"I couldn't help but think about Number 35," said Coach Pat Summitt, who, along with her staff, wears a No. 35 patch for each game on her jacket or blouse, "and Melissa McCray-Dukes, who was a great player here and helped us hang two banners. I spent a lot of quality time with her and so did a lot of our staff.
"Speaking at her funeral, I didn't think I'd be able to get through it, but I realized she's in a much better place. She left such a mark on us in such a positive way as an individual. I love her to death. My only regret in the end is that she kept saying, ‘I want to talk to your team one more time.' We miss her, but it reminds you … the awareness tonight with the Think Pink game and so many people are battling breast cancer. What a great cause and what a great turnout we had, and I'm very thankful for that."
Despite the Monday evening tip – as opposed to the usual Sunday afternoon game for SEC contests – the Lady Vols drew 14,267 in the penultimate regular season game at home with the majority of the fans either donning the free T-shirts or arriving in pink.
"It's incredible," Vicki Baugh said. "It just means so much. You just see the true heroes and what they've fought for, and we have to put that on the court, is remarkable. We played for that today. It's big. We have some Lady Vols that went through it, of course, so it meant a lot to us, and, of course, Coach said that we're going to dedicate the game to them."
Before tipoff, Associate Coach Holly Warlick, representing her foundation co-founded with former Lady Vol Nikki Caldwell, Champions for a Cause, presented three checks for $7,000 each to UT Medical Center, the Kay Yow Foundation and cancer support groups.
The arena was a sea of pink and white as "Live Pink Bleed Orange" T-shirts were draped on 12,000 seats for fans to wear, staff members donned pink attire, and the officials used pink whistles.
Amid the backdrop of an emotional and important cause, Tennessee (26-2, 14-0) took control of the game from the opening tip and never let Georgia (20-7, 10-4) truly threaten as the Lady Vols claimed the SEC championship with two games still to play.
"Well, I tell them all the time they've never won anything," Coach Pat Summitt said.
When told she would need a new line, Summitt smiled and said, "Good, I'll come up with something. I'd make something up."
Freshman guard Meighan Simmons hit her first two threes – one off the opening tip, the other in the half-court offense – and the Lady Vols took a quick 6-0 lead.
"I think it's a real good booster for us, and I think it kind of gets everybody prepared for the things that are to come, and I just think, for me, hitting my first two shots and then being able to hit teammates who are wide open, like (Shekinna) Stricklen on a fast break or Vicki and let her drive all the way to the hole and score, that really just helps get us started," Simmons said.
Simmons' teammates were connecting as well, as the Lady Vols opened the game shooting 66 percent from the field and never fell below 50 percent for the game.
"Obviously, shooting 50 percent for the game it gives you a lot of confidence," Summitt said. "We had a lot of players knocking down shots. Overall it was a pretty complete effort on the part of our team."
Georgia's field goal percentage, meanwhile, languished in the 20s, as the Lady Bulldogs had trouble finding offense against the Lady Vols rangy 2-3 matchup zone.
"They are an extremely talented basketball team and their length allows them to spread out in that zone and create problems," Georgia Coach Andy Landers said. "They can cover a lot of areas with their length and they did that."
Tennessee stayed in its matchup zone for nearly the entire game, and Georgia, despite timeouts, halftime and more timeouts, never got into any offensive flow.
"The way we were attacking it, it would have been a surprise if they had ever gotten out of it," Landers said.
It has been rare, over the decades, for Summitt to deploy a zone defense – Tennessee teams were known for their aggressive man schemes – but the Lady Vols have been longer and not as quick in recent seasons, and the staff adjusted.
"I think you do what you have to do within each team that you have," Landers said. "It is what it is. I think it would be a mistake … what would surprise me is if Pat made a decision to play one defense all the time forever and ever, because that couldn't be the smartest decision to make.
"She may be smarter than you're giving her credit for. Don't let her know."
Those were Landers' parting words, delivered with a smile, and he was gracious in defeat, the second 30-point defeat in a row in Knoxville. The last came in 2009 for Summitt's 1,000th career victory.
"Depending on who you were pulling for, it was either real pretty or real ugly," Landers said. "First of all, you give Tennessee credit. … They shot the ball well and they played well. There is no question that they did that. On the other hand, I don't think Georgia played very well. I thought we looked like we lacked confidence as we started the game, which surprised me. We started the game executing very poorly.
"Now, you can also say we looked like we did that the whole game and I would understand that. But the start is what stumbled us along and really hurt the execution and particularly the offense the rest of the night. I thought we lost confidence in ourselves very early offensively, so there is really not a lot to talk about.
