"It's weird," said Shekinna Stricklen, who will be making her first trip as a Lady Vol to Columbia. "We're playing them (again) already, and we still haven't played everybody in our conference yet. We know how each other plays and it's going to be a good game. What's important are our defense and boards."
Coach Pat Summitt knew South Carolina was next on the schedule, but she has entered her typical state of tunnel vision.
"I had to ask somebody who we played after South Carolina," Summitt said. "I wasn't sure. I've got to have tunnel vision, and our players need tunnel vision."
Tennessee's SEC schedule has been heavily titled to road games since the opener against South Carolina on Jan. 7 in Knoxville, but the Lady Vols do play four of the last five games at Thompson-Boling Arena starting Feb. 14 against Florida. They will play back-to-back SEC home games for the first time starting Feb. 22 against LSU.
Nine other SEC teams have already played two in a row at home, one gets the home duo starting today and one gets the home pair starting Feb. 4.
Last year, when Tennessee went 2-5 on the road in SEC play, that schedule could have sunk the Lady Vols early, but they are 3-1 away from home so far this season and sitting in first place in the SEC standings with just one loss.
"That is totally different," Stricklen said. "Last year we were just struggling and struggling trying to get in the top four. We didn't, but this year we're up there, and we just want to keep it that way, and we know what we've got to do to keep it that way. Work hard every game."
Stricklen, who will be in the starting lineup Sunday, is the only player for Tennessee to start every game this season. The point guard/shooting guard/small forward has not played her natural position – she never played point in high school in Morrilton. Ark – but it's a position she wants to stay at this season, and Summitt make it a point to directly ask her in a one-on-one meeting if she wanted to move to the wing.
"We did have a meeting (before the LSU game), and she did ask me that question," Stricklen said. "I looked her in the eyes and said, ‘No, I want to stay there.' I feel like I am getting better at it. I am still making mistakes, but I'm learning.
"Another thing, my teammates believe in me and I think they like me being there. I didn't want to change that for them."
Bass, a sophomore, is a true point guard, and Williams, a freshman, was a combo guard in high school and is used to having the ball in her hand.
The biggest step for Williams has been to learn the offensive plays, something she had not done by late January, despite a playbook, DVDs to take home and study and film sessions with the coaches. This week, the coaches sent her to the dorm with a DVD with detailed instructions on five specific plays. She was told to learn them and be ready for a quiz this week. It was partly intended as a test of Williams' commitment – the value of learning some plays the other obvious benefit – and the freshman passed and then some.
"She wrote everything out, so now when we get in a situation where we might want to throw a wrinkle in with a set play, designed for whomever, she knows it," said Summitt, who added Williams' repertoire will be expanded later. "She sat there and walked me through everything. She's invested."
That raised Summitt's comfort level considerably with the first-year player. When Summitt watched Williams in high school in Clarksville, Tenn., she saw a gifted basketball player who instinctively understood the game but had no idea how to mesh with four other teammates on the court.
"She really has a great feel for the game and that is so important, especially for guard play," Summitt said. "She came in and all she wanted to do was play. She didn't know how to play. So, if you talk about a learning curve, it was taking her awhile, but that's OK. We've got a lot of basketball left to play."
Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said Williams clearly had repeatedly watched the DVD and absorbed the plays.
"We gave her (five) offensive sets that she's comfortable with," Warlick said. "We won't run certain things because she's not familiar with them, which everybody should be. We gave her some simple things that she knows pretty much where everybody should be and what she should be doing.
"I sat down with her. Pat sat down with her. She just watched over and over. I think she did her homework."
The emergence of Williams – she has logged minutes in 19 games this season and played some possessions at point guard, especially in the three-out, two-in schemes in which specific plays are not called – would allow the coaches to get Stricklen some rest on the bench at times and move her some to the wing.
The coaches have worked in Bass and Williams of late, with Williams also able to slide to the wing and play with Stricklen or vice versa.
"When those two are playing together it frees (Stricklen) up for the boards and against Georgia she was nowhere to be found on the offensive boards," Warlick said. "When we don't put her in the right positions to help her, we're taking away a little bit of our game.
"We're putting different people at the point. We're getting Kamiko ready and Bree a little bit more playing time and A-Town (Manning). We want to go up and down and get Kinna some relief. You'll see Kamiko at the point maybe a little bit more than what she has in the past.
