Tennessee claims share of SEC crown

Tennessee rebounded from one of its worst games of the season to one of its best efforts on both sides of the ball as the Lady Vols tallied 20 assists and just seven turnovers against one of the toughest defensive teams in the SEC with a 70-61 win over LSU. Kelley Cain broke the single-game record for blocks with 12, the equivalent of a "force field," according to Alyssia Brewer.

"I thought our team came to play," Coach Pat Summitt said after Monday's "Live Pink … Bleed Orange" game. "We did a lot of good things. Obviously we had a great crowd, and that motivated us. Twenty-nine field goals. Twenty assists. We shared the ball."

No. 4 Tennessee (25-2, 13-1) also earned at least a share of the SEC championship, one year after finishing in a tie for fourth place in the league.

"We're a whole year older," said junior guard Angie Bjorklund, who had 10 points and a team-high six assists. "We went to work this summer, and it's just paying off in every game that you watch us play. All the work that we put in this summer, it's just paying off."

LSU Coach Van Chancellor said he was tired of catching Tennessee when Summitt was upset with her team. The Lady Vols lost to Georgia before playing at LSU – a 55-43 win in Baton Rouge on Jan. 24 – and then played dismally against Alabama, though they still won 74-67, last Thursday.

"I think Pat's got one little problem honestly," Chancellor said. "I think she needs to go in before she plays other teams and say, ‘Guys, there's been a mistake on the schedule. We're playing LSU. You think we're playing Alabama but we're not.'

"I'm tired of playing her when she gets (mad). Georgia beat them. She got mad at them at Alabama, and I've caught her on the rebound twice. They've played great against us. I'm not saying what they've done against other teams isn't great, but Lord, they were pretty good defensively tonight."

That defense was led in the paint by Kelley Cain, who set a Tennessee single-game record with 12 blocks – the previous record was eight swats by Ashley Robinson against Rutgers on Dec. 11, 2003 – and they came in various ways with direct downward spikes, swiping the ball out of the shooter's hands and shots tossed right into Cain's outstretched arms. Tennessee had 14 total blocks with Alyssia Brewer adding two.

"Well, I had two blocks," Brewer deadpanned when asked to describe Cain's blocks, which brought a big smile from Cain. "It's a force. It's like their guards ran into a force field, and Kelley was there to reject it. That's the best as I can do right now. She's just a beast at it."

The shooters sometimes tumbled to the court, such was the force of the rejection, when Cain got a hand on the ball. With each swat the crowd raised its roar, and when Cain went to the bench with her fourth foul in the second half she got appreciative cheers from the crowd, some of whom gave her a standing ovation.

"That's my favorite part of the game," Cain said of the rejections.

Cain wasn't bad on the other end, either, as she shot 7-8 from the field and grabbed seven rebounds to go with the 12 blocks and one steal. She also was 2-2 from the free throw line and finished with 16 points in just 23 minutes of play because of foul trouble.

"I don't think about it," Cain said of the whistles. "We've learned to not dwell on things that have happened in the past because we can't do anything about it, just keep thinking about the next play."

Brewer led Tennessee with 18 points – she also was 2-2 from the line – and had six rebounds, two blocks and two assists. Ten of those points came in the first half when Cain played just 10 minutes because of three fouls, the third of which came after she backed into a three-point shooter.

"Kelley didn't want to go to the bench, probably reached a couple of times (on defense on the perimeter), she should have just let the play go and commit to the next one, but all in all I thought our inside game was good," Summitt said.

Glory Johnson also was effective in the paint with six points and four rebounds in the first half. She finished with 12 points, eight rebounds, two steals and an assist.

"Both of them have been doing that all year," Cain said. "We're a whole year older, and we've grown a lot. When one person isn't having a great night, somebody else is going to step up, that's guaranteed."

A year ago, that was not the case, as the absence of Cain – the first round loss to Ball State being the best example – sent the post game into a tailspin. This season, Johnson and Brewer have been able to share the load inside.

