The Lady Vols left Knoxville on Wednesday afternoon after classes and flew to Oxford for an evening practice at C.M. Tad Smith Coliseum. Junior guards Angie Bjorklund and Sydney Smallbone are the only players on the active roster who have played at Ole Miss.
Tennessee escaped with a win over the Rebels last season in Knoxville. It took the missed front end of a one-and-one by Ole Miss' Kayla Holloway, a leaning, though squared to the basket, three-pointer from Bjorklund and a missed three-pointer from Bianca Thomas for the Lady Vols to prevail, 60-59.
Ole Miss has three starters back from that game – Holloway, Thomas and Shantell Black – plus key players Elizabeth Robertson and Kayla Melson, who are regular starters this season. It should be a game that the Rebels have circled on the schedule and it presents a difficult challenge for the Lady Vols, especially in Oxford, a place Tennessee has struggled even when it rolled in with dominant teams.
"There is no doubt," said Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood in a phone interview as he rode to Oxford on Wednesday with Assistant Coach Stephanie Glance after the pair had been out recruiting and flown to Memphis for the short drive to Ole Miss to join the team for practice.
"We've talked about it. Here in the home stretch we talked about going to Vandy, which is always a bit of a buzz saw. This game, (Ole Miss), through their first seven games they were driving for first place. They have proved they're legitimate. One of the things that I like when I have it and I don't like it when we go against it, is you're playing against experienced players. (They've) got three seniors, a junior and a sophomore in the starting lineup. Those kids have been together for three years plus, and they know the ropes."
The Rebels are riding a wave of momentum after beating LSU, 102-101, in triple overtime on Sunday. It was Ole Miss' first win in Baton Rouge since 1994 – the Rebels also won the matchup in Oxford against LSU – and it put them in a tie for third place in the SEC with Florida, which visits Knoxville on Sunday for a rematch with Tennessee.
"They know the SEC," Lockwood said. "They know what playing Tennessee means. In light of last year I am sure they circled that game and said, ‘If we're going to beat them, this is our time to do it, the last chance (for the seniors) at our place.' It's definitely going to be a big game and a potential buzz saw for us. We're going to have to play good. We can't play average and expect to be up on this team. We're going to have to play good basketball."
Tennessee has its own motivations this season. After finishing in a tie for fourth place a year ago and getting the No. 5 seed in the SEC tourney, the Lady Vols are in first place in the league with 8-2 Kentucky, which hosts Georgia tonight, keeping pace on their heels.
"I think last year everyone knows we kind of cut it short," Alicia Manning said. "We've just got so much to prove to the country and our conference. We're out to win every game, and we're not taking any game lightly, no matter who you are. Our coaches are challenging us constantly every day to get better."
Manning, a sophomore forward, will replace Kamiko Williams in the starting lineup – though Shekinna Stricklen will be at the point spot, but Manning can back her up – in what is both a nod to experience and the realization that the freshman guard has been a tad overwhelmed.
Pat Summitt said in her morning teleconference that she was sticking with the same starting lineup that she used against Vanderbilt. Then, she re-watched the Vanderbilt game film and talked to Williams.
"She texted me (Tuesday) and said ‘I definitely want to talk to you,' " Summitt said in her teleconference. "I said, ‘We'll talk; we'll watch film.' She's probably just putting more pressure on herself than she needs to do. I watch tape with her and I will continue to do that. I think it's important that I am the one that is talking to her."
Summitt decided later that afternoon to make the switch before the team practiced Wednesday evening in Oxford.
"You can look at her face; it's too much for her right now," Summitt said. "She's not the player right now who's getting us off to a quick start. Hopefully, she'll be able to do what she's been doing off the bench."
Williams had been an effective player off the bench on both sides of the ball – she rescued the team's win at South Carolina – but has been somewhat bewildered in her two starts against Arkansas at home and Vanderbilt on the road.
Manning started the second half against Vandy – Williams played one minute after halftime and promptly let her player drive right to the rim, something a focused Williams usually does not do on defense – and made key plays in the 69-60 win.
