"Obviously anytime you can go on the road and get a win is very important to us," Summitt said. "But how we played tonight was not the ‘Tennessee Way.' I will tell you that South Carolina had a lot to do with it. I think they did a great job with their defensive intensity, pushing the ball up and down the floor, and getting inside on us. Not one of our better efforts as a basketball team."
"(South Carolina) scored 25 points off of turnovers. We were very careless, loose with the ball. We have something to work on when we go back to Knoxville before we get ready to go to Auburn. Also, they had 36 paint points, and that's huge. We had a hard time slowing them down and keeping them out of the paint. This is a pretty good blueprint for what we need to get better at."
Tennessee (18-2, 6-0) kept its record perfect in the SEC by repelling upset-minded South Carolina (10-9, 2-4) by halftime and maintaining its lead in the second half before a crowd of 3,647 that included former Lady Vol All-American Chamique Holdsclaw, who now makes her home in Atlanta, about 200 miles away.
The game was reminiscent of a faraway loss to Georgetown in the Virgin Islands in that the guards brought ferocious pressure on the perimeter and forced turnovers for easy baskets. When the Lady Vols were getting shots they were often misfiring early, and the Gamecocks got the defensive board and beat Tennessee down the floor.
The Lady Vols towered over the Gamecocks, which all lined up on one side of the court for the jump ball, essentially conceding that contest to the 6'6 Kelley Cain. But Angie Bjorklund lost the handle on the perimeter – a sign of things to come for Tennessee – and South Carolina took a 2-0 lead.
On the Lady Vols' next possession, Cain got doubled and found Bjorklund alone on the perimeter – a tactic that should have worked well to start the game – and she hit the shot to tie the game at the 19:32 mark. But then the ball started squirting free from the Lady Vols.
Summitt had called a timeout at the 17:39 mark after Ieasia Walker drained a three after a Cain outlet pass hit Shekinna Stricklen in the back of the head for a 5-2 Gamecock lead. Summitt inserted Alicia Manning a minute later for Meighan Simmons, who dribbled into a double team from the top of the key and turned over the ball, but South Carolina's Ashley Bruner hit a layup and was fouled at the 16:08 mark and the Gamecocks led 12-4.
By the first media timeout at 15:01 – it came after Stricklen was thrust back into the point guard spot and lost the ball off her thigh on a dribble handoff heavily contested by South Carolina – Tennessee had more turnovers at five than points at four.
Because of the miscues the Lady Vols had lofted just seven shots to 14 for the Gamecocks at that point. Summitt shook up the lineup again – Kamiko Williams and Glory Johnson replaced Bjorklund and Manning – as she tried to find a combination that could handle the ball and defend. That proved to be rather elusive in the first half, but Taber Spani and Stricklen went to work on the offensive end and Cain and Johnson patrolled the paint on defense.
Stricklen hit a stick-back after Johnson and Cain missed inside to cut the lead to six points, 12-6, at the 13:39 mark. Johnson got a putback of a Williams' miss on a drive and Cain got an offensive board off another Williams' miss and fired out to Spani, who drained the three.
It was Spani's first three-pointer in SEC play – she had started 0-11 – and it cut the lead to one, 12-11, with 11:07 left. Johnson made one of two free throws to tie the game at 12 and Spani connected again from long range to give the Lady Vols their first lead of the game, 15-12, at the 9:22 mark of the first half. She drained the shot with a defender in her face from the corner because her teammates were rooted to their spots on the court.
Valerie Nainima, who came back from ACL surgery in a little over four months, drained a three 21 seconds later to tie the game at 15. From there the game would be tied three more times in the first half until Stricklen hit a putback off a Simmons' miss for a 28-26 lead with 1:59 left before the break.
Manning drove the baseline – it was open because of the aggressive double teams on the perimeter – and hit the reverse layup for a 30-26 lead. After one turnover by Tennessee and two by South Carolina, the final one with 13 seconds left, Tennessee got the ball and Bjorklund drained the three for a 33-26 lead at halftime.
