Sunday, January 31, 2010

No. 5 Tennessee gets scare, beats SCarolina 60-55

COLUMBIA, S.C. — After the 40 minutes of sloppy basketball and the media interviews, Tennessee coach Pat Summitt could finally smile when she started signing autographs.

Before that, it was scowls and icy stares as No. 5 Tennessee stumbled its way to a 60-55 win over South Carolina on Sunday, its 38th straight win over the Gamecocks.

The Lady Vols (19-1, 7-1 SEC) fell behind 13-0 and never led until 7:53 was left in the game. Their three best scorers—Angie Bjorklund, Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen—combined for just 19 points, 22 below their combined average this season.

“This team has to make up its mind if it’s going to be a 40-minute team all the time,” said Summitt, whose team finally kicked in during the last five minutes of the game.

The Lady Vols trailed 54-52 before Kelley Cain got consecutive lay-ups to take a two-point lead with 1:57 to go.

The (11-10, 4-5) Gamecocks had their chances down the stretch. La’Keisha Sutton missed two free throws with 1:20 to go that could have tied it, and South Carolina would miss its final six shots and turn the ball over twice in the final four minutes, squandering the team’s best chance to beat the Lady Vols in 30 years.

“We don’t want to live on the edge like this,” Summitt said.

Freshman Kamiko Williams led SEC-leading Tennessee with a career-high 17 points. Alyssia Brewer added 13 and Cain had 10.

After watching her perimeter game struggle for the first 30 minutes, Summitt decided to go to the paint. Brewer’s short jumper gave the Lady Vols their first lead at 47-46, and Brewer would give Tennessee the lead again on a short jumper with 5:12 to go. Cain’s two lay-ups put her team up for good.

It looked like Colonial Life Arena would see its second epic upset in five days for much of Sunday. Tennessee has won every game over South Carolina since January 1980—the last 17 wins have been by at least 12 points. But the Gamecocks have already doubled their SEC win total from last year, and coach Dawn Staley insisted they had the talent to beat the Lady Vols.

The Gamecocks showed their confidence from the start. Sutton buried two open 3-pointers and Valerie Nainima added a 3 of her own as the Gamecocks stormed out to a 13-0 lead.

The Lady Vols then cranked up the defense, though, and the Gamecocks scored just five points in the final 10 minutes of the half to hold on to a 26-25 lead at halftime.

The game went back and forth for most of the second half, but South Carolina couldn’t get the big play at the end. Down by three, the Gamecocks threw away an inbound pass with 21.8 seconds to go. They made 7 of 16 3-pointers, but Nainima missed two 3s late that could have cut the deficit to two.

“We have a lot of young players who have never been in that position,” Staley said. “And sometimes when you can win a game like this, you start thinking instead of just reacting.”

Sutton led South Carolina with 19 points, while Nainima scored 16 and Kelsey Bone added 11.

Staley isn’t accustomed to losing to anyone. She turned Temple into a winner in her eight years at the school, and already has led the Gamecocks to one more win than last season’s 10-18 squad. She reminded her team of its 37-game losing streak against Tennessee during practice before the game, telling them that’s the kind of win that can reverse a program’s fortunes.

South Carolina has just two winning SEC seasons since joining the league in 1991.

“We were hoping to change that,” Sutton said. “We’ll probably see them on down the road in the SEC tournament.”

Summitt waited until she called her first time-out with her team down 10-0 to remind them of their dominance over South Carolina, Williams said, staring down her team and saying, “We don’t want to be the team who loses to them.”

And for the 38th time, she was right.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

No. 5 Tennessee defeats Auburn 85-56

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A huge grin spread across Shekinna Stricklen’s face as soon as her third 3-point basket of the night swished cleanly though the net.

Fifth-ranked Tennessee already had enough points to beat Auburn, but the shot meant something else. The Lady Volunteer guards were back from a long slump.

“Aw, man it felt so good,” Stricklen said after Tennessee beat Auburn 85-56 Thursday night. “When we hit shots, we were all just smiling. We felt like the guards haven’t had a good game like this in a long time.”

Angie Bjorklund led the way with 20 points for Tennessee and Stricklen finished with 17. The Lady Vols’ posts contributed to the offensive outpouring, too, with Glory Johnson scoring 15 and grabbing 13 rebounds, and Alyssia Brewer adding 11 points.

Tennessee (18-2, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) entered the game averaging 75 points overall but only 64.8 points in league play.

Bjorklund entered the game leading the team with 14.8 points per contest, but her production was down to an average 8.8 points in the past four games. Stricklen’s had dropped to 7.3 per game from her season average of 12.7 in the past three games.

