Lady Vols to play for SEC tourney title

DULUTH, Ga. - In the Lady Vols locker room after Saturday's 68-49 semifinal win over archrival Vanderbilt, the players talked, applied ice bags to the point of looking like human popsicles and pored over the box score. Shekinna Stricklen plopped down in front of several teammates and explained how a play should have been run late in the game. Pat Summitt stood in the doorway and smiled.

The youngest team in Pat Summitt's career - there are no seniors on the roster and she starts four sophomores - have grown up over the course of this season, a process that began a year ago after the worst loss in the head coach's career when Tennessee bowed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

"I think anyone who went through the year we had last year had to mature," said junior Angie Bjorklund, who won a national title as a freshman and endured an 11-loss season as a sophomore. "You don't really have a choice. They've done a great job accepting their roles and knowing exactly what they need to do in order to win.

"A-Town is a perfect example. She's accepted her role. She's our best defender. She's getting rebounds. She's contributing on offense, working the ball around. Last year everyone didn't know their roles. That's the difference right there. People know their roles, they're accepting it and buying into Coach's system. That's been huge."

Bjorklund was referring to sophomore Alicia Manning, who has 19 rebounds and seven assists in two tourney games in Duluth. While Bjorklund was talking, sophomore Shekinna Stricklen was holding court in front of several teammates explaining a play late in the second half and what needed to be done.

"Look at her talking," Bjorklund said. "That's taking ownership right there. I think she knows (now). She's becoming more confident. Coach isn't necessarily riding her as much, so her eyes aren't really on herself and she's like, ‘Hey, I'm the leader of this team. I'm the point guard. I need to help other people.'

"I think that's the same with me. I know my role. I've known my role. Strick now knows her role, so now she can help other people in that sense and help encourage people and really talk. She's done a great job."

Ironically, Tennessee, 29-2, has the chance to do what even the national championship teams of 2007 and 2008 didn't accomplish - win regular season and SEC tourney titles in the same season. The 2007 team won the regular season but lost in the semifinals in Duluth, Ga. The 2008 team finished second in the league and won the tourney in Nashville.

The last time Tennessee pulled off the double feat was in 2000.

"I think it speaks well to how good the league is," Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood said. "The players are outstanding in this conference. The coaches are excellent. You put that together.

"And let's face it. Tennessee is the hunted. With what Pat has done over the course of her storied career, Tennessee is the hunted. What Tennessee players realize over the course of time is they get everybody's best shot. Come tournament time you're really getting everybody's best hit. A lot of parity and a lot of people that are always going to throw their best punches at Tennessee."

Tennessee bowed out a year ago in the SEC tourney after getting pasted by Auburn in the second half of a semifinal game. This year, Tennessee has won its first two tourney games by an average of 22 points. Just getting to Sunday's final is an accomplishment for the team, but the players weren't celebrating in the locker room.

Instead, they were looking at the box score and talking to each other, stopping those conversations only to conduct media interviews.

"We haven't done anything yet," Kelley Cain said of the team's calm demeanor in the locker room after the semifinal win over its in-state rival. "We still have one more game to play."

Cain was referring to the tournament overall, not the regular season title, which the Lady Vols clinched with a win over Kentucky on Feb. 25.

If Tennessee is to end a decade-long drought of winning two SEC crowns in the same season, the Lady Vols must again defeat Kentucky, 25-6, which used its defense and transition game to come back from 14 down in the second half and eliminate Mississippi State, 76-65, in the second semifinal Saturday.

The Lady Vols and Wildcats will square off Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2, Lady Vol Radio Network) at The Arena at Gwinnett Center for the right to claim the 2010 SEC tourney crown.

The Lady Vols beat Kentucky, 81-65, in Knoxville in the only matchup of the regular season, but the Wildcats on display Saturday reflected the way they had played all season. SEC Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap scored 22 points, and SEC Freshman of the Year A'dia Mathies led all scorers with 25, with the Wildcats getting in the open floor and running, especially after their 13 steals.

Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell will be looking for a repeat of that style of play this evening.

