Despite the Lady Bulldogs' futility in conference play they led the Lady Vols at halftime, 37-35, after scorching the nets from long range at 58.3 percent. It was both a combination of Mississippi State hitting a few contested treys and mostly being left open because of defensive inattention.
"We didn't pick up early. We played lazy. We didn't talk," Coach Pat Summitt said.
"It's a personal responsibility for everyone," sophomore guard Taber Spani said. "Talking is just about effort. Even if you're tired, talking is hard when you're tired, but you make an effort. It's about focus and it's about wanting to do the details.
"Talking is a little thing that makes a huge difference. I take it upon myself to really try to be vocal, and I know that all of us want to do that. If one person isn't talking on the team, it makes a big difference, and when we had no one in the first half talking, obviously, you saw what happened. That's unacceptable."
The workhorse on both ends for Tennessee was Glory Johnson, who had a career night in points with 22, assists with seven and blocks with four. She tied a career high with 18 rebounds. She logged 33 minutes in a brutally physical game and spent as much time peeling herself off the floor as she did motoring down it.
When Summitt was asked to comment on Johnson's stat line, she looked at the box score and for once was nearly at a loss for words.
"I don't know what else I can do," Summitt said. "I can't buy her dinner. If I could, I would. She was terrific."
Summitt was happy after the game, but her mood as the first half unfolded got increasingly sour. She was scribbling notes before halftime – never a good sign – and let loose on her team in the locker room at the break.
"That was about the worst half of basketball I've seen this season, probably the worst," Summitt said. "I told them this shows me that this was an immature team in the first half and going into the game.
"They just thought that they hadn't won a game in the conference so this is going to be a cakewalk. I know Sharon Fanning, and I know nothing's a cakewalk. The fact that they hadn't won a game in the conference I knew they were going to come in here and do a great job. Sharon does a great job, and her staff does a great job.
"Unfortunately, we took them lightly until halftime. And halftime wasn't lightly. That might have been the most intense part of tonight."
Naturally, Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis had an opposite view of the halves. The Lady Bulldogs scored 21 points on three-pointers alone in the first half. Her team managed just 18 total points after halftime.
"Let's bottle the first half and do away with the second," Fanning-Otis said. "I thought that in the first half we attacked and play hard. I was really, really disappointed in the second half in terms of us attacking them, but I knew that they would also play harder.
"I have to give credit to the (Tennessee) players stepping up because they took it at us from a defensive standpoint and from a transition standpoint. We made some poor decisions, and I think that led to mental lapses."
After the break, Tennessee regained the lead on a Meighan Simmons three-pointer just 13 seconds into the second half on an inside-outside play with Johnson and never lost it after opening the second half with an 18-0 run. The only outcome in doubt was whether or not the team would tally at least 80 points and score the fans some free chicken at Hardees.
The 11,148 fans, in a near-rabid state at some of the non-calls – Johnson was raked repeatedly inside – were screaming enthusiastically for a bucket, and Alicia Manning hit a short jumper on an assist from Spani with two seconds left for the chicken basket, leading to one of the loudest cheers of the night.
The Lady Vols were missing four players for the game, including two starters. Senior starting guard Angie Bjorklund, who is resting a foot injury and is in a walking boot, was in warmups on the bench, as was redshirt junior forward Vicki Baugh. Freshman guard Lauren Avant and redshirt junior starting center Kelley Cain were ill with the flu and not even on the sideline.
When Jenny Moshak, the team's chief of sports medicine, told Summitt before the game that she would prefer if Baugh (knee) didn't play, Summitt felt sick, too.
"Jenny evaluated her, came to me and said, ‘I prefer her not to play,' " Summitt said. "I was feeling pretty good about it (being down two starters) until she told me Vicki was going to be out, and I was like, ‘Whoa.'
"First half I was thinking, ‘We've just got to get through this somehow.' "
Tennessee actually started the game quite well with Kamiko Williams and Glory Johnson taking the court as starters.
Johnson jumped center and placed the ball right between Shekinna Stricklen and Spani. Stricklen gathered the ball, drove to the basket, missed and Spani grabbed the offensive board for a 2-0 lead six seconds into the game.
Spani cut to the basket from the left wing on the next offensive possession and received a perfect bounce pass from Johnson in the high post for a 4-0 lead. Johnson then found Williams on the fast break cutting to the rim for a 6-0 lead, which led to a Mississippi State timeout at the 17:59 mark.