Coach Pat Summitt said it’s still a learning process with the young team, her first without a single senior.

“Our perimeter game is getting better,” Summitt said. “If you look at the stats, they see that they need to get in the gym. Otherwise, don’t expect minutes. Everyone has to be invested. I think they got the message.”

A 3-pointer by the Bjorklund capped a 14-2 run that gave Tennessee a 22-14 lead with 11:05 in the first half, and the Lady Vols did not trail again. Bjorklund hit 6 of 12 from behind the arc.

Even Johnson, known more for driving the paint and working the backboards, contributed from outside, getting her first career 3-pointer on a desperation shot with 2 seconds left on the shot clock. She scrambled for a loose ball and shoveled it into the air while falling backward.

“It was lucky. No skill involved,” Summitt said, rolling her eyes.

The Tigers (11-10, 2-6) are even younger than the Lady Vols, returning just one starter from the team that last season got an unprecedented back-to-back wins over Tennessee.

The lone returning player, Alli Smalley, was the only Tigers player that didn’t appear to struggle, and she led the team with 21 points.

“We know we are young,” Smalley said. “We know that each night in the SEC is going to be a tough game because every team in the SEC is good. It was certainly tough to get off shots against the Tennessee defense, especially with them switching out on everything.”

Despite being bested by Tennessee in nearly every statistical category, Auburn still got off to the better start. The Tigers hit the first five points of the game and grabbed a 12-8 lead before the Lady Vols launched their scoring run.

Auburn’s main threat in the paint, KeKe Carrier, helped disrupt the Lady Vols early despite being hampered by a hamstring injury suffered a week ago. Carrier didn’t last long, quickly committing two fouls and spending much of the first half on the bench.

“You just keep working hard,” Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. “They have to not lose their belief in what we’re doing and just continue to compete. I thought our effort was good tonight. I thought we worked hard tonight. We just didn’t have enough.”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

No. 3 Vols rebound with 55-43 win at No. 18 LSU

BATON ROUGE, La. — No. 3 Tennessee’s offense struggled in its 55-43 victory over No. 18 LSU on Sunday night, but coach Pat Summitt was still pleased—with a tough zone defense.

“I thought our coverage out of the zone was really good,” Summitt said. “We extended it. We were aggressive, we got after it. Obviously we wanted to make sure we were not just giving them good open looks or a lot of chances to get in the paint.”

The Lady Volunteers, who scored about 20 points below their average, held LSU to 26 percent shooting from the field.

Alyssia Brewer made the most of her third Southeastern Conference start, scoring 14 points and grabbing seven rebounds for Tennessee. Kelly Cain added 11 points and Angie Bjorklund had 10 for the Lady Vols (17-2, 5-1).

Allison Hightower led LSU (14-4, 3-3) with 17 points and LaSondra Barrett had 12. Jasmine Nelson had 10 rebounds for the Tigers.

LSU scored only 5 points in the first three minutes of the game.

“I think during those plays we had a lot of breakdowns,” said Hightower. “We fouled the shooter and put them on the line. They got a few easy looks in the post. I guess we had a lot of breakdowns at key moments in the game— blocking out and rebounding.”

Tennessee, playing its second straight road game, led by as much as seven in the first half and took a 24-22 lead at the break.

LSU took its only lead of the game with 12:18 remaining in the second half, going up 35-32 before the Vols answered with an 18-2 run to put the Lady Tigers away.

The much bigger Lady Vols gave LSU problems under the basket, holding the Tigers to only 12 points in the paint. Tennessee outrebounded LSU 39-32.

LSU retired former player Seimone Augustus’ jersey before the game. Augustus, a two-time national player of the year, led the Tigers to their first Final Four as a sophomore and ranks in LSU’s top 10 in every major category. Augustus is the first female athlete at LSU to have her jersey retired. It now hangs beside those of Pete Maravich, Shaquille O’Neal, and Bob Petit.

The rivalry game, normally a big draw, played second fiddle to the New Orleans Saints taking on the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game, which kicked off at the Superdome shortly after the tip in Baton Rouge.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

No. 8 Georgia knocks off No. 3 Lady Vols

ATHENS, Ga. (AP)— Even with Georgia ranked in the top 10, there were still lingering doubts about whether the Lady Bulldogs truly belonged among the nation’s elite.

The skeptics got their answer Thursday night.

Pulling off one of its biggest victories in years, No. 8 Georgia won a down-and-dirty scrap with the school that all others in the Southeastern Conference measure themselves by. Porsha Phillips scored the go-ahead basket off a pass from Ashley Houts with 39 seconds remaining, then added two free throws that clinched a 53-50 upset of third-ranked Tennessee.

