"Knowing what happened last year, I think this team will be ready, I think our team will be ready to play," Coach Pat Summitt said. "The stakes are pretty high. I think they all understand that. I would be very disappointed and very surprised if we weren't ready to take the court and go about our business in a very aggressive way."
No. 4 Tennessee (25-2, 13-1) will square off against No. 16/14 Kentucky (23-4, 11-3) at 7 p.m. Eastern (TV: FSN, Lady Vol Radio Network) in the penultimate home game of the 2009-10 season.
Tennessee battling for the SEC crown was to be expected, even after the Lady Vols lost 11 total games last season, but it would still be a remarkable one-year turnaround as basically the same cast of players that struggled last season returned for this one.
"It is," Summitt said during her Wednesday media teleconference. "I give the players a lot of the credit because they invested in their off-season program. Got in the weight room. There is a significant change. What a difference a year makes, maybe more than we had anticipated, but it was necessary. We had to get better."
Kentucky rolling into town with a chance to keep its SEC title hopes intact – the Lady Vols have already clinched at least a share of the crown – was not expected. The Wildcats were picked to finish 11th in the league, a designation the players took as an insult, to the point of junior Carly Morrow printing "11" on sheets of paper and sticking them in lockers.
A Kentucky win would mean the Wildcats could share the title if Tennessee also lost to Ole Miss on Sunday, and Kentucky beat Auburn. That's three dominoes that would have to fall, but it's meaningful for Kentucky that the Wildcats are still in the picture this late in the regular season and already have clinched at least second place and a first-round bye in the SEC tourney
"It says a lot for their kids," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "Their staff has done a great job. I give their whole team enormous credit for being where they are."
The Wildcats have won 10 of their last 11 games and are 11-3 in conference play after finishing 5-9 in the SEC last season. One of those wins, of course, was against Tennessee, and it could have been 2-0 against the Lady Vols. Kentucky fell short, 69-64, on Jan. 8, 2009, in Knoxville in a game that went back and forth in the second half. The Wildcats gained confidence from that game and unleashed it when the Lady Vols traveled to Lexington the next month.
"This will be an exciting game for us to go play," said Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell, who was a graduate assistant at Tennessee in 1999-2000. "We have played a tough schedule up to this point, and it just seems like every game tests you differently and this one will probably be the ultimate test that we'll face. They are fourth in the country and really, really good at home, the only other team in the conference that hasn't lost at home, besides us.
"So, obviously, they play very well there and (they) are just a very talented, powerful, big, strong, tough Tennessee team. It'll be a big test for us and I think our players are excited to go see how they stack up."
Tennessee's players seem eager for the same reason. Slightly more than a year ago on Feb. 19, 2009, the Lady Vols played in Lexington and lost 66-56 after falling behind by as much as 17 points in the second half. It was the second consecutive loss for Tennessee and another defeat on the road in SEC play.
"Kentucky, we just didn't have an answer for them," Summitt said. "They were tough and aggressive. We didn't match their intensity. It was a very long and frustrating game."
The next day at practice in Knoxville the team met with the coaches, watched film and then took the court in an assortment of mismatched shorts and T-shirts. Besides losing their locker room, the players also were told to provide their own practice gear.
The loss – defensive breakdowns, poor shot selection and lack of fighting response to a motivated team – was last season encapsulated in a single game.
"I remember it was like we were in this daze," junior guard Angie Bjorklund said. "Nothing was really going right. I remember them celebrating after the game. I remember Coach not coaching, like (at) Alabama (last week). She was done."
"I remember the game being so off," sophomore forward Alicia Manning said. "I don't know how else to describe it. They outplayed us last year, and I don't think that is going to happen this year. Last year, there was so much going on, so many little things going on in the team individually and as a group. I think now everyone knows their role, and we have so much chemistry this year."
Those same players have traveled a great distance from the practice after the Kentucky loss to the practice Wednesday before the Kentucky rematch.
