Against the Lady Eagles, a surprisingly scrappy bunch that shot 47.8 percent in the second half but only 35.2 percent for the game, the Lady Vols shot 58.3 percent for the game and placed five players in double figures.
Redshirt freshman forward Candace Parker led all scorers with 19 points on 8-9 shooting – her only miss was an off-balance reverse lay-up – in 19 minutes. Seniors Shanna Zolman and Tye'sha Fluker had 16 and 15 points, respectively. Sophomores Nicky Anosike and Alexis Hornbuckle had 12 and 10 points, respectively.
After the Dalhousie game, coach Carolyn Savoy, who watched several Tennessee games last season, said this edition of the Lady Vols was much better offensively and played like a title contender. After the Carson-Newman game, coach Dean Walsh, who played Tennessee last year in an exhibition game, said this team was much more advanced offensively than last year's.
"Offensively they are just, I think, a lot further ahead at this point in time than they were last year," Walsh said. "It's going to be something to see. Other than possibly Duke, who has returned a lot of people and a lot of scoring, I just don't know of anyone who is going to be able to stay up and down with them this year."
But Tennessee also has to stop its opponent. The Lady Eagles answered a few questions of their own after losing the bulk of last year's scoring by hanging 55 on the Lady Vols. In last year's exhibition game, they managed 47.
The good news for Tennessee is that it defended better in this game than against Dalhousie. The Lady Vols forced two timeouts to avoid a 10-second backcourt violation, and several times made the Lady Eagles either run the shot clock down to a few seconds or no time left at all. They also harassed Carson-Newman into 30 turnovers.
But Tennessee also left open a hot 3-point shooter – freshman forward Ashley Tipton, a former star at Farragut High School in Knoxville, scored 16 points and was 4-6 from long range – and let an undersized Carson-Newman squad snare 26 rebounds.
"Overall from an offensive standpoint, we did some good things," coach Pat Summitt said, (but) "too many turnovers, obviously too many fouls on the defensive end. I thought we gave up entirely too many threes, and a lot of that came out of our trapping and some of our full court pressure and matching up. But I do think our defense is a little better. Sometimes you look at these stats and you might think that they're not indicative of it, but overall I think we got a little bit better defensively between our first exhibition and tonight."
Carson-Newman, on the other hand, had to increase its defensive intensity just to decrease Tennessee's ability to motor up the floor on offense. Tennessee inadvertently aided the Lady Eagles' effort with some ill-advised passes and failure to protect the ball.
"Carson-Newman, what their game plan appeared to be early on was to go after the ball and slow down our break and play from behind and double team," Summitt said. "I thought we were careless in that situation many times, and that's where we turned the ball over."
Said Walsh, "I thought there were times our defensive tenacity was pretty good. I mean, anytime you can force a Tennessee team into 20 turnovers, I'd hate to see what's going to happen in practice tomorrow … . I thought we had a lot of pressure. They're just bigger than us – bigger and stronger – so there are times they're going to make things happen we can't control. I thought we rebounded fairly well. We're not a very big team this year, but with our athleticism, at our level, we can make some things happen again this year."
Of course the winner is still the one who scores the most points. And so far Tennessee has shown it can hit the basket from all five positions on the floor.
Parker, who has stroked 16-19 shots in the two exhibition games, is obviously feeling confident on offense, but said, "I think going into our first game we really need to focus on defense. I think this game we stepped up our defense and hopefully Pat's happy about that."
She was, but there were still several areas that need work, and Carson-Newman provided the film that Summitt will break down and emphasize before the season opener Nov. 20 against Stetson.
"I think our ball pressure's better," Summitt said. "I thought we were better in the passing lane and we got a little bit better out of our full court defense. We didn't rotate well out of our traps, but I thought we covered our traps a lot better. We started switching in the second half, which I thought helped us a little bit keep ball pressure. They (Carson-Newman) had a good game plan as far as just trying to dribble penetrate on us and penetrate in and kick out."
The kick outs often left Tipton open and all alone behind the arc.
"He (Walsh) said the posts would have to come out and guard me," Tipton said. "They just left me open, and I was able to knock them down."
The Farragut product had played at Thompson-Boling Arena during high school events but never as a collegian.
"I played here three times before so I was kind of used to the setting, but this is an opportunity of a lifetime, and I had a great time doing it," she said.
Tennessee shooters also had a nice night with Zolman hitting 4-7 from behind the arc, and Hornbuckle nailing both of her long-range attempts.
Last season Hornbuckle often filled up the stat box with boards, assists, steals and other hustle plays, but she wasn't considered a steady scorer because of a shaky outside shot. So shooting was her point of emphasis in the off-season.
"This summer I concentrated on shooting," she said. "Mainly I was working on spot shooting, just getting my confidence, getting the rhythm down and when the season came, working off the dribble. Shooting has a lot to do with confidence, and I think I've pretty much got that now. It's mental."
Said Summitt, "Alexis made it a priority in the off-season to really get in the gym and work on her outside game. I think she's shooting the three-ball the best I've seen her shoot it since I've watched her play. I thought her shot selection was solid, did a good job on the boards. She got a little careless late in the game, thought it was Showtime."
