"I wish I had an exact answer, I really do, but the second half – as we commonly say among coaches – was a tale of two halves," assistant coach Dean Lockwood said of Thursday's 78-63 win in Oxford. "It was day and night difference. We doubled our scoring. We shot 34 (percent) in the first half, 61 in the second."
Coach Pat Summitt was at wit's end at halftime Thursday when the Lady Vols were losing, 28-26, and had looked uninspired on both ends of the floor, save for some individual defensive efforts. She threw things, she yelled, she held one-on-one talks. She was especially seeking senior leadership from guard Shanna Zolman and center Tye'sha Fluker.
"It was disappointing when it takes this long for a team to decide they're going to have leadership," Summitt said. "I put that on Zolman and Fluker. When you give them responsibility they have to accept it every game. I think Shanna has been struggling some, and that hadn't been a focus for her. (Thursday) night she was terrific – the huddles and just really directing traffic and staying focused and staying positive."
Lockwood, who coaches the post players, was encouraged by Fluker's play.
"Very encouraging. We needed a senior to step up, and she stepped up," Lockwood said. "In the first half we scored 26 points, and we're down two. We were struggling in every way you can struggle, and that game cried out for leadership. Tye came in – she's not a point; she's not somebody who has the ball in her hands a lot so she doesn't lead in that way – and what she did was her form of leadership. She came in and stepped up and made big plays. She finished plays, she made shots, she got some rebounds. She did what she should do as a leader so it was pleasing to see that."
One of the most-encouraging signs for Summitt was the second half shooting and overall play of junior Sidney Spencer, who finished the game with 18 points, seven rebounds and two assists. When asked if she might have had a stroke had she also been forced to convince Spencer to shoot, as she did last season, Summitt couldn't help but smile.
"If I didn't have one at halftime (Thursday) night hopefully I'm good for a few more games," Summitt said.
Summitt watched film of the Ole Miss game and when asked for her later impressions she had compliments for the team. Usually a review of the tape exposes additional shortcomings.
"I was really pleased with our energy in the second half and our leadership and execution," Summitt said. "We really ran our sets well down the stretch when we had to have some plays."
Summitt saw the transformation of her team from the bench from the first half to the second.
"They were just going the motions," Summitt said. "I really think they think they can figure out a way to win in the second half. They've done it a lot. But after the Kentucky loss I believe I would have said we're not good enough to do this. I think it's been more leadership and enthusiasm for the game and each other. They had the personality of a rock; they're just there. We think we're just going to go in there, show up and win. Not in this league."
The spirit of that second 20 minutes carried over to Tennessee's practice sessions Friday and Saturday. But Tennessee has proven itself to be a team with excellent practice habits. The test will be the next three home games when the Lady Vols host Arkansas, SEC leader LSU and Vanderbilt.
"I'm excited to get to play at home again, but I'm also excited because it's going to be three big tests for us," Zolman said. "More contests, more tests for us to help us."
That sentiment is seconded by Fluker, who – along with Zolman – is winding down her Tennessee career at home.
"We need to get some wins," Fluker said. "We obviously have a loss that nobody wanted. We have to prepare well and use Arkansas as a game to prepare for LSU because they are playing great basketball right now. We have to come in here everyday ready to prepare in practice. It's going to feel great to have some home games. Our fans will be able to help us as far as trying to get these wins. We're going to build off (the Ole Miss) game and continue to go from there."
Lockwood reminded everyone that the first game against Arkansas was the most important.
"When you look at how this all plays out Arkansas is a team that if you're a casual observer somebody might think less of them of the three if you were going to rank them and say, ‘Who's the toughest team?' " Lockwood said. "Obviously LSU is a team that you can pencil them in for Boston (at the Final Four) and not a lot of people would argue with you. But with Vandy and Arkansas, you could look at them and say, ‘Arkansas is going to be your easy game,' and I think that would be a big mistake. We do not want to let this game be a stumbling block. That put us in such a pressure position. It's important that we get off and get some momentum here. We can't stub our toe."
