Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, boiling down the game succinctly, said, "They came in here (and) made more big plays than we did."
Duke also became only the seventh team to defeat Tennessee on its home court at Thompson-Boling Arena. The other six were UConn, Texas, Louisiana Tech, Stanford, Georgia and Auburn. It was also only the 14th loss ever for Tennessee at the arena since it began play there in 1987-88.
Tennessee, 4-2, was 21-75 from the field for a shooting percentage of 28 percent, its worst of the season. Duke, 6-1, was 23-59, for a 39 percent shooting percentage. It was, as Duke guard Jessica Foley said, "such a grind."
The score was tied 53-53 with 2:20 left when Duke's go-to player, forward Monique Currie, took over with an unintentional assist from Tennessee. She hit two free throws, nailed a 15-footer and hit a layup after taking advantage of a befuddled Tennessee on defense.
"I think they were a little confused about what they were in or who they were guarding," said Currie, who finished with 20 points. "The lane was wide open. It caught me off guard for a second."
It was a disheartening defensive lapse but one that the coaches might have seen coming. They have constantly reminded the players that they have to talk to each other.
"Currie comes right down the middle of the floor, and we don't pick her up," Summitt said. "All I can say is you've got to cover the basketball, especially when one of the best players on the floor has it in her hand. Our defense really let us down at various times."
"We were confused," Tennessee guard Shanna Zolman said. "She (Summitt) called our match-up zone a couple of minutes to go. We were in that. Later on we got confused as to whether we were staying in that, or we were supposed to go back to our man-to-man. That's just our fault. We did not communicate on the floor."
Still Tennessee had a chance to tie the game at the end or win with a 3-pointer. But one of their best clutch shooters, Brittany Jackson, was on the bench, and another shooter, Sidney Spencer, passed on the shot.
"I should have had her in the last possession," Summitt said of Jackson. "I went with a penetrator in (Alexis) Hornbuckle. Spencer should have pulled the trigger. She was wide open on the inbound pass."
Jackson had scored eight points but was pulled from the floor after allowing eight points in three minutes – including two three-pointers - by Foley, who said her mini-streak inspired her teammates.
"I took her out when Foley scored eight straight points on her," said Summitt, who believed the baskets shifted the momentum.
Jackson didn't reappear because "Zolman started to play a lot better, and obviously we wanted Hornbuckle on the floor for defensive reasons," Summitt said. "As I told her we can't have a senior sitting over there on the sidelines because you're giving up points."
Summitt said she told Zolman at halftime to relax because "you're too good of a shooter not to be knocking down shots." Zolman had two points at halftime from the free throw line. She finished with 19 points but needed 17 shots to get them. She was perfect, 6-6, from the free throw line.
Forward Shyra Ely had 15 points but took 20 shots. She had several shots rim out and also missed several close in.
"We're go-to players," Ely said of herself and Zolman. "Speaking for myself we have to continue to shoot. They say shooters have to shoot themselves out of whatever. I just continue to have confidence knowing that these are shots I worked on all summer, all year at practice and eventually they'll fall. … That's how it's been lately, just rimming in and out, seeing it go down to and come back out. It's frustrating."
Summitt said she's never seen a team struggle offensively for such a sustained period of time; however, she was pleased with the way Ely attacked the basket.
"I thought she was aggressive," Summitt said. "I thought she had a lot of poise inside, made some big shots for us."
Both Summitt and Ely rejected any notion that Ely, who played the entire game, was tired.
"I think she's a player that can play a lot of minutes," Summitt said. "Got a TV game, got a lot of timeouts, got a lot of rest times."
Tennessee lost the game inside – Duke had 34 points in the paint to Tennessee's 16 – and because its guards, except for Zolman, couldn't score. Loree Moore was 0-8. Hornbuckle was 1-8. Summitt complimented the guards for their defensive work, but said they have to generate some offense, too. But it was the post play that was dominated by Duke. Forward Mistie Williams scored 14 points and had 10 rebounds. Center Alison Bales had nine rebounds and four blocks.
"Our post game broke down time and time again defensively," Summitt said. "It's almost like a puzzle. If you've got five pieces to the puzzle everyone has to be a part to put the puzzle together. We would come down, and we'd have good ball pressure on the wing, we'd have good front defense on the post, and we wouldn't deny the middle, and then they'd get the high-low on us. Next time we'd come down, we'd deny the middle, we'd front the low post (and) we wouldn't pressure the basketball.
"Our guard play was good defensively, thought (they) ran the offense well, but if you look at the numbers obviously they didn't shoot the basketball well at all. We didn't get a lot of points from our guard play."
Summitt was particularly impressed with the play of the 6'7 Bales.
"I though Alison played with a lot of composure," Summitt said. "She was as tough at the high post as the low post. She's such a good passer from the high post. It really spreads your defense out in the high-low game."
Tennessee's post game paled in comparison. Duke's starting forwards and center had 28 rebounds; Tennessee's had 17. Duke out-rebounded Tennessee overall, 53-42.
"You look at their post game. You look at our post game," Summitt said. "And we're light years apart. We haven't had a good post game all year. We have to find a post game if we want to be serious as a basketball team about winning basketball games in our league or with our schedule."
Tennessee also must get more points from its guards. With the posts struggling to score, the guards have to hit more perimeter shots. A solid perimeter game also would help open up the inside for the post players. Hornbuckle played 27 minutes – the longest of the season for the freshman - because of her defensive disruption, but she must score if she wants to keep logging time on the floor.
"I think Alexis brings a lot of energy and generates a lot of positives with her defensive intensity. She always around the ball," Summitt said. "I think she has to be able to settle down offensively for her to a more efficient offensive player. She rushes. The tempo's a little bit different at this level than in high school. In time I'm confident she will do that. She makes a lot of good things happen on the floor."
Meanwhile, Tennessee doesn't play again until Dec. 12 when DePaul comes to Knoxville so the Lady Vols can log some extensive time on their practice floor.
"Every single possession, every single game is a learning experience," Zolman said. "It hurts right now; hopefully it's just all preparation for March. We'll take this 10-day off time and hopefully be able to improve."
Goestenkors, who noted how many easy shots her players missed, said she expected both Tennessee and Duke to start making baskets they aren't hitting now.
"I think a month from now, hopefully a week from now but being realistic, I think both of us will put a lot of shots down that we missed," she said.