No. 5 Tennessee (22-2, 10-1) will square off against Florida (13-11, 6-5) on Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m. (SEC Network, Lady Vols Radio Network) at Thompson-Boling Arena in a Valentine's Day matinee rematch. The Lady Vols want to stay in first place in the SEC. The Gators want to avenge a last-second loss to Tennessee, 66-64, on Jan. 14 in Gainesville.
The drive from Stricklen's hometown in Morrilton, Arkansas, to Ole Miss was an easy one for her family, as Oxford, Miss., is just south of Memphis in West Tennessee. It's a much longer haul to East Tennessee, and the Lady Vols have been on the road for much of the past five weeks, so they haven't spent much time in the arena themselves.
Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood walked onto the practice court Saturday afternoon – it was Tennessee's first session on its home court in a week – and said it was nice to see the benches in place for a Lady Vol home game.
"When I walked out here it felt like two weeks since I'd been on this court," Lockwood said. "I came out here and said, ‘Boy, this is nice to see.' It's game setup and I see Lady Vols on the (courtside) seats. It feels good. It's (travel) part of the SEC, but it's nice to be in home confines."
The Lady Vols have played the majority of their SEC games on the road – going back-to-back away games three different times, twice in January and once in February – but they will play four of the last five at home, including the final three.
"Very happy," Stricklen said of being back home. "We know winning that game at Ole Miss was very big, and you have to win home games."
The win kept Tennessee in first place in the SEC with a 10-1 record – with Kentucky holding second place at 9-2 – and in the driver's seat for the league crown. It's a long way from last season when the Lady Vols failed to reach double digits in SEC wins and had to play on the first day of the tourney for the first time since 1997.
"I think we feel very confident," Stricklen said. "Our goal is to go out hard and win these last five games and get ready for the tournament."
Tennessee certainly hasn't logged those 10 wins the easy way. They've led start to finish, they've had leads and lost them, they've had to come from behind, they've trailed at halftime and won and they've twice hit buzzer-beating game-winning shots – Angie Bjorklund against Florida and then Bjorklund again against Ole Miss – in games that are both encouraging and maddening for the coaches.
"We see things that we do to ourselves," Lockwood said. "We certainly credit opponents, because we've had a number of teams play good games against us. But we've seen things that we're either doing to ourselves or not doing that put us in that position. We have to be better. You're pleased at where your progress is, but then you also look at where you could be, where you'd like to be and where you're capable of being based on your talent.
"The (first) Florida game there was a great example. We could have done a much better job of maintaining some separation in that game, and I don't want to discredit them because they did a heck of a job and they're a feisty, scrappy team, but I do think we did some things to ourselves to hurt ourselves. It's growing up, it's that competitive process, it's maturing, and I hope that our team is grasping those things."
Tennessee started the game in Gainesville with an 11-3 lead, but then started turning loose of the ball – 11 turnovers in the first half and 25 for the game. Stricklen had nine of those miscues, a stat she remembered Saturday.
"Limit our turnovers," Stricklen said when asked for the keys to Sunday's game. "We had a lot of turnovers. I had nine. We let their pressure get to us. We've just got to play our game and then on the defensive end we have to stop their shooters, make them put it on the floor and drive. They hit a lot of threes against us at Florida, so that's another big key is making their shooters put it on the floor."
Pat Summitt expects to see an improved Stricklen on the floor Sunday.
"She was very casual so that wasn't good, and just gave in to fatigue," Summitt said. "You would have thought she had run a marathon before she got to the game. She's different now."
The Gators were 9-26 (34.6 percent) from long range in the first game while Tennessee was 4-12 (33.3 percent). Despite losing the lead – the Gators led by eight with 7:03 left to play – and surrendering the ball frequently, the Lady Vols managed to leave Florida with a win after Bjorklund hit a reverse layup with two seconds left to play.
"It's not like we're just kicking everybody's butt," Summitt said when asked if she was pleased with the double-digit wins in SEC play. "We're finding a way to win. Now is that good? Yes. But we've got to open games up and compete hard the entire 40 minutes or 40-plus. That's what is frustrating."
Stricklen was briefly moved off the ball and started on the wing – her natural position – when Kamiko Williams started at point guard for two games this month, but the freshman struggled and is now coming off the bench.
"I just tell her to be patient," Stricklen said. "I feel like sometimes she rushes things. She's learning, and she's young, and I felt the same way last year. I was rushing, getting frustrated. I keep telling her just be patient and let the game come to you and just go with the flow."
Stricklen, a sophomore, was thrust into the starting point guard position as a freshman after heir apparent Cait McMahan was lost because of chronic knee issues. It was hoped that Stricklen would move off the ball more this season, but Summitt has been deploying a large lineup and playing a lot of zone defense, two factors that work against the 5'2 Briana Bass, who has been providing spot duty at point this season.
