FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — All manner of struggles didn’t prevent Tennessee from pulling off another winner of a closing act Thursday night.
Angie Bjorklund hit the clutch shots, Glory Johnson did the dirty work and the Lady Vols went on an 11-point scoring run. In the clutch process, a two-point deficit turned into a 76-67 SEC women’s basketball victory over Arkansas before a crowd of 3,916 at Bud Walton Arena.
“You look up at that score,’’ UT guard Angie Bjorklund said, “and you have more of a sense of urgency.”
In this case, the scoreboard read Arkansas 59, Tennessee 57. But then UT’s Shekinna Stricklen zipped a pass to Bjorklund in the right corner, near the team bench, and the sophomore guard buried a 3-pointer with 6:01 left. Two baskets and four free throws later, Tennessee’s lead was 68-59 with two minutes remaining.
A game that featured nine ties and 10 lead changes had swung UT’s way.
Bjorklund finished with a team-high 18 points for No. 10 Tennessee (15-3, 4-1 SEC). Johnson scored 15, her highest output since early December. Stricklen added 11.
The UT trio outnumbered Arkansas guard Ceira Ricketts, who had a game-high 22 points and nine rebounds for the Razorbacks (11-8, 0-4).
Tennessee coach Pat Summitt was in joking mood about the large, vocal turnout from Stricklen’s hometown of Morrilton, Ark.
“I asked her if anyone was left in Morrilton,” said Summitt, who picked up her 998th career victory . “They shut down the place.’
On the other hand, Summitt was more agitated than relieved by the game’s turn of events.
“They’re driving me crazy; they’re driving me nuts,’’ she said of her team. “I like what they can do at the end. But think what they could do if they were more focused on being a 40-minute team. Maybe that’s youth.”
Whatever the case, she’s encouraging the Lady Vols to convene a team meeting and discuss the matter.
The first-half pattern was a prelude to the finish. Tennessee would open a lead and scrappy Arkansas would fight back.
The Lady Vols were literally hurt in the early going when forward Vicki Baugh, one of the first reserves off the bench, hobbled back to the sideline after her left knee took the brunt of a collision with an Arkansas player. Baugh, who has been recovering from a knee sprain, didn’t return and her status is in jeopardy for Sunday’s showdown at Auburn.
It also didn’t help that the Lady Vols’ height advantage wasn’t translating into an edge on the boards. After Arkansas’ Ashley McCray scored on a rebound basket, mild-mannered Lady Vols assistant coach Dean Lockwood was stomping mad on the bench.
UT’s biggest problem, though, was foul trouble. By halftime, point guard Briana Bass had three fouls and four other Lady Vols had two.
“It came down to we got a little lazy on the dribble drives,’’ Bjorklund said. “I don’t know how many free throws they shot (before halftime).”
The Razorbacks shot 13 and converted 12. Ricketts started 3 for 9 from the floor but was six-for-six from the line.
Arkansas converted its first four field goal attempts of the second half, turning a halftime tie into a 44-38 lead. After Ricketts banged her elbow in a loose-ball scramble and departed for more than two minutes, UT pulled even at 47.
After Bjorklund’s game-changing basket, Johnson went to work down low, earning two trips to the free throw line, where she converted three of four attempts.
“She is without a doubt one of our best athletes, if not our best,’’ Summitt said. “She was so active.”
On defense, UT used a variety of alignments to stymie Arkansas, which went nearly seven minutes without a point after Ayana Brereton’s 3-pointer provided that final two-point lead with 8:33 left.
“They didn’t panic, they just kept playing,’’ Arkansas coach Tom Collen said of UT. “Every time they got the ball back, they surged. Every time we lost another basket, we slipped.”