'Alley fight' awaits Lady Vols

The Lady Vols were anything but road warriors last season as they went 7-0 in the SEC at home and 2-5 outside of Knoxville. Four of the next five games for Tennessee are on the road and four of the opponents were picked to finish at or near the top of the league. It's a gauntlet for the Lady Vols, and it starts this afternoon against Mississippi State.

No. 4 Tennessee (13-1, 1-0) travels to Starkville for a matinee game against Mississippi State (11-4, 2-0). Tipoff at the Humphrey Coliseum is set for 2 p.m. Eastern (SEC Network, espn360.com, Lady Vol Radio Network).

The Lady Vols are 30-0 against the Lady Bulldogs, but it's a deceptive stat. The victories of late have been hard won.

During Angie Bjorklund's freshman season of 2007-08, three Lady Vols needed medical treatment, and one didn't finish the game.

"We had a ton of injuries," Bjorklund said of her recollections of that game in Starkville.

Tennessee trailed at halftime, 40-33, but pulled away in the second half for the 87-69 win. That Tennessee team had consensus national player of the year Candace Parker, who had to leave in the second half with a knee injury, and stalwart defenders Alexis Hornbuckle, Nicky Anosike and Alberta Auguste.

Auguste injured her elbow in the game, and Bjorklund had her nose broken by Mississippi State's Mary Kathryn Govero.

"I was on defense," Bjorklund said. "It was an out-of-bounds play, and she elbowed me and then got the ball and scored. I remember Lex turning around and going, ‘Angie!' and she saw I was running down the court (using hands to cover face) and I was like, ‘Don't pass me the ball.' I couldn't see. It started bleeding.

"They're a very aggressive team. You have to be ready to match their aggression for sure. Mississippi State has always been a rough team. You've got to put your guard up against them."

Alexis Rack torched Tennessee for 32 points in that 2008 game in Starkville and hit seven 3-pointers. Both Rack and Govero remain on the roster for the Lady Bulldogs.

"We're not quite as talented as we were then and they're more athletic, so you figure the rest out," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "It's a barometer for them, because who's been one of the better teams for years in the conference? Tennessee. They've got one of their most athletic teams; they've got us coming to town.

"Don't think for a second that that game isn't in neon. They're looking at this as a benchmark game for them to see where they are. It's going to be a huge challenge."

Mississippi State beat No. 17 Vanderbilt, 90-76, on Thursday, after coming back from a 15-point deficit.

"I think Vandy just fueled the energy," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "I can't even believe (the Tennessee win streak). They've had unbelievable teams."

"The Hump," as it's called locally, won't be a new venue for Tennessee's players, except for the two freshmen, Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams.

A Lady Vol team loaded with freshmen a year ago went to Starkville and kept the streak intact, but it wasn't easy. The Lady Bulldogs led early after Tennessee started 0-8 from the field, but the Lady Vols got 14 points from Bjorklund, 15 from then-freshman Shekinna Stricklen and 10 from then-freshman Alyssia Brewer off the bench for a 63-56 win.

Warlick reminded the team of the streak before Friday's film session in Knoxville.

"We talked right when we went in before film," Bjorklund said. "We're very familiar with this team, and I know they're going to be very familiar with us. It's just going to come down to who's going to work the hardest."

Pat Summitt watched film of Mississippi State before practice Friday and heaped praise on the Lady Bulldogs.

"Watching them last night beat Vanderbilt there are no weaknesses there," Summitt said. "They may very well be the best team in the league."

The SEC coaches picked Mississippi State to finish third in the conference behind Tennessee and LSU. The predicted order of finish after those three were Georgia, Vanderbilt and South Carolina for the top half with Florida, Auburn, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Alabama rounding out the last six spots.

Tennessee will play four top teams in the SEC over the next five games, and only one matchup will take place in Thompson-Boling Arena. After Mississippi State, the Lady Vols travel to Florida and then host Vandy at home. The next two games are on the road against Georgia and LSU.

"That's going to be a big challenge," Lockwood said.

"We're coming up against tough teams early," Bjorklund said. "That's a tough few games. We have to be ready. We have to be ready for a hostile crowd. We have to be ready for teams that want to beat us. We have to be ready to fight back."

Summitt hopes her team is better prepared for the grind of the road in the SEC. She won't have to wait long this season to find out. Tennessee finishes the regular season with three home games in late February, but of the first 11 SEC games for the Lady Vols, seven are on the road.

"I think they understand that, but you don't know until you go on the road and see how much grit they've got," Summitt said. "They've got to be focused and play well together on the road. It will be a wait-and-see type of thing, but we are much more prepared this year than we were a year ago.

"I feel like we're a better team. We're not last year's team, thank goodness. I think we are much more mature. I think our skills are better. I definitely think our guard play is better."

