Lady Vols bow out in first round

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – Kelley Cain sat on the floor in the locker room and spoke softly as tears rolled down her face about not being able to help her team. Glory Johnson sat nearby and choked up as she tried to talk about losing senior Alex Fuller. Angie Bjorklund said if it the 71-55 loss to Ball State didn't inspire players to work on their games over the summer they didn't belong at Tennessee.

It was a strong statement from the mild-mannered Angie Bjorklund, who came out ready to play Sunday evening on both ends of the floor, and one her coach, Pat Summitt, readily agreed with outside the locker room.

The motivation had already reached the first-year players – Alyssia Brewer said no matter what she accomplished at Tennessee she will never forget losing in the first round, and Kelley Cain said the memory would stick all summer and every time she took the floor next season.

It was an historic loss for Tennessee, 22-11, because the Lady Vols entered Sunday's game with a 42-0 record in the first and second rounds of NCAA tourney play and had never failed to make a Sweet 16 in 27 years. They won't even get the chance in Bowling Green at E.A. Diddle Arena – Iowa State beat East Tennessee State, 85-53, in the first game and will play Ball State on Tuesday evening for the right to advance to the Berkeley Region.

Tennessee will return to Knoxville and will be in an unfamiliar place in March – at home. Summitt can use time in the spring for workouts before the players are dismissed for the summer, and she indicated Sunday that she would take advantage of the opportunity.

"If nobody is motivated right now – the returning players to get in the gym – then I don't know … they need to leave," Bjorklund said. "Everyone needs to go this summer, in the off-season, preseason, everyone. I just hope it motivates our team."

Bjorklund, who spent considerable time in Pratt Pavilion this season, was matter of fact in tone, and Summitt endorsed her statement.

"I totally agree with her," Summitt said. "If you're not going to get in there and bust your butt and put in a lot of shots then you don't belong at Tennessee. You just don't belong."

Summitt's message to her team immediately after the loss was to challenge them to be ready for next season.

"It's history, but it's not positive," Summitt said. "They've got time to think about it, and they've got to decide what they're going to do in the off-season because there were a lot of times this year I had to say, ‘Have you been in the gym?'

"We've got Pratt Pavilion. We've got a practice facility that is incredible, and a lot of these freshmen were not in the gym. Angie Bjorklund was in the gym. That's why Angie has had the kind of year that she's had. But some of our freshmen were not as invested, so now they've got a decision to make. We've got three players coming in (next season) that are pretty good players. I'm going to be anxious to see what the returning players (are) going to invest in their game."

Bjorklund continued her iron-woman effort by playing the entire 40 minutes. She had 14 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals. Freshman guard Shekinna Stricklen, who played 35 minutes, led Tennessee with 17 points and also added eight boards, two assists and a steal.

Cain was well on her way to a dominant game – she had 10 points on 5-7 shooting and eight rebounds in 14 minutes – but she had to leave the game with 4:27 left in the first half because of knee pain. She indicated to Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, that she got sideswiped in the knee.

After the game, Cain said she came down after taking a shot and felt someone roll onto the leg. She tried to stay in the game but had to hobble to the bench. Cain tried to warm up before the second half started but the pain was too great and she was barely able to cross the court. Moshak told Summitt that Cain was a no-go.

"I feel like I let my team down," said Cain, who was so upset after the game that she could barely speak above a whisper. "Usually I can bounce back from these things."

Cain had bounced back several times this season after sustaining collisions to the surgically repaired right knee, and the end of the season means she can finally have the screws removed that were put in place after her kneecap was realigned a year ago. The screws have migrated out and every time she takes a blow to the knee, the loose metal reverberates in the bone.

"Kelley goes out and that was a huge loss for us," Summitt said. "She was very efficient. Without Kelley we just didn't have the presence in the paint. Look what she did in the first half. As soon as Jenny told me she wasn't going to be able to play I knew that we had to get young players to play a big role and while they played some quality minutes, they weren't very efficient. Kelley, I thought when she was in there she gives us all a lot of confidence and so you take her away and it was too big of a loss for us to really be as efficient as we needed to be in the post game.

"I think we had some young players force some things, not that they didn't play with desire, but I thought they got really nervous. Glory was overanxious and Lyssi. We just didn't have the stability in the post game and then the guards get involved and they weren't making shots."

Alyssia Brewer was 1-5 from the field, and Glory Johnson was 1-6, although both did get on the boards. Brewer had 10 rebounds, and Johnson tallied seven.

Johnson said in the locker room that she had an unexpected case of the nerves when the game started.

"I know there are more things I could have done to help my team, and I was struggling," said Johnson, who like Cain, was visibly upset and crying. "I guess I just let nerves get to me. It doesn't normally happen. It kind of got me a little bit and normally nerves don't get to me. It was different and trying to figure out a way to handle it. Just knowing that it was all or nothing and this was the bigger tournament.

"I'll know better next time. That's not an excuse to be honest. I should have been out of that a long time ago. It was kind of different trying to handle it in the middle of the game."