It was Manning's end-to-end layup after she corralled a Kelley Cain block that put Tennessee ahead, 52-51, for the first time in the second half with 5:33 to play.
The play stood out, too, because Manning had a breakaway layup in the 53-50 loss at Georgia that would have given the Lady Vols a five-point lead in a game in which points were precious. Instead, she missed the layup, and Georgia scored on its next possession to cut the lead to one.
"Sometimes you can over-think things and I think that's what I did in the Georgia game," Manning said. "I was going in tight, not being myself, not just going in there and playing. Just being comfortable … ."
Manning stopped in mid-sentence as she tried to offer a reason for why she missed the layup at Georgia and made two in a row at Vandy – her second one after a Cain steal and outlet pass that extended the lead to 54-51 over the Commodores.
"I was really mad about that layup at the Georgia game," Manning said, stopping the search for an explanation. "How many years have you been shooting a layup? Just focus and finish the shot."
Manning has also been getting in extra shots – midrange jumpers and drives to the basket, her specialties – with Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick and Assistant Coach Stephanie Glance before practice.
"It has helped me get a lot more confident in my shot," Manning said. "Me and Stephanie and Holly will get in the gym two or three times a week and I'll shoot extra on my own, too. Getting game-like shots up really helps."
Summitt has noticed the extra work.
"She has really improved her game and I think you have to give her a lot of the credit because I know, offensively, she has spent a lot of time in Pratt – just getting in the gym and working on her pull-up game," Summitt said. "She has been very dedicated and that has really helped her game, and probably given her a lot of confidence. Because of that, she is getting to play a bigger role and I thought at the Vandy game she had key baskets for us and had toughness.
"She played with great intensity and I think that comes from getting in the gym and working on her skills. It's all about repetition and being in the gym and getting up lots of shots. The fact that she is committed to that has really changed her game, and she goes into games confident. That is how it all happens. Players may want to make shots, but they have to put in the time and make the commitment."
Manning also has determined her role on the team, as she has found a niche as a player who brings energy when entering the game.
"That is one thing that I can't stand is when we have low energy, so I feel like that's my goal that I've established to come in and find the energy for the team and do those little things, the little tips and defensive plays that get the team going," Manning said.
Manning did that against Vanderbilt and got an offensive rebound to help propel the comeback. Glory Johnson hit one free throw to trim the lead to 51-46 but missed the second. Manning got the board and the layup to cut the lead to 51-48.
Manning had been studying Vanderbilt's players at the line.
"A lot of people take free throws like a breather, but I think you're so close you might as well get the offensive rebound," Manning said. "It's coming right to you. I always take a lot of thought in trying to get the offensive putback. She (the Vandy player lined up beside Manning) kept coming in close to me, so I did a spin move around her and went and got the rebound. It's just kind of reading the defense a little bit."
Manning gets her hands on several balls like that a game, either getting the board or tipping it around to keep it alive so someone else can.
"I think that any ball is 50-50 so I am going after every one of them," Manning said.
In 10 SEC games this season Manning has come off the bench – this will be her first start in league play this season – and has tallied 10 steals, second on the team behind 14 thefts from Bjorklund.
"Alicia coming in to the game she just gave us a boost of energy really, her aggressiveness, especially on defense and just pounding the boards," Bjorklund said after the win over Vandy. "Especially that one towards the end off the free throw, she got that rebound and put it in. That was huge for us. When she comes in the game, she comes in on a mission."
Manning ended up with eight points on 3-4 shooting and 2-2 from the free throw line, four rebounds and two assists.
"It's been a huge injection into our team of some positive energy and some productivity," Lockwood said. "She's approaching a level of consistency and, man oh man, is that ever huge. What she did at Vanderbilt, she was an unsung hero at that game, her energy and effort and the plays that she made. She made some plays. That's what good players do.
"She's done a very, very good job of playing her role. That's huge. When you know somebody is going to bring you that kind of energy, it's huge. She's got starting type ability, and we look at her that way."
Manning said her confidence is up this season as she sorted out her role on a team that already has scorers in Cain on the inside and Bjorklund on the outside. She wasn't always sure what to focus on when she went into games, but now she knows she's going to defend, rebound, set up teammates – she has 17 assists in 10 SEC games – and put pressure on the defense by getting to the rim.
