Lady Vols anxious to tip off new season

The last time Lady Vol fans saw Tennessee in uniform they watched the players leave the court after a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament. Seven months later, they get their first chance to see them again tonight when Carson-Newman comes to Thompson-Boling Arena for the opening exhibition game.

"Maybe they can get the bad taste out of their mouth," Coach Pat Summitt said. "I finally got it out of mine so maybe they can, too. I hope so. After we got back and went through everything we moved on."

The coaches and players exorcised that stunning defeat with a stellar off-season and preseason. The players survived being back on the court with Summitt within 48 hours of the loss and being turned over to Heather Mason for conditioning sessions designed to push them to the brink of their breaking point. The result was a team with something to prove this season.

"Definitely," redshirt sophomore center Kelley Cain said. "We have worked so hard this off-season. We're antsy to get the game started, because I feel like we've been ready since summer."

"I think we are very ready," sophomore guard Shekinna Stricklen said. "That is all we've been talking about is Thursday. I think we're going to be so fired up."

Should the fans in the lower rows have their hands up in case the over-eagerness results in a few wayward passes?

"I think we'll start out calm, but we're fired up," Stricklen said.

There should be plenty of fans on hand to see how the team has responded since the worst loss in program history. Despite an economy that has taken a toll on attendance for college and pro sports teams and the disappointment of last season by Tennessee standards, the Lady Vols have reached 9,897 in season ticket sales as of Nov. 2 – about 500 less than last season – and the final number could climb after this week's tally.

"I've been out speaking a lot and people are really getting excited about basketball," Summitt said. "A lot of people say, ‘We can't wait for the Lady Vols to play,' and people not just in this area. I am amazed at how many people drive in or fly in for games."

For fans who can't make it to the arena tonight – tipoff is 7 p.m. Eastern – the Lady Vols will provide a free webcast of the game online: Tennessee vs. Carson-Newman.

Seven months ago the Lady Vols were sent home from Bowling Green, Ky., by Ball State, a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Two days later a dispirited team took the practice court at Pratt Pavilion as Summitt and her staff suddenly found themselves without a game to prepare for in March.

That first session was funereal but by the second one that week the team started to respond. They also handled some of the toughest workout sessions Mason had ever devised for a team.

"You've got to give the team credit," Summitt said. "I think us coming back and going back to work – after the first day when they got over pouting and thinking we were mad at them and being punished – we turned it into a great opportunity. And they did it. They had to embrace it."

Those practices and workouts lasted three weeks, and then the players were on their own. Sessions with Mason over the summer were voluntary, and it was up to them to go to the gym and work on their games. Mason told Summitt that the team worked harder than any other team in her seven years at Tennessee.

"I can see that. I can definitely see that after all the stuff we went through," Cain said.

Does she think the hard work will pay off for the players?

"I know it will," said Cain, who added she "definitely" saw a difference in the toughness of the sophomores compared to a year ago. "They're completely different, and they have a lot more confidence in themselves and they're more willing to speak up this year. It's a completely different team than last year."

Although it's an exhibition game and won't officially count, the players are anxious for tipoff.

"I am really excited," sophomore forward Glory Johnson said. "The first game means a lot to me because you are showing people that you are coming out strong, no matter what team it is, whether it's Carson-Newman or Baylor, you're coming out and playing to the best of your ability. You're coming out hard. You want to come out strong and come out giving it your all."

Summitt plans to deploy Johnson some on the perimeter in the game on defense.

"With her speed and quickness and athleticism she can make a difference for us," Summitt said. "Play great defense without fouling. She's got to do that. Kamiko has to learn to do a better job of that."

Kamiko Williams is a true freshman with a polished offensive game – at least for a first-year player – and a raw defensive game, though she does have the speed and athleticism to bring full court pressure, something Tennessee hopes to do more effectively this season.

The Lady Vols began individual workouts last August and then segued into team sessions and then official practice. Cain said it seemed like a longer preseason than usual and although that wasn't the case by calendar days, a loss like the one the Lady Vols sustained last March can linger and make time seem to slow down.

"It will always be there, but you know that you have unfinished business, and you have stuff to take care of," Johnson said. "It's a new season. You can't dwell on the past."

For the most part Summitt has been pleased with the team's preseason work – though she was peeved about the lack of box-outs in Tuesday's session.

"It was lousy," Summitt said. "We have got to get better at that."

But other than the occasional slippage in board play or a player not fighting through fatigue in a particular drill, Summitt has heaped considerable praise on the team.

"I think overall it's been a good preparation," Summitt said. "I think we're ready. You're always anxious to see how you're going to step out and play."

PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS: Pat Summitt and her staff considered an assortment of lineups and opted for this one against Carson-Newman. All stats are from last season.

Tennessee: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard/forward, No. 40 (13.3 points per game, 3.0 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (12.3 ppg, 3.0 rebounds per game); Alicia Manning, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 15 (3.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg); Taber Spani 6'1 freshman forward, No. 13 (first game as a Lady Vol); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (8.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg).