Tennessee also got some offense from its juniors, Sidney Spencer (six points on 3-4 shooting) and Dominique Redding (seven points on 3-5 shooting). Fluker came off the bench – Summitt varied her lineup for the two exhibition games – and made a strong case for becoming a starter. She was 7-7 and also had four rebounds, three blocks, an assist and a steal. More importantly, she avoided foul trouble and was only whistled twice in 22 minutes of play. On the second foul, a Lady Eagle traveled and then ran into Fluker, who held her ground in the paint, but Fluker picked up the personal.
"I thought we started a little bit slow in both halves – just not making shots," Summitt said. "We got the ball inside; we didn't finish inside early. Certainly I think Tye had a huge presence on the inside, did a great job just anchoring down on offense and the block. She's playing with a tremendous amount of confidence, but she's also playing at the rim, which I thought really took of a lot of pressure off our outside game."
Anosike added 10 boards – eight offensive, two defensive – to her statistical totals of 12 points, three assists, two steals and a block, but she rushed a few shots (she was 2-5 from the field) and picked up some pesky fouls (three in 17 minutes). She did, however, hit all eight of her free throw attempts.
"I thought we would start a little bit stronger," Summitt said. "When Nicky didn't score early, we had a lot more emphasis on perimeter shots than we did inside shots. Nicky's just got to relax and let the game come to her and not force and stay out of foul trouble."
Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood played 25 minutes and started both halves at the point position. She had seven points but committed five turnovers to just one assist. The turnovers were often the result of trying to do a tad too much with the ball. Her one bucket (she made 5-6 free throws) came on a crowd-oohing move to the basket in which she faked the pass to the wing and then laid in the ball.
"Sa'de hadn't had the playing time that Alexis has had at the point," Summitt said. "I wanted to give her a lot of reps at both ends. She seems to push tempo for us. I want to see her execute and provide the leadership in the half court and then from a defensive standpoint, get a little more disciplined within in our system. She and Nicky were reaching and taking themselves out of position and got some fouls that in a close ball game we want them to be mindful of playing great position without fouling them. Just get her some quality time and put her in a game situation in a leadership position. With the exception of the turnovers, I thought she did some good things. She's an aggressive player and obviously very unselfish. I didn't think she was quite as sharp as she was in the first game, but she played a lot more minutes. When you do that, sometimes your stats will show up a little bit differently."
Overall Summitt was pleased with the team's performance after its first two preseason games. She got to play various combinations on the floor, and she has some archived footage when she wants to show a player her successes and shortcomings. The defense has a long ways to go, but it did, even by Summitt's assessment, get a little better between games.
"I definitely thought there was improvement," Zolman said. "At practice Monday after we played our first exhibition game coach got on us pretty good about our defensive effort. We practiced primarily the entire time on defense. That definitely was her focus, always is, always has been and always will be. In order for us to succeed she knows that we have to be able to execute defensively and be able to put a lot more effort into it."
Walsh believes Summitt will have her defense battle-ready when it matters most. He knows he saw what could be an offensive juggernaut.
"Pat's going to get the defense there. Right now I don't know that the defense is where it was at this point last year," Walsh said. "But what they are is so tremendously more offensive minded. They look a lot more confident with their shots."
CANDACE CRASH: See Parker get knocked to the floor and hit in the eye so hard she loses a contact. Hear the crowd gasp. See Parker sail into and over the front-row seats in a scramble for a loose ball. Really hear the crowd gasp. See Parker land under the basket after a drive to the rim and be slow to get up. A choked-up crowd can't even gasp. And, thankfully for the fortunes of the Lady Vols, see Parker get up each time and get back on the court.
Parker hit the deck several times in Thursday's game, and as she tumbles to the floor, the crowd's gasps are audible. When asked if she thinks about her knee or getting hurt, she said no way.
"I try to just let everything go and play basketball," Parker said. "If you worry about getting hurt, that's when you get hurt. I just try to concentrate and not worry about it."
The scenes may not be easy for the fans to watch, but Summitt said aggressive play is a hallmark of the program. Still she wants players to be cautious.
"Will all of them, as many injuries as we've had, sometimes I just think, ‘Stay on your feet.' But players that are aggressive are just going to play an aggressive game," Summitt said. "I don't think that's anything that we're going to say you can't do, because that's what we teach is to get after it. But certainly I think you have to be mindful of not falling out of bounds, going over a chair, falling into the stands."
ABOUT THE TIP: A reporter was about to ask Parker about the jump ball – but phrased his question to the tune that she lost the tip.
"I did not lose the opening tip," Parker said playfully through her teeth as her two teammates at the press conference, Zolman and Hornbuckle, started laughing. "I tipped the ball," Parker insisted. "They got it." That just set off more laughter and looks from the other two that she did indeed lose the tip.
Parker actually won the tip, but a Carson-Newman player slipped in front of a Lady Vol and took the ball. However, she couldn't convince her teammates, and the reporter never finished his question.
"OK, we'll replay it," Parker said as the press conference ended with everyone laughing.