Lady Vols open SEC play today

DULUTH, Ga. - A year ago Tennessee played on the opening day of the tournament for the first time in 12 years after not earning a first round bye. On Friday, the Lady Vols will walk to center court to receive the SEC regular season trophy, something no member of the current team has ever done, and then they must refocus and face a motivated Ole Miss team that just lost to Tennessee last Sunday.

"That's going to be a new thing," Angie Bjorklund said of the trophy presentation before the team's first SEC Tournament game.

Bjorklund was a freshman in 2008 when Tennessee won the SEC tourney and a national title, but LSU won the SEC regular season that year. In 2009, the Lady Vols went to Little Rock, Ark., as the five seed in the league tourney and played on the first day for the first time since 1997. They made it to the semifinals before falling to Auburn.

"I did not know that," Kelley Cain said, echoing Bjorklund's observation about the trophy. "It's nice that we won SEC regular season because our team hadn't done it, but we have to look past it, because we're looking to take the SEC Tournament, too, so we have to take it one game at a time."

"Now y'all know how young we are," said Pat Summitt, whose teams have won 15 regular season titles. "We've got hardware. Imagine that."

Beginning Friday, Tennessee, 27-2, will try to do something that hasn't been done in 10 years - win both the SEC regular season and the postseason tournament. Tennessee, which was co-champs with Georgia in 2000, also won the conference tourney.

"Wow, I did not know that," Cain said. "That really is interesting."

"I didn't know it had been that long," Alyssia Brewer said. "That would be a great accomplishment for us to be able to do, and I really think that this team has what it takes to be able to do that."

That mindset will serve Tennessee well starting Friday. The Lady Vols will face No. 9 seed Ole Miss, 17-13, at noon Eastern (TV: FSN, Lady Vol Radio Network) at The Arena at Gwinnett Center. The Rebels have lost twice to the Lady Vols this season but neither win came easy - Bjorklund had to hit a last-second three in Oxford and the game in Knoxville was tied more than halfway through the second half.

"Tennessee knows our tendencies, and we know their tendencies," Ole Miss' Bianca Thomas said Thursday. "They know who we have. We know who they have. It's a matter of going out, putting the game plan together and just going out and competing. We played them two times already. We know what to expect."

Despite the 75-63 win Sunday, Pat Summitt wasn't pleased with her team and it had more to do with what she knew could lie ahead than the outcome of what had just happened.

"I am concerned that we pick and choose when we play hard," Summitt said. "That didn't sit well. We've got a lot of basketball, hopefully, left in us. I just want us to be focused all the time. We've got to get better every day. … They were kind of coasting (Sunday) into the SEC Tournament. That was the thing they thought about after we won our last game (against Kentucky). The focus changed."

The focus will need to be on Ole Miss today and will need to be engaged early. The Lady Vols assigned shoot-around time is 8 a.m., and it will be their first chance to take the court at the arena. The Rebels have played one game already, a 64-63 win over South Carolina on Thursday, and they were 10-25 from behind the arc with Thomas connecting on 6-7 from long range.

"It's size versus speed," Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner said. "They're big, and we struggle with them on the boards. We're quick. They struggle with us in penetration. It will probably just be the team that takes care of possessions and makes the most of them."

Summitt intends to be very watchful of the game's opening minutes.

"I think it's going to be important for us as a coaching staff to be very mindful of if we're not where we need to be taking a quick timeout and trying to get the attitude right, if that happens," Summitt said. "That's a wait and see. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they're going to be ready to play. It's grow-up time."

The team held two productive practices in Knoxville on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Bjorklund thinks the players are ready and will quickly shift gears after being honored for the regular season championship.

"I think our focus now is on the tournament, to win the tournament," Bjorklund said. "It's going to be nice to be honored for winning SECs, but we're going to be thinking about the game the whole time and what's ahead for us."

Bjorklund, the junior leader on a team with no seniors, may have to remind her court mates of that approach, but even the sophomores, with one tournament on their resume, seem to have a better understanding of postseason now.

"I didn't know we were getting a trophy, either," sophomore Alyssia Brewer said after listening to a list of post-season accolades that came Tennessee's way when the SEC awards were announced Tuesday. "I don't think that's going to distract any of us. I think we let it distract us the last game (having already won the regular season), but that's over.

"The year is definitely a difference maker as you can tell anybody that looks at our team. We go from losing 11 games to losing two as of now, and we hope not to lose another one. It's crazy, though. We stuck through everything that was thrown at us and I think that really helped a lot."

The early tip also means the team needs to get in gear quickly.

