Tennessee (23-3, 9-2) overwhelmed Georgia (17-7, 7-4) on Thursday in Athens with its size and its matchup zone and was able to storm back in the second half despite being down 14 points and having its starting point guard back home in Knoxville because of season-ending wrist surgery.
Both coach and players agreed the win would boost their confidence, especially since they had to overcome a rowdy road crowd, Georgia's speedster guards and 21 turnovers – 15 of which belonged to Zolman, Spencer and first half starter Dominique Redding.
"I thought how long are we going to just give it to them?" Summitt asked.
But despite the miscues Tennessee was only down seven at halftime, 29-22, and weathered Georgia's fast run to start the second half. Georgia only had eight turnovers, but Tennessee brought the heat defensively with 10 blocks – Parker had five, Anosike had three and Fluker and Sybil Dosty had one apiece.
"I think for them obviously it should give them a big boost – just how the game unfolded initially," Summitt said. "Zolman's really struggling to handle the pressure. That made everybody else anxious. I thought Tye, in the first half, she's just overanxious. Both our seniors were, but Tye didn't have somebody breathing down her neck like Shanna did. I thought as we settled in I think Candace took some pressure off of her, which is good just to get her some relief from that constant one-on-one quickness and ball pressure."
The game was won on the strength of Tennessee's board play – the Lady Vols out-rebounded the Bulldogs, 42-27 – and the smothering zone defenses, which Tennessee remained in until the final seconds when Georgia needed a three to tie the game. The Lady Vols went to man-to-man for that last possession and came away with a steal.
"Playing good defense, controlling the boards," Summitt said. "The bell went off. That's all that matters."
"I think we finally are understanding what Pat's been talking about – how defense and rebounding really wins games," said Parker, who had 19 points and 14 rebounds.
Tennessee knew it couldn't match Georgia's quickness on the perimeter so the Lady Vols had to slow down the Bulldogs offensively in the half-court game and take over the boards. Georgia shot 33.3 percent for the game and was 20-60 on the night with matching 10-30 performances in both halves. Both teams had 13 offensive rebounds, but Tennessee grabbed 29 on the defensive end, compared to 14 for Georgia. Zolman had five boards, all on defense. Fluker had 10 – four on offense and six on defense.
Tennessee shot 39.1 percent in the first half (9-23), but hit 54.2 percent in the second half (13-24) and ended up shooting 46.8 percent for the game.
"I think the turning point was honestly that we started clicking on offense," Parker said. "The defense was always there; the board play was always there (in this game). I think we didn't necessarily get into our sets very fast. I think we started clicking offensively, and that was the turning factor."
Zolman looks at the size of Tennessee's team and sees what should be a dominant rebounding team.
"I think that's what's been disappointing at times this season," Zolman said. "We have so much size. Why aren't we killing people on the boards? With the exception of myself, the shortest player is 6'2 or 6'3. When you've got that – 6'2, 6'3, 6'4 and 6'5 – we can kill people on the boards. We've got so much length defensively to get a lot of deflections and steals. That's something we have to continue to keep a conscious effort and be aware of throughout the course of the season. Just use that."
The regular season only has three games left – at Alabama on Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern (CSS) and then two games at home next week against Auburn and Florida. The SEC Tournament is March 2-5 and then the NCAA tourney begins March 18-21.
The Georgia game proved to the players that they could win short-handed. It showed their coach a lot more, especially as the postseason looms.
"I saw them really come together and feel like they needed each other, and they were willing to help each other," Summitt said. "In the second half I think it was even more defining as to who stepped up and made a difference. That's good to know who you can count on."