FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Shekinna Stricklen’s cheering section couldn’t wait to start gathering.
About 20 family members were a day early, showing up for Tennessee’s women’s basketball practice on Saturday.
By Sunday, the junior forward’s crowd had grown to perhaps 70 by her count for an SEC game against Arkansas. Some of her mother’s family had traveled from as far away as Kansas City.
“I was nervous,’’ said Stricklen, who was born in Conway, Ark., and grew up in Morrilton. “I really don’t know why. It went away as soon as the game started.”
Her self-appraisal was as accurate as her shooting. From the first jumper, it was showtime for Stricklen’s family, friends and the rest of the 6,149 in attendance at Bud Walton Arena. She scored 26 points, matching her career high, and set a new personal standard with six 3-pointers, leading Tennessee to a 72-53 victory.
She needed just 15 shots to reach those marks, connecting on 10. She was 6 for 9 from long range.
“I think everybody in her hometown was here,’’ UT coach Pat Summitt said. “Sometimes players won’t play as well, but I think Stricklen was liking it.”
Although Stricklen took up a lot of space, three others squeezed into the scoring spotlight for No. 5 Tennessee (21-2, 9-0 SEC). Guard Taber Spani scored 18 points and tied her career high with three treys, helping cover for senior sharpshooter Angie Bjorklund, who missed her second consecutive game with a foot injury.
Glory Johnson scored 12 points and grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds for her third consecutive double-double.
Kamiko Williams scored 10 points for the second straight game, thereby minimizing fellow point guard Meighan Simmons’ scoreless effort.
Sarah Watkins led Arkansas (16-5, 4-5) with 15 points.
Arkansas guard Lyndsay Harris suggested that the Razorbacks had been in a homecoming situation before and intended to enforce Stricklen crowd control. The plan broke down early, though, as she hit her first four shots and had 18 points by halftime, tying her previous season best for an entire game.
“We don’t want them going off and getting confidence from the crowd or their family,’’ Harris said. “I feel like we kind of overlooked her. She changed positions this year. She hasn’t been really leading the team, but she went off on us.”
Arkansas coach Tom Collen said the Razorbacks didn’t underestimate Stricklen. Instead, they were playing the percentages, noting that Stricklen’s 3-point profile (14 for 48, 29.2 percent beforehand) didn’t stand out among her teammates.
“I don’t think that we overlooked her,’’ Collen said. “When you look at them statistically, they have so many players who can step up and score.
“She is not one of their better 3-point shooters, statistically speaking. In a lot of those situations she passes those 3s up.
This situation was different, however, not only for Stricklen, but the Lady Vols. Center Kelley Cain (zero points, two rebounds) still wasn’t her usual self after missing Thursday’s game against Mississippi State with the flu. She lapsed into early foul trouble. Arkansas’ zone defense also was denying the foul lane, where UT scored just six points in the first half.
“The (outside) shots were open,’’ Spani said. “When we started hitting the first shots, that always helps your confidence. From then on, I think, the more we hit, the more we felt good about it.”
With Watkins out with foul trouble, Spani and Stricklen combined to swish three consecutive jumpers for a 39-27 halftime lead.
When the Razorbacks rallied to within 41-37 early in the second half, Spani was fouled on a 3-point attempt and converted three free throws. UT then scored three straight baskets at the rim.
Stricklen’s cheering section gave her a hearty sendoff when she was pulled with 1:33 left. Later, Collen gave her a nod of respect.
“It’s a hard thing to watch; she’s a great player,’’ he said. “Wish we had her