Tennessee to take on Oklahoma tonight

Glory Johnson started strong last year and then her performance took a dip. She couldn't get back on a consistent course and spent the second half of the season struggling to find her form. This year, the sophomore forward feels like she knows how to weather the ebb and flow of a season, and she is back in the starting lineup for tonight's game against Oklahoma.

"Last year as a freshman it was a little different," Glory Johnson said. "I didn't know how to handle it. Once I did hit that wall I didn't know how to get out of it, and I tried. I tried self-motivation, and it wasn't working. This year I'm taking other approaches and my teammates are there helping me, so I don't think I'm going to hit that same wall this year."

No. 4/4 Tennessee, 11-1, takes on No. 14/15 Oklahoma, 10-2, Sunday at 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network) in the last out-of-conference game of the regular season. With the expansion of SEC play to 16 games, the Lady Vols non-conference slate will be completed with the game against the Sooners.

Last season, Oklahoma defeated the Lady Vols, 80-70, on Feb. 2, 2009, in Oklahoma City. The game was memorable because it ended Courtney Paris' streak of double doubles at 112 games – Paris finished with 12 rebounds and nine points – Tennessee lost Vicki Baugh to an ACL injury, and Pat Summitt's win total remained at 999. Neither player will be on the court Sunday. Paris now plays in the WNBA, and Baugh remains in rehab status, has not played this season and has not practiced for several weeks. Summitt's 1,000th career victory came in the next game against Georgia.

Johnson had 12 points and eight boards in that 2009 game against Oklahoma, and will be a key player on the floor this evening for the Lady Vols. This game is another measuring stick for Tennessee in that the current team, with much of the same personnel as last season, lines up against a team that beat the Lady Vols a year ago, although the Sooners have a different attack with the graduation of Paris and her twin sister, Ashley Paris.

"They probably have that confidence because they did beat us last year," Johnson said. "We have to go in the game thinking we did lose, and we do have something to prove to Oklahoma."

Johnson has something to prove to herself after Tennessee endured an 11-loss season and bowed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Johnson, a local product from Knoxville, understands the expectations of the program.

She had outstanding games last season as evidenced by her 20-point, 10-rebound performance against Georgia in the first game after the Oklahoma loss. But that was followed by a 5-20 performance from the field in the next three games – including 0-6 against Duke – and being moved in and out of the starting lineup.

Johnson started out this season with outstanding results, followed by a few dips in December, but when removed from the starting lineup in Tennessee's last game against Old Dominion she tallied 15 points and 10 rebounds off the bench and an endorsement from Summitt of how the sophomore responded.

"That's knowing my role now," Johnson said. "As freshmen you don't really know what you can do to help your team. Now, I know what I can do. My strong point is rebounding, shooting sometimes and playing defense. That's what I came to do (against ODU), and I know that I can help my team that way."

Johnson also has been getting in the gym and lofting extra shots with Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood. That is not a routine she did with any frequency a year ago.

In fact, when Johnson struggled a bit from the field and the free throw line in a few games last month, she had gotten out of her routine with Lockwood because of exam schedules and travel. The Lady Vols went coast to coast in December, and the travel disrupts gym availability and extra time to shoot.

"I asked myself that," Lockwood said. "I don't think it helped her to get out of that. I don't know if that was the sole cause."

Lockwood put together some film clips of Johnson's shots and showed her where she was turning into the defenders, making it a harder shot to hit.

"When you're not taking high quality shots you're not going to make as many," Lockwood said. "I do think being in that routine for her is very important. There is nothing like repetition. There is nothing like simulating game reps that gets you better. There is nothing that you can do. There is nothing that takes the place of that."

Johnson is one of just three true posts on the roster because of injuries. The other two are Kelley Cain, a 6'6 center who also starts, and Alyssia Brewer, a 6'3 forward/center who comes off the bench.

When the team breaks into shooting drills at practice and the perimeter players go to one basket and the posts to another, it is usually three on one end and seven on the other.

Lockwood compared it to a scene from the movie, "Dances With Wolves," in which the title character is alone on the Dakota Territory and colors in a book to maintain his sanity.

"I don't know that they dwell on it but I think they'll look down sometimes when the guards are shooting and they'll go, ‘Holy cow, that's quite a different number,' " Lockwood said. "I don't know that they dwell on it, but they have thought about it."

Brewer referred to the trio as the "circle of trust."

"Sometimes it's like, ‘Where are the posts?' "Brewer said. "We're used to it. You can't do anything about it so go with the flow. The posts are two of the positions on the floor and we have three of them, so that is a huge opportunity."

