Sidney Spencer, a 6'3 junior from Hoover, Alabama, was one of the reasons the Lady Vols left the arena with their perfect record intact. She scored her points on 6-9 shooting from the field – a perfect 5-5 from behind the arc – and a perfect 4-4 from the free throw line. She also had six rebounds, two assists and a block with only one turnover in 35 minutes of play. The other primary reason for Tennessee's win was the play of sophomore point guard Alexis Hornbuckle, who was one assist short of the first-ever triple double in Tennessee's history.
Hornbuckle had 10 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists with Spencer on the receiving end of two. Spencer's performance came in her fifth start of the season, and she had said Friday that she was getting comfortable in her role at small forward after at first adjusting to coming off the bench.
"I think she got over it, don't you?" Summitt said. "She hadn't been starting very well, and I said, ‘You just need to get over it because you're going to start.' She just made big shots. … I thought she did a nice job of getting in the gaps. Just really played more aggressive without the basketball, which got her some good looks. A lot of composure.
"She has every reason to be a confident offensive player, because she is one of the best pure shooters on our basketball team. But she hasn't always been as assertive as she needs to be. I thought in the last two games in particular she's starting to understand ‘my' role on this team is to make plays and score for this team. So I'm really proud of Sidney's progress and obviously the impact she had on the outcome of today's game."
UConn coach Geno Auriemma noted Spencer had made 15 three-pointers in 14 games coming into Saturday's contest. His defenders were cognizant of not leaving senior sharpshooter Shanna Zolman open – she was 1-10 with a single three-pointer – but Spencer didn't really show up on the scouting report.
"We go into the game thinking, ‘Let's make sure Shanna Zolman doesn't get a lot of open looks,' " Auriemma said. "So she makes one field goal. But how many things can you take away from them? And then Sidney Spencer had the game of her life. Our coaches scouted her, and said, ‘Don't worry about her, she's averaging one 3-pointer made … a game.' She made like one every five minutes it seemed like."
Summitt has started Spencer on the perimeter because she knows she can shoot, and she needs freshman Candace Parker in the paint at power forward.
Parker scored 13 points – she was limited in the first half by foul trouble and went out briefly in the second half after re-injuring her left ankle – but she made two turnaround five-footers off the glass in crucial times in the second half and found Spencer wide open for a three when UConn had cut the lead to one at 70-69 with 4:53 left in the game.
"She's averaging one three-pointer made for every game, and every time she was open she knocked it in," Auriemma said. "But that's how you've got to win these games. Players have to step up and make shots, and she did. She's always been a good shooter."
Spencer and Hornbuckle were joined in double figures by three 13-point scorers in Parker; Zolman, who got 10 of her points from a perfect performance at the line; and senior center Tye'sha Fluker, who had one of Tennessee's five blocks.
On an afternoon when Tennessee's starting guards were 3-20 from the field, both had to find other ways to contribute. Zolman did so from the line and also had two assists by finding Spencer open behind the arc. Hornbuckle did so by essentially taking over the boards and out-hustling everyone else to the ball. In one sequence in the second half, she deflected a UConn pass, tracked it down in the corner, left her feet to keep it from going out of bounds, scissor-kicked her legs while calling timeout in the air and fell into UConn's bench.
"Obviously sometimes the shots are not going to fall, but you can do other things," Summitt said. "She is one of the best rebounding guards that we've had at Tennessee. She is just relentless in going to the boards. She's tough, obviously got a great vertical leap. She comes up with a lot of loose balls. The thing about Alexis is she is a great competitor in big games, but she's a great competitor for us almost every time we take the court."
At the post-game press conference Spencer was quick to credit the three players at the table with her who got her the ball in Hornbuckle, Zolman and Parker, who had three assists that led to three-pointers – two setting up Spencer and the third for Zolman.
