Tennessee takes opener over Baylor

Tennessee got the inside-outside game it wanted – although it was delayed as a parade of post players picked up fouls in the first half – behind a double-double from Shekinna Stricklen and a steady diet of Kelley Cain in the second half to secure a win Sunday in the season opener against Baylor, 74-65, in a clash of top 10 teams.

The much-anticipated debut of Baylor's Brittney Griner didn't result in a dunk, but the 6'8 freshman center did show an array of post skills, including a nifty turn-around jumper, and the Lady Vols were certainly aware of her presence as they hesitated to venture inside in the first half.

"We talked about it at halftime," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "Sometimes when you have the hype of the game I thought we were really nervous in the first half. We didn't have composure, didn't knock down shots and rushed some shots. Sometimes having a big crowd like this (12,824) in our opening game, I thought at halftime, ‘OK, we can settle down now and most of the people in this building are cheering for you. Understand that you can relax and play.'

"I thought we a great job of it in the second half."

Tennessee's tentativeness was also because Kelley Cain spent all but three minutes of the first half standing at the corner of the bench and watching the action as Summitt relied on a rotation of post players, including Alyssia Brewer and Faith Dupree, who both also quickly accumulated fouls.

"First of all I was mad at myself for getting those two quick fouls," Cain said. "And then I quickly figured out that it's definitely not about me. It's about my teammates, so I just paid attention to the game, learned from what my team was doing right on the court and the mistakes they were making and just cheered them on. That was all I could do."

Glory Johnson, Brewer and Dupree took turns defending Griner, with Johnson often bringing support help anytime Griner touched the ball. The patchwork of post defenders held their own, as Griner had five points and two rebounds at halftime. The Bears had been leading by seven points, but the margin was down to 26-24 at the break, even with Tennessee's big gun having been holstered by foul trouble.

"She did a great job," Summitt said of Johnson, who logged 19 minutes in the first half and 33 for the game. "She's been playing well and playing hard in practice, and she's very focused. She came in today (at shoot-around) not real happy about the sleeve she had to wear (for her left shoulder that was injured in practice Wednesday), but I said, ‘Do I have to worry about you and that sleeve and how it's going to affect your play?'

"She said, ‘No, no, it's not.' And it certainly didn't. If anything it helped it."

Johnson, who usually jumps center when she starts, even did so against Griner, despite giving up about six inches, and came close to winning the tip despite the difference in height.

"I was like, ‘You can have that jump ball. You go ahead. You take it,' " Cain said to much laughter in the post-game press conference.

"She clearly is the best athlete on the team," Summitt said of Johnson. "Sometimes she plays in such a rush because of her athleticism, but I thought she had a lot more composure, and her play was key."

Cain was back on the floor for the start of the second half and was a key component of the turning point in the game in which the Lady Vols got five shots on one possession - Cain missed a shot, Johnson rebounded and missed, Cain rebounded and missed Shekinna Stricklen rebounded and missed and Cain rebounded yet again, hit the layup and was fouled by Griner.

That came at the 18:06 mark of the second half and broke a 26-26 tie. Cain hit the free throw to give Tennessee a 29-26 lead, and the Lady Vols never trailed again. The succession of offensive boards that resulted in a basket and the lead seem to ignite the Lady Vols.

"We were just talking about that out there actually," Cain said, referring to the players' conversation in the hallway as they wait to enter the press conference. "That definitely gave us a spark right there. Getting the rebound and putting it back in and getting fouled helped us get started again."

On Baylor's next possession, Cain guarded Griner from behind and when she received the ball, she brought it low – Tennessee likely noticed that on film – and Johnson slipped in, snatched away the ball and was fouled by Griner, who reached over Johnson to try to get the ball back.

"I wouldn't say it was frustration," Griner said. "They were petty fouls. That's part of learning. I am going to have to coming from the high school level to the college level learn how to play with four fouls and to watch little petty fouls that aren't necessary."

That sent Griner to the bench – she would return at the 11:30 mark – but that gave Cain more room inside, and she scored 10 more points to finish with 15 for the game before fouling out with 1:55 left.

"We know on offense that if we just throw it up to Kelley, we know she's going to get it and that's two points right there, especially when Griner got in foul trouble, and she went out," Stricklen said. "We were like, ‘Oh, yeah, go to Kelley. It's her time to dominate.' And that's what she did."

Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey said her team's lapses at the end of the first half and the start of the second half were critical to the outcome.