"I think a lot of it is having that year under my belt," Manning said. "I have talked to the coaches a lot about what they want from me and how I can help this team. They told me what my strengths are and do my role to the best of my ability."
When Manning hit the layup to put Tennessee ahead on Monday in Nashville, the Lady Vols bench exploded, especially Briana Bass, who leaped into the air.
"Vanderbilt being an interstate rivalry and them tearing us up last year (in Nashville) that motivated us to come back and prove a point," Manning said. "A year ago they handed it to us."
Manning was a jolt of energy off the bench in Monday's win.
"I think in that game we came out kind of flat and we really just needed some energy," Manning said. "When people hit some shots and made some key defensive plays and rebounds that kind of just gave us the boost to finish the game out."
Manning will need to be a burst of energy from the start this time. Tennessee gets another late tipoff this Thursday with another late arrival home, and the players will be expected to be in their early morning classes Friday, just as they were Tuesday after rolling into Knoxville in the wee hours.
Manning said a year of seasoning has made a difference in the team's ability to withstand those rigors, too.
"I think a lot of that has to do with our prior training," Manning said. "Heather Mason is the best in the country, if not the world, for preparing athletes to battle fatigue. I think all of those workouts stay with us.
"We've got a year now. Last year was kind of rough having to go back to back like that but now our recovery has gotten a lot better. I think we'll be ready to go."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard/forward, No. 40 (12.4 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game, 3.9 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (14.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.5 apg); Alicia Manning, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 15 (4.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.9 apg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 25 (11.9 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.3 steals per game); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (9.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 3.2 blocks per game.
This will not be a new lineup combination as the same five started in the second game of the season against Texas Tech in San Antonio, but that was because of a mix-up at the scorer's table. Taber Spani was supposed to be the lineup instead of Manning. The scorer's table initially had Amber Gray and Vicki Baugh in the lineup – players not medically cleared with Gray not even on the trip with the team – so to avoid any additional confusion Summitt sent those five onto the court.
Alyssia Brewer, who has started five games this season, has been a productive player for Tennessee with 9.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Those numbers increase to 10.1 points and 6.2 boards a game in SEC play for the 6'3 sophomore forward. In the last five games, Brewer has averaged 13.5 points.
"She's the most improved player in our post game," Summitt said. "She plays to her strengths. Obviously, her (shooting) percentage (56.6 percent) has been tremendous for us. What a difference a year makes. Last year, I yelled at her constantly to run the floor hard, to get in the paint and to quit trying to pull up and shoot from the free throw line. She responded.
"I think with her off-season and her conditioning she got a lot stronger. She doesn't give into the fatigue now. She's put in a lot of extra time with Heather Mason just from the conditioning aspect of it. She did that on her own. I'm just really pleased with where she is. When she plays with Kelley Cain in the paint, it gets us one of our best opportunities to get paint points and also from defensive standpoint. She has really elevated her defense and her intensity on the defensive end.
"I want her to feel really good about herself, and she does. She is very confident and she has composure. She is just a different player than a year ago, and I give her a lot of credit because she has worked at it and invested in it."
Kamiko Williams also will come off the bench after starting the past two games, and the coaches hope she regains the form that caused her to be spark off the bench. She has 25 assists, five steals and four blocks in SEC action, but she struggled in her two starts to get into the flow of the game.
"I think that's why I need to spend a lot of time with her, watch films with her and talk to her about what she is seeing on tape and what she is feeling on the floor – because she has the skills," Summitt said. "Now, she has the pressure to make decisions. When she was in high school, she pretty much played by herself. She didn't have to run set plays. She just played by herself.
"Now, she is having to do a lot of thinking as well. Hopefully, when we meet and keep talking, she will understand that, and she will be able to grasp everything she needs to and play with a different level of confidence."
Dean Lockwood said the key for Williams is to simplify the game.
