"With that said, there's no way that going into that that teams are going to know exactly what we're doing and vice versa. But we just hope that we get it right more times than not."
Tennessee (25-2, 13-0) got it right Thursday and stayed perfect in the SEC with the win over South Carolina (15-11, 7-6). The Lady Vols guaranteed at least a share of first place and can claim it outright Monday with a win over Georgia, which defeated Kentucky on Thursday to go 20-6 overall and 10-3 in the SEC with three games to play for both teams.
For the first time in several games, the Lady Vols didn't get off to a slow start and Summitt could stay relatively calm at halftime.
"Overall, yes, much better," Summitt said. "I didn't yell. I think (Mickie) DeMoss did that; it was her scout."
Former Tennessee All-American Tamika Catchings, who was in town Monday to announce an alliance between her Catch the Stars Foundation Inc. and Knox County Schools for at-risk students, spent part of her time with the recalcitrant Lady Vols to address, among other issues, low energy to open games.
"The speech that she gave us, everything she said was true, and I think – even that day at practice – practice went by so fast because we were all out there working hard," freshman guard Meighan Simmons said.
"We were willing to work hard and put everything out on the floor. I think everybody still had that in their minds today, and it just boosted everybody up."
The Gamecocks arrived in Knoxville with wins over two ranked SEC teams and had challenged the Lady Vols until well late in the game in the first matchup in South Carolina last month.
"I actually felt like we had good focus and did a good job out of our zone and our man defense," Summitt said. "We knew this team was going to come in here and battle us really hard, but I thought we really bought into our scouting report, and I thought there was great communication among our team."
Alyssia Brewer got the starting nod at center for the first time since postseason a year ago and was very effective to open the game as she tallied a quick seven points in six minutes.
"I was just happy with how I was feeling out there," said Brewer, who had Achilles tendon surgery last September. "I was feeling good about my foot, and really starting to be able to contribute to the team. Getting a couple more points doesn't hurt either, but also rebounding is a big thing with me, and I just tried to do what I can out there."
But Brewer also picked up two fouls in those early minutes and had to head to the bench. That brought Alicia Manning into the game.
"I got the opportunity in this game, and it feels good to finally put it on display," said Manning, who joked in the post-game press conference that she paid $5 to Brewer to get into early foul trouble.
Manning made an immediate impact with a steal that Kamiko Williams converted into a layup and then a three-pointer after Williams got a defensive rebound and fired the ball out to Manning.
It was Manning's first trey on the season.
"I've been shooting them a lot more in practice," Manning said. "I was feeling it and I had a good rhythm, so I just took it."
Manning entered the game 0-4 overall from long range and had not yet attempted a shot behind the arc in 12 SEC games.
"She's been working on it, though," Summitt said. "She just was in a good rhythm, and her shot was falling. Typically she gets paint points, but it was good to see her step out and knock down the three."
Manning has played inside and out this season but with Brewer back at practice, she has been able to shoot more with the guards and not have to help so much with post depth.
"In practice, I've been shooting a lot more with the guards," Manning said. "Earlier in the year, I had been practicing more with the posts. Having Lyssi back, I've been working with the guards a lot more so I've been shooting a lot more shots with them."
South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley smiled when asked if Manning nailing treys – she was 3-4 from the arc – was likely not a part of the team's scouting report and if the depth made the Lady Vols a difficult preparation.
"Tennessee is difficult to play in itself," Staley said. "They have a lot of players that they can bring in starting the game and off the bench. They have some players that haven't really played a whole lot of minutes but they are always a threat.
"Alicia had a tremendous game, and she made us pay for playing a little zone. She also made us pay in transition. She was spectacular today."
Sophomore guard Ieasia Walker, who led the Gamecocks with 16 points, said, "They have a lot of people that can step up at any time. She (Alicia Manning) had a great game, so it was her night."
Walker's last points came on free throws at the 19:27 mark of the second half. Despite logging 15 second-half minutes, Walker didn't score again. She said the Lady Vols' depth wears down a team.
"I think it's very difficult because we get tired and then they get easy rebounds and we gave them more than one shot," Walker said. "They converted on the putbacks, so that was our weakness today. It just killed us. They had a lot of second chances, and most of the second chances they converted on."