"That takes some pressure off Kelley," Summitt said. "Lyssi right now is really understanding how to take ownership in the paint, and get the position she wants, not what the defense wants her to have, so that's been big for us.

"Glory is so athletic and quick, and I thought she had a lot more composure in this game as opposed to our last game, and that's big for us as well."

Tennessee also played a long stretch in the first half without Shekinna Stricklen, who logged just four minutes because of two early fouls, the second of which appeared to be a held ball and brought a round of boos from the pink-and-white T-shirt-clad crowd of 13,851.

That brought a trio of players at point guard at various times in the first half, including Alicia Manning, Briana Bass and Kamiko Williams.

"Alicia Manning has improved her game," Summitt said. "She had to handle the ball some. Bree came in and did a nice job for us. We're playing a little better off the bench because I think they understand their roles, and they all want to contribute when they can."

Manning didn't score, but she played tough defense – the blood under her left eye after taking an elbow to the head attested for that – and had six rebounds, four assists and no turnovers.

The loss of two starters for significant stretches in the second could have spelled trouble in the first half, but the Lady Vols managed to take a 32-24 lead into the locker room at halftime.

"Angie just muttered, ‘Defense,' " Brewer said, when asked how the team weathered their absences. "It was our defense. I think everybody put into their heads the last LSU game, and we just communicated the whole entire time. I think we did a good job. There were some times where we didn't communicate, but we picked it right back up on the next possession."

Cain was missing the entire game last week against Alabama – the morning of the day the team was to leave town a stressed-out Cain met with Summitt about the pileup of missed Thursday classes in her business major, and she remained behind in Knoxville to fulfill those academic requirements.

"They just didn't need her at Alabama," Chancellor said to much laughter in the post-game press conference. "I'm just going to tell you that right now. I'll bet you if they had been playing LSU she wouldn't have had (to attend) class. That's all I'm going to say. I don't run this program. I've got enough problems running my own, but I'm going to say that."

Chancellor had plenty to say about Tennessee's post players, which caused problems for No. 20 LSU (18-8, 7-7) all evening.

"They've always had some size here," Chancellor said. "Daedra Charles wasn't a small woman, I don't mean that in a sense that's negative, just a great player. But Brewer and Cain are just unbelievable. I've never seen two players on the same team just block shots, alter so many shots, and they can score.

"I tell you what they could do tonight. They could score. Oh, Lord. Cain and Brewer were just outstanding. And then you've got Johnson 6'3 and a point guard 6'2 and then you've got a shooter to go with it. They got a shot. They got a legitimate shot."

Chancellor, who tends to give press conferences that are almost stream-of-consciousness in pace and thought, didn't specify the shot, but he presumably meant on a national scale.

The game didn't start out with too much promise for either team as they battled to a 6-6 tie less than six minutes into the contest.

Johnson hit a 16-footer to get the Lady Vols on the board, and Cain hit a layup after setting a screen for Manning and then slipping to the basket, where Manning fed her the ball. Swayze Black tied the game for the Lady Tigers at 4-4 at the 17:46 mark, and that is where the score remained until Bjorklund wrapped a pass inside to Cain for a 6-4 lead at the 14:55 mark of the first half.

The Lady Vols were getting plenty of looks at the basket – on one possession they had four shots and four misses by Williams (two), Johnson and Cain – but couldn't get the ball to fall.

LSU took a 10-6 lead on a layup from Jasmine Nelson and jumper from LaSondra Barrett at the 11:29 mark. Tennessee went nearly four minutes without scoring until Taber Spani, who had entered the game for Stricklen, drove to the rim to cut the lead to 10-8 at the 11:13 mark.

Cain, who was still in the game with two fouls, got a steal and then hit a reverse layup on the other end to tie the game, 10-10, at the 10:48 mark. She got her third foul on LSU's next possession by bumping into Allison Hightower on a three-point shot attempt – while Manning was waiting at the scorer's table to check in for Cain – and Hightower hit two of three free throws to put LSU ahead, 12-10, at the 10:28 mark.

