The Lady Vols led by as much as 16 points in the second half, but the Commodores chipped away and were within four with less than two minutes to go. But a couple of free throws by Shanna Zolman and one by Nicky Anosike sealed the victory before 15,026 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
It was Tennessee's first game since losing to LSU in Baton Rouge on Thursday and ending its 42-game winning streak in regular season SEC play. Its streak at home in conference play, however, is now at 59 with the win over Vandy.
"I'm really happy for the team," coach Pat Summitt said. "They could have been feeling sorry for themselves today, and I thought they brought a lot of energy to the gym as well as intensity at both ends."
Vanderbilt's coach was equally pleased with her team.
"Obviously I'm proud of the heart my team showed coming back down 16 on the road at a tough place," coach Melanie Balcomb said. "We just didn't finish well. We did a great job coming back."
Tennessee's offensive lulls could be laid at the feet of Summitt, who intentionally was tinkering with various combinations on the floor. But there is a method to her madness. She's trying to get the team ready for March Madness, and Tennessee has had a tendency this season to either drop off defensively or struggle to score offensively.
"Absolutely, we need to be as a team more consistent, and it starts with players," Summitt said. "As more and more players bring the consistency, then you see a different level of play. Right now we're playing in spurts. I thought my substitution, if we don't come out with a win, I'm upset that I substituted in a couple of situations.
"You want to be able to trust everyone, and you want everyone to bring the intensity. I think that's where we have a lot of room for improvement. We have to if we want to be a team that's alive and well and advancing in March. We've got a lot of room for improvement. We have time but it may be on our side right now, but it's not like we have too much of it. We've got enough right now, but we can run out of time if we don't really focus on getting better."
There were marked improvements from the LSU game. Tennessee went inside to score – aided by senior Shyra Ely returning to her familiar spot of power forward – and picked up the offensive tempo. But bench scoring, which had been a big plus, fell dramatically, in part because Zolman was moved into the starting lineup after setting a torrid scoring pace in Tennessee's last four games.
After a poor showing against LSU, Ely came off the bench to score 18 points, but it's clear Summitt is not considering her to be a bench player, at least not when evaluating the play of the bench in this game.
The starting lineup also was altered to get Tennessee off to a better start. Before the game, Summitt said she was tired of playing in a hole. Against Vandy in January, the Lady Vols spotted the Commodores a 15-point lead. Tennessee jumped out 12-5 in this game and scored the first four points of the second half to take a 44-29 lead.
"I thought that our starters got us off to a great start both halves," Summitt said. "I felt like we played out the end of the first half pretty well, and at the end of the game we managed to close it out. What happened in between I think a lot came from our substitution and probably lack of commitment to our scouting report defensively.
"But you've got to give Vanderbilt credit. They do a great job. They're very committed to high-low. Obviously we let their best three-point shooter have too many touches and too many opportunities there. In terms of our play off the bench, not real strong here; it was great at LSU. We've got to figure that out. Correct one thing, now we've got to go back and fix something else."
Vanderbilt was led by forward Ashley Earley, who scored 24 points on 11-12 shooting and had 11 rebounds. Tennessee tried several defenders on Earley, and she scored on all of them. Earley's scoring ability kept Tennessee from putting away Vandy in the second half as she continually got under the basket for layups and one putback.
"They got the ball inside very well with their high-low game, and their posts were playing excellent," Zolman said. "I think it was just a combination of that and us just kind of losing our focus or intensity a little bit. But we found a way to win again, and that's the sign of a good team. Hopefully we can just build off that."
Vandy guard Abi Ramsey scored 17 points but took 19 shots and was only 3-13 from long range.
"I was just pretty much rushing it, maybe a little tired also," Ramsey said.
Besides Ely, Tennessee had two players in double figures. Tye'sha Fluker and Zolman scored 14 apiece. Guard Alexis Hornbuckle was the leading rebounder with eight, six of which came on the offensive end.
"Fluker's got to get better defensively," Summitt said. "Our whole interior defense has got to get stronger. They had their way pretty much. That's the thing that Tye said after the game, ‘I've got to get better on the defensive end of the floor.' I think our post defense was very exposed at times today."
"Obviously she's a good player," Fluker said. "Her team does a real good job getting her the ball no matter how we're guarding. … They do a good job of finding the post and feeding the post."
Earley is only 5'10, but she consistently weaved around the paint. Nine of her made shots were within two feet of the basket.
"It's just all about footwork," Earley said. "Every night out I'm playing against somebody that's bigger than I am. So I really didn't do anything differently than I have done for the rest of the season. I was just aggressive this time around. The difference between this game and last game we played, I was more aggressive."
After the Lady Vols barely went inside against LSU, Summitt was seeking strong interior play against Vandy. She got it. Tennessee took 32 shots inside the paint and made 20 of them.
"I definitely think it was a matter of getting a lot better looks, playing a lot better together as a team and then getting the ball inside," Zolman said. "That was a strong emphasis on our minds basically from the get go. We wanted to do that at the very beginning of the game, very beginning of the second half and all throughout whether it's through penetration or whether it's kicking inside to the post. I think that we did that a lot better, and we got a lot better shots."
