"As far as the Bruins go, I think we came in here and we competed for about 32 minutes, and when you come into Knoxville, there's no way you can play for 32 minutes," UCLA coach Kathy Olivier said. "You've got to play for 40. They have a great program. Pat does an unbelievable job, and they're going to compete for 40 minutes. I thought we did a good job for about 32, and it's just not enough in Knoxville, Tennessee."
No. 20/21 UCLA stayed within striking distance in the first half and faced only a 10-point deficit, 42-32. No. 5/4 Tennessee had led by as much as 17 points, 38-21, with 5:09 to play, but some defensive breakdowns – and the location of starters Parker and Alexis Hornbuckle on the bench with two fouls each – put the Bruins in position to make a run.
"They were doing pretty much what they wanted to right before half," coach Pat Summitt said. "We had a lot of breakdowns defensively. We were designed to trap ball screens. We didn't trap ball screens. We had a miscommunication. We weren't really focused on the defensive end."
Summitt wasn't happy at halftime but more importantly, her players were peeved at themselves.
"Obviously they weren't pleased, and it works better if they're not happy," Summitt said. "There're are a lot of times I'm not happy, but the few times that they're not they change things for us."
Quinn and Pluimer both had 13 points by halftime; in the second half, Quinn got seven, and Pluimer, only four.
"We let them touch when they wanted to touch the ball and just were not very disruptive," Summitt said of the first half. "And then we come out in the second half and we're inspired and we disrupt and we get a lot of great looks, a lot of easy baskets. I think they took some pride at halftime. We talked about what we hadn't done effectively, and we talked about switching on the ball screens instead of trapping and stepping up and keeping pressure, limiting touches and just doing a better job of our scouting report defense.
"We switched the ball screens, and I thought we managed to get pressure on Quinn when she was coming off of ball screens because of our switching defense. With Pluimer obviously Nicky was much more effective in limiting her touches and having a great presence on her when she had the ball."
That pressure was led by the return of Hornbuckle in the second half and a switched assignment for junior center Nicky Anosike.
"I think the whole difference was Alexis," Anosike said. "She was in quick foul trouble, and she started the game on Noelle Quinn and then when she was out it's hard for Bird (Alberta Auguste) to step up and stop her just because she doesn't have the same experience defensively as Alexis. But when Alexis came back in the second half everything was like clockwork."
Anosike also accepted the challenge of stopping Pluimer, who shot six of seven from the field in the first 20 minutes of the game.
"I just thought that she was getting too many garbage points, points that she wasn't really earning," Anosike said. "So I was just trying to keep the ball out of her hands and not let her get anything easy. That's really what I was thinking the whole time I was guarding her."
That is vintage Anosike, who gives great weight to work ethic. Her hustle play before two minutes had elapsed in the second half typifies her game. The Bruins had a bad pass that went deep into Tennessee's end and looked likely to either go out of bounds or be a backcourt violation. But Anosike sprinted to the ball, caught up to it near the baseline on the left side of the floor and fired a pass to a cutting Hornbuckle on the right side for a layup to push Tennessee's lead to 48-32. That led to a UCLA timeout.
"It's kind of a blur," Olivier said. "I don't really remember the beginning of the second half. … I knew something was going to hit in that opening of the second half. I think Tennessee does such a good job of going on runs at home. They just picked it up on defense and got some easy transition baskets and kind of broke open the game there in the first four or five minutes of the second half. I needed about three more timeouts, and maybe we could have gotten it together."
The Bruins had 26 turnovers in the game with 14 coming in the second half. Tennessee tallied 14 steals with nine coming after halftime. Bobbitt had three steals, as did Hornbuckle, who continued her streak to 38 straight games of at least one takeaway.
"I think we started off with a lot of turnovers, which led to easy baskets for Tennessee," Quinn said of the start of the second half. "We kind of got out of sync a little bit, and their defense rattled us a little bit. We couldn't really get it together – that first five minutes is very crucial – and I think kind of our focus went."
With UT's defensive issues fixed, the Lady Vols could get back to doing what they do best and what most of the crowd of 8,349 came out to see on a rainy and cold night in Knoxville: running and generating offense off of defense and turnovers.
"I think coming in this year I know I was excited because we brought in a lot of quickness," Parker said. "I think with our experience we're able to play an up-tempo game. I think coach Summitt trusts our judgment. We're making points off defense. We're able to run in transition. We have five players on the court that can bring up the ball. I'm really happy with how we're playing in our up-tempo style.
"Honestly, I really mean all five of us can bring up the ball and start the break. I think it's hard for a team to scout a team like ours because we have so many ball handlers. Anybody can take the ball off the glass and come up the court. It's hard to keep the ball out of five peoples' hands. I really am happy with how we're sharing the ball and getting the ball up and just pushing tempo."
Two players joined Parker in double figures. Senior forward Sidney Spencer had 15, and sophomore forward Alex Fuller had a career high of 10. As a team Tennessee shot 53.1 percent; UCLA hit 45.1 percent of its shots.
The Lady Vols out-rebounded the Bruins, who had considerable size across the frontline, 35-29. Anosike led the team with seven boards. Parker and Fuller had six each. Hornbuckle only had one board, but it drew a gasp of admiration from the crowd after she leaped high in the air on the defensive end, grabbed the ball with one hand and swooped it into the other hand with a resounding thwack.