Williams hit a baseline jumper for an 8-0 lead before Ashley Brown got the Lady Bulldogs on the board with a putback basket and an 8-2 game. Tennessee extended the lead to nine points after Meighan Simmons got a steal, went the length of the floor and flipped a no-look pass to Spani on the baseline for a 10-2 lead.
That was followed by Johnson hitting one of two free throws and then after getting a block on the other end, Johnson darted down the court and lost the ball on the way to the rim. Simmons trailed the play, scooped up the ball and hit the layup for a 13-4 lead at the 14:19 mark.
The absence of Bjorklund, the one player who will always talk on defense and direct the action, was felt in the silence on the court, although Bjorklund and Baugh were doing their best from the bench.
"When we stopped talking on defense – and we've got to credit them; they made shots – but for us, Dean (Lockwood) at halftime was saying, ‘We are the ones that dictate their shots.' We weren't doing that at all in the first half," Spani said.
"That's not who we are. That's not who we pride ourselves on being and that is definitely not what the coaches preach to us day in and day out. Thirty-seven points in a half for anyone against us is unacceptable."
The Lady Vols' lead dwindled from nine to two and at 19-17 at the 8:43 mark when Govero hit one of her three treys in the first half, Summitt called timeout. Tennessee had been scoring at the rim – Johnson got inside and Manning drove and dished to Williams, but the Lady Vols weren't getting stops.
Johnson got an offensive board off a missed Williams baseline shot but missed the two free throws. Manning got the offensive board and got the ball to Johnson, who was hit in the head and knocked to the floor. With her head band nearly covering her eyes, the official called a jump ball and a crowd restless about the dwindling lead really let loose on the officials.
The jump ball possession went to Mississippi State and Govero hit another three-pointer to give her team the lead, 20-19, with 7:56 left in the first half.
Spani got the lead back, 21-20, with a short jumper off the in-bounds play, but Porter popped a long three and Mississippi State was back up 23-21 with 7:10 left before the break. When Diamber Johnson connected from long range the Lady Bulldogs were ahead 26-21, and the lead reached eight points, 33-25, when Porter hit another three at the 3:47 mark.
Alyssia Brewer was fouled getting an offensive board, leading to sarcastic applause from the orange-clad fans, and Tennessee got more offense from Spani with a three from the top of the key off a Simmons pass to cut the lead to 33-28 at the 3:00 mark.
On the defensive end Tennessee forced an off-balance trey attempt with two seconds on the shot clock that nearly rattled in for Mississippi State and then Stricklen was fouled getting an offensive board. She hit both ends of the one-and-one to trim the lead to 33-30 with 2:05 to play before halftime.
Tennessee tied the game, 33-33, when Stricklen shot an air ball – the replay showed her arm was struck – and Johnson got the offensive board, hit the layup, was fouled and converted the free throw.
Diamber Johnson and Govero hit jumpers for Mississippi State, and Simmons hit a floater in the lane after driving to the paint for the 37-35 halftime score. Tennessee trailed at the break for just the third time this season – the other games were Georgetown and Baylor, the Lady Vols' only two losses.
"I was not at all impressed in the first half," Summitt said. "I thought we had looked at the fact that they did not have a conference win. We didn't come ready. Very, very disappointed in that, but hopefully a great teaching moment, an opportunity for them to understand that this is not the way you do it, not if you are pursuing a championship. So hopefully it's lesson learned.
"Aside from that, second half I thought we did a lot of good things. If we could shoot the ball the way we did later on … I thought we got in a much better rhythm … and as I told them we've got to go out and work on how many deflections we can get, how great our defense, how we can control the boards, because you can't always control when the ball's going to go in the hole, so overall very, very pleased."
Tennessee got its transition game in gear to start the second half and went on a 18-0 run with baskets from all spots on the floor – treys, midrange shots, drives to the paint, layups and free throws.
Williams went right to the rim after getting an outlet pass from Johnson, and Johnson took a steal the length of the floor and dished to Stricklen. Johnson then hit a short jumper on an assist from Stricklen, who next found Williams, who drove from the corner to the rim for a double digit lead, 46-37, barely three minutes into the second half.
