Wednesday, December 09, 2009

No. 4 Tennessee faces new task: handling success

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The Tennessee Lady Volunteers must learn how to manage success after a year of dealing with struggles.

Thanks to a win over Texas, the Lady Vols (7-0) are now No. 4 in the country, their highest ranking in more than a season.

“They’ve just committed. They’re invested,” coach Pat Summitt said. “We had a miserable year to get to where we are now, but it’s paid off.”

Summitt said her players must manage their success by continuing to improve.

Though forward/guard Shekinna Stricklen was named the Southeastern Conference player of the week, Summitt still called the sophomore in to see her in her office Monday, a day after Tennessee’s 78-58 win over Texas.

Stricklen was 6 of 10 from the field, scored 14 points and grabbed six rebounds, but Summitt didn’t like the way she played the point guard position. She didn’t drive the lane enough, and she was looking to often for shooting guard Angie Bjorklund.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to play with everybody,”’ Summitt said. “I went through every possession.”

That kind of nitpicking was a luxury a year ago. Summitt, coaching her youngest team ever, was busy teaching fundamentals and trying to motivate her team.

Summitt doesn’t talk rankings with her players, but there’s no doubt they’re aware of their current success after easily handling No. 17 Texas, a team that beat Tennessee during its disappointing 2008-09 season.

It started with the players’ commitment to their offseason conditioning program. Strength and conditioning coach Heather Mason said it was the most dedicated any Lady Vols team had been in the summer in her seven seasons at Tennessee.

It’s carried over onto the court, where Summitt’s first-ever senior-less team is playing together better and showing maturity.

“It’s just knowing that we’re much better this year than we were last year and just all the time that we put in this summer,” sophomore forward Glory Johnson said. “When everyone brings their A-game and everyone can contribute during a game, then I think our team will be great.”

The season is young and the Lady Vols still have plenty of plenty of challenges ahead, starting Sunday against Rutgers at the Maggie Dixon Classic in New York. They’ll also travel to No. 2 Stanford next week.

Rutgers (6-4) might not be enjoying as much early success as Tennessee is, but Summitt still expects a tough game from Vivian Stringer’s squad.

Last season, Rutgers held Tennessee to only 13 first-half points, but the Lady Vols overcame their 20-point halftime deficit to win 55-51.

Summitt reminded the Lady Vols how much work it took to win that game, just in case they’re in danger of slipping back into their old ways.

“I asked them if they remembered the score at halftime,” Summitt said. “You never knew when they were going to show up or when they were going to play great or give in to fatigue.”

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