Tennessee takes SEC opener

One hearty soul among the other 1,461 people in attendance on an evening when main roads were bumper-to-bumper traffic, and secondary roads were sheets of ice kept Tennessee from setting a record for low attendance at the arena. The 1,462 people who weathered treacherous conditions were thanked by Pat Summitt and witnessed the Lady Vols win the SEC opener Thursday over South Carolina, 79-62.

Pat Summitt, once again, witnessed a sluggish start by her team, specifically on the defensive end, and she wasn't particularly pleased after the win, but she did salute the play of guards Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen and the toughness of Kelley Cain, who took a direct shot to her surgically repaired kneecap and had to leave the game but was able to return.

Bjorklund led all scorers with 23 points and once again put on a shooting clinic going 9-15 overall and 5-8 behind the arc. She added four rebounds, three assists and a steal to her offensive output.

Stricklen tallied 21 points and added six assists, three blocks and two boards. The two guards have a synergy on the floor together.

"I go and hand it off to her, and I kind of set a screen, too, when I hand it off," Stricklen said. "I think teams still haven't caught on to that."

"Shhhh," Bjorklund said, bringing her index finger to her mouth as Stricklen laughed.

"But just Angie moving without the ball and guards moving and setting screens for each other and just hitting our shots," Stricklen said of the guards' connection on the court. "That's a good thing."

The tickets-sold attendance number was 10,590, which included season ticket holders, pre-sales and walk-up sales, which were few and far between, and the 19 students who made it to the game. The actual tickets scanned were 1,462, which was one more person than the 1,461 who watched a 91-63 win at Thompson-Boling Arena over Mississippi State on Jan. 2, 1991, when Knoxville also was hit with a wintry mix that turned roadways into ice rinks.

"We probably had more Lady Vol fans watching (on television) than ever before," Summitt said. "I was excited that we had any fans here. I was glad I got here. I was kind of worried about getting out of my driveway."

Tennessee (13-1, 1-0) shot 46.8 percent from the field overall and 41.7 percent behind the arc and limited its turnovers to just eight. But South Carolina (7-7, 0-2) had its way to open the game and got to the paint and drained shots from outside. The Gamecocks' field goal percentage was in the 60s to start the game, with Tennessee keeping close by shooting in the 50s.

"Did it remind you of the last game?" Summitt said in her post-game press conference. "That's what I told them. We've got to start the game at a different level of intensity and a better commitment on the defensive end. Everyone that we are playing, they're coming in and they're just running right up our backs.

"Obviously, what they're seeing is our weakness in our transition defense. We didn't do a good job of turning them in the backcourt. That's obviously going to be something that we'll work on (Friday in practice) before we go to Mississippi State."

That practice session might be short one player as Cain's right knee is sore after she took a direct hit to her kneecap after a collision with South Carolina center Kelsey Bone. Cain had to leave the game in the second half for treatment but returned later and got one of the loudest cheers of the evening when she checked in at the scorer's table.

"I did notice," Cain said with a smile.

"She got hit, so she is going to be sore," Summitt said. "I don't know if she'll be able to practice (Friday) but I don't think it's anything serious. I think she is stronger physically and tougher mentally, which has helped us and helped her."

Cain tried to turn up court but fell to the floor and signaled to the bench for help. She indicated the knee goes into a type of "shock" after taking a direct blow.

"You have to give it time to calm down and once it calms down, it was fine," Cain said.

The Tennessee team needed a little time early in the game to get its bearings on defense. South Carolina scored the first basket of the game on a short jumper from Bone and built a six-point lead, 14-8, in the game's first three minutes after Ieasia Walker connected from long range.

Tennessee was answering on offense – Bjorklund hit her first four shots – but couldn't get stops on defense.

"I think a lot of teams are going to come at us with dribble drive penetration," Bjorklund said. That's something we're working on is guarding penetration, and we're working on our one-on-one defense."

