A hard-fought win for a team still getting used to hard fights
Hot hands from freshman Shekinna Stricklen and sophomore Angie Bjorklund offered a more pleasing contrast for the orange-clad fans still adjusting to the cold reality of life after Candace Parker.
Behind a career-best 25 points from Stricklen and 16 points from Bjorklund, No. 13 Tennessee withstood its youth and an All-American performance from Stanford's Jayne Appel to register a 79-69 overtime win against the fourth-ranked Cardinal.
The win was the first this season against a ranked team for these Lady Vols, who take the court in pregame introductions this season accompanied by a video montage that includes graphics touting "11 Underclassmen" and "A New Era" far more prominently than any mention of the program's back-to-back national championships.
With a starting lineup that includes three freshmen, Tennessee's lineup is as unfamiliar as its place outside the top 10 after losses to Virginia and Texas. But after Stanford rallied from a nine-point deficit at halftime and tied Sunday's score on Jeanette Pohlen's 3-pointer with just more than a minute to play, Tennessee held the Cardinal to just a single point in the extra session -- seven fewer points than Stricklen herself scored in overtime.
All things considered, it was a hard-fought win for a team still getting used to hard fights.
"I think this was a huge growing experience for us," Bjorklund said. "Especially in that overtime shutting them down, that was huge for our team. We've been working on defense since day one. And Coach has been pounding us on defense and rebounding, and I think our defense really grew during this game."
But it had some cover from the offense, even on a night when freshman Glory Johnson scored just seven points in 24 minutes and was helped off the court after sustaining what was termed a right-thigh contusion in a collision with Nnemkadi Ogwumike.
The defensive improvement came as a result of an effort that reduced five individual faces to one collective unit in the overtime period during which the Cardinal struggled to get even a quality look at the basket. The offense, however, came from a pair of solo performances.
Eight months ago, Bjorklund played just 15 minutes in the championship game against Stanford and missed all five of her shots. She made more of an impact than that in a single 45-second span of the second half Sunday, drawing a charge on Pohlen and subsequently breaking free from her on the other end with a lightning-quick crossover dribble to drain a jumper from just inside the 3-point line.
And that sequence was far from her only contribution, as Bjorklund scored 12 first-half points. Her early performance and two relatively unexpected first-quarter 3-pointers from freshman point guard Briana Bass extended Stanford's defense and allowed the Lady Vols to control the tempo.
Hampered by a bulging lower disc in her back, Bjorklund had missed the first five games of the season and shot just 2-of-8 from behind the arc in her first two games. But after hitting three of four shots from there against the Cardinal, she's shooting 57 percent on 3-pointers for the season. Even as she sat with an ice pack lodged squarely against her lower back after the game, she talked about how she regained her touch so quickly.
"You get to a point, especially in college, where it becomes mental," Bjorklund said. "And so I've been really working on my mental game, visualization and that kind of stuff. And I think that's really helped a lot, especially the past few games."
What sets her apart from so many excellent outside shooters at the college level is her ability to shoot off the dribble, as she did on the ankle-breaker against Pohlen. That ability to create a jump shot, instead of spotting up off the work of others to free her, makes a more valuable shooter, both as a one-on-one threat and a tool to open up space for teammates inside as defenses try to plug the leak outside. It's a rare skill -- "I'd take a set shot before a jumper any day," Bjorklund said, laughing -- but it's one she seemingly shares with Stricklen, her teammate from Arkansas who led the way Sunday.
"[Stricklen] did a good job of just getting herself open tonight," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "We didn't have to run a lot of things to her."
Stricklen also was coming back from a slow start. She shot just 28 percent in her first five games, then, after bouncing back slightly on the court in the three games that followed, she suffered another setback when illness forced her out of the lineup against Old Dominion last week. But it didn't hurt to have counsel from someone who is both a shooter and a player only a few months removed from freshman trials and tribulations.
"For sure, I talk to her," Bjorklund said. "Sometimes earlier in the season, she'd get her head down, and I'd tell her, 'As a shooter, you can't think like that. You've got to think like, Next shot, I'm going to make it.' I've worked with her a little bit here and there, and she's asked me to work with her in the future. I think she's a great scorer, and she's really defining her role as a scorer."
Johnson is understandably the star of Summitt's loaded recruiting class, even if early foul trouble and the late injury derailed her effort Sunday night. But whether Stricklen settles in as the Alexis Hornbuckle to Johnson's Parker or earns an equal share of the headlines, she's a player with game-changing skill as a 6-foot-2 scorer with a point guard's handle.
"When I watched her play from the ninth grade on, I thought she was going to be a very special player," Summitt said. "She's got deep range on her 3-ball. I think she has the quickness, but she also has the composure. She can shoot the 3, take it off the dribble, got a nice pull-up game, just good court awareness overall, offensively. I think her composure -- I think she has a calming effect with her on the floor."
With a crowd of 14,763 on hand to judge for itself, the Lady Vols at times looked like a collection of talent ready to find its own niche within the program's storied history, never more so than when Bjorklund squared her shoulders and drained jumpers and Stricklen pulled up from several steps behind the men's 3-point line to drain a shot. And at times, the Lady Vols looked like a collection of talent playing its 11th game together, too often at Appel's mercy in the post or when she was slow to close out on Pohlen.
"We're still growing, because of our youth," Summitt said. "But we have a lot of options. And certainly, I feel like we are getting better in understanding how we have to compete."
But the coach who stresses her role as a teacher wasn't ready to let her students head off to holiday celebrations with visions of victory dancing like sugarplums. The campus in Knoxville might be deserted, but practice begins at 9:30 a.m. sharp Monday morning.
"As a team as athletic as we are, we should really fix our situations with our boards," Summitt said like a professor already looking ahead to her next lesson.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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