"Our team needs to go and play as close to their identity as they can play to give themselves a chance to win this championship," Mitchell said. "I expect them to do that. I expect them to come out and play extremely hard and carry out assignments. We'll see if it's a good basketball game. It should be."

When the Tennessee team looks at scouting film today from the semifinal game, the players will see a different Kentucky team than they saw in Knoxville when the Wildcats played passively, and Tennessee pushed the tempo.

"Show them clips of tapes and tell them," Lockwood said of how the staff will relay to the Lady Vols that the Wildcat team they played 10 days ago is not the same one that showed up in Duluth. "At this point if they don't trust that there's no helping any of us. This was the Kentucky team that won 23 games (in the regular season). This was that team."

To get to Sunday's final, Tennessee first had to get past a Vandy team it had already beaten twice before in the regular season. A basketball maxim is that it's hard to beat the same team three times in one season.

"Because you know what they're going to bring to the table, and they know what you're going to bring to the table," Manning said. "It's all about execution. Anybody that plays basketball has the competitive mindset. You don't want to lose three times. The coaching staff doesn't want to lose three times. But it happens."

Tennessee also did it on Friday in the quarterfinals with a 76-51 win over Ole Miss, a team the Lady Vols had beaten twice, including the final game of the regular season.

"It's hard to beat a team three times for anybody, because of how motivated they are," sophomore forward Glory Johnson said. "They have nothing to lose. They are going to come twice as hard. So just come in with a mindset that we know what we can do, and we have to do it to go to the championship, and that's what we did."

The Lady Vols defeated Vanderbilt, 22-10, by applying Summitt's basic postseason tenet - defense and board play. The offense struggled early - the Commodores opened with a 10-4 lead - but Tennessee owned the glass and got stops on the defensive end, mostly out of its switching man scheme that requires constant communication.

"That's exactly what kept us in the game," Johnson said. "If your shots aren't falling, me personally, I can tell you from experience, if you're not scoring for the team you have to help somehow. Defense and board play. That's what we all did. It helped us stay in the game."

Tennessee trailed for the first eight minutes of the game after getting looks at the basket from inside and out but misfiring on most of them.

Vandy took a 4-0 lead on layups by Tiffany Clarke and Jence Rhoads before Cain got Tennessee on the scoreboard with an assist from Bjorklund, and Alyssia Brewer tied it with another layup at the 18:20 mark of the first half.

The Commodores got layups from Hannah Tuomi and Rhoads again for the 10-4 lead with the Lady Vols getting open looks at the basket but not converting and went to the sideline for the 15:46 media timeout down six.

Before the next media timeout at the 11:33 mark, Tennessee had scored seven points - Bjorklund hit a three followed by layups from Cain and Stricklen - and held Vandy scoreless for an 11-10 lead, and the Lady Vols never trailed again, though they didn't create much separation in the first half.

Stricklen hit two three-pointers - both on assists from Taber Spani - and Bjorklund also connected two, one assisted by Spani, the other by Manning. But Vandy hovered nearby with six points from Rhoads and four points from Jessica Mooney, and the Lady Vols only led 31-22 at the break.

"Well, I thought we did a much better job in the second half across the board, especially on the boards," Summitt said. "We separated ourselves."

Tennessee was able to create some separation before the break with its defense and board, play, which was pretty solid in the first half with a 21-12 edge on the boards and a 9-0 margin in second-chance points over Vandy.

But the Lady Vols really changed the outlook of the game within the first five minutes of the second half, which Bjorklund opened by draining a three from the corner on a Manning feed for a 34-22 lead.

Clarke hit a layup for Vandy to trim the lead to single digits, 35-26, but Johnson hit a short turn-around shot at the rim to push the lead to 37-26. Bjorklund hit a 3-pointer right before the media timeout for a 40-26 lead, and Manning somehow came down with an offensive board and scored a twisting, leaning layup for a 42-26 lead with 15:04 left.

Vandy got the lead to single digits, 45-36 after a three-pointer by Merideth Marsh, but Cain hit two free throws to push Tennessee ahead by 11 points, 47-36, and the lead never fell below double digits again.

Tennessee used a 10-0 run from 9:16 of the second half to the 4:47 mark to build a 56-36 lead. When Vandy brought full court pressure, Manning got to the rim for the 60-42 lead.