"I thought the game was lost in about a 10-minute stretch for us at the end of the first half when we were in the bonus," Mulkey said. "We didn't take advantage of those last seven or eight minutes (in the half). And then I thought the first three to five minutes of the second half we didn't take advantage and we allowed them to really pound it and get in there for some second-chance points."

Tennessee, 1-0, extended the lead to double digits with the penetration of Stricklen and some solid play off the bench from Brewer and Kamiko Williams, but Baylor was within seven, 62-55, with 5:02 left. Stricklen hit another key shot – this was a 12-footer – to give Tennessee a little more breathing room.

Stricklen finished with 25 points, one short of her career high, and a career-high 14 rebounds. She also had five assists and three steals and played the entire game. When the Lady Vols needed a big shot in the second half Stricklen delivered.

"I knew she had it in her," Summitt said.

"Those shots help us to keep going, keep pushing it, because sometimes they would start making little runs, and Kinna would come down, do her little cross-over – and Kinna has a nice jump shot – and when she makes those shots it just picks up our team," Cain said. "We're still in this, we're not going to let them come back and get a run on us. It means a lot to us."

Baylor, 0-1, was led by Melissa Jones with 21 points and a perfect 10-10 mark from the free throw line. Griner finished with 15 points, four rebounds and four blocks. Morghan Medlock added 10 points for the Bears with eight coming in the first half.

Cain tallied 15 points for Tennessee, and Angie Bjorklund added 13 to put three Lady Vols in double figures. Bjorklund hit three shots from behind the arc and moved into a tie with former Lady Vol Sidney Spencer for fifth place all-time with 133 career three-pointers. Johnson had nine points, seven rebounds and four steals.

"I thought Glory did a lot of good things for us," Summitt said. "I thought Lyssi Brewer had a great presence inside. When we can rotate players and keep them rested then that certainly gives us a bit of an edge."

Johnson was the glue player that Tennessee needed, especially in the first half, when Baylor threatened to build on its lead with Cain out. When Cain would leave the game last season, the offense would bog down – and it did again at times in the first half – but this time the team didn't shrink in her absence and instead kept battling, especially Johnson, who defended inside and out and had three steals in the first half to snuff out Baylor possessions.

"Since last year, Glory has grown so much," Cain said. "Everybody knows she's very athletic, she's very gifted but she went to work this summer just like all of us did, and she's gotten 10 times better. She has a lot more composure in the post and she's strong. She is a very good rebounder and she has hops out of this world."

The script was flipped in the second half when Baylor had to play seven minutes early in the second half without Griner.

"It's critical when any of the people that you are going to rely on get in foul trouble," Mulkey said. "I will take blame for the fourth one. Maybe I put too much on her plate and had too much faith in her at that moment. That was not smart on my part."

"That was huge, but look at what happened in the first half to us," Summitt said. "You're talking about two of the best post players in the country and unfortunately they both got in foul trouble."

Summitt was more concerned going into the game with perimeter defense as her review of Baylor game film showed a team that could get to the rim. So Tennessee opened in a two-three matchup zone and stayed in it.

"That's the first time ever in 36 years that we started in a zone and we played it throughout the game. How about that?" Summitt said. "They (Baylor) played so well off the bounce. We knew we had to play out long on their shooters, and we just worked on it. I told them, ‘They can take you off the dribble better than anyone I've seen on tape this year. I said we have got to keep them in front of us.'

"They really bought into it, and I know when we extended our press at half-court they started throwing over the top and getting some open looks, and that's when I said, ‘Let's just pack it in the paint.' "

Tennessee had worked on the matchup zone in practice the entire week.

"I think it was a good strategy," Stricklen said. "The main strategy was to go to the zone and have the guards dig down and get the trap on Griner. They really didn't hit too many outside shots and we really worked hard at it, kept our hands up and everyone was talking. It really paid off."

Baylor shot 38.0 percent (19-50) for the game and 16.7 percent from behind the arc (2-12). Tennessee's numbers were slightly lower at 37.0 percent (27-73) and 15.8 percent (3-19) from long range. All three makes from behind the arc belonged to Bjorklund.

Mulkey viewed the defensive move by Tennessee as a sign of respect.

"Let me say this: This basketball program at Baylor is gaining respect," Mulkey said. "Have you ever watched a game when Pat Summitt only played two possessions of man-to-man defense? That's respect. That's an intelligent coach. That's why she's won over 1,000 games.

"The second thing is that I brought a basketball team in here with three kids that didn't have any experience at this level. I brought them into a hornet's nest. She's mad at her team, they lost in the first round of the tournament, they've been kicked out of their locker room, and I'm coming to Knoxville, Tennessee. You think I wasn't sitting there proud as a peacock when we had a lead at halftime, and proud at the end of the game? Absolutely, but I'm not into moral victories. I've been around too many winners in my life. This will be a loss that we will go back and we will watch film, and we will get better."