"It is what it is. They played very well, they hit shots, they rebounded and we didn't."
Once again, the Lady Vols got inspired play from a different player than the past game – this time Baugh, who entered early in the first half and made her first three shots off nifty drives to the basket and one double-fake move with a floater jumper. Her fluidity was reminiscent of 2008 before her three knee surgeries robbed her of nearly two years on the court.
"Oh, man, my confidence is way high right now," Baugh said. "I'm not even thinking about my knee, so that's great. I'm just happy that we came and played Tennessee basketball today. It's just great to see it and you see the outcome of the game, and we've just got to bring it every game."
Baugh entered at the 14:21 mark of the first half for Glory Johnson, who hit a nifty turn-around baseline jumper after Simmons' back-to-back threes, because Summitt wanted to discuss her defense.
Shekinna Stricklen fed Baugh the ball and she hit the layup and was fouled for a 15-7 lead at the 13:38 mark of the first half. Baugh, who started a week ago against Vanderbilt but was plagued by turnovers, was in control throughout her 16 total minutes on the court.
"I just get very frustrated when I'm not getting calls, and I let the refs get to me," Baugh said. "That has to change, and I feel like that was my struggle at Vanderbilt. I got several turnovers just from little things like three seconds in the key and just not thinking clearly. Tonight, that was out the window, and my team had my back. It was just awesome. Tonight, no complaints, just completely opposite from Vanderbilt."
The emergence of Baugh, who can relieve at the four and five spots in the paint, is needed for Tennessee, especially with the balky hip of Kelley Cain, who warmed up but didn't play Monday.
"I think Vicki is just a lot more confident now," Summitt said. "I think she's not giving in to fatigue or injury. I think she's just wanting to help this team, and that's the type of player she is and the type of person she is. She's a consummate teammate and wants to be there for this team and she's willing to go in and take any assignment on."
Monday's weather was unseasonably warm in Knoxville, and that can be a benefit for Baugh's knee. Her health and game status remain day by day.
"I think with her, you wait and see, depending on how much rehab she does and if she's coming off of extensive minutes played or few minutes played," Summitt said. "The fewer the minutes, she's ready the next time out.
"I think that really comes from Jenny Moshak and her staff in gauging where Vicki is. There are times she'll say (Baugh) needs a day off or she needs two days off. With where we are in the season, we can at times pick and choose because of our depth. But when she's on the floor, there's no doubt that good things happen, not only for Vicki, but for her teammates. They do a great job of getting the ball inside, and she does a great job of inside-out game."
After Baugh's drive and and-one play – which netted Georgia's Porsha Phillips her second foul trying to contend with the athleticism and size in the paint – Baugh got double-teamed and found Alyssia Brewer cutting to the basket for a layup and foul. Brewer missed the free throw but Tennessee extended it lead to 17-9 with 12:32 left halftime.
Taber Spani followed with an offensive board and bucket for a 19-9 lead – it would remain in double digits for the rest of the game – and then faked a three and passed to Stricklen in the corner, and she nailed the trey for a 22-9 lead at the 11:17 mark.
"Lyssi did some good things," Summitt said. "Glory did some good things. We had a lot of people step up. Taber did some great things as well. When you shoot the ball as well as we did at times, that certainly gives players confidence and gives us some breathing room."
Summitt was able to use nine players in the first half, including Angie Bjorklund, who made her first appearance since Jan. 23 against Auburn after missing six games with a right foot injury. The crowd, already in a good mood with the start of the game, erupted when the senior took the court.
Bjorklund played 11 minutes, hit a three-pointer and tallied two rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block. The crowd especially like the swat, as Bjorklund raced back on defense and knocked away the shot at the rim.
"I thought our team had great focus coming out of the locker room," Summitt said. "Sometimes you can read that and other times, you can't, but I was very, very pleased with how we took the court. We had only 12 turnovers and the bench gave us 26 points.
"I like our depth. It's important that we get a lot of people involved and when you get a lot of people involved they're going to step up and make plays and that's exactly what happened for us."
Landers noted that Tennessee is always deep, but he also noted that the depth chart has varied this season from game to game.
"Tennessee has as much talent and depth as anybody in the country year after year after year," Landers said. (But) if I followed it correctly, they've got kids that have been injured, kids that probably don't need to play because of injuries so it's hard to keep up with who they're going to play and how much they're going to play and really why or why not they're not going to play.