Brewer reentered the game and scored six straight points for Tennessee with an inside move to the rim; receiving a pass from Spani, who got an offensive rebound; and converting a five-foot hook shot to give the Lady Vols a 16-13 lead at the 7:36 mark.

"She's a lot more confident this year," Cain said. "You can definitely tell that by the way she plays. She's not afraid to take shots, and she's good at it – that little hook, nobody can stop that."

Bjorklund scored the next four points for Tennessee by hitting a midrange baseline jumper and then scoring off an in-bounds play. That was followed by back-to-back layups from Johnson and Bjorklund – Brewer delivered the pass as Bjorklund slipped to the basket – and Tennessee led 24-19 with 4:30 left.

Cain's best hustle play during this stretch came when she dashed off the bench to retrieve a discarded pink headband before sprinting back to the sideline before Tennessee's defense returned to that end.

Monday was Tennessee's Pink Zone game, and the Lady Vols wore pastel pink uniforms with orange numbers and pink shoes with pink shoelaces. LSU wore its white uniforms with pink trim.

The Lady Vols had started the game shooting 21 percent while LSU connected at 60 percent, but by halftime Tennessee led 32-24 after Johnson hit an 18-footer, Williams drove to the basket and Brewer scored twice at the rim.

Tennessee improved its shooting in the first half to 44.4 percent (16-36), and LSU had cooled down somewhat to 45.5 percent (10-22). The Lady Vols were 0-2 behind the arc while the Lady Tigers were 1-2 from long range.

Stricklen reentered the game at the start of the second half and immediately made an impact. She found Cain inside for the 32-26 lead after waiting for the center to cross the lane and get in position. Stricklen then hit a bank shot for a 36-26 lead just 90 seconds into the second half.

Johnson scored on a spin move and then found Cain with a high-low pass for the 40-28 lead with 17:13 left, and Chancellor called timeout.

"We tried to adjust our defense," Chancellor said. "We told them to be aggressive on offense and start running our stuff. We scored 38 points (in the second half). Our problem was we came out in the first four possessions we had on defense and were completely, 100 thousand percent breakdowns.

"Not one person in the post did what I told them to do. I drew it right before we went back out. But Cain and Brewer make a lot of things you draw up not work much."

Katherine Graham scored for LSU out of the early timeout, but then Stricklen hit back-to-back three-pointers to claim a 46-32 lead for Tennessee with 15:32 left in the game, and LSU called another timeout.

Graham hit a jumper again out of the timeout, and Hightower got a layup to pull LSU to within 10 points, 46-36, with 13:40 left.

That led to Summitt calling a timeout because of the defensive breakdowns and over the next six minutes Tennessee extended its lead to 15 points, 60-45, with 7:42 left after Brewer moved to the front of the rim to rebound her own miss from the side and hit the stick-back.

After Graham got tangled with Stricklen, who came out with the ball, and then again with Johnson, who was on the floor, during a scrap for a defensive board, a foul was called on Graham, and Chancellor walked several feet onto the court. Bryan Enterline motioned for Chancellor to move back, but he stayed put with quite a bit of chatter, and Enterline called a technical foul.

Bjorklund hit both free throws for the 62-45 lead with 7:00 left in the game. Cain, Brewer and Johnson continued their work inside and when Cain left with her fifth foul – it came as she set a screen for Stricklen – the Lady Vols held a double-digit lead, 68-53, with 3:54 left.

The closing minutes of the game got a little sloppy – Tennessee went from just five turnovers to seven – and Adrienne Webb and Hightower combined for three 3-pointers, but Stricklen hit a pair of free throws to finish with 10 points, and the Lady Vols claimed the 70-61 win.

It was a stat sheet that Summitt enjoyed looking over at the post-game press conference. The Lady Vols were 10-10 from the free throw line – all coming in the second half – and had 20 assists to just seven turnovers, a season-low after losing the ball just eight times against South Carolina on Jan. 7. LSU came into the game with opponents averaging 18.9 turnovers in SEC play.

"Only seven turnovers and at the pace that we played I thought that was a significant stat," Summitt said.