Redshirt sophomore center Kelley Cain said the players have to be ready for the opponent's best shot every time they take the court.

"On any given night against us people play their best games," Cain said. "So we have to be prepared to play our best game every night."

Sophomore forward Glory Johnson said the second-year players understand now that every opponent in the league will bring its best game when it sees orange.

"At the same time we have to bring our ‘A' game every game," Johnson said. "You have to go hard in practice because it carries over in the game, not letting up in practice, don't let up in the game and give it your all that game. Every day, give it your all for your teammates, and your coaches and for the whole program."

Summitt has brought Johnson off the bench in two of the past three games – "I like Glory coming off the bench, too. You're talking about one of the most athletic players in the country coming off the bench," Summitt said. – but Johnson is expected to be on the floor Sunday for the opening tip.

Mississippi State has an athletic post player in Chanel Mokango and guards who can get to the rim. Johnson's on-ball defense will be critical for the Lady Vols.

Williams also has the skill set to be an effective defender Sunday, but she first has to emerge from Summitt's doghouse because of erratic practice habits.

"Absolutely, she can," Warlick said when asked if Williams could be a key contributor Sunday, especially on defense. "She's just got to fight through her getting fatigued. We most definitely need her in this game, and we need her for a lot of minutes. We'll see how many minutes she can play.

"(Thursday) night she came in and we put her on the point guard and it stalled their offense. She is so fluid, it's almost like it's effortless. It looks like she's not giving effort. She's just fluid. But we do notice when she gets fatigued, and that's the point where she's got to get past that hump, and we're waiting on her to do that."

Williams is aware of her shortcomings – she can sometimes act as if she is not paying attention, which won't sit well with the coaches, to say the least – and the first-year player is getting an earful of instruction from her teammates, especially Bjorklund, who recognizes that Williams could help the team this season.

"Tremendous. And her court sense," Bjorklund said of the first-year guard. "She's got to put in the work every day, and she's going to be one of the best players. It's got to come from her."

The messages are getting to Williams, but how long it takes for them to be absorbed is on a case-by-case basis when it comes to freshmen.

"My bubbly side tends to come out a lot," Williams said. "I don't need it to come out. I need to be more of the military side of my dad. Maybe if I acted the way I act when he's around? I could really sit here and sit still. When my mom's around I am loose. Maybe I need to tone the bubbly side down and focus more on the strict side of my life."

Her father, Master Sgt. Vincent Williams, is a disciplinarian much like Summitt, and he has pointed out places for his daughter to tighten up her game.

"Hearing (Summitt) get on me about things, I'm like, ‘Oh, my dad did get on me about that a little while ago. Maybe I should have fixed it. Maybe this is becoming a problem,' " Williams said. "They have that strictness that I need to instill in myself."

Summitt has been willing to go to her bench a lot this season. Bjorklund is averaging 30.4 minutes per game – the junior is the team leader and seems to have a calming effect on both ends of the floor because of her knowledge of the system – but the other starters are in the low to upper 20s in minutes played. Four of the five bench players average double digits in minutes and the fifth one is close at 9.7 minutes per game.

"Overall we have been able to get a lot of players a lot of minutes, and that's good because we continue to learn more about what they can bring," Summitt said. "I'm not saying we would want to do that at Mississippi State, but I think it's going to be a wait and see and wait and feel how deep we want to go."

Mississippi State will be very motivated Sunday to stop the streak. Much like Vanderbilt, Florida and Auburn of last season, the Lady Bulldogs are senior-laden and looking for revenge against Tennessee. When the Vandy seniors beat Tennessee a year ago for the first time in their careers they received text messages of congratulations immediately after the game from former Commodores.

Four of Mississippi State's starters are seniors – three are junior college transfers by way of the Congo – and the program has yet to beat Tennessee in a series that began in 1986. The Lady Bulldogs are the only SEC team to never get a win over the Lady Vols.

How motivated will they be Sunday?

"Whatever the top of it is, is what it is," Summitt said. "They're going to be highly motivated. We talked about it (Friday). Holly talked about it in our film session. Just imagine how much they want to beat you. They're going to bring it. They're going to be on their ‘A' game."

Bjorklund was asked to imagine being a senior defending her home court against a team she had never beaten in her career. How motivated would she be?

"Oh, so motivated, especially on your home court," Bjorklund said. "We're going into their territory. We have to be ready to fight and win this game.

"They're going to be very motivated. They're going to come in ready to play. This is one of their best teams. I have a lot of respect for their team. It's going to be tough. We know that this is going to be one of our toughest games.

"Anywhere we go we have orange in the stands, which I'm thankful for. At the same time they're familiar with their floor, they're familiar with their court, and we're not so much, so we have to be ready."

