Lady Vols outlast Louisville, 63-50

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The entrance to the Evan Williams Bourbon Bar was a few rows behind the visitor's bench, and the Tennessee coaches might have felt like sneaking out for a sip after watching a turnover-filled slugfest in the opening game of the season, but the Lady Vols played stiff defense down the stretch and dominated the boards for a 63-50 win over Louisville before a record crowd of 22,124.

The crowd set both a Big East and Louisville record, and the Cardinal supporters far out-numbered those in orange. Louisville Coach Jeff Walz used a sideline microphone to thanks the fans who filled the new KFC! Yum Center on Friday evening in downtown Louisville.

"I just wanted everyone who came tonight to know that I appreciated it and the players appreciated it," Walz said. "It says a lot about our city, fan base, and the people who are here. Tennessee brought some fans up. They travel well but it's not like they brought up 6,000. The majority were Louisville fans.

"I think there were some who were shocked. They were thinking that they were going to have thousands of Tennessee fans show up. That was not the case. We had the majority of the fans in here."

It was about a 90-10 split in favor of the red-clad fans, who were energized before tipoff by the jersey retirement of Angel McCoughtry, a former All-American and leading scorer and rebounder in school history. She was presented a framed No. 35 jersey and a banner with her jersey was spotlighted in the rafters.

Tennessee, 1-0, had its own royalty in attendance in former Lady Vol All-American Tamika Catchings, who made the trip from Indianapolis and sat behind the Lady Vols' bench.

In terms of hustle and heart she likely saw herself in the play of freshman guard Meighan Simmons, who made her debut in college basketball and basically stole the show with a game-high 22 points.

"She's just fearless, and I hope others will follow her lead," Coach Pat Summitt said. "She just came up big for us and when I watched her play, I knew she was a special player but I did not anticipate that she would have the confidence and the skill set that she has. She plays both ends. All I say is quick on quick."

Simmons came to the post-game press conference with junior guard Shekinna Stricklen, who had a game-high 12 rebounds, and junior forward Glory Johnson, who likely will spend the off day Saturday in an ice bath after battling in what looked essentially like a prison-yard rugby game in the paint.

Johnson listed the players who shed blood and/or were raked with scratches – they included Johnson, Kelley Cain, Taber Spani and Alicia Manning – and said the battles in the paint were pitched.

"I've never seen a busted blood vessel before," Johnson said as she held out her arms - one of which was red and irritated - at the post-game press conference. "I've got one."

Vicki Baugh and Cain wanted to join the fray but spent most of the game in foul trouble – both finished with four fouls, including two bizarre charging calls on Cain, the last of which sent her to the bench with 8:17 left in the game.

Cain screamed, "Let's do it," at Baugh, who picked up her third foul 20 seconds later and then a fourth one 20 seconds after that and then had to join Cain on the sideline.

Despite their limited court time, the two combined for 14 rebounds and 10 points. They both got back in the game for the final four minutes, and their presence in the paint snuffed out Louisville's last attempt to rally, as they cleaned up the defensive glass.

The Lady Vols had a 25-19 edge on the boards at halftime and extended that to an eye-popping 53-29 lead by the end of the game.

"I think we can learn and we have to be invested in the fact that if you play great defense and you really get on the glass even on a bad shooting night, you can find a way to win and I thought it really came down to that with us," Summitt said.

Tennessee ended up shooting a respectable 40.7 percent (24-59) from the field, but was hurt on offense by 29 turnovers.

Louisville, 0-1, lost the ball 22 times and shot just 30.5 percent (18-59) from the field in a game that featured pressure defense on both ends, especially on the perimeter. The Cardinals wanted to run and Tennessee's transition defense, a weakness last season, was outstanding, for the most part, in the season opener.

"With 29 turnovers, it's hard to come out of a place like this with a crowd that they had," Summitt said. "One thing you can say about a team is that they find a way to win and you have to appreciate that fact."

A big reason for that was the play of Simmons, who took some ill-advised three-pointers in the first half – she was 0-4 from long range – but made up for it by nailing back-to-back ones in the second half for a 53-44 lead with 6:06 left in the game.