"Light years," sophomore forward Alyssia Brewer said. "We talk about it all the time and it feels like last year was seriously two years. Sometimes I feel like I'm a junior because it felt so long and drawn out. But this year it's gone by so fast. I'm like, ‘We just played Baylor the other day.' But not really. I think the strides are tremendous that we've taken."
It seemed even longer to Bjorklund.
"It felt like three years," Bjorklund said. "We've come a long way. From that ‘Iron Will' (specially designed drills by Heather Mason) to preseason workouts to working all summer. You're going to see that. All that work that we put in, all this past year, last summer, it's going to show up. We're going to be ready to play and ready to fight."
Tennessee could cross off one of its preseason goals on Thursday – SEC champs – with a win on Thursday. Bjorklund doesn't foresee the team having any trouble getting ready to play.
"No, not at all," Bjorklund said. "We're playing on our home court, so we're going to have great fans as always. We're excited for this game."
"We're ready to get our chance back at this team," Manning said. "It's been over a year. We're ready to show them what Tennessee is really about. A lot went into losing this game. It was bad."
A year ago, the practice after the Kentucky loss was held in Pratt Pavilion, and the players entered the facility with bags containing the contents of their lockers. They changed clothes in an upstairs bathroom and took the court in an assortment of high school and AAU T-shirts and shorts.
"Last year it was like we completely just shut down," Brewer said. "This year our focus and determination took a total 180 from last year. I think the maturity we have on the team now is really going to help us. We're not getting our locker room taken away from us."
Freshman forward Taber Spani wasn't on the team last season, but she is fully aware of the ramifications of that loss a year ago.
"I think everybody knows what happened at Kentucky and nobody wants that to ever happen again," Spani said.
Bjorklund was quick to point out that although the Lady Vols have taken big steps this season, so has Kentucky. The Wildcats have an SEC Coach of the Year candidate in Mitchell, SEC Player of the Year candidate in Victoria Dunlap and SEC Freshman of the Year candidate in A'dia Mathies.
"I think that we're a whole new team," Bjorklund said. "It's going to be a whole different game. At the same time they're a great team. They've really improved, too, and they have a great season. It's going to be a tough game."
The team practiced for about two hours Wednesday, which included a film session, and kept their shooting drills, offensive and defensive prep and scouting in a half-court setting. The players were off Tuesday, so they should have their legs for tonight's game.
From junior to freshman the team seems to understand the opportunity at hand Thursday after a season in which Tennessee lost five of 14 SEC games and played on the first day of the SEC tourney for the first time since 1997.
"We realize the importance and significance of this game and accomplishing one of our goals of winning an SEC championship outright," Spani said. "We respect Kentucky completely because of not only what they did last year but of how they're playing this year. We're going to be really focused."
A win in Thursday's game could almost be cathartic for Tennessee after what the loss set in motion. Practice clothes were provided when the players reported for individual workouts last August. They didn't get locker room privileges restored until after beating Virginia on Nov. 22, 2009.
"It's like a totally different team," Manning said. "We've been preparing all year. We've been working hard every day in practice, and our confidence is up. I think we'll really come together.
"It would kind of put away what happened last year. It's already over with, of course, but it would erase that memory."
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard/forward, No. 25 (12.4 points per game, 6.0 rebounds per game, 3.9 assists per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (14.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.7 apg); Alicia Manning, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 15 (4.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.1 apg); Glory Johnson, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 25 (11.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.4 steals per game); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (10.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.6 blocks per game.
Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell is expected to start: Amber Smith, 5'6 junior guard, No. 24 (9.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 4.2 apg), hails from Winter Haven, Fla., had five assists against South Carolina and career-high nine against Alabama, scored a career-high 20 points against Vanderbilt on Jan. 10, has hit 20 consecutive free throws, scored 10 points in win over Tennessee last season; A'dia Mathies, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 1 (12.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.5 steals per game), hails from Louisville, Ky., has started all 27 games this season and reached double figures in 20 of them, has 68 steals, two away from breaking the freshman record at Kentucky, named SEC Freshman of the Week last week as Kentucky beat Florida and South Carolina to post a perfect 8-0 record at home in conference play and 17-0 record in Lexington overall, has been selected twice before this season, scored career-high 27 points against Arkansas; Amani Franklin, 5'11 senior guard, No. 25 (8.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg), hails from Stone Mountain, Ga., had nine points, nine rebounds in Senior Day win over South Carolina, scored 18 points in win over Tennessee last season; Lydia Watkins, 6'1 senior forward, No. 12 (6.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg), hails from Hopkinsville, Ky., has three starts this season, the last against Florida on Feb. 18, and has played in 24 games, shoots 51.7 percent from the field, has eight screws in three back vertebrae because of spondylolisthesis, a stress fracture that required surgery, but leads team in charges taken, has an infant son named Jaylen; and Victoria Dunlap, 6'1 junior forward, No. 34 (17.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.9 bpg), hails from Nashville, Tenn., had 16 points and nine rebounds against South Carolina, leads team with 84 steals, reigning SEC Player of the Week, has won three other times this season, had 15 rebounds against Tennessee last season in Lexington, competed in the high jump at Kentucky and made the All-SEC Freshman Outdoor Track and Field Team, parents were standout athletes at Tennessee State, father in football and mother in track. Father King Dunlap played in NFL, brother King V plays for the Philadelphia Eagles.
A key player and possible starter for Kentucky is Carly Morrow, a 5'11 junior guard from Chattanooga, Tenn., who has started 12 SEC games this season and scored 13 points against Tennessee in Lexington last season. She missed the last two games with flu-like symptoms but is expected to be available tonight. Morrow has 98 career three-pointers. Her grandfather was a three-sport athlete at Alabama, and she went to school in Chattanooga but lived in Stone Mountain, Ga.
Keyla Snowden, a 5'7 sophomore transfer from Akron, has played in all 27 games this season and is hitting 41.8 percent (33-79) from behind the arc. Rebecca Gray, a 5'10 sophomore transfer from North Carolina, is hitting 40 percent (24-60) from long range. Gray, who is from Georgetown, Ky., played in Knoxville as a freshman for North Carolina two years ago.
Mitchell has used the same starting lineup – Smith, Mathies, Franklin, Morrow and Dunlap – in 24 of 27 games.
Summitt has used 12 different lineups in 27 games with every active player on the roster getting at least one start. Stricklen is the only player to start all 27 games. Bjorklund has started 26 games.
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Kentucky game. Here is his assessment.
When Kentucky has the ball: The Wildcats offense can be set in motion by their defense.
"They are tremendous at scoring off their defense," Lockwood said. "They're forcing 20 turnovers a game and their goal, I heard on (TV) commentary one time, is 25 turnovers a game. They are great at scoring off their turnovers.
"They are great in the paint, dribble drives, drive and kick. They're just really playing like a smaller team needs to play – they attack you off the bounce, if they can finish, they finish, they've got several players that can hit pull-up jumpers and then they can also kick for some spot-up threes. So, it's a combination. They also score off of offensive rebounding. They're productive when they do get rebounds.
"I am so impressed with Victoria Dunlap. (A'dia) Mathies is a great looking freshman. Amber Smith really pushes the ball and penetrates and creates. They've got shooters in (Keyla) Snowden and (Carly) Morrow that can really shoot the ball. (Rebecca) Gray can shoot the ball. (Lydia) Watkins has really been steady for them this year. They've got parts."
Defensively, Kentucky will apply ball pressure, and the guards will pick up the ball-handler deep in the backcourt.
"Their guards are picking up," Lockwood said. "Sometimes they will press (full court as a team), but their guards will really extend and will harass you. They'll deny wings. They're trying to create havoc and steals. They don't want you to play slower and run your half-court offense. They want you to play under a very frenetic pace."
Pat Summitt expects to see pressure early in the game.