"As she watches tape I think she'll gain a little more comfort level with what she's facing and how she can be effective against it," Lockwood said. "When you're a freshman you're still taking it all in and you're learning it all, you're absorbing it all. You've got to really simply your game.
"If Kamiko can take care of the ball for us, which is primary point guard responsibility, if she can do that and get us into a nice flow, push it when it needs pushing, get the ball reversed, get some touches and then as she sees opportunities for her penetrate into the gaps, if she can keep her game simple and basic and get us into a nice rhythm she would be doing a good job for us."
Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner is expected to start: Kayla Melson, 5'8 junior guard, No. 20 (13.7 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 6.3 apg), hails from Montgomery, Ala., had a double-double with 20 points and 10 assists in the triple overtime win at LSU, leads the SEC in assists and is ninth in that country in that category; Shantell Black, 5'4 senior guard, No. 11 (9.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.3 apg), hails from Lawrenceville, Ga., played 54 of 55 minutes against LSU, has 900 career points; Bianca Thomas 5'10 senior guard, No. 45 (21.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg), hails from Hendersonville, Tenn., had a team-high 29 points in the win over LSU, also played 54 minutes in that game, has scored in double figures in 37 of last 38 games, set the Tad Smith Coliseum single-game scoring record with 42 points in the first game against LSU this season, considered a front-runner for SEC Player of the Year; Elizabeth Robertson, 5'10 senior guard, No. 14 (9.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg), hails from Vestavia, Ala., scored a career-high 25 points against LSU and hit seven 3-pointers, played 50 minutes against LSU, has hit 50 percent from long range in the past eight games after starting the season at 25.6 percent; and Nikki Byrd 6'4 sophomore forward, No. 22 (7.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg), hails from Brookhaven, Miss., hitting 61.9 percent of her shots.
A key player off the bench for Ole Miss is Katorra Lewis, a 6'2 senior forward who has started 18 games this season. She averages 5.1 points and 3.7 rebounds a game. Kayla Holloway, a 6'4 sophomore center, is averaging 3.9 points and 3.4 boards a game. LaKendra Phillips, a 5'9 senior guard, has started 10 games this season. She is averaging 3.6 points and 4.0 rebounds a game.
Ladner, who graduated from Ole Miss in 1981, is in her third season as head coach at Ole Miss. Ladner and her husband, schoolteacher Eddie Ladner, have two daughters – both served as student managers for the Rebels and both are Ole Miss graduates. Ladner played at Ole Miss with Carol Ross and later joined her staff as an assistant before taking the top job when Ross decided to step down after the 2007 season. Ross had returned to Ole Miss to restore the program – the Rebels made the Elite Eight in 2007 before falling to Tennessee – and Ladner has picked up that rebuilding effort.
"Renee has done a great job," Summitt said. "You're talking about someone you might look at and think she wouldn't be that demanding. She has an intensity and a passion for teaching. She has done a great job.
"I have gotten to know Renee. Off the court she has a great sense of humor, but on the court it's all business. I have enjoyed watching her build her program and what she is getting out of her players, and just how hard they compete. It's been fun to watch it. It may not be fun (Thursday) night, but it's been great to see her bring them along."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Ole Miss game. Here is his assessment.
When Ole Miss has the ball: A key part of the Rebels attack comes from Bianca Thomas, who has set career highs in points scored this season and holds the school record for single-season three-pointers with 77 and counting.
"She does everything for them," Coach Pat Summitt said during her Wednesday teleconference with the media. "That's going to be a big challenge for us as a team. Just watching her on tape – we're going to have to throw a little bit different schemes at her and maybe mix up our defenses and extend more because it's going to be a challenge."
Lockwood said the Rebels would present a balanced attack led by Thomas, who is averaging 21.3 points per game, first in the SEC and 10th in the country.
"You've got Bianca Thomas and Elizabeth Robertson, who are probably as good of a duo in terms of three-point shooters than anyone can present in the league," Lockwood said. "Those two can flat-out make long shots, deep, deep threes. So you've got that dimension and then you've got (Kayla) Melson and (Shantell) Black who are kind of what I call bookend guards – both combo guards, quick, both can penetrate and get in to the paint and so you've got the duality down there as opposed to saying that this is a team that only drives or only shoots.
