Last year, the Lady Vols jumped out to a 33-18 lead over Oklahoma in Oklahoma City, but had no answer when the Sooners stormed back before halftime to take the lead. This year, Tennessee battled back from the deficit, secured a 31-30 lead on a layup by guard Kamiko Williams and never surrendered it.
"They're older and wiser," Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale said. "They are more experienced. I just felt like last year, they were really so young, they didn't really have an identity and now I think they know who they are and how they have to win."
"I think she was sleeping," Coach Pat Summitt said. "She definitely was not attacking. And sometimes they just need a reminder."
Summitt had a few words with Stricklen, who watched the action for a few minutes and then reentered the game.
"I just thought I needed to bring her out and talk to her and see if she would respond and obviously great game," Summitt said. "I don't know that I was whispering. Sometimes the volume is turned a little bit up. Not to give in to fatigue, because she gives in to fatigue. I'm trying to convince her to focus on living in the moment on the court and what she needs to bring.
"She's gotten a lot better. That first half she did a lot of great things and that's probably the longest period of time that she kept the intensity in her play at that level. So we are making progress."
By halftime Stricklen had nine points, seven assists and seven rebounds, a stat line that was pointed out to the second-year player by the staff.
"When she took me out, she told me that I wasn't playing like a point guard and that I needed to take my game up to another level," Stricklen said. "I just told her, ‘Yes, ma'am,' and I responded."
That's an understatement.
By the end of the game Stricklen had 17 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists and received a standing ovation from the crowd of 13,332. It wasn't even suspenseful. Stricklen got the rebound to complete the feat with slightly less than nine minutes remaining in the game.
"I think it speaks volumes for what she can do and what she brings to our team," Summitt said. "That is why I think, more than anything, putting her at the point position, she has really responded. I think initially she wanted to be an off-guard, and I told her, ‘You've just got to be a player. It doesn't matter what position you play. You've got to bring more to the court.'
"She is one that I have been in her ear more than probably anybody else. Well, I can't say that. Kamiko would be hurt (to hear that). I guess she's glad I'm yelling at Stricklen and not her tonight."
It was just the second career triple-double in Tennessee Lady Vol history, and the first in those three stat categories. The first triple-double came from Shelia Collins with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 steals against Florida State on Feb. 8, 1985.
The 12 assists in a single game tied Stricklen for fifth place with four other players – Michelle Marciniak (1995); Dawn Marsh (1986 and 1988); Lea Henry (1982); and Holly Warlick (1980). The record of 18 assists in a single game is held by Marsh, who set it against Georgia in 1988.
Stricklen's assists went to perimeter shooters – she twice found Angie Bjorklund behind the arc – and to post players, who finished the baskets inside.
"I was happy and excited," Stricklen said. "I was just going up to my teammates and telling them, ‘Thank you,' especially the post players. They were just turning around and scoring. They weren't dribbling (which would wipe out an assist), so they were really helping me out."
"Strick has huge responsibilities on this team, from being the point guard, to the rebounder to the scorer and assists, and she was getting it done," Bjorklund said. "I have a lot of respect for her game, and I think this shows that we like to share the ball, and she's being aggressive at the same time."
It also wasn't just Stricklen's stat line that put a smile on Summitt's face after the game.
"Overall, I thought we did a nice job in a lot of areas," Summitt said. "We had 44 paint points. That's a place we want to constantly get the ball, in the paint, and be efficient there. Then, we had 21 second-chance points. I think those two stats are very telling about how we played, and we out-rebounded them by 17, so that gave us a good advantage there."
Summitt had anything but a smile on her face a little over two minutes into a game. Tennessee scored the first basket on a long two-pointer from Stricklen, and then Oklahoma scored the next nine points behind a three-pointer from Nyeshia Stevenson – one of six the Sooners hit in the first half – a layup by Carlee Roethlisberger and back-to-back layups from Danielle Robinson, who got the second one on a strip of Stricklen just past mid-court.
