Tennessee rolls past Florida

A Sunday afternoon halftime "prayer meeting" – in the words of Pat Summitt – apparently was the impetus the Lady Vols needed as they held Florida to 16 second half points, shot 53.1 percent overall from the field and swamped the Gators, 83-44, in front of a Valentine's Day crowd of 16,451 that witnessed a marriage proposal at halftime and the best half of Tennessee basketball this season.

Tennessee (23-2, 11-1) led at the break by six points, but Pat Summitt was livid when she entered the locker room, and she had quite a bit to say, as she repeated in her post-game press conference.

"I thought the first half we were not where we needed to be, and I just didn't think our intensity level (was what it needed to be), and we didn't defend as well, obviously boards (and) they were getting good open looks out of the three ball," Summitt said. "We just had a little prayer meeting at halftime, because I am telling you I was not happy.

"I said you talk about becoming a 40-minute team. I said, ‘You are not going to San Antonio (site of the Final Four), you're not going anywhere, you're not going to be in the tournament very long unless you invest as a basketball team for a 40-minute game or more.' "

Summitt also let her players do some of the talking at halftime.

"She wasn't too happy at halftime, especially with the rebounding," Lady Vol junior guard Angie Bjorklund said. "We were being out-rebounded, and that's huge. I think once we picked that up and really committed to defense and making stops, that's what changed it.

"This halftime she was like, ‘It can't just come from me.' She kind of let us speak and (said), ‘You've got to take responsibility now.' She can sit up there and talk about it all day long but once we start taking ownership and responsibility for getting each other going and after halftime that's what we did, I thought that made a huge difference."

After the game, Summitt set the bar again.

"They responded obviously in the second half, but I said this doesn't count," Summitt said. "It counts when we have 40. It counts when we go 40 minutes, and we are busting it up and down the floor, we're knocking down shots, we're defending, we're rebounding at both ends. I think they will respond to this.

"I told them there's a reason we have eight championships. And I said, ‘You don't have one. And if you're going to get one you're going to have to change your level of commitment every day.' Having said that, I was proud of their second half effort."

The box score was replete with second-half superlatives.

Tennessee led 34-28 at halftime and had allowed Florida to connect on six 3-pointers in 18 attempts. The Gators scored only 16 points in the second half and hit just two 3-pointers and only got eight long-range attempts to finish the game at 8-26 (30.8 percent). Florida shot 11-33 (33.3 percent) overall in the first half and 7-33 (21.2 percent) in the second half to finish at 18-66 (27.3 percent) overall.

The Lady Vols extended their defense and harassed the Gators with Glory Johnson twice forcing held balls with her one-on-one perimeter defense. Bjorklund went into the break with 10 points and finished with 24. Kelley Cain had five points at halftime and finished with 19. After scoring 16 points in the paint in the first half, Tennessee got 26 inside in the second half to out-score the Gators in the paint for the game, 42-20.

The Gators got 10 points off turnovers in the first half and just four in the second. The Lady Vols got 13 points off turnovers in the second half and had 20 for the game. Tennessee took care of the ball in both halves – five miscues in both, 10 for the game – and added 13 assists in the second half to finished with 20 for the game.

Tennessee trailed in the rebounding column, 23-18, in the first half but finished with a 42-39 edge on the glass.

Tennessee shot 64.5 percent (20-31) in the second half and 53.1 percent (34-64) overall. The Lady Vols connected on 54.5 percent of their three-pointers (6-11) in the second half and 47.4 percent overall (9-19) from long range.

Bjorklund led the way by shooting 6-12 from behind the arc. She was joined in double figures by Cain, whose 19 points tied her career high, and Shekinna Stricklen, who had 12.

Alicia Manning added 11 points, nine rebounds, six assists, two steals and just one turnover in her best overall stat line as a Lady Vol.

Manning has moved into the starting lineup for the past two games and may have found a spot there for the rest of the season.