Summitt could have shifted her personnel into a zone, but she wanted them to stay in the man defense and work through it on the court.

"Absolutely," Summitt said. "I wanted to run our man-to-man, just because eventually, we are going to play teams that shoot the deep three-ball. We may have to zone some, but I just think when you can defend off the bounce and you can learn how to influence and take away their strengths, then we are going to be a better basketball team. That's why I wanted to go back and play more man."

That deep-shooting team turned out to be South Carolina, which was 4-8 in the first half from behind the arc and 6-13 for the game. The Gamecocks ended up shooting better from long range (46.2 percent) than overall (37.1 percent). That really extended the Lady Vols' defense, and the South Carolina guards also were adept at putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim or dishing off to Bone, who drew a double team from Tennessee nearly every time she touched the ball.

Cain helped quite a bit as she was waiting inside when the smaller guards scooted into the paint. Cain had five blocks in the first half and, as usual, they were of the variety of where she just takes the ball out of the shooter's hands.

"That inside presence is huge," Bjorklund said. "We've been working on our one-on-one D, but it still breaks down. I know that Kelley Cain has got my back. Having that confidence in our post play and help-side defense is huge."

The man defense got better about one-third of the way through the first half.

"I think we did when we actually slowed them down," Stricklen said. "If they did get by us, Kelley was right there. She was blocking shots so that was really helping us. I think stopping penetration is our weakness right now, and that's what we really have to work on."

The coaching staff had expected South Carolina to attack from the opening tip, and Summitt said it's especially the correct strategy when an SEC team is playing on the road.

"They came out very inspired," Summitt said. "If you are going on the road, that's what you expect. I thought once we started to really pick up and defend, we got a lot better. … Once we addressed it, but we shouldn't have to address it. It should be something that's ingrained in their minds and in their commitment that they know they have to make for us to be successful and have a chance at winning this conference race."

Tennessee took its first lead, 8-7, when Cain got a pass from Alyssia Brewer, hit the layup, was fouled and made the free throw. But South Carolina answered with a La'Keisha Sutton layup and then a Sutton steal and layup to claim an 11-8 lead.

Tennessee reclaimed the lead on a Bjorklund three-pointer, 21-20, at the 12:55 mark, and then Bjorklund stroked another one for the 24-20 lead. The Lady Vols never trailed again and built the lead into double digits, 47-33, by halftime.

"Well, Pat's look actually stirs a fire in us," Cain said. "We just came together and were like, ‘We can't let them beat us, not in our house, and not on a day like this where our fans came out to still see us play, even through this kind of weather."

After scoring 20 points in slightly more than six minutes, South Carolina managed just 13 more over the next 14 minutes in the first half.

"We got tired," South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said. "I guess they tired us out. We just wanted to make our speed a part of the game. We knew that if we kept it into a half-court game, their height advantage would come into play a lot more, so we wanted to find easier ways to score.

"Once the game settled down (we thought) maybe we could tire them out a little bit, so they wouldn't seem as big as they are."

Summitt went to her bench also – usual starter Glory Johnson entered at the 16:10 mark of the first half – and except for the mainstay Bjorklund, who logged extended minutes at 37, three other starters played under 25 minutes, and Stricklen logged 29. Alicia Manning played a solid 17 minutes in relief and tallied four points and four rebounds. Johnson logged 29 minutes and put up a pair of nines in points and rebounds.

Staley also deployed her bench and once made a five-for-five substitution. On other occasions she subbed four players at one time.

"I felt like we should just bring in some fresh legs and give us a different look," Staley said. "The (five) players that we did bring in, they're more defensive-minded. They like to get after it. Offensively, they're not the five that we would like on the floor but they sometimes can make things happen and change the complexion of the game."

South Carolina got the lead to single digits in the second half, 50-41, just three minutes into the secomd half, and then down to seven, 55-48, at the 12:36 mark.

