Tennessee slips past Ole Miss

OXFORD, Miss. - Same player. Same opponent. Same shot. For the second year in a row Angie Bjorklund stuck a three-pointer – there were 6.8 seconds left last season and 0.7 left this time – to deflate Ole Miss, 61-58. The game-winning basket, assisted by backcourt mate Shekinna Stricklen, secured Tennessee's 10th SEC win and left the Lady Vols atop the standings in a tight race for first place.

Before leaving the court, Pat Summitt turned and pointed to the sections of orange-clad fans behind the Tennessee bench – Lady Vol supporters made up the majority of the 2,356 in attendance at Tad Smith Coliseum on Thursday – and several players went to the edge of the rail to high-five the cheering fans.

Tennessee (22-2, 10-1) kept those fans on the edges of their seat throughout the game as both teams put together runs to seize the lead, only to have the other team come charging back to reclaim it. The score was tied five times and the lead changed eight times.

"The first thing I want to tell you is this was a very hard-fought game on the part of both teams," Summitt said. "I thought both teams came to play."

After that statement, Summitt nodded her approval for her team's job on the boards – a whopping 47-24 margin – and shook her head over its three-point defense. Ole Miss (15-9, 6-5) was 10-28 from behind the arc with five made in each half.

"We knew it was coming," Summitt said. "I watched enough tape on them. I knew it was coming. And we were late. We were late on closeouts and didn't match up in some situations. So, we are fortunate to get out of here with a win considering we didn't defend the way we should have defended."

At times the three-point defense was stout, but at other times shooters identified as players not to leave – Bianca Thomas and Elizabeth Robertson – were free behind the arc. Tennessee's two freshmen – Taber Spani and Kamiko Williams – both took turns leaving Thomas alone in the corner in the second half.

"A lot of it is who is on the court," Summitt said, when asked if some of the wide-open three-point makes by Ole Miss were because of individual or system breakdowns.

After Spani let Thomas drain an uncontested three, Spani answered with one of her own on Tennessee's end.

Spani, whose mobility is limited by turf toe, played six minutes in the first half and five minutes in the second half, to give either Angie Bjorklund or Alicia Manning a breather.

Williams, whose performance has been in a tailspin since her breakout game at South Carolina on Jan. 31, was 0-1 with four turnovers, though she did get on the glass with four rebounds. She played six minutes in the first half and two in the second and went back to the bench after losing Thomas behind the arc within seconds of entering the game.

"(Miko) was lost from the time she got on the floor, so she came out," Summitt said.

Thomas was 3-15 from behind the arc – her two second-half makes came when Tennessee's freshmen lost her and the one make in the first half came after a loose ball scramble when the Lady Vols didn't have time to get matched up. The damage from the three ball was done by Elizabeth Robertson, who was 5-7, and Shantell Black, who was 2-6.

"Liz was outstanding," Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner said. "Bianca did not hit as many shots as she normally does. They would be right on the rim; they just weren't exactly there."

Ole Miss was having trouble penetrating the interior defense of Tennessee, so the Rebels attacked the Lady Vols by lofting three-pointers. More than half of their 54 shots came from long range. Slightly more than half of their 58 points came from the 10 makes.

"Obviously very disappointed in our lack of commitment to guard the three ball," Summitt said. "There is no excuse for that, and we've got to get better at it."

The start didn't presage the finish as the sharpshooters on both teams both struggled from the field. Thomas started the game by missing her first eight shots, including six 3-point attempts. Bjorklund started by missing her first three shots – she hit her fourth, a three-pointer to give her 1,001 career points – and then missed the next three, including being 1-6 from long range.

But with 25 seconds left in the game and Ole Miss down two, 58-56, Ole Miss called two consecutive timeouts to set up a play. Tennessee extended its defense well to the arc to avoid a game-winning shot, and Thomas drove on Glory Johnson to tie the game, 58-58, with a layup with 16 seconds to play.