"That was an important turn for us," Summitt said. "Just to be able to go in and get a little bit of space, not as much as we hoped. But obviously to go in and score those points wasn't easy.
Tennessee had 13 turnovers in the game's first 20 minutes to just four assists, but was shooting a scorching 57.1 percent from behind the arc thanks to Spani (3-4) and Bjorklund (1-2).
The Lady Vols also dominated the boards in the first half, 25-13. South Carolina had eight turnovers and had outscored the Lady Vols, 13-0, in fast break points. Stricklen and Spani played for the entire 20 minutes in the first half.
Summitt returned to her starters to open the second half, and the Lady Vols immediately got the ball to Cain inside for a 35-28 lead at the 19:22 mark after Walker hit a jumper for South Carolina.
Simmons settled down at the point, and the Lady Vols used their size and strength to score inside. South Carolina, however, also was getting to the paint – a 38-36 slim edge in points for Tennessee for the game – but the Lady Vols dominated the offensive glass and outscored the Gamecocks, 24-15, in second chance points.
"We knew what our advantage would be, and we knew what our disadvantage would be," South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said. "I didn't think we played fast enough some times. I was trying to get our players to push the ball down the floor and try to score before all their height could come into play.
"Their height bothered us, especially in the half-court sets, but we still got shots at the basket. The game plan was executed. We just couldn't hit shots."
Tennessee shot 50.0 percent (13-26) in the second half to 31.0 percent (13-42) for South Carolina – a whopping disparity in shot attempts as the Gamecocks lost the ball just three times in the second half to 11 miscues for the Lady Vols and used that marksmanship to maintain the lead.
Simmons scored all 16 of her points in the second half and was 5-5 from the free throw line as she used her speed for forays to the paint, where she either went to the rim or found an open teammate.
"First half I didn't come out like I expected to," Simmons said. "I just came out a little bit slow. It must have been that my mind wasn't there. Second half, my teammates were just encouraging and telling me, ‘Hey, we need you to pick up your game and speed the tempo up a little bit.'
"There were times when I was going a little bit too fast. After a while I made the adjustment, started getting my teammates involved, and I think that's when more opportunities started to show up."
Summitt sat the youngster early in the first half but reinserted her well before halftime and stayed with Simmons in the second half, where she was 5-9 from the field after going 0-2 in the first half.
"I will say Meighan has been a great addition as a freshman and obviously hasn't typically played like a freshman," Summitt said. "I think because of her experience at her high school she had to do a lot of things. Now she's learning to manage a game and getting a lot better at that. We're just glad she's here at Tennessee."
The Gamecocks didn't go gently into that good night. The Lady Vols got the lead to 15 points, 51-36, with 11:39 to go after Simmons hit a pull-up in the paint, but South Carolina hovered, thanks to Walker, whose handiwork on both ends was all over the box score.
Simmons hit a three-pointer after positioning herself behind the arc and waiting for the ball to come back from a surrounded Cain and then found Stricklen in transition for a 57-45 lead.
But South Carolina managed to trim the lead to five points, 57-52, with 4:57 left after a jumper and trey from Walker and a layup from Markeshia Grant. Tennessee took a 30-second timeout, and the Lady Vols created separation again, closing both halves with runs.
"It's always big when you're playing against a team that can score in a lot of different ways," Staley said. "I thought for the most part defensively we did all we could do. We just weren't able to knock down shots.
"We got good shots at the basket, (but) we just didn't knock them down. Even through their runs, we did a good job maintaining. We just couldn't make shots."
When Stricklen made two free throws with 2:08 left the lead was back to 15 points, 67-52. Tennessee closed the game with Simmons driving and dishing to Johnson for a 69-54 lead and two free throws from Simmons followed by a layup from South Carolina's La'Keisha Sutton for the final 71-56 score.
