At halftime, when Tennessee was losing 36-31 - Vandy had led by as much as 14 - and offering very little defensive resistance - 12 of the Commodores first-half baskets came from layups - coach Pat Summitt was prepared to shock her troops.
"To be honest with you I went in the locker room at halftime I told my coaching staff if we lose this one and play the kind of defense we played in the first half, we're busing to Georgia, we're out of the locker room, and they'll bring their own practice gear," she said. "That's how I was feeling at halftime. ... I'm sharing with you my frustration. I don't understand it. I can't relate to it. There's not a bone in my body that is as laidback as I watch them play sometimes.
"It's just hard to watch, and it's great to watch them when they're really inspired. In the second half they were really inspired. But this is a 40-minute game. It's a game of possessions, and there're are a lot of possessions in the first half that were wasted. But we won this game so they've got it in them. They made a mistake to show us - fans, media, coaches. They've got it in them. That really bothers me a lot, but I still love them."
This team has exasperated Summitt all season for not putting together a 40-minute game on defense. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, appears to have made strides in doing so.
"Today I feel like we played pretty close to that," Vanderbilt point guard Dee Davis said. "Our team really outworked Tennessee today. We're getting better each game, and it's showing. Of course it's going to be frustrating when you don't get the 'W.' But I can't be upset with my teammates' efforts. Everybody put 110 percent out there, and we gave it our best effort. Unfortunately we didn't come up with the 'W.' There's nothing to hang our heads about; we outplayed Tennessee today I think."
"Absolutely I think we're a much different team than we were at Vanderbilt," Commodores coach Melanie Balcomb said of UT's 80-68 win in Nashville earlier this season. "They came back and made a run (then), and we did not fight back. I felt tonight that they would make their runs, and every time they made runs, we made runs back, and we fought back all game. We're in a different place than we were a couple of weeks ago. I'm proud of the way my kids fought back, and I'm proud of how hard they played the entire game."
Tennessee did buckle down in the last four minutes. With 6:13 to go Vanderbilt had a seven-point lead, and the Lady Vols appeared to be running out of time.
"I personally was thinking it's time for our team to get this mindset of the takeover mode," Tennessee point guard Alexis Hornbuckle said. "We've been kind of laidback and just let teams do whatever, whenever. I just walked up to them and said, 'Guys this is the time to get it done. We're not going to have much more left.' And our team bought into the system, we bought into each other, we bought into our coaches, and we believed that we were going to come out on top if we did everything that our coaches asked us to do."
Tennessee also had a loud crowd of 12,377 behind it that had been waiting for something to cheer about. They got it when the Lady Vols turned up the heat on defense and didn't allow Vandy a decent shot at the basket for more than three minutes.
"We had a great home court advantage today," Summitt said. "We had an awesome crowd very into the game. Certainly they gave us energy, but I think our team generated a lot of energy with their defense. That's been our trademark here - defense and board play. This team hasn't, for whatever reason, made it a priority. They're not a 40-minute, in-your-face kind of defensive team, but the 20 minutes that they stepped up in the second half really helped us. I think they're really and truly trying to figure out how they're going to be a 40-minute team that brings the level of defensive intensity. When we did it was huge, and it was a difference maker. We took them out of open looks and made them play off the dribble a lot and obviously created some turnovers. The turnovers were huge for us."
Vanderbilt had 19 turnovers with 10 of those coming in the second half. Tennessee had 12 turnovers with only three in the second half.
Commodore guard Caroline Williams was able to launch a three in the final seconds, but it was off balance and forced and fell into the hands of Tennessee's Candace Parker, who wrapped up the ball as time expired.
"I was looking for Caroline for three, but they switched out on it," Davis said. "It was tough to get the shot we wanted to."
Tennessee forward Sidney Spencer had a key defensive play when she blocked Davis' shot out of bounds with 10 seconds left on the shot clock when Tennessee was clinging to a two-point lead, 69-67. Parker was excited by Spencer's block and celebrated with a boisterous chest bump.
"I think everybody was extremely focused about what defense we were running - very, very focused on talking our action," Spencer said. "I got switched off on their point guard, who is extremely quick. I didn't realize the shot clock was going down, but I knew it was me between her and the basket so I just tried to get into a stance, which coach has been preaching for a while now, active feet. I knew if she got by me my teammates were there to help me out."
Spencer didn't need the help - though it should arrive according to the principles of the matchup zone - as it turned out, as she sent Davis' shot attempt from the baseline out of bounds.