Tennessee called timeout and set up a play with two options – Shekinna Stricklen on the drive or a dish to Bjorklund – with 13 seconds to play. Stricklen used two screens but had no clear shot at the basket, so she tried a dribble handoff to Bjorklund, but Ole Miss had it well played.

Instead of forcing the handoff, Stricklen kept the ball, Bjorklund made a cut to the basket and then stepped back behind the arc. Stricklen made the pass, and Bjorklund nailed the game winner, 61-58, with 0.7 seconds left on the clock.

"She's been really big for us in late seconds," Summitt said. "I have to explain to everybody at times why she's not shooting the ball as well (lately). She may be getting in the gym too much. I don't know if she has her legs, but I would always put her on the floor to take the last shot, because I think that's when she's the most focused.

Bjorklund, who finished with 10 points, was 4-11 from behind the arc, and her final two found nothing but net. The swish before the game-winner came when Tennessee was in the midst of wiping out a four-point deficit and building one of its own.

Bjorklund dribbled to the top of the key and put on the brakes so suddenly that her defender ran right past her. She stepped back behind the arc and drained the shot for the 58-54 lead with 2:41 left to play. The play was set up by a steal by Williams on the other end of the floor after she had been reinserted in the game late for her on-ball defense.

Tennessee would not have needed the last-second heroics of Bjorklund if not for two miscues late in the game. Bjorklund missed the front end of a one-and-one with the score 58-54 and after Stricklen rebounded an Ole Miss miss, Black made a clean strip of the ball and hit a layup to pull Ole Miss within two, 58-56, and set up Thomas' tying bucket.

But when Tennessee had to have an answer, it was Bjorklund and Stricklen who orchestrated it.

"We knew exactly who was going to take the last shot," Ladner said. "I think we guarded the first part of it (the attempted handoff) and did not guard the second. Angie doesn't have any (trouble) making big shots for Tennessee at big moments. So, you have to give them a lot of credit.

"I thought we fought valiantly for most of the game and for the most part had our opportunities. Anytime you get into an SEC game, especially with Tennessee, you can't have empty possessions or mental letdowns, because they have the ability to make a big play when it counts."

There was some minor confusion in the post-game press conference when Summitt was asked about the last shot.

"We felt like we wanted to protect going long so that's why we chose to go in that fashion," Summitt said, who nodded when asked if that shot was the plan, meaning she would rather her team give up a two than a three.

Summitt was obviously talking about Ole Miss' last shot, but most of the media in the room thought she meant Bjorklund's shot, so when Bjorklund said she was the second option on the play, there was some confusion, so Bjorklund outlined the options of the play.

"We didn't need a three," Bjorklund said. "We were going for a two. It just happened that Strick passed it back to me, and I happened to hit it. I kind of V cut and got open. The design was to basically set a screen for Strick to create her shot and drive and if they hedge off me I would be open. Or a lot of times in that situation we hand off, which didn't work. They did a great job guarding the handoff, which usually is what we look for, too.

"Basically the setup was a double screen up top, her coming off and Strick is always going to look for her shot first. That's automatic. She's a great scorer. And then a lot of times, second option, is we'll go into a handoff. Now, everyone in the country knows our last second play. (Summitt) is going to set something up, but it's like, ‘You guys are great players. You're going to create your shot.' "

That is precisely what Stricklen and Bjorklund did, as they both adjusted to the defense.

Alyssia Brewer looked on in amusement as Bjorklund straightened out the confusion. So was Brewer the third option inside?

"It was in the blueprints," Brewer said with a smile.

That might be a good last-second play for future games. Brewer was 6-11 from the field and had 12 points. With Summitt peeved with Johnson over her lack of focus, Brewer logged 18 minutes in the second half, something she could not have done last season for conditioning reasons.

"Totally different," Brewer said. "It's night and day honestly. There was only one time this game where I kind of felt it, but that was just me trying to get my second wind. I just needed a short break and get right back in there."

Brewer's minutes have steadily increased this season, and she said live game action has accelerated the conditioning process.

