Lady Vols survive clash with Bama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The Lady Vols completed the SEC season with a 7-1 record on the road – a stark contrast to the 2-5 slate of a year ago – but Alabama, the last place team in the league, made Tennessee uncomfortable from start to finish and the 74-67 win for the Lady Vols left the winning coach fuming after the game.

When Pat Summitt sat down for her post-game press conference after Thursday's game, a TV cameraman asked her to pull the microphone towards her so he would pick up the audio for broadcast.

"My voice will go throughout this room, especially tonight," Summitt said to much laughter from the media.

The coach's sense of humor was somehow intact after a desultory win over Alabama (10-16, 2-11), in which Tennessee (24-2, 12-1) was out-rebounded for just the second time this season. Stanford, which has one of the best post games in the country, prevailed on the glass, 44-34. Alabama, ranked last in the SEC in rebounding margin at -7.1, did two better than that, 45-33, for a +12 margin.

"Obviously, I am very disappointed in how we came out and played in this game," Summitt said. "A lot of things didn't go our way and obviously I give Alabama a lot of credit, but when you've got a player (Celiscia Farmer) that's been averaging 4.9 points and you give up 21, that's significant in the lack of awareness in defensive intensity and commitment. Farmer had her way. She just got open shots. We had no sense of urgency defending, rebounding.

"They out-rebounded us by 12. Out of 35 misses, we only had 12 offensive boards. What is rebounding? It's heart and desire and competitive desire. Am I pleased? No. Is it good to play poorly and win a game? That's good. But this has to be an opportunity for our basketball team to take a look at who they are.

"As far as we're concerned as a coaching staff we disrespected the game of basketball tonight."

Farmer, a freshman guard, made her first career start for the Crimson Tide. She shot 10-15 from the field and at times had an unimpeded path to the basket.

"We just went into the game knowing that we had the ability to beat them," Farmer said. "We just needed to play together. We have been through some losses, but we knew we could get the team working together. It is just a tough loss."

Carmen McCoy, a sophomore center, also made her first career start for Alabama – she had nine rebounds, four points and two blocks – as Coach Wendell Hudson completely changed his starting lineup and opened with five different players from those who started the last game.

"I know everybody was second-guessing me from the standpoint of who I was starting in the first half, but we're going to play the people that are going to play hard," Hudson said. "That's the way we approach it, and that's the group that was playing the hardest in practice, and that's the group we played.

"We were not trying to trick anybody. We were just trying to take care of ourselves. The effort was there. We have talked about playing hard like we do in practice. At this point, you have to give that same effort. I don't believe in moral victories, but our effort kept us in the game, and I am really proud of the team."

It worked as those starters led by one over Tennessee, 7-6, and out-rebounded the Lady Vols, 5-1, at the first media timeout at 15:50. Farmer had five points already at that point, just over her per-game average.

"That just speaks to the lack of commitment we had on defense," Summitt said.

The upheaval in the Alabama starters wasn't an issue, Summitt said.

"It wasn't so much what they did," Summitt said. "It's what we didn't do. … We're trying to figure out this team, what they want to be."

Hudson inserted his regular starters wholesale at the 14:14 mark as Courtney Strauthers, Ericka Russell, Tierney Jenkins, LaToya King and Dedrea Magee all entered the game, and Farmer, McCoy, Alyson Butler, Katie Hancock and Tamara Williams took a seat.

Summitt lifted Glory Johnson at the same time after a stat line of 0-2 from the field, 0-1 from the free throw line and zero rebounds in the first six minutes of the game.

By the second stop in first-half action at the 11:39 mark, Alabama had doubled its rebounds to 10, and the Lady Vols had just three.

When Summitt was asked what aspect of Tennessee's play disappointed her the most, she cited the team's approach to the game, a situation that might have been foreshadowed by the pre-game warmup, which lacked attention to game-type shots.