But then Tennessee started draining three-pointers – one from Bjorklund and back-to-back ones from Stricklen, who used a Cain screen on the second one and just stepped back and shot – and the lead was 15 points, 64-49, with 9:35 left. It never was less than 17 points the rest of the way.

Summitt went to her bench often after that point – as she had at times in the first half – and the result was some offensive inconsistency, but Tennessee still had 17 assists on 29 made baskets.

"I thought we went in spurts," Summitt said of the offense, which had been electric in the past two games. "When we went to our bench, we didn't have the same rhythm offensively. That's just them not playing as much (together). We were a little disjointed.

"We just kind of platooned on the substitution, and I think that probably took away some of our offensive rhythm and efficiency. But all in all, I wanted to get them some playing time."

The exceptions on offense were Stricklen and Bjorklund – and Taber Spani was 3-4 from the field for eight points and also tallied four rebounds – who have worked well in tandem all season.

"The play of Shekinna and Angie on offense, when you've got people shooting the ball like they're shooting the ball, sometimes the other players just stand around and watch," Summitt said. "One thing we did was take care of the basketball. When you can keep your turnovers down and have efficiency like we had from those two players (the results tend to be favorable)."

Bjorklund, once again, scored in a variety of ways – long range, wing jumpers, a cut to the basket, off screens and off an in-bounds play, where she curled off a screen and lofted a shot from the baseline.

"I think you have to go into every game with that confidence and I think the more shots that you take outside practice, outside games that will just build confidence," Bjorklund said.

Summitt pointed out, once again, that Bjorklund spends quite a bit of time in Pratt Pavilion taking extra shots.

"Angie has been the most dedicated player in getting in the gym and getting in the reps," Summitt said. "It's no secret on our team. I think she's attracted a lot of her teammates, understanding what happens when you have the repetition over and over and over. It's helped her. It gives her great confidence.

"She feels like every time she shoots the ball it is going to go in, and believe it or not, I'm starting to think like her. But that's a good feeling."

Summitt smiled when she said that, but she wants the post game to be a consistent presence in the box score. Cain had eight points, and Brewer added four. Johnson got five of her nine from the free throw line, after being waylaid on two trips to the basket.

"I'd like to see us be a lot better in the paint," Summitt said. "There is a great upside to what we can do, and we've got to do it. We've got to do a whole lot better. One through five, our starters today were not as efficient as we have been."

It was rather brawl-like inside with a lot of hard contact going uncalled, enough that Summitt had some harsh words for two officials. She must have asked for some of the rough play to be cleaned up, because the whistles blew more often on both ends after the exchange.

Bone, the Wooden National High School Player of the Year, could have remained in her home state of Texas, but she chose to play in the SEC, in part, because of the league's reputation for physical play in the paint.

"The SEC is known for its physicality," Bone said. "It was a big part of my decision to come play in the SEC. It's expected, it's just a matter of me learning and adjusting and being able to take the physical nature." Bone had 10 points for South Carolina, and found herself bottled by defenders when she got the ball. She was 3-8 from the field and 4-4 from the free throw line with five rebounds.

With Cain just a sophomore and Bone a freshman the two centers will have frequent clashes.

"I know Kelley knows just by having a year under her belt playing in the SEC, it's different," Staley said. "Her playing in the league (this season) and coming back as a sophomore, (Bone) is going to be a lot better than she is today. She's just got to take her hits this year and figure out a way that she can put all that talent to work."

Bone was joined in double figures by Valerie Nainima, who had 16 points and hit 4-6 from behind the arc, and Sutton, who added 10 points. Forward Charenee Stephens had 10 rebounds and eight points off the bench in a solid effort inside.

Tennessee barely won the rebounding battle, 38-37, and South Carolina got 28 of its points in the paint with 26 inside for Tennessee. The Gamecocks had 17 second-chance points to 16 for Tennessee, and got 17 points off its bench to 15 for the Lady Vols.