"I know we love her," Stricklen said with a smile as she wrapped an arm around the freshman. "She really stepped up. She actually pulled out this game for us."

It was a one-point game, 45-44, with 7:35 left. Angie Bjorklund got the Lady Vols to 45-36 with a three-pointer from the corner but Tennessee's next 10 offensive possessions ended with a series of missed shots, fouls and turnovers.

Louisville got to within one with a layup by Shoni Schimmel, and-one by Monique Reid, who converted the free throw and a three-pointer from Becky Burke.

But then Simmons scored eight quick points after rebounding her own miss and then hitting the two three-pointers. That led to a Walz timeout – and Louisville trimmed the lead to five, 55-50, with 4:08 left to play – but Stricklen rebounded a missed three by Simmons, got fouled and hit both free throws.

Cain stretched the lead to nine points, 59-50, after making a nice catch and finish off a Simmons feed with one second left on the shot clock and 1:59 left to play.

Baugh rebounded a missed three from Schimmel and got the ball to Stricklen, who was fouled and hit both free throws for a 61-50 lead. Stricklen finished the scoring for the game with a drive to the basket for the final 63-50 score. Schimmel missed a layup, Cain got the layup and Simmons dribbled out the clock to end the game.

Tennessee won the game because it held Louisville to six points in the final 7:35 – while scoring 18 points in that time period – and owned the glass on both ends.

"That we had to defend, and we had to get the ball inside," Summitt said of her thoughts when it was a one-point game. "I thought our post game stepped up, but I thought our defense really opened things up for us.

"And defense and rebounding is how we built the program at Tennessee. We still have some young players but we had enough veteran players that it shouldn't have come down to that but it did. That's why we'll learn lessons from this game and I think in a very good way."

Tennessee also switched to its matchup zone defense in the second half and planted Cain in the middle of it. She became a one-woman fortress in the paint, blocked three shots – the box score credited her with two – and altered several others.

"I thought we were doing a really good job against their man and getting the shots we wanted," Walz said. "We were scoring during that stretch and then we came out and didn't execute, which is a tribute to them, believe me. They did a fantastic job. We had two or three trips where we had some mental breakdowns. You can't do that up against a team like that."

The game started off just the way Louisville wanted it – minus the turnovers – as the Cardinals got off to an 8-2 lead and got a crowd that at first was rather comfortable to just watch into a full-throated roar.

Summitt got her size into the game in a hurry in Cain and Baugh and also inserted Simmons at the 15:46 mark. The freshman made mistakes in the offense, especially in long-range shot selection and a wrap-around pass that was nearly a turnover and that likely tested Summitt's patience, but the head coach let her play through them, and Simmons ultimately justified the confidence.

"She wasn't really in the scouting report," Reid said. "We knew she was able. If you go to Tennessee, we know you're a baller. We didn't really expect it. … Big ups to her. She's a hooper."

Simmons will be in every scouting report after that debut performance as she also had an impact in ways not measured in the box score. She fought for loose balls, pursued her own misses and never gave up on possessions until the whistle blew.

Simmons played 31 minutes – a stat that surprised her – and proved to be as good in the post-game press conference as she was on the court.

"I think it was the fact of God using his gift and showing it to the world and letting people know I gave this girl a gift and why not use it at this point in time for my first away game with 22,000 people," Simmons said. "That's just crazy to me, just crazy."

Walz said he recruited Simmons and knew what she was capable of doing. Simmons wasn't a top 20 recruit in the class of 2010 but perhaps she should have been.

"Our rankings in women's basketball, people that rank don't get a chance to get out and see kids play as much as the men's side," Walz said. "If she goes out there and plays one bad game that might be the one that the person who ranks her remembers.

She's talented. She was the one that I was worried about. I was impressed because Pat let her play, because she was the one I had not seen on film of how Pat was going to play her. I was very impressed because Pat let her play. Once she got on the floor there was no, ‘You can't do this, you can't do that.' Pat said, ‘Play.' A kid like that, that is what you have to do.