Tennessee dominated the boards, 51-30, and outscored South Carolina in second-chance points, 19-6.
"I'm pleased to see that we had 51 rebounds," Summitt said. "That's big, offensive, defensive combined. We got on the boards versus 30 boards for them. I thought that was significant. We got a lot more touches and more reps and more opportunities."
One particular series in the first half illustrated the Lady Vols' ownership of the glass.
Shekinna Stricklen was fouled getting an offensive board and made the first of the one and one for a 22-15 lead in the first half. She missed the second, but Manning got the offensive board and was fouled on the shot attempt.
Manning made the first free throw for a 23-15 lead but missed the second, Stricklen got the offensive rebound, and reset the offense. Lauren Avant drove to the basket, got fouled and made one of two free throws for a 24-15 lead.
On Tennessee's next offensive possession, Stricklen got inside, was fouled and made both free throws for a 26-15 lead. After that, Glory Johnson was in rebounding position and got shoved from behind, sending her to the line.
That brought reminders from South Carolina's coaching staff for the Gamecocks to face guard the Lady Vols at the free throw line to keep them off the glass. Johnson missed the first free throw but made the second for a 27-17 lead.
Before the shot, Stricklen had a defender turn and face her as she lined up for Johnson's attempt and then had elbows thrust in her chest when she tried to get around the Gamecock player and in position for a rebound. Stricklen pushed off and when the officials checked the monitor, Stricklen was assessed a technical foul, and the crowd of 11,849 howled its disapproval.
Stricklen implored the crowd to raise its noise level when Valeria Nainima went to the line and when Nainima missed, the crowd roared. Johnson went over to calm down a visibly angry Stricklen at center court, and Nainima made the second to trim the lead to 27-18.
Keeping the Lady Vols off the glass was a game-long struggle for the Gamecocks.
"They out-rebounded us by 20 the last game," Staley said. "We just tried to cut that in half. We knew it was a difficult feat to out-rebound them, but we thought that if we could cut down the deficit by half, we give ourselves a chance to kind of compete and maybe sneak and get a win.
"But when they have waves of players that they do have coming in, it just wears you down. If you don't have as many post players or – their guards are great rebounders – if you don't have that to match up with them, you're in for a long night, and that's where we were."
The Gamecocks are aggressive defenders and capable of disrupting a team – the Lady Vols had 24 turnovers in the game in Columbia – but Tennessee limited its first half miscues to just six and trailed just once by one point before seizing the lead for good at the 16:54 mark of the first half.
"We knew that we had to come out starting hard and playing intense defense," Simmons said. "For us, we learned our lesson from watching film that we couldn't have a slow start because they were putting the pressure on us.
"I think today we kept our composure and we were able to fight through it and to be patient on offense as well as defense."
Tennessee got its first points on a Stricklen offensive board and stick-back followed by Stricklen firing the ball inside to Brewer for a layup and 4-0 lead at the 19:13 mark of the first half.
Tennessee got the lead back after Brewer set a nice screen for Stricklen, who misfired on the trey attempt, but Brewer got the board, drove and was fouled. She hit both free throws for a 6-5 lead and Simmons made it 8-5 with a driving layup despite her right-arm being hooked by a defender with 16:31 left before halftime.
Kelley Cain entered for Glory Johnson and with two bigs inside Brewer scored off the bounce with an and-one jumper and an 11-7 lead. Kamiko Williams made a nice pass to the outside of Cain's left shoulder, and she hit the layup for a 13-7 lead. After Williams' driving layup off Manning's steal Tennessee led 15-7 at 12:49 mark, and Staley wanted a timeout.
Lauren Avant entered at the 10:47 mark, drove baseline and fired a dart of a pass to Williams in the opposite corner for a three and 18-7 lead. That was followed by Williams' defensive board and pass to Manning for a three – her first of the season – and a 21-7 lead at the 10:05 mark.
South Carolina answered with back-to-back threes from Markeshia Grant to trim the lead to 21-13 with 8:31 left before the break.
