"I thought it was a shooting match," Coach Holly Warlick said. "I thought maybe we would score 100, but they were going to score 101. It was an offensive shooting match and we had to stop the bleeding real quick.
"Like I said we made the defense a priority, and I thought it was a good team effort."
Rice, 1-1, actually led 22-16 midway through the first half but that was followed by a 29-5 Tennessee run before the break and an 85-16 overall swing by the Lady Vols for the final margin.
"Well, it was fun for about the first eight or 10 minutes," Rice coach Greg Williams said. "I enjoyed coaching the first eight or ten minutes …
"I think they cranked up their defense a little bit, and we got careless with the basketball. Their posts do a great job of really working hard. I think they wore us down, and once that gets going, it's like a shark feeding."
Kuster, the preseason C-USA Player of the Year, made her first five shots and hit two free throws to score 12 of Rice's first 16 points.
"Jessica Kuster got off to a great start, really carried us early, and then the great overall strength and athleticism started taking its toll," Williams said.
Kuster missed her first shot at the 7:45 mark of the first half right after Tennessee had taken its first lead since it was 6-4 at the 18:27 mark after an offensive board and basket by freshman post Bashaara Graves.
Carter pulled Tennessee to within one, 22-21, with a three at the 9:40 mark of the first half. The defender dipped into the lane and Carter stepped back and stuck the trey. Sophomore forward Cierra Burdick gave the Lady Vols the lead, 23-22, on a wing jumper off a touch pass from the post by Graves.
That was followed by Burdick making one of two free throws, an offensive board stick-back by Isabelle Harrison, a turn-around off-the-glass jumper by Harrison and a Meighan Simmons driving layup for a 30-22 lead at the 6:08 mark of the first half and a Rice timeout.
Massengale drew an open floor charge out of the timeout, and Tennessee used its tenacity on defense and efficiency on offense – the Lady Vols had 10 assists to just one turnover – to take a 45-27 lead into the halftime. Warlick called timeout with 14 seconds left before the buzzer to set up a play. Carter penetrated deep into the paint to pull the defense to her and then sent a bounce pass to Simmons, who was all alone in the corner. Simmons banked in the three ball.
The Lady Vols had fully recovered from the start in which Kuster had gotten the shots she wanted at will.
"It was miscommunication," Harrison said. "Once we got it together, we put some good defense up on her."
Simmons added, "We made sure we were doing the right things out there on the floor, focusing on rotation when anybody else got deep. Things like that.
"Then the crowd got into it because we were playing defense. I think that was the big thing that got us going."
The crowd of 10,913 did enjoy the defensive surge and it especially liked the block by Carter to start the second half. Carter, who is 5-9, had to switch off with Harrison to pick up Kuster, who is 6-2, and when Kuster dribbled to the free throw line she seemed to have an easy shot over the smaller defender.
But Carter, who has tremendous leaping ability, stuffed the shot, and Harrison scored on an offensive putback for a 47-27 lead, Tennessee's largest of the game at 20 points.
The Lady Vols continued to pour in points, and Warlick was able to rotate fresh players onto the court. Graves logged the most minutes at just 26 and every player except sophomore Jasmine Phillips tallied double digits in minutes played. Phillips made her debut as a Lady Vol after being hobbled by a quad injury and played nine minutes with four boards, two assists and a steal.
"Jasmine Phillips got in tonight, still a little tender on her leg but I think she's going to bring some energy to us," Warlick said.
Warlick pulled her starters early in the second half and the bench – which outscored the Owl substitutes 32-9 – wrapped up the game for Tennessee, led by senior Kamiko Williams with 12 points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals and a block.
Senior Taber Spani, who had three assists, scored the final four points for Tennessee with a three ball and a free throw for the final 101-48 score.
Rice was led by Kuster with 16 points and Megan Palmer, who added 15. The Owls shot 31.6 percent (18-57) overall, 33.3 percent (2-6) from long range and 76.9 percent (10-13) from the line. Rice had 22 turnovers, four assists, two blocks and a steal
Despite the lopsided score, the Owls enjoyed the trip to Knoxville.
"Obviously, it's just awesome to play a school with so much tradition and just to have so many fans in the stands even if they're not for us," Kuster said. "It's just really fun to play in front of big crowds, which we don't get to do a lot. It was cool."
The game was scheduled by Williams for Jessica Goswitz, who is from Knoxville and played at Webb School.