Lockwood added, "That game is going to be a very, very big game. That is going to be an alley fight."

PROBABLE STARTERS

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard/forward, No. 40 (14.0 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game, 4.3 assists per game, 1.3 steals per game; Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (16.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.8 apg); Taber Spani, 6'1 freshman forward, No. 13 (7.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.4 apg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 25 (12.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.6 spg); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (8.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.1 blocks per game).

Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis is expected to start: Alexis Rack, 5'7 senior guard, No. 2 (20.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 4.5 apg, 2.5 spg), hails from Franklin, La., First Team All-SEC last season and preseason First Team pick for this season, scored a career-high 43 points against Maryland, led the team last season in 11 categories, including field goals made, assists and minutes played, also played volleyball, track and softball in high school, majoring in chemistry; Mary Kathryn Govero, 5'11 junior guard, No. 33 (11.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.8 apg, 1.6 spg), hails from Clinton, Miss., scored a career-high 22 points against Auburn on Jan. 3, named to the All-SEC Freshman Team in 2007-08, one of eight children; Armelie Lumanu, 5'9 senior guard, No. 5 (14.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.5 spg), hails from Kinshasa, Congo, named to the All-SEC Defensive Team last season, scored a career-high 29 points against Alcorn State on Dec. 30, pulled down season-high 11 rebounds against Auburn, played at Southeastern Illinois College for two years, named First Team NJCAA All-American; Chanel Mokango, 6'5 senior forward, No. 10 (9.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.9 bpg), hails from Kinshasa, Congo, played with Lumanu at Southeastern Illinois and also was an First Team NJCAA All-American, had a career-high nine blocks against Ole Miss last season, scored a season-high 18 points this season against Mississippi Valley State, had 10 points and eight rebounds against Texas; and Rima Kalonda, 6'3 senior center, No. 0 (2.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg), hails from Kinshasa, Congo, also played at Southeastern Illinois, played in 28 games for the Lady Bulldogs last season, tallied a season-high eight points against East Tennessee State on Nov. 15, 2009, started the game against Auburn and came off the bench against Vanderbilt.

Mississippi State lost a key player before the season started in Marneshia Richard, a 5'8 senior guard who was expected to relieve Rack at the point and let the sharpshooter play more on the wing.

But Richard, who didn't play last season because of a major knee injury, hurt her Achilles tendon in a practice session in late October and is not expected to be able to play this season. Richard and Mississippi State can make an appeal to the NCAA for an extra year if the player chooses to do so. Lumanu and Rack have shared the point guard duties in Richard's absence.

The Lady Bulldogs also are without Tysheka Grimes, who started 13 games this season and was averaging 11.5 points and 7.0 rebounds a game. Fanning-Otis told the local paper, The Dispatch, which covers Columbus and Starkville, that she didn't know if or when Grimes would return to the team, and she won't play Sunday. Grimes also missed the Auburn and Vanderbilt games and last played Dec. 30 against Alcorn State.

A key player off the bench is Diamber Johnson, a 5'7 sophomore guard who has twice started this season, including the last game against Vanderbilt. She has 33 assists and eight steals and averages 4.7 points a game. Channa Campbell, a 6'2 senior forward/center, also will be called on Sunday. Campbell, who has played in 12 games this season, averages 2.3 points and 1.3 rebounds a game and has tallied three blocks.

Mississippi State seems to have righted its ship after a rough start. The Lady Bulldogs smashed Maryland and then lost three straight in the Virgin Islands to Texas, Rutgers and Southern Cal, although two of the games were very close.

"I know Coach Fanning has been pulling her hair out … they had been so up and down," Holly Warlick said.

Since that November swoon, Mississippi State has won seven of its past eight games with the loss coming on the road to Xavier.

Summitt has watched her team start slow in the past two games and then recover at home. She knows a repeat could be disastrous against Mississippi State.

"We started slow, and I don't have an answer for that," Summitt said. "We had better not start slow on the road. It's a lot harder to catch up."

SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scout for the Tennessee-Mississippi State game. Here is her assessment.

When Mississippi State has the ball: The Lady Bulldogs are a balanced team as they can score inside and out and they have one of the league's most dynamic players in Alexis Rack.

"Rack is going to be difficult," Warlick said. "She shoots long range threes, and she penetrates. That's hard to guard. At times you're at her mercy because she gets shots off, you just hope they don't go in. She is good. I am telling you, she is good."

"When you look at their team, they are as athletic as any team in our conference and with Alexis Rack, you've got as explosive of a scorer as there is in the conference," Dean Lockwood said.

