Tennessee (21-2, 7-1) was sluggish at the start but eventually dropped Arkansas (13-9, 5-4) with a dizzying display of basketball. The UT players, understandably upbeat after the win, blamed the pregame introductions and fireworks smoke for their slow start.
"We couldn't breathe," Hornbuckle said as Parker and guard Shanna Zolman laughed in agreement. "Tye (Fluker) and I were like we can't see. Once we got our second wind it was over after that. I guess we've got to get adjusted to our intro, come out with glasses, rec specs."
For the first 30 minutes, Arkansas trailed Tennessee – though the score was tied twice early in the first half – but remained in the game. Then the Lady Vols erupted on offense and defense by scoring 44 points in the second half and holding the Lady'backs to 16.
Summitt saw an impatient team in the first 20 minutes. Tennessee was missing quite a few open shots and forcing a few and subsequently only shot 37 percent in the first half.
"I thought we got impatient. Candace was at the three, and I thought she got a little impatient," Summitt said. "We just didn't have the ball movement. We didn't handle their double teams on the block. We knew they were coming. I thought we hesitated to play out of that, and the ball didn't move as quickly as it needed to. I thought we needed to establish a better inside game. We were a little disrupted by their double team. Not a lot of people are doing that, but Arkansas typically does it on every possession, and they do it quite well."
The second half was totally different. Tennessee shot 58.1 percent from the floor (and finished at 48.3 percent for the game) and scored quickly on the fast break.
"I thought we really did a nice job in transition," Summitt said. "Obviously the two plays between Alexis and Candace were huge. That will break your back, can really deflate a team. At some point it's just like everything was going well for us, and they weren't making shots. I look up, and I can't believe the score. It didn't feel like a 40-point game. This Arkansas team, watching tape on them, they're very capable of playing anyone in this conference and beating anyone. In the second half I don't know if it was all about our defense or not. I did think our intensity picked up on defense. We opened up in our switching man, and they went through it like water so as soon as we got out of it and went back to our traditional defense with non-switching and trapping I just think that we managed to disrupt some easy shots."
The back-to-back plays between Hornbuckle and Parker were a dynamic display of basketball.
In the first one, Parker brought the ball down the floor and bounced a pass to Hornbuckle, who flipped it back to Parker, who scored under the basket and was fouled. On the second one, Parker again dribbled nearly the length of the floor and found Hornbuckle with a pass on the wing. Hornbuckle returned the pass inside to Parker, who again made the bucket and was fouled. At that point the score was 62-36 with 5:24 to play, and Summitt pulled the duo from the floor.
Both players were asked to talk about their on-court connectivity after the game.
"I'll start," Parker said. "It's easy to find Alexis because she's so athletic. I know that she'll be running with me (so) pass ahead. She's able to make the nice pass, just cut and the ball is right there. We made eye contact, and it's good chemistry. Go ahead Lex. Talk about me."
"Well, she's 6'5 so she's so big you can't miss her," Hornbuckle said before a booming voice (Parker's) interrupted her to announce she was 6'3. "She moves well without the ball. Me, as a point guard, I like to pass. She likes to cut and move so it's kind of easy. When in doubt, throw it up; she'll catch it."
The chemistry between the two was noticeable enough for Summitt to mention it to her assistants.
"The thing I said to the staff: ‘They're starting to connect and play well together,' " Summitt said. "I think sometimes that just takes time. Alexis is the type of player that is really starting to create for other people. I think that's where she's expanded her offensive game, particularly in transition. They connected well. That's good to see. You want to have that, particularly between your point guard and obviously one of the best players on the floor."
Prior to Sunday's game, Arkansas coach Susie Gardner had commented that guarding Parker, a 6'4 wing player, presented a heretofore-unseen challenge.
"I told my staff, ‘We've got to quit recruiting small guards,' " Gardner said. "It's not only at Tennessee, but it's a trend in our conference and in the country that we're starting to have to defend with our 5'9 perimeter players. I thought we did a pretty good job on her realistically in the first half. My fear in all honesty was that they were going to post her up. But they didn't do that that much."
Gardner, a gracious coach who complimented the Tennessee crowd of 11,112, then stopped herself and said, "We don't play but one time this year, right?"
Tennessee doesn't play at Arkansas in Fayetteville this year, but the teams could meet in Little Rock at the SEC tourney depending on how the regular season plays out.
"Where she hurts us (is not so much) the open court (but) they kind of spread it for her. She has a tremendous first step, and she can get past you, and she's got great body control. We did take a charge on her one time, so we were aware of her. She's a different type of player, and we cannot simulate that in practice with our team. We have to bring in guys to try to simulate that scenario."
