Tennessee used all 10 players in uniform – including walk-on Elizabeth Curry, who scored a point from the free throw line – and put together balanced scoring with 52 points in each half before a crowd of 5,935 who came out on a sopping-wet night in Knoxville. Freshman forward Nicci Moats, who had been limited all preseason as she recovered from knee surgery in high school, played a solid 11 straight minutes in the second half and recorded one rebound and a block. Of the 104 total points, 46 were tallied off of turnovers – Carson-Newman had 36 – and guard Alexis Hornbuckle and center Nicky Anosike led the running rout with five steals each.
"I told our basketball team I thought we did a lot of good things," coach Pat Summitt said. "First of all I thought Shannon Bobbitt did a great job for us at the point, just really pushing tempo, which is what we wanted to do. We established our inside game and that's obviously a priority for us. I thought the press that we threw on them was very effective for the most part and pressing off turnovers and steals. It was just good to see this team be as aggressive defensively as I anticipated they would be. You have a vision in your mind of how you want to see them play on the defensive end, and I like what I've seen thus far, and we can get a lot better."
Last year, Tennessee beat Carson-Newman in an exhibition game, 101-55. Then freshman guard Ashley Tipton, a product of Farragut High School in Knoxville, led the Lady Eagles with 16 points, including four of six from behind the arc. Tipton, who went on to set a freshman record in the South Atlantic Conference for three-point shooting percentage (47.1 percent), scored four points Wednesday on two of four shooting and missed her one three-point attempt. Nobody for Carson-Newman – which shot 33.3 percent for the game – hit double figures. Forward Emily Mason led her team with eight points on three of 10 shooting.
"We just wanted to make sure that we didn't let anyone go off on us," Summitt said. "Ashley Tipton went off on us last year. I thought we did a little bit better job against her tonight. As I told our team, we've just got to get out and defend. They had so many young players, and we hadn't seen tape on them that we really couldn't have what I call scouting report defense."
Not allowing any player on a Division II team to go off may seem like a low goal, but Tennessee's defensive deficiencies last year were its ultimate undoing. This team, so far, has shown it can play defense without sacrificing scoring. That is primarily because of one thing – speed.
Carson-Newman coach Dean Walsh said this year's Lady Vol squad is strikingly different from last year's in terms of quickness.
"Thank goodness we don't see that kind of length and pressure during the season," Walsh said. "We don't use the youth excuse. We refuse to (but) nerves definitely got to us. Pat's bunch this year is so much longer and quicker than it was last year. You come in here with inexperienced guards, it's going to take its toll."
Two primary reasons for that team speed are the addition of junior college transfers Bobbitt and Alberta Auguste, who had six assists to go with six points, six boards, three steals, one block and just one turnover. Bobbitt had 11 points – including a three-pointer – and three steals to go with her stellar assist to turnover ratio.
Both players were nervous before the game, but it didn't take them long to settle down.
"Wow," Bobbitt said when asked about playing for Tennessee for the first time. "About an hour before we were about to play, I was like, ‘Man, I am nervous.' When I got out there and warmed up with my teammates, they were pumping me up, we were getting excited. After awhile it was just like another game to me. I went out there and just had fun."
Bobbitt's definition of fun is pushing tempo and running up and down the court. In back-to-back sequences in the first half, she stole an in-bounds pass after a timeout, sprinted to the basket, pulled back in a hesitation move, and then drove for the layup. On the next in-bounds pass, Auguste swiped the ball and fired it to Bobbitt, who hit another lay-up. Seven seconds passed between buckets, and the Lady Vols were up 30-6 on the way to a 52-16 halftime lead.
"That was one of the reasons why I came here," Bobbitt said. "I stand five-foot nothing. I cannot play a set-up defense type offense. I have to run. Running up and down the court, having fun, that's when I'm at my best."
Bobbitt sells herself a bit short. She's actually 5'2, and she has handled the point duties in practice against male players in both transition and half-court offenses.
"She's done a great job of learning the offenses and playing both ends," Summitt said. "I think Shannon really has a commitment to play both ends of the floor. She wants to take a leadership role, and obviously she did that in the game tonight."
Placing Bobbitt at the point is beneficial for another reason. It frees up Hornbuckle to play on the wing.
"Shannon ‘Lil Bit' Bobbitt," Hornbuckle said with a smile when asked about her running mate. "She did a great job coming in at the point and doing exactly what she was asked to do – run the plays, get us set up and push tempo – and that's what she did. By her doing that, as y'all saw, I was able to just go. I was able to rebound and get out on the wings and just run, which I love to do. She kind of freed me up to be more of a freelancer."
Hornbuckle led all scorers with 21 points – she was a perfect 5-5 from the free throw line – and matched Bobbitt's assist total with seven.
But Hornbuckle saw aspects of her game – and the team's – that need to be addressed. Her shooting was one, and board play was another.
"One specifically that really stood out to me was our rebounding," Hornbuckle said. "Before we hit regular season, and especially the SEC, we need to get on the boards."
Tennessee and Carson-Newman were knotted on the glass, 36-36. The bright spot for the Lady Vols on the boards was Alex Fuller, who led the team with eight, and Auguste, who grabbed six. Seniors Redding and Sidney Spencer had five apiece. Two reasons for the low rebounding totals were UT's shooting percentage and the fact the team ran so much. If a shot was missed, the players often weren't in position to rebound. But sometimes the issue was simply not getting a body on the opponent.
