'Dogfight' awaits Lady Vols in Athens

Shekinna Stricklen struggled in Tennessee's last two games and so did the Lady Vols. That is not a coincidence, and the sophomore is aware of how key her play is for the team to be successful. The guard will once again have the ball in her hand to start the game tonight against Georgia – a pesky, ball-hawking team – and after two solid practices the coaches expect to see a renewed Stricklen.

"I think the last two games have not been typical of how Kinna has played this whole year," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "I think she pressed. She wasn't feeling good. But you know what? It's basketball and the lights are on and you've got to play. You've got to be ready, and I think she will. She's pressed the last two games."

Shekinna Stricklen, a small forward/shooting guard who has been converted into a point guard, has been dealing with an unsettled stomach of late.

"It's a little better," Stricklen said. "I still have my stomach pains here and there."

Stricklen clearly felt well at the start of Sunday's game over Vanderbilt. She scored a quick eight points on 3-3 shooting from the field, including a three-pointer. But she faded before halftime and was replaced in both halves by backup point guard Briana Bass.

Stricklen was on the floor at the end when Tennessee closed out the 64-57 win.

"Stricklen stepped up when she had to step up," Coach Pat Summitt said. "She hasn't been playing at the top of her game, particularly in the last two games. I saw her step up and close out the Vanderbilt game. I think she gained some confidence. You wouldn't think she lacked confidence, but I think that she probably did in that game. We got a handle on it."

No. 3 Tennessee (16-1, 4-0) takes on No. 8 Georgia (17-1, 4-1) in a matchup of Top 10 teams at 7 p.m. Eastern (FSN, Lady Vols Radio Network) at Stegeman Coliseum in Athens.

The Lady Bulldogs have done well in the league overall over the years, but they had slipped a bit by Georgia standards. Coach Andy Landers has gone back to recruiting guards who can be disruptive and after some rosters changes from last season, including a dismissal, and then an influx of six freshmen, the team seems to have come together.

"I knew it was just a matter of time and they were going to be a strong team in our league," Summitt said. "Year in and year out he's done a great job in recruiting. They look good.

"From watching them, I think this is one of Andy's best teams. From a defensive standpoint, they just really get after you. We're going to have to be disciplined and take care of the basketball because we've had a lot of careless turnovers. We haven't seen, I don't think, anyone that is quite as aggressive on the defensive end. I think they're one of the best in our league right now."

Georgia is hoping for a sellout crowd tonight at Stegeman Coliseum.

"It speaks to the quality of the two programs through the years that both Georgia and Tennessee have maintained a competitive level that few teams can match," Landers said. "It's not unusual for us to play games of this magnitude."

Summitt has repeatedly referenced the fact that she wants Tennessee to separate itself from the field and with two road games this week against Georgia and LSU, two of the top teams in the SEC, the opportunity presents itself, but it is a formidable one. With just 25 percent of league play in the books, Tennessee is the only SEC team still undefeated in the conference.

"I'm pleased with where we are," Summitt said. "I wasn't pleased with how we played in our last game against Vanderbilt. We get a big lead and then we get complacent. That's something that a veteran team shouldn't do. The fact that we don't have any seniors, that shouldn't impact how we play for 40 minutes.

"We had a really tough practice (Monday) to remind them that this is unacceptable. Obviously, they know Georgia is really, really good. They know we've got two big games coming up with LSU, which we haven't talked about, but they're all aware of it, and certainly the coaches are.

"My expectations are really high. I just think we've got to be invested in every play."

Since the ball is in Stricklen's hands to start the game, those expectations fall on her shoulders. The most shocking stat for Stricklen after the Vandy game was the fact she had no assists. She leads the team in assists with 70 with Angie Bjorklund second at 44.

"For the first time I didn't have any assists," Stricklen said. "It showed that I wasn't penetrating and helping my teammates to get open. That is what I am really focusing on Thursday (against Georgia). It really did hurt me. It felt like I was being selfish, which I'm not, but it felt like that because I didn't get anyone open and I didn't get not one assist."

Stricklen and her teammates had two solid days of practice – a lengthy and challenging one Monday and then a short session Tuesday to focus on scouting – so the players responded to what the coaches felt was a very sub-par effort against the Commodores after getting a 27-7 lead and then coasting into halftime and holding on in the second half.

Monday's session was nearly three hours – Tuesday's barely went over an hour of court time – and the intent was to exhaust the players and continue to make them perform while fatigued.

