Lady Vols avenge Virginia loss

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Tennessee got a measure of respect and its locker room back after a 77-63 win over Virginia before the biggest crowd to ever watch a Cavaliers women's basketball game. Angie Bjorklund, who didn't play in the loss to Virginia a year ago, played in this one as if trying to make up for lost time.

The junior sharpshooter led all scorers with 24 points and hit five three-pointers. Angie Bjorklund was joined in double figures by Shekinna Stricklen – a "Goliath" at point guard, according to Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan – who had 20, including a perfect 7-7 performance from the free throw line, and Glory Johnson, who continued her stellar play to start the season with 14 points.

Virginia's Monica Wright, who lit up Tennessee a year ago with a career-high 35 points, got 21 points this time, but it took her 21 shots to get them – she was 8-21 from the field, though a robust 4-9 from behind the arc.

Tennessee, 3-0, a team with something to prove after last season's 11-loss mark, took the lead with 15:57 to go in the first half on a three-pointer by Alicia Manning and never lost it.

Manning, a sophomore forward, had been inserted in the game at the 16:44 mark of the first half after Bjorklund got off to a rough start, but the junior guard steadied herself when she re-entered at the 13:42 mark and had 10 points at halftime with Tennessee leading 40-33 at the break.

"At first she was trying to do it all in about the first four minutes, but she settled down after that," Coach Pat Summitt said. "She played with a lot of confidence."

Bjorklund had a brief moment with a higher deity once she got to the bench.

"Honestly when she pulled me I said a quick prayer," Bjorklund said. "If things are going rough I always ask for God to help me out and I depend on him for that. He kind of calmed me down and pulled me through it."

Manning, who played several stints at point guard, made use of her 18 minutes of game time and finished with five points, four rebounds, three assists, one steal and zero turnovers against a Virginia team that pressured the ball handlers.

"I thought both teams left it all on the court," Summitt said. "It was intense. It was hard fought. I think Glory Johnson was huge for us in the paint, as was Kelley Cain, but pleased that we got a lot of help from a lot of different people and answered their runs. … Overall, we got a lot good play from a lot of good players and just glad we could hang on and also have the toughness we had down the stretch."

The biggest run the Lady Vols had to answer came right after Tennessee had stretched its lead to nine points, 42-33, when Taber Spani found Stricklen inside for a layup to open the second half. But Virginia scored the next six points with Wright getting a layup off an offensive rebound and then a steal that she fed to Ariana Moorer for another layup plus a foul on Cain.

Moorer missed the free throw wide left, and the ball caromed off the rim where Spani briefly had it before Chelsea Shine snared it and hit Virginia's third straight layup to pull the Cavaliers to 42-39 less than two minutes into the second half.

But on Tennessee's next possession Bjorklund hit a three-pointer and was fouled by Wright for a four-point play, 46-39.

"I didn't really notice. I honestly don't remember (the foul)," Bjorklund said when asked about it after the game. "You've just got to focus in on the rim. Don't think about the defense. Think about shooting your shot."

A block from Cain on Virginia's next possession – she had six for the game – got Tennessee the ball back, and Bjorklund drove baseline and found Spani all alone in the corner for a three-pointer. In less than a minute Tennessee had the lead in double digits, 49-39.

"In the second half we come out and we cut it to three, and unfortunately we don't recognize that pressure point in the game," Ryan said. "And that was a huge pressure point in the game in my opinion, and Tennessee took advantage of it, and we didn't."

A program-record crowd of 11,895 – that broke the record of 11,174 set Feb. 5, 1986, against North Carolina – was ready for something to scream about, and that run gave the Cavalier fans a reason to let loose.

But Tennessee, in a display of resolve that Summitt didn't see a year ago, answered with its own run.

"We allowed them to score a couple of times in a row, and then we came up empty on a couple of possessions, and then we were fighting from behind the rest of the way," Ryan said.

