MURFREESBORO – Tennessee made itself at home on the road again Wednesday night.
The Lady Vols won for the third consecutive time away from Thompson-Boling Arena, going to Middle Tennessee State for the first time in 30 years and winning 69-52 before a women’s basketball sellout crowd of 11,802 at the Murphy Center.
In a span of eight days, No. 6 Tennessee (4-0) has been everywhere from San Antonio to Virginia and now here. No matter the destination, the travel plan has been the same and the results have followed suit.
“I think the biggest thing (the coaches) have preached to us is we have to stick together, we have to be our support,’’ freshman Taber Spani said. “We realize we have to be our energy.”
Against Middle Tennessee State, Glory Johnson embodied that notion, beginning the game as if she had consumed rocket fuel beforehand and finishing with team highs for points (21) and rebounds (12).
The sophomore forward played 37 minutes and made 10 of 15 field goal attempts.
“I think I got to show off a lot of what I got to work on over the summer,’’ she said. “I kind of surprised myself with how consistent my shots are.”
Center Kelley Cain had 11 rebounds and played solid defense in the first half against MTSU center Alysha Clark, who had just five points at the break.
Clark scored a 20 in the second half to finish with a game-high 23. Jackie Pickel scored 16 points for MTSU (2-2).
Tennessee was smoking from the start, hitting nine of its first 12 shots.
Johnson made her first four attempts – everything from a 17-foot jumper to a short turn-around shot off a nice feed from Stricklen.
The Lady Vols shooting percentage never dipped below 60 percent during the first half. For about 14 minutes, they needed every bit of their accuracy to stay ahead of the Blue Raiders.
Utilizing strong screening and good ball movement, MTSU took aim at Tennessee’s defense from long range. Stricklen looked like she was chasing a rabbit through the forest trying to keep up with Blue Raiders guard Pickel, who hit three first-half 3-pointers and scored 11 points.
MTSU couldn’t keep pace, though, without more from Clark, who made just one first-half field goal and had three points at the break. The 6-foot-6 Cain cast a long defensive shadow in shutting down Clark’s low-post scoring. Half of her first-half field goal attempts were from 3-point range.
“Our shooters were hitting so I wasn’t going to force it inside,’’ Clark said.
Clark’s first basket came via a dribble drive from the corner. By that time, Tennessee had opened a double-figure advantage.
The Lady Vols struck fast to start the second half, scoring the first three baskets to build a 41-26 lead.
UT led by as many as 16 points during the scoring surge despite missing Stricklen, who sprinted off the floor to the locker room during the first timeout with an apparent stomach illness. Tennessee’s starting point guard didn’t return until the 13:55 mark.
Given the crowd and the atmosphere, MTSU Rick Insell would love for Tennessee to come back – the sooner the better.
“Why fly all over the country when you can go three hours down the road?’’ he said.
UT coach Pat Summitt isn’t against the idea but said the Lady Vols schedule might not have an opening, at least for the next three to four years.
“Right now I don’t know how far out we’ve scheduled,’’ she said. “I’m not saying we wouldn’t come back.”