"They just wanted us to have that competitive attitude all time, not just when we lose games, but when we win games, too," Bjorklund said. "We need to keep the expectations high and be able to work hard every day in practice, no matter what day it is.

"We had a lot of experience with those practices last year so we know how to bounce back pretty easily from having a tough game so we'll be ready for Thursday."

The players did have a bounce in their step and a smile on their face Tuesday – good signs after a strenuous session – so that indicates that level of practice won't linger into the next day and affect their legs.

"I felt pretty good (Tuesday)," Stricklen said. "I thought my legs were going to be tired, my knee, but I felt pretty good. I felt like everyone (did well). If they didn't, they didn't show it. I felt like we had a good practice (Tuesday). Everyone was fine, had good energy. I believe we're ready."

Had the effort been better on Sunday, the practice on Monday would not have been quite so strenuous, but the coaches wanted to send a message about accountability in games.

"In a practice like that we go hard, and everyone knows we have to carry it over to the game," Stricklen said. "If we play like we practice then I really feel like there's no team that can really touch us. That is what we really have to do."

Summitt saw a difference in her point guard in the past two days.

"She was better in practice," Summitt said. "She gave in to fatigue (Sunday). I said, ‘We'll condition you. We'll get you in shape, but it's a mindset. You've got to be mentally tough and not give it to fatigue.' "

The message also trickled down to a first-year player. Kamiko Williams really had to push herself in Monday's practice, but she survived it.

"After the Florida game and definitely after the Vanderbilt game, we had that hard practice (Monday), and we've refocused," Williams said. "We've got our minds right, and we understand now that we are in conference play, and we're going to be playing tough teams. Unless we have this killer instinct, we're not going to be (beating) teams like we should be.

"We have to focus on killing teams, playing with high intensity for 40 minutes instead of 20 minutes or 10 minutes, five minutes, being relaxed and then trying to do it again when it's almost too late. We've put our focus together.

"No team is going to take us lightly. They are out to get us. We can't be complacent. We're in SEC play. Everybody can play. You can lose anytime against anybody. Her main thing was we need to stop taking teams lightly. We need to go out there and kill them. If we beat them by 30, if we beat them by 50, so be it. We just need to do it."

Bjorklund is the only junior in the starting lineup. The others have been a mixture of sophomores and freshman Taber Spani, who is likely to be out of the lineup tonight because of turf toe. There is not a senior on the roster and although several players gained quite a bit of court experience last season, this is not a team of upperclassmen, to say the least.

"The hardest thing for us is to play a 40-minute game and have a sense of urgency for 40 minutes straight and not just start a game strong," Bjorklund said. "That is going to be a main key."

Tennessee may still show signs of last year's team that went 22-11 and finished tied for fourth in the SEC. A win Thursday on the road would surpass last season's win total for away games in the SEC as the Lady Vols went 2-5 outside of Knoxville. This season they already have road victories over Mississippi State and Florida.

"We're a totally different team than last year," Stricklen said. "We still have some issues from last year. We still don't go a whole 40-minute game, and we play in spurts. We saw a lot of that last year. That's something we really need to separate, that we really need to go a whole 40-minute game."

Stricklen recognizes her role in ensuring that happens and one source of motivation for her is to not make Summitt yell at her.

"She stays on me a lot, but I hate it when she (yells)," Stricklen said with a smile. "I have to bring energy. I started the Vandy game with a lot of energy and then I just let down. I have to keep my energy the entire game and stay focused and get the team going and get them in the play earlier and having time to go through the play."

Bjorklund played at Georgia as a freshman. It was the last game of the 2007-08 regular season, and Tennessee, which trailed at halftime, pulled out a 72-63 win on the Lady Bulldogs Senior Night.

"Georgia is a great team," Bjorklund said. "They've been a tough team this year. We're looking forward to it. We did a great couple days of scouting. Our coaches did a great job of scouting so executing our game plan is going to be the key. We know them. We know their plays.

"They're a very tough team. They're aggressive. I have a ton of respect for Ashley Houts and her game and (Angel) Robinson. It's going to be a tough game. We miss being at home. Anytime you're on the road that home court advantage always comes into effect."

This will be Stricklen's first trip to Athens because Georgia played at Knoxville last season. Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone are the only players on the current active roster to have been to Athens.