"You can't take it any differently," Cain said. "The only thing that's different is the time. Our minds will be right. We'll be well rested so we'll go in there with clear heads and play."

At least the Lady Vols have some experience to draw from this season. A year ago, the freshmen played in their first SEC tourney. This year every starter has postseason experience.

"It'll be a lot different just being the one seed in the tournament and getting the bye," Shekinna Stricklen said. "Last year we had to win three games to get there, now, we've just got to win two games to get in the final. We won the conference, but we want to win the tournament, too. This is our next goal, and we said together as a team, ‘We already reached one goal. Let's go to our next goal.'

"To get there we have to just keep bringing the energy and play at a high intensity and play as a team and everybody bring their ‘A' game every day."

Cain added, "We're definitely a lot more mature than last year and this year we definitely know what it takes to win the SEC regular season and now we just have to go in and show that we know what it takes to win the SEC (tournament) title. We didn't make it too far last year, but this is a completely different season and we're looking to take it one game at a time. We've got to start with the game on Friday."

Stricklen said, "Everybody is going to bring their ‘A' game. It's do or die. I think every team is going to come ready to play, and we're just going to have to bring our ‘A' game every day."

‘A' games, one game at a time and survive and advance are sports clichés, but they ring true in postseason when a loss means loading the bus and heading home.

"I feel a lot better about them," Summitt said of bringing her team into postseason now versus a year ago. "I think they have a toughness. I think getting in the weight room and all the conditioning over the summer, I think this team is a lot more mature.

"Kelley has done a great job with her leadership. Angie has been very, very vocal. Stricklen is now starting to talk a little bit because I am on her all the time about it because she's got the ball in her hands a lot. I think she sees a lot from the perimeter and to the post game."

Stricklen's play has improved considerably of late - she had 23 points and 10 rebounds in the last game against Ole Miss - and it has followed her getting in the gym more often and listening to Holly Warlick and Stephanie Glance.

"Getting in the gym and shooting a lot of shots," Stricklen said. "In the game not thinking about shooting it. When you're open, just shoot it. That is what Holly and Steph are telling me. You're open, shoot it, don't think about it. The last few games I've just been shooting the ball and shooting it like I know it's going to go in, and it's been going in."

Stricklen also is putting more pressure on the defense by getting in the paint. The offensive options increase as Stricklen can go to rim, dish to a post or kick out to another shooter.

"It's opened up a lot," Stricklen said. "I feel like it's going to take a lot off of Angie, too. Teams are really playing us for our shot, and I feel like if I get inside, get in the paint, it will open up a lot of things. Also, they can't double down on the posts. I can shoot or drive. I just feel like it opens it up for everyone."

Summitt wants to see that trend continue from her point guard.

"She puts a lot of pressure on the defense," Summitt said. "Right now, she's pushing hard in transition and that makes us a more difficult team in terms of who are you going to guard. Are you going to take out the outside, the inside. I think we've got good balance there both offensively and defensively right now."

Summitt is sympathetic to the challenges that Stricklen has faced in that she switched her natural position in high school on the wing to point guard last season. Combine that with the fact Stricklen was a freshman, and it was a lot to absorb.

"When you come here this place can be overwhelming," Summitt said. "There are high expectations here all the time, and I don't think she was ready for that. Is she ready now? Yes, I think she's ready.

"I think Shekinna is starting to understand that she's a player. It's not this mentality that I don't want to be a point guard. I told her, ‘You make one pass, and you're a player.' That seems to be her mindset now."

Stricklen is not a point guard by trade, but she is well into her second season of handling the position with backup from sophomore Briana Bass and freshman Kamiko Williams.

"Right now I'm confident in it," said Stricklen, who will have two uncles and her grandfather in Duluth and who usually plays better with family in the stands. "I have to play the spot, and I think my teammates really want me there. I've been there this whole season, so I know it very well. I have just got to stay focused and be the leader that the team needs me to be and do the best I can."

Stricklen's energy level seems to be the difference for the team, at least at the start of games. When she is enthusiastic to open play, it has a trickle-down effect on the team.

"I've noticed it," Stricklen said. "All the coaches have told me that. Even my teammates have told me that, ‘You bring the energy, everyone is fired up.' For me when things are not going well still keep the energy. If our team is having fun and the energy is there, our game play is going to be on a high level.

"When we have energy, everybody, it's when we're playing at our best. We are all having fun and encouraging each other. As a team as a whole when everyone has the energy I feel like no one can stop us."

Bjorklund has provided the vocal leadership on the court for the team this season, and she needs Stricklen's bursts of energy to help her.