Tennessee was in its matchup zone because the players picked it.
"We were strictly in our matchup zone," Summitt said. "I thought they were picking us apart in our man. When I asked the team you want to go man (or) do you want to go zone? I wanted to go man. They wanted to go zone. I always go with what they want. It works better. If it's their idea it works better. They tend to make it work. If it's my idea, they're not real crazy about it."
"I think in the matchup, for whatever reason, we communicate a lot better," Parker said. "We have to talk because you're covering your area and cutters are going through and things like that. We worked really hard on that, and we were fortunate to be able to fall back on it."
Tennessee was led by Parker with 19 points, Spencer with 11 points and Hornbuckle with 10 points. Senior guard Shanna Zolman, who started at the point because Hornbuckle was benched for disciplinary reasons for getting a technical foul in the loss to LSU, turned in a solid stat line - nine points, three rebounds, two steals, two assists and only one turnover in 37 minutes of play. She only attempted seven shots - she was 3-7 - but she didn't let her offensive struggles affect her overall play.
"Shanna stepped up and stopped worrying about not making shots and started making plays and got some other people involved," Summitt said.
Hornbuckle entered the game at the 12:41 mark of the first half and received a rousing welcome from the crowd. She turned in the hustle play of the game in the second half when she sprinted nearly 50 feet to snare a loose ball. She grabbed the ball at full speed with her foot inches from the endline, leaped, called timeout, came down and immediately jumped over a row of photographers before landing in front of the band.
"I thought Lex brought a lot of energy, a lot of leadership - exactly what you'd expect her to do," Summitt said. "She's a big-time player. She just had to understand bringing it all the time. I thought her energy for the entire game was really good. Every minute she played I thought she was one player that played really hard."
Summitt is looking for players to go hard. But with little depth at guard and a roster of 10 players, the Lady Vols are hurting in the numbers department. They also are physically banged up with several players battling hip, finger, knee and hand ailments. Hornbuckle came to the post-game press conference with her wrist on ice.
"Just a little bit banged up," she said. "Something always hurts, but I'll sleep it off ... feeling good about the way we got this win. We've been struggling lately, but we found a way to fight deep and in the end do what we needed to do in order to get the job done."
Vanderbilt seemed to have the job done. They led nearly the entire game - Tennessee led in the first half, 9-7, at the 15:57 mark and then not again until the 2:22 mark of the second half when Hornbuckle hit two free throws to push the Lady Vols ahead, 69-67 - and were scoring at will inside.
Center Liz Sherwood had 20 points on 9-10 shooting, and center Nicole Jules added 12 on 6-8 shooting. Guard Cherish Stringfield had 11 points with three 3-pointers, and Thomas added 10 on 5-7 shooting. For the game Vandy shot 56.6 percent.
"They did a great job with their high-low action and getting the ball inside to Sherwood," Summitt said. "I thought our ball pressure was really soft out of our man, particularly in the first half. They run some good sets and then they executed very well. When our defense is soft, they're going to get inside looks and then the other thing is dribble drives. I told Shanna the reason they're going to dribble drive on you is that (LSU's Scholanda) Hoston just left here excited about how many times she was able to just leave you. Obviously you're starting to create by all the times that you're exposed defensively a sense that we can beat certain people. It's not just Shanna. They took Dom (Redding) off the dribble; took Sid on the dribble. That's where I think our lack of great commitment to defense we really expose ourselves at times."
Vanderbilt took full advantage inside.
"Our posts stepped up, our posts were open, and our posts went to work, especially Liz Sherwood really stepped up for us and did a great job for us inside," Balcomb said. "That was much needed. I think that was very obvious in the last game that we relied too much on perimeter shooting and guards driving. We tried to have more balance and worked really hard at being more balanced.
"We were just setting screens for (Sherwood) like we do in all our offenses, and she was just wide open. What Liz did a good job of was finishing. Liz has been inconsistent inside, but tonight she went with confidence, and she finished, and she drew fouls. And that's what we've been asking her to do."
But Vanderbilt struggled from where they have often torched Tennessee - behind the arc. The Commodores were 4-14 from long range, and Williams, who hit five in the Jan. 19 game against Tennessee, was 1-6.
"We defended the three, which we did not do in Nashville," Summitt said. "I just thought that we extended better, we had better pressure on players outside the three-point line and a lot of times we made shooters become penetrators or passers."
