DePaul (8-2) stayed within striking defense of Tennessee - the Blue Demons turned the Lady Vols open to start both halves - but they could not stop Tennessee's repeated attacks at the basket and wore down well before the final buzzer.
"Our basketball team played hard and competed, but I thought there were some moments where we didn't compete," DePaul Coach Doug Bruno said. "Losing is something that will happen and can happen, and it's going to happen.
"It's about how the losing happens and I just thought we didn't play with as much competitiveness as I would have liked and I didn't think we played with as much intelligence as I would have liked."
Tennessee (5-2) opened the game as if it were without its starting point, which it was. Ariel Massengale is just a freshman, but her value on the floor has already been established. She has a calming effect on the team and understands the point guard position.
Her absence due to a dislocated finger suffered in practice Thursday was apparent from the opening tip. Tennessee started the game with two consecutive turnovers. Sophomore Meighan Simmons started at point guard but soon gave way to senior Shekinna Stricklen, who is better suited at small forward but has remained a viable option at the top of the floor for Tennessee.
"I was concerned about Meighan and the pressure that DePaul was putting on the point guard," Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick said. "We knew with Massengale out we would have to run the point guard by committee, and that's basically what we did.
"At times we had Taber (Spani) bring the ball up a couple of times, obviously Strick (because) she's been there and Meighan."
Stricklen settled down after a shaky start and played the bulk of her 34 minutes at the point position. She was particularly effective in the second half when she had zero turnovers.
"Clearly, you can see in the first half I was thinking too much," Stricklen said. "Thinking like, ‘I know I'm not a true point guard, but I was thinking that I really had to play like one.'
"Second half, Pat came up to me and said, ‘Relax, play your game and you'll do fine.' And that's why I came out second half pushing the ball in transition, looking more for my teammates, also and trying to get to the basket."
Pat Summitt had taken that approach with Stricklen in the past, but this time it worked. Stricklen was poised at the spot, handled the pressure and got Tennessee's running game on track.
Stricklen also didn't let her early struggles on offense affect her defensive play in either half.
"I would say being more mature," Stricklen said. "That is something Pat stays on us about - defense and rebounding no matter what. If your offense is not going, you still can get points from defense, and that is something I really focus on.
"That is really my focus this whole year. getting better on my defense. That's my main goal, and I feel like I have improved a lot on my defense."
Stricklen also benefited from the presence of senior forward Alicia Manning, whose energy changes the tenor of a game.
"Having Rel out is a tough break for us. She is such a tough player, very tough-minded," Manning said, delivering a big compliment to the freshman. "We're missing her obviously, but she is going to come back full force.
"I got some extra minutes, feels good to get out there and play with my teammates and have some fun."
Manning can always be counted on to crash the glass and play defense - she had 12 boards and four steals - but in this game she also contributed on offense with 12 points to complete the double-double.
"Oh, man, she's a beast. Even in practice when she goes, she goes hard. … That's just A-Town," said senior Glory Johnson, referring to Manning by her nickname since she is from Atlanta. "She's really aggressive.
"She has always been an aggressive player and when she comes in off the bench, she's that aggressive from the jump. She helps so much, and we definitely needed that out of her."
Johnson also reached double figures - she tied for game high scoring honors with 16 points, as did DePaul's Jasmine Penny - and Stricklen tallied 12 points. Cierra Burdick was the fourth Lady Vol in double figures with 15 points - she was 7-10 from the stripe - after a flurry of drives to the paint in the second half.
That was the game plan for the Lady Vols. Warlick, who had the scout, said the intent was to get the ball to the paint either by entry passes or dribble drive.
Tennessee attempted only five treys and missed on each one. Stricklen and Taber Spani had nice looks from behind the arc - three for Stricklen and two for Spani - but misfired. The last time Tennessee didn't connect on a three-pointer was against LSU last season in the SEC season opener on Jan. 2, 2011. That broke a streak of 422 consecutive games for Tennessee with a made three-pointer, but it was hardly noticeable this game.
"I think today we proved that we're not just a three-point shooting team," Warlick said. "And we told our players our goal was to get the ball in the paint.
"We had 50 points in the paint and that's what we were striving to do - make them defend us inside whether it was our post players or our guards."
That approach also got Tennessee to the line and the Lady Vols converted 74.3 percent at 26-35. Stricklen was a perfect 6-6 and it pushed her into double-digit scoring, which she has done every game this season.
Tennessee is in New York - the Lady Vols stayed in the city and will head to New Jersey on Monday - as part of the Maggie Dixon Classic, which honors the late Dixon, the head coach of Army who died unexpectedly in 2006 of a heart condition. The Courage Award is presented at the event and this year it went to Summitt, who announced last August that she had early onset dementia.
The award was presented to Summitt at center court during a timeout of the first game of a double-header - Baylor beat a stubborn St. John's team, 73-59 - by members of the Dixon family.