"We shot well, and it was a little more up and down, more open court situation," Summitt said. "But I think as we look at the tape we've got to get more disciplined in boxing out, and we've got to do a better job of sprinting to the boards offensively when we are spread out the way we were. I think we can always get better in terms of our rebounding and our positioning on the boards. We tend sometimes to just turn and go after the ball. We had a lot of missed box-outs. I'm sure we'll see that number."
Hornbuckle said the team was happy after the game, but they also know there were lapses and mistakes that could be critical when the games count, especially given the gauntlet of teams they will face in the regular season.
"When I say not clicking, we weren't as efficient as Pat likes us to be as far as offense," Hornbuckle said. "As soon as she calls the play we get into it, it flows nice and hit the open person. Obviously we did that many a time, but there were times when we did break down. … We were having fun and joking in the locker room with Dom and everything about how well she played. But there are things Dom can do to get better. I feel like there are things I can do to get better. I was eight for 12, but I feel like I shot terrible today, because I missed two layups. It's just little things like that that brings this team great chemistry. Everybody wants to get better every day, and with a mindset like that it's going to be hard to stop us."
When Tennessee was stopped last season it was because the team broke down defensively – leaving shooters open and getting beat back door and in transition.
Although Carson-Newman can't provide the level of competition Tennessee will face, the game did show that the Lady Vols have set a new tone on defense. With Auguste, whose nickname is Bird, and Bobbitt able to defend on the perimeter, Anosike can remain in the post.
"I don't really think that defense was important to the team last year," Anosike said. "We had one or two great plays by one or two people on our team, but it was never really important to the whole five that was on the court at the time. But I think this year it's just a whole lot more of an emphasis just knowing that defense is really what wins games. It looks good, everyone scoring, putting points up, but it's really the defense that is going to carry us. With the two additions, Shannon and Alberta, they just allow us to really get up and pressure the ball. I think it's more of a priority, and I think we added the personnel that we needed to add in order to be a great defensive team."
"With Shannon and with Bird, the sky is the limit. They're two great defensive players and two great players that allow me to go back inside and play post defense. Just with the addition of those two our defense is going to be that much better. Twenty-five steals is nothing compared to what you're going to see coming up."
The remark provoked some laughter, but Anosike, though smiling, was serious. Anosike has always been known for her defense, but against Carson-Newman she also showed some offense, scoring 18 points on eight of nine shooting that included lay-ups and short jumpers.
Anosike was one beneficiary of the attention placed on Candace Parker – she still scored 12 points in 20 minutes – and the passing of Parker, who had five assists.
"I have great teammates out there, and they drove to the basket, dished off," Anosike said. "Obviously when Candace got double and tripled teamed she dished off to me. That is really a tribute to my teammates and them being able to find me."
The offensive output from Anosike and Redding was encouraging, because Tennessee lost to graduation its best three-point shooter in school history in Shanna Zolman and the post presence of Tye'sha Fluker.
"Obviously Dom got a lot of good open looks," Summitt said. "She's worked on her shot all summer long. She's always been a good shooter, but I think she has more confidence now because she's had more reps. I'm pleased with Nicky. I think she's gained a lot of confidence. Same thing – she was in the gym a lot in the summer, and that's where you want players to be. When you see games like this, they understand – as we all understand – that it pays off."
Summitt will give her team the day off Thursday – they had been scheduled for a crack-of-dawn session at 5:30 a.m. – and they will return to the court Friday afternoon for practice.
"It's more of a class situation," said Summitt, when asked if the day off was granted because of their play. "I'd rather give them this time to catch up on their academics."
Walsh will turn his attention to coach Sylvia Hatchell's North Carolina team and its super-quick guard Ivory Latta. The Lady Eagles play in Chapel Hill on Sunday in their second exhibition game. Walsh schedules such tough preseason opponents, he said, because it makes his team better and it helps recruiting.
"It's a great opportunity, just like playing Tennessee," Walsh said. "Coach Hatchell is a graduate of Carson-Newman. I'm very good friends with her. At our level you need every little advantage you can get recruiting-wise, and it's the ultimate thing to do. Recruits will see our schedule, and it's a great experience. These kids are going to play against two of the top teams in the country without worrying about anything. They don't count. It's just a great experience for us.
"They know North Carolina is one of the top teams in the country. They know we're Division II. I told my point guards, since we have two freshmen and a sophomore, Bobbitt and Latta are going to be the quickest guards you're going to see in the nation, hands down. So from this point on, it gets easier, and that's the mindset."
Tipton seconded her coach's position and said the games against Tennessee actually help her team.
"It's absolutely frustrating because you know you're going to come into a very talented team, and you're going to run into a lot of obstacles, especially with their size and their strength compared to ours, but at the same time coming out and playing UT it gives you a sense of accomplishment, and it just makes you want to go out and beat our teams in our division that much more," Tipton said. "Even before the game I was telling the girls this is not the kind of competition we're going to see in our league, but it's going to prepare us, it's going to make us better so just go out there and do the best you can, and we'll improve."
Walsh, having seen Tennessee at this same time last year, was quick to point out how much different the Lady Vols look now.
"A lot more athletic and longer on the perimeter," Walsh said. "I think it's a big plus having Alexis at the two guard. As soon as Bobbitt and Auguste pick up the system and style of NCAA Division I ball and not junior college ball – being a junior college coach myself in the past – once they pick that up I think it's going to feed in to what she (Summitt) needs to do.
"She's definitely got a transition team this year. With the way her post game was, she doesn't have the big power player like Fluker was. That's not bad. As you saw, your Marylands, your North Carolinas, they're built the same way. They're not your big power people; they're more finesse and speed. Pat didn't win as many games as she did just by sitting back and watching. She understood what needed to be done to make it to a championship, and she went out and did that."