"Bree can do that, but she's not at the point where she can play 20-something minutes to back Kinna up, so we're going to do it by committee. Kamiko has got to step up and help us, and I think A-Town can help us. And I am not counting out Bree. She is not a 20-minute player right now so we're just going to do it by committee because I think Kinna does need help."
It was the Georgia game – the first loss since Dec. 22 against Stanford and the first SEC defeat for Tennessee – that led to Summitt and Stricklen sitting down for a chat.
"The Vandy game was tough on us and then we had to go down to Georgia," Warlick said. "We had two tough practices and I saw that Kinna didn't have the energy and didn't have the confidence that she's had all year. That kind of opened our eyes to say, ‘We've got to get her some help.' She's in a position that's really not her true position and she's done a heck of a job, but she needs some help."
Summitt added, "I think Kinna has probably felt a lot of pressure because she has had to play a lot of minutes because she's had the ball in her hands a lot. That is why we really wanted to look at our half-court offense and try to get a lot better ball movement so she's not feeling the burden of having to do everything."
Stricklen has a tendency to be quiet and internalize anything bothering her, so Summitt asked the sophomore to open up about what was on her mind.
"I feel like I have a pretty good connection with her and she's just having to play a whole lot at that position," Summitt said. "That is why we need Kamiko and Bree to be able to play some quality minutes there, so she is not having to play almost 40 minutes a game."
Stricklen said the meeting helped her relax at the point – she played a solid game there against LSU, though she didn't shoot well, and Auburn, a game in which she shot very well – and it made her realize she needs to speak up more at times.
"It feels great that she came to me and talked to me normal and just asked me how I'm doing and stuff like that," Stricklen said. "When she said she believed in me and all the coaches do, it just made my confidence even better.
"If I am having a problem I can go talk to her more than I do. I feel like I do need to communicate with her a lot more."
Thursday's game against Auburn also was a confidence boost for the team, especially the guards, as they got shots to fall. Stricklen felt a palpable sense of relief after the game.
"I really do," Stricklen said. "I feel like I finally got in a rhythm. I feel like in the last two games (before Auburn) I haven't been in rhythm, I was going through the motions and I was getting frustrated because I wasn't hitting my shots, and I've been making turnovers.
"(Thursday) night was big for me. It brought back a lot of my confidence. I was just playing the game and not thinking so much. I had fun."
The conversation between coach and player underscored how much Stricklen wants to continue getting time at the point.
"I get frustrated because while point is not my (natural) position I really want to do good at it," Stricklen said. "Especially when I am missing easy shots or I'm making a lot of turnovers or I'm not able to get my teammates open, it really frustrates me and it's something I have to get over. I have to stay positive."
Stricklen, however, is open to the idea of additional help.
"They've been working on Kamiko at the point," Stricklen said. "Coach has moved me to the wing spot just to look more for my shot. She feels like when I am at the point I don't look for my shot as much. I look more to pass before I shoot. She's working on Kamiko a little bit to give me a little break off the point."
Summitt's game plan is leave Stricklen in place while making sure there are players getting up to speed to help her.
"It's a position that I think she's handled for the most part pretty well and now is gaining more and more momentum and confidence," Summitt said. "Here is my thought about guard play. If you're a guard you've got to be able to handle, pass, shoot, score, do it all.
"And I think what was happening a lot is she and Angie were playing by themselves and now we're trying to get inside-outside, running some set plays and doing a lot of different things."
The play of Stricklen and Bjorklund is critical to Tennessee's success. The past week of practice focused on getting everyone involved on the offensive end – more touches and passes and ball reversals – and getting open looks for the guards.
"When they're making shots it takes the pressure off our inside game as well," Summitt said. "We're really working hard on quick ball movement, player movement and doing a better job of waiting and using screens. Every day you see something else and think, ‘Today we need to work on this.' "
One item to scratch off the list is a sit-down meeting between head coach and point guard.
"I just wanted to make sure, first of all, that she was comfortable in that position and then secondly just to get her to give me a little bit more feedback," Summitt said. "I think we're in a good place with it."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard/forward, No. 40 (12.9 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game, 4.0 assists per game; Sydney Smallbone, 5'10 junior guard, No. 20 (3.1 ppg, 0.7 rpg); Angie Bjorklund 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (15.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.5 apg; Glory Johnson, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 25 (12.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.5 steals per game); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (9.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.8 blocks per game).