Wright said Virginia, 3-1, failed to fully capitalize on that momentum-changer.

"We definitely needed to take advantage of that momentum that we gained and make a run and understand that when we need to buckle down and make stops," Wright said. "Anything can happen, with that said.

"At that point I think we did not recognize the pressure point and the fact that we needed to get a stop and a score consecutively. That's something that comes with leadership. I take responsibility for that. You need to understand the tempo and you need to have a feel for what's actually going on in the game.

"Those pressure points are imperative and those make the outcome of the games."

Ryan regretted that missed opportunity, but she saluted her team's overall effort.

"I think this is the hardest we've played all year," Ryan said. "Today we played with great enthusiasm, and we played with some toughness. It was a very, very physical game. I was glad to see us stand up to it. I was glad to see Simone Egwu play as well as she did and Telia McCall. I thought both of those players did yeoman's work inside and showed me that they are ready to step up to this level and give us really strong efforts."

Cain set the defensive tone from the beginning with a block on Shine in which she essentially just took the ball out of her hands less than a minute into the game.

"That didn't really stand out to me as we progressed through the game because there were a lot of big defensive plays and offensive plays, but I think Kelley's presence definitely has an impact and has had an impact in every game that we've been in," Summitt said. "She, this year, is healthy, but she's also a lot smarter and not taking herself out of position and going for every block, getting her hands up and moving her feet a lot better."

The play did stand out to Ryan, because she believed her sophomore player shied away from Cain after that block. Shine, who had a career-high 27 points in Virginia's last game against South Carolina Upstate, was 1-7 against Tennessee.

"I think she seemed a little bit timid," Ryan said. "Easy shots she was missing, like layups, and I think that gets in your mind. I told her, ‘I don't care if you get blocked 10 times. I don't care. We'll chase down a loose ball. A blocked shot doesn't mean anything. It's just a blocked shot. We'll chase it down, so don't worry about it.' "

Egwu, a freshman post, went at Cain and the other post players and had 10 points on 5-7 shooting.

"We all were aware that she's so big," Egwu said. "We practiced for two days preparing for someone like that. We just figured out how to get around her, how to use our quickness against her."

"I thought Simone did a good job once she figured out that if she just bodies up with her and then tries to score, she can score," Ryan said. "She figured that out by the end of the first half. But (Cain) got a couple of my veterans. We just had to be a little more crafty in there to get away from her. But she's really long and lean, and she's got great timing."

Tennessee shot 45.0 percent (27-60) for the game and 40.0 percent (8-20) from behind the arc. Virginia, which shot 50.0 percent a year ago in the win in Knoxville, connected on Sunday at a clip of 33.8 percent (24-71) overall and 30.4 percent (7-23) from long range.

"We took too many jumpers in spots and I kept telling them every time they went to the basket they either got fouled or they got to the basket," Ryan said. "We were missing layups, too, so that doesn't help."

The Lady Vols' defense had something to do with those numbers, as Tennessee, for the second time this season, opened in a matchup zone. The Lady Vols stayed in it for the first half and part of the second half.

"We went primarily to our matchup in the first half," Summitt said. "In the second half we went to our switching man. I thought they kept us in front of them in most possessions, but they are so quick and do a great job of getting by. Their guard play is really, really strong and Wright, she's just a special player."

It speaks to Wright's talent that Tennessee was OK with her point total. Wright got to the rim at will against the Lady Vols a year ago – she cut through zone and man looks no matter who guarded her – but the senior guard had to settle for more jump shots Sunday. Still, she got loose a few times and other times stuck the shot with a defender on her.

"When she had 35 last year we were just making sure that never, ever, ever happened again," Johnson said. "She was hitting shots (Sunday). We were out there. She was creating her shot the whole game. We slowed her down, and we had a hand in her face, but she's just a really all-around good player, and she's going to get those shots off. She had teammates setting screens for her but even if they weren't setting screens for her she was getting her shot off. Twenty-one points …

"That was us keying on her," Bjorklund said. " She's good. She's good."

