On Thursday afternoon, a few hours before Tennessee (22-4, 12-1) was to play Mississippi State (16-10, 5-8), it was announced that Sidney Spencer was lost for the season because of a torn ACL in her right knee. Spencer, a sophomore forward from Hoover, Ala., was injured during a defensive drill at practice Wednesday when her knee hyperextended.
Her best friend on the team, junior Shanna Zolman, left her No. 5 jersey in the locker room and instead wore the No. 1 jersey of Spencer. Zolman kept on her warmups until it was time for introductions and then unveiled the uniform switch.
"Sid's my girl. She's the best friend in the world," Zolman said. "And when she went down, it hurt so bad. A part of me went down because, not so much basketball, but because of her as a person. It really hurt me that that person's not going to out there with us. She worked so hard in the summertime, she worked so hard in the season to try to help us in any way that she can.
"I just wanted to do what I could, to show that she's out there with us. I didn't want her to know about it. I wanted it to be a surprise for her. I think she's kind of mad at me because she started bawling on the floor. She said, ‘You made me cry.' I just wanted to do that for her for the rest of the season."
It was a night for tears as the seniors – Shyra Ely, Aubrey Guastalli, Brittany Jackson and Loree Moore – were introduced one-by-one as their coach, Pat Summitt, and their families waited at center court.
"I thought that, on Tennessee's part, was real special," White said. "It made us feel, us seniors, to be part of their program tonight. It was just amazing."
But the teams still had to settle matters on the court, and their recent games had been hard-fought and close affairs. This game was hard fought.
"It was a very, very, very physical game," MSU coach Sharon Fanning said.
It didn't end up being close. Tennessee went on a run with 9:16 left in the game and UT up by eight points to expand the lead to 20 points and post a score of 66-46 with 3:52 to play. At that point Summitt began to pull her senior starters - first Moore, then Ely and finally Jackson so that they could receive rousing applause from the crowd of 10,271 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The team apparently received a little push before the run. Summitt called timeout, and the team got an earful of motivation.
"We just decided right there we're just going to do it," said Ely, who scored 27 points and had 12 rebounds. "We're just going to buy into the system, and we're just going to do it. I think that's when it really changed and when things just turned for the better."
A sophomore, Dominique Redding, figured heavily in the run and will be called on even more now with the loss of Spencer. Redding scored five of her eight points during the spurt and put Tennessee up by 14 points with a 21-foot shot behind the arc.
"Dominique's play is really, I think, critical as we move forward," Summitt said. "She needs a lot of minutes. I told her she's really got to dial up her intensity."
Ely reentered the starting lineup after coming off the bench for three games after a Feb. 10 loss to LSU in which she struggled offensively and didn't have a rebound. If Ely has been bothered by the move she never let it show and never sulked.
"Nope. I think that I'm a senior, and sometimes coach has to do things for the good of the team," Ely said. "I kind of had to take one for the team. That's what's working for us right now. I'll do whatever I can and come off the bench and just continue to bring what I bring to the team. It's about how you finish the game."
From the sounds of Summitt post-game, Ely might not be coming off the bench anymore, especially after her performance against MSU. She scored her 27 points on 11-19 shooting and 5-7 from the free throw line. Of her 12 rebounds, seven were on the offensive glass.
"I think she was trying to tell me that she needed to start," Summitt said. "What do y'all think?"
It's worth noting that Ely has returned to her natural position of power forward after playing much of the season on the perimeter at small forward.
"She's handled this situation very well," Summitt said. "For a senior, a player that was an All-American last year, was on the Kodak team, obviously she was not happy after the LSU game, and I think it was important for her to understand I don't care if the ball's not going in the basket, there's so many other things that Shyra brings to our team. I don't expect there to be a game where she's not playing great defense, running the floor hard and rebounding the ball. That's what she has done. She has responded in those areas and fortunately scored as well."
Ely was joined in double-digit scoring by Zolman, who had 12 points, and center Tye'sha Fluker, who had 13 points. Fluker also had seven rebounds, including five on offense. Tennessee dominated the glass, 44-27, and had 20 offensive boards compared to 10 for Mississippi State. Post player Nicky Anosike had 10 boards evenly split on the offensive and defensive ends.
"I would say we saw the opportunity to go to the boards really hard and aggressive, and they weren't stopping us so coach kept telling us, ‘Get to the offensive glass and get easy putbacks,' " Fluker said. "I think we were real aggressive to the boards. It was one of the things we focused on tonight, and I think we did a good job as a team."
