CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Before heading back to Knoxville on Sunday, Tennessee’s players were informed of another return trip they will be making.
The Lady Vols’ locker room at Thompson-Boling Arena is theirs again after a 77-63 victory over Virginia before a Cavaliers women’s basketball record crowd of 11,895 at John Paul Jones Arena.
“We were celebrating for about five minutes,’’ UT forward Glory Johnson said. “Except for the win, it’s the best feeling I’ve had this week.”
The locker room doors, which closed after a painful loss at Kentucky on Feb. 19 last season, were opened by a poised performance in a hostile environment that answered the Cavaliers’ 83-82 victory in Knoxville on Nov. 17, 2008.
Angie Bjorklund, who didn’t play in last season’s game because of back problems, scored a game-high 24 points for No. 6 Tennessee (3-0). The junior guard hit five 3-pointers and scored 14 of her points in the second half.
Fellow guard Shekinna Stricklen scored 20 points, grabbed a game-high eight rebounds and dished out six assists.
Johnson had 14 points, hitting 5 of 7 shots. Center Kelley Cain had six blocks.
Guard Monica Wright scored a team-high 21 for No. 12 Virginia (3-1). Despite hitting her scoring average, Wright’s output was a far cry from the 35 she scored against Tennessee last season.
“We’ve grown a lot,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said. “Last year was a little painful because it was hard to know who was going to show up and play.”
The Lady Vols’ evolution also is exemplified by how they continue making an out-of-character defensive strategy pay off. For the second time in three games, the Lady Vols opened in a zone defense and relied heavily on the alignment.
Against the Cavaliers, they utilized the zone throughout the first half and for stretches of the final 20 minutes. Like the season opener against Baylor, the deployment was considered the best option against an opponent with athletic guards and a knack for dribble penetration.
“When we first practiced it, we were kind of hesitant,’’ Johnson said. “But we trusted our coaches; that they knew what they’re doing. It’s buying into the system.”
Virginia coach Debbie Ryan prepared the Cavaliers for Tennessee’s zone, no matter how strange it seemed.
“I just feel this is what they feel they have to do to win,’’ Ryan said. “If you penetrate it, you can get good things. Unfortunately we were settling for long-range jumpers.”
Fortunately for Virginia, Tennessee was doing the same thing and its halftime lead was just 40-33. Three consecutive layups pulled the Cavaliers within three points (42-39) with 13:46 left.
What followed was the game’s biggest basket: a Bjorklund 3-pointer that drew a foul by Wright, resulting in a four-point play and a 46-39 Tennessee lead.
The moment didn’t make an impression on Bjorklund, perhaps because she squeezed the trigger 17 times and connected for nine baskets.
“I honestly don’t remember,’’ she said. “You just have to focus on the rim. Don’t think about the defense.”
The basket left its imprint on the outcome, however. Virginia never drew closer than seven points thereafter. Within the next minute, UT pushed its lead to double figures and kept it there, leading by as many as 18 points down the stretch.
“At that point, I don’t think we recognized the (game’s) pressure point,’’ Wright said. We needed to get a stop and a score consecutively. That comes down to leadership. I’ll take responsibility for that.”
Wright, on the other hand, received a compliment of sorts from the Lady Vols, who seemed satisfied in holding her to 21 points on 21 shots.
“We slowed her down,’’ said Johnson, who guarded Wright when UT was playing man-to-man defense. “We had a hand in her face. Twenty-one points is definitely a stretch from 35.”
It was progress — on the way back to the locker room.