Summitt tried to empty her bench for the final three minutes with a 58-38 lead after Brewer hit a layup, but the Commodores brought the heat to the reserves and cut the lead to 60-46 on layups by Tuomi and Marsh with 2:02 left to play, and Summitt had to insert a couple of starters to restore some order.

Brewer had to leave the game late with cramps in her calf, and Kamiko Williams took a hard fall after getting undercut while trying to rebound and walked gingerly to the bench.

Sydney Smallbone and Johnson hit six free throws down the stretch to finish out the 68-49 win.

Brewer led Tennessee with 15 points on 6-8 shooting. Bjorklund added 12 points and hit four 3-pointers, giving her 93 on the season, just 10 short of the single-season record of 103 set by Shanna Zolman in 2006. Stricklen added nine points and seven assists.

Tennessee shot 46.0 percent (23-50) as a whole and 33.3 percent (4-13) from behind the arc with Bjorklund (4-13) and Stricklen (2-4) accounting for all the attempts. The Lady Vols were 16-28 (57.1 percent) from the line. Tennessee had 17 assists on 23 baskets.

Cain, who logged just 20 minutes because of foul trouble in the first half and then wasn't needed much in the second half after the quick start, had nine points and seven boards.

"I've limited her play a little bit," Summitt said. "I've really tried to be mindful of not playing her extended minutes. Because you get in that championship game Kelley Cain is going to have to play extended minutes."

Vanderbilt was led by Tuomi with 12 points and Marsh with 11. The Commodores shot 31.7 percent overall (20-63) and 17.6 percent (3-17) from long range. Marsh accounted for the three makes but misfired on eight other attempts.

Tennessee's switching man defense extended to the arc with 30 of Vandy's 49 points coming in the paint. The 49 points were a season low since scoring just 39 at LSU on Feb. 18, and it was just the second time in SEC play this season that the Commodores had been held under 50 points.

"I just thought we really bought into our scouting report defense," Bjorklund said. "We knew who were the shooters, who were the drivers. I thought that was key for us, especially in our switching defense. … I just thought our team did a great job having that sense of urgency to not let them get the open looks that they got the last couple games we played them."

Scouting report defense is another sign of the team's maturity as a season ago the players got the info but weren't always able to absorb it.

"As a freshman it's a big, thick packet and you're like, ‘What do I do with this?' " Manning said. "You learn to find the key points in there, focus on certain things, so that helps a lot."

Tennessee followed the same game plan Saturday evening as Friday. Lockwood and Stephanie Glance scouted both teams from the sidelines, while Holly Warlick got to work on getting the written report ready so that the players would have the booklet at bed check to review before Sunday's team session.

Summitt has noticed a difference this season in how the players talk before and during the game.

"They are invested in scouting report defense," Summitt said. "They have great communication and open dialogue among players when they're trying to figure out what we need to run and what we need to do. I think their basketball IQ is at a different level."

The stout defense Saturday was accompanied by stellar board play, and Tennessee dominated the glass, 42-27, for the second time in the SEC tourney. The Lady Vols have out-rebounded their opponents, 90-49, in the two games in Duluth.

Vandy Coach Melanie Balcomb saw a lack of focus in her team.

"I just think today we lacked focus," Balcomb said. "We missed assignments defensively. We gave too many open looks to their great shooters and didn't defend and rebound, which is how you win games right now.

"It's tough because we know each other so well, and they played like Tennessee, and we didn't take their strength away. They did a better job taking our strengths away."

Tennessee faltered on offense to start the game - that could cripple the Lady Vols a year ago and affected how they played at Stanford, one of two losses this regular season - but it didn't have a domino effect on defensive effort.

"If you can't score, you can at least play defense and rebound," Cain said. "That's the least you can do and that's the mentality that we have."

"We know what it's going to take," Brewer said. "It is defense and boards. We're not letting our offense affect us like we had earlier in the season. Not only have we grown from last year but we've kept growing throughout the season.