Taber Spani will sometimes shoot with the posts, and Alicia Manning also has made appearances on that end of the floor. During one recent practice, Cain and Brewer needed some sideline treatment – both were OK – and the post players were down to Johnson and Spani, who, needless to say, got in an abundance of reps at game speed.

"They kind of looked at each other like, ‘Oh boy, I wish somebody else would get in here quick,' " Lockwood said.

Baugh remains out of action as she comes back from her second ACL surgery within one calendar year. Sophomore forward Amber Gray is recovering from shoulder surgery and a stroke brought on by a bleeding aneurysm that was discovered during what was expected to be a routine repair operation on her shoulder and will not play this season. Freshman forward Faith Dupree is taking a redshirt year because of chronic back issues.

"It feels like an Agatha Christie novel," Lockwood said. "You walk into the parlor and there's one less body. That group gets pretty sparse."

Before Dupree was pulled from the court this season, she got reps at center and power forward. Baugh can play both, and Gray is suited to play forward. With all three not available, Brewer has had to spend a lot more time at the five, or center, spot in practice.

"If we were to have Amber and Faith and Vicki we could work on, not different positions, but I could play the four," Brewer said. "Right now I am working on the five. It is an opportunity, but I'll be glad whenever there's (more available). It helps all of us to have more people."

Cain can be a dominant post player but her game and practice minutes will always have to be managed based on how her knee is feeling. The right kneecap was completely re-tracked in December 2007, her first year on campus, to correct a congenital condition. The repeated subluxations before the surgery inflamed the underside of her kneecap and that area can still become aggravated by use.

"I want to start her and see how she gets up and down," Summitt said of the usual game plan with Cain. "I told her anytime it's bothering you let me know."

Knoxville is undergoing a frigid spell of weather – temperatures have dropped into the teens – and the cold front is expected to hover over the Tennessee Valley for another week. The average high at this time of year is 46 degrees, but it never got out of the 20s on Saturday, so that won't help Cain's pain.

The knee was a little cranky in Wednesday's game so Cain logged just 14 minutes. The game was well in hand, and the coaches know the better long-term strategy is to save Cain for other games.

"We're going to have some tough practices, and she wants to get into the practices as well," Summitt said.

Cain practiced Thursday without issues and then lifted herself late in Friday's session for some treatment, as is the required protocol. Summitt spoke to Cain afterwards and told her to do so whenever the knee is fussy, and Cain smiled during the exchange. The entire team was off the practice court on Saturday to save their legs for Sunday's game.

"Get ice and get off of it," Lockwood said of the coaches' prevailing attitude when it comes to Cain.

As far as game minutes, it depends on how Cain feels on the court.

"I don't know that we've had a preset thing and we pull her," Lockwood said. "Obviously your better games you're going to need her for more minutes. (Against Old Dominion and San Francisco), we're pulling her as quick as we can pull her. In those type of games, we're trying to save her. We're trying to get other people experience and time, obviously, but we're trying to save on her wear and tear.

"We know there will be games where we need her for 30, 32 minutes. So much depends on how that kid feels. If she is really feeling good, we can. If she's (not), there's no way. When it bothers her she runs slower and she doesn't get explosion. Getting her ready for games is our big focus. We want to wring out every bit we can for games."

Cain has been willing to work extra with Lockwood, but that also must be managed.

"I am trying to be mindful of her wheel," Lockwood said. "I've got to check with her and see how it feels. We have to go day to day to figure it out."

Repetitions with Lockwood are critical to post success, because of the extra shots. Lockwood went through a post-practice session with Johnson on Thursday and then Brewer on Friday.

"Glory, to her credit, she is initiating (sessions)," Lockwood said.

Johnson has learned the lesson that nothing replaces repetition. She spent time with Lockwood after practice Thursday working on 15-footers at various spots on the floor. So how long will she need the extra work?

"Until I'm done with my basketball career if I want to keep my shooting percentage up and be confident when I do take shots out there," Johnson said. "I do have a new role. I am trying to get Kelley low and me more high so I have to work on those shots."

Brewer is being scheduled for sessions with Lockwood, and with school out there are no NCAA restrictions on time allowed on the court. Even when there are restrictions, the sessions typically last 30 minutes or less, enough time to take extra shots at various spots in the paint, and to work on free throws.

"I am going to head-lock her if I have to," Lockwood joked of Brewer.

Lockwood said he has told Brewer that she has to be ready this season at a moment's notice. She is the backup at center, along with Johnson, so both must be ready to relieve Cain.

