Ladies, start your engines! The drive to “Victory Lane” for the 2010-11 University of Tennessee Lady Volunteer basketball team has begun.
Over the years, Tennessee has seen the NCAA flagman wave the Orange & White checkered flag signifying a national championship…eight times in all. Sometimes the Lady Vols rolled in well ahead of the field…other times taking a nail-biting victory right at the end.
Since winning its last championship in 2008, an extremely young team has grown yearly after suffering through a wreck-filled 22-11 campaign in 2008-09, to a much-improved 32-3 record with nary a senior last season.
Collectively, this 13-player squad once again persevered and flourished during the grueling fine-tuning of the off-season and is eager to see how its new aerodynamics check out when it gets back on track…well, the basketball court.
They are led by arguably the best crew chief in the business, head coach Pat Summitt, who will be starting her 37th campaign at the starting line with a 1,037-196 (.842) career record.
“So many teams are going to be contenders this season, and a lot of teams are going to be running around with a target on their backs,” Summitt offered. “The challenge is out there, and we are ready to jump in and battle with the best of them.”
Summitt will have a key nucleus of four players – two return as seniors and two are redshirt juniors – who remember what it was like as wide-eyed rookies in 2008 watching NCAA title number eight unfold in front of their very freshmen eyes. Senior veteran guards Angie Bjorklund (13.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.0 apg) and Sydney Smallbone (2.3 ppg, 0.6 rpg) would like nothing more than to come full circle in concluding their Lady Vol careers with bookend NCAA titles.
Bjorklund, with 1,149 career points, is poised to smash a slew of Lady Vol three-point records in her final go-round. The 6’0″ sharpshooter needs just 35 more made treys and 51 three-point attempts to pass current Lady Vol record holder Shanna Zolman (2003-06). Only one of Zolman’s records might stay intact – career three-point field goal percentage at .425 – since Bjorklund’s average sits at .403.
“Angie is one of the best shooters ever to play in our program,” Summitt said. “She has worked hard at improving so many facets of her game, and she takes great pride in it. By her example, Angie gives our team so much confidence and takes pressure off of the other players.”
As great as Bjorklund has been on the court, she has distinguished herself in the classroom as well, having earned the coveted status as one of five CoSIDA/ESPN First Team Academic All-Americans in 2010.
While Bjorklund has been filling it up, her running mate, Smallbone, has diligently worked at her game and contributed to her team in any way possible. Her special type of attitude and her ability to put the team first are not categories that can be measured in a mere box score.
“Syd brings it every day. She is focused and a hard worker who understands her role with the team,” Summitt said.
When the 5’10” Smallbone’s number has been called she has risen to the task, as evidenced by her nine career starts and over 10 minutes per game contributions. The Granger, Ind., native also has a little extra motivation – getting to a Final Four in her home state. Conseco Fieldhouse, in Indianapolis, Ind., hosts women’s basketball’s final weekend on April 3 and 5.
“I expect both Angie and Syd, with help from Vicki Baugh and Kelley Cain, to really take collective leadership roles with this group,” Summitt said. “Better than anyone else on this team, they know I will not start their engines, but I will help them get to where they want to go.”
As the elder stateswomen of the seven-player junior class, 6’4″ post Vicki Baugh (6.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 1.5 bpg in 2008-09) and 6’6″ center Kelley Cain (10.5 ppg, 7.7 rpg and 3.4 bpg) are both seniors academically but juniors due to redshirt seasons. Baugh, felled by anterior cruciate ligament surgery in both 2008 and 2009, is ready to get back as a productive paint prowler. A tremendous multi-dimensional talent, she is a relentless rebounder and alters shots because of her length.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am for a healthy Vicki Baugh to be returning to the court,” Summitt exclaimed. “She looks great and has her confidence back! Vicki makes such a difference in the post game -offensively as a great scorer and defensively in the way she can alter and block shots.”
A healthy Baugh, teamed with Cain in the post, makes for a dynamic combo and puts UT in the position to play with anybody in the country in the post game. Cain had a breakout season as a sophomore and rewrote former Lady Vol Candace Parker’s single season rejection standard with 113 throwbacks in 2010. Cain’s deft touch around the rim accounted for 60.7 percent of her field goals finding the bucket. “Over the summer, Kelley worked on her game. She is stronger, more mobile and her touch has improved. We look for her to be a key consistent scorer in the coming season,” Summitt said.
The bulk of the Lady Vol team is found in the “true” five-member junior class of forwards Alyssia Brewer (10.2 ppg and 5.9 rpg), Glory Johnson (10.1 ppg and 7.7 rpg) and Alicia Manning (5.4 ppg and 5.1 rpg) and guards Briana Bass (1.2 ppg and 0.7 rpg) and Shekinna Stricklen (12.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg and 3.9 apg).
In 2010, the biggest surprise might have been the development of Brewer, a strong 6’3″ lefty, who found her way into the starting line-up 13 times. She saved some of her best hoops for the SEC Tournament, where she was honored as the Most Valuable Player after helping to lead the Lady Vols to the 2010 title. Brewer won’t be in action for the start of the 2010-11 season until she returns from Sept. 10 surgery which repaired a tear to her left Achilles tendon as a result of a non-athletically related mishap.
“We’re anxious to see how Lyssi does coming back from her freak injury,” Summitt said. “She is motivated to become a member of a three-post rotation, and we’d really like to have her in that line-up. Lyssi worked on her game this summer and returns as a more versatile player.”
In Brewer’s absence, Johnson and Manning are sure to make a continued impact. This could be a transformational season for the 6’3″ Johnson, who is the most athletically gifted player ever to don an Orange & White jersey. She led the team in rebounding 17 times last season and has already made her way to the charity stripe 352 times in two campaigns. Her potential is unlimited if she can personally disable the rev limiter or lift the restrictor plate off her game and just drop the hammer.
“Glory has been working a great deal on her high post game and playing more efficiently off the bounce. She is such a versatile player. Glory likes to battle inside and be charged with taking on tough defensive assignments,” Summitt explained. A classmate who already plays at full throttle is the 6’1″ Manning, who provided solid numbers in her 14 starts and was third on the team in assists with 82 last year. She loves to play defense and is a “get in your grill” type of defender. She was recognized for both her offensive performance and defensive tenacity as a member of the 2010 SEC All-Tournament Team.
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