All but one of Ely's successful shots came in the paint. She also finished with seven rebounds, one assist and two steals.
"I thought she responded well, more in the second half," Summitt said. "She was a little tentative in the first half, but she really stepped up her play and played very aggressive, looked a lot more comfortable inside and also with her transition opportunities. But pleased to see she had the maturity and the focus that you would want a senior to have, but you also have the drive when she went in the game. I thought her aggressive play was the big difference for our post game."
"I played all at the four today," Ely said. "I just got a chance to get inside, get some easy buckets, rebound and run the floor. Those are my strengths so it worked out today."
With Ely at the four position, Hornbuckle moved to the small forward spot. She responded with one of her best rebounding efforts of the season, six points – including a behind-the-back and spin move to the basket that left two defenders in her wake – five assists and two steals. That brought a smile to Summitt's face, but she also had a few miscues on defense.
"Well if she can find the 3-point shooter it'd be real good," Summitt said. "She struggled a little bit today to identify personnel. But I think that she obviously anticipates very well, she boards for us. Just looking at recent games, she's done a great job of getting on the boards. And it does free her up not to have to pick up the ball or run the point so certainly I think playing her on the wing is a good place for her, just like playing Shyra inside."
Tennessee won the battle of the boards 36-27, and Balcomb said the presence of Hornbuckle makes it nearly impossible to keep Tennessee off the glass.
"You have a guard that's crashing the boards," Balcomb said. "You have five people going to the boards, and it's hard to stop. She's so big and strong. I fear most with her, her offensive rebounding ability. It's coming from a different position than any other team in the country. I think that adds a lot to these guys."
Summitt is looking at various combinations with an eye on March and the start of the NCAA Tournament. She will use the last four regular season games and the SEC Tournament to determine whom she can count on when it really counts.
"Basically what I told this team is that you have between now and post-season to establish your role," Summitt said. "Every day I see them in practice. Every practice we're looking to evaluate them. We're trying to get them into games now so we can decide if we're going to shorten our bench or if we're going to use the depth that we have."
Zolman liked what she saw Sunday but said everyone has to settle into a role.
"I think that we have so much talent on this team," Zolman said. "It's not a matter of who's going to step up on a given night, because if everybody plays their role we have the talent to get where we need to go. But it's just a matter of every single person competing every single night and playing together and not trying to take people one-on-one or not trying to do the things we did wrong in the LSU game. Tonight we played a little better as a team, and we came out with the win, which is all that matters."
Vandy was hindered in the first half by foul trouble with 11 team fouls. Center Carla Thomas had three, and Earley, Ramsey and Dee Davis picked up two each. But in the second half Vandy had only five team fouls with less than two minutes to go and needed to foul twice just to put Tennessee in the one-and-one from the line and try to get the ball back.
"We got all the foul calls in the first half. It really hurt us," Balcomb said. "We didn't have three of our starters on the floor, and they went on a 10-2 run to end that last minute of the half. That was very important, and that was because we were in foul trouble. And then down the stretch when we needed to be in foul trouble it worked the opposite. We hadn't had enough fouls. It worked to our disadvantage in both halves."
Vandy was trying to stop the clock with fouls at the end and ended up fouling Zolman, who stroked both and put the game away.
"We wanted to foul obviously earlier than that," Balcomb said. "The problem was we didn't want to foul Zolman. The players we wanted to foul got rid of it quick, and we didn't foul those players as quick as we wanted. So then you send Zolman to the line, and that's not who we wanted to go to the line."
In the end, though, Balcomb said the game was settled on the boards and with second-chance points. UT had 17; Vandy had 11. Tennessee, which shot 50 percent for the game, also scored 44 points in the paint to 30 for Vandy, which shot 44.6 percent.
"I thought we did a really good job defensively, made some good stops, but we couldn't keep them off the boards, and they got a lot of second-chance points, loose ball points when we needed stops," Balcomb said. "Down the stretch we didn't execute and hit the shots we needed to."
Summitt will take the win and start getting ready for South Carolina, which comes to Knoxville on Thursday. She will use the practice time to determine who's ready for what lies ahead and whether she needs to whittle or widen her player combinations.
"Some players will play themselves into a role, and I anticipate some may play themselves out of a role," Summitt said. "That's up to the players. I don't want to predetermine between now and the end of the SEC Tournament what we're going to do. We'll pretty much look at giving them playing time from now to then, and then see who's really ready to help us come March."
PARKER PRACTICE: Freshman forward Candace Parker will participate in a full-court practice Monday for the first time since Jan. 3. That should provide Summitt with a better idea of whether or not it is truly feasible to play her this season.
"I think this week we'll probably sit down and make a decision one way or the other," Summitt said.
Parker had knee surgery in September and tried to come back in late December, but was hindered by swelling. After taking off five weeks for rehab, she returned to limited practice sessions last week. So far, she hasn't had any swelling issues.