But it was the numbers of assists – 35 – that stood out overall. Auguste, a junior forward, had five. Three players, Anosike, Hornbuckle and junior point guard Shannon Bobbitt, had four each. Spencer and Parker had two apiece, and senior forward Dominique Redding and freshman point Cait McMahan had one each. Redding and McMahan also hit two three-pointers apiece to finish with eight and six points, respectively. The bench provided 27 points, and all 10 scholarship players got in the game. Freshman Nicci Moats had a steal in her five minutes of play.
"We have talked about just being more committed to moving the basketball, reversing the ball and obviously being unselfish," Summitt said. "I think when you play the tempo that we're playing, it's kind of difficult not to move the ball, not to get your teammates involved. I think they're enjoying the up-tempo, I think they're enjoying sharing the basketball and are proud for their teammates when they do well.
"You know it's a team game, and if you have to rely on one or two players sometimes you're not quite as effective. I like the fact that we do have the balance, and I think we trust each other because we have people that are making plays for us and knocking down shots and giving up the ball. It's the way the game is supposed to be played."
Spencer said the difference is the presence of the point guards and the team's chemistry.
"I think just the fact that we have people that can score at all five positions and like we've been saying these first few weeks everyone's in their normal positions," Spencer said. "We have two true point guards, and everybody's just playing back in their normal spots that we are more effective that way because everyone on the floor can score.
"I like our chemistry. I think our defense feeds those transition buckets. I think that because we step up defensively now we're more up-tempo and a faster team that we are getting those buckets. In the half-court offense I think everyone is so unselfish and they're just looking for the open person. Our chemistry is unbelievable right now."
The guard play of Bobbitt, McMahan and Auguste has brought Tennessee a level of guard play that it couldn't put on the floor last season after Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood left the team in late December and then Hornbuckle broke her wrist in February after spending the season playing out of position at the point and robbing the Lady Vols of quickness on the wing.
"I hope I'm never in that situation and our team and our program is never in the situation that we were in a year ago," Summitt said. "We just didn't have enough guards. Obviously when you have injuries, when you have a transfer, we were shorthanded."
Now, Summitt can turn to a rotation of players who can play off the dribble, defend and handle the ball.
"Just having that and being able to rotate those players we can keep fresh bodies in the game and be a lot more efficient," Summitt said. "I just think we're a lot more confident, because the frontline game's not worried about what the backcourt's doing."
Instead the backcourt made sure it was the Bruins that had to pay attention to them.
"You can tell that they added quickness," Olivier said. "Double zero (Bobbitt) is very quick. She gets after it; she pushes the ball up the floor. That's something Tennessee hurt us on, their transition baskets, and I think double zero had a lot to do with that. I thought number two (McMahan) came in and did some very positive things also. She took care of the basketball. She got the ball to the right people. Those two are definitely going to make Tennessee a better basketball team.
"I think last year, not having a true point guard kind of hurt them. I think Pat does a great job. She recruits very talented players and with all the athleticism on this team, they're going to get up and down the floor. You can't allow Tennessee easy baskets and that's kind of what we did in the second half. Their points guard, they seem very steady."
UCLA will leave Knoxville with the experience of having played in Thompson-Boling Arena and with some game tape that will be beneficial as they prepare for more ranked foes such as Oklahoma, North Carolina and Stanford. The Bruins were picked to finish sixth in the Pac-10, and their performance Thursday indicated that could be far too low.
"I think that UCLA has one of the best players in the country (in) Noelle Quinn," Olivier said. "We're playing the type of schedule for someone like Noelle, who gets to compete against Candace Parker, goes against Courtney Paris, Oklahoma, (Ivory) Latta from North Carolina, (Candice) Wiggins from Stanford. I think any time you have a top player in the country on your team, you're going to compete and you're going to be up there as one of the best.
"But I think that's what the Pac-10 is saying is that we're a very competitive conference. It sounds like Tennessee is kind of in the Pac-10 this year, they're playing so many Pac-10 teams. But we're going to compete. If they want to pick us sixth – last year they picked us low, too and we ended up going on a tear - so if they want to motivate our team and keep picking us low that's fine with me, because it just helps me motivate the players."
Quinn gave the host school and its fans some props in her post-game remarks.
"As a collegiate athlete, these are the environments you want to play in," Quinn said. "For me it was just exciting. This is like the Mecca of women's basketball, Tennessee is, so just being here in itself is a great experience."
Her words were echoed by her coach.
"Like Noelle said, it's an awesome atmosphere," Olivier said. "We're going to build from this game and hopefully get more people involved and go home and work out some kinks and get better from this experience."
Tennessee will also head west. The Lady Vols will take off Friday to travel and then will practice Saturday in Tempe before Sunday afternoon's matchup with No. 11 Arizona State at Wells Fargo Arena for its second Pac-10 opponent of the week.
Olivier is well qualified to offer a scouting report of the Sun Devils, and she said Tennessee's young guards would be challenged.
"A big test will be against ASU – ASU, at home, very comfortable," Olivier said. "They'll come after their guards. They're going to pressure like no other. It will be a very good test for Tennessee."