"When Shekinna starts with a lot of energy for me personally it gets me excited," Stricklen said. "I feed off of her. She's our point guard, she pushes the ball so well and when she's attacking right from the get-go that helps create everything else from the inside to shots for (the guards). She's done a great job, and she's responded well to Coach telling her to do that more."

Bjorklund's verbal approach with her teammates has been to stay positive with them and she will especially do so in postseason.

"I think that's going to be key," Bjorklund said. "If Coach gets on a player, you have to pick them up as teammates. And also it's going to be taking ownership, not only myself but everyone has to take ownership and say, ‘All right, my bad, I'll get that next time, or ‘Let's go, we need to pick up the energy.'

"I think taking ownership and just staying really positive is going to be key going into this." Brewer, who is expected to be in the starting lineup today, took ownership for her poor offensive play Sunday.

"Last game my shots were not falling," Brewer said. "I could be a foot away from the basket or 10 feet. It just was not my night. I am not a person that lets that get to me. I am going to be working with Dean (after practice) on my shots. I think I had been consistent up until (Sunday). My shots weren't falling."

Brewer said the team's biggest challenge is consistency and playing a full game.

"It's all about what you think about doing," Brewer said. "It's just us doing it the whole entire time. It slips away for a second. Your mind gets off the game for a second and then you have to get right back in it.

"Consistency. You've seen everybody and what they can bring. It's just all of us bringing it together as one."

Brewer and Cain have become a formidable scoring punch in the paint - add in Glory Johnson and the trio are also a force on the defensive end - such to the point that Summitt has declared the combo to be the best in the country.

"I don't know of anyone in the country that has a more imposing post game," Summitt said. "It's better than I anticipated because I didn't know Lyssi Brewer was going to work as hard as she's worked. She's one of our most improved players.

"They can really build a wall. They can make it hard for people to shoot over them. I can't believe the difference in a year, and they've still got a great upside. We're talking sophomores. They've had a tremendous impact on our team and our post game, in particular."

Summitt spoke to Cain a few weeks ago to let her know how important she was to the team's success.

"I went to Kelley and said, ‘We go as you go,' " Summitt said. "You are providing the leadership, but if you will show everyone how you're going to play in the paint on both ends of the floor, (the team is better). I said, ‘I am counting on you. I am counting on you for the leadership. I am counting on you for the post-ups and playing better defense without fouling.' "

It's like, ‘No pressure,' " Cain said with a smile. "I don't mind being that type of person to do that. Our post game is a big strength of our team, and the guards take advantage of that by giving us post touches and us giving it back to them to get a three. Because I don't mind getting an assist every now and then. I'll throw it out to them."

Cain laughed when she was told that Brewer pointed out after Sunday's game that the reason Stricklen and Alicia Manning had so many rebounds - 10 each - was because of the box-outs by the post players.

"Of course," Cain said. "We have to box them out. So we should get a rebound assist. I think we should start a new (stat) column for basketball. I like getting screen assists. We really should (keep that as an official stat, too) because I know I can set some good screens. I want my screen assists."

Cain, a member of the All-SEC First Team, has had a productive season on both sides of the ball with 101 blocks and 59.7 percent shooting overall and 65.8 percent in league games.

"I think she's really comfortable now," Summitt said. "Her knee is a lot stronger. She's got the strength. I think she's playing with confidence because the knee is not bothering her as much."

If Tennessee has to play back-to-back-to-back games - and the Lady Vols hope they do - Cain's minutes will need to be monitored because of her knee.

"I think play her three or four minutes (at a time) depending on how the game is going," Summitt said. "The good thing is we've got three post players, and we can put Alicia (in the mix) and have four.

"It's not like Kelley is going to have to play extended minutes if everyone else is there and committed to doing what they have to do. That is where Lyssi and Glory have to really be accountable … . We've got enough bodies that we can go in and out and maybe shorten minutes, and stay fresh."

Bjorklund also pointed to the workouts the Lady Vols undergo with Heather Mason as an advantage. Bjorklund has averaged 32.7 minutes a game this season - she leads the team - and has been able to go the distance looking no worse for the wear on several occasions.

"We're a whole year older when it comes to our level of conditioning," Bjorklund said. "We know what it takes now. I think it's going to be a different this year. I think from Iron Will (with Mason) to summer to preseason I think you play three, hopefully, three games in a row and if you do that's a lot of conditioning right there. I think this team is ready for that, too."

Tennessee shouldn't panic if it gets in close games. The Lady Vols have won games in a variety of fashion this season from leading tip to end to mounting comebacks to last-second shots.

