Stricklen shoots for half full

Seniors Glory Johnson and Shekinna Stricklen still seek their first Final Four. Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

There are times when Shekinna Stricklen has left Tennessee fans gasping about a great play she made. But there are also times she left them grasping at straws trying to explain where she disappeared to during games.

Stricklen, a 6-foot-2 senior, leads Tennessee with 15.4 points per game, and also averages 6.4 rebounds. She's strong, solidly built and tall, but also quick. The physical package and skills that go with it leave WNBA scouts saying, "Yes, she looks perfect."

Well, that's with one breath. But in the next breath, they'll say, "But … where was she in the first half the other night?"

Stricklen agonizes over it. She knows that how she goes, so usually has gone Tennessee in her four seasons. And now she's at the point of no return: This is her last NCAA tournament and chance at a Women's Final Four.

"Our class has been through every situation, and we've just figured out at pressure time how to be leaders," Stricklen said. "I want to be a decision-maker and playmaker for this team. I feel I can do that because I know the game better now."

That all sounds good, and if you look at the SEC tournament almost two weeks ago, her actions matched those words. But can Stricklen keep it up through the NCAA tournament? Tennessee starts play Saturday (ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET) in Chicago against coach Pat Summitt's alma mater, Tennessee-Martin.

The Lady Vols hope to pick up right where they left off at the SEC tourney in Nashville, Tenn. There, Tennessee avenged two of its regular-season losses by defeating Vanderbilt and South Carolina in the quarterfinals and semifinals. In the championship game, the Lady Vols beat LSU for a second time this season, with Stricklen's 3-pointer with 58 seconds to go being the dagger in the 70-58 victory.

This is an example of the stuff that makes pro scouts smile broadly: Stricklen's ability to hit a clutch perimeter shot, mixed with her physical skills to play inside and guard foes of any size.

The SEC tournament, in which Stricklen combined for 50 point and 15 rebounds in three games, did raise one of her issues, though: In some games, she really doesn't have a good first half.

"I think sometimes, as Shekinna says, she starts off tense, and that's not good for her game," associate head coach Holly Warlick said. "We have to get her to where she just plays the game and goes out and competes without worrying.

"And when the clock winds down, she has to make plays. I understand she has a lot of pressure on her, but that's part of being a leader."

We all know, though, that Stricklen had to go through the school of hard knocks about leadership. She came into Tennessee along with current fellow seniors Glory Johnson, Alicia Manning and Briana Bass in the fall of 2008, after a senior class led by Candace Parker had just won back-to-back national championships.

A year of mentorship under the likes of Parker, Alexis Hornbuckle and Nicky Anosike no doubt would have helped Stricklen, in particular. Instead, she was asked to play out of position at point guard during her freshman season, which ended with a stunning NCAA first-round loss to Ball State. (You have to figure every once in awhile, the Tennessee seniors still wake up in the middle of the night thinking, "Did that Ball State thing really happen?")

Tennessee advanced to the Sweet 16 and then the Elite Eight in Stricklen's sophomore and junior years. The Lady Vols now have won three consecutive SEC tournaments. Stricklen will end up being a high WNBA draft pick, despite some of the reservations scouts have about her. She's just too potentially good to pass up.

But sometimes the word "potential" can be a vexing thing. Stricklen's career has been a very good one. But when she shows those flashes of the potential to be great, you're left wondering why she isn't like that all the time.

Probably because consistency itself is a skill, and it's the aspect of succeeding that Tennessee as a whole has had some trouble with this season. The Lady Vols' eight losses give Stricklen 25 for her career. Which is more than a lot of players from Tennessee's great past are used to.

But to be fair, look at what this year's senior class -- which includes redshirt senior Vicki Baugh, a freshman on the 2008 NCAA title team -- has dealt with. As mentioned, they were too often rudderless in terms of team leadership that first year for Stricklen.

Then that summer, one of her fellow sophomores-to-be, Amber Gray, suffered a stroke and never did return to the court for Tennessee, instead transferring to Xavier. Kelley Cain, who would have been a redshirt senior this season, opted to end her college career last April. Yet another player from Stricklen's original class, Alyssia Brewer, left after three years and transferred to UCLA last fall.

And of course, in August, the Tennessee players got the news that Summitt had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.

Considering all that, you can see where some of Stricklen's consistency issues might have come from.

"She really has worked on her game," Warlick said. "And throughout her career, we've played her at the 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. She's handled the ball and posted up. She's had to do a lot."

Stricklen said that while at times she felt too stretched beyond her comfort zone, it ultimately has helped her.

"My freshman year when I had to start at point guard, I just got frustrated because it's not my spot," Stricklen said. "But as I grew older, I realized, it's not about you, it's about your team. I was blessed with the gifts to play every spot on the court, and I've got to use that to my advantage."

You can also add one more factor into bumps in the road that Tennessee had this year: The SEC truly is competitive. Kentucky won the regular-season title and is an NCAA No. 2 seed, like Tennessee. The league has eight teams in the field, including South Carolina and Arkansas, both of whom beat Tennessee in Knoxville this season.

That latter loss to the Razorbacks -- 72-71 in overtime Feb. 23 -- really stung for Stricklen, who is from Arkansas. She didn't come through while on the free throw line during the extra period.

"The Arkansas game sticks in my head, when I choked," said Stricklen, who still led Tennessee with 17 points, all scored after halftime. "I missed four free throws in a row. That won't happen again."

The rough first-half problem did resurface in the SEC tournament, but Stricklen was nails at the end of those games.

That's exactly what she wants to be for the rest of the time she has in orange.