Women's Pilot Rocky Top League tips off

Summer leagues usually mean lots of offense and little defense, but Glory Johnson is using her stint in the Women's Pilot Rocky Top League to hone her defensive skills, and she hounded Kamiko Williams on the perimeter Tuesday on the opening night of the inaugural league at Catholic High School.

It wasn't a court Glory Johnson expected to take again in her basketball career – she played at Catholic while an All-American standout at Webb School of Knoxville – but she was happy to be back in the gym with her former coach, Shelley Sexton Collier, on the sideline.

With three high school players on the Team Hustle squad in Alaina Jordan of Coalfield, Hayley Newby of Farragut and Marjorie Butler of Webb, the team could have been perceived to be among the weakest in the league, but Team Hustle scooted past the Knoxville News Sentinel team, 81-46, in a game that was basically over by halftime.

Collier, a former Lady Vol, finished the evening 1-1 after coaching Team Hustle to the win and losing to Smith & Hammaker, 66-57. Collier is the regular coach for Duncan Automotive, which lost to S&H in the opener, and filled in for Team Hustle while its regular coach awaits NCAA certification for the league.

That worked out well for Johnson and Butler, who were reunited with their Webb high school coach, along with Faith Dupree, who plays for Duncan Automotive.

"She's called ‘Little Coach Summitt,' " Dupree said of Collier. "She has a lot of the terminology that Coach (Pat) Summitt does, and it helped me out a lot going into the Tennessee program."

The league provides a structured environment for the Lady Vols, who are lined up with other college players, plus a few high schoolers with the potential to play at the next level, including Butler, who showed court savvy, shooting range, speed in the open floor and an ability to get to the rim.

Butler was one of three Webb products on the floor, joining current Lady Vols Johnson and Dupree, who led all scorers with 27 points in the opening game. Dupree's Duncan Automotive Team lost to Smith & Hammaker, which was led by 22 points from Shekinna Stricklen, but for Dupree it was the chance to get back on the court and test her rehabbed back after missing all of last season at Tennessee.

"It's feeling a lot better," Dupree said. "I am feeling a lot better than I expected."

Dupree did get winded in the second half – there are very few stoppages in play during the 20-minute halves and no media timeouts; halftime is two minutes – but she showed an offensive repertoire that ranged from scoring inside to hitting a three-pointer.

"I tried it, I got one today (and) I'm going to keep working on it," Dupree said. "I started down low and then I stepped out for a three. That way they wouldn't know how to guard me."

Dupree was one of the last Lady Vol players to be released medically by Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, and she was thrilled to get the OK. Dupree just started running in April after being limited to elliptical workouts for months.

Dupree had to promise to not neglect her regular back workouts and exercises before Moshak granted the release. Several Lady Vol players are not participating because of injury history and/or rehab status as they return from injury, including Vicki Baugh, Taber Spani and Kelley Cain.

Coach Pat Summitt and the Lady Vol coaches are not allowed to watch the games by NCAA rules and that is probably just as well for the players.

Alyssia Brewer hit 3 three-pointers in her game and just smiled when asked what Summitt's reaction would be when she read about the game later. Brewer is expected to be a paint presence for Tennessee next season, though she does have Summitt's blessing to expand her shot selection, and Brewer also hit some mid-range jumpers en route to tallying 23 points and the Strata-G MVP award, which will be given to one player each night during league play.

Brewer was the biggest player on the floor and sometimes drifted out of the paint in what seemed to be a concerted effort to be careful. In fact, all of the Lady Vols seemed cautious and knew when to pull up and avoid high-speed collisions or scrums around the ball. Summitt gave her OK for her players to participate, but a summer injury could scuttle that blessing.

"We're always careful," Brewer said. "We're not going to try to do anything to hurt us or somebody else."

"There were a few times I took it in and I thought, ‘I've got to be careful. There's no point in getting hurt in the off-season,' " Alicia Manning said. "But you can still work on things. Just be smart about it."

Stricklen nodded when asked if she was being careful, but she added, "You've got to go hard all the time."