"I think it really has helped us," Stricklen said. "Just knowing that when teams get on the run we don't need to get down. We just need to stay focused and stay together and keep playing our game. Coach tells us when teams get on a run and they score, don't just (walk) the ball down, get it out and go. Put them back on their heels. Don't let them get like they're controlling things."

Tennessee has been an effective team in transition - especially with Stricklen heading to the rim of late - and the post players also have shown the ability to get down the floor. When setting up in early offense - scoring before the defense gets set - or the half-court, an emphasis at practice this week was feeding the ball to the posts.

"Our post game is basically like the anchor of our team, so we have to show up every game, just like the guards need to do," Cain said. "Our roles don't change (in postseason). We just have to do it better."

Summitt wants to see that effort very early in today's game.

"I don't have a crystal ball (about effort)," Summitt said. "I wish I did. It's a wait and see. Call a quick timeout, that will be important if we're not ready right off. We may have to get their attention. I can't watch it if they're not ready to play early without talking to them."

Summitt will want to see the ball go inside to start the game - at least play through the paint via post touches or dribble penetration to establish interior strength and then open up the outside.

"I definitely think it's our strength," Summitt said. "I think it's important that we have great ball security so we can get to the paint points. They're going to be posting up. We can't turn the ball over. I anticipate that a lot of people are going to press us in hopes of us giving the ball up early so they can be in charge offensively, not us.

"Making sure we answer because people are going to make runs at us. Ball security because we are playing in a very athletic conference, so taking care of the basketball. And being able to control the boards. Defense and boards, to me that's where you win championships."

Bjorklund has experience with winning titles as a freshman and one word describes that team in her memories of 2008.

"Dominate," Bjorklund said. "They didn't leave any room for a team to come in, and I think we have to have that competitive, we're going to dominate teams type of attitude in order to take this."

PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore forward/guard, No. 40 (12.7 points per game, 6.1 rebounds per game); Angie Bjorklund, 6'0 junior guard, No. 5 (14.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg); Alicia Manning, 6'1 sophomore forward, No. 15 (4.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg); Alyssia Brewer, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 33 (9.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (10.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg).

Ole Miss Coach Renee Ladner is expected to start: Shantell Black, 5'4 senior guard, No. 11 (9.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg); Kayla Melson, 5'8 junior guard, No. 20 (12.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg); Bianca Thomas, 5'10 senior guard, No. 45 (21.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg); Elizabeth Robertson, 5'10 senior forward, No. 14 (9.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg); and Kayla Holloway, 6'4 sophomore center, No. 21 (4.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg).

SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Ole Miss game. Here is his assessment.

When Ole Miss has the ball: The Rebels want to score from behind the arc, but they also have players who will put the ball on the floor and go to the rim.

"They've got enough of a mix where (Kayla) Melson is a good drive and (Shantell) Black does both pretty well," Lockwood said. "They're pretty efficient offensively. They can shoot threes, and they've also got penetrators."

Defensively, the Rebels are likely to use zone looks against the size of the Lady Vols.

"I don't see them coming out of their zone a whole lot, because they've got four players that are playing 36 minutes plus," Lockwood said. "If they're going to make it through a game, I think they've got to play zone."

When Tennessee has the ball: The post players struggled to find any rhythm offensively in the last game against Ole Miss but need to be a factor in the third matchup of the season.

"I thought it was the first game where all three of our posts struggled," Lockwood said. "I don't know that any of the three had standout performances. We've got to bounce back. All three have to contribute in their ways and in their spots. That's one of the advantages we would have on this team so that's something we want to exploit and obviously that's where we need them to deliver."

Defensively, the post players must be ready to defend outside of the paint. Ole Miss will spread the floor instead of running a traditional post offense, though the Rebels can show some paint sets depending on personnel on the floor.

"They throw a lot of screening action at you for the shooters - staggers and doubles," Lockwood said. "We have to defend ball screens well. We have to decide what is going to be most effective with what we're doing. Are they getting shots off penetrate and create? Are they getting shots off screens off the ball? We have to zero in on what we really want to take away."

Lockwood will be presenting the scout to the Lady Vols for the same opponent Tennessee just played five days ago.

"Simple," Lockwood said of his approach. "Rocket scientists work at NASA. Brain surgeons are at neurological institutes. This is not for them. It's about execution. It's about simplicity. It's about fundamentals. Vince Lombardi's quote, ‘Football is blocking and tackling.'

"Right now, more so than any tweaks or what you're doing in your schemes, it's your ability to carry things out. Knowing someone's strengths and not letting them go to them. Using your strengths and then imposing your will on another opponent. That comes down to fundamentals and execution."

Pat Summitt wasn't happy with overall effort last Sunday. Lockwood thinks she got the players' attention.