The good news for Tennessee is that freshman forward Candace Parker practiced Saturday and is cleared to play. She had missed practice Friday with a tight hip flexor. Parker is expected to be in the starting lineup along with Zolman and Alexis Hornbuckle on the perimeter. Fluker and Nicky Anosike should open up inside.
The Lady Razorbacks are expected to start: Brittney Vaughn, No. 25, 5'7 sophomore guard (4.1 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game, 4.4 assists per game), scored 12 points off the bench last season in Knoxville; Leslie Howard, No. 24, 5'10 junior guard (12.2 ppg, 1.5 rpg), first in the conference with 3.43 three-pointers made per SEC game; Melissa Hobbs, No. 22, 6'0 senior guard/forward, 6.1 ppg (4.8 rpg, 1.1 steals per game), tallied a double-double with 19 points, 11 rebounds against Tulsa; Rochelle Vaughn, No. 21, 5'9 graduate student (9.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 5.6 apg), older sister of Brittney, sixth in the conference with 2.13 made three-pointers in SEC games and scored 10 points in Knoxville last season; and Kristin Moore, No. 1, 6'1 senior forward (5.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.2 apg), scored a season high 15 points against Mississippi State, is Arkansas' primary low post player.
If Tennessee can get on a roll this month and either tie for the SEC regular season title or win it outright, the team can look to halftime of the Ole Miss game as the turning point.
"I don't know if we looked sluggish, or we didn't have energy, but we weren't rebounding. We weren't having fun," Spencer said. "We were using a lot more energy to have to play OK. At halftime we were like, ‘No. We're going to play hard. We're going to have fun, we're going to get up for each other. We're going to play Tennessee basketball and have fun.' Because we haven't had fun in a long time."
The simple question is why not, but Spencer had no simple answer.
"We're not tired because we're in unbelievable shape," Spencer said. "I don't know if it's our confidence. I really can't pinpoint it on one thing. I think it's a combination of a lot of things that are culminating into one."
Zolman looks to Spencer to lighten her up. Before every game Spencer and Zolman exchange light-hearted remarks, and Spencer and fellow junior Dominique Redding tell jokes.
"She helps me have fun," Zolman said. "That's a light mood and moment. Her and Dom they are constantly talking to me and joking with me. She's definitely someone that can continue to help us have fun. She's still Sidville. She doesn't change."
Sidville is the word for the quirky, offbeat world that Spencer lives in, and it has become a running joke with the team. Summitt made light of it when she noted she hasn't spoken to Spencer about her shooting this year.
"I don't want to confuse her," Summitt said, but added seriously that "she's a junior. By the time they're juniors, they either get it or never get it. That's why I'm hoping Dom gets it real soon. The only senior I've known who absolutely came back and played at a different level was Lisa Harrison. It was like, ‘Who is that?' By the time they're juniors they've pretty much defined, ‘This is who I am coach, and this is what you're going to get.' It's amazing. There's such a difference. You cannot fast forward. This team right now they're young. We've got three freshmen and three sophomores. If you look at our sophomore class and the role that we're playing, we're young."
That could be the elusive answer to Tennessee's inconsistencies at times this season and to the mini-funk the team endured after the Duke loss.
"That's something I haven't really focused on (is) how young we really are," Zolman said when the question is posed to her. "We have so much talent but we don't have a whole lot of experience. This (resurgence against Ole Miss) is going to help me as much as it helps my teammates. It gets my mind off of things where it shouldn't be (such as poor shooting performances). This is going to help me. I have to get everyone else involved. I have to get everyone energized and hyped. When that happens we're having fun. That's where we just play out of instinct."
Zolman and Fluker have been lauded by Summitt and their teammates for their display of leadership against Ole Miss and for their performance. Zolman took over at point with Hornbuckle in foul trouble and poured in 18 points by abandoning the long ball and instead pulling up for 12- and 15-footers.