"It's my first time so I'm looking forward to it," Stricklen said. "One (priority) is have energy for the whole game and control the ball. These last two games I've been having too many turnovers and that is something I am going to really have to limit and looking to get my teammates open.

"When I don't have energy, I'm too laidback, and that's something that I can't do. I have to have energy and stay focused for my team and make sure everyone stays on the same page."

Stricklen also knows that she sets the tone for the team.

"I really, really realize that," Stricklen said. "I have really set a goal for myself that I have to keep my energy up the whole game."

The schedule makers in the league office didn't do Tennessee any favors by sending them on the road so much to start SEC play – and especially against the top teams in the conference this week in Georgia and then LSU – but it does give the Lady Vols a chance to create some of the separation that Summitt is seeking.

"This is a very important week," Stricklen said. "Every game is important, but this week is very important, especially two road games. Going on the road and playing hard and coming out with a win would help us a whole lot."

"These next two games are a time to make a statement that we are one of the top teams in the country," Bjorklund said. "We need to make a statement as the top team in the SEC. We have an opportunity to win the whole thing, and we just need to keep playing hard and play a 40-minute game."

STARTING LINEUPS:

Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen 6'2 sophomore guard/forward, No. 40 (13.5 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game, 4.1 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (15.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.9 apg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 25 (12.9 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.5 steals per game); Alyssia Brewer, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 33 (7.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (9.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.8 blocks per game).

Freshman forward Taber Spani, who has started 16 games this season and would have started 17 if not for a glitch at the scorer's table in San Antonio last November, is not expected to be in the lineup Thursday because of "turf toe," a painful inflammatory condition of the big toe and ball of the foot. Spani didn't practice Monday or Tuesday.

The team took off Wednesday to travel so Thursday at shoot-around will be the next time the players take the court, and Summitt indicated Spani's playing status would be a game-day decision.

"She could (play)," Summitt said. "I think it's a wait and see. I don't think I will start her. I think I will wait and see how we're playing and if we need her she can play. I am going to start (Lyssi). I watched films with her (Tuesday). I watched films with Alicia (Manning). I think they've both got to get a whole lot better and hopefully they will. I want to start big. (Georgia is) big. I want to start big."

Alicia Manning, a 6'1 forward, is from Woodstock, Ga. – she was recruited by her home state school – and is a key player off the bench, as she can provide relief at shooting guard and small forward.

Georgia Coach Andy Landers is expected to start: Ashley Houts, 5'6 senior guard, No. 1 (12.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.8 apg), hails from Trenton, Ga., nearly had a triple double against Arkansas on Sunday with 16 points, nine assists and eight rebounds, scored a career-high 27 points in the overtime win against Kentucky, helped lead Team USA to the gold medal in the 2009 World University Games; Jasmine James, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 10 (12.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.3 apg), hails from Memphis, Tenn., had a career-high nine assists against Arkansas, has been honored as SEC freshman of the week four times this season; Meredith Mitchell, 6'1 sophomore guard, No. 11 (7.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg), hails from Midfield, Ala., has started all 18 games this season, started seven games as a freshman, and Georgia was 6-1 in those games, had a career-high 17 points against Tennessee State this season and career-high five assists against Kentucky; Porsha Phillips, 6'2 junior forward, No. 21 (9.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg. 1.7 bpg), hails from Stone Mountain, Ga., started 23 games last season after sitting out the previous season after transferring from LSU, had a season-high 15 points against Oklahoma on Nov. 15, brothers Brandon and Patrick both signed to play baseball for the Bulldogs but ended up going pro – Brandon is with the Cincinnati Reds and Patrick is with the Los Angeles Angels organization; and Angel Robinson, 6'5 redshirt senior center, No. 33 (8.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.6 bpg), hails from Marietta, Ga., had a season-high 12 points against Oklahoma, has twice grabbed 14 rebounds in a game this season against Clemson and Florida, was selected All-SEC Second Team last season, scored a career-high 29 points against Vandy last season, had to redshirt during the 2005-06 season because of knee injury, has already earned her bachelor's degree and is pursuing a master's in education, passed current Assistant Coach La'Keisha Frett for the No. 10 spot in blocked shots last season and is now at No. 7 with 191 swats.

Georgia will be without Christy Marshall, a 6'1 senior guard who suffered a season-ending right knee injury (torn ACL) on Oct. 13, 2009. She had surgery Nov. 17.