Summitt signaled for a timeout and the Sooners went to their bench with a 9-2 lead at the 17:40 mark of the first half. After Roethlisberger hit another three, Oklahoma's lead was 14-4 at the 16:51 mark.
"Obviously, we didn't start out well," Summitt said. "I don't know why, but we did not pick up the ball early in transition, and they got out to a great start."
Tennessee got back in the game by feeding the ball into the paint. Kelley Cain scored on a reverse layup over Abi Olajuwon out of the timeout, and Manning cleaned up a Cain miss with an offensive board and basket. Johnson got a steal and went the distance for a layup and when Cain hit an elbow jumper over Olajuwon on a corner feed from Bjorklund, the Lady Vols were within four points, 18-12, at the 14:16 mark.
Cain and Alyssia Brewer went to work inside, and a Brewer power move to the middle of the paint knotted the game at 20. Johnson tied it again at 22 with a baseline jumper and then on the next possession Olajuwon fouled Cain with a shove in the back as an entry pass was on it way to the post.
On the in-bounds play off the foul Williams hit a double-clutch 12-footer and was fouled by Amanda Thompson. Williams made the free throw for the 25-22 lead.
Oklahoma took its final lead, 30-29, on a three-pointer from Stevenson that was answered by a Williams layup and then a three-pointer from Bjorklund, both set up by assists from Stricklen. Oklahoma trimmed the lead to three points right before halftime on a Thompson layup, but Stricklen answered with a three-pointer that she launched with one second left on the clock, and Tennessee had a 45-39 lead at halftime.
"Once we settled down, and definitely after halftime we had a lot more composure and a lot more grit, we did a lot of good things because of it," Summitt said.
Tennessee shot 54.1 percent in the first half and still claimed a lead on the boards, 22-15, with 11 of those coming on the offensive end. Stricklen had four offensive boards at halftime, including one at the 15:35 mark of the game to cut the margin to 17-10 after Oklahoma had hit back-to-back three-pointers to take a nine-point lead.
After the game, Coale rued those missed opportunities on the glass for Oklahoma, especially the ones by Stricklen.
"We talked about her rebounds at halftime," Coale said. "Four offensive boards – I think she had. Early in the game we could've pulled away and had quite a margin. The only way Tennessee was scoring early was on offensive rebounds, and she seemed to just be flying through untouched.
"She is a great basketball player and an incredibly challenging matchup for most teams in the country because of the position that she plays. I watched her play plenty of times in high school and I'm not surprised by anything the child does."
Both teams were content to maintain a furious pace in the second half with 76 total shots launched by Tennessee and 65 by Oklahoma. Tennessee shot 51.3 percent for the game and an eye-popping 62.5 percent from behind the arc. Bjorklund led the way from long range with 5-8 marksmanship and finished with 25 points.
"It was lovely," Brewer said. "This game, every time I knew when it got into Angie's hands it was either going to go in or not a bad miss. All her shots were very selective, and she did big for us."
Summitt continued her theme of the importance of practice repetitions.
"I think Angie is so dedicated to working on her skills and just getting shots all the time," Summitt said. "I know I go back to that Stanford game, when I realized that we didn't have many people getting in Pratt Pavilion or Thompson-Boling when the doors were open, and that's changed.
"I think it's also helped not only Angie but the other players that understand how much you have to invest in your offensive skill. Defense is about heart and desire, and offense is about skill set, and I think we're starting to understand that we've got to get in the gym and get up hundreds of shots and be confident when we go in the game. It gives you confidence. It really does, and that's been the difference in our basketball team this year."
Bjorklund is now averaging 16.0 points per game and shooting 47.8 percent from long range and 46.9 percent overall. Her percentage in the second half of games this season from behind the arc is a staggering 27-39 (69.2 percent), and that played out again Sunday when she went 1-3 in the first half and 4-5 in the second.
"I think the way Bjorklund is playing makes a difference," Coale said. "Her last couple of games her 3-point percentage has got to be 65 or so (percent). It's crazy. And they're not wide-open, easy shots. She might get one or two, but the rest of them are highly contested. I think their team rallies around that."