"I've been getting minutes in the game, and it's totally different than if you just go back and run on the baseline (at practice)," Brewer said. "During games and doing sprints it's totally different. Last year after practice we would run as a team, then I would run individually and then I would hop on the elliptical and I'm still (gasping) on the court. Also, it's a mentality thing, just not giving in to fatigue."

That label was stuck on Brewer last season as she struggled to handle long practices and was able play only in short spurts in games. But on Thursday, she even drew Thomas on the perimeter on one possession in the first half and held her ground. The 5'10 Thomas tried an assortment of fakes on her taller defender, but Brewer stayed in her stance and didn't commit in one direction or the other. When Thomas put the ball on the floor to drive, Brewer turned her into Kelley Cain, and Thomas traveled.

Could Brewer have guarded a perimeter player last season?

"Nope, nope, no," Brewer said. "I probably would have been there for a split second and they would have been gone. But also that's just confidence in my defense as well."

Cain played a career-high 38 minutes and although she had just two points at halftime, she had dominated the game on both ends on the boards and on defense. When the Rebels penetrated the paint, Cain was waiting and ended the first half with a vicious block as Ole Miss tried to extend its 30-25 lead at the break.

"No one else in the country has the post game that we have," Summitt said. "And when you put Lyssi and Kelley in there, that's pretty imposing. They (opponents) have to pull up a lot as opposed to being able to get the paint points. It didn't help us as much with this team because Ole Miss, they shoot so many threes. That's where they really stretch our defense."

It helped enough as Cain – who was credited with just two blocks but had at least four – was a big reason why Tennessee got 32 of its points in the paint to just 10 for Ole Miss. Cain had seven points on 3-6 shooting and 16 rebounds, with six coming on offense. She kept possessions alive for Tennessee in both halves when they built a lead in the first half and then had to come back in the second.

With the Ole Miss defense doubling Cain, Brewer was able to get free at the rim. Johnson also was 2-5 for four points, and Alicia Manning was 5-8 for 10 points with her buckets coming from attacks to the basket and two midrange shots.

Ole Miss also lost Nikki Byrd, a 6'4 sophomore post, for all but three minutes of the second half after she hurt her shoulder in a scramble for a loose ball. It occurred seconds into the second half when Byrd rebounded a missed three-pointer but lost the ball. As players for both teams tried to secure possession, Cain got knocked off her feet and landed on Byrd. Byrd returned late in the second half but had to leave the game.

"She didn't really ever get back in," Ladner said. "We tried her one time. It affected us greatly. Nikki is 6'3 with a big wingspan. She's learning to battle with the big kids in the SEC. She gets a big rebound and she'll make a big shot. Because of the size differential in this particular game I thought we really needed her.

"Against LSU when we could pull the five (opposing center) out (of the paint), she could slip it (to the basket) and shoot some layups in the paint. Without Nikki being there we really couldn't pull too many people away from the basket. As a coach I am extremely proud of the effort. I have been asking for effort, and she's getting better and better and she dove on the floor for a loose ball. I will take that anytime, anyplace. That's what I am looking for all the time."

Tennessee also was down a player in the second half but that was by choice as Summitt opted to play Brewer over Johnson.

"She just wasn't active," Summitt said. "Glory, she's our best athlete, but she wasn't very productive tonight, and she needs to be. She didn't get to the free throw line, and she's a player that should get there. Three offensive rebounds and one defensive. She's got to come up a lot bigger. You look at Kelley, and she was dominating on the boards. Lyssi was next."

Johnson played 15 minutes in the first half and hounded Thomas on defense. She had four points on 2-5 shooting and four rebounds. Summitt lifted Johnson 40 seconds into the second half after she didn't box out, and Ole Miss got an offensive board. Johnson spent the next 14 minutes on the sideline.

"She just wasn't in it," Summitt said. "She has got to come focused on every possession. She's a player that can make a difference for our team, but there are times when we don't know exactly what we're going to get. It's a wait and see. When she's focused great things happen for her and for us."