Both benches stopped the timeout, and the players and coaches turned around to face center court for the presentation.
The Lady Vols had been in the locker room waiting for their game to start, but they slipped out to watch the ceremony.
"We did get to see it," Stricklen said. "It just shows a lot that so many people respect Pat. We are honored to have her as our coach. People truly respect her and love her.
"That shows us a lot and the best thing we can do for her is go out every day, play to our best and just give it all we've got to show her how much we really care for her and love her also."
Summitt was given a standing ovation by the crowd - it included former Lady Vols Michelle Marciniak and Kara Lawson and Lawson's husband Damien Barley, who ran a marathon last money in New York to raise money for Alzheimer's - and the players and coaches from Baylor and St. John's also applauded.
Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey and center Brittney Griner hugged Summitt before she walked off the court. Baylor played last month in Knoxville and wore purple "We Back Pat" shooting shirts in warm-ups before the game.
"There is so much support from everybody, even other teams surprisingly," Johnson said. "Other teams wear the ‘We Back Pat' shirts when we are playing and when you see that there are so many people that are supporting Pat and the cause itself."
With the game in one of the country's major media markets in New York, the post-game press conference was crowded with media, and the players and Warlick were asked about Summitt, her disease and the effect on the team.
"I will tell you this: Pat Summitt is the coach at the University of Tennessee, and she is still coaching," Warlick said. "She has put the assistants in a unique situation where she has allowed us over the last three or four years to do the things she thinks we're best at.
"The sign of a great leader is to have a tremendous amount of support, and Pat relies on her support and she relies on the assistant coaches. It may be a little bit different, but she is still my boss. She is still leading us and still coaching this basketball team."
It is something the players are accustomed to now and for them it has almost become an afterthought because their day-to-day lives are basically unchanged.
The loss of Massengale was more troublesome for the team because her composure relaxes the team and allows everyone to play their natural position.
Stricklen struggled offensively to open the game, but she settled in and really hit her stride in the second half.
"Going back to the point is something I am getting back comfortable with, but it's temporary," Stricklen said. "It's a hard spot to fill, especially after Rel. She is a great point guard. She has done a lot for this team and filling her spot is a big spot to fill.
"But it's something this team needs. I know the position. I played it for two years. So being positive for my teammates and they are behind me and were positive with me throughout the whole game. That makes me feel great."
The game started out just the way DePaul wanted it with ball pressure and turnovers, and the Blue Demons took a 5-1 lead off a Brittany Hrynko trey less than four minutes into the game.
"I was a little concerned the first four minutes of the game," Warlick said. "We turned the ball over too much for us, but we settled down."
It was 7-3 in DePaul's favor after two Keisha Hampton's free throws, but Vicki Baugh converted a perfect lob from Stricklen and was fouled to cut the lead to 7-6, and Simmons grabbed a defensive board, scooted down court and banked in a short shot to give the Lady Vols an 8-7 lead, and they never trailed again.
DePaul didn't go far away, though, and the lead was in single digits until Johnson grabbed an offensive board and was fouled. She made both free throws for a 32-21 lead with 4:54 left in the first half.
DePaul got it to single digits again with a three-pointer by Hrynko, but Manning stole the ball and hit a layup for a 35-24 lead with 2:22 to play before the break.
After a steal on the in-bounds pass by Burdick - her first takeaway as a Lady Vol - she was fouled and hit two free throws for a 37-24 lead just four seconds later.
Johnson and Spani closed the half with layups - Johnson missed a point-blank one and after getting the offensive board, hit the one with a higher degree of difficulty on the reverse - and Tennessee took a 41-29 lead into the locker room.
But DePaul started the second half the same way it opened the game and after three missed shots and two turnovers by Tennessee, the Blue Demons had cut the lead to just four points, 41-37, with 17:33 to play. Tennessee called a 30-second timeout at the 17:19 mark, and Manning replaced Simmons.
"One thing about Alicia is she brings energy," Warlick said. "That is what we needed from our team today. We wanted them to play with a lot of emotion, and she got the chance.
"We needed Alicia Manning today, and she stepped up. She's ready, and she produced. I was proud of her. She played some great defense, played well on the offensive end and it seems like her emotion it carried over for all of our team."
Stricklen moved to point and asserted herself on both ends. She drove to the basket and got fouled, assisted on Johnson's layup, deflected a ball to Burdick, who went to the rim and got fouled, stole the ball and delivered a bounce pass to Spani for the layup, got to the rim on a fast break and then went to the foul line.
Suddenly, Tennessee led 58-45 with 10:41 to play, and this time the lead just kept growing.
Hampton had to stay in the game with four fouls and Johnson went right at her the first chance she had and drew number five. Johnson hit both free throws for a 60-45 lead with 10:28 left.