Johnson wasn't alone as players rushed shots and missed at point-blank range. Brewer started the second half for Cain and while she had three assists – two of those came in the first half on high-low feeds to Cain – two blocks and steal, she couldn't establish an offensive presence on the low block.

"I just feel like we were too robotic," Brewer said. "We just didn't go out there and play basketball like we know. I think we did kind of tighten up and not play loose. When (Cain) went out I take full responsibility for not being able to bring what she brought.

"I think some of us might have gotten nervous, but that shouldn't be a factor. There were times we were playing too fast, and we needed to slow it down. I think as a post that I could have done better at taking the pressure off of Angie and Shekinna."

With the posts not making shots and Cain sitting on the bench with icepacks on her right knee the guards had to fire away from the perimeter and Stricklen was 0-7 from long range while Bjorklund was 2-8 from behind the arc.

The best go-to player in the paint is Kelley Cain," Summitt said. "She goes out tonight and we're like, ‘Who's going to score?' Well, we didn't score in the paint, and that really hurt us. Then, our guards got overanxious, and obviously took a lot of shots, missed a lot of shots, didn't get to the free throw so that tells you one thing for sure, we're just jump-shooting.

"We kept telling them we've got to have paint points and it was late before we even started to hunt those. I think they really lost some confidence, got a little overanxious and starting forcing some things, but at that point in time you're desperate."

Ball State, 26-8, seized that sense of desperation and stuck to its game plan. With so many freshmen on the floor for Tennessee – there were usually three and sometimes four – Coach Kelly Packard said the Cardinals wanted to make them try to defend multiple screening actions, a challenging task for any team and a daunting one for a young one.

"I told them all along that our offensive execution and the number of screens that we could set knowing that team is full of freshmen that haven't had to defend screens for a long time, that that would be our best thing," Packard said. "Then we could see how mature they have gotten so far this year."

Ball State was led by Porchia Green with 23 points – she hit two three-pointers and played off the bounce for short jumpers – and Audrey McDonald with 18 points.

"Pat Summit gave us a compliment about our great screening action and we just used that to the best of our ability," Green said. "Screening is what gets you open and helps you execute. We knew it was going to be a tough game, and there are no words to describe the basketball tradition at Tennessee, but we came out and gave it our all and played to the best of our ability. We stayed focused and stuck to the scouting report, and we ended up with a good outcome."

Kiley Jarrett added 14 points, and both McDonald and Jarrett hit two 3-pointers each. McDonald also was 8-11 from the free throw line, and the Cardinals hit 80 percent as a team (16-20) to secure the game from the stripe.

"Our entire program obviously wants to start with the awe that we came in with yesterday for Tennessee," Packard said. "We did come in with awe and with complete respect for their tradition, legacy and everything that Tennessee is. Right on the heels of that, this was an accomplishment by a group of people with great heart that came in here respectfully of an opponent but had some real healthy, classy pride in our own talent.

"That is all I wanted today. I wanted us to play with class. I wanted us to play with character and I wanted us to finish no matter the outcome the same way these young ladies have represented themselves and Ball State University the entire season. It is OK to be in awe of an incredible, worthy opponent."

Tennessee played in the second half as if it were in awe of the environment, although it was Ball State's program that was playing in its first-ever tourney game. The Lady Vols were missing shots in the second half – the Lady Vols shot 33.3 percent after the break and 34.8 percent for the game – while Ball State was hitting key ones to extend the lead to 10 points, 61-51, with 3:45 left to play.

"I think it can give them tremendous confidence and rightfully so," Summitt said. "I think they have the leadership. I think they have the talent. I think they have the toughness and the competitiveness, and I think tonight they showed exactly what they can do against a team that is probably more athletic in some places but certainly not as skilled or efficient as this Ball State team."

Tennessee continued to fire three-pointers to try to erase the deficit, but the Lady Vols shot 2-12 (16.7 percent) from behind the arc in the second half and 2-18 (11.1 percent) for the game. The result was the 16-point margin of victory.

"This is just unbelievable," Jarrett said. "Tennessee is a great team. I would be lying to you if I told you I thought it would be a 16-point victory. They are a great team and I'm not going to take anything away from them, but we were just confident coming into this game and we knew what we could do. It hasn't hit me yet. It is just unbelievable."

It was an unbelievable loss for the Tennessee program.

"Number one," Summitt said when asked where this loss would rank among her worst ones.

That spot has been occupied for 19 years by the 1990 loss in a regional final to Virginia that denied Tennessee a chance to play a Final Four in Knoxville. Sunday's defeat supplanted that one "because this is the first time ever to lose a first round game and not make it to the Sweet 16," Summitt said. "Worst loss in the history of our program. Very disappointed."

Alex Fuller, a senior who returned for a fifth year to shepherd six true freshmen through the program, sat on the floor with her head in her hands. Blood stained her sock where she had skinned her knee on the floor. She finished with four points, four boards and five assists in her final game, and she leaves Tennessee with her degree and two national titles in 2007 and 2008.