"You're going to have some games where she might not drop 22, but she still might take 20 shots. Pat knows this. She's coached great players before. She is one who is going to continue to get better."

Walz also was patient with Schimmel, his freshman point guard, who had no points, no assists and seven turnovers in the first half.

"I wasn't going to take the kid out and not start her in the second half," Walz said. "I know what she can do."

Schimmel had just one turnover in the second half and finished with nine points, three assists and three steals.

"He told me to calm down, relax and smile," Schimmel said.

"The kid has a chance to become a great player here," Walz said. "She works her tail off. I don't think anybody should be disappointed with what they saw from the kid. She has a lot of hype out there but I think she's shown glimpses of what she can do."

Schimmel clearly is a crowd favorite, and she has the reins of an athletic team that pressures the ball and likes to push tempo. Several of Schimmel's first-half turnovers came after launching long passes despite the fact her intended targets were covered.

"She tried to make several passes up the floor and I told her I wanted the ball pushed up the floor," Walz said. "I just made a simple halftime adjustment. I told her you can't push the ball up the floor if nobody is guarding you. They weren't guarding her. They were enticing her to make her throw the full length of the court. Nobody was stopping her from continuing to the basket.

"You saw in the second half when she attacked some good things happened. As soon as she gets a grasp of that, and she will because she's a quick learner, we're going to be fine and she is going to be fine. She turned it over in the first half seven times and came out in the second half and only turned it over once. She got herself together and she is going to be very good for us."

Schimmel had a breakaway in the second half and after wrapping the ball around her back, she tried to bounce it behind her back to a teammate. The pass instead found Bjorklund, who had gotten back on defense. A Louisville fan sitting courtside turned to media row, smiled and said, "Freshmen," prompting laughter.

Tennessee's first-year player acknowledged a sense of anticipation all day that prevented her from even getting a pre-game nap. She also told her teammates that she missed the sight of orange.

"There wasn't enough orange out there," Simmons said.

The lower level was full of Cardinal red with a few isolated patches of orange, and the Louisville fans were ready for a good time. The joke on media row was that the arena was a big bar that happened to have a basketball court on the lower level, as there was a bourbon bar, vodka bar, beer carts, lounges and bar/sitting areas on the concourses, including one that opened to the outside for a view of the Ohio River.

It was clear that Summitt had not ventured to the concourses, but the venue did match the expanse of Thompson-Boling Arena. Since Tennessee's arena is on campus, no alcohol is sold.

"It reminds me a lot of Thompson-Boling with the same capacity and the sky boxes," Summitt said. "I just think it's a beautiful facility. What a great place. We have already talked about trying to keep the series alive. I have to look at my schedule but I told him all I was worried about right now was this game so I don't even know what my schedule looks like in the future.

"But I think this is a great environment. We like to go to places where it's hostile and we have to find a way to work it out and get the win if we can. And if we get beat, then we go home and we learn."

Walz joked that before the game he suggested a three-game series to Summitt.

"I'm up for a three-game series, two at our place and one in Nashville," Walz said to much laughter. "I recommended it to Pat, too, before the game. I did talk to her about it, and she's up for it. We're full for next year already, but in the future, yes, I would really be interested in playing a home and home."

Summitt had considerable praise for Walz after the game.

"He's excellent," Summitt said. "He's really, really good and he's going to keep winning and he's going to keep getting players. I think he does things the right way and that's why I would consider us trying to keep the series going. But again, I don't even know who we play next. So I'll figure it out down the road."

That would be Chattanooga on Monday night in the home opener of the season. Summitt will give the team off Saturday – the team bus rolled into Knoxville in the wee hours of the morning – and will retake the court Sunday.

"I thanked her again for her to come up here and play this game," Walz said. "It's not normal to be the fourth-ranked team in the country and play a road game you're first game. I was much appreciative of them making the trip up here. I thought it was a great night overall. Unfortunately we didn't end up on the right side of the scoreboard."

Summitt wasn't exactly that happy herself. When a reporter placed a recorder on the podium as she got ready to speak, she said, "Is it going to blow up?"

When told no, Summitt said, "OK, I did today."