"We're happier with that," Johnson said.

"You have to be kidding. They were excited?" Ryan said. "OK. That's a hell of a compliment actually. That's a really big compliment to Monica."

Wright returned the compliment to Tennessee.

"We needed to hold a couple of their players to under 20 points, which wasn't happening, especially Angie Bjorklund," Wright said. "She tore it up. She was just so hot. It was hard to stop her, along with Stricklen, who also played a phenomenal game. With players like that it's just hard to hold people to under 20 points. At the same time they definitely had some players that we needed to stop as well."

Stricklen, a 6'2 sophomore guard, had another impressive stat line of 20 points, eight rebounds and six assists. She was matched up against China Crosby, a 5'6 freshman point guard, who Ryan said felt "pretty good" after injuring her tailbone earlier in the week but had missed some practice.

"China was still not quite on her game today, and Shekinna Stricklen was just a handful," Ryan said. "You could see little China out there compared to her. That was David and Goliath, and Goliath had good wheels. That was really tough. Ari did a really good job coming in and giving me lots of toughness."

Ariana Moorer logged 31 minutes and had 12 points and five boards. Virginia also got a solid effort from Paulisha Kellum, who is coming off multiple knee surgeries, and had eight points and three boards.

"Transitioning from defense to offense, pushing off, things like that, are still very difficult for her," Ryan said. "She gets sore still. She's pushing through it and by January she should be completely back to normal. She gives me so much in terms of intelligence out there."

Summitt used all 10 players available on her roster – Faith Dupree was out with back issues and Vicki Baugh continues her ACL rehab – but three players logged extensive minutes with Johnson clocking in at 38 followed by Bjorklund with 35 and Stricklen with 34.

Virginia also had three players consuming a lot of court time – Wright with 35, Egwu with 34 and Moorer with 31.

Both teams pounded the boards with Tennessee edging Virginia, 46-42, on the glass. Stricklen led the Lady Vols with eight boards and three players, Johnson, Cain and Alyssia Brewer, had six each. The Cavaliers also had three players with six boards apiece – Shine, Egwu and Whitny Edwards.

Boxing out is more difficult out of a zone defense than man to man – it's easier in man to find a specific body to block – and Virginia got 17 offensive boards.

But the zone's ability to cut down on penetration has, so far, outweighed the loss of defensive boards for Tennessee.

"What I really liked was the size and the length of our team," Summitt said. "When I watched Baylor I just knew they were going to get to the paint. When I watched Virginia I saw the same thing. That's why we wanted to open up in a zone, because they are so good off the bounce, and they get by people and they get paint points.

"So that was the reason that we did it, but I think we'll always have multiple defensive opportunities for our team because I think a change is good throughout the course of a game. If someone is scoring against your zone then go man and see if you can mix it up a little bit."

Ryan expected the zone – she had seen the Baylor game tape – but it still surprised her coming from Summitt, a devotee of man to man.

"I was surprised they played it," Ryan said. "Not surprised that I wasn't prepared. We were very prepared for it. I just think that this is what they feel they have to do to win, so this is why they're playing it the way they are, but if you penetrate it you can get good things. You can get to the line. You can get short jumpers.

"Unfortunately we were settling for long-range jump shots at times. We should have taken one more pass, one more penetration point, going off screens. When we used screens effectively we played very well against it.

"I would think that because they're long and lean and big and teams like us are small and quick, man to man might not be as effective or as good because we can get down on the floor and set a slam screen, and they may not be able to keep up it. That is probably why they played the zone. It gives them a little more punch in the middle and keeps people out of the middle."

Both teams settled for jump shots early, though Tennessee broke down Virginia's defense more in the second half and got to the rim. Stricklen led the way and went 6-6 from the free throw line after the break.