Two key players off the bench for the Lady Bulldogs are Anne Marie Armstrong, a 6'3 freshman forward, and Jasmine Hassell, a 6'2 freshman forward/guard. Hassell is from Lebanon, Tenn., one of two players on the Georgia roster from the Volunteer State. Armstrong has started three games this season, and Hassell has started one. The other player who hails from Tennessee is James.

"She's so athletic," Summitt said of James. "She's got a great pull-up game, really, really hunts paint points, gets another people involved. She's a special guard."

"Houts, obviously, is pushing tempo, and the inside game is a lot better. I think they're older and wiser and they play well together. They bought in to how he wants to compete at both ends of the floor. They are aggressive off the bounce, good high-low game, good post game. It's going to be interesting to see how we match up with their posts."

"I think she gives them energy and changes their attitude," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said of James. "They have a lot of confidence in her. She's oozes confidence because she plays hard. She's getting a lot of minutes, and she should because she's playing very well."

Tennessee has two Georgians on its roster in Manning and Cain, who is from Atlanta.

"We've got Georgia kids so it's a pride thing for both teams," Warlick said. "They're playing well. They've lost one game, and we've lost one game."

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

When Georgia has the ball: The Lady Bulldogs aren't shooting particularly well as a team – center Angel Robinson is 50.5 percent from the field but the overall field goal percentage is 39.9 percent – but Georgia has beaten an assortment of ranked teams and has just one loss on the season at Vanderbilt last week.

"They play hard," Warlick said. "They run the ball when they need to. (Ashley Houts) handles the ball about 99 percent of the time. She is a true point guard, an intelligent, has a feel for the game point guard. She gets the ball to people who need the ball at the right time. She's aware of the clock. She's a point guard, and she just makes it happen.

"The addition of (Jasmine) James (on the perimeter) and (Jasmine) Hassell inside, it was a great addition for (Andy Landers). I think they've got good chemistry. This is outside looking in. Not that they had bad chemistry last year. I just think they have good chemistry. I think they're playing well together."

"They want to score in transition. They want to score off steals and long rebounds. They try to control the tempo with their defense."

Defensively, "they're getting after the ball," Warlick said. "He'll press after a made basket. He's trying to speed up the game. It's going to be a very physical game. They're physical. We're physical. Their posts are real physical. Their posts are great offensive rebounders. It's going to be a typical Georgia-Tennessee game."

"We've just got to go down and be ready to play on the defensive end, and that's really, really key for us and ball security because they are really, really aggressive," Pat Summitt said.

When Tennessee has the ball: "We need to go inside," Warlick said. "That's our plan. We're going to want Glory (Johnson) playing on the perimeter and she can by all means handle it. She just hasn't gotten a lot of time there."

Defensively, "we're going to mix it up," Warlick said. "Man, zone, see what works. We're not going in there saying we'll just run all man to man. We're going to continue to practice everything and give it our best shot.

"We'll press. We'll see what kind of mood we're in when we press. If we're in a good mood we're going to do well. We start off with Vandy and did a great job and then we got a little bored with it and they shot a layup and then an open three."

A year ago in Knoxville, Georgia got crushed, 73-43, and went into the record books as Summitt's 1000th win. Afterwards, Andy Landers asked not to talk about his team's desultory performance and instead focus on Summitt's achievement. Georgia would seemingly want to avenge such a defeat at home.

"I'm sure that it's in the back of their mind. Absolutely," Warlick said. "It would be in the back of my mind."

The Lady Vol coaches are hoping that orange-clad fans make their way to Stegeman Coliseum.

"This is a big game, and I'm sure it will be a great crowd and hopefully a lot of orange in the stands," Summitt said. "But we just have to be on our ‘A' game. We've got to defend. We've got to do a great job on the boards. They're very, very aggressive so just taking care of the basketball. We can't have 25 turnovers and expect to win."

Warlick also realized that this week allows the Lady Vols a chance to get some breathing room in the SEC, but with games in Athens and then Baton Rouge that is a challenge.

"We're going to have to have our ‘A' game," Warlick said. "We're not going to be able to play like we did in Florida, play like we did against Vandy and expect to win. We've got to play a 40-minute game and it's got to be solid because we're getting ready to play two solid SEC teams at their place."

BORDER CLASH: Tennessee and Georgia have met, of course, in the regular season. But they also seem to find each other when a lot is on the line in postseason.