"That was huge for us," Bjorklund said. "We talked a lot about that before the game, just taking care of the ball. I thought it was just really setting and using screens and moving without the ball and getting open. The posts did a great job of sealing off and getting position and that helped the guards out, too. Everyone did a great job with that."

Tennessee's points came within the flow of offense – just eight were from second-chance baskets and 10 from turnovers – and that meant the ball was often inside the paint.

"We ran a lot of different sets, spaced very well," Summitt said. "I think we're moving better without the ball and therefore we're getting a lot of touches and a lot of ball reversals. We had a lot of good inside action. Our three post players came to play and did a nice job. We took care of the basketball. I thought Stricklen did a great job running the point for us, and guard play overall was pretty solid."

Bjorklund was blanketed defensively by Hightower – Bjorklund attempted just two three-pointers, both misses and both in the first half – and got her points with midrange jumpers, curling off screens in the high post and by getting to the rim. As usual, Bjorklund was in constant motion on offense.

"She does run a lot," Hightower said. "She's very athletic, she's a great passer, and a great shooter so you just have to play her straight up."

The post players were making a big difference, too, on the defensive end. After using its matchup zone extensively in the first game in Baton Rouge, the Lady Vols played mostly man at home. When the Lady Tigers got to the paint – a place they have to score to win games – Cain and Brewer were usually waiting.

"I've told our team I think we've got the most imposing post game in the country with our size, and our skill set is so much better (than earlier in the season)," Summitt said. "I think Kelley's presence and Lyssi's presence, it's hard to shoot over 6'6 and 6'5. Lyssi says that she's 6'4, but that's OK."

When told that Brewer lists her height as 6'3, Summitt just smiled.

"She wants to be shorter," Summitt said. "I want her to be taller. I give her the high number. She takes the low number. That's all right. It doesn't matter as long as she gets the job done. I think those two in particular have a great influence from a defensive perspective and from board play."

LSU had trouble inside on both ends because of the size of Tennessee.

"They're big, athletic and strong," Graham said. "It caused matchup problems for us, but who doesn't have for a 6'6 player?"

In its last game LSU allowed Vanderbilt to score just 39 points. When asked why Tennessee scored nearly that amount in just the second half with 38 points, Graham pointed to the paint.

"Vandy isn't a really big team so it's kind of difficult to guard 6'6, 6'7, however tall they are," Graham said.

Tennessee isn't quite that tall, but it might seem like that for opponents.

"I know I would get frustrated if somebody kept blocking my shot," Cain said.

Graham did her damage from outside the paint by finding soft spots in the defense and knocking down midrange jumpers with all of her scoring coming in the second half.

"Katherine Graham was outstanding in the second half," Chancellor said. "That's the most improved player in the SEC. Katherine Graham (a junior) has come so far as a freshman. I'm so proud of her. I don't think there's any doubt. She's had a great year for us. And Allison, if our team was a little better, I think she would be player of the year."

Graham finished with 13 points on 6-13 shooting with five rebounds and four assists.

"They were putting a lot of pressure on Allison and cutting off passing lanes," Graham said. "Coming off screens, you just have to read the defense and luckily I was open, but I know they were going to give her a lot of attention and LaSondra Barrett a lot of attention, so I just kind of found my shot."

Barrett scored 13 points on 4-7 shooting, and Hightower led LSU with 18 points on 6-12 shooting.

The Lady Tigers shot 39.3 percent (22-56) for the game and 66.7 percent (4-6) from behind the arc. They had 11 assists to 10 turnovers and three steals and had been averaging 9.6 thefts a game prior to Monday.

Tennessee won the rebounding battle, 38-33, one game after getting beat on the glass by Alabama, the worst rebounding team in the SEC. Monday's performance was perhaps cathartic for the team.

"I think it was very important," Brewer said. "It kind of helped us make a statement that we're not going to let one game get to us and continue to play like that. We knew what we did wrong (at Alabama), and we corrected it this game."

"This was a good way to finish up in this game and feel good about ourselves, especially with Kentucky coming up," Summitt said. "A lot of people got significant minutes, and it didn't hurt us going to the bench really, just a couple of situations, but overall I thought that everyone was very focused and did what they needed to do."

