Lady Vols get day off practice

Pat Summitt got the report from the training room after Sunday's thrashing of Oklahoma – the most-physical game of the season, so far, according to the coach – and decided to call off practice Monday at the last minute and instead let the team get treatment with Jenny Moshak. None of the cases was serious, but several players were sore and in need of some additional rest.

It was a game that Pat Summitt was overall pleased with the next day, minus the tepid start, and she smiled when asked if it might finally lie to rest the notion that Shekinna Stricklen was not suited to play point guard. The sophomore from Morrilton, Ark., became the second player in Lady Vol history to record a triple double and the first to do so in the points/rebounds/assists stat categories.

Stricklen had played just three minutes in the previous game against Old Dominion on Dec. 30 after wrenching her right knee on an awkward landing, and she was one of several players needing a little extra care from Jenny Moshak on Monday. Kelley Cain, who battled in the paint and took several body shots, also needed some treatment. Alicia Manning remained under the weather, and several other players were treated for assorted bumps and bruises.

Summitt said the players would likely be cleared to practice Tuesday, but after she got Monday's training room report from Moshak, the coach decided a day off the court was in order.

Stricklen was a reluctant point guard a year ago, but she has adjusted to the position this season. Her stat line Sunday of 17 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists underscored, to say the least, her ability to both play the point and be a scorer. The previous triple-double recorded at Tennessee came from Shelia Collins in 1981 with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 steals.

"You think she's figured it out by now?" Summitt said with a smile. "I think she understands. I think that she really does. She's got the ball in her hands a lot, whereas if she's on the wing she's not going to touch it as much. She's a player that touched it all the time in high school. The ball was in her hand a lot.

"I think she's very comfortable and is enjoying the role that she is playing right now."

Summitt was fairly pleased after Sunday's 96-75 win over Oklahoma, but the start was particularly irksome because it had been a focus of the pre-game scouting report that the Sooners would want to push the pace from the opening tip.

"They were committed to getting up and down the floor," Summitt said. "They pushed tempo. We talk about it all the time, but early pickup is key for us. (Danielle Robinson) had her way. I was like, ‘This just can't keep happening.' "

Summitt is often loath to call an early timeout, but when Tennessee was down 9-2 a little more than two minutes into the game, she summoned her team to the sideline.

"We had to identify the ball, and we had to slow them down in transition, and we had to defend," Summitt said of her remarks in those 30 seconds. "I said, ‘They're going wherever they want to go.' They had their way."

Tennessee got back in the game by getting on the boards and shooting 54.1 percent with Stricklen draining a three with one second left on the clock before halftime. The Lady Vols led at the break, 45-39, and Summitt had a bit more to say in the locker room.

"That we needed to start every game and we expected the five people we put out there to get us out to a great start, and we didn't," Summitt said. "My conversation with them was they just put us on our heels. We've got to turn the tables.

"I said, ‘We're not losing to Oklahoma in this building so you had better figure out a way that you're going to compete on every possession and have a sense of urgency with every thing you do.' "

Last year's team set or tied program records in the worst way for total losses, shooting percentage, poll rankings and postseason seeding. The season ended with a loss to Ball State in the first round of the NCAA tourney, and the quest to get better began the next day with a team meeting and in the subsequent days of court work with the coaches and conditioning sessions with Heather Mason.

Old Dominion Coach Wendy Larry and Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale observed that this year's Tennessee team has reclaimed its swagger and identity.

"I think their off-season workouts helped," Summitt said. "Heather, she's the best I've worked with in that area, and she has a way of challenging them in a good way, not breaking their spirit but constantly raising the bar.

"And you have to give them credit. They were invested. They wanted to get better in the off-season. They're sick and tired of what everybody said after the loss to Ball State."

Sunday's win was a team-wide one, as all 10 players on the roster logged minutes and nine of those reached double digits in court time. Tennessee's bench out-scored Oklahoma's by a tally of 32 to zero.

"It was good to see the bench come in and play a lot better," Summitt said.

Alyssia Brewer led the bench scoring with 13 points and played effective minutes both in tandem with and in relief of Cain.

"She took her time. Composure," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said.

Brewer performed in the game the same way she had practiced the week before and in an extra session with Lockwood on Friday that specifically worked on post moves and counter-moves.

"What's fun is when you see things that you practice happen in games," Lockwood said. "That is just how I am wired. It's a real simple thing, carryover, and she was doing some of that. It was good to see. It was really good. She is starting now to have a little extra work sessions and going along that path. Being at practice that is what good players do. You go to practice and invest and you give everything for two hours.

"But then the special players and the players that have that inner fire that burns for the game and they just want to see how good they can be, you need and invest more. It's like soldiers. You're in the Army, you're in the Marines, you're all part of that unit, but then there's something that burns that says, ‘I want to see how good a soldier I can be. I'm going for the max on the obstacle course. I'm going for the max on everything.'

"That is what we want from our players. That is what we think this whole thing is built on, and we want those people here."

The team will return to practice Tuesday. The players visited patients at Children's Hospital of East Tennessee on a goodwill trip Monday morning, which was to be followed by practice. But when Summitt talked to Moshak she decided to hold off for a day and just have the players lift weights.

"They're really sore," Summitt said. "I think overall it was a very physical game. It was the most physical game of the year. I think they are all sore. I went up there to visit with them and Jenny said, ‘They are all kind of beat up.' "

Cain was likely feeling quite a bit of soreness as she has the constant maintenance of her right knee, and she also had defenders' arms and legs leaning into her throughout her minutes in the paint.

"Every time she would try to bear in she would get a shove in the back," Lockwood said. "It was very physical for her. Four or five kids are feeling it, but Kelley is probably one of the most obvious ones."

Angie Bjorklund could likely also use the rest as she logged 37 minutes in an up-tempo game, but she has shown the ability this season to play extended minutes and still perform at a high level on both sides of the ball.

"She is in great condition," Lockwood said.

With the lead at 11 points, 72-61, with 8:44 remaining in the game, Bjorklund drew a charge on Robinson in the paint for the turnover. It was a timely play because Robinson had just passed the ball to Nyeshia Stevenson, who was alone in the corner and could have cut the lead to eight.

Instead, Tennessee got possession and Bjorklund got a feed from Manning – who had six points, four boards and two assists in 12 minutes of play – and drained a three-pointer on the other end for a 14-point lead, 75-61, with 7:47 left. Oklahoma never threatened again as the lead continued to climb until the final 21-point margin of victory.

Bjorklund scored 25 points and was 5-8 from behind the arc. The junior sharpshooter is connecting from behind the arc at a 69.2 percent clip (27-39) in the second half this season in a stat that even the coaches are in awe of – though Summitt wants to know why.

"Maybe I'll just tell her I'm not going to start her (until the second half)," Summitt said with a smile. "It's big time. Beautiful. When I first went to see her play (in high school) I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness.' She just had a great stroke."

After a season in which Summitt changed her starting lineup often, she has settled, for the most part, on the current one with Stricklen at the point, Bjorklund and Taber Spani on the wings, and Glory Johnson and Cain inside. Summitt anticipates sticking with that lineup.

"I like this lineup," Summitt said. "I think everybody knows their role and they have to accept their role and if they don't accept their role they don't play."

One player that has accepted her role is Briana Bass, who came off the bench to play point when Stricklen struggled to open the game. Bass logged 10 minutes, got the team in its offenses and hit 1-2 shots from behind the arc.

"I think she's accepted her role," Summitt said. "We're going to open every game up, most likely, with big. I think she's really embraced her role, and she gives us some good quality minutes."

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