That, in and of itself, is a challenge. The good thing is they don't come at you in waves. They've got four players who are playing over 32 minutes-plus a game, so they are really relying on those four to bring it. They've got to get it done. Hopefully with the tempo of the game and the physicality of the game we can wear on them a little bit. In terms of the balance it's been some time since we've seen a team that can give you two of each – two kids that can bomb threes – (Thomas) is prolific; she can go off and peel off three, four, five in a row – and the other two (Melson and Black) are very good penetrators and creators, and they get in the paint.
"If you show them open floor, they will hunt the paint on you. They will drive, drive, drive and another thing they will do is (look for) the spot-up shooters. If you're not on them they will shoot a three with four seconds, five second expired in the shot clock. If they're open they've got the green light."
Defensively, the Rebels have 198 steals on the season (to 162 for Tennessee), so they are capable of being disruptive.
"They're very opportunistic," Lockwood said. "If they've got open floor, especially their two guards, they will push, and they are very opportunistic. I would not call them a flat-out flying up and down the court, because of their depth. They're pretty smart."
For Tennessee that means taking care of the ball will be paramount. The Lady Vols had just nine turnovers against Vanderbilt, the second lowest of the season with just eight against South Carolina in the second game against the Gamecocks.
"Obviously, ball-security is going to have to be really big," Summitt said. "They get up on you and they turn you. They have the athletes to do it. We really have to take care of the basketball. I think turnovers would be costly. That's where we need to be even more efficient than we have been."
When Tennessee has the ball: Kelley Cain is shooting 68.1 percent in SEC games, so the Lady Vols want to see the ball in her hands.
"Absolutely," Lockwood said. "One of the things that we all love about Kelley's game is she takes shots where she can make shots. There is not a lot of risk and adventure in her offensive scheme. She is going to take shots where more often than not she can make shots. She's done a great job of finishing."
"If they double great, we'll play out of the double team, which we like."
That is because Cain is willing to pass out of them and find shooters on the perimeter. She also will reseal and give her teammate the option of firing the ball right back into the paint.
Defensively, the Lady Vols were in a man defense for most of the Vandy game because of the Commodores ability to shoot from behind the arc. Ole Miss will present a similar challenge and also has two very athletic guards who can get to the rim. The man defense will need to be stout for Tennessee, and Summitt indicated the zone had better be effective, too.
"There is no question," Lockwood said. "Our man is going to have to able to carry us for longer periods in this game. Again, we'll see how it is. It's always a game-to-game thing. Crazier things have happened. We might jump in a 2-3 (zone) with four minutes into the game and stay in it the whole way. But I think by and large, this is a team you're going to have to disrupt a little bit with defensive pressure."
PINK ZONE: Ole Miss is holding its Pink Zone game for the matchup with Tennessee – it's billed as "Tickled Pink at the Tad Pad" – and the Lady Vol players tried out pink adidas shoes at practice recently.
Some players particularly liked them – Kelley Cain said the shade of pink was very nice – but some players didn't like the fit so not all of the Lady Vols will be sporting the pastel pink and white shoes.
"It's a different model. I think some of us will have them on," said Alicia Manning, who added she would decide Thursday if she thought the shoes were broken in and comfortable enough to be game safe for her feet.
The Tennessee players will have a version of pink away uniforms for this game and for next week at Alabama for its "Pink Zone" game. Tennessee's home pink game is against LSU on Feb. 22, and the Lady Vols also have a version of pink uniforms for that one.
The Pink Zone games are intended to raise awareness of breast cancer and screening services – which are often offered at the games, along with health information for women – and have created a lasting legacy for the late Kay Yow, the coach at N.C. State who started her own foundation and joined forces with the WBCA before her death from breast cancer. After Tennessee's win over Ole Miss a year ago, the Lady Vols didn't hold practice the next day because the coaches flew to North Carolina for Yow's funeral.
"Coach Yow has had such a major impact," Pat Summitt said. "You look at just how passionate she was as a coach, but she was so passionate about breast cancer and she was the best spokesperson ever. Everyone played (the pink games) because of Coach Yow.