"That makes scouting a little more difficult and if all 10 of them were healthy, it would make it that much more difficult. The tough piece scouting them right now is that we don't know who's healthy or who they need to hold out for a day or two. I understand the reasoning from the outside looking in, and they have the depth that allows them the luxury to sit people and save people the way that they need to to take care of them."
It's not that easy for Tennessee's coaches to keep up with it, either. Moshak's medical pronouncements are as much a part of the pre-game strategy as the scouting report. The good news for Tennessee is that the reserve players keep emerging.
"It may be unusual that you can bring three different people in, but it's also a little scary when you're not sure who's going to show up," Summitt said. "It might be three different people, but what I do like is that when we're struggling, we can always go to the bench and we have a number of people that (can step up).
"Look at what Alicia Manning has been doing for us off the bench. Vicki Baugh tonight and there have been others. Lauren Avant at Vanderbilt. She got people the ball and she was aggressive. You just have to live with it and it's a wait and see. As a coaching staff, we manage it the best we can."
Simmons said the players are adapting, too, and Summitt will stick with a lineup for extended minutes if she likes what she sees on the court.
"For the past couple of games, our depth and our bench have really, really stepped up," Simmons said. "Today with the different lineups, it all starts to build, the chemistry with one another. It just gets stronger and stronger every game. We trusted each other."
Manning logged 12 minutes in the first half and grabbed three rebounds, two of which delighted the crowd after she chased down two long offensive boards and kept the possession alive for Tennessee.
The Lady Vols had extended the lead with a Manning baseline jumper, Manning offensive board with a foul and one made free throw, Johnson offensive board and pass to Spani for a baseline jumper, another Johnson turn-around, a Simmons cross-over and wing jumper and then a Bjorklund three in transition for a 34-16 lead at the 4:55 mark of the first half.
That's when Manning tracked down two offensive boards on opposite sidelines of teammates' misses, with the lengthy possession ending with Baugh driving from the high post and finishing the layup for a 36-18 lead with 3:24 left before halftime.
Baugh drove from the wing, made two fakes and floated in a four-footer for a 38-18 lead at the 1:30 mark, and Kamiko Williams took a feed from Baugh on a cut to the basket, missed the layup, got the ball back and hit the stick-back for a 40-21 lead at the break.
On its end, Georgia was misfiring, committing a shot clock violation or hoisting a long three that was often well off the mark – though Anne Marie Armstrong connected with 1:09 left before halftime – as the Lady Bulldogs were 3-15 from long range in the first half and discombobulated by the matchup zone.
"They are pretty big out on the wings as well as down low, and we had a hard time trying to make the passes that we typically are capable of making because of their length," Georgia guard Jasmine James said. "Because of that we couldn't execute the way we typically would as well as we were forced to take some shots that we wouldn't typically take."
The half ended with the Lady Vols getting a defensive stop and rebound as time expired, and the crowd gave them a standing ovation as they headed to the locker room, which, for the second game in a row, was relatively quiet as far as Summitt's voice.
"We talked about it as a staff and Holly really felt in the end that would be our best defense, and I think it was clearly our best defense," Summitt said. "I think our size and our length made a big difference. That's why we chose to go with it, and I thought it was, for the most part, very, very effective for us."
Georgia had some success when it attacked the zone with penetration and dished off but not enough to ever trim the lead, which reached as high as 37 points in the second half.
"We constantly are trying to keep people in front of us and I think our size and depth have been very, very good to us," Summitt said. "This game is a game in which we thought the size would help us win."
Tennessee's quick start also unnerved the Lady Bulldogs, especially Simmons' back-to-back treys.
"I would definitely think there was a sense of urgency going down six-zero right off the bat," James said. "Then there was definitely a sense of urgency to try and get on the board and try to match that and try and keep it a close game. Maybe too much of a sense of urgency that we rushed shots, as well as made bad passes and didn't do a good job executing."
Landers noted, "Honestly, we ran offense to the wrong people, to the wrong side of the floor. We needed to execute and get a little confidence. They come down and hit the two threes early in the game but that didn't bother me. There's reason for that that we can correct.
"They scored 77 points, call me crazy, defensively I'm not that concerned. I know we gave up a lot of points but I also know how and why and under different circumstances we're a better defensive team than that. Offensively, that's what bothered me. We settled for quick threes early. We had looks inside and didn't hit them. I think we just needed to execute."
Simmons' trigger has been too quick at times this season, but Summit had no issue with the opening shots.
