – and we just have to go strong," Johnson said. "We win or we lose and we go home. We definitely don't want to go home. That's not something we're looking to do.

"Either we go strong or we go home."

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