Lady Vol fans are partial to defensive effort and after three days of practice that coach Holly Warlick characterized as challenging, Tennessee's players got back on track, so much so that Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer paid them the ultimate compliment by saying they played in Pat Summitt's image.
"I was talking to Pat a little earlier, and I was telling her she must be extremely proud of Holly," Stringer said. "I think that this Tennessee team is playing in my opinion closer to the outstanding, extremely aggressive but very good intense Tennessee teams that have always played.
"I haven't really thought that always in the years past, and I've talked to her about that. I thought that they played in her image, and I know that she's extremely proud of Holly. The assistant staff, they really have them playing real well. They're aggressive. I know they have to be pleased."
Stringer wasn't impressed with her team at all.
"I wish we had been able to start quicker, better," Stringer said. "I apologize to everybody for your time that was wasted coming to see this, and hopefully we'll grow from this."
It was a typical Tennessee-Rutgers game with points hard to come by and physical play in the paint. Players who didn't want to fight through screens or absorb contact should have never left the bench.
Tennessee's Meighan Simmons set the tone from the beginning with her aggressive pressure on ball and her willingness to get around a screen. The 5-9 Simmons ran headfirst into a screen set by 6-2 post Monique Oliver and spun off it to pursue her player.
"The way Meighan started on defense kind of took her mind off her offensive game," Warlick said. "Our goal today was to score in the paint, whether it was post feeds, perimeter penetration or rebounding."
When Simmons didn't allow her defender to go left or right – she was literally jumping side to side to force a change of direction – the crowd came to its feet. The fans did the same thing when a trap by Cierra Burdick and Ariel Massengale forced a Rutgers timeout to avoid a five-second call.
"We went to Meighan early and then I think really put focus on her and Massengale – and any of the perimeter people – attacking the ball and putting ball pressure on the point guard," Warlick said. "And I think to start off the game, both those two set the tone with their defense and allowed everyone else on the frontline to take chances."
Isabelle Harrison certainly benefited as she collected a career-high six steals, a stat she liked better than the career-high 18 points she scored.
"Six steals, definitely," Harrison said. "I love defense. Whatever I can do to help on defense, and I think that it helps us so much on offense. I'm really proud that I contributed on that."
Tennessee got its first eight points from layups – precisely what Warlick wanted – as Harrison scored on an offensive board; Burdick got to the rim; Simmons scored off a steal and wraparound pass to herself on the way to the basket to keep the ball away from the defender; and Bashaara Graves collected an offensive board.
A Tennessee-Rutgers matchup means points will be hard-earned, and the Lady Vols made sure the Scarlet Knights had very little success.
Rutgers shot 22.2 percent overall in the first half, went 0-6 from long range and trailed at halftime 33-13, the same score as 2009 when Tennessee mounted a comeback and prevailed 55-51.
The Scarlet Knights were trailing 25-8 – Simmons connected from long range at the 7:09 mark – when Monique Oliver's contested the shot and hurt her left ankle on the landing. Oliver was unable to return to the game.
"It was huge because a lot of the offense that is run involves one of them, Chelsey or her," Stringer said. "Let's look at it like this: It gave us an opportunity for some other people to play.
"This would not have been the time that I would've wanted that to happen, but I was pleased Chelsey Lee didn't give up in her effort. She wanted to be there."
Lee logged 34 minutes and grabbed seven boards. With Oliver getting her ankle iced on the sideline, Lee was left to battle Tennessee's posts with backup from youngsters.
"It was hard, but like coach said it gave Rachel Hollivay and Christa Evans a chance to step up and get some playing time," Lee said.
Two of Rutgers' guards reached double figures – freshman Kahleah Copper led the team with 13 points, and senior Erica Wheeler added 11 points.
Rutgers outscored the Lady Vols 34-33 in the second half but weren't able to overcome the slow start. The Scarlet Knights shot 48.0 percent in the second half and 34.6 percent overall.
Warlick reminded her players to not let their intensity level dip.
"Holly coming into us and telling us we had to buckle down, that we couldn't get lax; we had a great first half, but the game wasn't over," Harrison said. "We really understood what she was saying and tried to step it up.
"I think we did get a little lax because of the lead we had. I think we stepped it up and picked each other up. We knew we couldn't relax."
Rutgers tried some full-court pressure early in the second half, but Tennessee scooted through it when Kamiko Williams got trapped and passed the ball to Graves, who threw it ahead to Simmons, who penetrated to the paint, drew the defense and kicked to Taber Spani, who drained the three for a 44-18 lead with 14:18 left to play.
Spani, who has battled back issues, shot 3-6 from the field for seven points. She also grabbed six boards and had a highlight steal.
Spani dove into the lane to recover on defense, and, while sliding on her knees, threw a left-handed hook pass blindly to Williams, who got the ball ahead to Simmons, who hit the bank shot for a 48-20 lead with 13:06 left.
"I thought, "Oh, gosh, I have to get that; that's my drop and rotation," Spani said. "I was trying to do anything I could to get there and grab it. Honestly, I knew someone would be there, so I just tried to flip it back behind me to save it.
"I just wanted to get a touch off that ball because otherwise it would have been a layup and we're stressing defense pretty hard right now."
That would be an understatement. When the players returned from break on the day after Christmas, they watched film of all the defensive possessions against Stanford, a screening that Spani said "just made us want to throw up." Spani, who is a senior, said she had never seen Warlick that angry.
"Honestly, I think she had the right to be angry like that," Spani said. "I think, after watching it, that was the worst defensive effort I've seen a Tennessee team make since I've been here.
"We understood that, and it's not only the coaches who should be upset; we should be upset by our performances. … Our entire practices have been all about defense. We haven't done much shooting or offense at all. It's where our emphasis has been, and it's nice to see the production out of that."
Tennessee had 16 steals, led by Harrison's six. Burdick, who tallied nine points, had three thefts. Simmons and Graves had two each.
The Lady Vols prevailed on the boards, 42-34. They converted 24 Rutgers' turnovers into 24 points. The Lady Vols had 18 miscues, but the Scarlet Knights managed only eight points.
The turnover total was one stat Warlick likely won't like, though two players accounted for 13 of them – Harrison with seven and Burdick with six.
"I think it was a fast-paced game and I would have liked Izzy and Cierra to not have so many turnovers, but I thought both of them were aggressive," Warlick said. "We attacked. Our goal was to not run an offense. It was to attack the basket and score out of transition.
"So, I'm OK with those right now, but if I had come in here and we would have lost, I wouldn't be happy with it."
Tennessee had three players in double figures – the posts Harrison and Graves with 18 and 11 points, respectively, while Simmons added 15. The Lady Vols had 15 assists with six from Massengale and four from Williams. Simmons also used her defense to jump-start her offense.
"We've got a pretty good history with Rutgers and the games are usually pretty close," Simmons said. "We took that to heart that we had to start with defense before anything.
"The ball pressure we had helped today, and I think that's something we've been working on the past couple of days to prepare for SEC, because that's what we're going to need to do; we've got to play really good defense and take it one game at a time."
Warlick was smiling after the games Friday and Sunday, a state of mind her players would like to see remain.
Rutgers was the perfect lead-in to SEC play, as the Scarlet Knights play rugged defense with points at a premium.
"They made us grind it out and answer some runs that they made," Warlick said. "In order to win the SEC, you're going to have to grind it out, going to have to answer some runs and you're going to have to defend somebody."
Game highlights from utsportstv
Isabelle Harrison, Taber Spani, Meighan Simmons
Coach C. Vivian Stringer, Shakena Richardson, Chelsey Lee