"She's a hometown girl from Webb and won two state championships while she was at Webb, played for Shelley Sexton who's now Shelley Collier who was the starting point guard on Pat's first national championship team, and that's the reason we came to play this game was to bring Jessica back home," Williams said.
The Tennessee fans were aware of Goswitz' connections and applauded her at the pre-game introductions. She heard the enthusiastic cheers.
"I sure did, especially my mom," Goswitz said.
Tennessee had four players in double figures led by 22 points by Simmons, who started 2-6 from the field in the first half and went 6-6 in the second.
"I think it's another thing of just having the mentality of not getting down when the shots aren't falling," Simmons said. "Continuing to shoot no matter what. If the shot's not going in, just let it come to you and once you start getting the flow and getting baskets, everything will go into place."
Simmons also listened to the coaches to raise the level of her defensive play to spark her offense.
"It's remembering that just because I have a bad first half doesn't mean I'm going to have a bad second half," Simmons said. "I didn't want to make anything about me. I wanted to go out there and prove to the coaches that I can do whatever it takes for the team."
Simmons was joined in double figures by Graves with 18, Harrison with 16 and Williams with 12. Harrison's previous career high was 13 points against Chattanooga last season. Harrison also tallied 12 rebounds, tying her career high set at Chattanooga this season.
Tennessee shot 56.8 percent (42-74) overall, 46.7 percent (7-15) from the arc and 62.5 percent (10-16) from the line. The Lady Vols had 24 assists to just seven turnovers, 14 steals and five blocks.
They outscored the Owls in the paint, 56-16, out-rebounded them 44-32 and had 20 second-chance points to six for Rice.
"Hats off to Tennessee and Holly, her first home game," Williams said. "Holly and I go way back. I have a lot of respect for her. I'm very happy for her and her staff. We're two of the youngest teams in the country, two of the top 20 youngest teams in the country. They've got a bright future ahead of them; we think we do."
It was the first regular season home game at Tennessee without Pat Summitt on the sideline since 1974.
"It was the first time in 39 years," Williams said. "That says it right there, and when we originally scheduled the game, we scheduled it thinking Pat would be the coach. My thoughts and prayers are with her.
"Holly Warlick is the perfect person to take Pat's place, first player to have her jersey retired here. I coached against Holly in the first women's pro league, and I want everybody in here to know that Holly is a thief. She stole a championship ring from me.
"We had a 2-1 lead in the championship series, up 11 points going into the fourth quarter, and Holly had back-to-back steals off my two all-pro guards in the backcourt for layups, and it turned the game around. We lost game five. So, here's my blank finger."
Williams held up his right ring finger to much laughter in the post-game press conference.
Warlick, for her part, welcomed the win.
"It is great," Warlick said. "It is a lot better than my first head coach game at UTC, I can tell you that. I understand that it is about wins, and I do want the wins.
"I enjoyed watching our players. I have enjoyed watching them get better and develop. As long as we do that we are going to have a lot more wins. It feels a lot better on the winning side than it does getting your butt beat."
INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE
DeeDee Harrison, the volleyball playing sister of basketball playing Isabelle Harrison, was in the post-game press conference and as it concluded, Meighan Simmons stood up, pointed at DeeDee and said, "Stay on her. We need that."
Presumably, Simmons was talking about any pep talk that big sister had provided to little sister because Isabelle Harrison responded against Rice with a double-double of 16 and 12 in 18 minutes.
It was similar to Harrison's stats at Chattanooga with two major differences – she didn't get rattled by mistakes, hers or her team's, and when she attacked the rim, she took a split second to stay composed and finish the shots.
Simmons also apparently listened to what the coaches, especially Kyra Elzy, have been telling her – that her ability to pressure the ball and use her speed to jump the passing lanes can ignite her offense.
After a sluggish first-half – Simmons was 2-6 from the floor with no steals – she erupted to start the second half and scored seven straight points with a layup ignited by a steal to expand the lead to Rice's boiling point of 54-31 less than two minutes into the second half. She also had four steals after the break.
"There's a bigger expectation for me this year," Simmons said. "Holly isn't the main one, Coach Elzy is the main one about me getting in the passing lane and getting easy baskets by stealing the ball. Holly follows along behind her and still communicates to me and reminds me what I need to do out there on the floor."
Holly Warlick's preseason mantra has been energy. She wants her team to play hard with high energy. It seems like a simple strategy, but Tennessee's teams have struggled with the concept – at least doing so on a consistent basis – for several years.
The surge this season has been led, by all things, the freshmen. Andraya Carter and Bashaara Graves are in the starting lineup, and the youngsters have helped to set the tone.