"They definitely extend and press some," Summitt said. "They mix it up. I don't know how they'll choose to start against us, but it wouldn't surprise me if they picked us up full court to challenge our guard play and to keep us from getting in the paint. I expect it to be that kind of game. I think they'll extend and we will extend, pick and choose when we do what. I expect them to really get after our backcourt."
Kentucky has Tennessee connections throughout the staff. Matthew Mitchell was on Summitt's staff as a graduate assistant. Former Lady Vol players Kyra Elzy (1996-2000) and Shalon Pillow (1998-2002) are assistant coaches. Matt Insell attended Tennessee and worked at Summitt's basketball camps. He is the son of Rick Insell, the head coach of Middle Tennessee after years of success as a high school coach in Shelbyville, Tenn.
"I think Matthew and his staff have done a great job," Summitt said. "You can see how competitive they are and how hard they play. They battle on the boards. They have an edge to them. For Matthew, I think he has brought that out and, I'm sure, along with his coaching staff.
"They've got a lot of grit, and they just come after you. They play hard. That's why they get so many turnovers, they get paint points, they've handled people in a pretty convincing way."
When Tennessee has the ball: "We've got to be able to handle pressure first and foremost," Lockwood said. "We've got to be able to get the ball up the floor. We want to be able to get it inside early, because we feel like they're going to have to do something (to handle Tennessee's size). They're going to have to double. They're going to have to dig. And then we can play inside-out. But we've really got to establish that. We've got to get touches. That's imperative for this game."
Defensively, Tennessee is prepared to play both man and zone, and the coaches were still pondering Wednesday which one to show first.
"We haven't decided yet, but I am thinking we may start man," Lockwood said. "But we (also) talked about starting zone. Between the two we're going to see what's most effective and how they deal with each."
SCRATCH THAT: Lady Vol forward Alicia Manning has several scratches across the left side of her face above and below her eye after getting clawed in Monday's win over LSU.
Lady Tiger LaSondra Barrett took a shot at the basket and missed with Manning called for the foul, and as the ball came down, both players went for it as the whistle blew. Manning ended up on the deck with blood on her face.
"She got me pretty good," Manning said. "She went across my face and scratched me up pretty good. It didn't touch my eye. I stood up and looked at the ref. Was that a foul on me? Really?"
Manning wasn't worried initially but then teammate Kelley Cain came over to help her off the floor.
"I thought it wasn't bad but when Kelley went to pick me up, and she goes, ‘Dang!' So I was like, ‘OK, maybe it is worse than I thought,' " Manning said.
As Manning headed to the bench for treatment – she would later return to the game – she noticed teammates averting their eyes. She then reassessed her injury status.
" ‘OK, this is actually kind of bad,' " Manning said of her thoughts.
Manning participated fully in practice Wednesday and is expected to be in the starting lineup tonight.
BASKET BAUGH: Junior forward Vicki Baugh made a brief appearance Wednesday in a post drill – her first time to work out on the court with teammates in nearly three months – after undergoing rehab for the past year for two ACL tears to her left knee within one calendar year.
Baugh, who is taking a redshirt year this season, got in line on the baseline with the posts – they seemed surprised and then could not stop smiling – and received some post passes and took shots at the rim.
"It's so awesome," fellow post Alyssia Brewer said. "I just love the fact that she is even doing any type of shots with us on the court. She doesn't even have to say anything, just the energy that has with us right there is great. I am so happy for her.
"Her progress has been tremendous, and I know there have been plenty of times when she's been down and where she's wanted to be out there, but she's overcome adversity. I said, ‘Vicki, it's been too long.' It's so great to see her there."
ACADEMIC HONORS: Junior guard Angie Bjorklund was named this week to the CoSIDA/ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America Women's Basketball First Team.
Bjorklund has a 3.8 GPA in psychology and leads Tennessee with 14.6 points per game. Her father, Jim Bjorklund, is in town this week from Spokane Valley, Wash., and she smiled at the suggestion that she should lobby for a monetary award from a parent for good grades.