Tennessee will be short one player off the bench. Taber Spani, a 6'1 forward/guard who has started 16 games and played in all 20 this season, will be held out of the next two games to rest a painful case of turf toe in her left foot. She will miss the South Carolina game today and Arkansas on Thursday.
Summitt had mentioned she was inclined to force the freshman to rest, but she wanted to talk to Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, and Spani on Saturday.
"She's not going to like it," Summitt said, as Spani has been trying to play through the pain. "She wants to play every second of every game. I am going to try to give her some rest."
South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley is expected to start: Samone Kennedy, 5'4 junior guard, No. 4 (5.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.6 apg), played 47 minutes in the two-overtime game against Clemson this season, hit three 3-pointers against N.C. State; Valerie Nainima, 5'5 junior guard, No. 31 (17.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.1 apg), has scored in double figures in every game but one this season and has six games with 20+ points, scored 16 points against Tennessee this season, one of two Gamecocks to start every game this season, hit five 3-pointers in the win over Ole Miss, is shooting 45.5 percent behind the arc in league play; La'Keisha Sutton, 5'9 sophomore guard, No. 11 (11.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg), had six assists against Ole Miss, is shooting a league best 57.1 percent behind the arc in SEC games; Jewel May, 6'1 junior forward, No. 52 (2.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg), the other Gamecock to start all 20 games this season; and Kelsey Bone 6'5 freshman center, No. 5 (14.6 ppg, 9.5 rpg), tallied 10 points and five rebounds against Tennessee.
A key player off the bench for the Gamecocks is Charenee Stephens, a 6'1 sophomore forward who has started one game this season. She is averaging 8.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and leads the team in field goal percentage at 60.9 percent. Stephens was 4-8 against Tennessee and tallied eight points and 10 rebounds.
Ieasia Walker, a 5'8 freshman guard, has started four games this season – including against Tennessee – and played in all 20. She is averaging 4.8 points and 2.6 rebounds a game.
SCOUTING REPORT: Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-South Carolina game. Here is her assessment.
When South Carolina has the ball: Once again, the inside-outside attack of Valerie Nainima on the perimeter and Kelsey Bone in the paint will draw the attention of the Lady Vol defenders. Nainima is a junior – she arrived from the juco ranks and is from Fiji – and has emerged as the team leader.
"She is a focal point," Warlick said. "She's their leader. She is going to be our focal point because she's getting the job done. She's scoring threes, she's penetrating, she's playing really well right now. She's a player. She's a big-time player."
Bone, a freshman center, also is a big part of the offense, as was the case in the game in Knoxville. Warlick said South Carolina is attacking the basket in the same fashion and has improved this month since the Jan. 7 game at Tennessee, a 79-62 win for the Lady Vols.
"They're not doing anything different," Warlick said. "Their guards are better. I think they're more aggressive. I think they're better at home. They're playing well at home, and they're playing like they don't have anything to lose, so they're playing loose and they're playing together. They're playing with a lot of confidence right now. When they played here, they opened up with a bang."
Warlick said the opening effort against Tennessee to start the game, especially on the road, should embolden the Gamecocks at home. Warlick noticed it enough to make an in-game comment to fellow assistant, Dean Lockwood.
"Absolutely," Warlick said. "I told Dean when we were here it ought to be fun going over there to play when we had this kind of start. We can't allow them to have that kind of start because we can't let their confidence build because when it builds they're a very good team."
Defensively, "They're playing hard on defense," Warlick said. "They're making people turn the ball over. Their guards get after it on the defensive end. When they do that and they cause havoc on the defensive end, they're shooting layups.
"They're pressing. They're mixing up. They're playing zone, man. They overplay passing lanes, they pressure the ball, they're physical inside. They're executing their game plan."
When Tennessee has the ball: The Lady Vols want to continue the offensive execution on display against Auburn, which included a lot of player movement and ball movement. That was a focal point of Friday's practice, the day before the team departed for South Carolina.
"We're trying to make sure we get a lot of touches, we're going to play inside-out," Warlick said. "We know Angie is going to get denied, and we're finding different ways to get her open and get her moving. When those two shoot the ball as well as they do, we're a very good team."