Stricklen scored the first basket of the league – a baseline jumper – and also went 4-4 from behind the arc, one of which was launched from about 25 feet away.

Her Lady Vol teammates said the shooting display has been common this off-season.

"She's been doing that in pickup," Sydney Smallbone said.

Smallbone is one of two seniors for Tennessee next season – Angie Bjorklund opted to stick with her regular and rigorous off-season workouts instead of playing in the league – and she tallied eight points for Team Hustle.

"We were going to be here playing pickup so it's another chance to play against different people and play with a different team and work on your game," Smallbone said. "It's something a lot of us wanted to do. I am working on my defense and getting my shot off. I have been working on that in pickup, too."

Bjorklund may have opted to not play in the league, but she's not neglecting her game. The native of Spokane Valley, Wash., worked with Gonzaga and NBA legend John Stockton while at home before summer school started, and the 6'0 guard has expanded her offensive package to include attacking the rim.

"We've been talking about it," Stricklen said. "She's trying to help me out, and it will help her out, too. A lot of teams know she's the shooter on the team, and when she can pump fake and take it and finish it and get and-ones, that completes her whole game. That's going to make her a lot better and make it harder for teams to beat us."

Seven current Lady Vols are playing in the league – Stricklen, Johnson, Smallbone, Dupree, Brewer, Manning and Kamiko Williams – and judging by the smiles and good-natured smack talk Tuesday they are enjoying the experience. Former Lady Vols Dominique Redding and Courtney McDaniel also are playing.

"Oh, yes, a lot," Stricklen said when asked about the chatter on the court among the Lady Vols. "It's PG. It's nothing bad."

"(Stricklen) had a little something to say when I made a shot, but it's a lot of fun talk," Dupree said.

"We like to compete and we want to win so whoever wins, you know you won't hear the last of it from them," Stricklen said. "Whoever wins has got the bragging rights."

The winners Tuesday evening were Smith & Hammaker (Stricklen, McDaniel), 66-57, over Duncan Automotive (Dupree); adidas (Brewer), 74-72, over DeRoyal (Manning); and Team Hustle (Johnson, Smallbone), 81-46, over the News Sentinel (Williams, Redding).

Williams scored 15 points in the losing effort, but not many of them came when Johnson was on the floor, as the rangy forward picked up Williams on defense a few minutes after the opening tip after watching Williams get into the paint at will.

"I was trying to make it hard on her, because she was driving on people," Johnson said. "I knew that was something I wanted to work on so I told them to switch. She stopped scoring for awhile so that was really good."

If Johnson is willing to play defense in a summer league that would indicate she has bought into Summitt's request that she become a defensive stopper on the perimeter for the Lady Vols.

"I don't want to forget about my defense," Johnson said. "That is something that I try to make better every time and every time I think about my offense, I think about my defense. I am working on both at the same time."

Johnson tallied 10 points by scoring at the rim and hitting some mid-range jumpers. She may be focused on defense, but she hasn't forgotten that summer league means fun, as she also lofted a couple of three-pointers.

"We can do whatever we want to," Johnson said with a big smile when asked about playing while not under the watchful eyes of the Tennessee coaches.

Some 200 other people showed up Tuesday at air-conditioned Catholic High School – the six teams play against Thursday evening beginning at 6 p.m. – and took advantage of the chance to chat with the Lady Vol players and get autographs. The cozy and casual atmosphere is beneficial for the players and fans.

"Our fans are able to come up to us and talk to us," said Stricklen, who arrived early and stayed late before having to return to campus for basketball camp commitments.

"During the season we're so busy," Brewer said. "It lets them know we're normal people and like to kid around."

Brewer also arrived early – she played in the second game of the evening – and stayed until the third game ended. During that time she chatted with players from other teams and signed autographs for fans.

It's not exactly a down time for the Lady Vols. They have summer school classes – Brewer is in class every weekday from 9:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. – they work at Summitt's basketball camps during the month of June, they lift weights, and they have regular 6:30 a.m. sessions with Heather Mason.