"Despite the long fight she had, she had an impact on the student-athletes that she coached. She had an impact on my life, because she was my assistant coach when we competed at the Olympics in Los Angeles (in 1984). Her influence was powerful – her relationship with the Lord and how many people she touched, and breast cancer gave her another platform."
Manning said the pink games remind the players that sometimes they play for someone else, and she sees the color as a reminder for everyone who is dealing with a diagnosis of cancer.
Manning has lost one grandfather to cancer and her other grandfather was just recently diagnosed with stage four cancer.
"I've seen people suffer with it," Manning said. "It gives you a lot more motivation to play for people you know and everybody else in the country who battles cancer every day."
ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are in action tonight in the following matchups: Arkansas at Auburn; LSU at Florida; Georgia at Kentucky; and Mississippi State at South Carolina. Alabama and Vanderbilt are idle.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Ole Miss, 33-7. The Lady Vols' record in Oxford is 14-3. The Rebels last win in the series came in Oxford, 78-72, in 1996. The Lady Vols have won 17 consecutive games against Ole Miss, including last year's improbable one on Angie Bjorklund's three-pointer with eight seconds left after the Rebels built a nine-point lead with four minutes to play. After Thursday's game, Ole Miss returns to Knoxville in 17 days for a rematch this season on Feb. 28, the last game of the regular season. … Tennessee is 10-2 in games played on February 11. The last win on this date was against Rutgers, 59-58, in 2008. The first win on February 11 was against Chattanooga, 45-15, in 1926. The two losses on this date were to Tennessee Tech, 60-48, in 1970; and Eastern Kentucky, 89-68, in 1976. … Angie Bjorklund has 998 career points going into Thursday's game. With her next basket she will become the 34th Lady Vol to score 1,000 career points. Bjorklund scored 318 points as freshman, 344 as a sophomore and has 336 to date as a junior. … Ole Miss has five players on the roster from the state of Tennessee. They are: LaKendra Phillips (Memphis); Kayla Holloway (Dyersburg); LaTosha Laws; (Memphis), Alliesha Easley (Cordova); and Bianca Thomas (Henderson). Easley, a junior guard, tore her ACL in practice and will not play this season. The broadcast journalism major is handling the color analyst spot with Ole Miss radio play-by-play announcer Gary Darby. … The SEC's best offensive and best defensive teams square off tonight. Ole Miss leads the league in scoring in SEC play with 72.2 points per game while Tennessee has held SEC foes to 55.5 points a game. Seven of Tennessee's 10 league opponents have scored less than 60 points, and it would have been eight had Vandy not hit a three-pointer with two seconds left.
BY THE NUMBERS OVERALL WITH SEC PLAY IN PARENTHESES: Tennessee is averaging 74.5 points a game (67.7 in the SEC) while allowing opponents to score 56.3 (55.5). Ole Miss averages 75.8 points a game (72.2) while allowing 63.4 (71.9). The Lady Vols are shooting 46.4 percent overall (45.3), 37.9 percent behind the arc (38.0) and 67.6 percent from the free throw line (63.8). The Rebels are shooting 43.2 percent overall (42.9), 35.7 percent from long range (36.2) and 72.3 percent from the line (73.6). Tennessee makes an average of 5.6 three-pointers a game (4.9) while allowing 6.0 (6.7). Ole Miss makes 7.5 threes a game (7.1) while allowing 5.8 (7.1).
Tennessee averages 43.1 rebounds a game for a +9.0 margin (41.1, +8.5). Ole Miss averages 40.0 boards for a +3.9 margin (35.6, -1.8). The Lady Vols average 15.4 assists (14.5) and 14.8 turnovers (15.2) a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 16.5 times a game (15.9). The Rebels average 15.5 assists (13.7) and 14.7 turnovers (14.6) with foes losing the ball 17.3 times a game (15.2). Tennessee averages 7.0 steals (5.9) and 5.9 blocks a game (5.9). Ole Miss averages 8.6 steals (7.9) and 2.2 blocks (2.0).