"Obviously, this was a really good experience for us," Summitt said. "There is no doubt about this Louisville team. I mean they are really tough-minded, very well coached and we had our hands full throughout the game. And I think that's a good thing because when you go on the road, it's very hard to win and to keep our players focused.

"We had some players come ready to play and we had others that played more so on one side of the ball than the other and that typically is offense and therefore our defense (initially) was not at the level that we had anticipated. But overall, I think just the environment was awesome and for us able to be in this situation and come out with a win I think we can build on it but we can also learn from it."

Summitt did like the work on the boards. Of the 53 rebounds, 20 came on the offensive glass with Simmons and Stricklen getting 10 on that end of the floor. On the flip side, Walz mentioned his team's lack of board work.

"We got killed on the glass, which was a big factor for us," Walz. "Rebounding was a key point that we tried to emphasize. We had to try to control the boards. (Simmons) had six of their 20 offensive rebounds. Pretty impressive.

"They just worked hard. They went after it. I thought we rebounded OK at times but we came up with 10 offensive boards. We've got to do a better job of coming up with boards at crunch time and that's what they did."

Stricklen led the way with 12 rebounds while Simmons had eight, Johnson, Baugh and Cain had seven each and Bjorklund grabbed five. No player was in double digits on the glass for Louisville, though Reid had nine.

Stricklen and Simmons led the scoring, too, with 14 for Stricklen and 22 for Simmons. Cain added eight and Bjorklund hit two three-pointers for six points.

"We had two people in double figures and we should have more than that," Summitt said.

Reid paced Louisville with 19 points, Schimmel added nine and Burke chipped in with eight points. Burke got loose for two three-pointers, but Tennessee's perimeter defense was much improved as the Cardinals shot 19.0 percent (4-21) from behind the arc.

The teams tied with 13 steals each and were close in assists – 11 for Tennessee and 10 for Louisville. Alicia Manning and Simmons had three each for the Lady Vols. Reid and Schimmel had three each for the Cardinals.

Louisville was picked in the preseason to finish eighth in the Big East, a ranking that Walz said didn't surprise him based on the results of last year's injury-riddled team.

"Well I think he needs to tell everybody that that's where they belong but we know better," Summitt said.

Tennessee started its smaller lineup to start the game and again in the second half, but as Cain and Baugh get up to speed that should change. Bjorklund likely will welcome them back as both are adept at setting high screens, and that will help the long-range shooters. Bjorklund had one open look in the first half and hit it, but the shot was nullified by a three-second call in the paint. She buried another shot in the corner in the second half by running the baseline and sending her defender into an improvised screen on the low block.

Summitt never got comfortable on the sideline in this game, and she didn't hesitate to go to her bench. She used 10 players and all but freshman Lauren Avant logged double-digits in minutes. It was a hard-fought win against a coach who also went 10 deep with eight players logging double digits in playing time minutes for Louisville.

"Their defense was really, really strong and I'm not surprised," Summitt said. "They're so well coached and they're tough, tough-minded. There are a lot of similarities between the two teams so it didn't surprise me at all. There is no quit in them. And for that reason, I kept my eye on the scoreboard probably more than I should have. But we were mindful that Louisville could get right back in this game."

Tennessee had a height advantage in the game and Cain was effective when she was on the floor. Without Cain and Baugh in the game, Tennessee lacked a strong post-up presence, and Louisville reacted by pressuring the ball on the perimeter.

"It's crazy," Reid said. "They have a 6'3 point guard. … Their height is crazy. With height you've got to box out, and rebounds killed us. Killed us."

The outcome allowed Summitt to deliver one of her basketball maxims – a team has to pack its defense and board play on the road.

"It was great, I loved it," Summitt said. "I just love games like this. We have a lot of those in the teams we play because we have a tough schedule coming up. … I don't do well when we play what I call ‘patsy teams,' because I think that sometimes our team gets bored and we get bad habits.

"So the tougher the schedule, the better I like it."

VIDEO COVERAGE: Video clips of the KFC Yum! Center, pre-game, the jersey retirement and Tamika Catchings.

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