The 18-0 run ended with Manning finding Johnson inside for a 50-37 lead and then Johnson passing out to the perimeter to Manning, who drove, hit the layup, was fouled and converted for a 53-37 lead with 14:22 left to play.
Tennessee had taken a two-point halftime deficit and turned it into a 16-point lead in less than six minutes.
"I think we had the right mindset in the first half," Fanning-Otis said. "In the second half when things didn't go as well as we needed, I felt like we lost focus. And great teams makes that happen to you."
When Glory Johnson took her first break of the game at the 11:40 mark of the second half, the crowd erupted in cheers. Alyssia Brewer took her place – she also had logged four minutes in the first half – and tallied two points, four boards, two blocks and a steal. Brewer missed more than half of the season because of Achilles tendon surgery and is still game rusty.
"She's not fully back, but she is getting some playing time," Summitt said. "I still think she's got to get her cardio where it needs to be. She's going to have to do that, and she's going to have to keep working out with our team. I think that will help her mobility and speed.
"She does not have, from baseline to baseline, the speed of our other post players, and that's going to be gradual because she was laid out for quite awhile. I don't think we can do this overnight or in a month, but I think eventually she can be a factor."
Summitt rotated nine players in the second half and the Lady Vols did a better job of maintaining or building the lead despite different combinations.
"With (players) being out, we realized that we had to step up, but I think that's the beauty of our team," Spani said. "We want to be the same no matter who's on the floor, no matter who can go.
"We saw spurts of that, especially in the second half. I think for us we just need to focus more on the program and the system and not necessarily relying on one person or the other person. We need to be a system and it needs to be the same no matter who's on the floor."
The Lady Vols led by as many as 30 points, 79-49, when Brewer hit two free throws, with 1:37 left to play and at that point the fans wanted their free chicken, a Hardees promotion if the Lady Vols score 80 or more points.
Manning got it for them with a midrange jumper as time nearly expired and finished the game with a solid line of seven points on 3-5 shooting, four rebounds and four assists.
Manning with four assists is not atypical, as she will set up teammates. Johnson's seven assists – her previous career high was four against Old Dominion on Dec. 30, 2009 – were, especially since she logged the majority of her minutes at the center spot.
"If you're doubled, kick it out, but if you're not go up strong," Johnson said of the instructions she got from the assistant coaches. "I tried to go up strong every layup, every jump shot that I had. Even with rebounds coming down I had to come down strong (with the ball) because people were trying to get it. Ball security was important in this game."
Tennessee was called for just seven fouls and made it a point to not reach on penetrators or hand check on the perimeter. Mississippi State clawed at the Lady Vols throughout the game, especially in the paint, and accrued 19. Catina Bett struggled with Johnson's quickness to the glass and had four fouls by the 15:47 mark of the second half.
"It was a rough game on both ends," Johnson said.
Summitt thought the whistles were especially quiet.
"They didn't make a lot of calls," Summitt said. "You get different officials, and I really am not being negative about the officiating but in our league sometimes you'll get a different crew come in and maybe they'll let more go.
"I thought they let a lot go tonight, too. And I kind of like it. Let them play the game, but I don't want it to be something that could hurt anyone. I thought they were very consistent."
The unlucky beneficiary, as it were, of that approach was Johnson, who was pounded like a pinball throughout the game but hit 8-14 shots from the field and 6-11 from the line for a career-high 22 points, surpassing her previous mark of 21 against Middle Tennessee on Nov. 25, 2009.
"Glory's a beast," Simmons said. "She stepped up a lot today. We had some injured people. With Kelley missing, Glory knew that she had to step it up. I told her, ‘Be prepared to play a lot of minutes and just go out there and give it 100 percent all the time.' "
During her freshman season and most of her sophomore year that pounding would have adversely affected Johnson, and she would have been likely to have retaliated and put herself on the bench in foul trouble. She maintained her cool Thursday and had just one foul.
"Always have composure," Johnson said. "And (Summitt) talks to me all the time and it also helps coming from my teammates, ‘Calm down. Calm down. It's OK. Next play. Focus on the next play. Forget about what just happened. I know they're fouling you but focus on your next play. Focus on scoring on them. If they're going to keep on fouling you … ' "
"Make 'em play," Simmons interjected.
"Yeah, and-one plays," Johnson said. "Freshman year was tough. My mindset was, ‘Why are they fouling me? They shouldn't be fouling me. I should be getting buckets.' Now it's like I've got to work through it. Nothing is going to come easy.
