Lady Vols scorch nets in UCLA win

Meighan Simmons vs. UCLA

LOS ANGELES - The Lady Vols got the West Coast road trip started Saturday with an 85-64 win over UCLA. Go inside with Inside Tennessee for the latest on the Lady Vols with the game story plus video of the post-game press conferences.

The day before the game against UCLA, Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick noted that the cozy gym reminded her of the Lady Vols' practice facility back home in Knoxville.

Tennessee certainly shot the ball as if it were comfortable, with a record-performance in the first half and nearly 70 percent marksmanship for the game.

The coaches will point to the defense and board play as areas that need to be shored up before Tennessee (7-2) takes on Stanford in the final game of the cross-country basketball field trip, but they will take the shooting performance against UCLA (5-4).

"I wish I could say I was the shooting coach (today)," Warlick said. "It was awesome. It was exciting to see. I thought they took good shots. I didn't think we took a bad shot, especially the first five to 10 minutes of the game.

"I was proud of our effort. I thought we got stops when we needed to. The biggest concern with us was two things. We gave up (19) offensive rebounds and that is totally uncharacteristic of us. And Rebekah Gardner, great talent. We didn't shut down their best player, and we've got to get better at that."

UCLA Coach Cori Close opened her remarks at the post-game press conference with a salute to Pat Summitt. Her team was on a summer tour of Italy when the news became public that Summitt had been diagnosed with dementia and would continue to coach.

"I will never forget it," Close said. "In our last night at Lake Como I talked about the things that we are benefiting from because of the trails that she has blazed. She set the standard.

"So you play against a team like Tennessee right now, they are the measuring stick."

The Bruins played as if they took very seriously Summitt's tenet about board play. While the Lady Vols couldn't miss - and it was team-wide, not one hot hand - UCLA was sticking close because it got on the glass.

"Passion and heart by some kids who decided to just really battle," Close said. "We respect Tennessee's rebounding ability so well, and I start five guards. We really played all guards most of the game."

Close started both point guards in Thea Lemberger and Mariah Williams. Markel Walker, who has guard size, logged 31 minutes off the bench and played inside and out. Every Bruin on the floor was pesky once that rebound was in play.

"For them to out-rebound a team like Tennessee that was just getting your hand on that extra tip that maybe facilitated an offensive rebound by your teammate," Close said. "We call those passion plays, those intangible things that allow you to get another possession for the team.

"And we've said to our team, ‘You've got to get more shots than your opponent all year long, and we did that today. It didn't work out in our favor. We didn't get rewarded by the win today, but it's the step in the process and the journey that we have to have to be rewarded in March."

UCLA prevailed on the boards, 31-28 with the Bruins getting 19 offensive rebounds, a stat that is particularly galling for Tennessee.

"We don't like the long rebounds," Tennessee post player Glory Johnson said to laughter from Warlick. "We don't get them the majority of the time. We decided we wanted to crash the boards, and the ball goes out that way."

"Just blame it on the guards," Warlick said with a smile. "It was a physical game."

But Tennessee connected nearly every time it shot the ball - the first miss was a good look by Meighan Simmons when she stepped inside the arc at the 12:51 mark of the first half - and the Lady Vols set a program record by shooting 76.0 percent (19-25) in the first half. The previous high mark was 70.3 percent against Old Dominion on Jan. 4, 1989 nearly 23 years ago.

"The lesson I learned from that is you don't just show up and get lucky and make those kind of shots," Close said, sharing what she said to her staff before addressing the team after the game.

"You practice at a speed that is very difficult. You practice versus defense making shots that are contested in practice. You get in the gym early; you stay in the gym late. They are that coincidences. They don't always work out that way. That was an exceptional shooting night.

"But that doesn't just happen by rolling the dice. That has to do with preparation over and over again so when a rhythm starts to align, they were able to take advantage."

It was a pace particularly suited for Tennessee, which likes to run, and it wasn't a foul fest - officials called just nine infractions on each team. That allowed the Lady Vols to get in the open floor, especially in the second half, when a few passes wouldn't have seemed out of place at the Rose Bowl where UCLA plays football.