"I'm not sure. I want to keep you guessing," Summitt said to the media with a smile. "No, I like this lineup. Alicia is playing really well for us. She's been in the gym working on her game."

It's the 11th different lineup combination that Summitt has used this season – she used 12 a year ago – with the sole common denominator being Stricklen for all 25 games to date.

Stricklen had nine points and four rebounds by halftime and when the Lady Vols made a run right before halftime – forcing a Florida timeout at 1:55 – it was the sophomore who screamed, "Let's go!" to the crowd.

Stricklen's clean strip of the ball and layup led to a 31-21 lead and a 10-0 run after a 21-21 tie with 6:12 remaining in the first half. The two teams had been content to exchange baskets, for the most part, for the first 14 minutes of the game with five different Gator players attempting three-pointers.

Sorensen hit a three-pointer for Florida out of the late timeout, and the Gators twice got to the rim with layups from Trumae Lucas and Jennifer George. Bjorklund answered with a three-pointer for Tennessee for the 34-28 halftime margin.

Florida (13-12, 6-6) stayed with the Lady Vols for the first 20 minutes because of the three ball – Steffi Sorensen was 3-7 behind the arc in the first half for nine points – and despite the stout defense of Cain and Alyssia Brewer, who combined for all eight of Tennessee's first half blocks. Cain had five swats – she blocked a three-point attempt right before halftime – and her presence changes how an opponent plays on offense.

"She does," Summitt said. "I've said many times that when Kelley and Lyssi and Glory are playing, because we rotate (them) obviously, I think we've got one of the best post games in the country, if not the best. We've just got to get our guard play a little bit stronger."

Manning's insertion into the starting lineup has been a step in that direction for Tennessee because she brings intensity in ways that don't show up in the box score. Manning will fight for rebounds and loose balls, and her presence on the floor has been an injection of energy for the Lady Vols.

"She brings a lot of energy because she's an emotional person and that's good for the most part," Cain said with a smile.

"It's what we need," Bjorklund said.

"When her emotion shows, we feed off of it," Cain said. "She brings a lot of energy and she brings a different tempo to the game because she pushes it constantly. You can always guarantee that she's going to be in there battling for rebounds like she's a post."

Summitt has used Manning at the point position for a few possessions at times, and she indicated the 6'1 guard/forward could get some additional spot duty.

"I watched her quite a bit in AAUs, and the thing about her is she is very athletic," Summitt said when asked about the recruitment of Manning, who is from Woodstock, Ga., and played AAU ball with Cain, who is from Atlanta.

"She had a toughness. She played a lot on the perimeter, as well as the high post. She could play all positions. She caught my attention early on, and I felt like she was a player that could play multiple positions for us. Not that I want her running the point (a lot), but I am going to look at her at that position just because she pushes the ball hard, and she's a good passer. I also like her in the high post because she can knock down shots from the free throw line."

When asked about playing at the point position, Manning said, "You know, I think Kelley Cain can even (play) the point guard."

That brought an incredulous look from Cain – Summitt won't likely try that experiment – but several players have had repetitions at the spot this season, and Briana Bass, the team's only true point guard, logged 13 minutes Sunday and had two assists, two rebounds and no turnovers.

"You've just got to get the ball up there, take care of it," Manning said. "With our team we're so versatile. Really, you just need to get us in the offense, pass it and then it's just like you're a guard."

Freshman Kamiko Williams had two starts at point guard, but she has been much more productive on the wing – the task of starting was a bit overwhelming for the first-year player on both sides of the ball – and Summitt wants to keep her off the ball at this point in time.

That means Stricklen will get the bulk of the duty at point guard. She played just 22 minutes Sunday and needed ice on her left knee on the bench, but Summitt said afterwards that Stricklen was OK. She limped off the court 90 seconds into the second half but was able to return later.

"She now understands that she's going to have to play a lot at point guard, especially with Kamiko not being as comfortable," Summitt said. "I will probably play Kamiko on the wing. I like Stricklen at the point."