"Just not coming to the gym on a mission, not coming in and when things were not going well for us, it wasn't like we had people stepping up and saying, ‘We've got to do this,' " Summitt said. "Our coaching staff clearly was the most vocal voices across the board and this team did not take ownership."

The exception was junior guard Angie Bjorklund, who played the entire game and scored 13 points with five rebounds, two assists and a steal.

"Angie has been super," Summitt said. "I can't say enough good things about what she brings to our team, but she needs a lot of help, and we didn't have a lot of help. She has been one constant contributor at both ends of the floor."

Bjorklund went the distance, but Summitt kept a steady stream of players at the scorer's table as she searched for a group that would consistently play defense. Summitt was so furious with her team in the second half that she let Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick take over two timeouts.

"I was very upset, and I still am upset," Summitt said. "I am very concerned about the future of our team because we are closing out our SEC (regular season) and obviously get in to the (postseason) and one of these (games like Thursday), we're home. We're done.

"This team I thought had a different basketball IQ and a much larger commitment to playing defense and rebounding and taking care of their business on the road."

The game started for Tennessee with two turnovers and a missed three-pointer from Bjorklund before Shekinna Stricklen got a steal and then cut to the basket, where Alicia Manning fed her the ball for the layup.

Alabama, meanwhile, was having its own trouble holding onto the ball, but was scoring when it did. McCoy got the first basket of the game by getting inside the defense without resistance for a layup and then Farmer hit a three-pointer.

When Hudson inserted his second set of starters, Magee responded with a jumper for the 9-8 lead for Alabama. Tennessee answered when Alyssia Brewer got doubled away from the basket and flipped the ball to Stricklen, who hit the short jumper to put Tennessee ahead, 10-9. But Strauthers hit a layup, and Alabama was back in front, 11-10.

When there was a break in the action at 7:44, the two teams were tied at 17, and Alabama was shooting 50 percent from the field and still leading on the boards, 13-9. Tennessee then went on a run – fed by the Crimson Tide's miscues with the ball – and claimed a 10-point lead, 33-23, with 3:50 remaining before halftime.

But Tennessee's interior defense was porous – Farmer got back-to-back layups and Strauthers got to the rim, too – and Alabama had trimmed the lead to 37-31 at halftime.

The margin could have been closer but Alabama had 15 turnovers in the first 20 minutes, and Tennessee converted that into 15 points. But through the first half, Alabama had outscored Tennessee in the paint, 22-16, and shot 51.9 percent in the first half. No team had shot better than 50 percent against Tennessee in the first half this season until Thursday. Alabama finished at 45.9 percent (28-61) for the game after shooting 41.2 percent (14-34) in the second half.

"I think we just came out flat," Bjorklund said. "Two turnovers in a row, didn't get off to a good start and we let one thing lead to another and it just kind of sucked the life out of us. If we turn the ball over, we have to go down and get stops, and we need to rebound the basketball.

"I think it's just having more of a sense of urgency to start the game and if you do make a mistake then you have to go down and respond on defense, and we didn't do that at all tonight."

Summitt adjusted the second half starters – Taber Spani replaced Johnson and Kamiko Williams replaced Alicia Manning – and Williams fouled her player on a drive to the basket – Butler hit both free throws to cut the lead to 37-33 – but went right to the rim on offense and got back the points. Bjorklund hit a three-pointer to extend the lead to 42-35 at the 18:43 mark of the second half.

But Tennessee's defense and board play continued to be erratic – Alabama led on the boards 20-13 at halftime and extended that to 25-16 at the first media timeout at the 15:53 mark of the second half.

Tennessee continued to hold its scoring lead in the second half and increased it to double digits, 51-40, with 13:07 after Manning got an offensive board and stick-back.

Alabama hovered for the next five minutes – Warlick took over the timeouts at that point, though Summitt called timeout at the 7:46 mark to ask Brewer, "Are you going to guard anybody?" so loud that all 3,900 fans in Coleman Coliseum should have heard her.