"We have quick team," Johnson said. "We love to run in transition. When we actually throw those football passes and baseball passes, it's amazing.

"It's something that we enjoy doing, and when we actually do it, we're very successful."

The story of the game was how Tennessee shot the ball, and Warlick had a sense of humor afterwards when asked about the coaching adage that a team must have its defense and board play because jump shots alone won't win.

"(Saturday) proved us wrong," Warlick said with a hearty laugh. "Your defense and rebounding can be the most consistent thing you do. We've shot in the 30s and now we've shot in the 60s.

"It was a special day for everybody. Overall, we took very good shots. We are a very good offensive team when we take great shots."

Tennessee moved the ball well and rarely lofted a quick shot. Most of the buckets came after a pass or two or three, such as a possession in the first half that started with Taber Spani with the ball and after three passes ended with the ball back in Spani's hand and an open three for a 22-13 lead on an assist by Alicia Manning at the 12:09 mark.

Tennessee went 18-20 to open the game with Vicki Baugh getting the score fest started with a layup on the left side on a post feed from Spani.

When Johnson got doubled on the next possession she fired to Spani in the corner. That was followed by Spani dribbling from the wing to the middle and sending a perfect bounce pass to Johnson at the rim and a 7-2 lead, forcing Close to call a timeout less than three minutes into the game.

Shekinna Stricklen hit a jumper for Tennessee after faking left with the ball and going right, a shot she created off the dribble. Meighan Simmons then drained a three from the wing on a pass from Stricklen and the score was 12-6 with four of Tennessee's first five baskets coming from assists.

"We focused on taking good shots, and I think that worked to our advantage, of course, and working the ball and sharing the ball," Johnson said.

Tennessee kept it up for most of the first half with back-to-back three pointers from Spani - one assisted by Manning, the other by Simmons - for a 32-20 lead with 8:47 left before the break.

The Lady Vols made easy shots and tough ones. Johnson hit a turn-around that bounced high and went in, and then got to the rim after snaring a long pass in traffic and getting fouled.

When she stepped to the line at the 4:40 mark of the first half, it was the first free throw attempt by either team. Johnson sank both for a 41-24 lead.

Baugh found Cierra Burdick inside, and Spani hit a driving layup on the left side to put the Lady Vols' number at 45 in the first-half scoring column.

But UCLA's Rebekah Gardner was keeping the Bruins in the game by going 3-4 from behind the arc and tallying 15 first-half points. UCLA also didn't get down despite Tennessee's shooting exhibition.

"At halftime we knew they wouldn't shoot 90 percent," Gardner said.

"Only like 70," Close said with a smile.

"It just made us want to play harder," Gardner said. "We have to focus more on getting out on the shooters. Most of the (first half) shots were three-pointers and jump shots."

The lead for the Lady Vols at the half was just 11 points, 45-34, because of Gardner and the exit of Stricklen at the 6:24 mark.

Stricklen stayed on the bench with a towel over her head and then left for the locker room with a member of the Lady Vols medical staff at the 7:48 mark. With Stricklen out, UCLA changed its defense to a triangle and two and face-guarded Simmons and Spani.

"We went to a different defense and went to a little bit of triangle and two and face-guarded Spani and Simmons," Close said. "I thought it did disrupt their rhythm. They are very rhythm-oriented in their zone offense. They know exactly what they are looking for, as well as in their player-to-player offense.

"The number one purpose of that defense is to make non-playmakers playmakers and to take away the people that are used to making plays. … We had to force other people to make decisions."

It was particularly suffocating on Simmons, who was picked up full court and denied the ball end to end. Spani shifted to the point position to start the offense. It was new look for the Lady Vols to see defensively this season, and it forced the ball into the hands of the posts.

"I thought our post people kept their composure," Warlick said. "They took great shots. I don't recall them taking, as a coach, a bad shot. When they extended their defense, it opened up for Glory and Vicki."

Tennessee sent Briana Bass to the scorer's table with two minutes to play but lack of whistles and turnovers meant no stoppage, and time expired before she could get in the game.

"Shekinna was sick to her stomach," Warlick said. "Came in at halftime and told her we needed her. I thought she came out in the second half and did an outstanding job for us."

