Time was conspiring against Tennessee’s Shekinna Stricklen. But space remained on her side.
With the first half of Thursday’s game against Middle Tennessee State winding down, the Lady Vols freshman forward had little choice but to take aim and fire away on a 27-foot attempt.
“I like that range,’’ she said.
Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt had something a little more high percentage in mind.
“I was suggesting she get a little closer,’’ she said. “We’re not going to practice that shot in practice very often.”
Regardless of their differences, both parties agreed on the impact of Stricklen’s buzz-beater, which hit nothing but net and served as a fitting highlight for UT’s 81-52 victory at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“We went in the locker room and everyone was fired up about it,’’ said Stricklen, who finished with a team-high 20 points.
Once again, she was right on target.
“I think a shot like that definitely is a feel-good shot,’’ Summitt said.
No. 7 Tennessee (7-1) had plenty more like it, albeit of a more conventional variety. The Lady Vols shot a season-best 51.7 percent from the floor (31 for 60). Their 40 percent accuracy on 3-pointers (6 for 15) tied for second-best overall.
Middle Tennessee State (5-4) had a shooting star of its own in forward Alysha Clark, who converted 11 of 21 attempts and scored a game-high 28 points. But the Blue Raiders couldn’t match Tennessee’s firepower.
“I thought they played a lot better than I saw on film,’’ MTSU coach Rick Insell said.
The biggest difference he noticed was UT’s field goal accuracy.
“Some of those looks they got, they weren’t as open as they looked,’’ Insell said. “We had a hand on the ball, in their face. They were able to go up and hit shots.”
Sophomore Angie Bjorklund backed up Stricklen by scoring 16 points. Freshman Glory Johnson added 11.
Those three joined freshman point guard Briana Bass and sophomore forward Vicki Baugh to comprise the youngest starting five in program history. This group beat out the rookie trio of Tamika Catchings, Semeka Randall and Teresa Geter, who started with juniors Kellie Jolly and Chamique Holdsclaw during the 1997-98 season.
The distinction inspired a bold claim by the 5-foot-2 Bass.
“I think that we, as a team, are about to shock the world,’’ she said. “Even though we are young, we are about to bring some heat. So they had better get ready for us.”
The Lady Vols were ambitious in the first half. Stricklen’s jumper provided a 41-23 lead at the break.
Tennessee built its advantage to 53-27 early in the second half but then scored just two points during the next eight minutes, two seconds.
Clark, meanwhile, wasn’t resting. The 5-10 junior put her quickness and determination to good use while her teammates kept delivering the basketball.
“Cagey, isn’t she?’’ Insell said.
Tennessee deployed multiple defenders on Clark. Most of them were at least four inches taller. Still, Clark couldn’t be overshadowed.
“I’ve always played against bigger girls,’’ she said. “I know that I can’t shoot over them, so I have to use my quickness and my mind to work around them.”
The Lady Vols’ best strategy was to outnumber the MTSU star. They rebuilt their lead and then some despite playing without point guard Cait McMahan, whose right knee has been acting up lately.
Baugh pulled herself after playing four minutes in the second half. She had ice on her surgically repaired left knee.
“She told me she wanted to come out,’’ Summitt said. “If she’s feeling any pain whatsoever, she has the option of pulling herself.”
Insell still saw enough Lady Vols to compare them favorably to No. 5 Oklahoma, which beat the Blue Raiders 85-65 on Nov. 19.
“I felt like Tennessee gave us more problems and challenges than Oklahoma,’’ Insell said. “They ran more people at us.”