"I can't even tell you," Brewer said when asked why Tennessee struggled so much on defense. "I think one thing that Dean (Lockwood) told us that really hit me in the locker room was being engaged in the game and there were a lot moments where we weren't as a team, maybe one or two of us, but it wasn't a collective effort.

"I think that's something that's going to be big as to whether we have success or not."

Tennessee did build the lead to 15 points, 64-49, when Johnson made a nice step-through move on middle drive – the sophomore forward's first points of the game at the 7:10 mark of the second half.

After Johnson got an offensive board and got fouled, she made one free throw and missed the second one. Manning got the miss and made the basket for a 16-point lead, 67-51, with 6:22 left.

But Alabama, behind more offense from Farmer and jumpers from King and Strauthers and a layup from Russell, trimmed the deficit to single digits, 74-65, with 55 seconds left.

Alabama called timeout, and Tennessee turned the ball over on a long pass, and Alabama players got three offensive rebounds after two missed three-pointers and two missed jumpers – the last of which Brewer blocked and Alabama got a team offensive rebound when the ball went out of bounds. King scored a layup with one second left for the final 74-67 score.

Afterwards, the winning coach was appalled at her team's overall performance, and the losing coach saluted his team's effort.

"I thought we gave maximum effort, played on both ends of the court, had an opportunity if we had made some shots to maybe pull off something really big," Hudson said. "When Tennessee went up 15 in the second half we kept playing, didn't quit playing and that's the kind of thing that we talked to this team about all week.

"We had some good shots. The team didn't quit, and that is important against a team like this. I was real proud of our group hanging in there and continuing to play. They thought they had a chance to win the basketball game. That is important.

"I am proud of a lot of things about this team – the fact we were able to rebound with them. We went after the ball. I thought the points Tennessee scored off our turnovers was the only really negative point. We didn't give up. We did not back away. I think this was one of the games that we were taking the fight to a team. Instead of punching back we were punching, and I was real proud of our group for doing that."

Tennessee tallied 27 points off 24 Alabama turnovers and had 12 steals. The Lady Vols had 12 turnovers, which the Crimson Tide converted into 14 points. Alabama out-scored Tennessee in second-chance points, 11-8, and out-dueled the Lady Vols in paint points, 40-36.

Alabama got some of its inside scoring punch from Farmer, who hit an assortment of short jumpers and layups and one three-pointer.

"For her first start against the number two, three, four five, team in the country, I thought C.C. did an excellent job," Hudson said. "She had six turnovers. That was the only blemish on her stat sheet. I thought some of the passes she made were not bad passes, so I will take some of those six turnovers. But her effort, handling the basketball, doing things against a team like Tennessee, I am really proud of her. She is just going to continue to get better and better."

Tennessee was missing Kelley Cain, its 6'6 center, because the business administration major had missed four of the past six Thursday classes because of the road schedule, and needed to catch up on class work. Cain is on pace to graduate in December so although she is a sophomore on the basketball court she is taking upper level courses in the classroom.

Hudson said he learned of Cain's absence a few minutes before tipoff.

"I am more concerned about what we're doing than what the other team is doing," Hudson said. "We've got to play whoever Tennessee has out there to play. With all those McDonald's All-Americans out there I am not going to feel sorry for anybody (that is missing one). What we're trying to concentrate on is what we can do."

Bjorklund was asked if Cain was missed that much – given the struggles Tennessee had on defense and on the boards.

"Yes," Bjorklund said emphatically. "I thought Lyssi did a good job stepping up. I think everyone has to step up from the guards to the posts. Cain is a huge inside force, and that's hard for us, but at the same time that's not an excuse. We should have been ready to come and work a lot harder than we did."

Brewer led Tennessee with 20 points and 10 rebounds – she filled in admirably in the absence Cain on offense – but got caught out of position on defense, though she did tally three blocks.

Tennessee never seemed to get comfortable on either end of the court, and, unlike in the Florida game last Sunday, didn't turn it around in the second half. Alabama had something to do with that.

"Pretty much just punch them in the mouth and keep the high intensity for the first five minutes of the game," Magee said of the team's approach to start the second half.