Stricklen was selected as the player of the game after a career-high 16 rebounds – her previous high was 14 against Baylor on Nov. 15, 2009 – and 18 points.
"When you have Stricklen with 16 boards that's huge for us." Summitt said. "That's not a typical outing, game in and game out. I really challenged her to get on the boards. Glory Johnson has to be a lot better on the glass. That's one of the missing pieces and, again, we need better rebounding from our guards."
Stricklen said on the post-game radio show that she was upset about her missed shots – she was 7-18 from the field – and that the players and the coach were not happy about the defensive effort.
"We were really letting their defense get to us," Stricklen said. "Defense is going to get us to a Final Four, and we've got to commit to that."
The game was similar to the Nov. 27, 2010, loss to Georgetown, 69-58, when the Hoyas used pressure defense to disrupt the guards. That result led to Stricklen coming off the ball, and Simmons starting at point guard. When the freshman struggled, Stricklen had to slide over to the spot again but Simmons regrouped in the second half.
"They were just pushing tempo, and they were just running the ball right up our backs," Summitt said. "It's probably – in terms of the teams we played this year – they probably were in the top two of a team that's going to push on everything. You have to turn and defend.
"But when they get you on your heels, that's the hard part about it. They just ran and ran and ran after us. That being said, I thought we adjusted, but it took us a while to adjust. You can see it on tape and that's one thing. But when you get on the court then you understand the pace of the game is pretty intense."
South Carolina continued to push tempo throughout the game, but struggled to connect from the field. Georgetown was 12-24 from behind the arc when it beat Tennessee. The Gamecocks were 4-21 from long range.
"I think it just came down to us not hitting shots," Staley said. "I thought our defense was pretty good, and we made up for the rebounding difference by turning them over, so we got some of those possessions back.
"We just couldn't hit shots when we needed to hit shots. That's what it came down to."
South Carolina was without Marah Strickland, the transfer from Maryland, because of a foot sprain that also caused her to miss the game before Tennessee. The Gamecocks also could not match up inside.
"They got a lot of offensive rebounds, and they converted on them," Walker said. "We also fouled a lot, and they hit a lot of free throws, too. So those were the two biggest problems for us."
South Carolina was led by Walker with 24 points, eight rebounds, three steals and two blocks.
"She's been playing great basketball for us on both sides of the court," Staley said. "When someone scores almost half of your points, you want that person taking the shots. I don't think she forced a whole lot of shots. I like her effort, and I like what she gave us. We just need some others to hit some timely shots."
Sutton tallied 11 points for the Gamecocks with Bruner adding eight off the bench.
South Carolina shot 32.9 percent (24-73) overall, 19.0 percent (4-21) from the arc and 44.4 percent (4-9) from the line. The Gamecocks had four assists, 11 turnovers, nine steals and three blocks.
Stricklen led Tennessee with 18 points while Simmons tallied 16. Cain also was in double figures with 11 points on 5-7 shooting and got the double-double with 11 boards. Spani added nine points her three first-half treys and Johnson chipped in with eight points.
Tennessee shot 48.2 percent (27-56) overall, 55.6 percent (5-9) from long range and 66.7 percent (12-18) from the line. The Lady Vols had 10 assists, 24 turnovers, eight blocks – six by Cain – and two steals.
"South Carolina played really tough," Summitt said. "They defend. They really got after us. I thought our ball security was not always what it needed to be. This was a great SEC matchup for us."
The two teams will square off again on Feb. 17 when South Carolina comes to Knoxville. Simmons likely will benefit from having experienced the pressure firsthand.
"It was just everybody coming together and just saying no matter what, we just have to go out there and play hard," Simmons said. "But with me, I thrive in situations like that because it makes me want to go hard and makes me want to pick my game up and try to get my teammates involved, try to get them at the same pace I am, just continue to move forward no matter what the score comes down to."