The Lady Vols and the Lady Bulldogs have squared off with winner in parenthesis in the 1996 NCAA title game (Tennessee); the 1995 Final Four NCAA semifinals (Tennessee); the Elite Eight round of the 1983 (Georgia) and 1984 (Tennessee) NCAA tournaments; the Sweet 16 in 1986 (Tennessee); and the title game of the 1992 (Tennessee) and 1999 (Tennessee) SEC tournaments.

Also, the two teams have produced the only tie for the SEC title in 2000 and finished 1-2 in the SEC standings in 1984, 1995, 1996 and 2007.

"I don't really think about it today when we're getting ready for a game, but certainly we have a long history of hard fought, tough battles and not just during the regular season, but what stands out is postseason," Pat Summitt said during her Wednesday media teleconference.

"We've definitely gone head-to-head many times on the big stage. I think it's been good. I think it's been a great rivalry. I expect them to have a great crowd. Typically, when they come here, the same is true. I know we're in for a dogfight, no pun intended."

Tennessee is the only SEC team with a winning record over Georgia, and the Lady Bulldogs' 14 wins over the Lady Vols represents the second-most by any program, trailing only Louisiana Tech's 17.

Andy Landers has been on the sideline for all of Georgia's victories in the series, which gives him more victories over Tennessee than any other coach.

Reserved tickets for tonight's game are $5 for adults and $3 for children and are available at www.georgiadogs.com or at the UGA Athletic Ticket Office in the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Any remaining tickets will go on sale at Stegeman Coliseum 90 minutes prior to tipoff.

Georgia students, faculty and staff are admitted to all Lady Bulldog games free with a valid UGA Card. The first 300 Georgia students in attendance will receive free pizza and "Beat Tennessee" T-shirts.

"I think Georgia fans would like to see Georgia beat Tennessee, and we have a team that's capable of doing that," Landers said. "I hope our fans will show up as they have in the past and sell out the Coliseum for this game."

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

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Georgia, 40-14. The Lady Vols record in Athens is 11-7. Tennessee has won the last eight matchups. Georgia's last win in the series was March 6, 2004, a 68-66 overtime win in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. … Tennessee is 10-2 in games played on January 21. The last win on this date was against Kentucky, 110-38, in 2001. The first win on January 21 was against Memphis State, now the University of Memphis, 86-48, in 1980. The two losses on this date were to Clemson, 72-64, in 1981; and Florida, 71-62, in 1997. … This will be the only regular season matchup between Tennessee and Georgia. The other one-time SEC games this season for Tennessee are Kentucky, Arkansas, Auburn, Alabama and Mississippi State. Tennessee plays home-and-home games this season with South Carolina, Florida, Vanderbilt, LSU and Ole Miss. … Both Pat Summitt and Andy Landers are inductees in the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. The two have combined for 1,845 wins – 1,021 for Summitt and 824 for Landers. Summitt is in her 36th season, and Landers is in his 35th. Landers hails from Maryville, Tenn. – located a short distance from the University of Tennessee campus – and began his coaching career at Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tenn., where Landers and Summitt first squared off on the sidelines in exhibition games. … Georgia has always been known for its stiff defense, and the Lady Bulldogs strayed from that philosophy last season when they finished 18-14 and lost in the first round of the NCAA tourney to Arizona State. This season, Georgia ranks No. 4 nationally in field goal percentage defense at 33.1 percent and No. 6 in scoring defense at 51.7 points per game.

BY THE NUMBERS: Tennessee is averaging 77.6 points a game while allowing opponents to score 57.1. Georgia averages 65.8 points a game while allowing 51.7. The Lady Vols are shooting 46.9 percent overall, 37.1 percent behind the arc and 68.3 percent from the free throw line. The Lady Bulldogs are shooting 39.9 percent overall, 29.0 percent from long range and 65.8 percent from the line. Tennessee makes an average of 6.1 three-pointers a game while allowing 6.1. Georgia makes 5.2 threes a game while allowing 5.6.

Tennessee averages 43.7 rebounds a game for a +9.0 margin. Georgia averages 40.9 boards with a +2.2 margin. The Lady Vols average 16.1 assists and 14.6 turnovers a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 17.0 times a game. The Lady Bulldogs average 12.8 assists and 16.6 turnovers with foes losing the ball 20.9 times a game. Tennessee averages 7.4 steals and 5.6 blocks a game. Georgia averages 9.6 steals and 5.9 blocks.


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