"We both can help Kelley out a whole lot, because Kelley is not going to be able to play a 40-minute game with her knee," Brewer said. "We have three true posts, so we've just got to come to the aid of each other. Whoever is having a bad game pick them up, and if we're all having a great game we all should work together."

Brewer was told of ODU Coach Wendy Larry's remarks about how much her game had improved from a year ago. What Larry saw on Wednesday is what Lockwood and Summitt have repeatedly drilled – keeping Brewer in the paint.

"I am not really allowed out of the paint," Brewer said with a smile. "Claim my territory down there."

Is that easier said than done?

"Definitely," Brewer said. "In practice (Thursday) Coach yelled at me because I caught the ball in the short corner instead of the block, but I have Kelley Cain pushing me, which is not a Bree Bass that I can back down. It was a lose-lose situation, but just learn from it."

Brewer indicated the learning process is ongoing as she adjusts from playing facing the basket, as she did in high school, to posting up, as she must do in college.

"Sometimes it feels like those 10,000-piece 3D jigsaw puzzles, where it's like impossible, and other times it feels like the 10 big piece puzzle where it's coming, it's my game and it's easy out there," Brewer said. "(Against ODU), it was more of a 300-piece-type puzzle."

Brewer has resided in Summitt's crosshairs quite often during her time at Tennessee, but the frequency of the coach's ire has decreased at times.

"I am used to it, but it's just me changing what I'm doing wrong to be able to please her and to be able to make my game better," Brewer said. "And whenever I make my game better that makes her happier, so you put two and two together, and you have two happy people.

"It's an everyday thing. I can't slack off at all because I know the first words that are going to come out of her mouth are Alyssia Brewer. When she adds the whistle it makes it worse. Sometimes I know what I did, so I say it before she says it. Kind of beat her to the gun."

Lockwood praised Brewer for her low block efforts against Old Dominion, but he wants that to be the norm, not the exception.

"She's gotten better," Lockwood said. "She is starting to show it, but don't just give us a minute and a half, two or three-minute glimpses of that. We've got to see it every day, practice, every minute on the floor in a game, it's got to be an all-the-time thing. As a mid-year sophomore I've got to see it keep coming."

The coaches keep assorted stats, including overall and games against ranked opponents. Johnson shot 51.8 percent (57-110) in Tennessee's 12 games this season, and 50 percent (16-32) in the games against ranked opponents, Baylor, Virginia, Texas and Stanford. Cain has shot 52.6 percent overall (40-76) and 56.7 percent (17-30) against ranked teams. Brewer has shot a team-best 60.9 percent overall (39-64) and 50 percent (6-12) against ranked teams.

Johnson has averaged 32.2 minutes a game against ranked opponents, with Cain logging 22.0 minutes in those games. Brewer has averaged 14.5 minutes against ranked teams, a number that needs to inch upward with just three true posts available.

"It's enough but obviously they've got to be healthy, and they've got to be in great condition," Lockwood said. "They've got to be game ready at any point in time to play 30-plus minutes."

Summitt said three true posts is a doable scenario with reinforcements from a true freshman playing for the first time with her back to the basket.

"I think it is," Summitt said. "Taber can play in the high post area, or she can play on the block. I want her to be at the high post some because that really stretches the defense, especially in the man. Taber could probably score on the block and be very efficient there."

Brewer's development will be critical. The 6'3 forward is solid in build and can take up space inside. More importantly, she is feeling better about her game inside.

"I definitely do," Brewer said. "Sometimes I get ahead of myself and I want things to happen like now. I want to be the best I possibly can be now, but it's just every day coming in and working on one weakness that I have and then that gets better, find another weakness, work on that. It's just a gradual process of me getting to the best potential that I have."

Brewer will be playing against her home-state team – Oklahoma also recruited her – but the native of Sapulpa said it's not a big deal at this point.

"Last year it was pretty big because I went home and it was the first time," Brewer said. "But now I honestly look at it as another game. Other people might see the significance of it but I look at them as any other team that we play.

"They're still another opposing team, and we never want to lose. If we get the win, that's just way better for us."

STARTING LINEUPS

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard/forward, No. 40 (13.2 points per game, 6.4 rebounds per game, 3.5 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (15.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.8 apg); Taber Spani, 6'1 freshman guard/forward, No. 13 (7.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.4 apg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 25 (13.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.6 steals per game); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (8.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.6 blocks per game.

Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale is expected to start: Danielle Robinson, 5'9 junior guard, No. 13 (16.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.0 spg); hails from San Jose, Calif., joined the 1,000-point club at Oklahoma in the Dec. 9 game against Marist and now has 1,055 points, scored 17 points last season in the win over Tennessee, had a career-high 31 points this season against Arkansas, was selected to the Big 12 All-Defensive team last season, took 29 charges in 37 games, was Big 12 Freshman of the Year in the 2007-08 season, mother Denise Carr-Robinson played basketball at Hampton in Virginia; Nyeshia Stevenson, 5'9 senior guard/forward, No. 1 (13.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.2 apg), hails from Little Rock, Ark., leads Oklahoma with 25 made three-pointers, hit nine from long range against Marist, had 11 points and four assists last year against the Lady Vols, won the Big 12 Sixth Man Award last season; Carlee Roethlisberger, 6'1 junior forward, No. 10 (9.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg), hails from Findlay, Ohio, moved into the starting lineup after sharpshooter Whitney Hand was lost for the season after five games because of a torn ACL, played in all 37 games last season, has connected on 22 three-pointers this season, tallied 29 points against Texas-Arlington, younger sister of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, father Ken played football at Georgia Tech, mother Brenda played basketball at Northwest Missouri State; Amanda Thompson, 6'1 senior forward, No. 21 (10.2 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 2.4 spg), hails from Chicago, Ill., started 31 games last season, averages nearly a double-double this season and has doubled her career rebounding average, was recruited by LSU and Georgia, cousin Bryon Russell played in NBA for 13 years; and Abi Olajuwon, 6'4 senior center, No. 34 (12.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg), hails from Los Angeles, Calif., played in 27 games last season while backing up Courtney Paris, scored a career-high 25 points against Cal State-Fullerton this season, leads teams with 58.3 shooting percentage, father is NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon.

Oklahoma has changed its playing style this season. A year ago, with the Paris twins anchoring the paint, the Sooners pounded the ball inside. This season, they want to run and are averaging 79.5 points per game. They still score in the paint, but it's a combination of post scoring and the guards penetrating to the basket.

"They're athletic; they hunt paint points," Summitt said.

Both teams are coming off outstanding shooting performances on Wednesday. Tennessee shot 67.2 percent in its 102-62 win over Old Dominion, and Oklahoma shot 60.9 percent in its 95-76 win over Cal State-Fullerton.

The Sooners have won six consecutive games, with two victories in overtime over Arkansas and Marist. The two losses were to ranked teams in Georgia and Notre Dame, both of which are undefeated.

"I think Sherri has to take the personnel that she has and play to their strengths," Summitt said of the Sooners' running game this season. "As far as getting up and down, I see that, not only coming from Stanford that we played, but I think it's kind of the state of women's basketball right now. I think people are trying to attack, in terms of putting the pressure on the defense. I think that's a good thing for the women's game."

SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Oklahoma game. Here is her assessment.

When Oklahoma has the ball: "I think their two guards make them very good," Warlick said. "They've got great guard play. They're going to stay consistent because they've got those two kids, (Danielle) Robinson and (Nyeshia) Stevenson, they make everybody else around them better. (Abi) Olajuwon is playing like (Courtney) Paris. She is not as skilled, but she's making plays.

"They're running, Robinson and Stevenson are bringing the ball up. It's not passing ahead. They're taking the ball and they're going all the way to the basketball. (Robinson) can penetrate and go to the basket, and she can shoot the three, and she has a pull-up, so she does everything. You can't get up on her or stay back off of her. She's a very difficult guard for anybody."

The guard play has been effective for Oklahoma while the post players get experience. Joanna McFarland, a 6'2 freshman forward, comes off the bench to provide some depth in the paint. She is averaging 5.0 points and 4.1 rebounds per game and is hitting 52.3 percent of her shots.

"They don't have the experience, but to me they're getting better and better each game," Warlick said. "They still go inside with post feeds and penetrating into the paint. They're still getting paint points, but it's just in a different way."

Defensively, "they go a pretty tough man to man, Warlick said. "They'll run a 2-3 matchup. They've run a 1-3-1, and I think they're going to trap. I just think they're going to mix it up on us. They're going to three-quarter court press us, full court press us.

"I think they're going to start off man to man and get after it and get aggressive like they have been."

When Tennessee has the ball: Tennessee wants to get Kelley Cain established as a scorer early in the game.

"We've got to make them guard Kelley," Warlick said. "We've got to get paint points, just like they're trying to through the post feeds and through penetration and pull-ups."

Tennessee doesn't have a single player averaging 30 minutes or more a game, though Bjorklund comes close at 29.3. Oklahoma has three of them, so the Lady Vols will try to run to force the tempo.