Warlick was talking about Angie Bjorklund and Shekinna Stricklen, who combined to shoot 14-28 against Auburn. The two accounted for 44 points in the previous game this season against South Carolina, more than half of the team's total. When the guard pair has a good game, it typically has a direct result on a positive outcome for Tennessee.
"It was huge," Warlick said. "They've got to make plays. They have to. Because (otherwise) they can double on Kelley (Cain), and they can be physical on Kelley and our post game. So we have to hit outside shots and when those two are on we're a totally different team."
The running game also got a workout Thursday, and Tennessee would like a repeat Sunday.
"We're going to try and get up and down," Pat Summitt said. "We want to get and go."
Defensively, Tennessee will continue to be flexible. After playing mostly zone against Georgia and LSU, the Lady Vols were primarily a man team against Auburn. The deployment against South Carolina will depend on personnel on the floor and what's working best.
"We've worked really hard on it (man and zone) so hopefully we're getting better at it every day," Warlick said. "We'll definitely mix it up."
ON TAP: All 12 SEC teams are in action Sunday. The other matchups are: LSU at Alabama; Vanderbilt at Arkansas; Georgia at Auburn; Florida at Ole Miss; and Kentucky at Mississippi State.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with South Carolina, 41-2. The Lady Vols record in Columbia is 16-1 with the Gamecocks' 56-52 win at home coming on Jan. 23, 1980. That game led to a change in the position of the band and the use of amplified instruments. The Carolina Pep Band set up behind the Tennessee bench and played amplified drums and electric guitars for the entire game. Pat Summitt moved the timeout huddles to the free throw line, but her players still could not hear her. According to Lady Vols media relations, shortly thereafter, bans on bands playing during the game and using electronic amplification for instruments was instituted by the AIAW. Since that game, Tennessee has since won 37 consecutive games against South Carolina. … Tennessee is 11-4 in games played on January 31. The last win on this date was against Ole Miss, 68-44, in 2008. The first win on January 31 was against Maryville, 72-50, in 1973. The four losses on this date were to East Tennessee State, 22-16, in 1924; Belmont, 38-28, in 1970; Ole Miss, 69-65, in 1987; and Texas, 69-67, in 1989. … Sunday's game will be the final one in the month of January this season for Tennessee. Since Pat Summitt became the head coach in 1974, the Lady Vols record in the first month of the year is 281-51. The road record in January is 130-36. … Two former Lady Vol basketball players are on the bench for South Carolina. Nikki McCray (1991-95) and Carla McGhee (1986-90) are assistants for Coach Dawn Staley. McCray, an All-American and two-time Olympian in 1996 and 2000, will be honored as one of the Greats of the Game at the SEC Tournament, an annual event in which the league recognizes a great from each school at halftime of the various schools' tourney games. McCray tallied 1,572 points, 671 rebounds, 289 steals and 247 assists during her time at Tennessee. … Kelley Cain is in ninth place in the Tennessee record book with 103 career blocks. Her wingspan has been officially entered in the Lady Vol game notes. It is 82 inches for the 6'6 center.
BY THE NUMBERS OVERALL WITH SEC PLAY IN PARENTHESES: Tennessee is averaging 75.5 points a game (67.7 in the SEC) while allowing opponents to score 56.1 (54.7). South Carolina averages 67.5 points a game (64.2) while allowing 66.1 (64.4). The Lady Vols are shooting 46.5 percent overall (45.4), 38.0 percent behind the arc (38.1) and 68.6 percent from the free throw line (64.8). The Gamecocks are shooting 42.4 percent overall (43.9), 37.2 percent from long range (41.4) and 64.2 percent from the line (65.8). Tennessee makes an average of 6.0 three-pointers a game (5.7) while allowing 5.8 (6.3). South Carolina makes 4.6 threes a game (5.1) while allowing 4.2 (4.4).
Tennessee averages 43.1 rebounds a game for a +9.0 margin (40.3, +8.3). South Carolina averages 39.7 boards for a +3.3 margin (36.9, +4.5). The Lady Vols average 15.8 assists (15.1) and 15.3 turnovers (16.7) a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 17.1 times a game (17.3). The Gamecocks average 10.7 assists (11.1) and 18.6 turnovers (15.8) with foes losing the ball 16.5 times a game (12.9). Tennessee averages 7.3 steals (6.1) and 5.6 blocks a game (5.0). South Carolina averages 7.4 steals (4.9) and 2.3 blocks (1.6).