"That really got our attention," UT senior guard Loree Moore said. "It got my attention. We're not going to come out that way and put ourselves in that position to be behind and have to play catch-up."
As it turned out all four top seeds advanced to today's semifinals. Tennessee beat Auburn, 64-54, and LSU survived Bama, 60-59. The Lady Tigers will play Georgia at 7 p.m.; the Lady Vols take on Vandy at 9:15 p.m. Both games will be televised on Fox Sports Net.
But before Tennessee made its way out of the quarterfinals it had to survive the scrappy Auburn team and a poor shooting performance.
"I told our basketball team at halftime I was really pleased to see that we did not let our offense affect our defense," said UT coach Pat Summitt, who got her 876th career win to tie her with Adolph Rupp, the late legendary leader of Kentucky. "We were shooting the ball obviously a horrendous percentage."
The Lady Vols shot 28.4 percent for the game but did manage to hit 42.9 percent of their three-point shots. Four players ended up in double figures – Nicky Anosike with 15; Brittany Jackson and Shyra Ely, both with 11; and Shanna Zolman with 10. Anosike added 10 rebounds to tally a double-double. Ely was close with nine boards.
Auburn wasn't much better from the field at 38.9 percent and was even worse behind the arc at 12.5 percent, hitting only two of 16 three-pointers.
Natasha Brackett led the Lady Tigers with 18 points. Fellow senior guard Nicole Louden had 15 points.
Tennessee prevailed by playing defense and crashing the boards – the staples of a Summitt-led team in the postseason. The Lady Vols pulled down 50 rebounds, and 24 came on the offensive glass. Auburn had 38 boards with only nine coming on offense.
"Tennessee proved again how strong they are on the glass," Auburn coach Nell Fortner said. "They did not shoot well, but we could not keep them off the glass. They are very aggressive on the boards, and that is how they win ball games. …. We are not a physical post team. We have struggled all year long with that. Our post players are more finesse players. That has its advantages, but its disadvantages are like tonight. We just need more big post players like they have."
"Defense and board play won this basketball game on a night in which we just couldn't seem to make shots," Summitt said. "That's why we preach defense and rebounding because sometimes you're going to have an ugly offensive game, and we had one in terms of how we shot the ball."
The percentage was bad, Summitt said, but the shot selection was good.
Tennessee worked its inside-out game, but the post and perimeter players struggled as shots rattled in and out or came up short or went too long.
"These rims are not the best," said senior guard Brittany Jackson. "We were just trying to get the ball inside."
Junior center Tye'sha Fluker, who had five points on 1-8 shooting from the field and 3-4 from the line, said the post players had to fight through frustration.
"There was a lot of frustration – missing a lot of easy shots that we're not used to missing," Fluker said. "The little chippies, the little easy shots, you've got to knock them down. Unfortunately I struggled with that today. (I'll) focus a little more on finishing for the next game. It doesn't matter who they throw at us. We're preparing ourselves to give it at all."
The exception was Anosike, who has struggled offensively all season as she learned to harness her athleticism. But as the season wound down she began converting more and missing less around the basket.
"That's my partner," Fluker said of Anosike. "We're going to have each other's back. When I struggle she's there. When she's struggles I'm there. With all our post players we're a family. Whatever two are getting it done those are the two that are in the game. We're just picking up the ones that are struggling. We need everyone."
On Friday, Anosike was 4-8 from the field and hit 7-12 free throws. She had two key dribble-drives to the basket in the second half – both times drawing fouls on Auburn's shot-blocking sensation Marita Payne – to keep Tennessee in the lead.
"She's got a height advantage on me in the post," Anosike said of the 6'5 Payne, who had seven blocks. "But I knew with my quickness I could probably get past her if I had the opportunity to dribble-drive. Coach noticed that and gave me a few opportunities."
UT assistant coach Dean Lockwood said a stationary Payne under the basket was formidable.