"We had a distinct advantage in the inside game in terms of size and just the overall physical play," Summitt said. "But I thought we used it. We haven't always been hitters in the past. We've even had Fluker at times play finesse. But I thought we played with a really tough mindset and a physical mindset."
Summitt was hoarse after the game, but it wasn't because the evening was emotional. It was because her team was befuddling her in the first half, and she spent a good portion of the opening 20 minutes exercising her vocal cords.
"I thought the first half was a lot of quick shooting, no real commitment on the defensive end, particularly one-on-one, and obviously no commitment to get the ball inside," Summitt said. "We were 3 for 16 from the perimeter. I shouldn't be hoarse in a game like this, you know? I don't know why they do this to me.
"Second half it was Tennessee basketball. It was great intensity on the defensive end. We ran our ‘five defense,' which is switching player to player on everything. I thought that got us some opportunities to get in the passing lanes, create some things obviously off our defense. I think the big stat was on the offensive glass. We went inside. Fluker came in and gave us a tremendous presence on the low block. That's exactly what we needed. Obviously she and Shyra played very well in the paint tonight."
Ely also played well at the other end of the court. She drew primary responsibility to guard White, who leads the SEC with a 22.8 points per game average. White scored 19 points on 7-19 shooting and was 1-8 from behind the arc.
"She definitely did a nice job on Tan, did a good job of denying her early. I'm glad she's a senior, delighted to give her flowers," Summitt said of White. "She's just a terrific guard. She may in fact be the best guard in the country when you look at her ability. Honestly tonight we really keyed on her, but she can dribble it, pass it, shoot it, defense well, create her shot anytime she wants it. She's just a terrific guard, and obviously she's been a valuable part of what Mississippi State's been able to do. When she played with (former Lady Bulldog and now WNBA player) LaToya Thomas, the two of them were just unbelievable. She's a great talent."
Ely had her own motivations for guarding White. She didn't want to be on ESPN's highlight reel.
"The first thing was that I didn't want to be on SportsCenter tonight, because she's such a great player," Ely said. "One thing you just have to really set your mind to guard a player, but players like Tan White you really just have to limit their touches, try and get her to get frustrated. And you just have to know that she's going to get her buckets, but to make her work for everything, it was important."
White is 5'7. Ely is 6'2. The height difference made a big difference.
"I think she's one of the bigger players that has defended me," White said. "She did a good job. She's a bigger body frame, made it hard for me to get the ball, especially in the paint area. She did a good job. We had a hard time just getting the ball in."
White did enter the record books in the game. She had 357 steals coming in, and the SEC record was 359, held by Jocelyn Penn, who played at South Carolina from 1998 to 2001. White tallied four steals for the game to compile 361 for her career. At the first stoppage in play after the record-setting 360th Tennessee awarded her the game ball. White received a standing ovation from the orange-clad crowd.
"I noticed they were clapping when I was presented with it," White said. "To have an audience like that to support both sides is special."
"I told her last couple of games she didn't have any steals, it was about time," said Fanning, who laughed and put her arm around White as she spoke. "There're quite a few accomplishments this young lady has achieved. I think that's just a tremendous honor. We hope how our team goes in the next few weeks she can accumulate a few more, maybe set some more records. She's a special player and a special young lady. Been really blessed to have the opportunity, and still have the opportunity, to coach Tan."
But the difference in the ballgame, as Fanning noted, were the offensive boards. Mississippi State couldn't stop Tennessee from getting the ball off the glass.
"The bottom line for the game, two things would be the boards, their offensive shots," Fanning said. "I don't think I've ever gone into a press conference versus a Tennessee team where offensive boards weren't a factor. They've won a lot of ballgames."
That, combined with Tennessee's run in the second half, opened up a close game and turned it into a 22-point rout.
"I feel like until the eight-minute mark or right around that timeframe, it's an eight-point ballgame," Fanning said. "And against a team like Tennessee and especially at their place, you're going to have to play with a lot of poise, and we talked about that."
Ferguson fouled Zolman on a three-point attempt, and she sank all three to push a five-point lead to eight.
"We fouled Zolman, and she goes to the foul line for three free throws," Fanning said. "At that point we rushed things. I felt like we were trying to do too many things without the extra screen or cut and lost a little patience there. We just needed to be more patient, make the extra pass. It was a loss of poise. First half, we forced quite a few turnovers. … Second half I think they did a better job of handling the basketball, making decisions. They showed patience down the stretch."