"I am getting old. I am only 20, but I feel like I am getting old. I am a junior now. I have got to work through that."
"Twenty is not old," said Simmons, who just turned 19 this week, as the players left the dais.
Spani turned 20 on Thursday – her parents Gary and Stacey Spani were in town from Lee's Summitt, Mo. – and celebrated with 18 points, including 2-4 from long range, and five rebounds.
Spani's offense was needed in the absence of Bjorklund, the program's career three-point leader.
"It was very significant, because you're talking two of the best shooters on our team, and obviously we're used to having a punch from both," Summitt said. "I was pleased with how we responded. Taber, she has got a really good skill set. She's not as athletic, but she works on her game, and she is going to make big shots, because she's had the repetition."
Spani said she felt the need to score to help make up for Bjorklund being out to rest her right foot.
"Ang helps spread the floor so much," Spani said. "Everyone always locks and trails on her. They sometimes double off on her. She is always a big part of their defensive scheme. As a player when you see a senior captain go out like that, you know you have to step up, and so I tried to."
Johnson felt much the same way when she heard Cain was sick and then Baugh, who played solid minutes against Auburn, wasn't released.
"We were missing our post play," Johnson said. "It was kind of sad because there were only a couple of us, and we're used to rolling deep. Just missing Kelley. Kelley is my road dog.
"Kelley is always there. If I am having a bad game, Kelley is supporting me. If Kelley is having a bad game, I am talking to Kelley on the side. You can see us always communicating with each other and always patting each other on the back. We were missing Kelley and not having Lauren on the bench. And Angie, too, (being out) not having them at practice hurts as well. They're fierce competitors."
Johnson's performance got the attention of the staff. She had been coming off the bench because it helped her settle into the flow of the game. The coaches might rethink that strategy after Thursday.
Summitt said Johnson was capable of carrying that type of load for the team in terms of scoring and rebounds, but she also knew it meant she would be even more of a marked woman than she is now.
"I don't see why she can't, however I think what's going to happen is she's going to become more of a target," Summitt said. "When Kelley's back, now we have two players (in the post) that they're going to really have to pay attention to.
"But I think what she did in there on her own a lot that really got all got all of our attention. Because she is doing a better job of slowing down and making sure she gets the shot she wants, not the shot that they want her to take. Her skill set is just so much better now."
Johnson's teammates also were willing to work the ball through her and with seven assists – several in transition while running the floor – the junior forward made good decisions with the ball.
"I think her feel for the game is so much better," Summitt said. "She's not herky-jerky, she's got a lot more composure, and I think she picks and chooses the shot that she wants. Last year it was come down the floor and there could have been three people in front of her and she's going to shoot the ball.
"Great shot selection on her part and you've got to give our team credit for getting her that many touches."
For Mississippi State the plan was to keep moving forward with an incredibly inexperienced team.
"We are trying to look more inwardly," Fanning-Otis said. "We have 11 new faces on our basketball team. We have players who don't know each other yet. We are a work in progress. One of our goals is to be the most improved teams in the league. The thing I am asking is to be the best that we can be and to be tough for 40 minutes."
Fanning-Otis can show her team clips of the first half in which her team made the correct decisions on offense, especially with their screening action.
"Our strategy was to try to take advantage of what we saw," Fanning-Otis said. "We were trying to create shots based on screens and having the right people taking the right shots at the right place. In the second half as they were trapping a little bit more, I didn't feel like we attacked like we needed to. We're going to have to attack the paint and we were a little bit more passive."
"I'm hoping that we're getting better," she added. "There's a lot of room for this team to grow. You have to play with confidence. There is a look about a winner. There is a look about expectations. Our league is so physical, and you can't be tired.
"You have to step up and make good decisions together, be ready to shoot the basketball. We're going to build on this. We're going to say it is progress and we're going to try to duplicate that for more minutes and to be able to play through adversity."
Porter said the team was elated to take a lead into the locker room but also knew that Tennessee was stewing in theirs.
"Everybody was excited in the first half that we came out and played really, really well and in the second half, we let it go downhill and let Tennessee get their confidence back," Porter said. "We knew they were upset about it. We knew that they were going to come out hard and that's what they did.
"We've got to learn from our mistakes and come together as a team and try to play for 40 minutes. We need to bring energy and effort. We still need to work as a team and come together this year so we can be better next year."