"We talked that we were still in the game, and we believe in ourselves, to keep our heads up and keep the intensity," Russell said of the Alabama team's thoughts at halftime. We knew that we could fight and stay in the game, and that's what we did."

Russell had started 19 games this season but was one of the five displaced when Hudson shook up his entire starting lineup. She finished the game with 12 points. The Alabama bench outscored Tennessee's reserves, 32-15, but that stat is skewed when it's factored in that Hudson brought five of his usual starters off the bench.

"We had a long practice this week, tough practices," Russell said. "We know everyone on the team is capable of playing. It doesn't matter about the start. It's just about who's finishing. It doesn't matter. That's just a mental thing. You've just got to work through that. It doesn't really matter to our team."

Magee, another displaced started who chipped in with eight points, also thought that Tennessee overlooked the last-place Crimson Tide.

"Oh yes, I did," Magee said. "We have to come out and play like a team no matter what. If we play together and fight hard and get loose balls and out-hustle the opponent, we're going to win. … If we would have cut down on the turnovers and put the ball in the basket, it would have been a better outcome."

Alabama didn't go that far as the Lady Vols put enough separation between them and the Crimson Tide to leave Tuscaloosa with a victory. Alabama held its "pink game" to raise awareness for breast cancer and the 3,900 was the largest home crowd of the season, though about one third of those were pulling for the orange.

"Tennessee had a great crowd," Hudson said. "They had a lot of people cheering for them. We had a great crowd too, which was very important. A lot of people had pink on and they were cheering for us. You could just feel the energy from them. I thought that was a key in the way we played."

Stricklen was also in double digits for Tennessee with 14 points and added five boards and three steals. Manning finished with nine points, and Williams added eight. Sydney Smallbone connected on a three-pointer and added two offensive rebounds in the first half a time when Tennessee needed boards.

The Lady Vols shot 46.2 percent overall (30-65) and 3-9 (33.3 percent) behind the arc. Tennessee's free throw shooting was abysmal at 45.8 percent (11-24).

"They've got to shoot free throws," Summitt said. "My goodness. We were horrendous from the free throw line and I'd like to know how many times they get in the gym (extra) and make 25 in a row. Not very often, and they're going to have to invest in that. Lyssi Brewer is going to have to get in there and knock down free throws."

Brewer was 4-6 from the line in the first half and 2-6 in the second half.

"My free throws, I was doing so good before," Brewer said. "It's repetition. That's the part where we have to have that maturity and take responsibility."

Bjorklund was visibly angry after the game and addressed the team's lack of consistent competitive maturity, as Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood has called it.

"I think you see it in our team in spurts," Bjorklund said. "We have yet to play (40 minutes), where we have that competitive maturity the entire game. We might get up on a team and then let them come back in and I thought that's what we did (Thursday). If we can put together 40 minutes and if everyone goes hard every possession, you're looking at a whole different team."

Would the players expect Tennessee to be past that by now?

"You would think," Bjorklund said.

"You definitely would think that," Brewer said. "It was just unacceptable, and we're better than this. Everybody knows that. We're the players out there, and we're the people that have to do it."

"Take responsibility," Bjorklund said, in what sounded more like a directive than an answer to a question.

Despite the team's performance, the players will be off Friday because Summitt will be on the road. With three games in six days next week starting with a revived LSU on Monday, that is likely a good thing for the Lady Vol players.

"The plans are that we are taking off (Friday), not that they've earned it, but I need to go recruiting," Summitt said.

"We'll be in the gym," Bjorklund said, as Summitt stood to leave the post-game press conference for her radio show.

"You will," Summitt said, knowing that the junior doesn't shirk from extra shots.

When Bjorklund was asked about getting in the gym, she instead asked Brewer to answer the question.

"I think everybody needs to be in the gym, especially myself," Brewer said. "We need to do that as individuals and as a team. You can only help a teammate out so much, but it has to be them that is the person that steps up."


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