"Honestly I'm very fortunate to have three teammates – these three right here – that demand a lot of attention on the defensive end," said Spencer, whose previous career high was 14 points against Auburn in 2004, and who also set a new career high with five three-pointers after making three this season against Princeton. "I got fortunate today. They need double teams to guard them. They were leaving me open so they kicked out and I had the open shot."
"I'll pass to her any day if she makes shots like that," Zolman said. "That's what she did. When they were keying on us, she was able to find (her spots) whether it was in transition or in our offensive sets. She was just knocking them down left and right. She was very key for us today."
UConn senior guard/forward Ann Strother was also getting open shots. She led all scorers with 25 points and made five three-pointers on 15 attempts. Sophomore forward Charde Houston had 19 points, and sophomore center/forward Brittany Hunter, who is coming off a major knee surgery, added 12.
Tennessee threw a lot of zone defense at the Huskies with the intention of trying to slow down Strother, who had 15 points at halftime when UConn was leading, 41-39.
"I think sometimes in the past we've been obviously more of a man-to-man defense, and maybe I've been a little too stubborn," Summitt said. "I just feel like Connecticut is such a great offensive team, and in particular they have great rhythm. They move the ball; they run their sets. They just do a great job spacing, passing, cutting. I just wanted to change up the defenses, just see if maybe we could take them out of their rhythm. Maybe we did a few times, but I just felt going into the game that that would be something that might give us a turnover here or there, a missed shot.
"Strother obviously is their go-to. We gave her too many open threes. Fortunately for us she only made five of 15. She could have easily hit 10 of those and now we're in trouble. I was a little disappointed that we didn't do a better job of scouting report defense, but I did like our changeup."
Auriemma was circumspect after the game – and also gracious; he took the time to thank Knoxville for its hospitality – and said that the team that deserved to win did so.
"You know what I think?" Auriemma asked by way of his opening remarks. "I think that, first of all, I don't believe in moral victories. We're not some new program that comes in here and tries to make sure that we put up a good show. We're the University of Connecticut. When we tee it up, we expect to win. Having said that, we didn't win so we're really, really disappointed in ourselves. There's a bunch of kids in the locker room that feel pretty bad right now about the fact that we got beat – by a pretty good Tennessee team, by the way.
"However, I do think we got exactly what the outcome of this game should have been. Are we as big and as strong and as talented as Tennessee right now? No. No. … . I think right now, the outcome was what it was supposed to be. Could we have stolen the game? Maybe. Are we smart enough as a basketball team right now to do that? Not yet. Not on January 7, we're not. Not to come down here in this environment."
Both coaches seemed rather appalled at the number of points put up by the opposing team.
"I'm sure you enjoyed it. It was a high-scoring game," Summitt said. "I wasn't particularly excited about our defense in the first half, but this team found a way to reach down and win. … I kept looking at it, and I thought I can't believe the points being scored today. Two programs that take enormous pride in their defense and yet we had a lot of good offensive play against good defense at both ends of the floor. I would not have expected that. I thought somewhere in the mid-70s."
"What did we score, 80 points? Yeah, we scored 80 points and lost," Auriemma said. "I was just making fun of somebody, I think it was (St. Joseph's men's coach) Phil Martelli, my friend at St. Joe's. I said, ‘You guys have scored 94 points twice and lost. What's with you guys?' Now we score 80 points and lose. That's hard to do, you know.
"But, at the same time, when you're putting people on the free throw line a lot (Tennessee was 32-41 from the line for the game with 27 points from the stripe in the second half), those things tend to happen. And when you've got as many good offensive players as Tennessee does, you're not going to be able to ... I mean we did a good job in the first half of keeping it under control. Second half, it was just too much for us. But, you know, Ann and Charde, I thought, played at about the level they're at right now. When you get those two playing like that, and Brittany came off the bench and gave us a lot more than I think maybe she thought she was capable of giving us at this point in time. So you've got three pretty good offensive players that had a really good day for us. I'm not surprised that we scored 80, but anytime you give up 89, you don't feel too hot about it."