Carson-Newman Coach Dean Walsh is expected to start: Ashley Kyle, 5'6 senior guard, No. 31 (14.7 ppg, 4.8 apg); Katlin Moore, 5'7 junior guard, No. 10 (12.0 ppg, 3.9 apg), transfer from Presbyterian College; Mandy Mendenhall, 5'8 junior guard, No. 24 (11.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg); Shari Buford, 5'11 senior guard, No. 11 (13.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg); and Courdne Miles, 5'11 freshman forward, No. 34 (first game as a Lady Eagle).

Carson-Newman, a Division II school located in nearby Jefferson City, is a familiar exhibition opponent for Tennessee. Walsh also schedules North Carolina in an exhibition game – UNC Coach Sylvia Hatchell is a graduate of Carson-Newman – and he has said that a chance to play against the two national contenders is a recruiting tool for him.

The Lady Eagles played No. 24 Middle Tennessee in an exhibition game on Nov. 2 – a 96-68 loss – and Walsh has said facing powerful Division I programs in the preseason gets his team ready for South Atlantic Conference play. Kyle had 16 points against Middle Tennessee. The 81 percent free throw shooter got 10 of those points from the line. Sophomore forward Zoriah Williams added 11 points and five steals in just 13 minutes of play.

Of the 16 players on the Lady Eagles roster, seven hail from the state of Tennessee, including probable starters Kyle (Jefferson City) and Mendenhall (Kingston Springs).

NUMBER THIRTEEN: Tennessee true freshman Taber Spani, who wears No. 13, is expected to become the 13th Lady Vol to start her first game in orange.

According to the Lady Vols game notes, the others on that list are: Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen, 2008; Angie Bjorklund, 2007; Candace Parker, 2005; Shyra Ely, 2001; Ashley Robinson, 2000; Gwen Jackson, 1999; Kyra Elzy, 1996; Chamique Holdsclaw, 1995; Tiffani Johnson, 1994; and Bridgette Gordon and Sheila Frost, 1985.

GAME FILM: The exhibition opener provides a vital teaching tool – game film – and the coaches intend to use all 10 players expected to be available Thursday.

Pat Summitt said Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, has the final word on the availability of junior forward Vicki Baugh, who is coming back from ACL surgery.

"(Jenny) will have the final say-so, but I am not thinking that she needs to be on the floor playing now," Summitt said.

Freshman forward Faith Dupree returned to practice Wednesday after missing five days with back spasms, but Summitt anticipates holding out, too.

"I am not thinking that she'll play," Summitt said. "She's got to have a little more time to heal."

The 13th player on the roster, Amber Gray, is not active this season because she had a stroke and brain surgery last July, but she will be sitting on the bench with the team.

Glory Johnson will come off the bench Thursday, a result of being late for the team's photo day last September.

Shekinna Stricklen is getting the start at point guard in this game, and Briana Bass will get the nod in Monday's second exhibition game against Delta State.

Sophomore forward Alicia Manning earned the start Thursday because of her dedication in the off-season.

"She has really invested a lot of time in the gym," Summitt said. "She has really been able to get to the paint and score. I am pleased with her progress."

Stricklen was uncomfortable at the point guard spot a year ago – she never felt at ease and preferred being on the wing – but she has embraced the dual duties with Bass this preseason.

"I'm ready for it," Stricklen said. "I'm confident so if she puts me there I'm ready."

That is a complete reversal from last season.

"I am totally different than last year," Stricklen said. "I am not shy and I'm talking more."

The coaches will use this game to determine where the team is improved and what it needs to do to get better. How the opening five starts the game will be under scrutiny.

"We obviously want to see what the five people who start the game do," Summitt said. "We want to give them a lot of the responsibility for talking and calling the plays and making sure that we are very vocal offensively and defensively and rebounding the ball."

The philosophy won't change during the game despite whoever starts checking in at the scorer's table.

"I think throughout the course of the game just looking at playing from the inside-out and getting our posts a lot of touches," Summitt said. "Trying to get everyone to understand ball movement and player movement is going to be vital to being successful in the half-court game.

"Right now I like what we've put in (offensively), yet I want to do a lot of three out, two in and let them play. I just felt like going back and looking through a lot of what we did last year – and keep in mind with all the freshmen I think we felt like we had to give them more structure – now I think we can give them more freedom and less structure."

The key to that working is communication, and the players have been vocal in practice. Those voices will have to be heard in a game, when the coaches are on the sideline and not standing a few week away from the players and able to blow a whistle and stop action at any time.

Playing that style requires that the players read the defense and make the decisions – the three-out, two-in offense offers a lot of options – and Kelley Cain and Angie Bjorklund have been particularly adept this preseason at the inside-out game.

Taber Spani, Shekinna Stricklen and Alicia Manning can also provide long-range offense, especially Spani and Stricklen, and all three players, especially Manning and Stricklen, can get to the rim. If those players are keeping defenders honest on the perimeter, that will give Cain room to work inside.

"I'm excited to see it," Summitt said.

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