Stricklen was 4-9 from the field and had six rebounds, four assists, two steals and two turnovers. Against Florida a month ago, Stricklen had nine turnovers, part of 25 total for Tennessee. The Lady Vols had just 10 in the rematch while the Gators had 20.

It was Stricklen who jump-started the second half with a fast-break layup and a 36-28 lead. Johnson got a defensive rebound, dribbled to half court and fired the ball to Cain, who was already under the basket for a 38-28 lead. Manning and Bjorklund hit back-to-back threes – with Jordan Jones nailing one for Florida – and the Lady Vols led, 44-31, just three minutes into the second half.

"Tennessee is known at the beginning of ball games, and at the beginning of halves, for trying to overwhelm you," Florida Coach Amanda Butler said. "And we allowed that to happen is what I felt like. We just didn't fight. We didn't try to answer things like we did in the first half.

"I thought we did a great job of being physical and doubling, and doing some things that we didn't necessarily always get rewarded, tying some balls up. That's outside of our control. We just didn't display that same fight. I thought Steffi Sorensen fought until the end, until we took her off the floor and was a tremendous example. We've just got a few folks that don't play enough with heart, and it's just not acceptable."

Tennessee was tenacious on both ends of the court as the Lady Vols turned up the defense, which tuned in the offense.

"I think our offense should start with our defense, getting stops and getting rebounds and pushing tempo hard," Bjorklund said. "That makes for easy offense, and we didn't really have to set up in offense too often."

Florida brought some full court pressure and Tennessee broke it, leaving the Gators scrambling to match up in the half court. One beneficiary was Bjorklund, who found space to launch shots, and her 24 points led all scorers.

The Gators continued to bring the heat, often triple-teaming the posts and doubling Manning, who split the defenders and found Cain under the basket for a 55-33 lead with 11:47 left in the game.

"I will always be looking to her," Manning said. "She's 6'6 and her wingspan is like 7 feet. In (SEC games), Kelley has got the highest field goal percentage (at 66.7 percent). She's our bread and butter. She really is. And when I see her in there, I can't help but get it (the ball) to her, because I know it's going to go in."

Manning's improvements on offense and defense have increased her playing time this month.

"If you look at our perimeter game, Manning is the most athletic player on the perimeter," Summitt said. "You might think, no, it's Stricklen, well Stricklen doesn't have the one-on-one defense. I think that's a place where Manning definitely makes a difference."

Manning also has been lofting extra shots at Pratt Pavilion and in the arena before practice.

"Coach has been preaching for a year, ‘Get in the gym. Get in the gym,' and I think this year, I've become really invested in it, doing it for my team and coaches," Manning said. "Holly (Warlick) has been getting in the gym with me. I've been working with Tyler (Summitt) and getting good game shots, shots that Coach wants me to take. It's helped build my confidence as well, so I am just going to continue to do that."

Summitt was asked if she was disappointed with Manning's play as a freshman, and Summitt said that extended throughout the roster.

"I was disappointed in the whole team last year," Summitt said. "We could just do roll call. She did some good things, but she was inconsistent (last season). A lot of that was because they weren't invested in getting in the gym. That's why after the Stanford game this year, I was like, ‘How many of you are in the gym knocking down shots?' . … She has invested a lot of time in Pratt."

Manning wants to earn playing time with stellar defense and letting her offense flow from that effort.

"My offense is fed off my defense," Manning said. "When I get some stops, get some steals, feed off my teammates as well, I get more confident and loosen up a little bit, and my offense will come."

The blueprint worked Sunday as the Lady Vols converted a six-point halftime lead into a 20-point lead less than eight minutes into the second half. That ballooned to 30 points, 67-37, on back-to-back stick-back buckets from Manning and Cain with 7:29 left in the game.