Tennessee got its flurry of scoring next from the free throw line with its prowess on the offensive glass ultimately leading to the technical on Stricklen and a 27-18 score at the 5:12 mark.
Johnson then missed two consecutive free throws and Nainima hit a three to trim the lead to 27-21. Manning drove to the basket for a 29-21 lead with 3:42 left in the first half, Walker hit a layup and was fouled to trim the lead to five points, 31-26, at the 2:03 mark.
But the Lady Vols, perhaps with their minds on halftime in the locker room, found a closing gear that started with a monstrous block by Johnson. Simmons was fouled on a wing jumper and made both free throws for a 31-24 lead.
When Simmons missed a three-pointer in transition, Johnson swooped in from seemingly nowhere and hit the stick-back for a 33-26 lead at the 1:52 mark. Johnson next fed Manning for a three – her second of the season – for a 36-26 lead at the 1:30 mark.
"I think she's a player that has really invested in her game, and there's no substitute for getting in the gym and getting extra shots," Summitt said of Manning. "I think she's playing with a lot of confidence. She's extended her range, which I think has really, really helped her game."
Simmons got a defensive board off a missed three, went coast to coast for the layup and finished the first half scoring with a 10-footer after losing the ball on the way up, grabbing it back and swishing the shot for a 40-29 lead at the break.
Summitt used nine players in the first half, and eight of them scored. Staley used 10 players before halftime, and five scored. Simmons had eight points by the break, and Brewer had seven in her first start in a year.
"Well, I think our depth has really worked for us," Summitt said. "It's been very, very important. With Lyssi, I think she's getting more and more confident and playing better and better. That makes a big difference to have the size, and also just that she battles on the boards."
Tennessee maintained its double-digit lead throughout the second half as Summitt used 11 players after the break. Vicki Baugh, who didn't practice Wednesday because of knee issues, didn't play Thursday. Angie Bjorklund missed her sixth consecutive game because of a right foot injury.
Despite the absence of Bjorklund, the program's all-time three-point shooter, the Lady Vols have stayed perfect in SEC play.
"It's like I said the last game, you don't know. It's hard to scout us because you can put anybody in the game and they can give you anything," Brewer said. "I think that's one of the strengths of our team is that we have that much depth."
Manning added, "I think that just shows all the strengths that we have. You never know when someone's going to go off. That's just a strong team. You guard one person; it's someone else. I couldn't even tell you what to do."
Brewer returned to the court to open the second half and immediately sealed inside, got doubled and fired a pass to a cutting Johnson for the layup and 42-29 lead at the 19:36 mark. Johnson also was fouled on the play but missed the free throw,
Brewer is an excellent passing post player, and it was her outlet pass to Simmons that set up a crowd-pleaser when Simmons drove right and hit Stricklen on the left with a behind-the-back pass and layup.
"It's just all about getting back in the flow of the game, and that's exactly what I'm doing right now," Brewer said.
Other second-half highlights were a fadeaway on the baseline and three-pointer on a Simmons feed from Spani – she later returned the favor and found Simmons in the corner for a three – and a Simmons drive and jumper after Johnson went to the floor to prevent a turnover after Stricklen was stripped. Johnson pushed the ball to Simmons for a 56-40 lead with 12:47 left in the game.
Manning, now drawing defenders to the arc, faked the three ball and then drove to the rim for a 58-40 lead. When Manning connected on her third trey of the game on a Simmons pass for a 68-47 lead with 7:17 remaining, South Carolina called a timeout.
Stricklen wrapped a smiling Manning in a hug before they headed to the bench.
"She's solid. She really is," Summitt said of Manning. "She hasn't always been comfortable with the three ball. The fact that we have TBA and we have Pratt Pavilion (has allowed her to get better). She's a player that has really invested in knocking down shots and extended her range.
"It stretches the defense and it opens up our low post game."
Tennessee kept scoring with Stricklen's layup on the behind-the-back feed from Simmons, a Manning jumper and another Stricklen layup with the Lady Vols shooting a scorching 56.7 percent in the second half after starting the game at 41.9 percent, low for their standards.