Govero said the game was typical for Mississippi State this season – one half of basketball.
"It gives us confidence but it seems like we've had one good half of every game," Govero said. "We're just working on putting two good halves together. We know when we do that we're going to see the results that we want. There were things in the first half that we can learn from and there are things in the second half that we have to learn from to go on the rest of the season.
"We have confidence that we can build on what we did tonight and progress through the season."
Govero is the only senior on a team loaded with newcomers.
"Eleven new people coming in is going to be a challenge for anybody with so few returners," Govero said. "My role is a little different (from last season) being the first option for shots having to always be ready to shoot and score each and every game. There are so many people learning, try to help communicate on the floor, making sure people find the right player on offense or defense.
"We encourage people and let them know that we can build on what we're doing each game. In the end if we keep working hard, we'll see the results we want whether next game or into the future."
Tennessee's defenders played its switching five scheme the way it was drawn up – and executed against Auburn on Sunday – and Mississippi State was just 1-8 (12.5 percent) from long range in the second half after starting the game 7-12 (58.3) percent.
"That was just a lack of communication with us," Simmons said. "We weren't locking and trailing like our coach had been preaching. We were in five (switching man defense) most of the time, and a lot of people got stuck on screens. We just weren't communicating out there."
Mississippi State was led by Diamber Johnson with 19 points. Govero added 16 points, and Porter chipped in with 13. The Lady Bulldogs shot 35.5 percent (22-62) overall, 40.0 percent (8-20) from long range and 100 percent (3-3) from the line.
Mississippi State had nine assists, 15 turnovers, eight steals and five blocks.
"We've got to take care of the basketball and somehow we've got to get to the free throw line," Fanning-Otis said. "The only way you do that is take the ball at them. Make good decisions together. Rebound the basketball."
Tennessee, once again, dominated the boards, 51-34, led by Glory Johnson's 18, which tied the number she grabbed against Georgia Tech on Nov. 26, 2010.
"Glory had been coming off the bench," Fanning-Otis said. "She was in a different role tonight and played more minutes. She had her way. Great players like that you have to box out by committee."
Tennessee was led by Johnson with 22 points with four other players also reaching double figures – Spani, 18; Simmons, 12; Williams, 10; and Stricklen, 10, who also got the double-double with 10 rebounds and tallied four steals. The Lady Vols shot 42.5 percent (31-73) overall, 25.0 percent (4-16) from long range and 75.0 percent (15-20) from the line.
After shooting 38.5 percent (15-39) in the first half Tennessee connected at 47.1 percent (16-34) after halftime.
"They found ways to get extra shots and get to the free throw line and do some other things," Fanning-Otis said. "They took care of the basketball, 20 assists and 11 turnovers. Some of the stats that we talk about on great basketball teams, that's a reflection of what they were able to do, and especially in the second half.
"We just have to find a way to play for longer periods of time. … We're going to have to be on the same string. When you move I move. … We'll grow as a team. There are a lot of games ahead for us to get better."
Tennessee had 20 assists – Simmons and Manning both had four – to just 11 turnovers, eight blocks and seven steals. Johnson's four swats surpassed her career high of three against Florida on Jan. 13, 2011.
The Lady Vols dominated the paint points, 40-11, with a 16-4 edge in fast break points. Both teams capitalized off turnovers – 22 points for Tennessee and 17 for Mississippi State. Tennessee got nine points from its bench – Manning's seven and Brewer's two – to zero for Mississippi State.
Mississippi State's 18 second-half points were the lowest for a foe this season, and Tennessee held its 10th straight opponent to below 40 percent shooting. The win was the 30th consecutive at home for the Lady Vols.
Both coaches used nine players and with Tennessee down two regulars, including the team's leader in minutes played in Bjorklund, Spani and Stricklen logged 37 minutes with Johnson checking in at 33, Simmons at 32 and Williams at 28.
"Tennessee is a very good basketball team and has good depth, probably as good of depth and rotation as I've seen," Fanning-Otis said. "Without a couple of players that they are used to having in the lineup they did a good job adjusting."
VIDEO COVERAGE: Post-game press conference videos.
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt
Lady Vols Glory Johnson, Meighan Simmons and Taber Spani
Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis and Mary Kathryn Govero and Porsha Porter