STARKVILLE, Miss. — Tennessee overcame two of its worst tendencies with two traditional staples.
Defense and rebounding trumped turnovers and spotty play as the Lady Vols scored a 57-41 SEC women's basketball victory over Mississippi State before a crowd of 1,845 on Thursday night at Humphrey Coliseum.
Shekinna Stricklen scored a game-high 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for No. 13 Tennessee (19-7, 10-3 SEC). Freshman Cierra Burdick added 10 points and seven rebounds.
The victory, combined with Kentucky's 77-75 loss at Alabama, pulled the Lady Vols into a first-place tie with the Wildcats in the conference standings.
"It wasn't the prettiest game," UT associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "It was a grind for us. We found a way to win."
The Lady Vols paved their way with a 59-37 rebounding advantage and by relying primarily on the same 2-3 zone alignment that was so effective in Monday's victory over Kentucky.
Although Kendra Grant scored a career-high 17 points, Mississippi State (14-12, 4-9) shot a season-low 23.2 percent from the floor.
Other than Stricklen, Tennessee's starters shot a combined 6-for-29 from the floor
After Meighan Simmons hit a pull-up jumper inside the first 30 seconds, the Lady Vols missed their next 13 shots. They compounded their wayward shooting with shoddy ball-handling, committing 13 of their 19 turnovers before halftime.
"Our defense played hard enough to win the game," Mississippi State coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said.
The Lady Bulldogs created the sort of scrappy environment that has brought out the worst in Tennessee this season.
"Earlier in the season, if our shots weren't falling, we'd collapse as a team," Burdick said. "In the long run, we knew our shots would start falling." Stricklen's teammates had to convince her to remain optimistic, and she heeded their advice. After shooting 1-for-7 in the first half, she bounced back with 7 for 11 shooting after halftime, hitting everything from rebound baskets to UT's lone 3-pointer.
She scored three straight baskets at one point, pushing UT's lead to 38-20.
"(My teammates) told me to keep working at it," Stricklen said. "I started having more composure."
Until Stricklen found the range, Tennessee relied on two reserves to get some scoring traction.
Kamiko Williams scored six of her eight points in the first half, connecting on three driving baskets.
Burdick, meanwhile, recorded two of her three assists, playing with uncommon poise amid all the offensive chaos that swirled around her.
"Just trying to say patient and composed," she said. "I really tried to focus on swinging the ball and when an open shot came to me, take it."
Thanks primarily to Williams and Burdick, UT emerged from the first 20 minutes with a 22-13 lead.
"I think that's the power of our bench," Warlick said. "Our starters didn't have a particularly good game in the first half."
Tennessee vs Mississippi State Women's Basketball Highlights, Feb. 16, 2012
The Lady Bulldogs never recovered from shooting 5 for 34 in the first half. To make matters worse, they lost center Catina Bett, who fainted in the second half and was taken to a local hospital. Fanning-Otis thought that Bett was suffering from dehydration.