Tennessee shot 46.0 percent (29-63) for the game and 28.6 percent (2-7) behind the arc. Stricklen's three in the second half was the first of the game for Tennessee and increased the streak to 400 games with a made three-pointer. The last time the Lady Vols failed to connect from long range was against Florida in 1999.

The 10-10 performance from the line set a new team record for perfection. The previous marks were 9-9 against Southern Cal on April 1, 1984, and 6-6 against Chattanooga on Dec. 5, 1984.

The 14 total blocks set a new Tennessee team record, surpassing the 13 swats against Eastern Kentucky in 1987. Cain now has 140 career blocks and is in sixth place on the career list with Nicky Anosike at the fifth spot with 161. Cain's 12 blocks left her one shy of the SEC single-game record of 13, held by Marita Payne of Auburn against Arkansas in 2005 and put her in first place over Ashley Robinson in Tennessee's record book for single game.

"Ashley called me the other day and asked me how our post game looked, and I said, ‘Kelley Cain is pretty good,' " Summitt said with a smile. "So is Lyssi Brewer, and I think that our size inside was effective. Glory did some really nice things for us.

"It's a team that is not selfish. It's a team that's really committed to ball movement, player movement, defensive play. They play a lot better together now, and I think that's because we've played a lot games, and we've had a lot of repetition in practice. So, I am very, very pleased for them."

That was evident in the assist numbers – 20 helpers on 29 made baskets.

"I thought we did a great job of sharing the ball, 20 assists that's huge for us," Bjorklund said. "We've been working on moving without the ball, playing inside out. I thought the posts did a great job of stepping up this game and really attacking their defense and getting great position. We just played to our strengths, which is going inside."

When Bjorklund was asked for the biggest difference in Thursday's game compared to Monday's, she smiled.

"Kelley," Bjorklund said. "Having Kelley in there definitely made a difference. But I think we just came a lot more ready to play, a lot more energetic. We were all talking. We were all getting hyped. We just moved on from Thursday's game and said, ‘You know what? This is a new game, and we just need to leave it all out on the court and play a 40-minute game.' We were close to doing that tonight."

The center of attention deflected the praise and provided a short answer when asked if she was proud to claim the blocks record in light of the standout post players that have worn orange.

"It's cool, but I'm looking at the next game," Cain said.

That would be Kentucky on Thursday against the second-place Wildcats. A win would mean Tennessee takes the SEC title outright.

"Last year we never even threatened Kentucky in any way," Summitt said, referring to the loss in Lexington in late February that led to the Lady Vols getting booted out of their own locker room, a place they didn't reclaim until late November of 2009.

"We were really bad. It was so bad I didn't even watch the film on the way home. I said, ‘Let's find a good movie or something.' I was so mad I couldn't even talk. Kentucky is playing really well. They just took it to South Carolina. It wasn't even close. This will be a big test for us and should be a great game. We had a great crowd (Monday) and hopefully we'll have a great crowd for Kentucky."

The fight for SEC supremacy has been held between LSU and Tennessee for several years with Auburn claiming the top spot last season. This year, the fight is between Tennessee and Kentucky.

"Kentucky is this go-round," Summitt said. "Very definitely."

Tennessee has three games this week – the regular season finale is Sunday against Ole Miss – so the Lady Vols won't practice Tuesday to save their legs, though they will lift weights and seek maintenance treatment from Jenny Moshak in the training room.

Tennessee will retake the practice court on Wednesday, and Summitt was pleased to take some momentum into the closing week, especially the offensive numbers against a defense as stiff as LSU's, which had allowed teams an average of 40 points in the past three games against Vanderbilt, Auburn and Florida.

"I think offensively we were so much better," Summitt said. "I thought we defended – obviously they got some good open looks – but I thought we defended without fouling consistently. That's big. Our defense and board play, we've got to bring it every night and yet offensively we did so many good things in this game. To have a game like this against a team like LSU, it's very encouraging.

"We can't settle for this. We've got to get ready for the next one."

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