For the first 30 minutes Arkansas was handling Tennessee's size fairly well.
"We're a little small for an SEC school, so it's no secret we double the post," Gardner said. "I thought (Kristin) Moore and (Melissa) Hobbs did an exceptional job. They had trouble turning. Tennessee knows we're going to double it. We drop a guard down; they can just dump it over our head. That was my fear: They're just going to dump it over our heads. We didn't even allow them to turn. We got a couple of three-second calls, and that was huge. But at the same time, we didn't maintain that the whole entire game. I thought that was a big part of keeping the score close in the first half was that execution of our defensive philosophy."
Tennessee turned to its defensive philosophy throughout the game – Arkansas only shot 28 percent in the first half – and really turned the screws in the second half. Point guard Brittney Vaughn accounted for 10 of Arkansas' 22 turnovers, and Tennessee converted the Lady'backs miscues into 26 points. One of the best three-point shooting teams in the SEC could only manage six made threes – three below its average – in 21 attempts.
"Actually I thought today was one of our better 40 minutes on the defensive end," Summitt said. "Second half offensively we got in a much better rhythm. It was like we kept the pressure on, and I thought at one point they're right there with us and then we separate ourselves out with our defense and our board play. Obviously our offense was clicking in the second half. Lex did a great job pushing tempo."
Tennessee won the battle of the boards, 45-28. Zolman led all scorers with 21 points, followed by Parker with 18. Parker had eight rebounds, as did Hornbuckle, who also had 10 points, six assists and five steals. Tye'sha Fluker had six boards and nine points. Center Nicky Anosike had eight points and four rebounds. Dosty turned in a very efficient game with eight rebounds, seven points, two steals and an assist in 15 minutes of play.
But it was Dosty's play on the defensive end when she took a charge that really pleased her coach.
"I'm proud to see Dosty get on the floor when she took a charge," Summitt said. "I'm always telling her everytime I turn around she's on the floor and it's the one time I didn't mind it. She did a great job of pounding the glass."
Dosty stayed on the floor a few seconds while awaiting the official's call. When the signal was a charge, she thrust her arms in the air in celebration. The call was followed by a timeout, and Summitt was the first to greet Dosty with a high-five as she came off the court.
The play off the bench was another bright spot for Summitt. Forwards Alex Fuller and Dominique Redding turned in steady performances. Sidney Spencer only played 13 minutes after hyperextending her right knee – the same one she had surgically repaired a year ago – so she was held out for precautionary reasons and will be evaluated Monday.
"Jenny (Moshak) seemed to think she tested out OK," Summitt said. "It's early, but Jenny was positive. She just said unless you need her. I said, ‘We'll just leave her where she is.' Hopefully she'll be ready. I think anytime you've had an injury and you get a bump or a twist the wrong way you get a little bit anxious. And if you're a coach watching it you get a little bit anxious. Hopefully she'll be OK, but the signs are good."
Summitt showed signs on the sideline in the first half that she still knows how to get in a defensive stance. Hornbuckle went for a steal and wiped out Summitt, who was standing at the end of the bench near the scorer's table. Assistant coach Dean Lockwood and associate head coach Holly Warlick caught both Summitt and Hornbuckle before they hit the floor.
"I just want to know if I got credit for that charge I took," Summitt said to open her post-game remarks to the media. "Dean and Holly got assists, and I took a charge. I just want y'all to make note of that since I didn't see it on the stat sheet."
Hornbuckle only had eyes for the ball – she came up with the steal, and Tennessee got possession – and didn't realize she was bearing down on her coach.
"Actually I didn't see her, and I hit her," Hornbuckle said. "I looked back and saw it was her, and I tried to catch her, but I was falling, too. If Holly wasn't there we'd have both been on the floor. I apologized. It was an accident. I didn't see her right there. It scared me. Oh no!"
The only exclamations from there on out likely came from Arkansas, which was dismantled by Tennessee in the last 10 minutes of the contest. The 37 points scored was the lowest total by the Lady'backs this season, and Arkansas didn't hit a field goal after the 8:35 mark of the second half.
"We got together in the huddle and said we don't want to beat this team by 10 or 15 points," Hornbuckle said. "It's time to step up our game and get back to the Tennessee way. I think we brought our energy, and we let it start out on defense and everybody on the floor at the time bought into it no matter what five was playing."
Summitt substituted a lot in the first half – at the 11:30 mark she had only one starter on the floor in Zolman, who was joined by Spencer, Redding, Fuller and Dosty. That group didn't score – Redding, Zolman and Dosty missed open looks – but they defended well and rebounded.