“The thing I’m most proud of is where our team has come from,” said Houts, one of three Georgia starters who played the entire 40 minutes. “This year, we focused on the word change. We focused on getting prepared for where we need to be. We wanted to be a team that could compete with the best teams out there. I think we’ve shown the potential to do that.”

Houts led the Lady Bulldogs (18-1, 5-1) with 12 points and Phillips had 10, but this bruising game was decided at the defensive end. Georgia shot just 36 percent from the field—including a 3-of-19 start to the second half—and was outrebounded 37-23.

The home team made up for its shortcomings when the Lady Volunteers (16-2, 4-1) had it. The Lady Dogs hustled back every time, swatted at the ball every chance they got and wound up forcing Tennessee into a staggering 23 turnovers.

“You’ve not going to get a selfish player to play defense,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said. “So the greatest compliment you can pay our team is this is a very, very unselfish group of kids. We don’t put anybody on the floor who doesn’t just play her tail off on the defensive end.”

The Lady Dogs didn’t put many players on the floor—period. Houts, Jasmine James and Meredith Mitchell played the entire game. Angel Robinson was on the court for all but three minutes, while Phillips went to the bench for a mere four minutes. Only two other players even checked in for Georgia.

Aware of just how fatigued his players were, Landers screamed at the manager to make sure everyone had enough water for the final 18 seconds. Feisty to the end, Georgia never gave the Lady Vols a good look at a potentially tying 3-pointer, finally forcing Shekinna Stricklen to heave up a jumper from far beyond the arc. It never had a chance.

Asked how the manager reacted to his tongue-lashing, Landers quipped, “I think I hurt her feelings. I’ll take her to IHOP later to make her feel better.”

Alyssia Brewer converted a three-point play that put the Lady Vols ahead with 1:07 left, but Phillips scored the final four points to give Georgia a validating victory.

The Lady Dogs haven’t made the Final Four since 1999 and last made it to a regional final in 2004. A year ago, they were knocked out in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

“This is Georgia’s tradition,” Landers said. “This is why I hope these players chose to come here.”

Georgia snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Lady Vols, posting its first victory in the series since the 2004 SEC tournament. The Lady Dogs had not beaten Tennessee in Athens in a decade—a 78-51 victory on Jan. 17, 2000.

Glory Johnson scored 14 points for Tennessee, but the Lady Vols took a huge blow when Kelley Cain fouled out with 4:13 left. She picked up her fourth foul, complained about the call and drew a technical that sent her to the sideline for the rest of the night.

“I think the official misunderstood what came out of her mouth,” Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. “But that was costly. She shouldn’t have said anything.”

Summitt was more disappointed by the play of her guards, Stricklen and Angie Bjorklund. They combined for just 14 points on 6-of-21 shooting, while committing 13 of the turnovers.

“That’s guard play. Georgia’s guard play was better than ours,” the coach said. “It’s hard to win when you’ve got two players playing pretty much by themselves and they’re not making shots.”

Georgia managed only seven points over the first 15 minutes of the second half, and Tennessee pulled away to a four-point lead that matched the biggest margin for either team.

Then, a stunning sequence sent the Lady Dogs into the lead. Houts swished a 3-pointer from the top of the key. At the other end, the senior guard knocked the ball away, broke out ahead of the pack and received a return pass from James for a layup that suddenly put Georgia ahead, 42-41.

After Cain put Tennessee back in front with a short hook off the baseline, the 6-foot-6 sophomore—a native of nearby Atlanta—let her temper get the best of her. She was whistled for a foul on Mitchell as the Georgia player drove the lane and mouthed off to an official, who tacked on the T.

Cane was done.

As few minutes later, so was Tennessee.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

No. 4 Tennessee hangs on to beat Vanderbilt 64-57

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Pat Summitt has had it with her Lady Volunteers waiting until the last minute to seal their wins.

After squeaking by Florida on Thursday, the fourth-ranked Lady Vols needed a few late shots and defensive stops to get by Vanderbilt 64-57 on Sunday night.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased we found a way to win, but our coaching staff doesn’t want to be living on the edge the rest of this season,” she said. “We want to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack.”

It’s a dangerous way to live in a Southeastern Conference that appears to have some parity this season. Vanderbilt was looking for its second straight upset of a top 10 team after beating sixth-ranked Georgia handily in Nashville on Thursday.