"I think a lot of people were concerned for us after the Alabama game because it was so late in our conference play and people were probably wondering what's next. Everybody thought we just went back downhill. It was a knock in the head, a wakeup. I think even from then we have really progressed."

Tennessee fumbled around at Alabama on Feb. 15 and managed to win, 74-67, but afterwards Summitt said her team disrespected the game of basketball. A year ago, that remark would have puzzled the players. This season, they realized it was rooted in truth and made corrections.

"I know I refer to last year a lot but that's really key to what we've been doing this year," Brewer said. "I can remember looking at the box score and seeing I've taken three shots, four shots. Now, I'm getting eight and 10. I even shocked myself on one. I had 15 shots. It doesn't feel like I'm taking that many in a game."

Brewer's willingness to take shots - and, more importantly, to do so at the rim - has been a godsend for Tennessee this season with just three true posts on the active roster. Brewer also is hitting 55.5 percent of her shots but it's that combined with her improved defense that has landed the forward in the starting lineup with Cain.

Brewer played on the perimeter in high school and although she'll be inside for Tennessee, especially with her considerable size, that experience has helped her overall game.

Brewer will direct traffic from the paint, calling out cutters and screeners on defense and calling for the ball or clearing a lane for a penetrator when Tennessee has the ball. That one is usually accompanied by Brewer saying, "Shoot it!" to a teammate. She also will say, "That's you!" when she wants Cain to go ahead with the shot, or "Get it!" when she needs Johnson to crash the boards.

"Me and Kelley, we're the second line," Brewer said. "We're the second line of defense, and we're the second line of offense. You have your point guard and we're the second leaders of the team because we can see what's going on in front of us. It helps them out, especially on defense. We're telling them if a person is cutting high, a person is going to the corner.

"I think that's something that naturally comes to me. I see gaps and stuff like that."

Communication is a simple concept but can be difficult for young players as they learn just what to say. There also is a more basic explanation. It's hard to talk when a player can't catch her breath.

"I think it's also a part of our conditioning," Brewer said. "When you get tired out there you don't want to talk. Now, we're getting up and down the floor, but we're still talking. It helps us because it keeps us energized. It keeps the adrenaline in us when we're talking to each other up and down the court. I think that is a big factor in why we talk more now."

This year's sophomores have a bond that extends beyond being in the same class. They absorbed one of the worst seasons in Lady Vol history while playing for a coach that pathologically hates to lose.

"No, they have no idea," Manning said with a laugh when asked if this year's freshmen can grasp the difference a year can make and what the sophomores survived.

"Emotionally, physically, everything, it came down on all of us all at once," Cain said. "We can't erase it. What's done is done. We're moving on and taking it one game at a time."

The year seemed to age the players - and the coaching staff, too; Lockwood cackled out loud when asked about the effect on him - but it propelled them in the right direction.

"We don't see it," Cain said when asked if a team that starts four sophomores is still young. "We feel like we've been in this program forever. It's like a combined three years in one last year. That helped us grow. We don't want to repeat that."

"I don't think I'm a sophomore," Stricklen said. "After last year all of us learned a lot. I learned a lot, especially at the point. I have a role to play: Bring the energy, push the ball, look for an open teammate and when I have my shots out there knock them down."

That hard-earned maturity is reflected in their attitude of being happy to get to Sunday's final but not at all satisfied yet.

"You can't settle with just getting there," Manning said. "If you're going to go through all this effort to get there you want to win it all. Winning it would be great for our program. We haven't done it (win both) for 10 years. That would be a great statement especially coming off of last year. And especially going into the NCAA Tournament that would be a good booster and get that number one seed."

"Definitely not," Brewer said when asked if just getting farther in the SEC tourney than she did a year ago was satisfying. "I am so happy that we've made it to the championship, but there are a lot of things that we can get so much better at, and I think that's going to be a big factor in the game (Sunday).

"I think other teams know that we're not satisfied. It wasn't that we tired out there. It was simple stuff (such as turnovers and offensive execution). When we're not satisfied we try to get it the next game."

Tennessee left quite a few points on the court with missed shots and came out of Saturday's game feeling like there was more in their offensive tanks.