Tennessee had 10 turnovers in the first half but chopped that to seven in the second half. More glaringly, UT had only three assists in the first half but finished with 16 for the game. Zolman led the team with five assists, and Jackson had four. The prettiest may have come from Alexis Hornbuckle, who wrapped a pass around an MSU defender to give fellow freshman Sybil Dosty a layup.
"It's what should have happened in both halves," Summitt said. "This team is a veteran team. Nicky was the only freshman (who started), but Nicky's not been the problem in terms of getting the ball inside, because she's working hard for it. I just thought that they (MSU) played a little bit in-between, sagged off of our guards. We talked about being more aggressive at halftime and trying to change their speed up and get the ball inside out of transition and in the half-court game. I think they were mindful of that and did a much better job with their angles and feeding post players. The post worked hard. They gave them a good option and sealed well inside."
It was the overall play of Ely that was most pleasing for Summitt.
"I thought she really did a good job on the boards," Summitt said. "We went inside. She was real active offensively, and I thought we did a good job of finding her. Ran a lot of different options to her. She just played with an aggressive mindset at both ends of the floor, which is what you expect from your senior player to lead not only vocally – but more importantly for her - she's a leader by example. She did a great job of that tonight."
Ely said she just wanted to make sure "Senior Night" wasn't spoiled by MSU.
"I felt really good before the game," Ely said. "I was just really excited - excited for what we've accomplished here and also what he have in front of us."
SPENCER'S KNEE: Sidney Spencer was in street clothes and on crutches Thursday after suffering a season-ending knee injury in practice the day before. She joined three freshmen on the sideline. Alex Fuller and Candace Parker are taking redshirt years because of knee injures. Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood missed her third consecutive game and remains on crutches because of chronic knee pain. She is listed as day-to-day because of soreness, and her availability for the rest of the season remains in question.
An MRI on Thursday revealed Spencer's torn anterior cruciate ligament. She will immediately start rehab, and a surgery date will be set later.
Spencer was averaging 19 minutes a game this season and had played in all 25 contests - starting 13 of them - going into the MSU game. She had played her best basketball of late, both offensively and on the boards.
"I hate this for Sid and our program," Summitt said. "Sidney has been a big part of our rotation this season either as a starter or coming in off the bench. She has played some of her best basketball in the last two weeks. Our team will miss her contributions."
Spencer's loss means fellow sophomore Dominique Redding will have to assume a larger role.
Redding played 15 minutes and had two rebounds, one assist and a block to go with her eight points.
When Summitt was asked if she was trying to whittle down her rotation going into the postseason – Sunday's game at Alabama is the last regular season contest before the SEC Tournament next week in Greenville, S.C. – she replied it wasn't intentional.
"I'm not trying," Summitt said. "Unfortunately the injuries have put us in this situation. Dominique was our eighth player off the bench. Dosty played as number nine. We're a little more limited right now."
As far as Redding, Summitt said, "We all know she can put the ball in the hole. She can make trick plays on the floor. But she's got to be able to do something on the defensive end and on the glass consistently."
The trick play remark was in reference to an in-bounds play in the second half in which Redding had nobody open to pass to, so she tossed the ball off the back of an MSU defender, caught it herself in-bounds and passed to start a fast break.
"That was pretty smart, wasn't it?" Summitt said. "We tell our players if anyone turns their back to you and you don't have a go-to, pass the ball off their back. And she did. I thought she took a risk with the distance between her and the ball, but Dom takes a few risks."
Although the loss of Spencer still looms large, Zolman has ensured she won't be forgotten on the court.
"She just wanted to wear Sid's uniform the rest of the year," Summitt said. "They're great friends, and they worked out together all summer. Obviously losing Sid is a loss for our team. With them being such great friends I thought it was really a classy move on Shanna's part. She came and asked me if it was OK, and I said, ‘Is it legal?' I didn't know. I've never had a player want to change numbers in the middle of the year."
Once Summitt was told by Debby Jennings, associate athletics director for media relations, that the switch was OK, "I said, ‘I think that's great,' " Summitt said. "I found it really touching that she wanted to do that."
SENIOR SUPERLATIVES: The 78-56 victory over Mississippi State means the seniors kept UT's regular season SEC win streak intact at home. It now stands at 61 straight games and means they never lost an SEC game at home and are 53-2 for their careers. The only losses were on the road and came at Vanderbilt when they were freshmen and at LSU this season. They are now 115-18 overall for their careers, an 86 percent winning percentage.