Despite having an obvious size advantage, Tennessee (16-1, 4-0) struggled to stop the Commodores’ outside shooting as Vanderbilt (13-5, 2-3) hit 10 of 19 from 3-point range.

“Every one of them can shoot lights out, so if you give them room they’re going to hit it,” Tennessee’s Angie Bjorklund said.

Elan Brown hit a shallow jump shot with 1:41 left to cut Tennessee’s lead to 57-55. Glory Johnson, who led the Lady Vols with 17 points, answered by driving through the lane and hitting her own jumper.

The Lady Vols, who hit an uncharacteristically low 57.7 percent of their free throws, sank five of their last six to seal the win.

They made the mistake of leaving Merideth Marsh wide open on the perimeter. Marsh, who is filling in for an injured Jence Rhoads at point guard, led Vanderbilt with 23 points and hit five 3s. Brown added 10.

“(Marsh) is a senior. She’s our rock right now,” Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb said. “She’s doing everything she can. She’s a leader. She’s making shots. She doesn’t want to lose.”

Tennessee used a 14-0 run to take a commanding lead early in the first half. Alyssia Brewer grabbed a rebound and hit a layup to put the Lady Vols up 27-7 with 8:05 in the first half.

Vanderbilt, which has never won in Knoxville in 25 tries, immediately answered with an 11-0 run that included three consecutive 3-point shots. Another 3 by Brown cut Tennessee’s lead to 33-29 with 1:48 before halftime.

But while Marsh hardly missed a shot, she struggled to control the ball in her unfamiliar role at the point. The Commodores committed 27 turnovers—nine by Marsh—leading to 28 Tennessee points.

The Lady Vols used their height advantage inside to score, despite facing a physical Commodores defense. Kelley Cain helped Johnson out in the paint with 14 points, and Shekinna Stricklen added 10.

Vanderbilt struggled down the stretch with a bench that’s short because of injuries and includes three freshmen.

“We didn’t execute on offense the way we needed to down the stretch,” Balcomb said. “We’re trying to put those freshmen in a position where they don’t have to make decisions late. For us to not be able to execute down the stretch was kind of expected.”

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Bjorklund comes alive, helps No. 4 Vols win 66-64

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Angie Bjorklund’s reverse layup with 2.3 seconds remaining lifted No. 4 Tennessee to a 66-64 victory over Florida on Thursday night.

Bjorklund missed her first seven shots and was scoreless until she hit a huge 3-pointer with about 9 minutes to play. She added another one a few possessions later, cutting into an eight-point lead and sparking a comeback.

Bjorklund’s late surge helped the Lady Vols (15-1, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) win despite one its worst games of the season. Tennessee had a season-high 25 turnovers, just three steals and no blocked shots.

Florida (9-8, 2-2) had a final chance, but Lonnika Thompson’s 3-pointer clanged off the rim. Steffi Sorensen led the Gators with 12 points, all from behind the arc.

Kelley Cain, who dominated the post early and late, led the Lady Vols with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

No. 4 Tennessee gets 79-62 win over South Carolina

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Icy roads kept about 9,000 of Tennessee’s usual fans away.

Coach Pat Summitt’s cold stare kept the Lady Volunteers motivated after a slippery start.

Angie Bjorklund scored 23 points and Shekinna Stricklen added 21 to help No. 4 Tennessee open the SEC schedule with a 79-62 win over South Carolina on Thursday night.

“Coach Summitt’s look stirs a fire in us,” center Kelley Cain said. “We just came together and decided that they weren’t going to beat us in our house, especially not when we had fans come out despite the bad weather.”

The 1,462 fans who did brave the roads got to see the Lady Vols’ 37th consecutive win over South Carolina, their longest streak over any Southeastern Conference team. The Gamecocks last won on Jan. 23, 1980.

The small crowd in the cavernous Thompson-Boling Arena couldn’t stir up much energy as South Carolina jumped out to a 19-14 lead. The Gamecocks were physical on defense and accurate on offense early, prompting the Summitt glare.

“We have to start the game at a different level of intensity and with a better commitment on the defensive end,” Summitt said. “Everyone that we have played is coming in and just running. When you have players shooting the ball like Shekinna and Angie are, sometimes the other players stand around and watch.”

Tennessee answered by holding the Gamecocks without a field goal for 5:33 and going on a 17-1 run helped by three 3-point shots by Angie Bjorklund. A long jumper by Bjorklund sent the Lady Vols (13-1, 1-0) into halftime with a 47-33 lead.

The Gamecocks (7-7, 0-2) narrowed their deficit to seven points in the second half, but another 3 by Bjorklund launched a 13-1 run to help the Lady Vols pull away as South Carolina ran out of energy.