"A lot of games we don't play our best game, but we still pull it out," Cain said. "So, just imagine how dangerous we'll be when we do. Our ultimate goal is a national championship. This is a stepping stone. I am not trying to look ahead or anything. We are definitely taking it one game at a time."

The players are sounding more like their coach - Summitt said Saturday she thought Tennessee was the best team in the SEC, something "I wouldn't have known when the year started" - but it's wrapped with the belief that they could perform better.

"Our defense will ignite our offense," Manning said. "Get in a stance, keep people in front of you, know who you are guarding and get some steals to give us some energy."

Johnson, who started 25 games this season but has come off the bench of late with the overall emergence of Brewer, has adopted a team-first mentality.

"It shouldn't matter," Johnson said. "Everyone should contribute to the game no matter what. It doesn't matter if you start or you're coming off the bench. You have to help somehow."

Summitt has always maintained that players have to be ready in either role - she has used 13 different starting combinations this season with every player on the active roster getting at least one start - and she has been willing to spread around minutes. Of the three true post players, Brewer logged 28 minutes, and Cain and Johnson both played 20.

"We watched tape (Saturday), and she was really good," Summitt said of the one-on-one session with Johnson. "She knows right now her role is to come in and come off the bench and be ready to play."

Getting ready to play Sunday meant cold whirlpools for the players, made mandatory by Jenny Moshak. Stricklen logged 36 minutes Saturday, and Bjorklund was on the floor for 37. The backcourt mates are crucial for Tennessee's success.

"Right now you're a little sore, but you have time to get everything better and just get some rest," Stricklen said. "I feel like we'll all be ready to go."

"There is no real rest and recovery," Manning said. "But eat, rest, stay off your feet as much as possible, nutrition, get some massages, stretch a lot. It helps to have our bench come in and get some minutes. Our bench is one of the best in the country when they get in there and do what they've got to do."

Bjorklund, who has played entire games at times this season, wasn't concerned.

"No, with Heather Mason and Jenny Moshak we'll be just fine," Bjorklund said.

If Tennessee were to win Sunday, it would pull off what would have seemed like an unlikely event a year ago when the team left the SEC tourney with a semifinal loss and then were defeated two weeks later in its first NCAA postseason game.

"I think it says not only are they invested but they have the mental toughness to go out and play three games and put themselves in a position to win here back to back to back," Summitt said. "More mature, more committed. They are mental giants now."

Warlick was standing in the doorway with Summitt and nodded her head.

"They made a commitment after last year and it's paying off," Warlick said. "They have a lot of faith in each other. They made a commitment in practice. They're invested now. It's their team. Last year I don't think it was their team. They just thought it was Tennessee."

Bjorklund said the double-double feat was rattling around in the players' heads to an extent.

"It is but it isn't, because we have such high goals," Bjorklund said. "We have such high expectations with this team and with ourselves. We expect to be here. We expected to win this game, and we expect to win (Sunday). That's just Tennessee. Not only does Pat put expectations, but we put it on ourselves. That's the difference this year. We're taking more ownership. We need to get it done."

In fairness to the two national title teams at Tennessee, they played at Tennessee when LSU was a perennial Final Four team and therefore "it's going to be hard to pull off both," Lockwood said.

But those teams also lost sizable first half leads on LSU - the SEC semifinal in 2007 and the regular season home game in 2008 - or otherwise they very well could have achieved the double-double.

If the 2010 team were to accomplish such, "it would be quite some time before we could kick them out of the locker room again," Lockwood joked.

The team has endured the loss of its locker room from February 2009 to late November 2009. They did their own practice gear laundry and then lost those clothes and had to provide their own practice shorts and T-shirts. They carried their court shoes to class in backpacks at the start of this season during individual workouts and practices, because they had nowhere to stash them.

And then they had to face Summitt - and get back to practice and conditioning workouts intended to determine who would persevere - after the Ball State loss in the NCAA tourney, which Summitt has called the worst ever of her career.

They all survived and will take the court Sunday with a chance to leave Duluth with two trophies - the one they received Friday for winning the regular season and the one the SEC will bestow to the tourney champion.

