What a way to open the season! Two of the youngest and most intriguing women's basketball teams in the nation matched up today in Knoxville as the Tennessee Lady Volunteers hosted the Baylor Lady Bears. In a matchup of two highly talented and underclassmen-laden teams, the feature contest between young centers Kelley Cain and Brittney Griner did not disappoint. Both teams fought hard, but the Lady Vols won the way that Pat Summitt teaches them to win - by outworking their opponent in steals, rebounds, and assists.
After an initial flurry that gave the Lady Vols a 10-3 lead, both teams struggled to find their offensive groove throughout the first half. Tennessee's troubles came after Kelley Cain received two early fouls, relegating her to the bench and stifling UT's interior game. Yet with the 6'-8" Brittney Griner virtually uncontested in the Baylor offense, the Lady Bears took a long time to build a 2-point halftime lead. Despite a slightly better halftime shooting percentage (29.2% to 28.6%), the Baylor Bears held the slim lead only due to having shot far more free throws.
When the second half opened, the script reversed: Brittney Griner was hit with her second, third, and fourth fouls early, which left a fresh Cain all alone to dominate the interior on both ends of the court. With the inside-out game that has made Tennessee so dangerous throughout Pat Summitt's career, the Lady Vols roared out to a double-digit lead, only momentarily dipping within single digits a couple of times for the rest of the game. With Cain came rebounds - offensive and defensive - as well as the go-to presence needed to stabilize the offense. And with Cain leading the way, the rest of the Lady Vols came alive.
But for all that Cain did for the Lady Vols, the player of the game may very well be Shekinna Stricklen. The guard-forward-turned-point guard led all Lady Vols in rebounds (14), offensive rebounds (6), assists (5), free throws (9/10) and points (25), and she never once committed a foul. When Cain was out, Stricklen kept the Lady Vols in play with her hustle.
The frustration was clear on Griner's face as, perhaps for the first time in her career, she faced an opponent who was at least her equal. Griner had the height on Cain as well as the wingspan (eighty-eight inches!), but Cain had the experience. And once both players were in foul trouble, Cain consistently found ways to score points over Griner, using Griner's tendencies against her. For a first game, Brittney Griner played well; she is going to be an absolute terror for opponents for her career. But for one night, she learned that height alone won't get her there.
It wasn't a championship, but it could just as easily have been. Both teams have the potential to meet up later in the Final Four, and that kind of hustle will be necessary if the Lady Vols wish to repeat their performance tonight. But after all of the troubles of last year, there couldn't be any prettier sight than to see the gals win by desire and by a willingness to get physical and outwork an opponent.
Well done, Ladies. A few more of those and you'll have your locker room back in no time.