Parker said part of Tennessee's defensive game plan was to find Williams on the perimeter.
"She killed us the first game," Parker said. "We put in our minds that we were not giving up so many threes this game, make her put it on the floor. We just need to put two games together. We stopped their posts in the first game, and their guards killed us. We stopped their guards this game, and their posts killed us. Our post defense needs to improve. We'll work on it in practice."
Oddly enough, the Lady Vols have looked good in practice all season long. After the LSU loss, a lengthy film session and a day of game prep on Saturday, Summitt was clearly looking for a different start from her team than the one she got.
"Obviously at halftime I didn't know what to expect, because what I had seen was not what I prepared to see in terms of defensive intensity, rebounding," Summitt said. "We were getting beat rim to rim by post runs. That's totally unacceptable. At halftime, we didn't talk a lot of Xs and Os. We talked about having a lot more heart and playing better defense, controlling boards and bringing the intensity.
"I was so disappointed in Tye Fluker. Here we are in the second half we're making a great run, and she's jogging down the floor like she's out of shape and doesn't see the ball. That's the example of what we saw in the first half. Give this team credit. They turned it around and played great on the defensive end. We rallied at halftime. I thought the intensity level went up. I thought Alexis did a great job of running things. Sid struggled for a while but then came up with some big plays as well. Inside I thought Candace went to work. We did a good job of getting her the ball. She and (Nicky) Anosike both worked really hard inside and on the glass. We got to the free throw line. That's what you do when you play good defense, and you attack offensively. I thought that was a big difference for us - getting to the free throw line. That was a goal that we had going into the game. That was a focus for our team."
The disparity in free throws - Tennessee shot 32 to seven for Vandy - stands out, but in the early going Vandy was shooting 70 percent and hitting layups. In the first half, Tennessee was whistled seven times to nine for Vanderbilt. But in the second half, the Lady Vols hit the offensive boards and were getting fouled either while rebounding or on second attempts at the basket.
"They were making runs when they got offensive rebounds," Balcomb said. "That's when we were fouling them a lot was on the offensive rebounds, and that was one of the keys that we wanted to take away because that's one of their strengths. We didn't do a good job down the stretch in the second half."
Thomas fouled out with 18.8 seconds to go when she hooked Spencer around the hip in the lane and cleared out. Spencer reached in after that contact, but the official whistled the first foul.
"I got switched off on her," Spencer said. "Coach said we had some fouls to give. We were banging and fouling and the ref happened to see her."
Spencer's play on both ends of the floor was key for Tennessee. She opened up the game by going 0-4, and Summitt pulled her out to have a talk. Spencer responded in the second half by shooting 4-4, including a 14-footer on an assist from Parker that knotted the score at 67-67 with 2:50 to go.
"I just told Sidney when I put her back in that she had to step up and be aggressive, and I thought she responded," Summitt said. "Sometimes in a player like Sidney I think you just have to to keep believing in her and encouraging her. I'd gotten on to her earlier because I was disappointed, but when I put her back in, I told her, 'We need you. You've got to step up and make some plays.' "
"Coach, she gave me a few inspirational words and sent me back in the game," Spencer said. "I just happened to be open ... and I hit the open shot. That's the truth."
Tennessee got some help from the bench - Sybil Dosty had three rebounds and a putback in five minutes of play and Alex Fuller had two rebounds in four minutes - and from first-time starter Dominique Redding, who opened up in place of Hornbuckle. She had four points and three assists, including a nifty feed to Parker for a layup that tied the score at 43-43 in the second half.
"I thought Dom did some good things," Summitt said. "I thought she played with a lot of energy, made a couple of big shots for us. Overall, I was pleased with how she started the game."
Summitt will need contributions from Redding and the rest of the role players if Tennessee intends to make a serious postseason run. Although Summitt was certainly happy to have the win, her post-game remarks underscored her utter frustration.
"I definitely understand coach's frustration," Spencer said. "It's so hard because she never knows what we're going to do. She doesn't know if we're going to come out and play hard or wait. It seems like we have to wait until we're down to step up and play from behind. We've got to start playing 40 minutes because we haven't been doing that, and it's going to catch up to us if we don't."
Summitt made it clear just how it would catch up.
"I told them if this is who we are, and we finish the regular season playing this way, and we take that into the SEC (tourney), we're not going to play there very long, and if we take that into the postseason, we're not going to play in the postseason very long," Summitt said.