Summitt went deep into her bench well before the first half even ended after the Wildcats went more than 11 minutes without scoring, and the Lady Vols jumped out to a 22-2 lead.
Kentucky won the opening tip, and Chante Bowman connected from the wing on an assist from Angela Phillips in the game's first 10 seconds. But the Wildcats wouldn't get on the scoreboard again until Jennifer Humphrey hit a free throw with 8:16 left in the first half.
"Long. Real long," DeMoss said when asked what it was like waiting for the second basket. "I wondered if we were ever going to score again. We started out knocking the first shot down. I thought, ‘OK, we can relax a little bit now.' Then we missed a couple of easy bunnies. I think it shook our confidence a little bit."
Before the game started, Summitt presented DeMoss at center court with a vase engraved with her name that commemorated the six national titles that she helped secure for the Lady Vols during her tenure at Tennessee. DeMoss said she wouldn't allow herself to cry. Summitt also had a lump in her throat.
"I wouldn't let myself," DeMoss said. "It was very touching. I knew I couldn't switch my emotions on and off that quickly when the game was getting ready to start."
DeMoss is in her second season with the Wildcats so the first game played between the two coaches was last year in Lexington, Ky. At the time Tennessee was playing its first game after point guard Loree Moore's season-ending knee injury so Summitt said she was more focused on her team and its emotions, than the matchup with DeMoss. The impact of playing DeMoss did hit her Sunday.
"I was emotional before the game," Summitt said. "I was like, ‘You can't cry.' I was choked up."
Summitt said she told DeMoss, "Great crowd. They appreciate what you've done and so do I."
The crowd seemed sympathetic to Kentucky's offensive woes – a combination of Tennessee's tough defense and the Wildcats missing open shots under the basket – and cheered when they finally got unstuck from two points.
Summitt lauded the play of senior forward Shyra Ely, who guarded Kentucky's leading scorer, Sara Potts, who averages 14.7 points per game and had scored in double figures in nine of the last 10 games. Potts was held scoreless in the first half and didn't get on the board until hitting a three pointer at the 8:31 mark of the second half. She scored a layup at the 2:30 mark and finished with five points.
Summitt had tweaked her starting lineup for the Kentucky game – moving Alexis Hornbuckle to point guard – because she wanted a faster offensive start without losing defensive intensity. She also challenged Ely after the Vanderbilt game to become a better defender. Ely ratcheted up her defense against Auburn and then drew the assignment against Potts.
"I like how the starters got us out on a defensive mission," Summitt said. "We moved Shyra to guard Sara Potts. Ely, she'd taken that challenge on at the Auburn game and was much better at this game in guarding the go-to perimeter player."
"Before the Auburn game coach was telling me that I wasn't a very good defender," Ely said. "I had tapered off. That's such an important role that I have to fulfill for this team. I just wanted to carry it over from Auburn to Kentucky. That was my mindset, just not let her get the ball, not let her get touches, frustrating her a little bit. I think I did a pretty good job, and Loree also, defending her."
Ely also was the high scorer for Tennessee with 13 points on 4-6 shooting from the field and 5-7 from the line. She tallied seven rebounds and one apiece in the steal, turnover, assist and block categories.
Freshman center Sybil Dosty was the leading rebounder for Tennessee with 11 – six offensive and five defensive – and helped the Lady Vols to a 54-36 advantage on the boards. Tennessee's three "bigs" – Dosty, Tye'sha Fluker and Nicky Anosike – also out-muscled the Wildcats inside and held Kentucky's second-leading scorer, Sarah Elliott, to two points. The 6'6 freshman center had been averaging 11.3 points a game.
"Tennessee is very physical," DeMoss said. "We play a lot of young players. We tried to get them ready for the physical play, but until you actually go through – we can try to simulate it in practice – it's not always the same."
The early misses also hurt her team, DeMoss said, because they started taking quick shots. Tennessee also was disrupting their screens, and Kentucky couldn't get Potts any open looks.