Tennessee got off to a solid start as Johnson stuck to Thomas and the Lady Vols took a 21-14 lead. Bjorklund wasn't hitting from behind the arc, but she twice found Stricklen there, who was 2-3 from long range in the first half. Bjorklund had just three points by the break, but she also had five assists and three rebounds.

But Ole Miss rallied before halftime and tied the game, 21-21 after Robertson hit three free throws after being fouled on a three-point attempt by Brewer, which got her a seat on the bench.

Thomas connected on a three-pointer to give Ole Miss a 24-21 lead, and the Rebels were able to hold off Tennessee and take a 30-25 lead into the locker room at halftime.

The second half started with the quick appearance of Brewer, who got to the rim to cut the lead to 30-27. But Robertson drained a three and pushed the Rebels ahead, 33-27; however, Ole Miss could never quite shake Tennessee, and the Lady Vols twice took the lead within the first seven minutes of the second half behind layups from Cain – 36-35 – and then one when Stricklen went coast to coast – 38-37.

Neither team could keep any lasting separation, though Ole Miss extended the lead to seven points, 48-41, on a jumper and then a three-pointer from Thomas with 10:35 left in the game.

It was Spani who surrendered the three and answered with one of her own to pull the Lady Vols to 48-44, with 10:09 remaining. Manning got an offensive board to pull Tennessee to within two and then Cain hit a layup for the 48-48 tie, but Robertson broke it for Ole Miss with yet another three-pointer.

With 5:24 left in the game, Ole Miss had a four-point lead, 54-50. A year ago in Knoxville, the Rebels had a nine-point lead with four minutes to play, and Bjorklund hit a three-pointer with 6.8 seconds to play to steal the win.

On Thursday in Oxford, Tennessee flipped the game behind a Manning layup on a breakway basket with an assist from Stricklen and then Bjorklund's screeching stop and pop three-pointer to give the Lady Vols a four-point margin, 58-54, with 2:41 left.

"I thought we did a better job through that time of taking away just wide-open looks," Summitt said. "They got a couple, but I thought our closeouts were better, just our coverage overall, our ability to guard them off the bounce was good late.

"They finally made their mind up. We were in a desperate situation to get out of here with a win, and there were no guarantees. I liked the fact that they pulled together. They were talking to each other about what they had to do and when they take some ownership that obviously helps our coaching staff."

The missed free throw by Bjorklund, strip of Stricklen and drive by Thomas set up the tie and then winning three-pointer by Bjorklund for the second year in a row.

"Very disheartening," Ladner said. "We don't match up with them very well size-wise. But we're playing four guards and a post and our ability to shoot the three kept us in the game. … And then you've got 5 foot nothing and 5 foot 7 in the other two positions. We don't match up very well with them size-wise, but what we lack in size we make up in speed and heart. I thought for the most part we hung tough.

"I think we had good looks, and we just didn't hit shots. You go back to LSU (a triple overtime win for Ole Miss), and we hit them. We just didn't make them. I don't think that was it necessarily (worn down by Tennessee's size). I just think we didn't hit the shots when we needed to."

Ole Miss was 21-54 (38.9 percent) for the game and 10-28 (35.7 percent) from behind the arc. The Rebels were led by Robertson and Thomas, who both scored 18 points, and Black, who added 12.

Summitt cited the board play as the factor that gave Tennessee a chance to win on a night in which Cain got just six shots and the Lady Vols were 2-7 (28.6 percent) from the free throw line line, though they shot fairly well overall at 43.3 percent (26-60) and 38.9 percent (7-18) from behind the arc.

"Obviously we would like to have gotten some more inside touches, but we found a way to win and obviously we have to be pleased about that," Summitt said. "I thought what really helped us, what separated us out was our rebounding. That was key. Because when you're not making shots and things aren't falling for you, you've got to find another way to get possessions, and we had 47, and they had 24. To me that's probably the difference."

Cain led the way with 16 boards, followed by eight for Brewer, and four each for Johnson, Bjorklund, Stricklen and Williams.