"The bench played better for us today," Summitt said. "That's what we've really been emphasizing, and they stepped up and did a nice job."
Summitt went to her bench in the second half also, and each combination kept the heat on Arkansas.
"Their pressure made it hard," said Arkansas forward Melissa Hobbs, who led the Lady Razorbacks with 12 points. "We wouldn't even get halfway through our plays before we'd turn it over. They had such great ball pressure. There was a point probably five times in a row where we didn't even get into our play."
"I think they started switching screens a lot more," said Arkansas guard Leslie Howard, who had nine points on three 3-pointers. "They played great pressure defense. It was hard to find any kind of opening. They're a big team. They apply a lot of pressure, they're smart, well-coached."
Howard said the team was encouraged by their play for 30 minutes, but the last 10 minutes felt like a wipeout.
"I think mentally, maybe we had a letdown, but at the same time they turned it up," Howard said. "They turned up their defensive pressure, and we made some bad decisions, and I think momentum is a big thing. That's when they had it, and we didn't. I don't think we fought back like we should."
Gardner agreed with Howard, a junior who transferred a year ago midseason from Colorado and became eligible to play in December.
"It didn't feel like a 40-point game," Gardner said. "I think we played well for about 30 minutes. I was really pleased with out effort. We were outsized, out-personed, and we kept fighting. The last 10 minutes was a different story; they were just toying with us. Parker was having her way with us. It was, like, just let the clock run and get this over with. But the first 30 (minutes), I thought we were at least giving them some competition."
Summitt said the last 10 minutes were simply a matter of Tennessee finally finding some offensive continuity.
"We just ran our sets," she said. "We were trying to run our triangle offense in some sort of continuity, and we never could get a rhythm. Our spacing was poor. We ran some one-four high, our forward action, just really moving our bigs from the top inside, set some good screens, ran some back screens."
Parker was the beneficiary of one back screen and got a wide-open layup on a feed from Hornbuckle. Summitt had seen Tennessee's men team run the play so she called coach Bruce Pearl for the details and reminded him of her past gifts.
"That's our Pearl play," Summitt said. "Coach Pearl, I stole that from him so I give coach Pearl credit all the time. I watched him beat Florida with that play so I was on the phone saying, ‘I've got to have a Pearl play. I gave you a necktie, couple of ties actually. So you got a tie; I need a good backdoor play for Parker. Now everybody in the country will be looking for that. I'll have to change the name."
The No. 3 team in the country, LSU, comes to Knoxville on Thursday evening at 7 p.m. (ESPN2). Tennessee has one conference loss; LSU doesn't have any. On her post-game radio show, Summitt asked for fans to pack the arena.
"I think this team needed to play the way they played today – a carryover from how we played in the second half at Ole Miss," Summitt said. "I thought we had great energy, and they maintained their intensity, and they really maintained their defensive pressure. They're back to playing the kind of defense now they need to play to win basketball games consistently and influence the opponent.
"I thought we really did a nice job in the second half. Will it make a difference in how we play against LSU? You never know. I've coached long enough to know you come off of a great game sometimes you don't play well the next game or sometimes it has carried over. If we can't get up to play LSU something's wrong with us. I think we understand the stakes are high. We have to win that basketball game to have a chance to win the league, and that's still our goal."
Zolman, who now has 1,494 career points, was happy to see Tennessee put together another stellar defensive effort.
"Our defense has definitely been a focus for us these past couple of games – tonight just striving to be aggressive and having the energy that we had against Ole Miss in the second half. That same aggressiveness, that same mindset, same enthusiasm and same energy," Zolman said. "We can take teams out of their offense and then it's just a matter of them breaking us down one on one. Using that type of defense and then being able to transfer that to offense as well. That's what really got us going."
Now Tennessee has the task of keeping it going against LSU, a formidable team with size and a trio of scorers in Seimone Augustus, Scholanda Hoston and Sylvia Fowles.
"I think we're prepared," Parker said. "I think we've got our confidence back. We've got our swagger back. I think that over these next three days we're really going to prepare and go into the game with confidence. I think a lot of the game of basketball is mental, and it's just believing you can do it. I think we're back on track."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tennessee now has an overall record of 17-1 on Super Bowl Sunday. The only team to beat the Lady Vols on the day of the NFL championship is Georgia in 1990. … The Lady Vols are now 19-0 when scoring at least 65 points. … UT's SEC home winning streak now stands at 64 games, and the Lady Vols have an overall home win streak of 22 games. ... Guard Alexis Hornbuckle now has at least one steal in 30 straight games. Her five steals were one short of her career high against Princeton. … Forward Candace Parker now has tallied double digits in 20 of UT's 23 games.