Ariel Massengale, limited so far by an Achilles tendon injury, has still ratcheted up her defense this season. She hurdled a Rice player who was on the floor and nearly flipped over her to secure a tie-up of a loose ball. Massengale constantly pressured the ball while on defense in a tag-team with Carter with Simmons also providing tight coverage in the second half.
"That was one of our goals," Warlick said. "Pressure the ball and allow four people behind them to get steals. It starts with ball pressure and I think games like this helps them realize they importance of putting pressure on the ball and what it can result to.
"I thought tonight was a great example of the goal we wanted and of us getting in and getting after the ball and the result would be the turnovers that we created."
Massengale was limited to 22 minutes. Carter played 12 in the first half but just two in the second half after tweaking an ankle. She remained active on the sideline and likely could have returned if needed, but she wasn't.
Thanks to Simmons' second half burst the game was essentially over less than 120 seconds after the break. Senior guard Kamiko Williams also pinch hit at point guard and tallied 12 points and six assists in 19 minutes of play, most coming in the second half.
Fellow senior Taber Spani is mired in a shooting slump that reached almost cruel levels when she lofted a three that went into the cylinder, popped up and rolled off the rim. The crowd, which seemed to realize her struggles, groaned, and then erupted when a rainbow from the corner swished through the net for a 100-46 lead with 1:54 left in the game.
The fans always cheer the reaching of triple digits, but their applause was sustained and seemed to be as much for Spani as the 100 mark on the scoreboard.
The Lady Vols bench also erupted.
"We were so excited," Graves said. "You never want to see Taber down and not having a good shooting game, so for her to get that deep three and get some shots up, it was great. We were excited for her."
Warlick has remarked on the team-oriented approach that the players have taken. Warlick vowed at the beginning of the season to run an up-tempo style and to use her bench. She did so Thursday with all 11 players logging minutes before halftime.
However, Warlick also has adopted the philosophy that minutes won't be bestowed but instead earned by practice and game performance. She hasn't hesitated to sit a player for a stretch for poor shot selection or passive defense.
"We ended up playing a lot of people," Warlick said. "Jasmine Phillips got in tonight, still a little tender on her leg, but I think she's going to bring some energy to us. Everybody, I think, got a chance to contribute.
"I don't worry about getting everybody playing time. It's a matter of what you're going to do on the defensive end and what you're going to create. I thought we turned them over, we pushed the ball, we scored in transition, and that's what we've been preaching and that's what we wanted."
Warlick also won't hesitate to remind the team of its shortcomings and did so before tipoff with just two games played on the season.
The assists and turnovers against Rice, 24 and seven respectively, were nearly reversed from Chattanooga, at six assists and 26 miscues.
Warlick didn't want a repeat of last Friday when an opponent from a mid-major conference – Rice is in C-USA, Chattanooga in the Southern Conference – took it to Tennessee after the Lady Vols got out of sync on offense and out of the flow of what they had been drilled to do in the game. The result was the ball squirting loose all over the arena on the road, and players reduced to going one on one against UTC's defense.
"We were reminded today, all day today, actually, about Chattanooga," Simmons said. "We didn't want to embarrass ourselves at home. We decided to go out there and pass and continue to move forward and be the Tennessee team. We decided to continue to work together."
Warlick now officially has a winning record at 2-1, and she smiled upon being told that fact. She also knows Miami looms on the road Sunday.
"I am enjoying it right now," Warlick said of the win. "We have a tough schedule and I understand that but we are going to take one game at a time. … Now I have to worry about Miami and getting our kids ready."
At least she won't have to worry about the freshmen. They are a preternaturally mature group as a whole – and they added juco sophomore Jasmine Phillips to their mix – and that is unusual for first-year players.
They also have already bought in to the up-tempo style. While just a freshman and playing a physical position – she absorbs a lot of contact inside – Graves showed no signs of slowing down on the court.
"It was great," Graves said. "We were running, we were playing big defense, getting steals, and being in the passing lane; that's what we needed. Playing like that the whole game is what we need to do every game."
That's also old school Tennessee basketball, the kind Elzy played, the kind Pat Summitt would recognize from her front row seat at center court.
They also seem to be the best suited to upholding her legacy.
GAME HIGHLIGHTS FROM UTSPORTSTV
INSIDE TENNESSEE VIDEO COVERAGE
Coach Holly Warlick
Isabelle Harrison, Bashaara Graves, Meighan Simmons
Rice Coach Greg Williams, Jessica Kuster, Jessica Goswitz