Stricklen enjoyed her brief stint off the ball when Williams started for two games, but the responsibility was a tad overwhelming for the freshman, and Stricklen has returned to the point position.
"I realize that I've got to stay ready," Stricklen said. "When I go to the wing I enjoy it, but I feel like I am probably at the point pretty much (now). I was happy (on the wing), but I feel like it's not about me. It's what the team needs, and I feel like being the leader at the point really helps us out."
Summitt has repeatedly told Stricklen that once she makes a pass, she's just a player in the offense, but Stricklen smiled and said it's usually a little more involved than that, though she realizes that Summitt is trying to decrease the mental pressure.
"It's totally different," Stricklen said. "Teams are really pressing me full court now and I've really got to take care of the ball. I am mainly concentrating on that."
Stricklen has help in the backcourt from Bjorklund, a savvy junior who has hit 75 three-pointers this season despite drawing the constant attention of the defense. That scrutiny has increased even more since Taber Spani, who has deep three-point range, has been able to play only limited minutes because of a chronic case of turf toe.
"Everyone keys on her, so she has to work really hard on every possession to get open," Summitt said. "We've got to do a better job of getting her open."
Bjorklund is in constant motion on offensive possessions as she weaves through a variety of screens and makes assorted cuts to lose her defender. She also has what every shooter needs – confidence. Bjorklund started the Ole Miss game shooting 1-7 from the field, but she ended it with a step-back move behind the arc and drained the three for the win.
"The big thing is Coach has the confidence in me," Bjorklund said. "My teammates all have confidence in me no matter what and that helps me a lot, having my team and my coach behind me."
Bjorklund is a marked woman and especially in league play where the teams are so familiar with each other and game film has been in circulation for months.
"The more they watch film they're able to read our screens and plays," Bjorklund said. "As the year goes on, it's going to get tougher and tougher because teams are going to be able to watch film and know my game a lot more.
"I have to be more creative, too. You've got to do a lot more counter things. If they take me coming off a screen this way, I've got to have a counter for everything I do. I think it really comes down to just moving the ball. The more we move it, instead of it getting caught in hands, the more things open up for everyone."
Bjorklund is Exhibit A for the benefit of an experienced upperclassman, as she can play both ends of the floor for extended minutes – she leads the team in scoring at 14.5 points and in minutes played at 32.1 per game – without a dropoff from beginning to end. She also doesn't let any shaky offense affect the rest of her game.
"I think if I'm not hitting, the key to that is getting the ball to my teammates, getting the ball inside and just letting my shot come to me instead of forcing things," Bjorklund said. "It's not too hard of an adjustment. I am still going to come off screens hard looking for my shot, but at the same time we're going to really move the ball around and get a good inside look. If I miss a shot I've got to go down and get a stop."
When opposing coaches whose teams played Tennessee last season have been asked what the difference is this season, they have all answered with the same general theme – the freshmen are a year older. That year of experience helps off the court, as well, as they have learned how to balance schoolwork with basketball. In high school, teams will play the bulk of their games within their district with little travel involved. At Tennessee the team will log 16,645 miles this regular season.
By mid February, the aches and pains have piled up for all players. Stricklen is nursing sore knees, a cranky quad and a banged-up shin.
"Don't think about it in practice or a game," Stricklen said. "When we don't have a game or we don't have practice, we stay in the training room."
The team arrived home in the wee hours from Oxford after a late tipoff Thursday, so Friday was a scheduled day off the practice court, but Stricklen found her way to Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine.
"I stayed in the training room over three hours (Friday) getting treatment," Stricklen said. "I was in there an hour and a half (Saturday) before practice."
That ensures that Stricklen can keep logging significant minutes late in the season. She also will get a boost from having her family in town for the game.
"It really does," Stricklen said. "It means a lot to me. They haven't been to a (home) game since the Baylor game. They just got here (Saturday). They will be here (Sunday)."
Summitt smiled when she was told that Stricklen's parents, an aunt and an uncle were in Knoxville.
"Always good," Summitt said. "Always good when they're in the house. She plays a lot better."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard/forward, No. 40 (12.4 points per game, 6.1 rebounds per game, 4.0 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (14.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.6 apg); Alicia Manning, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 15 (4.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.9 apg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 25 (11.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.3 steals per game); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (9.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.1 blocks per game.