"She's a very good defender when she's in her range," Lockwood said. "What we felt we needed to do was pull her away. It's kind of like somebody is going to fight you in a phone booth, and they're good? I need to bring them on a football field and fight them. We thought let's pull her up. If she has to come up and go back, she's not nearly as effective. We said let's pull her to the high post."
The Tennessee post players will be challenged again today with Vandy's tandem of Carla Thomas and Ashley Earley. But UT's three seniors are happy to be in the semifinals with a shot at getting to the finals and a trophy.
"It means a lot," Moore said. "Leave a mark for yourself as the three seniors. Give it all we've got and leave a good name for us so that we don't have to look back and regret what we could have done. I'm glad to be here."
SCRAPPY SHY: UT senior forward Shyra Ely and Auburn junior forward Louise Emeagi exchanged harsh words during and after the game.
The verbal altercation began on the foul line late in the game. An official stepped in and ordered the players to stop. Then Ely was fouled hard while grabbing a defensive board and cleared out with her elbow, striking Emeagi's arm. As Emeagi cried out in pain, Auburn guard Natasha Brackett confronted Ely at mid-court. As those two exchanged words, the officials moved in, and Ely's teammates pulled her away.
After the game ended, Ely and Emeagi again exchanged words, and Ely's teammates pulled her off of the floor.
Afterwards, everyone dismissed it as a heat-of-the-moment flare-up.
"You get really emotional through the course of the game," Ely said. "It was nothing. We came out with a win, and I'm happy about it."
"I think there's just smack going on out there, talking," coach Pat Summitt said. "From what she told me was said I think she was just pretty much defending herself. I said forget it. She's got a quick temper like her coach."
Adding an element of humor, The Greenville News identified the Tennessee player as "forward Nicky Ely."
TEAM CHEMISTRY: The seniors know they need the freshmen to succeed in the postseason. And nobody is treating them like newcomers anymore. Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle both started Friday against Auburn and have been solid contributors all season.
"I don't even think about them being freshmen anymore," UT coach Pat Summitt said. One of her assistant coaches, Dean Lockwood, made a comment during Friday's game that Anosike's "warrior-like mentality and her fight and what's in her has really brought out the best in her teammates," Summitt said. "When you have a player that just pours her heart out and plays with passion, that's obviously big for us. Alexis did some good things for us, stepped up and played defense down the stretch when she had to."
Hornbuckle graded herself as "OK" for her first postseason game as a Lady Vol.
"It wasn't a great game," she said. "My defense started off real well (but) I had a couple of defensive breakdowns in the beginning of the second half. I just had to buckle down and start over. I was pretty proud of the way my first game was. I wasn't overanxious; I wasn't playing too fast, but I think I can improve."
The freshmen have been welcomed, and that makes it easier to just play.
"The upperclassmen on this team have done nothing but embrace the upperclassmen," Summitt said. "The chemistry on this team is really special. They get along great. I don't know how they can spend that much time together and get along. Not many women, 15 of them, can do that. This group's been able to do that and do it very well."
Ely said there is an occasional disagreement, but the team truly does get along.
"We know each other pretty well; we know when we can mess around and when we can't," Ely said. "We're sisters, and we might have our spats here and there."
SHE DID WHAT?!: When Pat Summitt was asked for her reaction to drawing even in the career win column with Adolph Rupp, it was her answer that caused a mild reaction.
"It's interesting since I grew up a Kentucky Wildcat fan and watched their teams play but never had the opportunity to meet coach Rupp," Summitt said. "It's hard to even imagine being mentioned in that company. The credit goes to the University of Tennessee for giving me a chance to be there for 31 years. There're the ones responsible. Right now I just want the focus to be on this team. They've done a great job of keeping their focus."
Summitt's statement of growing up a Kentucky fan – she was raised in Henrietta in Middle Tennessee, which was close to the border – caused a few quizzical looks from the players on press row with her.
"I loved Kentucky basketball," Summitt said. "I've had no reason to talk about it."
So when did her allegiances change?
"Obviously when I got the job at Tennessee," Summitt said. "I just loved their team. I liked how they played. They won."