Commentary

Stricklen comes up huge back home

Junior, who hit career-best six 3-pointers, grew up two hours from Arkansas campus

Originally Published: January 31, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Senior Angie Bjorklund was on the sideline with her left foot in a boot. Freshman Meighan Simmons was having a rare rookie-type game. Tennessee was on the road. And although Arkansas has triumphed over the Orange Crush a grand total of once -- ever -- there was reason to think that the Razorbacks might give the Lady Vols some trouble Sunday.

But … that didn't really happen. On the same day that the No. 1 team in the country, Baylor, survived a close call against fellow top-five team Texas A&M to stay unbeaten in the Big 12, Tennessee rather comfortably defeated Arkansas 72-53 and remained unbeaten in the SEC.

[+] EnlargeShekinna Stricklen
John Reed/US PresswireShekinna Stricklen, who grew up two hours away from the Arkansas campus, matched her career high with 26 points Sunday.

Also still undefeated in the "big" leagues are Stanford in the Pac-10, UConn and DePaul in the Big East and Duke in the ACC and overall. The Huskies and Blue Devils meet Monday night (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) in Storrs, Conn., in nonconference play. But right now, the Big Ten is the only one of the six major conferences that doesn't have an obvious favorite. (Yes, I'll say UConn is favored in the Big East over DePaul.)

With No. 6 Tennessee (21-2 overall, 9-0 in the SEC) having a week until its next game, Feb. 7 at Kentucky, it's a very good time to assess coach Pat Summitt's 2010-11 group.

"I feel good about this team; they seem to be a real close-knit team," Summitt said. "They all know that at any point they could have their name called, and they have to be ready. Our depth is key; it's really allowed us to have this level of success. I like our depth."

Sunday's game was a perfect example. Bjorklund has a foot injury that has surfaced in the past week; she also missed Thursday's game against Mississippi State. Simmons, the gifted rookie who entered Sunday as Tennessee's leading scorer at 15.5 points per game, went 0-for-6 from the field and was scoreless. Yet Tennessee found plenty of answers elsewhere, starting with Sunday's "homecoming queen," Shekinna Stricklen.

"I have to say I was a little nervous, but it went away as soon as the game started," said the junior from Morrilton, Ark., about 140 miles southeast of Fayetteville. Stricklen estimated she had around 60 friends and relatives on hand.

"About 20 of them showed up at shootaround yesterday," joked sophomore teammate Taber Spani, who also had a good fan following here. She's from Lee's Summit, Mo., about a four-hour drive due north of Bud Walton Arena.

Stricklen and Spani made sure there was no stumble for Tennessee. Stricklen matched her career high with 26 points, hitting a career-best six 3-pointers, and Spani scored 18 points, making three shots from long range.

"I've really challenged Shekinna, because she's got [multiple] dimensions to her game," Summitt said. "The good thing is she responded."

Glory Johnson, who really seems to be hitting her stride, had 12 points and 14 rebounds.

"She terrific; she was all over the glass," Summitt said. "That was a big difference-maker."

Johnson and Stricklen, especially, have had a lot on their shoulders with post players Kelley Cain, Vicki Baugh and Alyssia Brewer all in various stages of recovery from injuries.

Combined, those three played 29 minutes and had four points and four rebounds against Arkansas. Small numbers, yes, but it's great for Tennessee to see all three play and have at least some impact on the game. They provide post depth that, if they can remain in relative good health, will come in handy in March.

Tennessee might have a tad more concern with ballhandling and playmaking, as so much of that responsibility has gone to the youngster Simmons. She has the mentality to handle it, but all freshmen have off games, which was the case for her Sunday.

However, sophomore guard Kamiko Williams had exactly the kind of game Tennessee needs from her; she came off the bench for 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting and 4 rebounds.

It's also important not to forget about junior Alicia Manning, whose potential value is not always reflected in a box score. She had two points and four rebounds Sunday, but her 20 minutes included part of the collective defensive effort that forced the Razorbacks into many shots they didn't particularly want to take.

Arkansas, despite being a team with some talent and quickness, found very few openings against Tennessee. The Razorbacks shot 33.9 percent and were outrebounded 42-23.

"Overall, it was a great road win. We had a lot of energy," said Summitt, who did the best she could to accommodate the large group of autograph seekers who lined up for her signature after the game.

That's the kind of thing that happens a lot with Tennessee, which has for so long now been the "big game" for each foe. Two of the next three contests are on the road -- at Kentucky and at Vanderbilt -- and before those, this bye week will be put to use.

Some teams need competition to stay sharp, but Tennessee will get a little rest while still having very productive practices.

"I think for us at this point in the season, it's a good thing," Spani said of a week without games. "Just because some people are sick or a little bit injured. And I feel this team has matured past the point of a letdown."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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