Florida Coach Amanda Butler is expected to start: Lonnika Thompson, 5'4 senior guard, No. 2 (5.5 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 2.7 apg), hails from New Orleans, has started 19 games this season, is 11-36 behind the arc in SEC play, scored 10 points against Tennessee in the first matchup; Jennifer Mossor, 5'9 senior guard, No. 22 (4.1 ppg, 1.6 rpg), hails from Orlando, Fla., has started two games this season, missed 10 games because of a left knee injury, came off the bench against Tennessee and scored 10 points; Steffi Sorensen 5'10 senior guard, No. 10 (8.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.4 apg), hails from Jacksonville, Fla., has started all 24 games this season, hit four 3-pointers for 12 points and tallied five steals in the game against Tennessee; Sharielle Smith, 5'10 senior forward, No. 24 (9.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg), hails from Bradenton, Fla., had five points, two blocks and a steal in the Tennessee game; and Azania Stewart, 6'4 sophomore center, No. 13 (8.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg), hails from Wood Green, England, has hit 29-36 free throws in SEC play.
A key player off the bench will be Jordan Jones, a 5'9 redshirt sophomore guard who is the team's leading scorer at 9.5 points per game. Jones has started 21 games this season and started against Tennessee in Gainesville. She had eight points and hit two 3-pointers in that game.
Florida also gets production from Jennifer George, a 6'0 freshman forward. George, who has started three games this season, had 10 points and seven rebounds off the bench against Tennessee.
Trumae Lucas, a 5'8 sophomore guard, has started three games this season, and is averaging 5.1 points per game. She tallied five points in 13 minutes of playing time against Tennessee.
Florida is coming off a perplexing 70-30 loss to LSU and a 1-19 performance from behind the arc, including 0-11 in the first half.
"We have to find the players who are going to step up offensively, unlike we did against LSU," Butler said. "That's something we've worked on the last two days in practice. We have to have a champion's response."
Several SEC teams are bunched together in the middle of the standings with seeding in the SEC tourney still very much unsettled. One day of games can shift several teams several spots.
After defeating Mississippi State on Feb. 7, the Gators went from tied for sixth to tied for third. One game prior to that, a loss to Vanderbilt on Feb. 4, Florida fell from tied for third to tied for sixth. After winning at Ole Miss on Jan. 31, the Gators jumped from sixth place to tied for third place.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Florida game. Here is his assessment.
When Florida has the ball: The Gators shot 1-19 from behind the arc in Thursday's loss to LSU. Tennessee doesn't expect that to happen again.
"That's the worst thing that could happen," Pat Summitt said. "They've been shooting ever since probably."
"They'll find themselves," Lockwood said. "They're averaging just under 22 (three attempts) a game. It's about 37 percent of their field goal attempts. They really rely heavily on the three. I won't say they live and die by the three, but that's a source of oxygen for them. If you take that away, now they've got one tank.
"I don't care that they went one for 19, they're coming to come in and they're going to fire, they're going to fire, they're going to fire. (Steffi) Sorensen, (Jordan) Jones, (Jennifer) Mossor, (Lonnika) Thompson some, (Sharielle) Smith is shooting more than what she did earlier and then off the bench they have a couple of players that will come in. (Susan) Yenser is not playing a lot (lately), but you can't let her spot up. She can make shots. They've got players that they shoot and make shots, so that's going to be a real focal point for us."
Defensively, "They played a lot of 2-3 (zone)," Lockwood said of the first game. "They really pressured and got up after Kinna. They're going to do some of that again. I would be shocked if we didn't see a lot of 2-3 zone. They may focus in on Angie, but they're going to say, you're not going to beat us with paint points.
"Everybody knows what we're doing, like we know what everybody else is doing, so they're going to say, ‘Prove to us, other than Angie, that you're going to make shots out there, and we're going to stop the inside stuff.' "
When Tennessee has the ball: The first task for the Lady Vols is to make sure they keep it, and that starts with Shekinna Stricklen.
"No question, she's got to handle the pressure and take care of the ball," Lockwood said.
The second task is to keep the ball moving.
"What happens with us when we stagnate offensively is the ball gets caught in one player's hands," Lockwood said. "The more ball reversals we can get, especially early in the shot clock, the better shot we typically get."
Tennessee also wants to get the ball inside to Kelley Cain, a process that requires patience from the perimeter players and knowing when to reverse the ball and when to hold it a couple of seconds longer.
"It's recognition," Lockwood said. "It's like a running back that goes through the wrong hole. When my blockers are blocking, my guard's going this way, my tackle that way, my hole is here (in the middle). At times we have to recognize better
"For instance, when there's a cross screen, and Kelley is coming over, the worst thing that we can do – and we do this a lot – is to reverse the ball. We've got to wait for her to break the screen and then see if she can get a clean seal. Now, if we can throw it to her, great. If not, now reverse it. But a lot of times she's just breaking free and our eyes are not even looking.