Simmons reentered the game with 8:07 left to play and logged some quality minutes. She scored on a drive and a pull-up jumper, got fouled on a drive and after getting a steal, raced down court and delivered a pass to Burdick for a layup in stride.
With just nine healthy players available for Tennessee, Manning remained on the floor with Simmons and three bench players in Burdick, Isabelle Harrison and Briana Bass. The Lady Vols got 33 points from its bench led by Burdick's 15 and Manning's 12.
Tennessee completed its scoring with Harrison hitting one of two free throws and Manning hitting a layup with 43 seconds remaining. After a Penny layup for DePaul, Tennessee dribbled out the clock for the 84-61 final score.
DePaul was playing its third game this week and in hindsight Bruno wished he had rescheduled Friday's game after being asked to play in the Classic. DePaul's schedule had already been set last summer when the Blue Demons were added to the event. Dixon used to be an assistant at DePaul.
"Let's not forget they're a good basketball team," Bruno said. "I don't want to take anything away from Tennessee. You don't have to worry about taking anything away from Tennessee. They're a good basketball team."
Hampton smiled and said the players would rather have a game than practice, but she noted a big opponent requires preparation time.
"It's such a big game, Tennessee, you want more time to prepare, but like Coach said, no excuses," Hampton said. "We prepared as best as we could."
DePaul had three players in double figures led by Penny with 16, Hampton with 14 in just 23 minutes of play because of foul trouble and Anna Martin with 10 points.
"I'm a senior and I committed stupid fouls," Hampton said. "I put myself in that position. I should not have been in that position in this game. It's too big of a game to be committing silly fouls like I did.
"I put myself in that position and it is always difficult to play in foul trouble. You can't be as aggressive as you want to be, and I wasn't like I wanted to be. "
The Blue Demons shot 30.9 percent (21-68) overall, 25.0 percent (7-28) from long range and 66.7 percent (12-18) from the line. DePaul had 24 turnovers that Tennessee converted into 23 points, 10 assists, eight steals and one block.
In addition to the four Lady Vols in double figures, Simmons had nine points, Spani added eight, and Harrison and Baugh chipped in six apiece.
Tennessee shot 47.5 percent (29-61) overall, 0.0 percent (0-5) from the arc and 74.3 percent (26-35) from the line. The Lady Vols had 19 turnovers, which DePaul converted into 13 points, nine assists, three blocks and 13 steals.
Tennessee edged DePaul on the boards, 45-42, led by Manning's 12, with Johnson grabbing nine and Stricklen getting eight. Baugh, in a highly unusual line, had zero boards in 12 minutes of play.
With Manning, Johnson and Stricklen combining for 29 boards, Tennessee could withstand an off game from Baugh on the glass.
The road gets tougher Tuesday when Tennessee takes on an aggressive Rutgers team. Tennessee first true road game was at Virginia, and the Lady Vols sputtered from beginning to end.
"The Virginia game we learned from it. We've moved from it. It's in the past for us," Stricklen said. "We know we've got four big games. We knocked down one of them. We've got three more to go before Christmas, and we're trying to do a clean sweep.
"We know we're on the road, it's hard, but we've got to stay together as a team, play together as a team and keep our heads up and stay positive."
INSIDE TENNESSEE'S TAKE
That has been Alicia Manning's motto since she arrived at Tennessee and the senior forward delivered for the Lady Vols with her play on both ends of the floor.
It was a game tailor-made for Manning as Tennessee's game plan was to get the ball inside. The 6'1 forward thrives in the scrums under the basket and will fight for space and boards. Her 12 points came on stick-backs, which is her forte, but she also hit some midrange shots.
Manning is annoying to play against - and that is meant as a compliment - because she hawks the ball and doesn't give up on a play.
When a DePaul player got a defensive board near the end of the game and was doubled on the baseline, she glanced to her right but that teammate was covered. Manning stayed out of her line of sight on the left and then popped over as soon as she made the pass, giving Manning a layup under the basket.
Manning likely made a case to start in the next game against Rutgers, which brings gritty play and suffocating defense - another game suited for Manning.
Shekinna Stricklen remains the most experienced option behind Ariel Massengale to play the point spot, and Meighan Simmons, who had trouble against DePaul's pressure, will see that ratcheted even higher against Rutgers.
Tennessee will have a practice session Monday in Piscataway, N.J., to sort out its options, but Manning certainly made a case for herself on Sunday to be on the floor for the opening tip.
Simmons did finish with a flourish in the latter part of the second half. She ended up with nine points and had a sweet pass to Cierra Burdick after Simmons got the steal, drove down court and dished for the layup. But she has struggled as a starter this season - she played very well off the bench in the first two games this season and then the wheels came off against Virginia.
Simmons hasn't gotten back on track yet, and she struggled mightily at the point position Sunday. She could slide into the role that Manning has handled so well - a jolt off the bench, with the added benefit of being able to stretch the defense with the long ball.