"I think we need to make them get up and down the floor," Warlick said. "I think we need to make them work as much as possible. She doesn't play a lot of people and hopefully we can make them run. Those two guards, though, I don't know if they can wear out. They're tough."

Guard play will also be critical for Tennessee.

"They've got to make plays," Warlick said. "They're going to be hounded. They're going to be harassed. They've got to make plays."

The Lady Vols will have Shekinna Stricklen in the lineup, one game after she logged just three minutes after landing awkwardly and hurting her right knee.

"When you see her go down like that it was nerve wracking," Warlick said.

Defensively, "We're going to mix it up," Warlick said. "We'll throw in some man to man, throw in some zone. We've had some good days of practice. Hopefully we've prepared for Oklahoma."

ON TAP: Most of the rest of the SEC kicks off the conference schedule Sunday in the following matchups: Georgia at Alabama; Florida at Arkansas; Mississippi State at Auburn; LSU at South Carolina; and Ole Miss at Vanderbilt. Kentucky is idle.

Tennessee opens SEC play on Thursday against South Carolina. All SEC schools are in action that night in the following matchups: Alabama at Ole Miss; LSU at Arkansas; Auburn at Florida; Kentucky at Georgia; and Vanderbilt at Mississippi State.

COACH SPEAK: Oklahoma's Sherri Coale writes a blog for the Sooners' website. In her latest installment she explained why teams don't want to play at Marist.

"I'm still not sure exactly how we won," Coale wrote. "We didn't guard Rachele Fitz all night and we bricked enough free throws to build a starter home. But when we had to, we made some plays."

It can be read in its entirety here: The Write Space and Time.

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Oklahoma, 3-1. The Lady Vols won the previous matchup in Knoxville in 2002. Tennessee won the following season in Norman, Okla., and at a neutral site in 2007, a 70-67 win in Tampa as part of a promotion for the Final Four at the end of the season. Oklahoma came back from a 33-18 first half deficit last season to defeat the Lady Vols. … Tennessee is 8-1 in games played on January 3. The last win on this date was against Rutgers when Tennessee came back from a 23-point deficit to win 55-51 in 2009. The first win on this date was against East Tennessee State, 82-59, in 1979. The lone loss on this date was to UCLA, 65-62, in 1981. … Oklahoma will be the third Final Four team of 2009 that Tennessee faces this season. The Lady Vols defeated Louisville, 88-56, on Dec. 16 and lost to Stanford, 67-52, on Dec. 19. Louisville was the national runner-up to Connecticut, which defeated Stanford in one semifinal. Oklahoma lost to Louisville in the other semifinal in St. Louis. … Both Oklahoma and Tennessee have spent quite a bit of time in each other's conference this season. This will be the Lady Vols' fourth Big 12 opponent, with wins over Baylor, Texas Tech and Texas. Tennessee will be the Sooners' fourth SEC team this season with wins over South Carolina and Arkansas and a loss to Georgia. … Tennessee's record against Big 12 teams is 46-14. Texas is responsible for 12 of those wins with Colorado claiming one in 1981 and Oklahoma getting the other in 2009. The Lady Vols have played 11 of the 12 teams in the conference, with Iowa State the only exception. Had Tennessee not lost to Ball State in the first round of the NCAA tourney last March, the Lady Vols would have met Iowa State in the second round. … The win over Old Dominion on Dec. 30 was Pat Summitt's 600th against an unranked team. Of her 1,016 total victories, 41 percent (416 wins) have come against ranked teams. … Oklahoma is shooting 46.1 percent from the field. Opponents are shooting 32.9 percent against Tennessee, and in 12 games no team has shot better than Stanford's 39.3 percent. San Francisco recorded the lowest field goal percentage at 21.5.

BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is averaging 78.3 points a game while allowing opponents to score 55.3. Oklahoma averages 79.5 points a game while allowing 66.5. The Lady Vols are shooting 46.6 percent overall, 35.9 percent behind the arc and 70.1 percent from the free throw line. The Sooners are shooting 46.1 percent overall, 31.4 percent from long range and 65.5 percent from the line. Tennessee makes an average of 5.8 three-pointers a game while allowing 5.2. Oklahoma makes 5.8 threes a game while allowing 6.2.

Tennessee averages 44.3 rebounds a game for a +8.8 margin. Oklahoma averages 43.9 boards with a +5.8 margin. The Lady Vols average 15.5 assists and 14.3 turnovers a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 17.0 times a game. The Sooners average 15.9 assists and 18.0 turnovers with foes losing the ball 18.5 times a game. Tennessee averages 7.8 steals and 5.7 blocks a game. Oklahoma averages 8.7 steals and 4.0 blocks.


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