"We couldn't knock shots down early," DeMoss said. "Their defense was causing us some problems, and I thought we took some quick shots, which generates their transition game. They really did a nice job in the first half with their transition game. We just never could really recover from that first half run. I thought we competed hard. Tennessee looked good today, particularly in their transition game and on the boards. It was just a long night for the Cats."
The early rout allowed Summitt to substitute early and often. Every scholarship player who was physically able to play – freshman Candace Parker is still out and fellow freshman Alex Fuller is taking a redshirt year – had been on the court before the first half ended. In the second half, Summitt often had four freshmen on the floor.
The various combinations sometimes led to ragged play.
"Obviously we got a lot of people quality minutes today. I didn't suggest it was quality play, but we had quality minutes," Summitt said. "I think that's good. I've been trying to get Sybil Dosty more minutes. I decided today she would be my first sub off the bench at the post. Because a lot of times if you wait to put players in, and they haven't had minutes, you think you can't. I was really pleased with what she did overall.
"I didn't go into the game thinking, ‘I'm going to play everyone and get them minutes,' because I didn't know how the game would unfold. Let's face it. Kentucky got a lot of good looks early, and the shots didn't fall. Our defense I thought did perhaps cause them to rush a little bit because defensive intensity was really good. … When that happened, and we opened up the lead then my thinking at that time I was going to try to get Dominique Redding more minutes and Sybil Dosty more minutes, Gatewood and obviously Moore."
The players were later taking themselves out of the game, Summitt said. Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood is still suffering from a sinus infection, as are Moore and Fluker.
"They're all battling colds and not feeling well," Summitt said. "It's probably the weather and the change in the weather" as temperatures in Knoxville fell from the balmy 50s last week into the teens this weekend. Moore also has had a stiff left knee, which flared up toward the end of the game, Summitt said. "Tye's OK. She'll start her antibiotics real soon I'm sure. Everybody's sick. I'm going to stay away from them. They'll like that."
At least one of Kentucky's players also was under the weather.
"I am still sick," Potts said. "I guess it kind of did affect my play. I didn't play that well. But it's not really an excuse."
The festive crowd at the arena didn't affect the players, as DeMoss said they are now used to playing in front of lots of people. They also weren't bothered by Tennessee's ball pressure that much.
"I didn't really think the atmosphere bothered them that much because we have drawn some big crowds at Kentucky," DeMoss said. "Of course they're cheering for us (in Lexington). It was hard to get open looks on the perimeter. We thought we would be able to go inside, which we did, but we couldn't knock shots down when we went inside. I think it was the physical play more than picking up the ball that affected us."
"It was really exciting, the crowd and all," said Wildcat freshman guard Samantha Mahoney, who led Kentucky with 15 points and said she had played with some of Tennessee's freshmen at summer camps in Knoxville. "I tried to just stay focused on the game rather than what was going on around me. The physical play like coach DeMoss was saying was big. I think that was bigger than the crowd."
DeMoss wasn't the only one who felt like the game was a homecoming. Phillips, a sophomore guard from nearby Oak Ridge, Tenn., got a rousing round of applause during player introductions.
"I think for me it was exciting to play here," Phillips said. "We just tried to look at it like any other game. It was an SEC game that we needed to win so it's disappointing for us."
Summitt wasn't disappointed in the start of the game and, more importantly, the beginning of the second half. Ten days ago, Tennessee had jumped out to a huge lead at home against Arkansas and then slacked off in the second half.
"This starting group I like," Summitt said. "Alexis was a very efficient player today. She does a lot of great things for us, very coachable. I think she manages the (game) very well and has been very vocal in running our sets. While I like her playing at the 2 (position) because of what you saw when she could get the ball in transition and get to the basket, right now she's been a very efficient player for us at both spots."
There was a drop in intensity over the final 20 minutes, but Summitt pointed to the play of Kentucky and her own substitution patterns, which moved Sidney Spencer back and forth from the paint to the perimeter.
