Tennessee pointed its season back in the right direction Sunday afternoon.
As for pointing themselves back to their locker room: not so fast Lady Vols.
“I’m kind of liking that little locker room,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said.
Translation: One game does not constitute a total about-face.
Still, Summitt definitely enjoyed what transpired in an 82-68 SEC women’s basketball victory over Mississippi State. Before a crowd of 15,838 at Thompson-Boling Arena, No. 13 Tennessee (19-8, 8-4 SEC) persevering through 16 ties and 14 lead changes to end a two-game losing streak.
The Lady Vols demonstrated uncommon poise on offense, shooting a season-best 51.8 percent from the floor (29-for-56) and recording 21 assists on their 29 baskets. The Lady Vols were much sharper than usual, including their first game against the Lady Bulldogs, when they scrambled to a 63-56 victory in Starkville, Miss., on Jan. 15.
Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning wondered whether the well-documented eviction notice received by the Lady Vols on Friday made a difference.
“Things sort of felt that way,’’ she said.
Four Lady Vols scored in double figures, led by Kelley Cain’s 17 points. Alex Fuller and Shekinna Stricklen each scored 14 and Alyssia Brewer added 10. Cain led UT’s 48-31 rebounding advantage with 11.
Mississippi State (19-7, 6-6) also had four scorers in double figures, led by Alexis Rack’s game-high 24 points.
Judging by Stricklen’s play and her postgame confession, Friday’s team meeting was more relevant than the forced migration to new surroundings.
“The last four games I haven’t been playing with heart or passion,’’ said Stricklen, who shot 10-for-36 from the floor during that span and committed 13 turnovers. “I really did let my teammates down. I had to stand up and tell them (Friday), and it was the truth. But I really have changed and it won’t happen again.”
Stricklen, who started at point guard in UT’s 11th different starting lineup of the season, augmented her scoring by grabbing six rebounds, dishing out four assists and recording three blocks.
“She made the strongest commitment,’’ Summitt said of the 6-foot-2 freshman. “She’s a woman of her word. She was huge for us.”
Stricklen punctuated her play by leaping in the air and pumping her fist after threading a pass to a cutting Fuller for a basket with 1:03 left. The layup was part of the Lady Vols’ 20-4 finishing kick, which enabled them to erase Mississippi State’s last lead (64-62) and pull away during the final 6½ minutes.
“Down the stretch, they were the tougher basketball team,’’ Fanning said.
Tennessee directed its offense through its post players, which was evident not only in the scoring of Cain and Brewer but also the trips to the free-throw line. The Lady Vols had 30 attempts, about seven more than their usual average, and connected on 21 for 70 percent accuracy, an improvement over their usual 66.6 percent free-throw shooting.
Two of those attempts and one point resulted from a first-half technical foul on Fanning. Stricklen missed a free throw in the second half after her driving bank shot. But a four-point play resulted from Cain’s tip-in.
Tennessee needed all the points it could muster while figuring out how to thwart State’s 3-point shooting.
The Lady Bulldogs were 11-for-27 from long range but made just four treys in the second half. The Lady Vols went to a zone defense, which put them in a better position to avoid screens and get to shooters.
“When somebody throws at punch at us, we have to throw a punch right back at them; that’s what we had to do.’’ Fuller said. “Their three ball obviously was going down. Hands in their face and all, they were still making them. But we couldn’t let that get our spirits down. We had to keep coming at them. I think we kind of wore on them.”