This series has been streaky. UConn rattled off six wins in a row, and now Tennessee has taken the last two. The Lady Vol players were keenly aware that this was the first time in the 21 meetings that the game was being played on "The Summitt," the floor named for their coach.
"It always feels good winning and beating Connecticut whether it's home or away," Zolman said. "We were emphasizing to each other today this was the first time we played on ‘The Summitt.' We're not about to let UConn come in and win the first one on our floor. That was definitely an emphasis in our mind. It does mean a lot to get back on track and know that we have won the past two, and hopefully they can continue on the next couple of years with doing that. It's just a game; it's just a regular season game non-conference. It's time to move on and get ready for conference basketball again."
A record crowd of 24,653 – it surpassed the previous record set in 2002 of 24,611 when UConn was in town – roared when Summitt stepped on the floor in a black pantsuit accented with an orange shirt. There were some boos when Auriemma arrived that turned in some sections to laughter when he spread his arms and smiled at the crowd with a puzzled look.
When Summitt was asked if the crowd seemed loud to her, she allowed that she wasn't always the best person to ask.
"When I came out obviously it was just electrifying," Summitt said. "There were times during the game when obviously I noticed it. I tend to have tunnel vision, and I don't hear real well when I'm coaching. It was great for national TV and for women's basketball. I think this rivalry brings a lot of fans out whether we're playing here or we're playing in Connecticut. It's been a special rivalry in women's basketball and on the national scene."
"There's a reason why there was (24,653) people at the arena tonight," Auriemma said. "They knew they were going to see a good game. Doesn't matter what our record is, doesn't matter what their record is, doesn't matter what's happened in the last week or two weeks or three weeks or the last month. … I have to compliment you all on the way you treat us everytime we come down here. It's something that I think makes women's basketball really special, and I think that's the way we do it up at our place. Coming down here certainly is a real acknowledgment of what women's basketball could be and should be, and I want to thank you for that."
THE MATCHUP: Before the game one storyline was the on-court battle between UT's sophomore point guard Alexis Hornbuckle and UConn's freshman point guard Renee Montgomery. The two were teammates in high school in West Virginia and also played AAU ball together.
The showdown was one-sided. Hornbuckle tied a career high with 14 rebounds (Texas Tech, March 27, 2005) and although she wasn't shooting well, she controlled the game from the point position, passed out nine assists, made all six of her free throw attempts and tallied four steals.
Montgomery didn't attempt a shot and had three assists, two turnovers, one steal and a rebound.
"Alexis Hornbuckle got more done out there than Ketia Swanier, Mel Thomas and Renee Montgomery combined. Points, assists, rebounds, steals – you name it," Auriemma said.
Hornbuckle had nothing but kind words for her friend.
"I think she played well," Hornbuckle said. "At a big stage like this it's nerve wracking. I know my first time going to UConn you're definitely anxious, excited, and that can cause you to do good or bad. I thought she handled it real well. She didn't score, but she was doing a lot for her team. She was running their offense and just trying to be productive. Coach said I was way too nice to her in the first half so I had to be more cognizant of that in the second half. All I did was look at her as another guard. You're friends and family off the court but on the court you're the enemy. I'm not going to try to hurt her or anything like that, but I wasn't trying to be nice to her, but I guess I was in a way. Coach said to go out and just play my game and just kind of welcome her to the collegiate level."
It was a rather rude welcome – Hornbuckle dominated the guard play – but Auriemma said better days are ahead.
"You know, if you were to say to me, ‘Who probably feels worse than anybody in our locker room?' it's probably Renee," he said. "You're playing against your teammate from high school … and I think she feels terrible about the fact that, first, that we lost, and second, nobody got a chance to see whether Renee Montgomery is a good player or not. She's been a good player for us up to this point. I remember coming down here with Rita Williams her first year and a very similar thing happened. And Rita became one of the best players to ever play for us. It's something you have to go through, I think."