Tennessee did capitalize on South Carolina's 13 turnovers with 18 points, while the Gamecocks got six off Tennessee's eight miscues. South Carolina had one steal, while Tennessee had two. The Lady Vols did swamp South Carolina in the blocks – 11 swats to none for the Gamecocks. Cain accounted for six of the 11 blocks.

It is apparent that South Carolina, which has hovered near the bottom in the conference, is an improved team under Staley.

"We're more talented than we were last year," Staley said. "We're less experienced, but we're more talented. When we add some experience to the talent that we have, we will start making these games a lot closer than what they are.

"But it did feel good. It felt a lot better than how we've been playing. If you can play against one of the top teams in the SEC like this, if you can bottle that up and bring it to the other teams, we should win a lot more basketball games than lose."

Tennessee travels to South Carolina on Jan. 31, so the Gamecocks will get a rematch this month.

"It gives us a big advantage to be able to come here first and then be able to tackle them on our home floor," Bone said. "We will be able to watch film and see where we messed up on a couple of things and hope we come out with a different outcome."

"It is helpful, but they are who they are," Staley said. "They're big; they're skillful. They have players they can continue to bring off the bench. When Bjorklund shoots the ball the way she shoots the ball, they're going to win a lot of basketball games whether you've seen them before or not."

Bjorklund is now shooting 48.0 percent overall and 49.0 percent from behind the arc. She needs 107 points to reach 1,000 for her career.

Staley had said before the game that she was a little concerned about how her team would react to the 10,000-plus orange-clad fans expected for the game, but the icy roads kept thousands of them at home.

"It was pretty odd, because it's usually packed in here," Staley said. "It's always a joy coming down here because I think people come out and support Tennessee's program but at the same time have a great appreciation for women's basketball.

"I think Mother Nature had its own way of playing a part in this game, but the people that came out, they're faithful people, and I'm glad they got a chance to see what I thought was one of our better games."

The small crowd meant the players could hear conversations in the crowd – any fan who enjoys shouting but never knows if the words actually reach the court would have been in nirvana Thursday – and the sideline instructions from both benches. When Tennessee was running its offense in the first half, the voices of Staley and her assistants, two of whom are former Lady Vols in Nikki McCray and Carla McGhee, shouting defensive instructions were loud and clear.

"I think you get used to it," Bjorklund said. "It's just like any other game. It's kind of nice not having Pat yell at you (because the coach didn't have to raise her voice to be heard). During away games, you'll have hostile crowds yelling in your ear and you just have to ignore that and focus on what you're trying to do and execute on offense."

Tennessee is used to playing in front of large crowds – the players have said they like fans in the stands whether they're for them or against them – but Summitt didn't think the sparse attendance affected the start.

"It's happened more than once (this season)," Summitt said. "We haven't always gotten off to a quick start. I told them we had to generate our own energy, and we just had to come out and play at a different level and just know that the people that came here we want to show them that we appreciate that, and we're going to play hard for you."

The players did appreciate the fans that made it to the arena and made sure to mention it in their post-game remarks.

"We were kind of shocked by the amount of people that came out," said Cain, who indicated the players expected even fewer because of the road conditions. "I can understand. It's a little cold outside for people to be out, but we're still thankful that people did come out and see us play."

"It was a little different, but we're very thankful that people came out," Bjorklund said. "With the weather and the snow, we didn't know what to expect. The turnout that we did get, that means a lot."

Summitt's thoughts had already turned to Mississippi State, because of her concerns about transition defense. The next game is Sunday in Starkville, a treacherous place for Tennessee, though the Lady Vols have somehow managed to win every game against the Lady Bulldogs. Mississippi State is senior-laden this season with a solid inside-outside attack.

"We've got to get better in that area because they are really good at attacking in the full court, getting to the paint," Summitt said. "Obviously their post game is athletic and solid.

"I think our transition defense and our board play is going to define who we are and how we can stay alive in this league and keep winning games."


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