Tennessee had 20 assists on 34 baskets – none sweeter than Brewer's toss behind her head to Cain for a 69-40 lead with 6:31 left. That offensive possession was followed by double blocks from Brewer and Cain on the next defensive possession.

Brewer even matched up with 5'4 Lonnika Thompson at one point on the perimeter, and Cain sailed out of the paint to block a three-point shot and harass several other long-range shooters.

Could Cain have extended her defense to the arc last season when she was hobbled by knee pain?

"Probably not – maybe once or twice," Cain said. "I'm completely different from last year."

At various times in the game, Florida had four guards on the floor and one forward and was spreading the court to try to find open three-point shooters, forcing Cain or Brewer out of the paint on defense fairly often or risk leaving a Gator uncovered.

"I remember (Cain) coming out on me a couple times last game (in Gainesville)," Sorensen said. "We prepared for their bigs to switch out. It is obviously harder when a 6'6 girl is running out at you. That's nothing we didn't prepare for. Getting my shot off is something I work on every day. That's a little intimidating, but it's nothing I don't think I can handle."

Sorensen was 3-7 behind the arc in the first half and 1-4 in the second half as Tennessee's defense was so stout that the Gators were having trouble getting free behind the arc. They opted to drive instead and often found Cain or Brewer waiting in the paint. A healthy Cain is dominant on both ends of the court.

"She is," Summitt said. "And when Lyssi doesn't give in to fatigue like she did today, and she's on the floor that's two very imposing defensive and offensive players in the paint.

"I think it was just our commitment to play defense (as a team). We ran a switching man except on end out of bounds (the opponent in-bounding the ball from its baseline), and we zoned. Kelley Cain was switching out on the floor. They just buckled down and did what they had to do – the long closeouts, not giving them the open threes. They had to play off the bounce, and that allowed us to defend better in the paint. I thought this was our best defensive effort start to finish."

It was not the outcome that Florida foresaw, especially after it took Bjorklund scooting along the baseline and hitting a reverse layup to beat the Gators, 66-64, just one month ago in Gainesville.

"It's frustrating, it's disappointing, because truthfully we came in here thinking, ‘Sorry, we're going to knock you guys off,' " Sorensen said. "It's frustrating when you give it your all and that's not what happens. We just have to bounce back. That's what it comes down to."

Sorensen led Florida with 12 points and was the only scorer in double figures. Three other starters combined for 12 points, and Jennifer Mossor, who had 10 points in the first game, didn't score. The bench accounted for 11 points with Lucas leading the way with six.

Florida was shorthanded in the post as Azania Stewart, a 6'4 sophomore center, was out with a stress fracture in her left foot. She was 1-2 in the first matchup with two points, one rebound, one assist and four fouls, but she was a big body that could give Cain some resistance inside.

"It's difficult, but that's the nature of what we do," Butler said. "We're not going to sit here and say ‘Gosh Tennessee whipped our tails because we didn't have Z.' I'm sure it would have helped if we would've, but handling adversity, injuries, are a part of what we do. When that happens champions step up.

"Different folks compensate in different ways for whatever is missing. In particular with our post play, I don't think we did that enough. Do we miss Z? Yes. Are we going to use it as an excuse? Absolutely not."

Summitt used her entire bench of 10 players – even in the close first half – with Bjorklund still logging 37 minutes and Cain tallying 32. No other starter went over 24 minutes, and Brewer had 24 minutes off the bench.

"I wanted the starters to get quality minutes, and it may come down to our starters," Summitt said. "We may only substitute one or two people off the bench. We don't know right now how deep our bench really is. We had a couple of people today that did not come off the bench and give us much of anything. That is kind of a feel, wait and see once the game starts."

There are just four games left in the regular season. With Kentucky's loss at Vanderbilt, Tennessee has a bit of breathing room at the top of the standings with an 11-1 record, followed by the Wildcats at 9-3. Several teams are bunched in the middle and will be jockeying for position – and especially the first round byes in the SEC tourney – in the final two weeks.

