Shekinna Stricklen can be Tennessee's best player, provided the Lady Vols' senior forward avoids being her own worst enemy.
"My problem is I think too much," she said.
Her conflicted thought process plays out like a mental matchup: tense versus intense.
"Tense is when you're not sure of yourself," UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood said. "It's almost like walking up a blind, dark alley. Whereas intense is when I'm very focused, I'm very confident. If something happens, I have a plan."
Lockwood said the difference between the two mindset was the gist of a team talk last Sunday in Nashville before Tennessee's 70-58 victory over LSU in the SEC women's basketball tournament championship game. The subject might be worth revisiting during the NCAA tournament. The Lady Vols will receive their marching orders on Monday night, when the 64-team field is revealed.
Stricklen isn't the only Lady Vol who's been shoring up her psyche between tournaments. Sophomore guard Meighan Simmons conceded to being anxious during the LSU game and thinking too much, just like Stricklen.
"Going into the tournament, there can't be any jitterbugs," Simmons said. "You have to go out there and play confident."
Stricklen has detected a pattern to her mind game.
"Before the game, I don't want to start the game messing up and then I just start stinking," she said. "I don't follow through on my shots. I don't look to attack. I'm just thinking too much."
Stricklen's play in Nashville called attention to the problem. In three tournament games, she scored a grand total of two points in the first half. Her performance also affirmed that the problem is not insurmountable. She scored 48 points after halftime — including two crunchtime jumpers against LSU — and made the all-tournament team.
"It's good to have an awareness level about yourself, if you're that way," Lockwood said. "And then you can try to take steps to avert that."
In Nashville, Stricklen embraced the encouragement she received from her teammates. She responded to a second-half pep talk from head coach Pat Summitt during UT's 68-57 quarterfinal victory over Vanderbilt, scoring 16 points in the last 10 minutes. She also benefitted when UT ran a play for her, converting a driving layup to start the second half against South Carolina.
Going forward, Stricklen ought to borrow from the philosophy of fellow senior Alicia Manning. Lockwood said that he noticed three weeks ago how tense Manning looked, as if there were steel cables embedded in her arms. His advice to her was
"relax, enjoy it. Go play."
She loosened up enough to hit a 3-pointer in each SEC tournament game and gather 17 total rebounds.
"I just made a pact with myself," Manning said before the tournament. "When you're out there, have fun. It's so short now. I made a pact with myself that I'm just going to have fun, play confident and just play my game within the system."
Said Lockwood: "When you want to do well and you're approaching a big moment, sometimes you almost have to just relax and let it happen. You can't over-try.
In advance of the NCAA tournament, Lockwood said that the coaches will show Stricklen video clips of her making good plays and showing exuberance. They also will remind her about playing in the right tense.
"We don't want her to be fearful of outcomes or consequences," Lockwood said. "We want her to trust herself and say, 'I'm a good player. I'm going to take this shot and make it.' No fear."
Summitt Honored: Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt received the Brenda G. Lawson Legacy of Leadership Award on Saturday. The award was presented by the Alliance of Women Philanthropists at its annual symposium, which was held at the Knoxville Marriott. Lawson is a supporter of the university.
"Brenda Lawson is a successful, compassionate and driven business leader who has always shared her time and resources to benefit so many," Summitt said in a release. "Not only do I appreciate and celebrate her leadership, but I am truly honored to be selected for an award bearing her name."