"We wanted Kinna back in to help get our rhythm back," Warlick added. "I thought when she went out we were not really consistent at that position. … We just needed Shekinna's presence and her ability to make plays and play hard on the defensive end."

With Stricklen back on the floor, UCLA couldn't smother Simmons and while the Lady Vols cooled a smidge from the floor - Tennessee shot 63 percent (17-27) in the second half - they kept the game out of reach, extending the lead to as much as 23 points in the second half.

Simmons played considerable minutes at the point position and was effective as a floor leader - she settled the team at times when steadiness was needed instead of speed - and a shooter. Simmons led the Lady Vols with 18 points on 8-14 shooting with three assists. She also didn't rely on the long ball - she was 2-5 from the arc - and attempted midrange shots and got to the rim.

"I am proud of Meighan," Warlick said. "She stuck with it and she took the ball to the basket extremely hard and quick. When you see the quickness she has with the basketball, she's incredible. I was very proud of her composure."

Tennessee started the second half by making full use of the court. After Spani deflected an in-bound pass on UCLA's end of the floor, Baugh grabbed the loose ball and fired a pass to Johnson, who had broken for the other end. Johnson was fouled at the rim and hit one of two free throws for a 46-36 lead.

Tennessee's next basket came on a stick-back from Stricklen of a Simmons miss from the arc, the first second-chance points of the game for the Lady Vols for a 48-36 lead with 18:37 left. UCLA attempted a trey on its end but it fell short into Baugh's hands, and she started a play that ended as if it were drawn up for the gridiron.

Baugh's heave, intended for Stricklen, fell short, so Stricklen played it like a defensive back, leaped and tipped it over the Bruin to Johnson, who was sprinting the floor. She caught it in stride for a layup and 50-36 lead.

Stricklen sized up an opening on the next offensive possession and went to the rim for a 52-36 lead and then after Stricklen blocked a Bruin offering - the box score didn't credit her with the swat - Baugh grabbed the ball and tossed it down court over the defense. Simmons tracked down the ball, secured it under the basket, spun out and hit the short baseline jumper for a 54-36 lead with 17:08 left in the game.

Tennessee kept pouring on the offense and got some stops on the defensive end. When Baugh poked a ball loose in the paint, Manning grabbed it and headed down court. She found Stricklen in the corner for a trey and a 70-47 lead with 9:38 remaining.

Stricklen sipped on fluids during the timeout - she appeared to be drinking Sprite, which can settle a stomach - and she ended up 5-6 from the field for 11 points.

"She ate too many spicy shrimp," Warlick said.

The game got a tad sloppy at the end. Tennessee led 75-57 on a Johnson free throw with 5:06 to play and then didn't score for nearly three minutes - the starters reentered with 3:45 to go as the coaches seemed a bit miffed with the bench play - and then Baugh hit a layup and was fouled for a 78-61 lead 2:38 remaining.

With a little over a minute to play, Tennessee started wholesale substitutions again with Manning scoring on a long pass from Baugh and Bass hitting one free throw to close the game at 85-64.

Baugh, who is playing in her home state, had the double-double at 14 points and 12 rebounds with two assists and a steal.

"I love Vicki Baugh out there," Johnson said. "I love to play with her."

It was a successful afternoon for the post players with Johnson adding 17 points, five boards, two assists and a steal.

Our coaches were emphasizing going inside-out first," Johnson said. "If they stopped up inside then we kicked it out. If they don't keep pushing it inside and getting the ball in the paint and driving.

"The guards, too. We don't always have to give it to our posts. The guards can drive and take it to the basket."

UCLA was led by Gardner with 24 points.

"This young lady is the real deal," Close said. "Professional teams better take a look real fast. Don't miss out on Rebekah Gardner. She shoots the long ball, she shoots the midrange, she can get to the rack, she's a selfless defender (and) she only cares about the team.

"I am very proud to be her coach."