"I would be just stunned if our kids don't look at them with a healthy sense of respect," Lockwood said.

NUMBER ONE SEED?: Tennessee, the fourth-ranked team in the country and the SEC regular season champion with one league loss at Georgia and another out of conference to No. 2 Stanford on the road - would seem to have made its case for a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Pat Summitt thinks that if the selection committed picked the top seeds right now her team is one of them.

"I think at this point in time, yes," Summitt said.

Summitt's certainty plummets if her teams stumbles in Duluth.

"If we go down there and get beat first (game), they could put us two seed, three seed," Summitt said. "We just open the door for somebody else to control our destiny, and we have to control our destiny."

Tennessee's stated goal is not just to protect its seeding but to pull off the double-double by winning both conference and tournament titles for the first time in a decade when the Lady Vols did it in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Why is it such a rare feat?

"I think when you win sometimes you're satisfied," Summitt said. "You win the regular season, you're getting ready to go to the SEC Tournament and you've got to understand that it's survive and advance or go home (for the season if not in position for an NCAA tourney). So (other teams) have a different sense of urgency and they're going to being their ‘A' game. They know they have to bring their ‘A' game or go home. It could be over to other teams."

Tennessee has a spot in the Big Dance. It's just a matter of how high the seed is and where the committee sends the Lady Vols, with Memphis being the desired region. A tourney title run in Duluth would help both cases.

"We really want to win this," Shekinna Stricklen said. "We really want to go through this tournament and to prove that we deserve a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament, and we're a Tennessee team that is back on track."

DOORMAN: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood has a gash across his right eyebrow, the result of walking into a door inside his hotel room when he checked in late Wednesday night.

Lockwood arrived a day before the team to take part in an SEC basketball clinic for youth and other obligations and didn't make it to the hotel until close to midnight. The lights were off in his room, and he reached back for his bag, walked into the room and hit head-first on a bathroom door that opened to the outside and have been left slightly ajar.

The blood poured down his face and after being unable to stop it with tissue paper, he got in his car and found the closest Gwinnett area hospital with his GPS.

The medical staff cleaned the wound and glued shut the gash. Lockwood said he was good to go game day.

"It will take a lot more than this," Lockwood said.

Lockwood has faced injury before and returned quickly. In 1988, when he was an assistant for the Vols basketball team, Lockwood played in a best of seven series after summer camps ended with other counselors. Lockwood got popped in the mouth and had to go to Baptist Hospital across the lake from the arena because of the blood.

"I go get stitches, and I came back and I made the fourth game," Lockwood said. "It's like Jesse Ventura said, he's a former SEAL and he used the line in the movie, ‘The Terminator,' (when he got shot), and the guy said, ‘Hey, you're shot.' And he just laughed and said, ‘I ain't got time to bleed.' I ain't got time. This is just a cut."

Lockwood expects to get a lot of good-natured teasing from the Tennessee players.

"I'm going to get them in a circle and tell them the truth right from the beginning," Lockwood said.

HOME SWEET HOME: The Duluth site for the tourney is close to home for Atlanta-area players Kelley Cain and Alicia Manning.

"This is actually where I played my state championship game as a freshman at Gwinnett," said Manning, who played for Etowah High School in Woodstock, Ga. "We won so I'm one for one there, so we've got to keep the streak going. I am really excited about it."

Both Cain, who went to St. Pius X in Atlanta, and Manning expect to have a lot of familiar faces in the arena.

"We're all trying to get our ticket situation (handled)," said Manning, who was especially excited because her grandparents can make the short trip. "We have so many friends and family."

Manning said she would turn to her mother, Ginny Manning, to help because "it can be a little distraction, but I'll get it all figured out."

ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Ole Miss, 35-7. Tennessee's current winning streak against the Rebels, including two games in the regular season, is 19 games. The Lady Vols are 26-4 in second round play in the SEC tourney overall and have won 16 consecutive games in the second round. Tennessee's overall record in the tourney is 60-17. … Tennessee is 14-4 in games played on March 5. The last win on this date came against Alabama, 68-49, in 2009 in the SEC tourney. The first win on March 5 came against Sullins, 70-34, in 1969. The four losses on this date were to Maryville, 29-0, in 1904; Chattanooga, 46-22, in 1971; Georgia, 71-65, 1983; and Auburn, 78-77, in 1990. … Former Lady Vol Nikki McCray will be recognized at halftime of Tennessee's game Friday. McCray, now an assistant for South Carolina, is the featured "SEC Great," in which a pair of former athletes is introduced at halftime when those teams are playing.

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