Bjorklund attributed her performance and confidence to two higher powers – one a deity, one a mortal.
"For me, from the Lord," Bjorklund said. "I give him the credit. And then also (Summitt) told us to get into the gym. We've been committed to getting into the gym. We've been dragging each other in, calling each other, and it's really paid off, and it will definitely in the future if we continue to do that."
Oklahoma shot 44.6 percent for the game – the first time an opponent has shot 40 percent or higher against Tennessee this season – and was led behind the arc by Stevenson, who was 4-8 from long range, and finished with 17 points. With the Sooners lofting 22 three-pointers and hitting nine of them (40.9 percent), Thompson found room to work inside and was 10-13 from the field for a game-high of 26 points. She also was 2-2 behind the arc.
"I was basically taking what they gave me," Thompson said. "I wasn't rushed, and I was shooting on balance. Coach always tells me if I take my time and look at my target, it will go in. Today, I felt really relaxed and a lot of my shots were going in."
Thompson was joined in double figures by Stevenson, who had 17 points, Roethlisberger, who had 14, and Robinson, who added 10 points. Thompson had a double-double with 11 rebounds.
Oklahoma stayed in the hunt with Tennessee in the second half, but the Lady Vols stretched the lead to 11 points on a Stricklen layup, 65-54, with 11:17 to play, and the margin never fell below double digits. The Sooners still were within striking distance – Coale called timeout with the score 67-56 with 9:59 left – but Bjorklund answered that break in the action with a three-pointer to put Tennessee ahead, 70-56.
The Lady Vols pulled away in the final eight minutes – the lead had stretched to 18 points, 79-61, with 6:48 left on a layup by Manning off a pass from Johnson – and Tennessee was never threatened again.
Summitt used all 10 players available for the game with nine of those playing double-digit minutes and everyone getting on the scoreboard after Bass, Spani and Sydney Smallbone hit three-pointers. Oklahoma, on the other hand, used a rotation of six players with a seventh playing just one minute.
Tennessee got 32 points off its bench compared to zero for Oklahoma.
"They have a few more McDonald's All-Americans than we do," Coale said. "We gave it the old college try, though."
Tennessee's bench scoring was led by the 13 points from Brewer, who was 6-9 from the field and also had five rebounds, two blocks, an assist and a steal.
"I'm really excited about what Lyssi has brought to us of late," Summitt said. "I think she's getting in better condition and that's helping her get up and down the floor. She has a lot of composure in the paint and her ability to finish in the paint definitely helps us.
"It gives us a little bit more balance, if you will, in there because Kelley can play that position. She can play that position. Glory can play it. I like what she's coming off the bench and giving us."
Brewer, the first Lady Vol basketball player from the state of Oklahoma, spent an extra session on Friday with Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood, and they worked on getting deep position in the paint, moves and then counter-moves to the basket. Brewer deployed all of that work in Sunday's game, and the performance helped her confidence.
"It definitely helps me out," Brewer said. "It gives me a little confidence booster, but I get those from my teammates every day and they know what I am capable of doing. It's just me doing it on the floor and that's what I did tonight."
Oklahoma has had to reinvent itself this season with the graduation of Courtney and Ashley Paris and then the loss of sophomore sharpshooter Whitney Hand, who suffered an ACL injury in the fifth game of the season.
"I think the greater tribute to our kids is that we figured out how to play without Whitney in a very short amount of time," Coale said. "You think about that game tonight if we have Whitney Hand on our team. That's a big deal. That's a big difference. Our kids, I am so proud of their poise and the way each one of them has stepped up and taken on an even greater piece of responsibility in Whitney's absence.
"There's not anybody that can be what she is. We've had to have help defensively, we've had to have help scoring, and she was also a fantastic rebounder. That's what we've really overcome."
The Oklahoma players made a pact among themselves to bring more individual effort to the court.
"Basically we made a pledge and an honor to each other that we were going to give a little bit more," Stevenson said. "We all vowed to each other. We had great post players leave and we're trying to make up for that. As far as the guards go, it just a matter of everybody giving a little piece of what Whitney did."