"We would certainly be very, very proud of the growth, the improvement, the unity of purpose that it takes to do something like this, the toughness," Lockwood said. "There is no question. To do this you have to have a degree of toughness. That is one of the things we were on them so hard about last year, both physical and mental.

"To do it, if we were able to do this (Sunday), which is going to be a big order, but if we're able to, we would be very, very proud of them."

PROBABLE STARTERS: Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt is expected to start: Shekinna Stricklen, 6'2 sophomore guard/forward, No. 40 (12.5 points per game, 6.0 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 (5.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg); Alyssia Brewer, 6'3 sophomore forward, No. 33 (10.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg); and Kelley Cain, 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, No. 52 (10.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg).

Brewer took a hard fall in Saturday's game and then had to leave late with cramps in her left calf. She was wrapped in ice afterwards but is OK for today's game.

Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell is expected to start: Amber Smith, 5'6 junior guard, No. 24 (9.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg); Keyla Snowden, 5'7 sophomore guard, No. 4 (6.2 ppg, 0.8 rpg); A'dia Mathies, 5'9 freshman guard, No. 1 (13.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg); Amani Franklin, 5'11 senior guard, No. 25 (7.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg); and Victoria Dunlap, 6'1 junior forward, No. 34 (17.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg).

Mathies got hit with an elbow in the mouth in the second half Saturday in the win over Mississippi State, and suffered a chipped tooth, but she is expected to be OK for today's game.

SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood handled the scouting report for the Tennessee-Kentucky game. Here's his assessment.

When Kentucky has the ball: "Dribble drives, score in the paint, offensive rebounds," Lockwood said. "They need to score off turnovers. They'll trap off ball screens. They'll throw the man to man press on you. They're going to trap. They play for steals. They play in passing lanes.

"Their defense creates a certain amount of their offense. They're bringing it at you. Kick out to shooters. They really pound the glass. They don't put all their eggs in one basket. Their eggs are spread in a couple of baskets."

Defensively, "I think man is their best, and I think they'll play us a lot of man, but I can definitely see them mixing in their zone just because of the size factor," Lockwood said.

When Tennessee has the ball: Kentucky had 13 steals against Mississippi State in the semifinal and forced 28 turnovers. Ball security will be a top priority for Tennessee.

"Just as in the game we played recently we have to be the attackers a little bit," Lockwood said. "We have to push the ball. We have to get them on their heels. We've got to reverse the ball to a couple of sides. If we can make them move east and west, I think we're going to create some openings and some gaps.

"But if you succumb to the pressure, you pick up the ball, you allow yourself to get caught in traps, then it plays into their hands. We're going to have to, A, attack them, and, B, make them move."

Tennessee didn't get a lot of post production in the first game against Kentucky. The Lady Vols don't want a repeat Sunday.

"No question," Lockwood said. "That's a staple of our attack and has been all year. It hasn't changed."

Defensively, the switching man has been effective for Tennessee in Duluth, but the zone, which Tennessee used for some possessions Saturday, also can be deployed.

"We're going to experiment a little," Lockwood said. "We saw a much better Kentucky team (Saturday night) than when we did when we played them. I think we're going to have to feel the game a little bit and see what's working. I can see both defenses being effective in spots and having their place.

"I think man has been good for us here, so I anticipate we'll use some of that, but at the same time I think we're going to have to feel this game out a little bit and see what's going to be best."

In the championship game of a conference postseason tourney both teams enter prepared to sell out.

"You've got a little break now, you're not playing again until the middle of the month, being tired and (third) game in a row, none of that matters," Lockwood said. "You're going for it. It has seeding implications for both teams. For them if you beat a potential one seed, you can bring your (seed) up."

Lockwood said conference pride also is at stake.

"When you throw these two teams together, it's about pride," Lockwood said. "We've had battles. This is a program showing that they're really moving, taking steps forward. This is a pride game for both teams. They're going to want bragging rights. They're going to want to be champions. More so than seeding implications, it's about pride."

Tennessee will be taking on a team that it just recently faced so most of the scouting information will ring familiar with the players.

"It's good to know what's coming," Lockwood said. "If I just fought a guy I know what punches he throws but the dang thing still hurts when he hits you. It helps, and the familiarity is good, but we've still got to stop it."