"That's something we have to constantly remind our team is don't settle for the outside game when you can get paint points, and you can get to the boards and also get to the free throw line," Summitt said.

Tennessee was 15-21 from the stripe (71.4 percent) with Stricklen's perfect mark and Johnson hitting 4-7. After struggling from the line at times last season Johnson has started out this year 10-14.

Summitt lauded the play of the sophomore, who is 15-22 from the field (68.2 percent) in Tennessee's first three games. After rushing on offense a year ago, Johnson has heeded the instruction of the coaching staff and slowed down.

"They've always been telling me to just slow down just a little bit and I'm the only player that they really have to tell to slow down on offense," Johnson said. "It's me just finally taking it in and understanding exactly what they want me to do. I can go hard all the time, just understanding I need to slow down and have my composure on offense.

"It finally just kicked in."

That's a process that develops from the maturation of freshman to sophomore. Ryan saw a stark difference on the court in Charlottesville compared to a year ago in Knoxville.

"They came in here bigger, stronger, faster with tons more confidence," Ryan said. "Last year when we played them they were skinny little raggedy little freshmen. And they couldn't hit big shots, and they didn't know what to do, and they probably couldn't run a play that Pat had drawn on the board. In our game (a year ago) I know they didn't because of what they did.

"Same thing happened to me today. There were several times I drew something on the board and two of my first-year post players lined up on the wrong side and then they went over to the other side and then they came back again. I'm like, ‘If you were wrong to begin with why would you go over and then come back again?' It was like watching a roller coaster ride.

"These are all things you deal with as a coach in college basketball. Kids are more talented when they come into college, but they are not as fundamentally sound as they need to be. Once they're in the program for a year it really changes. The biggest leap you make is between your freshman and your sophomore year. It's a huge leap. If you're trained well they usually are really seasoned by their second year."

The next leap the Lady Vols will make is into their locker room. They were booted out by Summitt last February after a listless road loss to Kentucky. After the Virginia game, she announced that the team could return to its plush accommodations in the arena.

"I did let the players back in the locker room," Summitt said. "They're pretty happy. It's been awhile."

"We celebrated for about five minutes straight after she told us," Johnson said. "It's the best feeling I've had this week, other than the win. She kept saying that she wanted us to show her that we could win.

"Since we lost to Virginia last year I think she wanted a significant win and us winning the right way. She just wanted us to play to our ability and show her the talent that we had and to succeed with our talent. She wanted us to take off."

HUDDLE UP: Tennessee has formed a circle at center court after its games this season in a player-initiative movement to bring both teams together afterwards.

Pat Summitt was asked about the huddle after Sunday's game, which drew an appreciative reaction from the crowd in Charlottesville.

"Our team has invited every team that we've played thus far to huddle up and have a prayer at the end," Summitt said. "They turned around and invited the Virginia players, and they all came in the huddle. To me that's togetherness, even through competition when things are not always happy, you can huddle up and finish on a good note.

"Our team just started that this year, and every team has joined in. It's optional. Angie Bjorklund is in charge."

Bjorklund said the idea originated with Kelley Cain, who noticed the Vol football team's huddle with opponents after games.

"Kelley Cain actually came up to me and said, ‘Hey, let's do the prayer thing,' " Bjorklund said. "Kelley is like, ‘We should do that.' Of course she wanted me to ask Coach and get that organized being the team leader.

"I asked Coach, and she said it was all right so every time, as the captain, I shake their hand and ask if they want to pray with us after the game. We just try to keep our focus on God. It doesn't matter what team you're on we're all sisters in Christ and making a point that it's all about God. That is how it is with our team."

All of the Virginia players joined the circle, as have players from Baylor and Texas Tech in the previous two games.

"It was awesome," Monica Wright said. "I think we did that once before playing against Liberty, who is a religious school. I definitely liked that. It was interesting.

"Whatever your religion is being able to share a moment after the game just to thank God for the opportunity to play, I appreciated it and I am sure everybody else does."

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