"I think Meighan is a very, very special player," Summitt said. "I think she has matured tremendously throughout this season. She came in here and she's never seen a shot she didn't just love, and she didn't know what defense was all about.
"But she has really bought in to being a great teammate and a team player. I think she's going to continue to get better and better. With us not having a true point guard – Lauren is coming in right now, and I think we're going to appreciate what she's bringing – but Meighan is a special player."
The second half was much of the same for Tennessee – Summitt used all 12 available players with nobody logging more than 29 minutes for the game – with Brewer starting off the scoring with a power drive to the basket for a layup and foul, though she missed the free throw again, for a 42-21 lead with 17:59 to play.
It took Tennessee two minutes to score after halftime and then it unleashed points with a Johnson offensive board and stick-back and Simmons' drive in transition for a 46-21 lead with 16:33 left, and Landers called for a timeout.
It didn't help as Johnson got a defensive board and fired out to Simmons, who found a cutting Stricklen for a layup and a 48-21 lead. On the next play, the defense found Stricklen but left Spani alone in the corner, and she buried the three for a 51-21 lead with 15:30 left.
Tennessee scored quickly again on another Johnson defensive board. This time, Johnson took the ball down the court and fired to Brewer underneath for a 53-23 lead with 14:40 left. Georgia called another timeout, but Tennessee brought pressure, Bjorklund got the steal and passed to Simmons for the wing jumper and a 55-23 lead with 14:32 left.
Johnson was fouled on a turn-around off an entry pass from Bjorklund and when she made one of two free throws for the 56-27 lead with 13:26 left, Johnson recorded her 1,000th career point.
"I didn't expect it," Johnson said. "I just want to thank my teammates. I'm a post player clearly, and so if I wasn't getting the ball from the guards and other post players, I wouldn't be able to do it. I thank my teammates. They support me the whole way.
"Vicki was the one that told me. I kind of zone out when I'm on the floor."
The announcement came a few seconds later to the crowd, which roared for the hometown hero from Knoxville. Georgia misfired on its possession, and Baugh got the defensive board, went the length of the floor and scored the layup for a 58-27 lead with 13:00 left. That bucket got Baugh a standing ovation from her own bench.
At that point, the only issue would be the final outcome, while Summitt emptied her bench. Highlights to finish the game included Manning connecting on a three-pointer, Avant tallying three assists in nine minutes of play in the second half and hitting 3-4 from the line after drives to the rim, and Spani hitting back-to-back baseline jumpers – she was 5-8 from the field – to break out of a shooting slump.
Williams hit a 15-footer and Khaalidah Miller connected on back-to-back treys for Georgia for the final 77-44 score.
James led Georgia with 11 points and three treys. Armstrong added 10 points and hit two three-pointers. Miller had nine points and eight rebounds. Phillips, who had carried Georgia in several games, finished with six points and seven boards. She had four fouls trying to account for Tennessee's Johnson, Baugh and Brewer.
Georgia had 12 assists, 14 turnovers, seven steals and five blocks. The Lady Bulldogs shot 25.8 percent (16-62) overall, 23.5 percent (8-34) from behind the arc and 100 percent (4-4) from the line.
"I think our two-three was extremely effective," Johnson said. "Our communication level and our energy level, high hands and quick feet, that kind of got to them and made them run down their shot clock and throw up shots that they weren't expecting. Having them shoot outside shots and missing, I think that worked to our advantage."
Simmons led Tennessee with 14 points on 6-11 shooting. Stricklen, who had a game-high six assists, added 11 points, as did Spani. Johnson had nine points and nine rebounds while Baugh added nine points, seven boards and three blocks. Manning grabbed eight boards to help the Lady Vols dominate the glass, 49-33.
Tennessee had 23 assists to just 12 turnovers, seven blocks and four steals.
The Lady Vols shot 50.0 percent (31-62) overall, 31.6 percent (6-19) from long range and 52.9 percent (9-17) from the line.
The win gave Tennessee its second regular season crown in a row. The Lady Vols have two games remaining – at Ole Miss on Thursday and hosting LSU on Sunday, and they have said the goal is to finish league play undefeated.
"I think it was important to them to be able to clinch this," Summitt said. "I feel like just the maturity overall has allowed us to be very focused but also very confident. I think we're a confident team, and we want to stay that way."
VIDEO COVERAGE: Post-game press conference videos.
Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt
Lady Vols Meighan Simmons, Vicki Baugh and Glory Johnson
Georgia Coach Andy Landers and Jasmine James