BEST PASS: That thrown by Taber Spani to Shekinna Stricklen while both darted down the floor - Spani on the left with the ball and Stricklen on the right and headed to the rim.

The play started with a steal by Angie Bjorklund, with Spani and Stricklen taking off for the other end. Spani received the pass and then fired the ball over the heads of the surprised defenders, who thought she was going to the basket. The pass hit Stricken in stride for the layup and it gave Tennessee its first lead of the game, 11-10, at the 12:08 mark of the first half. The Lady Vols never trailed again.

"That particular play I saw Kinna out of the corner of my eye, and she went up and got it," Spani said. "That worked out great. I played point guard a lot in high school so I kind of have that mentality of finding people so I think that probably helps. Everybody trusts each other, and that's a big part of our success."

The fact Spani could run the floor so well indicated her foot was either feeling better or she was playing through the pain of turf toe.

"Both," said Spani, whose foot was packed in ice after the game. "I think the sharp, sharp pain and all the symptoms that affect the whole thing are calmed down, so that helps, but it's playing through it, too."

Spani played 21 minutes and had four points, four assists and three rebounds. She can provide relief at the small and power forward spots.

"You've just got to do what you've got to do," Spani said.

BEST FINISH: That completed by Shekinna Stricklen and Taber Spani in the second half.

After Stricklen blocked a shot, Angie Bjorklund got on the floor to secure the loose ball and passed it to Stricklen, who lost it as she headed up court, got it back with assistance from Glory Johnson, weaved through Kentucky and then faced two more defenders as she got to the basket.

Stricklen floated the ball over them to Spani, who hit the layup for the 51-36 lead with 7:48 left in the game.

"I got the ball back, and I ran and I saw Taber," Stricklen said. "Fight and hustle, not giving up."

BEST SCREAM: The almost primal one let loose by Shekinna Stricklen in the second half when she read the play from the wing and wanted the ball immediately.

"How they were playing their defense their post had to come around," Stricklen said. "We rotated the ball real quick. Lyssi was wide open."

Stricklen got to the reverse side on the wing while Alyssia Brewer remained on the opposite side. Stricklen saw that Brewer could take two steps across the lane and be all alone before the defender recovered, so she made noises that sounded almost like a flock of crows.

It worked because the ball reached Stricklen, who dropped it right away to Brewer, who hit the layup for the 54-36 lead. Pat Summitt sometimes has to remind Stricklen to raise her voice. Not this time. The fans in the upper deck likely heard her.

SELECTIVE HEARING: That of Alyssia Brewer. For some reason one member of the Vandy pep band decided to chatter at Brewer for most of the game and shouted things at random, including a warning to the 5'2 Briana Bass to run or risk being eaten as the 6'3 Brewer approached her from behind.

When Brewer in-bounded the ball a steady stream of remarks usually preceded the pass.

"I didn't hear them," Brewer said.

BEST ADVICE: That of the Vandy band director to stop a band member from shouting "U T U suck," when the Lady Vol players were introduced before the game.

BEST LOCKER ROOM VISITOR: Ashley Robinson. The former Lady Vol center who played last summer for the WNBA's Seattle Storm visited with the team and coaching staff after the game.

POLITE EXCHANGE: That between Kelley Cain and official Bryan Enterline.

Shekinna Stricklen tried a lob pass that went over Cain and out of bounds. There was a good reason Cain didn't come down with the ball. A Vandy defender grabbed Cain's wrist to prevent her from catching the ball and converting the basket, but Stricklen was assessed a turnover, and the Commodores got the ball out of bounds.

Pat Summitt was in disbelief and a frustrated Stricklen headed down court.

"That's a hold," Cain said to Enterline during the next stop in play.

When Enterline nodded, Cain politely said, "Thank you."

KNOXVILLE SOUTH: Tennessee fans accounted for the overwhelming majority of the 6,148 fans in attendance Saturday.

"The crowd always helps because it gives us that comfort of being back home," Kelley Cain said. "For them to travel to Atlanta and be here with us, no other program has the type of fan base that we have."


Inside Tennessee Top Stories