Man-to-man defense has been a staple of Summitt's system for more than three decades, and she was asked if it was hard to open in and stay in the zone.

"It didn't bother my ego," Summitt said. "All I wanted to do was try and get a W."

Mulkey seemed a bit surprised at the duration of the defensive strategy.

"You've got to make decisions as a coach, and nothing surprises me anymore in this business," Mulkey said. "I was surprised with how long she stayed with the zone, but when you're cutting into the lead – and they were – and challenging us … I guess just having played for her (in the 1984 Olympics) and knowing how aggressive she is on the defensive end of the floor in a man to man, I am not surprised, but that's not Pat's comfort level maybe I would say.

"Or it hadn't been in the past. She may play it every game now."

The State Farm Tip-Off Classic game was a tie-in to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, and the class of 2010 was introduced at halftime: Leta Andrews, winningest high school coach ever, coaches in Texas; Teresa Edwards, former Georgia standout and Olympian; Rebecca Lobo, former Connecticut standout and Olympian; Gloria Ray, brain trust behind the creation of the WBHOF; Teresa Weatherspoon, standout at Louisiana Tech and Olympian who wasn't able to be present; and Chris Weller, former coach at Maryland, set school record with 499 wins. Lobo got a smattering of boos, mostly from the student section, but large groups of orange-clad fans stood up and cheered.

"I thought it was a good basketball game for television," Mulkey said. "I thought there was a lot of history involved in the game with former players and coaches in the Hall of Fame. I thought you saw the past, the present and the future, and I thought it was a great way to start off the season other than the loss."

Griner represents the future, a 6'8 presence in the paint with a good touch around the basket. She also was 9-10 from the free throw line.

"She's going to be good, no doubt," Cain said. "All she needs is some experience. She's strong and that turnaround jump shot is crazy. She did that two or three times, and I was stunned by it. It's more about getting experience and playing. She's going to be good by the end of the year, I guarantee."

"I tried to recruit her. She didn't like orange. That's OK," Summitt said with a smile. "She's a difference maker in this game, and she's only going to get better. She's a freshman and that's the difference maybe right now between Kelley (and Griner). Kelley, her ability to catch at the rim, she's running to the rim all the time, and she's got a really great touch, but Griner is right there.

"She's got other things that Kelley doesn't have, obviously with her size, and her shot blocking ability is amazing. She's going to have a powerful impact, not only at Baylor, but on the game."

Mulkey acknowledged that Griner was young, but she was also in teaching mode afterwards.

"Just like Brittney and every freshman – you look at (Tennessee guard Taber) Spani and all those freshman that played today – those kids are in a new environment," Mulkey said. "They're in a new environment. Brittney is in a new environment.

"We will break her game down and ask her, ‘You still played 32 minutes, but you only got four rebounds. Is that the coach's fault or is that you're fault?' When (junior guard) Kelli Griffin is your second-leading rebounder, you've got to evaluate things, and that's what we do as coaches."

Mulkey, who lost three senior starters from last year's team and is incorporating new players into the lineup and rotation, sounded a bit like Summitt did a year ago as she searched for effective combinations on the court.

"We have depth, and I've got to figure out people," Mulkey said. "There may be different lineups every game until I can figure out which kids need to be playing together and who does what."

Tennessee eked out a lead on the boards, 42-39, but dominated in second-chance points with 23 to Baylor's nine. The Lady Vols also won the turnover battle with just 12 to 22 for the Bears, and Tennessee converted those miscues into 30 points.

"Early in the season I think fatigue plays a big factor," Mulkey said. "Those kids were tired. We were tired. Both teams played extremely hard, and it was a good game for women's basketball."

Tennessee doesn't have much time to rest. The next game is Tuesday evening in San Antonio for the ESPNU Road to the Championship event. Tennessee will play Texas Tech, and Texas takes on Connecticut in the double-header. Summitt said the team won't practice Monday but will instead use the day to travel to Texas.

"We're not practicing tomorrow; we're just flying," Summitt said.

Cain said the players would be OK without a practice day because the sessions in the past week had been full of instructions, as the coaches knew there was a short turn-around time between games.

"We're definitely ready," Cain said. "Coach has prepared us well."

Stricklen logged 40 minutes of playing time and will likely use the plane trip to rest.

"She can sleep," Summitt said. "I might even massage her feet."


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