"This situation this year with the SEC is anyone can beat anyone on any given night," Sorensen said. "That's why every game I go into I'm assuming that we can win, because it's so up and down this year. One team beats one team and the other team beats this team, it's kind of jumbled like that, so basically every game we go into, we think we're going to win.

"So, it's not necessarily let's run the table, that's how we go into every game. We should win. It's more important now, though. We really need to run the table."

With the exception of Sorensen, Butler was disappointed in her team's effort overall.

"I thought we showed a lot of fight in the first half and played Florida basketball," Butler said. "In the second half, the fight wasn't there. The intensity wasn't there. The things that you have to do to compete with a team like Tennessee, especially on their home court, weren't there. That's our challenge is to figure out why those things weren't there and get it fixed before Thursday, because we have another tremendous challenge at Kentucky on Thursday.

"You've got to give Tennessee the credit for setting the tone, especially in the second half, because that's what they did."

That second half is something that Summitt hopes the team will build on to close out the regular season.

"Definitely," Cain said. "Even Coach said that's a half we need to turn into 40 minutes. To be honest, I think everybody can agree with me by saying that that was the best second half we've ever played and we want to bring that every game for 40 minutes."

After two games in which Tennessee had to come from behind to win, Sunday's wipeout was a welcome relief.

"It feels good," Bjorklund said. "I think once our team got together at halftime and everyone committed to defense and rebounding, it just made a huge difference. We just need to keep it like that more often and focus on playing a 40-minute game."

While Tennessee was regrouping at halftime, the crowd was enjoying watching several couples play blindfolded musical chairs. When the game ended and one woman took off her blindfold, she saw her playing partner on one knee with a ring in his hand. She jumped out of her chair to hug him as the crowd applauded.

Two Tennessee students also got into the spirit of Valentine's Day by applying white body paint to their chests and backs with "Be Mine" painted on the front in red. On their backs, one had Taber Spani's name and number painted in red, and the other had Johnson's name and number. When the players entered the game – Spani is still limited by turf toe but played 11 minutes and had five points and three boards – they would turn their backs to the court so the players could see their names as the crowd cheered.

The crowd – the 16,451 was the second-largest since 16,645 showed up for the Vanderbilt game last month – had plenty of reasons to be happy Sunday afternoon after witnessing an inspired performance by the Lady Vols.

Cain and Bjorklund continued their climbs in the Tennessee record books. Bjorklund is in third place for career three-pointers with 211, a position she claimed earlier this season, and is getting closer to second place, now held by Kara Lawson with 256. Bjorklund began Sunday in fifth place for the single-season record for three-pointers, but her six makes vaulted her into second place with 81. Shanna Zolman holds first place with 103.

Cain had moved into eighth place on the career blocks list earlier this month and now has 128, so she is closing in on seventh place, now held by Teresa Geter with 135. Cain passed Sheila Frost for fifth-place in the record books for single season blocks with 79. Candace Parker holds first, second and fourth place with 99, 90 and 86 blocks in a single season. Geter is tied with Parker for second place with 90.

Tennessee is essentially the same team as a year ago – they are getting some contributions from freshmen Spani and Williams – but the results this season have been much different, especially the spot atop the SEC standings. The Lady Vols spent all last season looking up.

"I'm a big believer that your expectations drive a lot of things," Butler said. "I think it's very clear that Tennessee's team this year expects different outcomes and handles adversity a lot better than they did last year. I would certainly attribute that to Coach Pat Summitt, because I think she's fantastic.

"Maybe it's another year of maturity, maybe it's a combination of all of those things, but it's very obvious that the expectation of that group of kids is very different than it was last year."

Summitt began drilling those expectations into her players' heads last March, when the team lost in the first round of the NCAA tourney and were back on the practice court and in gut-check conditioning sessions in the aftermath.

"There's no limit to our potential," Cain said. "We know it's there; it's just a matter of us tapping into it and showing it every game."

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