Forward Candace Parker joined a select list and became just the 10th freshman in Lady Vol history to start her first game. She finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds and unveiled a little more of her vast game. Three other Lady Vols were in double figures – juniors Sidney Spencer and Dominique Redding both had 13 points, and senior Shanna Zolman tallied 11. But the two starting post players were 1-9 from the field – senior Tye'sha Fluker was 1-6; sophomore Nicky Anosike was 0-3 – and that put a damper on Summitt's enthusiasm.
"We can't win basketball games against the top teams that we have on our schedule if we don't have a better presence inside," Summitt said. "That's the biggest disappointment of the day.
"Obviously I'm not pleased with our inside game. I guess I expect more out of Nicky since she started last year and Tye, she's a senior. But we have to talk about it (in terms of changes, if any, against Chattanooga). I haven't watched film yet on UT Chattanooga. I will tonight and go from there. They just have to be more efficient. They have to take things that they're doing in practice and when we get into a game be very committed. It was awhile before they touched the ball. And then when they touched it, they were just so overanxious. Tye has been shooting the ball great, just doing an awesome job. She gets in this game and for whatever reason today, she's shooting hard and off balance and taking shots that are not the shots she's been taking in practice. Just go back to basics. As (assistant coach) Dean (Lockwood) said, ‘We're just going to start trying to make a lay-up.' "
There isn't much defense that can be offered for the post play once they did get the ball, but Summitt did realize the perimeter players were having a lot of trouble getting it inside. Stetson surprised Tennessee with a matchup zone and loaded the lane with defenders.
"I don't know if y'all did," said Zolman, speaking to her teammates on the platform at the post-game press conference, "but I really didn't expect they would come out in a zone. And the type of zone that they did it was more compact inside. It was very open for the guards on the wings. Coach wanted to make it a consistent passion for the guards to get the ball inside, and it was difficult because they were packing it in, and they had two or three people on our posts. It was a matter of us being patient, which we weren't early on, and reversing the ball and getting it inside whether it's off penetration or passing inside to the post.
"We got off to a very slow start. It basically started defensively. We didn't bring the pressure necessarily to them. We weren't in the passing lanes. We weren't out trapping. We didn't box out primarily from the get-go. That gave them a lot confidence so they got six quick points. We were turning the ball over on the other end. We just got us off to a very slow start, but as soon as we got everybody together and realized what was going on, then we kicked it back in gear defensively and that started our offense."
Summitt said the lack of early touches for the post players took an early toll on their mindset once they got the ball.
"I do think that affected them," Summitt said. "That happens to players. They anticipate getting the ball inside and scoring. They go for a number of series and they don't touch the ball, and then they rush when they do get it. I think the scheme defensively that Stetson used was beat us from the outside for the most part. In all fairness to our perimeter it's tough to get the ball inside."
Stetson took advantage of Tennessee's scattered play early and jumped out to a 6-1 lead at the 17:20 mark in the first half. But it would be nearly seven minutes before the Hatters put any more points on the board – two free throws by Nefertiti Walker, who was Stetson's high scorer with 15 points, though it took 21 shots to get there – and they trailed 49-12 at the half.
The Lady Vols ratcheted up the defensive intensity, and Hornbuckle, Zolman and Spencer began stroking shots. Sophomore point guard Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood replaced Anosike – thus moving Parker to the power forward spot in the paint – and the run was on. Parker had 16 of her 19 points in the first half and only played eight minutes in the second half.
"I think overall Candace had a solid game," Summitt said of the redshirt freshman who sat out a year to recover from knee surgery. "It's very similar to what we've seen in the exhibition games. I think she's much more comfortable now and looks good at the three. I'd like to play her there more, but we'll continue to play her inside. Obviously inside she got to the glass and really did a good job on the boards and keeping the ball alive. For a player that's waited this long to play I think her stats are obviously very positive, and she did a lot of good things."
Besides the points and rebounds – six on offense, four on defense – Parker also had three steals, two blocks, two assists, no fouls and zero turnovers. She was 6-10 from the field and 7-9 from the free throw line.
Tennessee's defense had been a concern going into this game so it was reassuring for Summitt that it was the defense that changed it.
"I'd say defense was a bright spot," she said. "We wanted to look at extending the defense in the full court and then three-quarter and then we worked in the half court. This team I've said many times they're long and rangy. They can cover a lot of space. It's hard to throw over this group. The example was trying to beat us over the top if they couldn't get the ball in the gaps. That's to our advantage just because we do have the athletes who can go get it and if you make them throw it up we have a better chance."
The ranginess is ratcheted up a notch when Parker, who's listed at 6'3 but is closer to 6'5, and the 5'11 Hornbuckle patrol the perimeter.