Montgomery could have possibly been in an orange-and-white uniform, but at the time Tennessee appeared to be loaded at the point guard position. Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood entered this season as a sophomore, and high school senior Cait McMahan will be a Lady Vol next fall. But last month Wiley-Gatewood suddenly announced she intended to transfer, and McMahan will be coming off of reconstructive knee surgery.
"I really liked Renee," Summitt said. "Had we had felt we needed to sign a point guard in that class, we would have been battling Connecticut for Renee. Looking back hindsight is always a lot better for you, but I really think Renee has done a great job for them. Obviously they were a dominant team. Alexis was part of four state championships, and she and Renee played really well together. They competed against each other hard today."
It was because of Wiley-Gatewood's departure that Hornbuckle was thrust into playing the point position full-time. She logged 37 minutes on the floor – 18 in the first half – and only left briefly in the second half when she took an elbow to the face.
"I don't think she's like really a point guard, but she's playing like a real team leader right now," said Auriemma, who invoked the names of UConn legends Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. "She had a reputation coming out of high school that she's a scorer. I think with all the scorers that they have, all the weapons that they have, she's become really, really good at distributing the ball and getting more people involved. The fact that she fills up the stat sheet, rebounding-wise, assist-wise, steal-wise. She had the kind of game that Sue (Bird) and Diana (Taurasi) and those guys used to have when they came down here. When you get guard play like that, it's awfully hard to lose. When you get somebody that does as many things as Alexis did today, it's difficult to beat a team like that."
With one more assist Hornbuckle would have accomplished a feat, a triple double, never recorded at Tennessee.
"I didn't know about it until after the game," Hornbuckle said. "If they had told me I probably would have had a turnover instead of an assist because I probably would have tried to force the issue. Can't do anything but try again so maybe in a different game."
One thing Summitt must try to do is find someone to spell Hornbuckle. Senior Shanna Zolman can run the point, and freshman Lindsey Moss is learning the position, but both are better suited on the wing. The next logical choice is Dominique Redding, who came off the bench Saturday to score seven points on 3-3 shooting from the field and pull down two rebounds in six minutes of play.
"We've got to get another perimeter player ready to play some minutes for us," Summitt said. "I thought Redding went in the first half played very well. I think probably looking at Dominique and also getting Lindsey Moss to be able to handle some for us. I told Dom she's going to have to become a guard. Hopefully we can just get other people to handle the ball more, take a little pressure off Lex, maybe give her fewer minutes."
AURIEMMA ON PARKER: Candace Parker, everyone's high school All-American and preseason phenom, is unveiling her collegiate game in pieces. Each game she seems to show another part. Against UConn, she took the ball coast to coast off a rebound, shielded UConn's defenders, looked away as if to pass and finger-rolled the ball in the basket. She also banked in two turnaround jumpers with her back to the basket, a shot that is essentially un-defendable.
Geno Auriemma was asked for his initial impressions on Parker.
"She's so difficult to pinpoint," Auriemma said. "You don't see many big kids that are that skilled with the ball and that fluid in their movements. She's a very difficult matchup for us, very, very difficult. She made a couple of shots today with her back to the basket, turnarounds, that I didn't know that she had. Given the fact that this is her first year playing I would say she she's been one of the more difficult players that we had to guard."
Parker was playing in her first UConn-UT game and had said Friday that she wouldn't know what it was like until the game actually began.
"It didn't really click until we all stepped out on the center circle and the ball went up," Parker said. "The crowd was great. It was a great experience."
Parker limped off the court at the 13:12 mark of the second half after turning her already-injured left ankle as she turned up-court. At the same time Hornbuckle was lying in pain in the lane after a scrum for the rebound ended with Zolman falling on her right knee. Hornbuckle shook it off and stayed in. Parker got re-taped – she hurt the ankle against Temple when she stepped on the foot of a teammate – and returned to the game.
"I just rolled it," Parker said. "I can't run I guess. I trip on my own feet. I didn't step on anybody's foot this time. It'll be alright."
At least the players will get some rest. After the UConn win, Summitt gave them Sunday off.