Manning acquitted herself well in her first start since Dec. 30, 2009, against Old Dominion. Her 10 points were a season high, and her 34 minutes were a career high.

"She's a player that understands how to get her points," Summitt said. "She's not trying to hunt for a three ball. She's good off the bounce. She gets to the paint. She uses the glass. I just think that she's playing smart basketball right now and obviously defensively she's one of our most athletic players and she's doing a better job of containing one on one."

Manning started for purposes of defense and experience as the sophomore – like most of the players in her class – got extensive minutes last season when the loss of five starters and injuries to three returning players forced the first-year players onto the court before they were ready.

Ole Miss, which led the conference in scoring at 72.2 points per game heading into Thursday's game, has a pair of players that can shoot the three ball and a pair that can get to the rim. That is a challenging guard for any team in the SEC.

"They are a very well drilled offensive team, and a team that can make shots, and you've got to guard teams that shoot the ball as well as they do," Summitt said.

The Lady Vols did play perhaps their best transition defense of the season as they matched up and shut down Ole Miss' early offense, another key point of the Rebels' attack. Ole Miss had just two points off the fast break.

"We felt like we had to slow them down," Summitt said. "They were getting those corner shots. I think we did a better job, but we still gave us way too many threes."

The barrage of threes her team allowed wasn't something Summitt was going to shake free of anytime soon, and Bjorklund said it was both a function of Tennessee not executing on defense and Ole Miss doing so on offense very well.

"They are one of the best teams in the league executing their sets and running different sets to get their shooters open," Bjorklund said. "We just need to be more disciplined in guarding and committed to the defense we're in and talking through that action. But I give Ole Miss a lot of credit for executing and knocking down shots."

Stricklen had a solid game at point guard for Tennessee – and justified Summitt's decision to start her there instead of Williams – with a team-high 13 points and eight assists to just one turnover. Several members of Stricklen's family made it to the game from Morrilton, Arkansas.

"Stricklen had a great game for us. Her whole family was here. It had nothing to do with my coaching," Summitt said with a big smile. "Her family showed up. She always plays well when they come."

Stricklen also battled an injury as she hurt her lower right leg diving for a loose ball in the first half and remained out for six minutes. She started the second half and went the distance, logging 34 minutes for the game.

"She's OK, but she was in pain," Summitt said. "Give her credit, she played through it."

"Strick is going to fill whatever role she needs to," Bjorklund said. "That's what is great about her. If we need her to rebound, she rebounds. If we need her to score, she scores. Point guard, wing, she is going to do whatever it takes to get the job done. I was really proud of her towards the end, she fought through, and we needed her out there on the court because she was playing so well. I was really proud of her."

Tennessee went 9-5 in league play a year ago and it wasn't until the last game of the regular season when the Lady Vols secured that ninth SEC victory in 14 tries. Eleven games into this SEC season, Tennessee has 10 league wins with six of those coming on the road. Last season, Tennessee won just two road games in the league and like several games already this season, Thursday's game would likely have been a loss a year ago.

"It's right up there with the other close ones," Brewer said of the escapes the Lady Vols have pulled off this year. "We had the mentality to pull it out. Everybody says if we do this last year we would have gone out of here with a loss. But we didn't dwell on the stuff that we were doing bad in the second half and that's what made us win the game. We were being smart."

Summitt will give the team Friday off – they will return to practice Saturday – as this was the second game in four days and both were on the road with late tipoffs, a late arrival back in Knoxville and mandatory class attendance a few hours later. Tennessee plays Florida at home on Sunday, and Summitt wants her players to have their legs and minds fresh for that one.

"Absolutely," Summitt said.

Kentucky kept pace Thursday with a win over Georgia, and the Wildcats are 9-2 and alone in second place behind Tennessee. Thursday's win kept Tennessee alone in first place.

"I think any SEC win is key for us, because we're going to get the best of any team," Brewer said. "We've just got to keep pulling out these Ws and seeking our way to that SEC championship."

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