"I think a lot of it is patience and recognition. This is a feel for the game that you develop. It's knowing how and where somebody is likely to get open. Kelley Cain is not going to get open in a second. She needs two or three seconds. As a result of that, I need to be more patient and I have to know what I'm looking for. We just have to get better at reading and recognizing."
Defensively, Tennessee must be ready to defend both the arc and dribble penetration.
"You're going to see us start man and then after that I think we will experiment with some zone and see what we do," Lockwood said. "A lot of this is going to be the feel of the game – what's working, what's not."
Tennessee will want to do a better job of covering three-point shooters than it did against Ole Miss, which hit five in each half on Thursday in Oxford.
"We have to defend on top of the floor, in the corners," Summitt said. "They shoot the three really well. They're just committed to it. I think that our post people may have to go outside the paint. We've got to defend the three ball. They have to constantly communicate. We'll mix it up (again). We're not going to stay in one defense the whole time.
"When we transitioned (to defense at Ole Miss) everybody ran down the middle of the floor and then tried to cover the baseline instead of talking and matching up. It wasn't everybody. It's why some people didn't get to play much because they weren't fanning out and covering across the board."
The breakdowns typically come when a player deviates from the scouting report.
"Some of it was communication, but some of it was just pure old-fashioned simple breakdowns, not finishing a play, going 70 to 80 percent of your action and what you're supposed to do, and not carrying it out," Lockwood said.
Tennessee stresses help defense in its system, but there are times when players should not leave shooters.
"Help defense is a good thing, but you can get so caught up in being a helper that you're not aware of who you're helping out of," Lockwood said. "We had stressed with (an Ole Miss three-point shooter) limited help. For instance you're guarding her and here comes a driver, so rather than coming in to help, I am just going to bluff my help and be close enough to close it.
"Another time when the ball goes in the post, here she goes on top, ball goes in, we turn our back and rotate and now, I don't care who you are. You can be Jesse Owens in his prime. That ball kicks out, you can't get back. That is what happened. If you let a shooter get free like that, you're done."
ON TAP: All 12 SEC teams are in action today. The other matchups are: Alabama at Georgia; Arkansas at South Carolina; LSU at Auburn; Kentucky at Vanderbilt; and Ole Miss at Mississippi State.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Florida, 39-3. The Gators won two games in Gainesville in 1997 and 2009. The Lady Vols record in Knoxville is 17-1. Florida beat Tennessee in 2006 in overtime on Senior Day. … Tennessee is 11-4 in games played on February 14. The last win on this date was against Mississippi State, 80-78, in 2002. The first win on this date was against Appalachian State, 94-69, in 1975. The four losses on this date were to Farragut School, 15-4, in 1908; Western Carolina in 1975; Old Dominion, 90-66, in 1983; and LSU, 78-62, in 2008. … The Lady Vols have a 174-12 record at home in SEC games. Only six teams in the league have managed leave Knoxville with a win – Auburn (two), Florida (one), Georgia (three), Kentucky (two), LSU (two) and Ole Miss (two). … Enterimg Sunday's contests, there have been 68 SEC games played, and 33 of those (48.5 percent) have been decided by single digits. Every SEC team has been involved in at least three such games. There have been seven overtime games in the league with two double overtimes and one triple overtime. Tennessee has had six SEC games decided by single digits and has a 5-1 record. Florida has had nine such games with a 6-3 record.
BY THE NUMBERS OVERALL WITH SEC PLAY IN PARENTHESES: Tennessee is averaging 73.9 points a game (67.1 in the SEC) while allowing opponents to score 56.3 (55.7). Florida averages 63.7 points a game (59.4) while allowing 62.0 (65.1). The Lady Vols are shooting 46.2 percent overall (45.1), 38.0 percent behind the arc (38.1) and 67.0 percent from the free throw line (62.4). The Gators are shooting 39.2 percent overall (35.6), 30.7 percent from long range (29.4) and 68.1 percent from the line (71.3). Tennessee makes an average of 5.7 three-pointers a game (5.1) while allowing 6.2 (7.0). Florida makes 6.8 threes a game (6.4) while allowing 5.2 (5.5).
Tennessee averages 43.2 rebounds a game for a +9.6 margin (41.6, +9.8). Florida averages 39.5 boards for a +1.2 margin (39.2, -1.4). The Lady Vols average 15.4 assists (14.5) and 14.9 turnovers (15.3) a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 16.2 times a game (15.4). The Gators average 14.1 assists (12.5) and 19.3 turnovers (19.0) with foes losing the ball 18.3 times a game (16.5). Tennessee averages 6.9 steals (5.7) and 5.8 blocks a game (5.6). Florida averages 9.2 steals (7.8) and 4.1 blocks (4.5).