Gardner is the only senior on a team that has had injury issues - Markel Walker just returned this week from a thumb injury, Jasmine Dixon is out for the season with an Achilles tendon rupture and in Saturday's game redshirt junior Atonye Nyingifa went down with 12:24 to play with a right leg injury and didn't return - and has had to adjust to the coaching change after former Lady Vol Nikki Caldwell departed for LSU.

"I look her in the eye every day and I want to fight for this team right now," Close said. "I want her to have the most rewarding senior year on and off the court."

Gardner got in on the shooting fest and went 5-9 from behind the arc and 9-18 overall. When she was asked if the Wooden Center is a shooter's gym, Gardner smiled.

"I think it is now after Tennessee's performance," Gardner said. "I like it. It is like a high school building. It is not a big arena where the basket looks tiny. Here, the basket feels bigger."

Three other players reached double figures for UCLA. Walker and Lemberger added 11 each and Nyingifa chipped in with 10 points.

The Bruins shot 36.8 percent (25-68) overall, 29.4 percent (10-34) from long range and 87.5 percent (7-8) from the line. UCLA had 15 assists, 11 turnovers, seven steals and two blocks.

All five starters reached double figures for Tennessee led by 18 points from Simmons. Johnson had 17 points, Spani and Baugh tallied 14 each and Stricklen added 11. Manning had six off the bench and accounted for four assists.

Tennessee shot 69.2 percent (36-52) overall, 50.0 percent (7-14) from long range and 60 percent (6-10) from the line. The Lady Vols had 16 assists, 15 turnovers, six steals and three blocks.

It was a box score for the shooters to savor.

"When we're on, it brings the team together," Simmons said. "I feel like today it actually did. In the first five or 10 minutes, like Holly said, it got our momentum going. When it mattered we really hit some good shots."

Tennessee has one more game before it breaks for Christmas and it comes against No. 4 Stanford. Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood has said players can sometimes lose focus for that last game before the holidays - he calls it hearing "Jingle Bells" - so the Lady Vols have to keep their thoughts to basketball.

"They'll hear Jingle Bells on Tuesday night about 10 o'clock," Warlick said, referring to when the game and post-game would be completed and the players were dashing to the airport. "I'll give this team credit. They have stayed focused. They were focused today.

"They got themselves ready. They understood what UCLA did. They did a little scouting on their own. They watched tape, as well. I thought they were very well prepared for UCLA and I think they will do the same against Stanford.

"I am proud of them. This was a tough road swing. We've got three games down that they've won. I thought we played competitive, we played hard, and now we have one to go."

HOMECOMING OF SORTS: Before the game started, Alyssia Brewer exchanged hugs with her former teammates - Alicia Manning and Briana Bass wrapped Brewer in a bear hug - and also chatted with Tennessee's coaching and support staffs.

Brewer was a Lady Vol a few months ago but transferred to UCLA in early October. Brewer stood under UCLA's shooting basket for warmups but made sure to go to Tennessee's end beforehand and greet the Lady Vol players as they came onto the court out of the locker room.

UCLA Coach Cori Close said she had an extended conversation with UT Assistant Coach Dean Lockwood about Brewer before she accepted the transfer and felt good about adding the post player to the Bruins program. Brewer will be eligible to play next season.

"It's just a matter of the right fit at the right time," Close said. "I thought she did a great job of being gracious about her experience at Tennessee and then working in practice to help them be prepared. She has been a seamless addition to this program."

INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE

When the Lady Vols departed Tennessee bound for California, they were rerouted through Detroit. Perhaps the defense and board play didn't make the connecting flight to Los Angeles.

Of course, it mattered none. The Lady Vols started the game shooting 88 percent, set a school record for marksmanship in the first half and cooled off a tad in the second half to finish at 69.2 percent for the game.

When a team is shooting that well, defense becomes an afterthought. Players just want the ball back on offense.

It wasn't just one hot hand, either. The first five shots came from each of the starters, and they are connected from Vicki Baugh's layup to open the game to Taber Spani's trey to Glory Johnson's layup to Shekinna Stricklen's jumper to Meighan Simmons three-pointer.

"We weren't real inspired in the first half on the defensive end," Assistant Coach Mickie DeMoss said. "We put all of our energy down on the offensive end. We were going through the motions."