Valerie Nainima led South Carolina with 16 points. Charenee Stephens had 10 rebounds.

South Carolina, which opened its SEC season Sunday with a loss to No. 11 LSU, struggled to get shots past the Lady Vols defenders, who combined for 11 blocks.

Kelsey Bone, who as a top incoming freshman was heavily recruited by Summitt but signed with the Gamecocks instead, likes that kind of physicality in the paint. Bone, who entered the game averaging 10.2 rebounds, grabbed only five boards but still scored 10 points.

“The SEC is known for its physicality,” Bone said. “It’s expected. It’s just a matter of me being able to handle the physical nature.”

South Carolina has had success with its transition defense this season, but it was Tennessee who prevailed. The Lady Vols scored 18 points off 13 South Carolina turnovers, while the Gamecocks scored only six points off eight Tennessee turnovers.

South Carolina is now 1-5 against ranked teams this season having beaten only San Diego State.

Coach Dawn Staley knows her players have the talent to put an end to Tennessee’s streak but need a little more experience. They’ll have another shot at the Lady Vols in Columbia on Jan. 31.

“When we add some experience to the talent we have, we will start making these games a lot closer than what they are,” Staley said.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Stricklen helps Tennessee beat Oklahoma 96-75

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Pat Summitt didn’t like what she saw with Shekinna Stricklen’s play early against Oklahoma, so she benched her for a few minutes.

“When she took me out she told me I wasn’t playing like a point guard and that I needed to step my game up to another level,” Stricklen said. “I just said, ‘Yes ma’am, and I responded.”’

She responded by posting the second triple-double in Tennessee history, finishing with 17 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in the fourth-ranked Lady Vols’ 96-75 victory over No. 14 Oklahoma on Sunday night.

Stricklen said she noticed she was close to a triple-double at halftime when her line was nine points, seven rebounds and seven assists. She completed it with her 10th rebound with 8:58 left.

The only other Lady Vol to accomplish the feat was Shelia Collins, who had 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 steals against Florida State on Feb. 8, 1985.

“I think she was sleeping,” Summitt said about Stricklen’s play early. “She just wasn’t attacking. Sometimes players just need a reminder.”

Angie Bjorklund led Tennessee with 25 points, hitting 5 of 8 3-point attempts. Alyssia Brewer added 13 points, and Kelley Cain had 10.

Tennessee (12-1) led 47-43 early in the second half, then slowly pulled away, helped by two early 3s by Bjorklund. Stricklen hit a layup with 11:18 left to give the Lady Vols a 10-point advantage at 64-54 lead. The Sooners (10-3) would not get any closer.

Amanda Thompson led Oklahoma with 26 points and 11 rebounds. Nyeshia Stevenson had 17 points, Carlee Roethlisberger added 14, and Danielle Robinson had 10.

Oklahoma jumped out to a 14-4 lead early in the first half, helped by a pair of 3s from Roethlisberger and Stevenson. Tennessee went inside to keep up and grabbed a 27-22 lead with 8:50 left in the first half after a 13-2 run.

“It was a great game for women’s basketball,” Sooners coach Sherri Coale said. “Shots were going in on both ends, and it was pretty clean. Great effort, great athleticism, up-and-down the floor.”

Coale kept her rotation short, substituting her seventh and last player with only 1:23 left in the game. The Lady Vols played 10, wearing the Sooners out in the fast-paced, physical game.

It showed on the boards, where Tennessee pulled down 48 rebounds compared to Oklahoma’s 31. The Lady Vols put up 21 second-chance points and finished with 44 points in the paint.

“Once we settled down, especially after halftime, we played with a lot more composure,” Summitt said.

The Lady Vols, who now hold a 4-1 lead in the series that dates to 2002, got revenge for an 80-70 loss to the Sooners last season. The loss denied coach Pat Summitt in her first attempt at her 1,000th win.

“They’re older and wiser,” Coale said. “They are more experienced. Last year they were so young, I don’t think they had an identity. Now I think they know who they are and how they have to win.”

The Sooners have played well this season considering the graduation of post powerhouses Courtney and Ashley Paris and the loss of shooter Whitney Hand, who tore a knee ligament in November. Still, the 2009 Final Four team has lost all three of its games this season against ranked opponents.

Stevenson said the Sooners are trying to not let the absence of the Paris twins and Hand hold the rest of the team back.

“Basically we made a pledge and honor to each other that we were going to give a little bit more. We had great post players leave, and we’re trying to make up for that. As far as the guards go, it’s just a matter of everybody giving a little piece of what Whitney did.”