When Stricklen left the game – Summitt called timeout at the 3:08 mark to get her to the bench – the lead was 78-58, and Williams, followed by Avant, reentered for the first time since the first half.
Summitt left in the lineup of Simmons, Stricklen, Manning, Brewer and Spani for a large portion of the second half.
"I think it was just us, working together, being out there and communicating to each other, being able to trust each other to hit open shots and being able to drive to the basket and play good, intense defense," Simmons said of the coaches' decision to stay with that five for a lengthy time period.
"Well, (Stricklen) probably played too many minutes," Summitt said. "She's the player that has really stepped up her game. We just wanted to kind to separate a little bit before we took her out."
At practice this week Stricklen had said that South Carolina would not quit no matter the deficit, and the Lady Vols had to be ready to defend for 40 minutes. With the Gamecocks spreading the floor to try to set up either opens threes or drives to the paint, the Lady Vols went to their zone for most of the second half.
"I think just with our size and our length we thought we could defend them better," Summitt said. "For the most part, I thought our zone was pretty good."
Staley applauded her team's fighting spirit, despite the deficit, and the Gamecocks trimmed the lead to 13 points with 9:00 minutes left in the game, before Tennessee created some more separation.
"We were resilient," Staley said. "We handle whatever's thrown at us. We don't give up. We have a lot of fight in us. … We can learn that there is another level of basketball being played out there and Tennessee is at that level.
"We just want to continue to slowly close the gap. It's hard to do that in this particular place."
Tennessee finished the scoring with two Manning drives – the first for an 80-58 lead and the free Hardees chicken for ticket-holders, much to their happiness, and the second for the final Lady Vol basket and the 82-60 final score.
South Carolina was led by Walker with 16 points, and Nainima with 15. Grant and Ashley Bruner chipped in with six points each. The Gamecocks shot 34.9 percent (22-63) overall, 36.4 percent (8-22) from behind the arc and 61.5 percent (8-13) from the free throw line.
South Carolina had 15 assists to just 12 turnovers with eight steals and three blocks.
"I think we passed the ball well," Walker said. "We had a lot of assists off the field goals that we made. I think we should have just moved a little bit quicker, but we had a lot of good things from this game."
The Gamecocks are making a late-season push for the NCAA tourney and need a strong finish in the league.
"I hope the committee is watching," Staley said. "I think we've put ourselves in position where we control our own destiny. If we take care of our last two home games and then a road game at LSU, we certainly will build a nice résumé for them to at least talk about it."
Tennessee was led by Manning's 22 points – her previous high was 17 points against Dayton on March 22, 2010, and her three treys tied her mark against Kentucky on Jan. 8, 2009. Simmons had 17 points, and Stricklen tallied 12 and completed the double-double with 10 boards. Johnson chipped in with nine points and now is just seven away from 1,000 for her career.
The Lady Vols shot 49.2 percent (30-61) overall, 42.9 percent (6-14) from long range and 64.0 percent (16-25) from the line.
Tennessee had 13 assists, 15 turnovers, five blocks and three steals.
Manning, who usually is inserted in games for her grit and scrappy play, can get on the court even when she's not scoring like she did Thursday. She also had five boards, three steals and a block.
"She's a good defender as well, so there's a place for her to play," Summitt said. "I like it when she's defending and knocking down shots."
Tennessee's work on the boards was led by the 10 rebounds each grabbed by Stricklen and Brewer. Johnson tallied eight, and Simmons had five.
Tennessee outscored South Carolina in the paint, 38-22, and got 32 points from its bench, twice as many as the 16 tallied by the Gamecocks. For the Lady Vols staff, it means sorting through minutes for multiple players.
"You kind of just have to work through a game and see who does have the hot hand," Summitt said. "It's not like you can pre-determine and it's going to be that way for the entire game.
"As coaches, we're constantly sitting there talking among ourselves as to who needs to come out, who needs to go in, who's giving into fatigue, who's having a poor defensive night or shooting night. We just work through it from the beginning to the end of the game."
VIDEO COVERAGE: Post-game press conference videos.
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt
Lady Vols Alicia Manning, Lyssi Brewer and Meighan Simmons
South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley and Ieasia Walker