"We can go big, especially if Candace is in and I'm in," Hornbuckle said. "We're long, and we just try to use that to our advantage, just get people, distract them and make them throw passes that they're not used to throwing. I think that's what we did once we understood that our defense was pretty much horrible."
There's no better example of that than Parker, especially when she's picking up much smaller perimeter players on the wings.
"You saw it tonight when the girl shot it right into her arms," Zolman said. "You can't really believe yourself how long her arms are when she's out defending you. She's a freak. She's got such long arms that she can play off of you. You think that you have a shot open, but then she can get right out and close out very quickly because of the length of her arms. It presents a lot mismatches on the wings because of that. There's very few three guards that are her height that have her length and athleticism so it's going to present a problem when she is at the three; or she plays at the four she'll be inside. People are going to have to shoot over her. It will be interesting each game as to which type of matchup we're going to have."
The extension of UT's defense, not to mention the range of its players, disrupted Stetson's offense to say the least. The Hatters shot 28.3 percent for the game and had 25 turnovers. They were 2-15 from three-point range with a few heaves coming as the shot clock neared zero.
"We certainly don't see that type of constant overplay pressure in our conference," Stetson coach Dee Romine said. "We had an experience being here last year against LSU (in the NCAA tourney), the same kind of intensity level and the size really made it difficult for us to get our entry passes in. There were too many empty possessions where our guards were forced to just bounce the air out of the basketball because we weren't able to get open. It does have an impact when you have someone that's bigger, that's lengthier than you; you've got to work real hard to create openings and create some space. Unfortunately we didn't do that often enough, and it did affect the flow of the offense."
Stetson opted to look at the big picture – playing in front of thousands of fans on The Summitt floor – and a smaller frame in meeting other goals.
"We knew we were going to run into a buzz saw," Romine said. "We really looked at this game as a realistic opportunity to come here and give our kids an experience playing in a major Division I quality atmosphere. I think for kids to be able to leave in four years from our program and say they played at Tennessee with the kind of crowd and tradition that Tennessee has, it's just a great experience. We wanted to have small victories in today's ballgame, and that's what we talked about with out ball club. We wanted to come out the first five minutes of each half and hold our own. I felt that the first half obviously we did that. Then at halftime we talked about the small victories with coming out the last 20 minutes and keeping the score below 90. We talked about scoring twice as many points in the second half as we did in the first half. So that's how we really approached this ballgame – looking at ways that we could obtain small victories."
The Hatters held UT to 83 points so they succeeded there. They almost doubled their point total by halves but fell a little short – 12 in the first and 21 in the second.
Romine was pleased with the early effectiveness of Stetson's zone. She usually subscribes to the man-to-man defensive philosophy, but has opted to play zone sometimes by necessity.
"Truthfully this is the first year I've ever had a base defense with a zone matchup zone defense," she said. "We've had to do that for a couple of reasons. We've got three key injuries that have really shortened our depth in the backcourt particularly. So we've done that for that reason plus we've got a couple of key people that we've got to try to keep from getting in foul trouble. At times it looked very, very good. We were very active.
"I thought in the middle of the second half, we were a little bit more athletic. We were shorter, but we were able to cover a little bit more area, a little more active. That's the bottom line. We've got to be real active just like if you were playing man-to-man in the matchup zone. I felt that being active, having active hands, getting a little bit in the passing lanes and pressuring the ball a little bit better allowed us to get some turnovers."
Tennessee had 16 turnovers, some of their own making and some due to Stetson's activeness.
The good news for the Lady Vols is that opener is out of the way, and Tennessee has another game on tap before leaving for the Virgin Islands.
"I'm sure the whole team (did)," said Summitt when asked if Parker had opening game jitter. "Sometimes we forget. The lights come on and the season opens, and they want to play a perfect game. Sometimes that stifles your play. In our case it caused us to get a little impatient and try to make things happen more individually. I think overall we settled down. It's typical of what happens. There's only one first game, and we got it out of the way."
"I thought we had some people come off the bench and do a really good job," Summitt said. "I thought Spencer came in, was really aggressive offensively. I thought Sa'de came in and really pushed tempo and brought a lot of energy. Those two in particular – obviously Fuller and Dosty got some good quality minutes."
It was the play of Spencer that had to be particularly pleasing. Summitt has told the forward throughout the preseason that she can either shoot the ball or sit on the bench. Spencer shot and shot well. She was 5-8 from the field, including 3-4 from behind the arc.
"It's taken three years for me to understand that," Spencer said as her teammates cracked up laughing, especially Parker who nearly spit out her Sprite. "Pat's been subbing me out in practice if I don't shoot. So I just decided that I'm going to shoot and not pass. It's pretty easy."