Stevenson and Robinson, who had 10 assists and four steals, both logged 40 minutes.
"We get a lot of reps in practice, as well," Stevenson said of the pair's ability to stay on the court for extended minutes. "It's just a matter of wanting and knowing that we are going to be out there."
It was a particularly impressive feat given the up-tempo pace of the game. Bjorklund has become Tennessee's workhorse – her shooting and overall knowledge of the system make her a mainstay on the court – and she logged 37 minutes. Stricklen logged 33 with Cain accumulating the third most at 24, as Summitt used her bench extensively.
After 11 turnovers for Tennessee in the first half and 10 for Oklahoma, both teams cut back on the giveaways – the Lady Vols had just seven more in the second half, the Sooners six more – and were determined to continue a breakneck pace. Both teams capitalized on turnovers. Tennessee had 21 points off miscues, and Oklahoma had 19.
"I think it was a great game for women's basketball," Coale said. "At halftime I thought, ‘ESPN picked the right one tonight, baby.' It was great basketball; shots going in on both ends and it was pretty clean basically – great effort, great athleticism, up and down the floor."
"I knew right off that they wanted to make it an up-and-down game," Summitt said. "I knew that after watching tape on them. I think our team, we're better when we're going up and down and getting in the open court. Our passing is better, decision-making is a lot better, and we're doing a better job of getting the ball into our post game."
Cain and Brewer spent some time on the floor together after Johnson picked up her second foul in the first half, and it proved to be an effective combination in the paint. Cain is 6'6, and Brewer is every inch of 6'3 with a solid post build. The pair is tough to guard.
"I definitely think it gives us a big advantage," Brewer said. "I'm not that far from Kelley in height and when I get in the high post I can just give her a lob. I think it's really hard for a team to defend two players of that size and the advantage is all the way ours in that."
Cain finished with 10 points and eight rebounds, plus five blocks.
In a sign of Johnson's maturity from a year ago, she struggled in spurts but still managed to score nine points and add five boards, three assists and two steals. She padded Tennessee's lead to 82-61 after leaping over everyone for an offensive board and sticking the putback, plus drawing a foul.
Johnson found Stricklen cutting to the basket for a layup to give Tennessee a 10-point lead, 64-54, at the 11:17 mark of the second half, and Stricklen completed the and-one play to push the score to 65-54. Johnson had back-to-back assists later in the game with an interior pass to Brewer and then a layup for Manning to give Tennessee a 79-61 lead.
"I think she handles adversity better now," Summitt said. "She's such a great athlete, so she plays at a little bit different tempo from some of the players, even the players on the opposite side.
"I think having better composure allows her to use her skill set a whole lot better as well. She's not rushing her shots, and she's got the shot fake and a lot more composure, and I think she'll continue to get more efficient."
That composure was team-wide and evident when Tennessee didn't "freak out" – as Brewer put in – when Oklahoma took the lead in the first half.
"I think that goes back to the maturity level that we have this year," Brewer said. "Last year, they did the same thing, we were up by 15 and they did a run, and we just broke down. This year, they went on a run, but we didn't freak out. We kept our composure and did what we had to do to get back the lead."
Tennessee dominated on the glass with a 48-31 margin, as the posts and guards all nabbed boards. Spani, Bjorklund and Manning had four apiece, and Williams grabbed three. The defense was stout overall with nine blocks and nine steals, and the offense was in high gear all evening. Bjorklund hit five three-pointers and had help long range from Stricklen, who had two, and Spani, Bass and Smallbone, who nailed one each.
"I thought Tennessee was absolutely fabulous tonight," Coale said. "Anytime you go 10 of 16 from three, you're hard to beat, and they were really hard to beat tonight. The difference in the basketball game was rebounds.
"We can talk about how well they shot it all we want to, and we didn't shoot it that badly either. The difference in the game was on the glass. It gives us a lot to learn from, go back and get better, and congratulations to a very good basketball team."