"I've been caught up oftentimes living and dying by the three ball," Zolman said. "Obviously teams know I'm a shooter, but I have a great midrange team, too. I don't have just long; I don't have to go all the way. It's just a conscious effort to remind myself of that. You don't live and die with the three. You don't need to go all the way amongst the trees and try to throw up something and get fouled. One shot fake, pull up. Right now midrange game is fine, too. That's something I'm adjusting my game to and taking what the defense is giving me."
Fluker had 12 points, four rebounds and a highlight-film block.
"I was really proud of Tye," Summitt said. "She just came up with big plays and really wanted the ball, hard-nosed. This is what I expect from her every game. She brought it."
Fluker also cited halftime as the moment of truth for the team.
"We just weren't playing the way we need to play," Fluker said. "It's everyone holding each other accountable like we did in the second half. At a certain point we had to realize that we have to play two halves. We got tired of talking about it, and we actually went out there and did it. We're tired of talking about it. It's actually going out there and putting all the talking into action."
Fluker also saw a distinct difference in the Ole Miss and Kentucky games. They started in similar fashion but didn't end the same way.
"We didn't start off as well as we wanted to as far as our defensive play and all-around team game, but we came up with the win," she said. "I think it's (leadership) real important because if we didn't have anyone to bring that emotional leadership … and not letting anyone get away with anything then we probably would have had a game that would have been fought out until the final seconds."
In the final seconds of the Kentucky game, Tennessee lost. Against Ole Miss, Tennessee put the game away in the second half. The Kentucky game featured an abundance of missed shots and squandered opportunities. Spencer had a three lined up at the end, but she missed. Summitt said that shot was inconsequential compared to the entire game.
"We had so many poor possessions; it didn't come down to that one," Summitt said. "We lost that game in the first half."
But the shot still lingers in Spencer's mind.
"It bothers me," Spencer said. "I'm the type of person that after we play a game like that night, continue to think about the mistakes. (Thursday) night was so hard because I kept focusing on my turnovers and the Kentucky game all the open shots I missed. It's hard to sleep because they replay in my mind. It's (the shot) still in there. Every time I shoot a three now I try to give it arc, give it some kind of hope, because it was flat."
That's one benefit of living in Sidville. The miss may have bothered her, but it hasn't prevented Spencer from taking shots. She was 4-4 behind the arc against Ole Miss and remarkably the Lady Rebels let her go despite her season-long accuracy from long range. In seven SEC games Spencer is 7-14 for 50 percent (fifth in the conference); overall this season she is 35-65 for 53.8 percent.
"They may be like us," Summitt noted wryly. "They know it and just don't get there."
Arkansas coach Susie Gardner isn't likely to forget about Spencer.
"Tennessee poses the problem of they've got great post players, but they also have excellent shooters on the perimeter," Gardner said. "Zolman is one of the best shooters in the country. Candace Parker is going to be new for us in terms of being potentially the freshman of the year in the nation at 6'4 as a wing. We're going to have to just try to work with our pressure defense, try to make it difficult for the posts to get the ball. But their leading scorers are their perimeter."
Summitt is content now that Spencer is firing away. She has often said Spencer is one of the best shooters on the team and last season she had to plead with her to pull the trigger.
"I think her aggressive mindset on offense has changed how she's played, and she's continuing to play that way," Summitt said. "It's a flip side of a year ago where she didn't even hunt her shot, she never looked for one. And now she's hunting for shots all the time and finding a lot and knocking down a lot. It's a complete opposite. It's great to see.
"I think it's kept the defense more honest. You have five weapons on the floor unlike a year ago. They wouldn't guard certain people, and that made it really difficult to run our offense and really share the ball. I think this year just having the balance and everyone taking responsibility on the offensive end we've been able to generate more points. She stretches the defense. You put Shanna out there with her. Last night when we had Shanna and Alex out there – Alex is a threat from the three – it really opened up the inside game."