"We lost some intensity in the second half," she said. "We had a lot of different combinations. But I thought Kentucky played much better. You have to credit them for how they played. We had Spencer inside, then played her outside. Looking out there a lot of times we had four freshmen on the floor."
Summitt had said earlier in the week that she wanted to get Dosty some solid minutes before the post-season and also work some players into the rotation that hadn't played much because of injury or illness.
"She wanted to get a lot bench play and a lot of bench minutes," said guard Shanna Zolman, who scored seven points off the bench. "Whether it was freshmen, whether it was upperclassmen, she wanted to get a lot of people a lot of minutes to get quality time and just to get the experience … to work on our game as a team."
Summitt said she was willing to "sacrifice play" to get her young players some crucial court time before the post-season begins in March.
"Those four freshmen are starting to grow up and really mature into confident basketball players and players that really understand what we want," Summitt said. "They're going to be able to make a difference for us, and obviously March is when it really counts. So sometimes you have to sacrifice play. You want to give them minutes, and I told them I wanted them to learn to value those minutes and to be a better player within the game. You have to play the game within a game to get better. They don't quite understand that right now, but they're starting to. Every possession is precious and can be the difference."
One of the freshmen, Hornbuckle, started and scored 12 points, including hitting both of her three-point shot attempts. She had started at point guard when Moore was out for tonsil surgery and also has played significant minutes at the perimeter spots. Summitt has tested the young guard a lot this season, and so far Hornbuckle has passed.
"My mindset today was just to go out and set the tone and get our team up defensively because it starts with the point guard and just try to get our offense into a flow," Hornbuckle said. "I think I kind of did that, as coach was telling me."
Moore came off the bench and tallied an important stat – seven rebounds, including five on defense. The rest of the guards also plucked some balls off the defensive glass, including Zolman, who had three.
"She's really been on us guards," Zolman said. "The posts and the frontline have been doing their job. She's been emphasizing the guards to get out and get the boards, and that starts our transition even quicker."
Zolman and Moore were two players on Tennessee's team who were happy to see DeMoss, who coached both of them as Lady Vols. Moore considers her a friend. Zolman said having DeMoss there provided extra incentive to play well.
For DeMoss, she was grateful for the affection from Tennessee and its fans – she playfully accused women's athletics director Joan Cronan of trying "to pull a fast one on me" because of the pre-game ceremony - but also was glad the game was over.
"I think things will settle down a little bit," DeMoss said of the next time she and Summitt face each other. "Coming back for the first time is always probably the toughest. Once the game got started I was really glad that the game got started because the focus was there."
DeMoss was worried about her players getting caught up in the emotions of her homecoming.
"I was afraid they would come out a little tight, trying too hard to be perfect," she said. "I think that's what happened. I'm glad it's behind me now. I'm sure they were disappointed in how they performed. We'll just have to regroup and regain our confidence. I'm sure our confidence was shaken a little bit, particularly on the offensive end. We're going to have to regroup. We've got a lot of SEC games left."
DeMoss got a standing ovation from the Tennessee fans when she walked onto the court.
"It wasn't surprising because I know all the fans love her as much as we do, but I was really excited for her that she got such a warm welcome," Zolman said.
"I doubt Geno will ever get one (in Knoxville) so at least I've got something over on Geno," DeMoss said with a lighthearted smile of her standing ovation in reference to UConn coach Geno Auriemma.
DeMoss also was proud of her team for competing in the second half. After only scoring 16 first half points, they tallied 33 in the second half to finish with 49. Tennessee scored 35 and 32 points in the two halves respectively.
"It could have gotten way ugly," DeMoss said. "It could have gotten out of hand."
"That's one coach I would never try and run the score up on," Summitt said.
Does that mean there are some coaches she might be tempted to pile points on?
"Oh, I'm sure there's a few out there," Summitt said.