"I never got money," Bjorklund said. "My friends always got money, but when I was little, I set (academic) goals starting in the sixth grade."
Bjorklund doesn't talk much about herself, but she nodded when asked if she was proud of the designation. She also noticed one honoree was Erin Anthony, a junior civil engineering major from West Point with a 3.78 GPA.
"I was pretty excited," Bjorklund said. "Speaking for any athlete it's tough to be a student-athlete at any university. It's a great honor, and I was excited to be part of the list. I saw one girl had a 3.7 and her major was in engineering. That's impressive."
ON TAP: Eight other SEC teams are in action Thursday in the following matchups: Mississippi State at Alabama; Arkansas at LSU; Auburn at Ole Miss; and Georgia at South Carolina. Vanderbilt and Florida played Wednesday, a 71-60 win for the Commodores in Nashville.
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Kentucky, 44-7. The Lady Vols are 20-2 in Knoxville. The Wildcats have never won in Thompson-Boling Arena, though they were close last year and leading with less than four minutes left before falling 69-64. Their last win in Knoxville, 76-72 in overtime, was in 1985 at Stokely. Tennessee is 11-1 in games played on February 25. The last win on this date was against Vanderbilt, 73-53, in 2007. The first win on February 25 was against Carson-Newman, 45-39, in 1972. The lone loss on this date was to Farragut School, 10-6, in 1905. One game on this date, against Knoxville High School in 1910, had no recorded score. … A Lady Vol win would be the 15th SEC regular season title in Tennessee program history. The last time the Lady Vols won an SEC regular season crown was in 2007 after posting a perfect 14-0 record in league play. Women's basketball first came under the auspices of the SEC in the 1982-83 season. Georgia claims the second-most titles with seven. … Tennessee is 176-12 at home in SEC play. Only six SEC teams have managed to win in Knoxville – Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU and Ole Miss. … A slice of history from the Lady Vol game notes from Debby Jennings: "Tennessee's Pat Head Summitt could very well have coached her 1,000th win at the University of Kentucky in February 2009. Then-UK basketball coach and administrator Sue Feamster was looking to hand over the reins to the women's team in 1975. Feamster contacted Head about the job. UK planned to offer Head a little more money than she was making in Knoxville. The sticking point? Head asked for moving expenses. UK said ‘no.' The rest, they say, is history." …. The Kentucky men's and women's basketball teams have a combined record of 49-5. That is the best combined record of any school in Division I.
BY THE NUMBERS OVERALL WITH SEC PLAY IN PARENTHESES: Tennessee is averaging 74.1 points a game (68.9 in the SEC) while allowing opponents to score 56.4 (56.1). Kentucky averages 75.7 points a game (69.8) while allowing 56.5 (58.5).
The Lady Vols are shooting 46.5 percent overall (45.9), 38.2 percent behind the arc (38.5) and 66.4 percent from the free throw line (62.1). The Wildcats are shooting 42.2 percent overall (39.7), 31.4 percent from long range (29.1) and 71.1 percent from the line (73.8).
Tennessee makes an average of 5.6 three-pointers a game (5.0) while allowing 6.0 (6.6). Kentucky makes 5.3 threes a game (4.6) while allowing 4.1 (4.3).
Tennessee averages 42.6 rebounds a game for a +8.4 margin (40.8, +7.4). Kentucky averages 39.4 boards for a +2.4 margin (38.4, +1.2).
The Lady Vols average 15.6 assists (15.0) and 14.3 turnovers (14.1) a game. Opponents lose the ball an average of 16.4 times a game (15.9). The Wildcats average 12.2 assists (10.7) and 15.8 turnovers (15.6) with foes losing the ball 23.5 times a game (20.4).
Tennessee averages 7.1 steals (6.3) and 6.3 blocks a game (6.6). Kentucky averages 11.5 steals (9.5) and 4.2 blocks (3.2).