They also play a lot of pickup, and the players consider the league to be a structured extension of that with fans in the stands and officials on the court.

"It lets us work on things that we've been working on in pickup and at home this off-season and this summer," Brewer said. "Besides this we still will be playing pickup."

The players had watched the men's Rocky Top League – it also got underway Tuesday at Bearden High School and is in its fourth year – and wished they had the same opportunity. Thanks to the efforts of league organizer Habibi Andre and the primary sponsorship of Pilot, the women got the chance this summer.

"I was like, ‘Man, I wish they had a girl's game and now we finally do," Stricklen said. "We've been talking about it since before school was out."

"I talked to Glory a couple of times and I said, ‘We really need something like this so we can play with different types of players throughout the summer,' and we finally got it," Dupree said.

Knoxville has recorded scorching temperatures of late, especially for mid-June, with the mercury reaching the 90s several days in a row.

"I went to most of the games last year," Brewer said of the men's Pilot Rocky Top League. "One advantage that we have is we have air-conditioning and they don't."

Admission and parking are free, and Catholic also has a concessions stand of affordable food and drinks. The players arrive either already wearing their uniforms or change clothes in the bathroom. Between games, they sit in the stands. With the small gym and wooden bleachers the players feel a nostalgic return to high school.

"That is what it reminded me of when I walked in, the concession stands and all that," Smallbone said. "It's kind of a cool feeling."

It's a familiar gym for Johnson, who had returned as a spectator when Webb and Catholic played each other the past two years.

"I never thought I'd play here again," Johnson said. "It brings back memories."

Johnson also enjoyed having her former coach on the sideline.

"It was real cool," Johnson said. "I understood everything she was talking about when she started calling plays."

Collier was putting in those plays moments before the game started, as the teams have not practiced together, and most players were making introductions a few minutes before tipoff.

"That's was the first time I have seen (all but) two of them," Dupree said. "I didn't know their names. I had to introduce myself about five minutes before the game. That was a challenge."

The six teams of 10 players each come from 13 colleges and four high schools.

"We just met each other. We're trying to get to know each other, strengths and weaknesses," said Manning, who added communication and leadership were two areas to focus on in the summer league under those circumstances.

Manning's team came back from a double-digit deficit in the second half and had a chance to tie the game but lost the ball out of bounds as the clock expired. It may be a summer league, but Manning, who is hyper-competitive, was peeved after the loss. Still, she smiled a few minutes later and said the experience was enjoyable.

"Work on your weaknesses and have fun," said Manning, who scored 15 points. "We were having a good time." We play pickup all the time during the week. We've got some refs out there to actually call the fouls. It's great to get game-like experience. You can do whatever you want within reason."

For Manning, that meant getting to the rim and getting on the boards. She also hit some short jumpers and attempted a three-pointer.

The lack of familiarity was addressed on the court as the game progressed, and teammates figured out who the shooters were and who could run the floor.

Smith & Hammaker has players who can sprint the court in Stricklen and Diamond Henderson and Briana Jordan, both of whom will be freshmen at Tennessee Tech in the fall.

Jordan arrived after halftime but made up for lost time by passing ahead in the second half to Stricklen, who flipped the ball back to Jordan for the basket. After the game Stricklen had to be told who was on the receiving end of the sweet assist. Her eyes widened in recognition when she was told Jordan was the daughter of Brian Jordan, a standout player for both the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons.

"I'm getting to know them," Stricklen said after the game.

Johnson needed no introductions with Butler, a rising junior at Webb and former teammate who played varsity basketball as an eighth-grader.

"She is such an athlete, oh my goodness," Johnson said. "I love playing with her. I only got a year to play with her (at Webb)."

The assortment of players was part of the appeal for the Lady Vols.

"Nothing like this has been done before," Brewer said. "You don't really know what to expect. I think (Summitt) knew it would help us with our skills."

"Everyone is here to work on their games and you're playing against people from right around here in Tennessee, and there are some good girls," Stricklen said. "It feels good playing with your own teammates and also you get to play against them. I really like this."

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