"It meant a lot staying, especially this year and trying to help these young players out," Fuller said. "That was my main concern coming into this was helping everybody out as much as I could and giving them everything I had."

Summitt wanted a much better exit for her sole senior.

"The disappointment tonight is Alex invested so much as a leader," Summitt said. "If I'm a player, I'm devoting this game to Alex, and they didn't do that. They didn't have that sense of urgency. They just go play. I don't know sometimes what our purpose is, but they just go play. My purpose would have been, ‘Let's go win one for Alex,' and we talked about that even on the bench."

Johnson, who was already upset, lost her composure even more when asked about Fuller. She sat up on the couch, lowered her head, paused for a few seconds and then managed to speak with tears flowing.

"Knowing that she's not going to be there to help us next year … ," Johnson said. "It's hard because we are young, and she helped us so much this year. We're going to have to look to our upperclassmen and sophomores. We'll have to help the freshmen coming in from what Alex taught us since she's not going to be there. It will be hard."

Amber Gray, a freshman forward, was quiet but composed in the locker room. She lost that resolve when asked about Fuller, and if losing her was the hardest part of dealing with the loss.

"By far," Gray said as tears rolled down her face. "Alex worked so hard for us this year. That's somebody that even before we got here we looked up to her as a leader and knowing that we didn't necessarily leave it all on the floor for her and her having to leave off of a loss like this, it breaks out heart."

"Right now it's very disappointing, especially for Alex and we let Alex down, but everyone coming back, they'd better learn from it, and we need to use it," Bjorklund said.

Bjorklund was blunt in her assessment of the team's performance – as a sophomore she has gone from winning the national title to losing in the first round – and said the Lady Vols were done in by the same issues that had plagued them all season. She did understand first-year jitters, as she experienced that a year ago.

"I think that may have been a factor coming in, especially some of the freshmen," Bjorklund said. "There's a lot of pressure postseason, but you just need to come out – no matter how uptight you are – ready to outwork the other team, and Ball State outworked us tonight. We played on our heels. I think they attacked us more. They came to fight, and we kind of played hesitant. I think everything this season came back and bit us in the butt, so to speak."

Summitt said she would watch the game film because she wants to thoroughly break it down and get the team pointed in the right direction.

"I'll watch this several times because this is who we are right now, and I want to know who we are and really get them to understand where they need to go," Summitt said. "They've got a lot of work to do individually.

"They beat us in every aspect of the game. It's disappointing, but the thing you have to understand, we've done this several times. We've pulled no-shows several times or we wouldn't have 11 losses. We had a lot of other games that we could have won, but we did what we did tonight. We didn't defend and then we started having panic plays and rushing shots. We've seen this before. We pick and choose when we play hard."

Summitt had preached all season that defense and board play could overcome struggles on offense. It is how Tennessee has hung eight banners in Thompson-Boling Arena. But a young team of freshmen never fully absorbed the lesson.

"We just struggled offensively and when you're struggling offensively you've got to make some stops and what has happened with our freshmen a lot this year – this is our 11th loss – so there has been a pattern there," Summitt said. "If they're not playing well offensively then they're not as committed defensively. They tend to put offense way ahead of defense and in time they'll understand that defense and board play is something that they need to control every night.

"You can't always control making shots so this hopefully down the road will be a valuable lesson for them. I was concerned about this game watching Ball State and how they play. They have a maturity about them, and they have composure, and we don't have the level of maturity. I thought we had a lot of panic plays that were costly for us."

Tennessee had 16 turnovers with some coming at critical times, especially late in the game when the Lady Vols were trying to come back. Brewer couldn't handles a pass into the paint, Briana Bass tried a long pass in transition to Brewer that was picked off and Stricklen got a steal but then got called for an offensive foul as she turned up the court. Those are mistakes a veteran team can overcome but they tended to snowball this season on a young team, and Sunday was no exception.

"We've probably learned about every lesson in the book now," Brewer said. "We're in the record books in the worst way but the only way you can go from here is to get better. Every day, every single day in the summer knowing that … I know all of us are going to go back and think, ‘What if I made that shot? What if I made that stop?'

"I'm never ever going to forget this even if we go to win three national championships. I'll still remember the time that we lost in the first round."

That reaction, as painful as it is for Brewer and her teammates, is precisely what Summitt wants to hear.

"If it really hurts them then those individuals that feel that way will get a lot better," Summitt said. "If it doesn't they will probably stay where they are, so we'll just hope we have enough that are just really invested in this program and what we have to do."

Orange-clad fans were the majority among the 3,907 in attendance, and Summitt said she appreciated them being present.

"We didn't give them a whole lot to cheer about," Summitt said. "Our fans have been the greatest fans in the women's game, and they were there. That's the biggest disappointment tonight. We let our fans down. We let our university down. We let our program down. And we have to think about this for a long time."

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