That's not entirely true. Spencer did have two assists. But 13 points in 14 minutes of play is certainly Exhibit A for offensive efficiency, which Summitt is emphasizing this season.
They will need scorers to get through this week's schedule alone. After the UTC game, the team will play in the Paradise Jam for back-to-back-to-back games against Michigan State, Gonzaga and Maryland. Another slow start won't bode well, either, if Tennessee intends to make a good showing at the Thanksgiving holiday tournament.
"We've got to get ourselves off to a better start," Zolman said. "We go against teams – even UTC coming up next, against Michigan State and on into the Virgin Islands – if we get off to a start like that we're going to find ourselves in a deep hole having to dig our way out."
AND THE CROWD GOES … : When Candace Parker gets in the open floor, there's an audible rise in the crowd's anticipation as it awaits her first collegiate dunk in a game and the first ever in Thompson-Boling Arena. A crowd of 8,544 had a couple of chances to get worked up Sunday, but Parker chose not to slam it down. She chose wisely, according to both Summitt and Parker.
In both cases she went in for a layup and got fouled – missed but converted the free throws and made it and converted the free throw. A Stetson defender was either in front or alongside. As much as the fans want Parker to dunk, opposing teams don't want it to be against them.
"I didn't think she would, not with someone right there with her," Summitt said. "I think she's trying to be smart and make shots and play good defense and rebound right now. There'll be a time she'd like to get that behind her. A lot of people are going to make sure it's a long time coming probably."
Parker acknowledged she thought about it, but caution won out as she soared toward the hoop and curled the ball in over the defender who committed the foul.
"I was thinking about it, but she was kind of close," Parker said. "I didn't want to risk getting hurt or anything like that. I think that if the opportunity presents itself, then I'll take it."
SELECT COMPANY: By starting in her first collegiate game, Parker put her name on a short list of 10 freshmen who took opening honors. The first was Bridgette Gordon (1985) followed by Sheila Frost (1985); Tiffani Johnson (1994); Chamique Holdsclaw (1995); Kyra Elzy (1996); Semeka Randall (1997); Gwen Jackson (1999); Ashley Robinson (2000); and Shyra Ely (2001).
Gordon, who also happened to be on the bench for Stetson as an assistant coach Sunday, has another first on her record. She started in the first Lady Vols game ever played at Thompson-Boling Arena against, ironically, Stetson on Dec. 3, 1987. The game was the first part of a "home" game for Gordon, who is from DeLand, Fla., the home of the Hatters. Stetson came to Knoxville first as part of the home-and-home series. In that first game at the arena, Tennessee won 102-59, and Gordon was 10-15 from the field for 20 points, five rebounds and three steals.
Gordon received a very warm welcome from the crowd Sunday when the coaching staffs for both teams were announced.
NEXT UP: The Lady Vols tipped off a little early Sunday – 1:30 instead of 3 p.m. to give them a little more time between games. Chattanooga comes to Knoxville on Monday.
Summitt will watch film before deciding whether or not to make changes in the post starters, but it's likely she'll give the big lineup another shot. If not, Parker moves to the paint, and the Lady Vols open with a three-guard lineup in Wiley-Gatewood, Zolman and Hornbuckle.
Tennessee will get a look at another foe with the preseason conference player of the year in senior forward Katasha Brown of the Southern Conference. The Lady Mocs have been selected to win the conference.
The 5'11 Brown, who wears No. 3, is averaging 12.0 points per game and 4.5 rebounds per game. She likely will be joined in the starting lineup by: Laura Hall, No. 10, 5'5 sophomore guard, 4.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 2.5 assists per game; Nicole Mattison, No. 35, 5'9 senior guard, 10.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.0 apg; Tiffani Roberson, No. 33, 6'0 senior forward, 15.5 ppg, 10.0 rpg; and Alex Anderson, No. 40, F, 6'1 sophomore forward, 4.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.0 blocks per game.
Roberson is 13 points shy of 1,000 for her career and would become the 20th Lady Moc to hit the milestone. Brown is third all-time in three-pointers with 154. The school record is 170.
The Lady Vols opened the season last year in Chattanooga with a 68-34 win. It was a game in which Summitt noted afterwards that a team should never forget to pack its defense when hitting the road.
On Monday Tennessee hopes to put together a complete offensive and defensive game. The players shouldn't be fatigued. Nobody played more than 25 minutes Sunday, and a Summitt practice is much more strenuous than that.
"We played a number of people, obviously significant minutes," Summitt said after the Stetson win. "It'd been a lot easier than us practicing today and playing tomorrow. Practice would have been probably more demanding just because we're able to rotate people and rest some people (in a game). Of course they get a lot more excited about games than they do practice."