Massengale may just be a freshman, but she filled a position of great need for Tennessee and filled it well.
"She is a great point guard," Warlick said. "You can't teach the instincts of a point guard. That's a sign of what Ariel Massengale means to this team and what we need.
"She is a great leader, she leads by example, she's smart and she sees the open floor. You can't tell a guard everything to do. A great point guard sees things and gets the ball to whoever needs it, when they need it … . It doesn't matter if she is a freshman or a senior.
"That is not taught, what Massengale has. That is just a God-given talent and she has taken hold of it and developed into a very nice point guard."
Stricklen is an All-American as a small forward, but she also is the most versatile player on Tennessee's roster.
In a sign of her maturity, Stricklen stepped up on short notice - she has rarely practiced at the point spot this season - and got the road trip started with a vital win for the Lady Vols.
The coaches tried to stick with Simmons at point to start the second half - they are aware the sophomore was thrust into a tough spot - but when she started with a drive and lost the ball out of bounds, the coaches shifted Stricklen back to the point. The Lady Vols had just four turnovers as a team the rest of the way and none from Stricklen in the second half.
There was a lot for the coaches to like in this game, minus the start. The ball squirted free on travel calls, a three-second violation, bad passes and DePaul's thievery. But after 13 first half turnovers, the Lady Vols had just six after the break.
They also broke out their zone full court press in both halves, and it was effective in disrupting DePaul.
"I think our press for sure shook their offense," Glory Johnson said. "They were a little confused. They didn't know when we were going to press and when we were going to call it off. Our 2-3 and our 3-2 (zone defense) are a lot better than it's been the majority of our season so far.
"We work on it a lot in practice making sure that we are communicating the whole time and keeping our hands up, and it helps so much. It definitely changed the game today."
The Lady Vols had 13 steals led by Manning's four and three players, Simmons, Stricklen and Johnson had two each. Cierra Burdick added three off the bench.
Tennessee had just nine assists and that was due to two factors - the absence of Massengale and the relentless attack of the rim one on one. The Lady Vols won the overwhelming majority of those matchups against the Blue Demons.
DePaul relies on the long ball but went just 7-28 from behind the arc as Tennessee switched between its man and zone defenses and did an overall decent job of getting out on shooters.
The second game on the Northeast corridor of the four-game road trip will be a stiff test for Tennessee - Rutgers is 9-1 and ranked No. 11 with its lone loss a double overtime one to Miami - and starting it off with a win was crucial, especially after the debacle at Virginia, where the Lady Vols lost in overtime.
The Maggie Dixon Classic was a neutral court - a majority of the 5,486 fans in attendance were orange supporters - so Rutgers will really be the second road game of the season.
The Scarlet Knights likely have this game circled on their calendar - especially after Tennessee set school history in 2009 with its biggest comeback ever in the win over Rutgers at their place - and will attack the ball in the absence of Massengale.
Stricklen can't shelve her point guard skills just yet - Massengale will miss every game before Christmas - and Manning will need to recover quickly from the 32 minutes she played Sunday.
She just laughed when asked if she was tired.
"No, I am ready to go again," Manning said.
"She's not tired," Stricklen said.
"That's why we have Heather Mason out there training us all summer long," Manning said. "It was fun to finally get out there. I always just said, ‘Wait for my time.'
"The coaches gave me my time today so it felt really good to get out there and get some minutes."
DePaul Coach Doug Bruno saluted Manning in his post-game remarks.
"Manning is somebody that's had my respect for a long, long time," Bruno said. "I really love her game. I think she is a really solid player, and she's got great length and great size and great versatility.
"That is a very, very, very special player. All of their players are special players. Everybody on the team is really good. Manning is a player that I think is going to have some more impact as the season goes along."
There are two lessons to be learned from Manning. The first is to prepare as if your number can be called at anytime.
Manning has done that with her off-season commitment and her habits in practice.
The second is to always put the team first. Manning could not have been happy with the three minutes she played against Texas, but she kept any ire to herself, and played hard when the coaches did put her in towards the end of the game.
Manning even showed her sense of humor Sunday. When she joined the post-game press conference after being on the radio, she took Holly Warlick's seat at the dais and pretended to put on the coach's reading glasses to peruse the box score.
"I've been replaced so soon," Warlick said to laughter.
Because of her preparation and attitude, Manning had a breakout game Sunday right when her team needed her.
"Stay ready. You never know what is going to happen," Manning said. "I am obviously very competitive so keep that competitive attitude whether it's on the bench or out there on the floor.
"And then when my number is called just go out there and give it everything I've got."
Pat Summitt receives the Courage Award
Holly Warlick with Shekinna Stricklen, Glory Johnson, Alicia Manning
DePaul Coach Doug Bruno with Keisha Hampton