Make that going through shooting motions. When a team is scorching the nets like that, the defensive wiring in the brain gets short-circuited, and the players can't wait to get to the other end of the floor.

Had the Lady Vols rebounded better - UCLA got seven offensive boards in the first half and had 34 shots to Tennessee's 25 before halftime - they would have led by more than 11 at the break.

UCLA wasn't a strong rebounding team on paper, but the Bruins coach used Tennessee's prowess on the glass to motivate them. It worked as the Bruins got 19 offensive boards. Tennessee didn't expect to get much off the glass on the offensive end - nearly every shot was finding the net - but the Lady Vols let a scrappy team beat them to the boards on their defensive end.

That kind of board work won't work on the final game on this road-game coast-to-coast journey when the Lady Vols have the chance for the sweep against Stanford before heading home for the holidays.

"They have a very tough crowd and we're going to have to play through a lot of noise and communicate," Vicki Baugh said. "It would just be great to go home with that Christmas gift. I've never beaten Stanford in its house. It would just be great to do that this year."

The Lady Vols will use Sunday to travel to Northern California and have a session of strength and conditioning with Heather Mason. They will next take the court on Monday to prepare for the Cardinal before Tuesday's game in Palo Alto at Maples Pavilion. The game, set for a 7 p.m. Eastern tipoff, is sold out.

Saturday's game against UCLA was sold out at the small Wooden Center on campus - capacity was listed at 2,000 with attendance at 2,025 - and the Lady Vols might want to swipe the soft rims after that shooting performance.

The coaches will enjoy watching the offensive possessions on film and will have some teaching tape for the defensive ones.

"We were supposed to be switching screens," DeMoss said. "We weren't talking. We were missing some switches. They took advantage of us switching.

"They tried to post up Meighan a few times and posted up our guards when we did switch on screens. UCLA took advantage of the switching. We just didn't play as hard as we normally play on the defensive end until the second half."

As far as the board play, the posts did a decent job - and Baugh did very well with 12 boards - but the guards didn't box out well, and the players they were supposed to put a body on instead slithered, slipped and sprinted to the paint.

Stricklen, who was a bit under the weather with a stomach illness, is one of the best rebounders on the team, even from the guard position. She had just one board. Spani, who averages nearly four rebounds a game, had zero. Those are stats that can be corrected with good health and film study.

The best news for Tennessee after the game was that Simmons has her shooting groove back. The second-best news is she didn't settle for the jump shot and used her quickness to get to the rim.

"I just really think that she is willing to come down the floor, pull up or go to the rim," Coach Pat Summitt said. "She really has a great skill set."

Simmons played 39 minutes but didn't seem at all fatigued after the game. Falling shots have that effect.

"She didn't appear to be winded and she didn't appear that she needed a break," DeMoss said. "I don't think Meighan was thinking about that. She was loving her shot falling tonight so that gave her a lot of energy."

Simmons' role for the Lady Vols in her freshman season was to be a shooter. The sophomore has become a better basketball player on this road trip as she has diversified her offense and played with any combination on the court.

Her highlights included seeing a lane to the rim, hesitating and then scooting past the defender. Her double-clutch layup late in game wowed the crowd, both those in UT orange and UCLA blue.

"I thought about what I did against Rutgers," Simmons said. "I did a lot of jump shooting. Today, I knew the pressure was going to come so I had to stay composed even more and be able to be smarter with the ball and be able to go in and out.

"Look for my teammates first and foremost and then when the shot came to me, I just took the shot."

Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said the coaches would readily accept shooting nearly 70 percent in the next game, too. She was laughing when she said it, as Warlick knows how unlikely it is for that to happen even once in a season, much less twice and even much less so in back-to-back games, especially on the road.

Orange fans were all over the Wooden Center on Saturday. That won't be the case Tuesday at Maples Pavilion.

It's a direct flight for the Lady Vols on Sunday from the southern part of California to the northern part of the Golden State. Perhaps the defense and board play will get tossed on board this time.

VIDEO COVERAGE

Holly Warlick, Meighan Simmons, Vicki Baugh

UCLA Coach Cori Close, Rebekah Gardner

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