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Shekinna Stricklen steps up role for Tennessee

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)

Shekinna Stricklen is doing it all for Tennessee.

That wasn't the case earlier in the season, even as coach Pat Summitt was moving the junior small forward closer to the post and sometimes out to the point guard position. Stricklen thought her role was limited to whatever position she was in at the time, when Summitt wanted her to do more for the Lady Volunteers.

''I didn't think I was the person that was supposed to create for my teammates. I didn't think I was the scorer anymore,'' Stricklen said. ''We just had a talk, and (Summitt) said, 'No, you can play every spot. I don't want your game to change. You can still look to score, you can look to create for your teammates, you can do it all.'''

Stricklen has been doing it all ever since, and her success on the court has infected some of her teammates as the fourth-ranked Lady Vols (22-2, 9-0) continue their undefeated run through the Southeastern Conference.

That talk in early January was more Summitt chewing out Stricklen and telling her that she wasn't playing like the All-American candidate the coach thinks she can be.

''It's not good when Pat jumps on you, you know, but she was right. I hadn't been playing my game,'' Stricklen said.

In the 16 games before that meeting, Stricklen was averaging 10 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. In the eight games since, she's averaging 15.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.

The 6-foot-2 Morrilton, Ark., native spent most of her sophomore season playing the unfamiliar position of point guard but switched to the post early this season while center Kelley Cain and forwards Vicki Baugh and Alyssia Brewer continued to recover from injuries that limited their playing time.

Stricklen felt a bit constrained in both of those positions until Summitt reminded her that her job on the court hadn't completely changed. It had grown.

''I like the fact that she can play multiple positions and not be restricted to one or two spots,'' Summitt said. ''She can play on the perimeter. She can play at the post. Her versatility is the best it's ever been. With that, I'm going to give her a lot of freedom because she's earned the right to have it.''

In the first game after her meeting with Summitt, Stricklen had 18 points and 13 rebounds against Mississippi on Jan. 9, both season highs at the time. She's turned it up even more lately in the absence of shooting guard and fellow team leader Angie Bjorklund, who has missed the last three games while recovering from a foot sprain.

Stricklen has played so much in the post this season that opponents are focusing their defensive efforts on double-teaming her around the basket. She's adjusted her game, stepping back and shooting more from the perimeter.

The results have been impressive. She tied a career-high with 26 points, including six 3-pointers, in a win at Arkansas on Feb. 7. On Monday night, she finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds, a block and a steal in a victory at Kentucky.

Stricklen still needed a little ''prayer meeting'' with Summitt at halftime after having just two points in 18 minutes of play in the first half against the Wildcats. She ended up shooting 7 of 12 in the second half.

''The one thing about Shekinna, she responds,'' Summitt said. ''I've challenged her and challenged her and challenged her and after halftime at the Kentucky game we had a pretty strong conversation, and she went out and did what she had to do. I told her, 'We count on you to help us win.'''

She's back to at her guard/forward position more regularly, but she's still opening things up for her teammates by playing all over the floor. She'll shoot from behind the arc or in the paint, but if opponents focus on her she can dish to her fellow guards or inside to the post players.

''Now that's she's been able to step out and shoot the 3-ball and penetrate, it has opened up so many doors,'' guard Kamiko Williams said. ''When Strick is playing hard and ... and she gets into the game, that just motivates all of us and gets our energy going.''

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