Alex Fuller is a redshirt freshman forward who is more naturally suited to power forward but has been learning to play small forward. The challenge has come defensively. She already had a reliable three-point shot to complement the other perimeter players.
Fuller had six points – she hit one three-pointer – two rebounds and four assists in 19 minutes of play against Ole Miss.
"I trust her," Summitt said. "She's going to play hard. You know what you're going to get every time. It's not quite the same with everybody across but the board, but you pretty much know what Alex is going to bring."
Fuller and Spencer are both coming off the bench. Spencer had started some this season, but Summitt reinserted Zolman after a one-game absence and has stayed with Fluker for rebounding reasons. Spencer is fine with either role and applauded the seniors for their effort against Ole Miss.
"They were unbelievable," Spencer said. "Shanna had unbelievable energy. Tye was getting ‘and one' (the basketball term for a bucket and the foul). I think everyone just fed off of that. It's amazing how just a little bit of energy like that or just a couple of plays can bring everyone together. They really stepped up. It was awesome to see them do that. I really enjoyed it."
As a reserve, Spencer has one goal: Make Summitt happy.
"We're all tired of hearing her say how the bench is not producing," Spencer said. "We're not bringing or adding anything to the team and as a matter of fact we may be taking away from the team. So I'm just trying to get her to be satisfied, bring a spark off the bench."
These next three home games will tell Tennessee how far it has come and possibly how far it can go.
"I think it's really important," Spencer said. "We've kind of been tested the last couple of weeks and now we're trying to rebuild. We're going to see how we stand with these teams."
SCOUTING REPORT: Assistant coach Dean Lockwood handled the scout reporting against Arkansas. Here is his assessment.
When the Lady'backs have the ball Tennessee's defense must extend to the arc.
"They're leading the SEC in three-point field goals made – (9.3 made threes a game in SEC play)," Lockwood said. "Obviously we've got to guard the three. We can't let them have easy threes; we can't let them have uncontested threes. As you watch them you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know they're a small team – they play very small, quick, athletic. They do a lot a lot of dribble drive so once again we face a team that does a lot of action off dribble drives and one-on-one play and a team that can really shoot the threes and shoot them quickly. So we have to get to shooters. I would say that's our primary focus is being able to play one-on-one defense effectively and not giving uncontested threes."
When Tennessee has the ball the goal is to stay in rhythm and get it inside. But the perimeter players must be alert for kick-outs.
"We haven't had a game in a while where we've had a full game of offensive rhythm," Lockwood said. "So we've been really focused on our rhythm – pushing the ball, looking for early opportunities and then running good, solid offense if we don't have that. We want to get some touches. We don't want the ball stuck in any one player's hands too long. We don't want to stagnate on offense where all of a sudden we're down to 13 seconds, and we've made three passes. We want to really get our flow of our offense going.
"But aside from that we want to be able to take advantage of our inside game. They double on the posts so I don't know necessarily that our post players are going to have a big scoring night because they do a great job doubling and getting it out of there, but we want to at least get touches so that they do have to converge. The more you've got to double that's more effort and energy you're burning. If we can get touches and make them burn energy and kick out, we think we can generate good offense."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee leads the series with Arkansas, 16-1. The Lady'backs lone win came in 1996. … Arkansas coach Susie Gardner is a native of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, and a former player for Georgia. She was the coach at Austin Peay in Clarksville, Tennessee, before taking the job in Fayetteville. … Tennessee has a 63-game SEC home winning streak going into Sunday's game. The last conference loss at home came in December 1996 against Georgia. Tennessee's all-time SEC record at home is 147-9. Its overall SEC record is a staggering 234-31. … Pat Summitt tallied her 30th straight season of 20 or more wins with the victory over Ole Miss.
ON TAP: Every SEC team is in action Sunday. Here are the other matchups: Alabama at Georgia; Vanderbilt at Auburn; Florida at Kentucky; Ole Miss at LSU; and South Carolina at Mississippi State.