Defensively, "They're real aggressive," Warlick said. "They are going to get very aggressive with us. I think (Fanning-Otis) is going to mix it up. She's done some zone, but I think they're going to pick us up. They'll pick us up full court man. They're going to pressure our guards. We'll going to have to handle the ball. Everybody is going to have to handle the ball."

When Tennessee has the ball: The coaching staff wants Angie Bjorklund to keep doing what she does – filling up the basket. Bjorklund has shot 65 percent (17-26) from behind the arc in the past four games.

"She and Kinna," Warlick said with a smile. "We're going to have to take care of the ball and establish Kelley inside."

Kelley Cain's right knee has been cranky this week because of the frigid temperatures in Knoxville – Starkville won't offer any relief as it's well below freezing in Mississippi, too – and she took a blow to her kneecap in Thursday's win over South Carolina. Tennessee will want to get Cain established early on offense Sunday.

This week has been a hard week for her," Warlick said. "When Angie and Kinna are playing well together and the inside gets a little bit more consistent, we're pretty tough."

Defensively, Tennessee will use various looks, as it did against South Carolina when Pat Summitt based the defense on the personnel on the floor.

"When she brought it one group, we went zone," Warlick said. "When she brought another group in we went man. We've still got to get better at defending penetration and our help side. That's constantly a work in progress. We'll definitely mix it up. Absolutely."

Tennessee's last two opponents have both wanted to push tempo, and Mississippi State is expected to do the same.

"Mississippi State is a South Carolina with kids that are a little bit more active and they're seniors," Warlick said. "They've got more experience."

Warlick said a big difference in this year's Tennessee team is that the players have been able to make in-game adjustments on both sides of the ball.

"Last year we couldn't do that," Warlick said. "But this year we are."

ON TAP: All 12 SEC teams are in action Sunday. The other matchups are: South Carolina at Alabama; Arkansas at Ole Miss; Auburn at LSU; Florida at Georgia; and Vanderbilt at Kentucky.

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Mississippi State, 30-0. The Lady Vols' record in Starkville is 13-0. … Tennessee is 12-2 in games played on January 10. The last win on this date was against Auburn, 85-52, in 2008. The first win on January 10 was against Carson-Newman, 38-30, in 1925. The two losses on this date were to Edinboro (Pennsylvania), 70-68, in 1976, and to Louisiana Tech, 72-64, in 1982. … Former Lady Vol Kara Lawson has played a big part in Mississippi State's futility against Tennessee. In her last career game against the Lady Bulldogs in the SEC tourney on March 8, 2003, Lawson scooped in a buzzer beater for the 76-75 win. On Feb. 14, 2002 – Lawson's birthday – she hit a midrange jumper at the buzzer to cap a 14-point comeback with an 80-78 win, and on Feb. 17, 2000, she hit a three-pointer with 1.3 seconds to seal the 79-75 win. Both of those games were in Starkville. … Sharon Fanning-Otis was a graduate assistant at Tennessee in the 1975-76 season and remains a close friend to Pat Summitt. She got married two years ago to the former mayor of Tupelo, Miss. – they met on the city's day of appreciation for former Lady Bulldog Tan White – and is using the hyphenated name this season. … Mississippi State has started 2-0 in conference play for the third time in school history. The last times were in the 1987-88 and 2004-05 seasons. The Lady Bulldogs have never started 3-0 in SEC play. The 90 points scored against Vanderbilt on Thursday was the highest for the program in an SEC game since Mississippi State put up 98 against the Commodores in a double-overtime loss in the 2004-05 season. The 90 points in regulation in an SEC game were the most since a 96-46 defeat of Kentucky in the 2002-03 season. … Sunday's game has been designated the "True Maroon Game and is sponsored by the Mississippi State Student Association. All fans 17 and younger will be admitted free. The Lady Bulldogs are 9-0 at home this season and have a 10-game home winning streak.

BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is averaging 79.6 points a game while allowing opponents to score 57.2. Mississippi State averages 78.4 points a game while allowing 58.9. The Lady Vols are shooting 47.0 percent overall, 38.3 percent behind the arc and 69.8 percent from the free throw line. The Lady Bulldogs are shooting 43.2 percent overall, 32.4 percent from long range and 66.8 percent from the line. Tennessee makes an average of 6.4 three-pointers a game while allowing 5.5. Mississippi State makes 7.5 threes a game while allowing 4.1.

Tennessee averages 44.1 rebounds a game for a +8.8 margin. Mississippi State averages 41.0 boards with a +3.6 margin. The Lady Vols average 16.2 assists and 14.1 turnovers a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 16.6 times a game. The Lady Bulldogs average 15.8 assists and 15.6 turnovers with foes losing the ball 23.1 times a game. Tennessee averages 7.5 steals and 6.3 blocks a game. Mississippi State averages 11.1 steals and 3.7 blocks.


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